NWR Issue 104

Dai Greatcoat and The Scribes of War

The commemoration of two world wars continues, so that we don’t forget. But, as veterans die and family memories fade, do the dates 1914–18, in particular, mean much anymore? Unless you are unlucky enough to love a soldier or be exiled by political conflict, war affects few of us directly here and now.

Yet however cynical the marketing of such perpetuating dates may be, when they touch on the personal, they may strike a nerve. One such example came this week on reading my grandfather’s war diary from 52 General Hospital, Salonika, uploading this summer at People's Collection Wales as part of a WW1 memorial drive. Private William Jones was a conscientious objector conscripted into the Royal Army Medical Corps in 1915 and posted to Salonika three years later. His religiosity and highfalutin’ tone can be excused by the times: ‘Still through the darkness of human folly I see the glorious dawn of the day of the Son of Man.’ His blues, to family genes: ‘Wrote to Mabel – a letter with a sad note. I could not help it. It was my mood.’ His running judgement on the padre’s sermons we shall enjoy and forgive. It is his railing against hierarchy and deference, his sheer Nonconformism, that hits home: his first ministry in Pontarddulais, the year he joined the RAMC, proved the worst training imaginable: ‘Am told that my promotion to the honourable rank of Lance Corporal in HM’s army will be an accomplished fact. I hate the idea. Everything that pertains to the army is hateful to me. Yet what am I to do under the circumstances’ (entry, 19.5.18); ‘Salute for 10 minutes or so. Why waste time with such trifling things? […] Saluting is more essential than to find a way out of chaos […] What fools we are’ (entry, 21.5.18).

Writers of war and diarists greater than and including Private Jones are celebrated in this issue. These are the people most likely to breach the distance of history and survivor ennui. Edward Thomas’ nature diary, In Pursuit of Spring, was written in 1913 and published the following
year as the war that would claim his life approached: Kym Martindale cycled in his tracks and reports on last year’s hard spring in her column. In our uncovered 1965 film of David Jones interviewed by Saunders Lewis (and produced by Melvyn Bragg), the artist and poet reveals the fate of his war diaries: ‘I… kept… a diary… and that was blown up, so I didn’t start again.’ Jones’ epic poem, In Parenthesis, recounts the destruction, at Mametz Wood, of squaddies who loved each other and whom the reader loves. As our film’s presenter, Peter Levi, says, ‘[In Parenthesis] makes the war live in a way one’s father’s stories might make it live.’ The interview’s charming rapport between Lewis and Jones underscores the importance of Great War male camaraderie to both men:

DJ: I was always thinking about the war. I suppose everybody in that war, for some reason or another, does and will to the end of their lives. Don’t you think? I mean, it’s somehow…
SL: I think it’s perfectly true.
DJ: Some sort of… I find it with every kind of person, I don’t know what it is… Anyway –
SL: You and I still swear at each other in that jargon.

One flipside of war, its threat to sanity, is explored in Gee and David Williams’ story extract in ‘Dangerous Asylums’, while that by Simon Thirsk, in the same showcase, exposes its challenge to belief: ‘The Great War has shaken our beliefs to the core…. Two of four hundred thousand English and half a million Germans? For what? […] Imagine all those millions praying and God ignoring them.’

Another case of date fever this year is the £1.16m Dylan Thomas centenary programme. While DT100 celebrates his birth date, Daniel G Williams’ essay, on the mutual influence of Thomas’ poetry and the Beats, commences with his death, at St Vincent’s Hospital, NYC, in 1953. The piece focuses on black jazz and ‘hipster’ culture, and looks in particular at how Thomas was perceived by critics, as were his American artist peers, to be ‘primitive’. Thomas, though they survived him, is a generation older than David Jones and Lewis, a clear-cut post- [second world] war writer but no less in crisis: ‘It is clear that for… [critics], Charlie Parker and Dylan Thomas were responding to a crisis in postwar culture: how, in the aftermath of the death camps and the atomic bomb, could art endure at all. It is their role as artists, and what their artistry represented that explains the surprising frequency with which they were compared.’

Williams’ piece is a longer version of the lecture underpinning ‘Dylan Live’, an erudite and ballsy bilingual production which toured this spring. Part of the ‘DT100’ promotion, it combined lecture with imagery, live hip hop, jazz and Beat poetry. Live art, multimedia, technology… all essays to close the gap of years and experience, just like Private Jones’ digitised diary. The debut collection of NWR regular poet Jonathan Edwards’, the musical and hilarious My Family & Other Superheroes, just out, may inherit the triple crown of Rhian Edwards at Book of the Year. In ‘Lance Corporal Arthur Edwards (1900-1916)’, he addresses his own attempts to bring back the dead through technology and art: ‘Now your face is blown up, above our mantelpiece; / you’re prey to the latest image manipulation. / Your eyes are horror movies’; your eyes are God’s. / You’re close to the portrait of your elder brother / as he was to you when the blast hit. You look like each other: / his painted face is a sorry imitation.’

Back to the here and now, to a conflict raging decades at least. On p73 Welsh cerebrality Damian Walford Davies vaults from first- to twenty-first century Jerusalem, making the story of Judas sing now with sex, slang and violence. ‘Easy now. Marking time / in Hurva Square, / sweating out the juice // from last night’s jag / in Tel Aviv, / teen conscripts lounge // against the limes, / buzzcut scalps / red-raw as nutmeg’ (‘Draft’).


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