You’ve got to get used to it

John Bayley

  • I am well, who are you? by David Piper, edited by Anne Piper
    Anne Piper, 96 pp, £12.00, March 1998, ISBN 0 9532123 0 0

Show a primitive man a submarine, or a sophisticated one an elephant, and both have to have time to get used to the experience before they know what it is they are seeing. So it probably is with the experience of battle. The participant does not know what happened until he can work out in the language of his head (or of his tribe) some way of formalising it. Asked back in England what the retreat to Dunkirk had been like, a languid young officer is said to have replied: ‘My dear – the noise, and the people.’ As good an impression as any that could be devised from (in his case) normal social experience. The fragment of Beowulf known as ‘The Finnsburgh Episode’ provides a standard formula for expressing the shock-horror impact of a surprise attack on a heroic society. The Battle of Maldon is justly famous for the Homeric way it puts appropriate sentiments – which in its context also sound vivid and convincing – into the mouths of soldiers on the verge of death and defeat.

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