It was bad timing that two hours after blogging about how useless television is for discussing books in general and Great War books in particular BBC Four should pop up with a programme just for me introduced by Martha Kearney. I came in late so missed the introduction but I soon caught the gist. There were images of war cemeteries and B&W archive footage of the trenches. But it turned out not be a book programme about the Great War at all. It was a programme about the Hay on Wye literary festival. So there was no discussion, just a series of severely edited interviews with writers gagging to promote their books.
The first sequence of soundbites featured three writers with books to plug about the Great War. By books, I mean novels. The first novel had been written by someone called Helen Dunmore. She spoke about being interested not so much in the Great War as what had happened after it. She spoke about liberating the archive and “wanting to break the silence.”
The second novelist was called Louisa Young, plugging the second installment of a trilogy. She said it didn’t have a lot of the Great War in it because she was “not that interested in explosions.” She was more interested, it turned out, in doing a Pat Barker on us – the same Pat Barker who is esteemed among Great War book readers for her beautifully conceived and written ‘Regeneration’ trilogy, which dramatises the use of electric shocks to treat soldiers suffering from what is referred to today as post-traumatic stress disorder. Louisa Young’s trilogy concerns men with their faces blown off, thereby requiring plastic surgery, as pioneered by the New Zealand doctor, Harold Gillies. She said that because men spent most of their time on the Western Front in trenches their heads were the most vulnerable part of their anatomy, especially since steel helmets were not introduced “until some time in 1915.”
The third novel was written by someone called Kamila Shamsie. Her protagonist was an Indian soldier who, while being treated for wounds in the Indian hospital set up in Brighton Pavilion, “becomes aware that he is being treated differently from English soldiers.”
Was it better, I wondered as I watched, to have something, anything, on telly about Great War books, no matter how superficial, than nothing at all? Was it better, from the novelist’s point of view, to serve up any old re-heated mish-mash than to miss the 1914 – 2014 bandwagon altogether? Did it really make for better telly to talk to a female Indian or Pakistani novelist about the experience of Indian soldiers on the Western Front rather than some white, middle-aged British male historian who might have invested years of research in the subject? And was it better for me, as BBC viewer interested in Great War books, for the BBC to spend money on sending Martha Kearney to Hay on Wye for two days with a camera team (five hotel rooms; five salaries; ten breakfasts; ten lunches; ten dinners; plus cappuccinos in between) to fill nine-minutes of Sunday night telly with televisual froth rather than literary fibre? I think you know the answer.
For readers interested, like Helen Dunmore , in what came after 1914 – 1918, the Great War Bookshop has a whole catalogue devoted to the Aftermath which currently contains more than 50 items, mostly written by men and women who experienced the Great War at the sharp end rather than imagining it one hundred years later. Readers interested in the pioneering work of Dr. Harold Gillies at Queen’s Hospital, Sidcup, are likewise directed to the catalogue called ‘Medical, Nurses & Doctors’ which contains his original journal articles with diagrammatic explanations of his breakthrough surgical techniques. As for the experience of Indian troops on the Western Front, the classic novel Across the Black Waters by Raj Mulk Anand, first published in 1939 and translated into almost every European language, is still available as a paperback so there’s no obvious reason to re-imagine it, thank you all the same. The great Great War books are out there already, if you know where to look, and they’re often better written and cheaper than the new ones. Happy hunting …