Once we have located the cemetery the grave itself is not hard to find, one of a row of headstones just inside the gate and backing onto a railway. Flanders in April and it is, not inappropriately, raining, clogging our shoes the famous mud. The stone gives the date of his death, 21 October 1917, but not his age. He was 20.
He was always 20 all through my childhood because of the photograph on the piano at my grandmother’s house in Leeds. He was her only son. He sits in his uniform and puttees in Mr Lonnergan’s studio down Woodsley Road, Lonnergan’s a classy place that did you a good likeness. Less classy but still doing a good likeness, Mr Lonnergan takes pictures of my brother and me in 1944 in the closing stages of the next war. An artier study this, two boys aged 12 and nine emerge from a shadowy background to look unsmiling at Mr Lonnergan under his cloth. My brother is in his Morley Grammar School blazer, his hand resting unself-consciously on my grey flannelled shoulder. In his picture Uncle Clarence is on embarkation leave from the King’s Royal Rifles. In 1944 we too are going away, though not to certain death, only ‘down South’ to fulfil a dream of my father’s. He has answered an advert in the Meat Trades Journal and having worked for 25 years for the Co-op is now going to manage a family butcher’s in Guildford. Uncle Clarence never comes back but we are back within the year, his photograph still standing on its lace doily, and now ours has been put beside it.
The piano itself does not belong to Grandma. She gives it house room at 7 Gilpin Place for her sister-in-law, Aunt Eveline. Aunt Eveline has never married and has beautiful hand-writing. Her name is on all the music in the piano stool, and in her time she accompanied the silent films at the Electric Cinema, Bradford. Come the talkies, she turns housekeeper and now looks after a Mr Watson, sometime chairman of the Bradford Dyers’ Association, who is a widower with a fancy woman, whom Aunt Eveline dislikes because she has dyed hair and is not Aunt Eveline. On Sundays there are musical evenings in the front room at Gilpin Place. The children are warned to keep back as a shovelful of burning coals from the kitchen range is carried smoking through the house to light the fire in the sitting-room before we sit down to high tea in the kitchen. After tea, the sitting-room still smelling of smoke, Aunt Eveline arranges herself on the piano stool and with my father on the violin (‘Now then, Walter, what shall we give them?’) kicks off with a selection from Glamorous Night. Then, having played themselves in, they accompany Uncle George, my father’s brother, in some songs. Uncle George is a bricklayer and has a fine voice and a face as red as his bricks. He sings ‘Bless this house’ and ‘Where’er you walk’ and sometimes Grandma has a little cry. These occasions go on until about 1950 when Grandma dies.
Vol. 8 No. 12 · 3 July 1986
SIR: Mr Bennett (LRB, 5 June) should not think that his Uncle Clarence’s death was pointless or that ‘nobody could say why these men died.’ Any competent historian of modern European could tell him. German foreign policy since the time of Bismark, coupled with Prussian ambition and a neurotic Kaiser, made that war inevitable. It may be tempting to think ‘they died in vain,’ but one can also imagine the outcome of abandoned treaty obligations, territorial guarantees and European comity. It was not the fault of the pre-1914 policymakers that Versailles was botched and the contest had to be resumed later. Private Peel played his part, nor is his glory blotted out, at any rate not in my eyes. There is glory in a faithful and enduring army; the fortitude of the British Army is its glory.
SIR: I much enjoyed Alan Bennett’s evocative essay on his Uncle Clarence until the final paragraph, where he writes, ‘Nobody could say now why these men died,’ and refers to the Second World War as ‘the one with a purpose’. Now I always thought that the purpose of the Great War on the Western Front was clear enough: to shift the German Army from French and Belgian soil and, to quote my late father (Private, Duke of Wellington’s Regiment, gassed and wounded at Passchendaele), ‘to shove the buggers back into Germany’. This the Allied armies eventually succeeded in doing. Had they not done so, then the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, where Germany demanded large tracts of Russian territory as well as a substantial proportion of Russia’s industrial and agricultural resources, may serve as a guide to what might have happened had there been a German victory in the West. This view was supported by Fritz Fischer’s study of German expansionary war aims in his Griff nach der Weltmacht as long ago as 1961.
The ‘futility’ myth, I have tended to assume, was the creation of poetically-inclined (though very brave) junior officers and post-war metropolitan literary intellectuals, a myth unlikely to seduce someone brought up in Leeds, who shopped at the Co-op, into thinking that his Uncle Clarence died for nothing. Perhaps all that Wilfred Owen at Leeds Modern School is to blame, rather than, one hopes, the degree in Modern History at Oxford.
Alan Bennett writes: Beg pardon. I had thought there were faults on both sides. When the next lot comes I hope Messrs Latimer and Wright will be around to tell us why we did the proper thing there too. Bags not be in the same cave.
Vol. 8 No. 14 · 7 August 1986
SIR: I shared a couple of items from your 3 July issue with some friends, thus demonstrating that LRB reaches the parts that other journals cannot. The anarchist was amused with Alan Bennett’s response to his two critics in the Letters columns: ‘When the next lot comes I hope Messrs Latimer and Wright will be around to tell us why we did the proper thing there too. Bags not be in the same cave.’ The ecologist was amused by Bob Geldof’s critic, Amartya Sen, disclosing that ‘on the other side, there has rarely been a famine in a country with a free and active press.’ If that is so, then there has rarely been a famine, the anarchist countered. The famines are caused, explained the ecologist, by deforestation and consequent droughts, floods and soil erosion. A press dependent upon wood pulp is not going to report the fact that their industry, directly and indirectly, is in no small way responsible for the environmental disasters that it reports. Nor is pacifism going to rise up through the ranks of the Armed Services, pointed out the anarchist.
The cynic observed that the ‘stunning $70 million’ raised by Live Aid is less than a pound from each person in this tiny island, and as in most ‘developed’ (into what?) countries, each family in Britain involuntarily spends £17 per week on technology and resources adapted specifically to kill people as quickly and completely as feasible. ‘The economic causes of hunger are quite diverse, and the common predicament of the hungry does not indicate a common causation.’ Oh, but it does, pleaded the hippy: the earth is our mother and while our common environment is monopolised by a minority who seem bent on its exhaustion, then we cannot know peace. ‘Indeed the causes of famines and starvation are now technically much better understood.’ Of course they are understood, droned the ecologist, but where’s this free press spreading the word about how the ‘rich, donor countries’ lend funny money to poor countries while bleeding them of their natural resources and buying the land from under their feet and renting it back to them to grow cash crops for export to earn foreign exchange to service the loans which were made to provide arms to deter the philosophy that the land monopoly should be operated by the state through the cold mechanism of bureaucracy? What a load of bollocks, sighed the hippy, taking a long toke on what tasted like a joint. The American Indians had it sussed: how can you buy and sell the sky, the warmth of the land? We are all in the same cave, sighed the Jesus freak: wars, famines, earthquakes, nation against nation, the end of trees and thus our habitat next century. We are consuming the furniture and winter outside the cave is fast approaching.