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Reflections of a working writer and reader



Learning to Write XXIII

Two types of character have inhabited my mind over the last few days. You could imagine either of them conscripted into the army in the early days of the 1914-18 war in Europe. They are both young men, but they neither have to be young or male to inhabit the kind of fictional characterization I have in mind for them.

One of these young men battles with the circumstances of his place in the trenches, the fact that he has been displaced from everything that he thought of as ‘normal’ and ‘secure’ and at the end of the war, still alive and with all his limbs in tact, returns to his village almost unchanged. For those years his life was desperate, unimaginable, but they have hardly touched him. When he looks back on them it is as if he slipped into a swamp. But he put his head down and emerged at the other end, a little dishevelled, somewhat discomfited, but essentially whole. He remains as he was. What he was. How could he be other?

The second young man is also conscripted in 1914(* see comments) – these two never met, or if they did, neither of them remembers the meeting – and suffers the same kinds of torments as the first man. Unlike the first man, however, his experiences enter and change him in diverse ways. His mental stability is affected, he develops a speech defect, and after the war is unable to hold down a job or a relationship for any length of time. He doesn’t sleep and spends the rest of his life as a semi-invalid, dependent on his widowed mother and her sister.

The differences between the characters and destinies of these two men are not delineated by weakness or strength. The first man, although untouched by the barbarity of war, was, later, profoundly affected by the death of the family dog.

There was a third man in the trenches during that time – and although he remembers meeting neither of the others, they both remember meeting him – also around the same age as the first two. It seemed that the war was a joke to this man. He found something to laugh at every day. He laughed at the enemy soldiers, their ridiculous predicament. He laughed at the officers and the wives and girlfriends and children back home. He laughed at the government and the direction of the war, whichever direction it happened to be going in at the time. He even laughed when one of his legs was blown off at the Battle of Passchendaele in 1917.

It meant he could go home, have a holiday from it all, while everyone else stayed at the front and did the fighting for him.

Did well in Civvy Street, as well, didn’t seem to matter at all that he had a wooden leg. Made a pile of money, not all of it legally, apparently, and married a woman from Manchester who bore him five children, four boys and a girl. One of them became a doctor and another emigrated to America, went to Hollywood and got a walk-on part in Gone with the Wind.

Character and circumstance . . . don’t try to separate them. They always walk hand in hand.

One Response to “Learning to Write XXIII”

  1. a certain sinclair says:

    * ‘The second young man is also conscripted in 1914’ Sorry John, don’t want to be a pain, but he wouldn’t have been conscripted in 1914; the Conscription Act wasn’t brought in until 1916.

    jb says: Thanks for that, William. One of the things I learned very early on in this game . . . everyone needs a good editor.