Monday, May 2, 2016

Something New

[NOTICE TO READERS: For over four years, Reid's Reader has been presenting an entirely free service to readers with commentary on books new and old. Reid's Reader receives no grants or subsidies and is produced each week in many hours of unpaid work. If you wish to contribute, on an entirely voluntary basis, to the upkeep of this blog, we would be very grateful if you made a donation via the PayPal "DONATE" button that now appears at the top of the index at right. Thank you.]
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“IN A SLANT LIGHT – A Poet’s Memoir” by Cilla McQueen (Otago University Press, $NZ35)

Recently a poet, who had written at some length about her early life with her parents, mildly rebuked me for drawing what she thought were wrong inferences about her relationship with her mother. Duly chastened, I replied that I was only going on what her long poem had itself said or implied. If a poet chooses to be confessional about very personal matters, it is very hard for readers not to draw conclusions about the poet, the poet’s friends and family and the poet’s life in general. This is the danger (or, if you prefer, the courage) of confessional poetry. Write about yourself in such detail, and risk having the world chattering about you rather than about your work.
I am saying all this at the top of this notice, because what was true of that other poet is doubly true of Cilla McQueen’s In a Slant Light. Let me say at once, before I pass any other judgments, that I found In a Slant Light accessible, thoroughly enjoyable, and revealing a strong and sane personality. But it is highly confessional, so you will certainly end up having some opinions on Cilla McQueen and friends.
This handsomely produced hardback (with ribbon bookmark) is exactly what its subtitle says – a poet’s memoir. Divided into what amount to chapters, its free verse takes us from 1949, when Priscilla McQueen was born (to an English mother and an Aussie father) in a hospital in Birmingham in England; to 1984, when she was trying to free herself from other influences and striking out on her own as a poet.
In between is all her childhood, remembered vividly – some time in Australia; travelling to New Zealand in a Sunderland Flying Boat; her family settling in Dunedin; childhood naughtinesses; getting addicted to reading at an early age; a couple of return journeys (by ship, of course) to England with her mum and siblings, to live with relatives; and girlhood dreams of being a ballerina, compromised by a back injury and a dodgy spine thereafter. McQueen’s family appear to have been supportive in the young girl’s and teenager’s crises, even when she was going wild and slightly rebellious. Maybe it helped that she liked high school, was a bit of a whiz in the humanities subjects, and ended up as college dux.
But ‘varsity years were rather more fraught at first. Losing her virginity at about 17 (I assume that’s what “surrender at dawn” on p.57 means) resulted in a pregnancy and what she calls a “shotgun wedding” and a youthful marriage. This didn’t last but it did produce the daughter of whom she is very proud. Then there was her fascination with drama, in Dunedin centring on Patric and Rosalie Carey’s Globe theatre and involving a large cast of bohemian thespians. McQueen records with relish her undergraduate enthusiasms, but she is not so self-regarding as not to notice how privileged her life was in some respects in those days. As she remarks self-deprecatingly, she lived “in a happy, ignorant, opinionated / undergraduate bubble.” (p.66) Nor is she naively impressed with all of the arts-and-culture crowd, for as she later remarks: “Sometimes it seems to me the art world contains / but few true thinkers  / and many hangers-on.” (p.127) There were the pains and struggles of balancing being a single mum with studying and having to earn a living. And there were the protest causes she became involved in  - especially the conservation one of opposing the building of an aluminium smelter at the Bluff. And there was her ache to produce something distinctive of her own. The literary and acting world of Dunedin was a great solace, but a real turning point was meeting (and eventually marrying) the artist Ralph Hotere, in whose work she became absorbed. In fact, she implies, she may have become too absorbed in it, as it took her some time to find her voice as the prolific poet she has been since those days. In a Slant Light fades out in 1984, when the poet is 35, still married to Hotere, and with her first volumes published. While In a Slant Light is mainly a memoir written from the perspective of old age, McQueen interpolates the texts of six or seven poems written nearer the times her memoir records.
All of the above simply gives you the “bibliographical” view of the book by telling you what it contains. It does not really tell you how In a Slant Light achieves its effects or what notes and themes it strikes.
As a personal response, I admit that I was often absorbed – especially in the book’s earlier sections – with what I would call the purely nostalgic aspect. Cilla McQueen and I are of the same generation – both baby-boomers – she being a few years older than me. Therefore I often nodded my head at specific indicators of the times (the 1950s and early 1960s), which I recognised from my own childhood. I mean things such as the names of radio serials, and the type of foods consumed and playground games (stacks-on-the-mill etc.) and shop-visits like this:
Bronze penny fills my hand,
silver threepence as thin as a moon.
Farthings are remembered by the shopkeeper….
I come in the widening space, approach
the glass counter, the sweets in bottles and trays
all shapes and colours, pink cachous, sherbet,
licorice, acid drops, pineapple chunks,
aniseed balls, a paper twist for a halfpenny.” (p.17)
Like McQueen, when I was a kid I travelled with my family, by ship, to England and back. I remember, as she does, such things as the King Neptune ceremony for kids as we crossed the equator, and the strange like-but-unlike-home sensation that England produced. Like McQueen, I also remember my first shocked childhood reaction to the following public event:
One morning in the kitchen
making toast for breakfast
we hear on the Bell radio which sits
on the shelf beside the yellow venetian blind
above the sink, a news flash:
the assassination of President Kennedy.
There’s anguish in the reporter’s voice.” (p.47)
As an Aucklander, I can even key into some of the experiences McQueen had in Dunedin as a student. Like her – dammit, like all arty students at the time – I had the iconic meeting with James K.Baxter, though in my case it was in the last year of Baxter’s life, in a student cellar, and I was miffed when he refused to answer my earnest student question about how he set about writing his poems. (McQueen records him telling her young self not to bother reading the poetry of Allen Curnow. Interesting.) Retrospectively, and when I consider the student loans in which my own children have to be entangled, I can also endorse her student memory:
Nobody pays university fees.
We are given a fantastic education
by Aotearoa New Zealand.
We develop an independent manner of speaking.” (p.60)
Like her, I have had some career as a high-school teacher, and like her I remember from the 1970s:
Chalk-skreeek paroxysms….chalk dust….
carbon paper, cranky copiers, Banda, Gestetner,
inky machinery, paper, time divided by buzzers and bells.” (pp.85-86)
But while such nostalgic recognition is great fun, it isn’t what McQueen is essentially on about.
She is fully aware that memory itself is a faulty thing, although, paradoxically, she finds that keeping diaries – as she used to do – is no help, because diaries too often flatten experience into mere series of external events and miss the inwardness of experience. Only the memory one still has can turn the past into poetry. As she remarks early in In a Slant Light:
Snaps, tableaux – can’t be sure about the authenticity of memory,
but by my lights it’s all I have to go on.” (p.7)
Of course memory is related to how we see things – both literally and metaphorically – and a good part of this book refers to the sense of sight. McQueen did the self-portrait on the book’s cover and it emphasises, most appropriately, the poet’s eye-glasses. (Again, I share an experience with her – we both had the childhood awkwardness of having defective sight diagnosed a little late). Vision is related to the book’s title In a Slant Light, and is referenced a couple of times in the text.
There is a childhood memory:
 In Brisbane
my fingertips
touch dancing motes
in a slant sunbeam.” (p.8)

And there is an adult reaction to a group of Ralph Hotere’s paintings:
In the shadowy hallway hang three paintings that seem completely black.
When the light slants in from the front door I see that the matt canvas is textured with words in thicker paint, black on black….” (p.80)

The “slant” light could be the light of sunset (the poet getting old…). But it could also be suggesting that we all see things from a particular angle – just as the light falls from a particular angle, which heightens and emphasises the contours and flaws of things, as well as exposing significant reality.
This connects with the essential subjectivity that is part of being a poet. More than nostalgic recall, more than thoughts on memory and vision, In a Slant Light is Cilla McQueen’s account of becoming a poet. An early childhood memory indicates this path. She is told off for reaching over the fence and destroying part of a neighbour’s seedling nursery and she admits:
I did lean over the fence, I did
plick all those little seedlings out
of their yielding soil one by one,
because I liked the sound.” (p.12)
This is the poet in embryo.
Later there is the proto-poet’s sheer fun in playing with words:
Behind this curtain, on a table, is a typewriter –
not supposed to be touched
but I can hardly tear myself away
for fascination with the letters
appearing on the blank sheet
representing language, meaning – mistakes –
            the incongruity of this serious machine
in my inexpert hands creating nonsense
as it casts up inky letters one by one.” (p.31)
The power of language is underlined in McQueen’s time acting on stage, and in such things as her account of Rosalie Carey, conducting drama classes with “agile enunciation… [which] renders the voice an instrument of music…” (p.83)
There is the realisation that sometimes poetry can be simply an escape from the quotidian:
I write for company and to sort out my emotions, dismayed at the turn my life has taken. With the help of my family and my studies I contain
the shock; reading Villon,
hoist myself out of the difficult present through the long-ago
consciousness of a poet.” (p.77)
There is also, and perhaps most painfully, the realisation that the poet can be distracted from her own creative path by absorption in the art of somebody else, even if that is somebody she loves:
 Layer on layer of Ralph’s works
cloak me.
Were I to lift them gently away with tweezers
in all their dark seductive textures,
might I find myself in my spare time
doing what, apart from appreciating, facilitating?
Sewing, cooking, knitting, spinning, reading,
acting, visiting, making jam, bottling fruit, baking bread…
My focus was on him – his work intrigued me –
I was fortunate to take part.” (pp.91-92)
This theme is developed later, rather more assertively. Talent, life and experience make her a poet, but so does choosing her own path and getting out of somebody else’s shadow.
This is the essence of In a Slant Light.
Of course much that is very personal is aired here, such as the early stages of her relationship with Ralph Hotere:
He calls me wet behind the ears.
I feel like a licked-by-its-mother-tongue wobbly-balancing-four-square newborn foal. I hope we might have a baby, but he says quietly, it’s unlikely.” (p.82)
Hard, then, not to feel sometimes that you’re eavesdropping on what isn’t really yours to know. But then Cilla McQueen puts this aspect of a poet’s being very well in a passage where she speaks of poets who affected her in student years:
            Dylan Thomas and Gerard Manley Hopkins
speak to my inner ear with lyric and sprung lines,
linguistic energy like Shakespeare’s
and something else – their own dear selves as poets
who have sat down to write with pen and paper.” (p.55)
In the end, this is what we get in In a Slant Light. Communion with a poet who has sat down and written and consciously decided to leave us with her own dear self.
I’ll probably get hammered by the usual suspects for ending my notice on this upbeat note – but I’ll leave it at that.

Querulous footnote: In the 1964 section of her memoir, Cilla McQueen speaks of being with her teenage boyfriend at the time and listening to, and enjoying, the music of many jazz greats, including Wynton Marsalis. As Wynton Marsalis was born in 1961, and would have been three years old at the time McQueen recalls, this is hardly likely. Marsalis made his first recordings in the 1980s. Truly memory is a fallible thing.

Something Old

 Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago. 

“A JOURNEY FROM THIS WORLD TO THE NEXT” by Henry Fielding (1743)

I’m sure you are aware of the publishing phenomenon whereby certain books are reprinted, not because they have much intrinsic merit, but because they were written by people who are known for better things. This is particularly true of what are known loosely as the “classics”. Matching editions of all the works of some illustrious author are produced, even if some of the volumes are quite forgettable or mere apprentice stuff.   
My case for the prosecution this week is Henry Fielding’s A Journey From This World to the Next, which sits on my shelf in the form of an Everyman’s paperback - although I note that Everyman’s did not get around to including it in its “classics” series until 1973, which suggests that they knew it was really just one of the scrapings of Fielding. A Journey From This World to the Next was first published in 1743 when Fielding (1707-54) was just beginning the most illustrious part of his career. True, this was years after his burlesque farce The Tragedy of Tragedies (or Tom Thumb the Great) and a year after the publication of the delightful Joseph Andrews, which I still insist on finding Fielding’s most enjoyable novel. But all the evidence suggests that A Journey From This World to the Next was tossed off in haste well before Joseph Andrews was written; and it was certainly before Tom Jones or Amelia or the Journal of a Voyage to Lisbon were thought of.
Originally this short book appeared in Fielding’s “Miscellanies”, a hodge-podge of journalism, satire and occasional pieces published periodically. It is a loose satire based on the style of the Greek Lucian, purporting to tell the adventures of a man after his death, trying to find his way into Elysium. The 140-odd pages of A Journey From This World to the Next are divided into two parts, “Book One” and “Book Nineteen” because (in a gag that was also later used in Henry Mackenzie’s The Man of Feeling in 1771), the book is supposed to consist of surviving fragments from an authentic manuscript.
The first nine chapters of Book One are a very robust and lively read – the narrator journeys through the land of the dead, meets the diseased and the pretentious in the City of Diseases and the surprisingly jolly Palace of Death. The pagan Minos acts the part of Saint Peter, judging whether people can go through the gates to Elysium. In every respect these first nine chapters are the best of it. The satire is not as sharp in the following chapters (Chaps. 10 to 25) of “Book One”, which are about the various transmigrations of the soul of Julian the Apostate – he goes from life to life and is continually rejected at the gate by Minos and sent back to Earth to live again. Why was Julian the Apostate chosen to play this role? Perhaps because, as the Roman Emperor who turned his back on Christianity once it had been established as Rome’s official religion, he was for Fielding an image of fickleness and changeability. The irony of this section is that Minos is actually encouraging Julian to improve. After all, Minos could send him to Hades for his sins, but he always chooses to give him another chance to reach Elysium.
Basically, through Julian’s avatars, Fielding gives himself the excuse to satirise various “types” – the standard objects of traditional satire – boastful and destructive warriors, social climbers, religious fanatics, pretentious people, foolish society women, rakes, vain scholars, devious statesmen, violent soldiers etc. He also takes Julian through various ages and countries from the ancient world almost to the present. This allows Fielding to make typically English swipes at Roman paganism, foreigners and especially Catholics. In Chapter 17, superstitious Spanish Catholics are fooled by a faked apparition of St. James; in Chapter 19, corrupt Roman clergy parade in finery and have no money for beggars; in Chapter 20 the saintliness of Edward the Confessor is seen in a ridiculous light; and in Chapter 23, King John is forced to submit to the devious slavery of the Roman church. However, the way “Book One” breaks off abruptly suggests that the narrator is winding up to say satirical things about present-day England (and the way Anglican bishops vote), but is not allowed to do so.
The twenty pages of “Book Nineteen”, labelled “Chapter Seven”, are the self-contained story of Anne Boleyn, told by herself. They are clearly an added-on section – and in fact they were probably written by Henry’s sister Sarah Fielding (as is hinted at the end of “Book One” with the joke that what remains was written “in a woman’s hand”). Anne Boleyn’s story is of artlessness corrupted by ambition; but Minos lets her into Elysium because she has suffered much as Henry VIII’s queen.
The whole of this little book has the air of being thrown together hastily and of course one wonders if it would ever have been reprinted if the author(-s) hadn’t later gone on to greater things. Not that this stops Claude Rawson, in the 1973 reprint, from giving an erudite 24-page introduction relating the book to the whole tradition of classical and Augustan satire – to Lucian and Juvenal and Pope and Swift and company.
As for me, I amused myself as I read it by taking down passages that seemed to strike the right tone of silliness or satire.
There is, for example, the deliberately camp description of the god Mercury as encountered the other world:
“I had not hopped far before I perceived a tall young gentleman in a silk waistcoat, with a wing on his left heel, a garland on his head, and a caduceus in his right hand.” (Book One, Chapter One).
There is an example of how monstrous personification can become:
            We had not been long arrived in our inn, where it seems we were to spend the remainder of the day, before our host acquainted us that it was customary for all spirits, in their passage through that city, to pay their respects to the lady Disease, to whose assistance they owed their delivery from the lower world.” (Book One, Chapter Three).
This is even more evident when “Maladie Alamode” – sexually-transmitted disease – speaks: “She spoke likewise greatly in approbation of the method, so generally used by parents, of marrying children very young, and without the least affection between the parties; and concluded by saying that, if these fashions continued to spread, she doubted not but she would shortly be the only disease that would ever receive a visit from any person of considerable rank.” (Book One, Chapter Three)
            The difference between the straight-and-narrow path of virtue, and the broad highway that leads to the everlasting bonfire is referenced ironically thus:
            On enquiry, we were acquainted that the bad road was the way to greatness, and the other to goodness. When we expressed our surprize at the preference given to the former, we were acquainted that it was chosen for the sake of the music of drums and trumpets, and the perpetual acclamations of the mob, with which those who travelled this way were constantly saluted” (Book One, Chapter Five)
Being asked about the way obscure lines in his plays have been interpreted by editors, the ghost of Shakespeare says what is even more relevant in the age of Harold Bloom and too-clever academic editors:
I marvel nothing so much as that men should gird themselves at discovering obscure beauties in an author. Certes the greatest and most pregnant beauties are ever the plainest and most evidently striking; and when two meanings of a passage are in the least balance our judgments which to prefer, I hold it a matter of unquestionable certainty that neither of them is worth a farthing.” (Book One, Chapter Eight).
When Julian the Apostate is in his avatar as a wise man, he utters words which have a universal truth in the way they show that gravity and solemnity are often mistaken for wisdom:
 I had ever in my infancy a grave disposition, nor was I ever seen to smile, which infused an opinion into all about me that I was a child of great solidity; some foreseeing that I should be a judge, and others a bishop. At two years old my father presented me with a rattle, which I broke to pieces with great indignation. This the good parent, being extremely wise, regarded as an eminent symptom of my wisdom, and cried out in a kind of extasy ‘Well said, boy! I warrant thou makest a great man’…. I had now obtained universally the character of a very wise young man, which I did not altogether purchase without pains; for the restraint I laid on myself in abstaining from the several diversions adapted to my years cost me many a yearning; but the pride which I inwardly enjoyed in the fancied dignity of my character made me some amends.” (Book One, Chapter Sixteen)
Of course Fielding can’t forego some fairly commonplace moralising when he has Julian, in his avatar as a tailor, speak thus:
 For, in reality, who constitutes the different degrees between men but the tailor? The prince indeed gives the title, but it is the tailor who makes the man. To his labours are owing the respect of crowds, and the awe which great men inspire into their beholders, though these are too often unjustly attributed to other motives. Lastly, the admiration of the fair is most commonly to be placed to his account.” (Book One, Chapter Twenty-Two)
So I did find some things to amuse me as commonplace-book fillers in A Journey From This World to the Next. But they were not such as to make me think this was wonderful satire, nor such as would lead me to believe that this was the acme of Henry Fielding’s achievement. Read it as an oddity if you will. Or read it if you are a “complete-ist” seeking to cover all the works of Henry Fielding.

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.    

            In Stephanie Johnson’s 2015 novel The Writers’ Festival [reviewed on this blog], there’s a scene where a rumpled, likeable old leftie character considers the way that Maori placenames were once pronounced by many Pakeha New Zealanders “Tauwpo. Ruapeyhoo. Owneehunga. Wangaray. Koikoiee. Taowrunga. Mangeree. Wakkawat. Paikok. Pram.”(p.170).
The old leftie is of course momentarily abashed by what we would now call the cultural insensitivity of this. But he later reflects (p.177) that such mangled Kiwi-isms were in effect the voice of a more egalitarian New Zealand which has passed away in an age of New Zealand’s worship of the market, the widening gap between rich and poor, the unaffordability of housing for young people and all the others things to which our country is now subjected.
And yet – forsooth – we are ever so sensitive about what we say. Let not an age-ist, racist, sexist, homophobic, able-ist or even species-ist phrase or word pass your lips, even in the most light-hearted, inconsequential or flippant way, or you will be damned, pilloried on social media or otherwise held up as a pariah. Not that we care about what is happening to wealth or poverty. What we say is extremely important, but as for what we do about the main issue facing our country – well, that doesn’t matter, does it?
We can also feel immensely superior to our parents and grandparents, who mispronounced Maori and told politically-incorrect jokes. And as we feel superior, we can ignore the fact that from approximately the 1920s to the 1980s, the driving ideology in New Zealand was a real egalitarianism, which supported the welfare state and would have been appalled at the chasm that now divides our richest from our poorest. In other words, by many objective indicators, that verbally retrograde society was more humane than the one we have now.
I won’t be long with this week’s sermon, but I cannot think of our current cultural situation without remembering the story from the Book of Judges. Enemy spies are trying to penetrate Israelite territory, but they are stopped by Israelites who ask them to say the word “Shibboleth”, knowing that it is a word which foreigners are prone to mispronounce. The Israelites slay anyone who mispronounces it, and of course end up with a pile of corpses. The wrong use of language kills.
No wonder the term “shibboleth” has now come to mean any cultural marker that shows whether someone is or is not an acceptable member of a social group.
On one level we have advanced. On another, we have become more callous. And the mispronunciation of Maori placenames also gives us, as educated middle-class people, a neat opportunity to look down on those uneducated working-class slobs.
Not that we’re classist or anything.
A fine sensitivity over the pronunciation of Maori placenames is a modern shibboleth.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Something New

[NOTICE TO READERS: For over four years, Reid's Reader has been presenting an entirely free service to readers with commentary on books new and old. Reid's Reader receives no grants or subsidies and is produced each week in many hours of unpaid work. If you wish to contribute, on an entirely voluntary basis, to the upkeep of this blog, we would be very grateful if you made a donation via the PayPal "DONATE" button that now appears at the top of the index at right. Thank you.]
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“FIRST DAY OF THE SOMME” by Andrew Macdonald (Harper-Collins, $NZ39:99) ; “DARK JOURNEY” by Glyn Harper [paperback reprint of book first published in hardback in 2007] (Penguin-Random House, $NZ39:99)
It’s the week with Anzac Day in it and we are once again reminded of the First World War, with plenty of cues from the media about the Gallipoli campaign and all its overstated nationalist trimmings. I’m pleased, therefore, to look at a book which has nothing to do with Gallipoli, even if it was written by a New Zealander.
Andrew Macdonald is a youngish military historian, now residing in London, who specialises in the Western Front in the First World War. First Day of the Somme is his third book in this field. It is a comprehensive account of a single day, probably the most notorious and certainly the most lethal day in the history of the British Army. This was 1 July 1916, the first day of the Somme offensive, in which the British suffered 57,540 casualties, comprising 19,240 dead, 35,493 wounded and 2737 “others” (missing or p.o.ws.). The German total casualties in the same day’s fighting were about 12, 000 including approximately 3,000 dead. Notoriously, on this day the whole Newfoundland Army Corps ceased to exist.
This single day has been covered before by many other writers, but usually only from the British point of view. In his introduction, Andrew Macdonald remarks that this was the case with the last major scholarly book on the subject, Martin Middlebrook’s “soldier-centric” The First Day on the Somme, published in 1971. Macdonald’s aim is to restore balance by giving as much of the German perspective as the archives permit, as well as the British one. And this he proceeds to do, with methodical accounts of preparations on both sides of the lines, and the sufferings of ordinary soldiers.
He begins (Chapter 1) with British high command and its ambitions. General Sir Douglas Haig believed that he could mount a major attack, which would punch through German lines and resume a war of movement as opposed to the trench warfare in which the conflict had become bogged down. In some respects the French supremo General Joseph Joffre supported this strategy, but was modifying his opinions somewhat as the prolonged meat-grinder that was the Battle of Verdun was going on. The subordinate generals of Haig and Joffre - Generals Rawlinson, Allenby, Foch and Petain - were very sceptical of this grand strategy and were more in favour of the “bite-and-hold” technique, knowing that a war of attrition would follow but that it was unavoidable. Before Britain’s Somme offensive began, the French general Fayolle wrote presciently:
We have understood that we cannot run around like madmen in the successive enemy positions. Doctrine is taking shape. If there are so many defensive positions, there will need to be as many battles, succeeding each other as rapidly as possible. Each one needs to be organised anew, with a new artillery preparation. If one goes too quickly, one risks a check. If one goes too slowly, the enemy has time to construct successive defensive lines. That is the problem and it is extremely difficult.” (quoted p.18).
Macdonald argues that were many changes of commitment to the offensive by the French (who were preoccupied with Verdun) and the British. “In short, the British army’s final attack orders were the laboured sum of the shifting sands of coalition warfare.” (p.38) His introduction to high command all suggests a mighty mess in the making.
Whereupon (Chapter 2) Macdonald takes us to the lower ranks and gives a more worms’-eye-view of the prelude to battle. Of Haig’s 19 divisions, a high number were new to Picardy and under-trained. Conditions in trench life were already dreadful but by all objective measures, the morale of the troops had been rising in the months before the offensive. Tommies had picked up the idea that there really would be a major breakthrough that would hasten the war’s end. There was less insubordination and there were far fewer field courts-martial. Logically Macdonald then (Chapter 3) gives us the view from the German side of the lines, both officers and other ranks. The preparations for the British offensive were open and observable enough for the Germans to understand that a major attack was in the offing, especially when their binoculars saw thousands of lorries bringing up materiel to the British front lines and when they observed large changes of personnel in certain sectors. The German Commander-in-Chief Falkenhayn had the worry of having to send off a considerable part of his forces to the Eastern Front to counter a major Russian offensive. Germans in the trenches were regularly harassed by Allied air power which was numerically much superior to German air power. Even so, Germans had learnt in 1915 to dig much deeper defensive positions than either the French or the British, as often as possible capable of withstanding prolonged artillery bombardment.
So we come (Chapter 4) to the British bombardment of 26-30 June. This was intended to shatter German morale, kill most German front-line troops and cut the heavy barbed wire entanglements that stood before the German trenches, making it easier for British infantry to pass through. The bombardment was meant to last three days only, but went on for five full days as weather was bad and on some days, poor visibility meant difficulties with ranging. Even so, hundreds of thousands of shells rained down on German positions. Macdonald notes that there were pockets of scepticism about the effectiveness of this. Some shrewd Tommies realized that the whole bombardment would put the Germans in a state of high preparedness for the coming attack. British patrols observed that in most places, German wire was not cut at all, and British infantry trying to pass through would be easy targets for German machine-guns and riflemen. Also, piles of rubble in the nine villages that were completely destroyed in the British bombardment still made excellent defensive positions for German infantry. Says Macdonald: “German soldiers were, overall, well prepared to meet the British attack when it eventually came, and many were motivated by a desire to exact bloody payback for their ordeal by shellfire.” (p.122) Furthermore: “Senior British intelligence officers… ignored the abundance of available warning signs that the shellfire-torn German positions remained not only defensible, but also defended.” (p.129). Germans had had to remain in their deep dug-outs when the shells were falling, but only a very small proportion were in fact killed or wounded by the preliminary bombardment.
And so, from Chapters 5 to 10, there follows the detailed, scrupulously-documented, agonising tale of the day’s disaster in each sector.
It begins (Chapter 5) with VIII Corps’ failure at Serre and Beaumont Hamel. A huge British mine detonation was set off ten minutes before it should have been, giving Germans a clear warning that the attack was immanent. “German infantrymen raced up from dugouts and into the shellfire-torn trenches, propping rifles and machine-guns on broken parapets and shell-crater rims; they were ready and waiting 5-10 minutes before the British attack even began.” (p.147)

Macdonald is merciless in documenting the incompetence, or unfounded optimism, of many British field commanders. Chapter 6, chronicling X Corps’ bloody failure at Thiepval, is very personal in condemning Lieutenant-General Sir Thomas Morland. A large British force – many of them Ulstermen – did manage to push through German forward trenches after the bombardment ceased, and pressed hundreds of yards into German-held territory, making what amounted to a mini-salient. But Morland kept insisting on more full-frontal attacks on German forward trenches, rather than taking the many opportunities he was given to out-flank German strongholds. Result? By the end of the first day X Corps, for all its valour, was rolled up by vigorous and well-organised German counter-attacks, no ground was gained, and the pile of British corpses was as big as it was anywhere else on the battlefield. Says Macdonald “Tenth Corps’ failure was the result of Morland’s bungled corps command. This included his artillery’s failure to neutralise German defensive obstacles and mechanisms, his deployment of the 49th too far back, and his myopic planning. All these factors were decided before a single X Corps soldier stepped into no-man’s-land on 1 July. Morland had handed the pre-battle tactical advantage to [his German opposite number] Soden.” (p.206)
A similar scenario played out (Chapter 7) where III Corps had their lives squandered in an attempt to charge into Ovillers and La Boisselle under the incompetent field commander Lieutenant-General Sir William Pulteney. Macdonald depicts him as promoted beyond his level of competence and totally unprepared for the conditions of battle that the men under his command would have to face. Some tactical British successes are recorded in Chapter 8, but they are not properly exploited for the intended capture of much more German-held territory. In this case, Macdonald is fairly merciless about both the competence and the moral character of the field commander:
The job of busting this defensive network fell to 55-year-old details man Lieutenant-General Sir Henry Horne. Before the war, Horne had served in India and South Africa, where he burned Afrikaner farms in a failed attempt to quell resistance. His previously non-descript career bloomed in 1914-16. Being a Haig protégé helped, as did the fact that both men were deeply religious. Horne sometimes went to church twice on a Sunday. But his rise to corps command in 1916 had more to do with Haig’s and Fourth Army commander General Sir Henry Rawlinson’s appreciation of his scientific, open-minded approach to warfare and a ‘meticulous and indefatigable personal attention to details of organisation and execution.’  Colleagues thought Horne courteous, charming, modest, honest and unpretentious, but Afrikaner families probably still saw him as a war criminal. While artilleryman Horne was said to be sociable and even humorous among friends, outsiders thought him sparing of words. He possessed a ‘wise, kindly look, with a suspicion of a smile coming through his seriousness.’ He liked horse-riding, hunting and fishing, found coarse language distasteful and later hypocritically raged against German scorched-earth tactics.” (p.250)
The climax of stupidity is the account (Chapter 10) of VII Corps’ assault on Gommecourt, this time under the command of Lieutenant-General Sir Thomas D’Oyly Snow who “habitually talked a better game than he delivered” (p.325). The assault was intended as a diversionary attack, which Snow mistook for a mere “feint” – and after all his men had been duly slaughtered in a pointless assault on a strong position, Snow comforted himself with the thought that at least they had tied down some of the enemy troops for a while. Macdonald’s comment on this particular sector could describe most of the others:
The 46th’s failure was the result of mostly intact German wire, numerous defenders who sat out the preparatory bombardment in shell-proof dugouts, and large numbers of operational enemy artillery batteries that intervened when the attack began and ultimately decided the outcome of the battle.” (p.353)
In his summing up (Chapter 11), Macdonald is at pains to explain that the outcome of the first day of the Somme was not just the result of poor British planning, incompetent British field commanders and the over-confidence of British high command. It should also be credited to the greater skill of German troops in trench warfare and the greater professionalism, and ability to adapt to changing conditions, of German field commanders. Macdonald concurs with the judgment (pp.380-381) of the French supremo General Joffre that British artillery and infantry were at this point simply less skilled than either German or French artillery and infantry. On the first day of the Somme, the French contribution was the only part of the allied offensive that succeeded and met all its objectives.
            Instead of the knockout blow and the breakthrough to open country that Haig had expected, the first day of the 4-month battle of the Somme led merely to a long campaign of attrition. The Western Front war became, as it remained until 1918, slow-motion, grinding-down slaughter. There were no marvellous breakthroughs.
There are some miscellaneous things that I should note about Macdonald’s book. More than once, in post-conflict analysis, he uses the term “butcher’s bill” for the statistics of dead and wounded. This might sound cynical and callous, but regrettably it is justified by his unflattering accounts of field commanders and their attitudes. Just occasionally I wish there was a glossary of specialist military terms (okay, I know it’s some sort of entrenchment, but what exactly is a “Russian Sap”?). I admire Macdonald’s habit, in each chapter on operations, of first giving us the view of the top brass, then cutting to the experiences of the ordinary soldiers in the front line – and then switching to the German perspective, which is the key novelty of this book. And as a sideline, it is interesting to find vignettes of people who much later became well-known – Cecil Lewis (later the author of the flying classic Sagittarius Rising) flies overhead with the RFC. The soldier-poet Siegfried Sassoon, to one side of this battle, gets a long shot of the action. Later famous as a theorist on military strategy, Captain Basil Liddell Hart [his middle name for some reason misspelt “Liddle” in this book] gives his soldier’s-eye view of action at close quarters (pp.257-258 and p.275). Sergeant Richard Tawney (later the illustrious economic historian R.H.Tawney) is knocked over by rifle fire and spends 30 hours lying wounded in no-man’s-land before he is rescued (p.264).
Of course the story this book tells is large-scale tragedy. Of course words like “futility” come to mind. Of course the horrors pile up, as does the sense of the pointlessness of it all. There are tears, curses, remorse, the honeyed self-justifications of officers, and slaughter, slaughter, slaughter reported in all its grisly detail. For some readers, Macdonald’s approach may seem a little clinical as he works methodically through the different sectors of this one day. But this is how military history should be written – giving us both the big picture and the individual experience. First Day of the Somme is a wrenching experience but also a documented one. True history in other words, and a great book.

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The only reason that I do not spend as much time on Glyn Harper’s excellent Dark Journey is because it is the paperback reprint of a book first published in 2007. Dark Journey includes the text of two of Harper’s earlier military histories, Massacre at Passchendaele: The New Zealand Story and Spring Offensive: New Zealand and the Second Battle of the Somme. These make up the first two parts of Dark Journey, to which has been added the third part “Bloody Bapaume”. The original edition bore on its cover the subtitle “Three key New Zealand battles of the Western Front”. The new paperback reprint alters this to “Passchendaele, the Somme and the New Zealand experience of the Western Front”.
Like his fellow military historian Chris Pugsley, Harper is performing the valuable service of reminding New Zealanders that the greatest number of casualties this nation sustained in the First World

War were not in the Gallipoli campaign, about which we talk so much, but on the Western Front. The October 1917 attack at Passchendaele was the most lethal phase for New Zealanders (yes, I have a great-uncle buried somewhere there – but then thousands of New Zealanders of my generation could say the same thing.) But countering the German Spring Offensive of March and April 1918 was no picnic either; nor was the New Zealanders’ action in Bapaume in the last stages of the war (August-September 1918). At least one can say, however, that these two latter actions contributed to final victory. As Harper notes, they were hard fought, but casualties were fairly even on both sides and the German army was dislodged and pushed back. There is tragedy, but there is not that awful sense of futility one gets from reading about Passchendaele (or the first day of the Somme).
Dark Journey is well-illustrated, lucid in its prose, and very clear about unearthing memories of individual soldiers and their battlefield experiences. It is good and accessible military history.

Foolish Footnote: I cannot hear the name Bapaume without at once remembering Siegfried Sassoon’s bitter poem “Blighters” about idiotic civilians who turned the war into a cheap joke even as it was being fought. The poem was written in 1917, a year before New Zealanders were involved in action near Bapaume, and of course has no place in Glyn Harper’s history of the New Zealanders’ action. But here it is anyway:

The House is crammed: tier beyond tier they grin 
And cackle at the Show, while prancing ranks 
Of harlots shrill the chorus, drunk with din; 
“We’re sure the Kaiser loves the dear old Tanks!”

I’d like to see a Tank come down the stalls, 
Lurching to rag-time tunes, or “Home, sweet Home,” 
And there'd be no more jokes in Music-halls 
To mock the riddled corpses round Bapaume.