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.

Once a formula for experiencing battle has been put in place, it establishes a mindset for subsequent description which is difficult to change. This can only be done by somebody whose literary gifts are as remarkable as the powers of imaginative observation with which they have undergone the experience. Otherwise the thing becomes familiar and even cosy in its context, as post-Homeric or post-heroic accounts of warfare are apt to do. (A familiar variant of this in our own time is the novel whose author knows that what he describes should be ‘powerful’ and ‘disturbing’ so he or she dutifully makes it powerful and disturbing, and it becomes very dull.) Oddly enough, Stendhal, the pioneer of accounts of a modern battlefield, only experienced one minor Napoleonic battle himself – Bautzen – and that in the role of a quartermaster. But he had been in the retreat from Moscow. These experiences were quite enough for a writer as good as he was to describe the Battle of Waterloo in a way that Tolstoy was to envy, and indeed to copy.

Stendhal in La Chartreuse de Parme does it through the eyes of a young man, Fabrice, who has no previous experience of what is going on, and is not actually a soldier at all. (Neither was Tolstoy’s Pierre at the Battle of Borodino.) The innocent on the battlefield can itself then become something of a standard formula. But it can also be made use of in ways that are contextually effective, and surprisingly original. That is what David Piper contrived to do in a brilliant one-off war novel, Trial by Battle. It describes the experiences of a young officer, the reverse of professional, during the 1941 Malayan campaign between the British-Indian Army and the Japanese: the campaign which led up to the fall of Singapore.

In his brief and telling introduction Frank Kermode puts his finger on the way Piper constructed the young man and his provenance in order to bring out his mode of thinking and reacting. He comes from a background no doubt very similar to Piper’s own. It is one that crops up frequently in this century’s war novels, but, as Kermode says, it has seldom been given such a sharp definition.

A young man issues from the university with a set of serviceable, enlightened and easily acquired opinions and attitudes; in the Thirties they would have been pink and pacifist ... His modest achievements make sense in the context of a social milieu so enormously privileged that the enormity of the privilege is taken for granted; I mean, for instance, saying goodnight to a well-wrapped girl outside Newnham ... deciding whether to try for your First; whether to be a don or a civil servant. This clever and amiable young man becomes an officer, commanded by officers whose opinions and attitudes have had to be forced for a specific purpose, men who would be absurd in a peacetime university but are not so in a wartime regiment.

Slowly the young man is ‘de-educated’. ‘First (and how well this is done!) he has to get over his initial incredulity that he should be there, with a battle going on, the real thing, with no interval for drinks and intelligent conversation.’ His immediate superior is a dedicated military vulgarian called Holl. Contempt between them at first is mutual; although young Alan only dares to reveal his own by making unsuitable off-hand remarks in the mess (‘I’m a devout coward’). The novel is far too intelligent to take refuge in the self-protective attitudes with which Kingsley Amis and his friends guarded themselves by means of systematic derision from similar sorts of situation. No clowning around, no references to Bastards’ HQ and the like. For most young combatants the war became a real thing, requiring abnegation of the former self and its comfortable furniture of frivolities.

Alan begins to respect Holl, then to depend on him. The absurdities of military life start to make sense. He develops a rapport with the Indian troops under his command. They move up the Malayan peninsula to repel the Japanese, who have just landed. ‘Outnumbered and inexperienced,’ says the blurb on the back of my paperback reprint, ‘the Allied forces in Malaya were no match for columns of Japanese tanks and men that swept like an armoured scythe towards Singapore.’ The blurb-writer has got his campaign wrong. That was May 1940, in France and Belgium, when the opponents were German. The Japanese forces landed in Malaya were considerably smaller than the Allied armies facing them, but under the redoubtable General Yamashita (hanged in 1948 for war crimes), they knew what to do and how to do it. Bypassing every centre of opposition they shepherded their prey down the peninsula. The Japanese had very few effective tanks; they scarcely used the roads; but they knew all about jungle warfare.

Like his young man Alan, David Piper was there, fighting in retreat with a battalion of Indian infantry. He was finally captured near Singapore and spent the rest of the war in a POW camp. After the war he became director of the National Portrait Gallery, and a distinguished art historian, writing among other admirable books a study of English portraiture, The English Face. He went on to become successively director of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge and the first director of the Oxford Ashmolean. As with many if not most POWs who had been in the camps of the Japanese, his health never fully recovered. After his death in 1990 his wife Anne Piper unearthed and edited the remarkable diary which she has now published herself, with a charmingly designed collage cover by her son Tom. It was supremely worthwhile, for the diary, like the novel, is in its own way a work of art, revealing a great deal without making a fuss about it.

Unlike the author, the hero of his novel does not have the good fortune to survive, if survival for three and a half years in a Japanese camp can be accounted good fortune. Alan takes part in a succession of resolute holding actions, his Jats and Sikhs helping insouciant Australian soldiers to create booby-traps among the rubber trees. Lost in the final headlong retreat, he staggers through the jungle and comes out at a bungalow by the road. Writing in the sunlight at an elegant (looted) walnut table sits a Japanese officer, in a uniform jacket with a white open-necked shirt. Alan remembers the grenade in his pocket and pulls it out to throw. A startled sentry wakes up and shoots at him; the bullet goes through his shoulder. The grenade drops and rolls a few feet. As he scrabbles to pick it up and throw it exhaustion overwhelms him and he sinks down on top of it. ‘The explosion spent itself in the soft arch of his body, and did no further damage.’

‘Comme il insiste peu,’ said André Gide admiringly of Stendhal. That last sentence of the novel illustrates what he had in mind. Yet in some remarkable way Trial by Battle manages not to stylise understatement but to make it a natural and inescapable part of the nightmare scene. The novel came out (under the nom de plume of Peter Towry) in 1959, at a time when war novels tended to be lumped together as a genre, and although it got good reviews it was not distinguished from the ordinary run of more conventional documentaries. Its successive republications, first in America and then in England (it was last reprinted in 1987, but is now out of print), have given us, as Kermode says, a chance to see how much more than a war novel it is. ‘For all its unemphatic manner it is probably the best English novel to come out of the Second World War.’

High praise indeed, but no more than the book deserves. Kermode goes on to make the point that Trial by Battle is not really a war novel at all. Much the same could be said of Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage. Unlike Piper, Crane at the time had no first-hand experience of what he was writing about: he saw action as a war correspondent only after he had written the book. The point would be, though, that good works of fiction usually require some objective correlative in order to achieve their own personal thing. As Kermode says, ‘war is not life: it is a situation.’ And in order to give it the universality of life the writer must enlist the sympathies of those who have no necessary experience of, or even interest in, the situation which makes up his novel’s background.

And the same is true of diaries. Kilvert’s Diary is unputdownable because the reader becomes absorbed in the psychology of the author: why is he doing this? Why is he doing it like this? The way the diarist does it invites such co-operative questions. Readers have something of the same response to all good diaries, and Piper’s from a Japanese POW camp is no exception. He thinks about Anne back in England: he has difficulty in remembering her. A small incident occurs. Four POWs in the next block have failed to salute quickly enough.

There they were, four lean figures lined up. One of the guards, about half their height, walked down the line beating their faces. He swung his arm straight from the shoulder, leaning into the blow, and each time he struck, the bayonet on the rifle in his other hand swung and caught the sunlight. At the end of the row he changed hands and worked back on the other cheek. The sound of the blows reached me late, sounding small and remote. It was as though I was watching a rather crude film that had failed to grip me.

As an observer, whether soldier or prisoner, he never lays it on. He has cut the diary, keeping only enough ‘to convey the flavour without boring the reader to death’. He has cut out the verse he wrote, ‘regulated with a crude marching rhythm as if to help the heart keep going. Commenting on this, a fellow POW said forgivingly: “Ah well, it all helps to pass the time!” I wrote rather less poetry after that.’ But the diary he kept is itself a kind of poetry, not so unlike the message a prisoner eventually received from his wife, slightly garbled by a decoding error or mistranslation. ‘I am well, who are you?’ Whoever he was he could hardly have been the same man that she had once known.