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Say Not Soft Things – Scottish Review of Books
by Rosemary Goring

Say Not Soft Things

September 15, 2014 | by Rosemary Goring

IN their garden in East Lothian, my parents sat in the sun a few weeks ago, watching a plane leave a trail of vapour, like an e-cigarette, across the sky. Instantly, my mother was back in wartime London, recalling the sickening sound bombers made as they began to dive before dropping their load. Whenever she hears a plane’s engines change their tone, she thinks of those times. 

Her irascible uncle, with whom she was evacuated to Shropshire, had fought in the First World War. When he came home from work and settled in his armchair for a nap, she and her aunt would have to sit reading or sewing in absolute silence. Even a book falling off a lap would rattle him, his nerves still raw from the guns and bombs that had destroyed his peace forever.

My father followed the plane with more of a trained eye. As a schoolboy he had been in the Royal Observer Corps, before being conscripted into the army and reaching India some time after VJ Day. Even now, he receives a letter every Christmas from his former batman. My father’s father had been at the Western Front, in the Royal Army Service Corps, taking munitions to the front line, since in civilian life he worked as a chauffeur,  but could handle nervous horses as well as temperamental engines. He was decorated for bravery by both the French and the British, but never spoke of what he had seen or done, though he did not fully recover from the effects of gas on his lungs.

The airplane disappeared, and the summer air quietened, but we were all aware that if my grandfather had died in France, or my mother’s London terrace had been hit, none of us would have been here. Because of that, as for so many families, the First and Second World Wars still feel personal. They are too close to be consigned to history alone. Many of us can trace a direct link to those who served in one if not both conflicts, and mentally follow the path our relatives took during those terrifying years, while wishing we knew more. 

Details of what servicemen endured, or how those left at home felt as they waited for them to return, emerged only slowly from the Great War. Now, a hundred years later, the most vivid record left is from war poets, on whom schoolchildren of the mid-twentieth century were weaned as their forebears once were on Greek and Latin odes. However, in Isn’t This All Bloody? Scottish Writing from the First World War, Trevor Royle eschews poetry, and instead gathers prose in an attempt to recreate the mood of that war, from its early and unthinking gung-ho days, to its embittered end. In so doing, he also shows the influence of 1914-18 on Scottish literature, that conflict acting as a hinge on which the country’s almost moribund fiction and poetry swung from torpor and tweeness towards a new tone and vigour.

Royle’s absorbing selection – gleaned in part from earlier of his anthologies – takes its title from poet Charles Hamilton Sorley’s letter to a friend on the outbreak of hostilities: ‘Isn’t all this bloody?’ wrote Sorley, who had just returned from studying in Germany, a country he was beginning to admire. ‘I am full of mute  and burning rage and annoyance and sulkiness about it. I could wager that out of twelve million eventual combatants, there aren’t twelve who really want it.’

Not all those who appear in this collection were as cynical or thrawn. JJ Bell, creator of Wee MacGreegor, starts the book with a typically pawky piece of humour about a soldier who, thinking he is about to embark for Flanders, commits the grave error of jettisoning his inhibitions and telling his auntie he loves her. John Buchan is given lavish space, including three extracts from his novel Mr Standfast, in which Richard Hannay is brought back from the front  and goes undercover as a pacifist to flush out a German spy. Buchan is always readable, but in this guise his tone is that of an adventurer breezily recalling his exploits. It is only in his poetry, of which more below, that his deeper feelings and perceptions, and his understanding of sorrow, are given voice.

Fiction offers a filtered, or nuanced light on events, as in Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s searing portrait of a deserter’s fate at the end of Sunset Song, but while first-hand accounts can also be tailored to the writer’s purposes, they nevertheless offer a more immediate window on events. One of the outstanding such pieces is by archaeologist-turned-nurse, VCC Collum, a member of the dauntless all-women staff at Royaumont Hospital, near Paris, founded by surgeon Elsie Inglis, which became a benchmark for humanitarian aid and selfless courage. Returning to her post from leave, Collum’s ship was torpedoed as it crossed the Channel, and she was badly injured. What follows is an extraordinary description, written from hospital as she convalesced, of passengers trying to save themselves, and in the process nearly scuppering any chance of survival. Remarkable too is the sang froid of some on that stricken ship, such as the bejewelled Frenchwoman, fearing the worst, ‘who said some brave words about death coming to all, only coming once, and being soon over’.

There are gruesome recollections here, from medical staff detailed to hunt for the wounded and finding scenes of unimaginable horror, to ordinary soldiers, keeping a tight grip on their fear. Among the most memorable, because so undramatic, is novelist Saki’s sketch of wildlife in war-ravaged France, a simple evocation of a world turned upside down. As well as observing that the northern French owl is thriving, thanks to the abundance of ruins tenanted by mice, he notes that the rook is now so used to noise, he barely flinches. ‘I have seen him sedately busy among the refuse heaps of a battered village, with shells bursting at no great distance, and the impatient-sounding snapping rattle of machine-guns going on all round him; for all the notice that he took he might have been in some peaceful English meadow on a sleepy Sunday afternoon.’

Royle’s scope is comprehensive, including reports from the home front, as by gushing novelist Rebecca West on a secret tour of a powder keg of a munitions factory manned by women – ‘they face more danger every day than any soldier on home defence has seen since the beginning of the war’ – or the Red Clydeside rumblings against the war. More variable in interest are diaries, letters or memoirs of those who, in later life, will become influential literary figures. There is Eric Linklater’s entertainingly told tale of how a bullet made a furrow in his head (his dented helmet is now held in the National Museum of Scotland); Neil Munro’s amused discovery of censorship, as rumours of Russian troops passing through Scotland run amok and scepticism is quashed; or Hugh MacDiarmid’s letters from the Salonika front: ‘It is a wonderful place this ancient city… So many Scotsmen are here that it has been suggested that it should be called not Thessalonica, but Thistleonica.’ Few could have guessed from such lines that his full-throated literary roar would soon set the stars spinning over Scotland.

Illuminating as this prose record is, it can only rarely match the intensity of the work gathered in From the Line: Scottish War Poetry 1914-1945. Although much has been made of the influence on Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon of their meeting at Craiglockhart Hospital in Edinburgh, Scotland produced few poets in the Great War of their calibre or enduring popularity. The flourishing of poetry that this cataclysm produced has never been equalled, though much of it was forgettable. As the editors David Goldie and Roderick Watson remark in their introduction, so many were feeling the muse that the Glasgow newspaper, The Bailie, opined in October 1914 that ‘everyone appears to be hammering out verse to the best of his, her or its ability’ and offered to provide a recipe to help them compose their thoughts.

Those who wrote well, however, leave readers forever in their debt. Putting aside the patriotic, whizz-bang response more typical of the war’s early stages, as found in the likes of Neil Munro’s ‘Hey, Jock, are ye glad ye ’listed?’, most of the poems in this superb and revelatory collection take one to the heart of war, and show its unbearable miseries. John Buchan bares his soul in rich lowland Scots, as if the patrician language of his day-job cannot begin to express the pain he has experienced, on his soldier son’s death, and also seen in others. ‘A’ the warld was a grave’, he writes blackly in ‘On Leave’: ‘Loos and the Lammerlaw,/The battle was feucht in baith,/Death was roon and abune,/But life in the hert o’ death.’ Before his death in battle in 1915, Charles Hamilton Sorley found a brief outlet for his fury, in works such as his famous ‘When you see millions of the mouthless dead’. ‘Say not soft things as other men have said,/That you’ll remember. For you need not so.’ Had he lived and written more, his reputation might have rivalled Sassoon’s.

The second half of this anthology refutes the common assumption that the Second World War did not produce much notable poetry, or none that compares with writing from the trenches. What might be more true, perhaps, is to say that these works, from the fields of war and the beleaguered home front, no longer have the elegaic tone of their predecessors. There are no anthems here, no solemn or outraged hymns. The note is more of resignation, or a determination not to lose perspective or humanity, rather than the mourning of a lost Elysium and shattered hopes. This is not very surprising. In the years between the wars, life had been grey, not golden, and many certainties as well as convictions had been lost by the time Germany invaded Poland. Unlike some in the previous war, no one doubted that this was a just cause. This gives an air of world-weary acceptance, as in Maurice Lindsay’s ‘The Trigger’ (‘I simply move my finger/ and a bullet will pierce a hole in my enemy’s breath’), or William Montgomerie’s ‘The Edge of the War’  (1939- ): ‘On the esplanade/the deck-chair hirer/watches his summer/shovelled into sandbags…’ 

Naomi Mitchison’s ‘London Burning’ is a study in resilience and affrontedness: ‘Going to work tired, blitz talk in bus and office,/ Re-filling buckets, blitz talk in shop and kitchen./ Going with a history book to a library./ Hoping to look up a reference,/returning books to the library there is no:/ There is no library.’ One wonders, though, what mood would have been struck, and if these writers’ thoughts might have moved in an entirely different direction had they known the full horrors of Hitler’s regime as they wrote. Would Sorley MacLean have been as philosophical in ‘Going Westwards’? ‘There is no rancour in my heart/against the hardy soldiers of the Enemy,/ but the kinship that there is among/ men in prison on a tidal rock.’ Or  would Hamish Henderson have written so feelingly of ‘Seven Good Germans’, whom he sees killed in the desert, like fish in a barrel? Actually, one suspects they and others would still have felt profound sympathy with the common soldier, under orders as were they, and nothing like their  psychopathic leaders.

As if picking up the thread of Royle’s work, Goldie and Watson’s collection gives ample space to those writers who were to prove pivotal in the literary renaissance of the mid-twentieth century. As well as the two just mentioned, there is Sydney Goodsir Smith, Edwin Morgan and above all Hugh MacDiarmid, who recognised the subversiveness of his art in his railing rant, ‘The Kind of Poetry I Want’: ‘The poetry that is scheduled as a Dangerous Occupation,/ The most dangerous occupation in the world today.’ By 1939, MacDiarmid was already a leading nationalist, but is it fanciful to wonder if younger writers’ war-time service led them also to recognise the importance of protecting, and indeed bolstering, a country’s  identity against the engulfing tide of global alliances? If so, such heightened national self-awareness is only one of the enduring legacies of that all-consuming war, which set half the world at the other’s throat. Yet one is obliged to marvel, and be glad,  that ‘the little white rose of Scotland’ that MacDiarmid extolled, was not destroyed in the raging storm. Nor did it wither in the long winter of the cold war. Fragile though it was, it clung on, and today it flourishes, as if indestructible.   


Edited by Trevor Royle

BIRLINN, £14.99 ISBN 978 1 78027 224 5 307PP


Edited by David Goldie and Roderick Watson

ASLS, £12.50 ISBN 978 1 906841 16 4 232PP

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