The Silver Eel

"A gape-jawed serpentine shape of pale metal crested with soot hung high for a sign."

Monday, July 03, 2006


And so back to Anthony Burgess. A literary butterfly I yam, but at least I'm on the home straight with this one. The book is essentially a long train of anecdotes and observations, clearly written too quickly, with too little revision in some places, and an overall lack of structure which makes it difficult, for me at least, to maintain attention for more than 100-150 pages (not at the one sitting!). One thinks, where is this going? which is unfair because for those of us without the ambition of a Blair, life tends not to go anywhere in particular - it just goes. Part of the problem is Burgess's intensity, which remains constant no matter the subject. He is so bright, so erudite, certainly by modern standards, so energetic, that you get worn out after a while, like eating too much of a very good meal. Being buttonholed by him after a few gin-and-tonics must have been either awesome or indescribably tedious, or both.

There is so much to quote which is entertaining, funny, insightful, but one thing which has really struck me is his account of his war service. Burgess was enlisted from the ages of 23-29, a waste of six years, he says, during which he learned nothing. The war, for him and many others, was a distraction, an unwelcome interruption, fought under the leadership of men they did not respect against an enemy they did not want to fight. It is worth noting that Burgess was never involved in combat, being based in Britain and then Gibraltar - this is not meant as a criticism, merely an observation. Would his opinion have been different if he had? Was the opinion of front-line troops different? Maybe.

Here are the excerpts, taken from pages 303-5, with lacunae:

"The cynicism of the troops was profound. The chief symbols of their alienation were the men who were leading them to victory - Field-Marshal Montgomery and Prime Minister Churchill. [...] Montgomerian austerity was highly unpopular, and Churchill, who stood for its opposite, was unpopular for profounder reasons. He was a warmonger [see Christopher Priest's The Separation for an elegant, intelligent (though still to my mind rather cold) treatment of this perspective] whose qualified approval of the Russian destruction of the Nazi gangsters he excoriated with his teeth out would soon turn to open belligerence. [...] From the professional angle, Montgomery and Churchill had, respectively, military efficiency and political righteousness as their aims, and their programmes were praiseworthy. But conscripted troops are primarily human beings who resent being converted into disposable counters [...] and their humanity was outraged by the inhumanity of their leaders.

"[Churchill's] techniques of democratic bonhomie were ham-fisted. It was his custom when inspecting Home Forces troops to go down the line grinning with a big cigar. The cigar, intended to endear, did not do so. The men were usually starved of tobacco and enraged by the Cuban aroma. Churchill would ingratiatingly use obscenities that would have shocked Montgomery, but the men saw that it was all an act. They heard in his Edwardian twang (as Orwell called it) not the voice of equality but that of a ruling class more deeply entrenched than that represented by their haw-haw officers."

Burgess is equally scathing about the men, and the unions:

"On a fine spring afternoon I took a small group of men in convalescent blue into the grounds for a discussion on the progress of the war. Few of the men could see why it was being fought. We came in because of bloody Poland. Bugger Poland. Us coming in because of Poland has meant these so-called Free Poles shoving their poles into our wives and daughters. The Jews? Bugger the Jews. Why fight for the Jews? Rubbing their hands and making money while we lot gets the shit at half a dollar a day. It was a depressing session. And when this is bloody over it'll be the same as it was after the last lot. The buggers what stayed home will have the jobs and us sods go begging. A certain Corporal Hardwick spoke sensibly, much in the tone of Cecil Day Lewis's poem about defending the bad against the worse. I dismissed the group and Corporal Hardwick walked off on his own. He walked, I discovered afterwards, down to the railway line and laid his head on it." (p. 272)

"It had been one of the tasks of the old trade unions to educate their members. The unions now had the sole task of holding the country to ransom. Even the Daily Mirror published a cartoon in which striking miners or dockers, I forget which, raised their banners over the bodies of the slain in khaki or blue. The caption was: 'Your fighting comrades thank you.' The conscribed dockworkers had no sense of solidarity with these comrades. Their ignorance was astounding. They would be as well satisfied with living under Hitler as under Churchill. Hitler was right to kill the Sheenies. The original inhabitants of America were the Negroes, and the Yanks had dispossessed them." (p. 306)

Burgess has earlier related how many Brits on the Home Front felt quite close to the Germans and rapidly came to see the Americans as the real enemy; also, how a local pub, when faced with American demands for a colour bar, put up a sign which read 'Blacks only'.

How much of all this is mischief-making, and how much simply reportage, is open to debate. However, the stuff about Churchill makes one think again about history being written by the winners. A certain image of Churchill was projected during the war, for propaganda purposes, and no doubt from the same lazy deferential journalistic practices which continue to treat Blair with respect today. That image has persisted, and become history. What ordinary people, especially ordinary soldiers, really thought of him, has not endured in public awareness - though on the plus side it's to be hoped that much of the prejudice and ignorance Burgess writes about has gone. I wonder what Angus Calder's The People's War and The Myth of the Blitz have to say about this.

Finally, despite the cavils I made earlier, I should say that Little Wilson and Big God is an exceptional book which I recommend wholeheartedly. It is difficult - maybe impossible - to find a page without something worth quoting in it.


At 16 July 2006 at 23:28 , Blogger Joe said...

Or as dear old Spike Milligan out it in his war memoirs "I am worried my wife will leave me, sir, and run off with a Polish airman."

Spike would contradict Burgess on the 'baccy point though, as he notes that despite all the shortages the two things the squaddies always had were fags and tea for a brew-up, although they were terrible 'V' ciggies apparently.

He does confirm some jibes by the enlisted men against Churchill, but mostly semi-good natured whinges about their shortages and how they're sure Churchill isn't going short of good grub or booze.

On the nature of why they were actually at war he is excellent. In his first volume (Adolf Hitler, My Part in his Downfall) he recounts hearing Chamberlain's weasly voice announcing the news "no such note was received and so consequently we are at war with Germany." As Spike puts it, "I loved the 'we'". In the second one a comrade asks why if Britain and Germany are at war, why the hell are they fighting in North Africa? Because if you die looking all tanned you look better, explains Spike.

He does cover the upper-class officers quite well - they have a couple of majors who are the embodiment of the upper class idiot given command because of social standing rather than ability. However he also talks fondly of one who was outstanding. He went by the brilliant name of Major Chatterjack.

His example of Chatterjack is all the men on parade. Messerschmit 109 comes roaring over the barracks, cannon blazing. Battery as one man into ditch. Plane departs, men pick themselves up from ditch. Major is standing in the same place, taking a cigarrete out of his case and lighting up. "Very good, men," he comments, " you do realise of course that you did the right thing and I the wrong?" After this they were quite happy to follow him. After many a history book I have to say Spike is more illuminating on those events than most 'literary' figures have ever been.


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