Old Ladies, Old Gentlemen, Ironmongers and Encyclopaedias

Commuting days until retirement: 61

So far, I haven’t got to see the film I mentioned – the one I prepared for by reading Testament of Youth and writing about it in the last post. Infuriatingly, my local cinema and all the others in the area were showing it only around lunch time on weekdays. Obviously whoever decides these things had put it down as a film for old ladies. If it were a few months further on I’d be retired, and would be able to consider myself an honorary old lady, buttoning up my overcoat and toddling round to the picture house for a couple of hours of sedate entertainment. As it is I’ll probably wait and see it on DVD, Netflix or whatever.

But in fact I’m not at all in the habit of thinking of myself as an old gentleman, let alone an old lady. A few months ago I went to see a medical specialist about a minor but painful condition (happily temporary, as it turned out). I got my copy of his letter to the GP, which started: ‘I saw this 66 year old gentleman…’. My immediate reaction was: ‘Who can he be talking about? Have I got the wrong letter?’

But no – it came home to me that the way the world sees you isn’t often the way you think of yourself. But does anyone now think of themselves as a ‘gentleman’? A hundred years ago they certainly would have done; and the doctor’s letter shows that it’s still a formal, polite way of referring to someone who has at least reached middle age. But to think of yourself in that way seems like divorcing yourself from the contemporary world and consigning yourself to a time-warped existence.

John Carey

John Carey

My current train reading has in fact reminded me all too sharply of how distant in time my origins now are. It’s another piece of autobiography, of the Oxford English professor and literary pundit John Carey – The Unexpected Professor. He’s a good deal older than me – he was born in the 1930s – but there was so much in his early life which struck a chord with me.

I remember, as he does, the sorts of books that we were given by well-meaning adult relatives, with titles like 101 Things a Boy Can Do. (You could also find collections of Things a Girl Could Do, but, needless to say, they were very different.) There’s a particular phrase that always cropped up in those books which has stayed with me ever since. These masculine activities usually involved some sort of construction project which required certain outlandish components which were always ‘obtainable from any good ironmonger for a few pence.’

Reading about Carey’s boyhood, it was with a delighted shock of recognition that I found he had remembered exactly the same phrase. Like me, he wasn’t exactly sure what was meant by ‘ironmonger’. The most likely candidate in my area was a hardware shop called Mence Smith, where my queries about these unlikely items would be met with blank stares. So maybe it was a Bad Ironmonger – if it was an ironmonger at all, that is.

Another memory I share with him from that time is of the encyclopedias of the time; the very word, in the Internet age, has a dated ring to it. The most prosperous households would own the authoritative, and impossibly expensive, Encyclopedia Britannica, but most of the families I knew had a less prestigious set, usually dating from before the war, with grainy black and white illustrations and text that impressed on the reader how clever and enlightened the ‘modern’ world was, and how abjectly primitive our dim and distant forebears. I particularly remember a picture of the very latest in steam locomotives busily chuffing down the main line, with the breathless caption ‘A Mile a Minute!’  Today, sixty miles an hour is the speed of the average motorway dawdler.

And encyclopaedias make me think of a strange, shadowy business movement that was in its heyday some years back. It was based on sales people going from door to door selling encyclopedias – at one time they seem to outnumber even Jehovah’s Witnesses. I once got a telling glimpse of how this worked when, between a college course and a regular job, I was looking for an opportunity to earn something and saw a newspaper ad inviting people to a meeting about some potential work.  Encyclopedia selling was what it turned out to be. A roomful of people was addressed by a sharply suited, rather too plausible sounding character, who asked people for guesses as to what they would earn for selling a single set. There were hesitant tries.  ‘One pound?’  ‘Two pounds?’ (This was the 1960s – you can multiply the amounts by about 16 for today’s prices.) ‘No,’ he eventually said triumphantly. ‘TWENTY pounds!’

Most of his audience were now slavering like Pavlov dogs, as he had intended, and seemed not to have drawn the obvious conclusion that this meant the encyclopedias were very difficult to sell indeed; and given that it was commission only, and that I would probably be the world’s worst salesman, I knew it would dispiriting and dreadful. He invited anyone who was perverse enough still to be uninterested to leave, and only two of us out of 40 or 50 did. I was reflecting what sort of organisation it was that gleefully duped its own employees.

Some years earlier, as a child, I’d had a glimpse of this from the other side. A new set of encyclopedias, The Children’s Britannica, appeared in our house. It seemed that my father, not usually a soft touch, had bought them on the doorstep. Much later on I heard my mother’s account – that it had been an attractive young woman who was selling them. I doubt if he would have succumbed if it had been a man.

Returning to Professor Carey, I’m now about halfway through his book, hearing about his university career and greatly enjoying tracing his steps as he explored the canon of literature. He’s giving me plenty of ideas for future reading. As a memoir it’s altogether more relaxed than Testament of Youth; he has a gently humorous, self-mocking style that’s light years away from the committed, stormy intensity of Vera Brittain. What they have in common is Oxford; what they don’t have in common is close experience of the pain and loss of war. A child in the Second World War, the nearest Carey got to that was a spell of peacetime ‘National Service’ in the army, which everyone of his generation had to do (I was part of the first generation that didn’t have to). So the difference in tone is entirely understandable; but I recently read an interview with Vera Brittain’s daughter, Shirley Williams, in which she admitted that her mother had no great sense of humour.

And, come to think of it, there’s a significant point of contrast between Shirley Williams and her near contemporary John Carey. Carey makes pointed references in his foreword, and repeatedly in the book, to his utter disapproval of the closing down of grammar schools in the UK. (For those unused to the confusing English terminology, grammar schools are state funded and select by ability, while ‘public schools’, referred to below, are privately funded independent schools where most richer people send their children.)

One thing that has not changed is that Oxford – and Cambridge – still take vastly disproportionate numbers of public-school students. This is often blamed on Oxford and Cambridge. The blame, however, lies with those who destroyed the grammar schools. Selecting for merit, not money, the grammar schools, had they survived, would by now have all but eliminated the public-school contingent in Oxford and Cambridge, with far-reaching effects on our society. This book is, among other things, my tribute of gratitude to a grammar school.

Shirley Williams

Shirley Williams

It was the Labour administrations of the 60s and 70s who put this policy in place, with egalitarian intentions but a strange failure to anticipate the consequences. Shirley Williams, who was a minister of education in the 70s, had a central role in implementing the policy, and still strongly believes it to have been right. Carey, as the above passage shows, was a working class boy – no ivory tower elitist but a perfect exemplar of those who benefited from the grammar school system. One scene from his book nicely encapsulates his outlook: during his spell in the army he has a trip in a small plane in Egypt. The pilot makes a detour to give the passengers an aerial view of the pyramids. Rather than being bowled over by their grandeur, Carey is thinking of the slaves who built them, and the tendency of humanity throughout history to separate itself into a pampered elite and huge, suffering underclass.

So in Carey and Williams we have two open, attractive personalities, both with strongly expressed, left-leaning views, who are diametrically opposed over this point. I’d like to hear them debate it (I’m with Carey).

One final, unconnected point. My reading between the two autobiographical works of Vera Brittain and John Carey was David Mitchell’s latest novel The Bone Clocks. Both the two memoirs look back to earlier periods of scarcer resources and greater austerity. The Bone Clocks ends in 2043, when climate change and dwindling energy sources are eating away at the comforts we now take for granted, and the characters are wistfully remembering an era of greater plenty. I’m hoping for a long retirement, of course – but perhaps not too long.

The Unsubmerged City

Commuting days until retirement: 77

To continue the First World War theme from the previous post, I saw that a film based on Vera Brittain’s classic memoir of her early life – Testament of Youth, with that war as the central and dominating event – was soon to be released. I’ve often heard of the book but have never read it, and much prefer to see a book-based film only after having been able to immerse myself in the atmosphere of the book itself. So I’ve now done that, and am very glad that I did. It recreates the reality of that distant period in a way that could only have been managed by a writer who experienced both the best and worst that it had to offer.

Love without dignity

We first meet Vera Brittain as a girl growing up in the rather stultifying atmosphere of a middle class Edwardian household. Meeting some of her brother’s school friends might be an opening to the expanding possibilities of life, but:

The parental habit – then almost universally accepted as ‘correct’ where daughters were concerned – of inquisition into each day’s proceedings made private encounters, even with young men in the same town, almost impossible without a whole series of intrigues and subterfuges which robbed love of all its dignity.

Eventually however she does fall in love with Roland Leighton, one of the group of friends, and an especially brilliant literature and classics scholar who scoops almost all the school prizes available to him. But the experience of a closening relationship was then very different to today’s typical expectations:

We sat on the sofa till midnight, talking very quietly. The stillness, heavy-laden with the dull oppression of the snowy night, became so electric with emotion that we were frightened of one another, and dared not let even our fingers touch for fear that the love between us should render what we both believed to be decent behaviour suddenly unendurable….
I was still incredibly ignorant. I had read, by then, too much to have failed to acquire a vague and substantially correct idea of the meaning of marriage, but I did not yet understand the precise nature of the act of union. My ignorance, however, was incapable of disturbing my romantic adoration, for I knew now for certain that whatever marriage might involve in addition to my idea of it, I could not find it other than desirable.

Vera Brittain

Vera Brittain as a VAD (illustration from book)

But by this point – early 1915 – the war is under way, and soon Roland, as well as her brother Edward and other friends, are away in military training, eventually to be involved in action as officers. Vera has already gone up to Oxford, women since 1876 having been able to study at University, but not – bizarrely to our modern minds – able to take degrees. (Having returned to study after the war she became one of the first who did.) But feeling she must share the experiences of those she loves in one of the few ways that she can, by summer of that year she is becoming a VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment) nursing assistant – one of the women drafted in to nurse the wounded in that war. With minimal training, they were pitched into dealing with men who were often dying in front of their eyes, many with wounds that would be a challenge for the most experienced nurse.

In addition, of course she is unversed in practical tasks in ways that many middle class girls of that were: she describes how she needed instruction in how to boil an egg. And of course more importantly for her work, there are other areas of ignorance:

Throughout my two decades of life, I had never looked upon the nude body of an adult male; I had never even seen a naked boy-child since the nursery days when, at the age of four or five, I used to share my evening baths with Edward. I had therefore expected, when I first started nursing, to be overcome with nervousness and embarrassment, but, to my infinite relief, I was conscious of neither. Towards the men I came to feel an almost adoring gratitude for their simple and natural acceptance of my ministrations. Short of actually going to bed with them, there was hardly an intimate service that I did not perform for one or another in the course of four years, and I still have reason to be thankful for the knowledge of masculine functioning which the care of them gave me, and for my early release from the sex-inhibitions that even to-day – thanks to the Victorian tradition which up to 1914 dictated that a young woman should know nothing of men but their faces and their clothes until marriage pitchforked her into an incompletely visualised and highly disconcerting intimacy – beset many of my female contemporaries, both married and single.

The reality of war

We see how the war explosively disrupted the hardened attitudes of the time in so many fundamental ways; but of course the core of Vera’s experience was that of death – at first hand in her nursing work, and fearfully anticipated in relation to her fiancé, brother and friends. Letters are nervously sent to, and received from, the front, and we experience her emotional swings as good and bad news of the fighting is received. As many must have done, they agree on coded phrases which will bypass censorship and give those at home clues to what is happening.

Roland anticipates that he will get through the war, nevertheless feeling it would be fitting to have received some wound as a token of what he has been through. But, as soon as Christmas 1915, Vera hears that he has died in action, shot by an enemy sniper. Numbly, she buries herself in her nursing work for the rest of the war. Her two closest male friends, members of the group formed at school with Roland and Edward, both succumb in turn, one being killed outright, and the other, Victor Richardson, blinded and brought back to hospital to recuperate, but then dying of his wounds. Her brother Edward, perhaps the quietest of the group, goes on to show great courage and wins the Military Cross. But finally, in 1918, he also dies in the fighting on the Austro-Italian border.

Brittain, Leighton Richardson

Edward Brittain, Roland Leighton and another friend, Victor Richardson (illustration from book)

I found Vera Brittain’s writing sometimes has something of the verbose, circumlocutory quality of the Victorian tradition she has inherited; but when describing the War period, driven by such enormous emotional stresses, it becomes more direct, powerful and evocative. At the same time some of the photographs included in the book brought home to me as much as anything what it must have felt like to live through that time. Not pictures of fighting or of the wounded, but simply of Vera’s brother and friends posed in relaxed groups for the camera: first in school dress at Uppingham, then in military uniform, later with freshly sprouted moustaches; the sequence then ends abruptly and shockingly with photographs of their graves.

The pacifist’s task

In the 1920s we see Vera working for what was then the League of Nations, and throwing herself into pacifist causes – but it’s a nuanced and intelligent pacifism. She writes of the heroism that war can draw out:

It is, I think, this glamour, this magic, this incomparable keying up of the spirit in a time of mortal conflict, which constitute the pacifist’s real problem – a problem still incompletely imagined, and still quite unsolved. The causes of war are always falsely represented; its honour is dishonest and its glory meretricious, but the challenge to spiritual endurance, the intense sharpening of all the senses, the vitalising consciousness of common peril for a common end, remain to allure those boys and girls who have just reached the age when love and friendship and adventure call more persistently than at any later time. The glamour may be the mere delirium of fever, which as soon as war is over dies out and shows itself for the will-o’-the-wisp that it is, but while it lasts no emotion known to man seems as yet to have quite the compelling power of this enlarged vitality…
Since those years it has often been said by pacifists… that war creates more criminals than heroes; that, far from developing noble qualities in those who take part in it, it brings out only the worst. If this were altogether true, the pacifist’s aim would be, I think, much nearer of attainment than it is. Looking back upon the psychological processes of us who were very young sixteen years ago, it seems to me that his task – our task – is infinitely complicated by the fact that war, while it lasts, does produce heroism to a far greater extent than it brutalises.

I’m lucky never to have been involved in a war, and have no idea whether I could have coped with the experience at all. But this sums up for me the paradox of how it can bring out qualities of bravery and selflessness in those who might never have been called upon to show them, were it not for the bumbling of politicians and the posturing of dictators. And perhaps that paradox was more painfully sharp in World War 1 than any other war before or since.

Brittain travels around Europe as part of her work, and experiences the festering resentment brought about by the post-war settlements, realising presciently that another war is a possibility, and wondering sadly what sort of cause it was for which those she loved had died.

War and literature

But perhaps one of the important themes of the book is the fight to preserve the life of literature in the face of the rampant destructiveness of war. There is Vera’s own underlying ambition to write, set against her war work, all-encompassing in time, energy and emotion; as well as her almost-missed university education. But more glaringly obvious is the cutting short of thousands of promising, talented lives such as Roland’s. And her brother Edward had musical ability and enthusiasm which he was never able to develop further.

As the War gets under way and Vera’s friends are sent away, letters between them include poems and other writing – their own as well as that of others. In 1915 Vera sends to Roland a leading article she has clipped from The Times newspaper, whose title I have borrowed for this post. In the book she quotes a passage:

A medieval fancy that still lingers, ghost-like, on the more lonely sea-shores, such as that Breton one so tenderly described by Renan, is the legend of the submerged city. It lies out there barely hidden under the waves, and on a still summer eve they say you may hear the music of its Cathedral bells. One day the waters will recede and the city in all its old beauty be revealed again. Might this not serve to figure the actual conditions of literature, in the nobler sense of the term, submerged as that seems to many to be by the high tide of war? Thus submerged it seemed, at any rate, to the most delicate of our literary artists, who was lately accounting for his disused pen to an aggrieved friend. ‘I have no heart,’ he said, ‘for literature in this war; we can only have faith that it is still there under the waters, and will some day re-emerge.’ . . . There is fortunately no truth in the idea of a sunken literature. A function of the spirit, it can never be submerged, or, indeed, as much as touched by war or any other external thing. It is an inalienable possession and incorruptible part of man.

And of course against whatever literature we might imagine never appeared, because of the destruction of those who would have created it, the war generated a whole body of work which would not otherwise have existed – Brittain’s Testament of Youth being one example.

Je suis CharlieOne of the reasons that I was struck by that ‘unsubmerged city’ passage was that I read it at about the same time that the Charlie Hebdo murders were committed in Paris. A hundred years on, we may be dealing with an entirely different situation and a kind of literature undreamt of in those earlier years, but compare these early 20th century sentiments to the ardent faces of the crowds waving pens and pencils in response to the shootimg of the journalists and cartoonists.

While moved by the Parisian expressions of feeling, I couldn’t help thinking at the same time of the far greater atrocities committed recently by Islamic extremists in Nigeria and Pakistan – not to mention Syria and Iraq. The Western media devoted far more space to Charlie Hebdo than to these – perhaps understandably, since they are closer to home and threaten our own Western culture. But I hope and expect that the floods of ignorance, fanaticism and brutality will not in the end submerge the metaphorical cities which form the true and established cultures of those other, more distant places. They are surely under a far greater threat than our own.