Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Behind The Flower Book

Every evening at the Menin Gate in Ypres, at the going down of the sun, a large crowd gathers. Every evening, without fail, buglers march out, people fall silent as the proud and mournful Last Post is sounded.

But pride can slip easily into bitterness among the fields of Flanders and the valleys of the Somme. For here the inhumanity of war is uncovered, just as farmers’ ploughs today churn up a chip of backbone, a stick of rib and a curved piece of skull. One hundred years on, shells and bullets, many still live, are also a perpetual harvest. I toured the Western Front to try to understand our nation’s degradation of its youth, but could only scratch the surface. I could only stand and stare.

Their names are listed row upon row on the Menin Gate, utterly shocking in their thousands but actually a drop in the ocean among the endless cemeteries and battle grounds. The Tommies gave their theatre of war a human and humorous edge, naming places Hellfire Corner, Suicide Road and Blood Alley. They called their tanks Fritz Flatteners. They laughed, of course, or else they died. (After all, it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.)

Stand on the Messines Ridge with binoculars and you can see almost the whole of the Line, stretching from Loos in the south to Passchendaele in the north. And in this benign landscape, force yourself to imagine the filth and the noise of war: the firestorm at Hooge where burning oil was jettisoned over trenches, the poisonous quagmire of Ploegsteert, the violent slaughter in the wire at Beaumont Hammel. In Sanctuary Wood, you can still touch bullet holes in the blasted, ragged trees. Watch the river Somme make its peaceful wide sweep through rolling countryside further south and learn of the revolting carnage at Serre where the mowing down of a generation occurred in approximately ten minutes.

The enormity of the numbers of the dead is beyond belief; the staggering amount who were simply “lost” and unaccounted for driven home by the single word on missing French soldiers' headstones: Inconnu. The monument at Thiepval will leave you gaping and speechless. All these placenames, notorious, stagnant and cold in our collective psyche, should be carved onto every school curriculum.

As the sun goes down over the Western Front, the wind picks up and the grasses rustle but the earth remains silent. And, in the morning, people rebuild their lives. With nonchalant shrugs, farmers erect barns over mine chambers still packed with explosives, they use former dug-outs as wine cellars, they plough up the white bones of century-old youth while birds continue to sing from the hedgerows. Life goes on here because that is what they ceased living for. And they remain in the cemeteries, legions of them, lying perfectly still, perfectly regimented, under pristine headstones.
All seems peaceful on the Western Front. All quiet... apart from, of course, the bird song.

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

40-something or other

An indulgent picture of Mr Darcy... you'll find out why when you read on...

Now I have time to unpeel my fingers from my keyboard and get my head out of the 1940s (have been writing a synopsis for my new war-time novel), I thought I’d reflect on what it’s like to be in my own ‘forties’. 

Here I am: child-free but cat-rich, getting fitted for varifocals and booking premium economy. I used to laugh at people who went upstairs for something… and then forgot what that thingey was, you know, oh never mind... There’s always alcohol and Radio 2. I’m listening to the same DJs as I did in the heyday of Radio 1: the same shows, with the same music. I find it rather comforting – plus they’re all still older than me….just.

What else? Oh yes, I browse the YSL counter and will actually buy something (now I am in my fifth decade I can afford it) plus track down various forms of Night Repair like my life depended on it. You may also find me shamelessly tussling with teenage girls over the Once It’s Gone, It’s Gone rail in Top Shop. Why is it have no qualms going to such ‘happening’ shops (yes, and I’m proud to remember Chelsea Girl) but would not be seen dead in Per Una?

Short answer is, I think I’ve still got it. After all, I fantasise like I did when I was a teenager that I may have a chance with Mr Darcy (that’s Colin, not Matthew. Well, actually, sometimes it's Larry). But look on the bright side: it is a truth universally acknowledged that in Jane Austen years I’d be dead…