Thursday, January 21, 2010

Book learning 59

The Great Silence 1918-1920. Living in the shadow of the Great War. By Juliet Nicolson

I'm not sure if my childhood obsession with World War One has ever really been too prominent in this blog. It's the historical obsession that predated the historical obsession with American history. Between the age of 11 and 17 it was all about the Schlieffen plan, Passschendaele, Zeppelins, President Wilson's 12 points (oh? Do you see a link?)

Cut to 2010 and the pile of books delivered by Santa.

This surprisingly accessible read deals with the zeitgiest of the two years immediately following the November armistice in 1918, as such, it's primary concern is grief. The book follows the seasons as the nation tries to come to terms with the apocalyptic loss of the previous four years. Along with the extremely traumatic side of things such as severely disabled veterans, early forays into plastic surgery and the various coping mechanisms of the bereaved the book also looks at elements of popular culture, the mood of the people, industrial relations and the decisions behind some of the iconic monuments commemorating the loss of the Great War (The Cenotaph, The Unknown soldier). Throw all this together and it makes for a powerful and absorbing read.

I began reading this in the full flush of health, then I got a hefty dose of swine flu. I couldn't read or do anything for a few days and when I did eventually sit up in bed I wasn't so sure that I wanted to be reading about the effects of Spanish flu, however the time did allow me to really get into the book in a way that's just not possible when you grab twenty minutes before bedtime. Having said all that, I would not recommend swine flu as an aid to reading.

It was the human angle that came through strongest, the book was based largely on anecdotes or diaries and the emotions people experienced were refreshingly honest, some thought the idea of a ' tomb of the unknown warrior' insincere or disrespectful, children were creeped out by disfigured veterans, young women who just wanted everyone to get over it. A good insight into a lost age and not without lessons for our own times.

1 comment:

Peter said...

I too when young was more fascinated by WWI than II. I had a a pamphlet all about the air war and thought it was the coolest thing ever. I still can't understand today why nobody understands me when I start talking about Fokkers, Sopwith Camels, and S.P.A.D.s.