Monday, 11 November 2013

Lest We Forget. . .

All Remembrance days feel sombre but with the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War just a few months away, there seems an extra poignancy this year.  The commemorations, the televised dramas and the new books are already starting to appear with dozens of exhibitions on the horizon. It will be a very interesting time to be in the U.K. over the next five years.

I've always been fascinated by WW1 and its literary representation ever since high school when I read All Quiet on the Western Front, A Farewell to Arms and Timothy Findley's powerful novel The Wars. In university it was reading Mrs. Dalloway and Testament of Youth that set me on a path investigating women writers of the period. I wasn't surprised that such a cataclysmic event provided the fodder for so many fictional works, only that I had heard of so few of them, even though the women were in many cases major writers - Willa Cather, Edith Wharton, May Sinclair, Rose Macauley - just to name a few. I became very interested in the suffragettes' responses to the war (and made a side detour into their obsession with the Brontes). I found First World War drama - both written around the period and contemporary plays taking the war as its subject - deeply moving and challenging as they grappled with portraying the "theatre of war" on the stage.  Only a few years ago, I was embarked on a PhD program where I hoped to look at the political and fictional writing of Vera Brittain and Storm Jameson - both women were very deeply affected by the First World War but had strong divergent views on the Second. Alas, I was working a full-time job in publishing that also required a lot of reading and had to regretfully say farewell to the degree. But over many years, I've amassed a huge collection of novels, memoirs, histories, and critical studies of the war and now that I'm working at a university I have that all important academic library card which gives me access to untold riches. I think it's time to immerse myself in this world again.

Literary challenges always give me a certain focus to my reading even though they can be pressure-inducing.  I'm going to read steadily through my collection over the next five years (no doubt with detours as I explore various threads that pop up).  Many will be rereads that I'm looking forward to reacquainting myself with. I'm going to read fiction by writers who experienced the war firsthand and by those who can only re-imagine it,  some social, political and even military history (something I've not read a lot of), literary criticism, poetry, drama and art books.  I'd love to say I'd aim for about 50 books a year, but I don't want this challenge to be all encompassing as there will still be plenty of other reading that will beckon. But I hope by the end I'll have read and carefully thought about (incidentally, this is also a slow reading project), between 150-200 books over the next five years, which will ideally give me many different perspectives on the war and allow me to even more fully appreciate my little library.  I may even clear a special shelf and start putting my finished books on it as encouragement.

And I think I'll kick off with some primary material.  I recently saw a BBC drama on the production of The Wipers Times - the satirical newspaper that was actually produced at the front. This facsimile of all the editions has recently been published and I think it will make fascinating reading.

(Incidentally. the photo at the top of the blog post is a close-up of this wild field of poppies that bloomed over the summer in one of Liverpool's parks. There's a movement around the UK to introduce patches of wildflowers in parks and other public spaces and I loved walking past this area each morning on my way to work).

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