The Old, Bad Civilisation

Arnold Rattenbury

  • Selected Poems by Randall Swingler, edited by Andy Croft
    Trent, 113 pp, £7.99, October 2000, ISBN 1 84233 014 4
  • British Writing of the Second World War by Mark Rawlinson
    Oxford, 256 pp, £35.00, June 2000, ISBN 0 19 818456 5

Even now most discussion of Second World War poetry cannot do without reference back to that of the First; and it’s true that Keith Douglas was always conscious of Isaac Rosenberg behind his shoulder, Alun Lewis of Edward Thomas. But the idea of modern warfare as one thing and of poetic response to it as another seems, in retrospect, almost Churchillian in its fixedness. Back then, although we loved the old rogue for the rodomontade and sheer cheek of his rhetoric, we got rid of him and his Party as quickly as possible afterwards: real life has few, if any, eternal verities. A British conscript Army at the end of the 1930s necessarily included hunger marchers, stay-down miners, Left Book Clubbers, black-coffin bearers, China campaigners, India Leaguers, Howard Leaguers, associates of Artists International, International Brigaders, Trotskyites, Communists, pacifists failed by their tribunals. The playwright David Hare declared recently that working-class conscripts now met ‘the officer class’ for the first time and rebelled; but plenty had met the people issuing orders, at least since Peterloo. Moreover, an Army largely unemployed except in training or retreat found much for disaffection and revolutionary aspiration to feed on. By 1943 my own training battalion at Trowbridge boasted a vigorous ‘club’ of agitators: not particularly effective, it’s true, but not particularly clandestine either (the journalist and historian John Prebble’s experience was identical); and by June 1944 large parts of the Army had developed from an anti-Fascism more consciously deliberated than ever Churchill’s was, through a famous browned-offness, to something like specifically socialist war aims. The eventual Labour landslide of 1945 was in this sense something long considered and bloodily fought for. Which is not to say that each soldier’s attitude was similar, only that many would find no point of contact with the brilliant, death-haunted, swashbuckling poems of Doug-las, for instance – nor he with their ideas, though he’d heard of them right enough. In one of the last letters to survive he wrote, in fine fettle, to Edmund Blunden: ‘For me it is simply a case of fighting against the Nazi regime. After that, unless there is a revolution in England, I hope to depart for sunnier and less hypocritical climates.’ More often, it’s true, he wrote that the soldiers with him did not know why they were there or what they were fighting for.

Actual forces in North Africa, where Douglas fought and wrote his major poems, were a small proportion of the British Army as a whole, and it may be that their early deployment in 1940 immunised them against a general political infection. I doubt this, however: not even Spike Milligan reads like that. When British forces in Cairo held a mock election under the auspices of the Army Educational Command (Middle East), the ‘red’ landslide anticipated events at home. (In the 1944 Cairo result, Labour won 119 seats; the Commonwealth led the opposition with 55 seats and the Tories were returned in 17 seats. The Bank of England was nationalised by a majority of more than 400.) In the same desert battles as Douglas’s, another poet, Hamish Henderson, would introduce his Elegies for the Dead in Cyrenaica (1942-47, published 1948) with most un-Douglas-like vocabulary and implication, speaking of ‘that eternally wronged proletariat of levelling death in which all the fallen are comrades’ – the symbol, for him, of ‘our human civil war’. Nine months before Douglas’s death in Europe, in 1944, another soldier-poet, leaving Tunisia for the bloody Italian campaign, wrote to his wife:

The last war started with people who wanted to fight and begot a generation that didn’t, and this one began with those people who didn’t want to fight and has begotten a generation that does, and there’s your strange spiral of history, that has caught us somewhere midway in its curve, who loathe fighting but now we must until it’s finished and there’s no more.

And a year later: ‘The story of the last war was the story of man’s fate and how it mastered him: the story of this war’s the story of our fate and how “we” mastered it.’

These letters are quoted in Andy Croft’s introduction to Selected Poems by Randall Swingler, a book consisting principally of the two last collections published in the poet’s lifetime – The Years of Anger (1946) and The God in the Cave (1950). The first is in four, sometimes overlapping parts and takes Swingler from just after his joining the Communist Party in 1934 to demobilisation as a Corporal awarded the MM for bravery, still a Communist. The second consists of two sequences, ‘Lazarus or the Walking Dead’ and ‘Reflections on the Walls of a Palaeolithic Cave’, which cover his agony at having survived soldier-comrades, known and unknown, and his emergence, subsequently, into the light of a history which continued nonetheless. (He began this last following a visit with Nancy Cunard to the Lascaux wall-paintings, themselves then newly come to light.) The two books in effect describe the political arc of Swingler’s life from pacifist-into-socialist Popular Front days, through class war, civil war, world war to postwar Labour Government and the faint glimmer of a hope that revolutionary socialism might survive. He left the Communist Party in 1956 and died in 1967. To this political story Croft devotes the bulk of his introduction. But are the poems he introduces any good?

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