Friday, 14 November 2008

The Last Fighting Tommy

Well, you could argue that, as with all anniversaries the media lock onto, we've had overload - over the past few weeks the First World War has featured everywhere. It's certainly been usefulto me professionally, as I'm currently teaching it as a literature topic. During the week I've been collecting The Guardian's series of booklets on the war and they've been fascinating. I paid more attention than usual to Sunday's Remembrance service and was so moved by the three surviving veterans, Bill Stone (108), Henry Allingham (112) and Harry Patch (110), visiting the Cenotaph on Tuesday with their wreaths of poppies. On Sunday I recorded the programmes about Wilfred Owen and about Vera Brittain, who lost all the men she loved during the war, including her brother Edward, towards the very end of it. On PoemRelish, my other blog, I mentioned her memoir, 'Testament of Youth' among other books worth reading about WW1. On Sunday I found myself wondering why, among this plethora of 1914-18 nostalgia and analysis, the Beeb wasn't repeating the excellent serial version of 'Testament of Youth' first broadcast in the 1970s. It starred Cheryl Campbell as Vera and it was a truly powerful and poignant piece of television drama which brought me to the book, before I ever had to teach it. Now I've found out that, apparently, they're remaking it, so that's why the original was not shown. Hmn. Mixed feelings: it's good in a way that they are, as hopefully it will bring more people to awareness (and we have to rely on the TV screen more than the written word for this these days). There's no reason to assume they won't make a good job of it second time round. But on the other hand, there's that old saying 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it.' The original was brilliant - why not just re-show it?

I've just finished reading 'The Last Fighting Tommy', the biography of Harry Patch, who is the last man in Britain who actually fought in the trenches. He fought - and was wounded - at Passchendaele. Harry Patch featured on the BBC a few years back and has become famous for his longevity and his memories; his fame has grown as the number of survivors has declined and we all find ourselves unnerved at the prospect of the First World War sliding inevitably out of living memory. He is a man of immense spirit, who didn't really talk about his experiences until he was in his nineties. His eyes still fill with tears when he recalls what he saw and felt. At first I felt a slight disappointment with the book as the war experience (the thing that, essentially, is used to sell the book) doesn't take up all that much space. He trains, he goes over there, he sees the bad stuff, he's wounded by shrapnel, he's invalided home, all in a matter of months. Is that it, then? Well, no. It dawned on me that that's the point: this is the story of an immensely old man, on whom those few months made a great and terrible and lasting impression. His memories lurked within him all through the decades that followed and they have never left him, though all the friends and fellow soldiers, two wives, two sons, and a whole way of life have departed. The book is worth reading because not only does it tell you about that war, it tells you of a century of British life and culture. Harry's childhood was Edwardian: no running water, little awareness of the outside world, little material wealth, harmony with nature. He was a child for whom news of the sinking of the Titanic was of little interest - it took place beyond the narrow limits of his West Country life. After the First World War and during the Second, where he served as a member of the local fire crew during the bombing of Bath, Harry was the sort of Englishman who just got on with life: he is and was, essentially, a decent man, uncomplaining, raising his family, going to work to earn his crust as a plumber, a man who believed in a right way of doing things, who has no patience with pretentiousness or self-indulgence. Bless you, Harry, and even longer life to you: we don't want to lose you, our twentieth century Everyman.


Lane Mathias said...

What a great post. In the scheme of things it's all so recent and yet it was a different age. I worry that soon there will so be no more Harrys or Bills or Henrys who are living witnesses to that dreadful time - men who only a few years later went on to do it all again in WW2. It was incredibly moving seeing those three old gentlemen at the Cenotaph.

Loved Testatment of Youth too. Didn't know there was going to be remake!

Karen said...

Wonderful post. I devour books and films about the war - it's so hard to imagine living during that time.

My mother-in-law commented only recently that soon there'll be no-one left to talk about it. She's written a piece for a broadsheet (can't remember which one) as they were calling for memories of the war for a database they're compiling for future reference, and it made me realise how lucky we are not have had deal with such horrors on our own doorstep.

Great post :o)

Jean said...

I too was so moved watching the three surviving veterans of the First World War as they visited the Cenotaph.

'Testament of Youth' is a book I've always meant to read but somehow never got round to it. I definitely will now.

Thanks for a great post.

Lorna F said...

Lane, Karen, Jean - thanks so much for your responses - and hope you enjoy 'Testament of Youth', Jean. I think we all find it rather scary that soon no one will be left alive with direct memory of that time. I think it reminds us that all too often we don't pay attention to people of the older generation and their reminiscences until it's too late. When you're younger you're dismissive - you're easily bored, thinking, as Hamlet does 'These tedious old fools' - only when you've acquired some maturity yourself do you start to appreciate the significance of memory and by then, as I said, it may well be too late. I really regret not setting up a tape recorder for my grandparents and my aunts. I do remember my maternal grandmother telling me she was a young girl in Great Yarmouth (she was a fisher lassie who was there to gut and barrel herring landed by the fishing fleet) when WW1 broke out and she could remember the men going off by train to the war. I wish I could recall more of what she said - I was probably more interested in David Cassidy at the time!