The First World War: Battle of the books

The centenary of the outbreak of hostilities has mobilised both historians and publishers.

The Underworld: Taking cover in a Tube Station during a London air raid (1918) by Walter Bayes

Some Desperate Glory
Max Egremont

Egremont has done the seemingly impossible; not only has he found a new way of looking at Brooke, Owen, Sassoon et al but he has brought them to life. His book deals with 11 poets in the years they fought. Brooke was dead by 1915, while Edward Thomas didn’t start (and end) his war until 1917. These writers were not the homogeneous group they seem in retrospect but experienced and wrote about the war in all its different phases. This is Egremont’s simple but telling aperçu and he illustrates it with an evocative selection of their verse.
Picador, 304pp, £20

Englanders and Huns
James Hawes

The enmity between Britain and Germany that burst out so bloodily in 1914 had a 50-year backstory, argues James Hawes. His book chronicles the shifting attitudes of each country towards the other as Germany rose from a minor, almost comical central European power to become a threat to Britain that needed to be countered in the colonies and through an arms race. As Hawes shows to lively effect, the bickering was enthusiastically played out and intensified in the popular press of both nations.
Simon & Schuster, 448pp, £20

No Man’s Land: Writings from a World at War
Edited by Pete Ayrton

This handsome anthology of prose fiction emphasises the global nature of the war, with new translations of Croatian, Catalan, Italian, French and Hungarian texts, together with excerpts from classics such as Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front and Siegfried Sassoon’s Memoirs of an Infantry Officer. We hear from ambulance drivers, Indian soldiers, children playing “Armenians and Turks” and Czech soldiers lambasting the Austrian emperor (“A chap at the pub told us . . . he is breastfed three times a day”). The first passage, taken from Henri Barbusse’s Le Feu, exemplifies the hard-won irony that runs through the collection. Patients at a sanatorium receive the news that war has been declared. “Perhaps it is the war to end all wars,” says one. “An end to war! Can that be?” replies another. “The world’s affliction is incurable.”
Serpent’s Tail, 572pp, £25

1914: the Year the World Ended
Paul Ham

This broad-sweeping narrative history is intended to refute Christopher Clark’s watershed study of the year 1914, The Sleepwalkers. There was, the Australian historian Paul Ham writes, nothing sleepy about the outbreak of catastrophic hostilities: “A few powerful, old aristocratic men brought war on the world behind closed doors.” He sets out to prove that Europe’s leaders knew what they were doing and to explain why they went ahead anyway. Ham treats with scorn these men’s later claims that they were powerless to stop events that had taken on a tragic momentum of their own.
Doubleday, 736pp, £25

The Fateful Year: England 1914
Mark Bostridge

In his New Year message, the archbishop of York warned that 1914 might well prove a “very fateful year”. The government was bracing itself for civil war in Ireland, yet more strike action in England and an increasingly militant campaign for women’s suffrage. Meanwhile, trendy youths were learning the tango, a dance the Vatican feared as an “assassination of family and social life”. Mark Bostridge’s lively, sometimes surprising, social history of 1914 is told through a series of short stories, from the grisly murder of a schoolboy in north London and Prime Minister Asquith’s romantic woes to the first staging of Pygmalion and the contagion of spy fever that spread through the country.
Viking, 432pp, £25

The Great War and Modern Memory
Paul Fussell

A canonical piece of war criticism, the cultural historian Paul Fussell’s book – originally published in 1975 – seeks to identify the swerve in literary sensibilities that emerged from the shock of the First World War. Fussell argues for the emergence of “modern memory” in 1914 – a commonly felt assault on the European psyche, detectable in the poetry and memoirs of Blunden, Graves, Owen and Sassoon. Though struck through with generalisations and even inaccuracies his analysis of the themes and motifs of the era as they appeared between 1914 and 1918 (and shortly afterwards) remains highly influential.
Folio Society, 464pp, £44.95

World War I Love Stories
Gill Paul

This collection of sketches of 14 real-life romances demonstrates how the war enabled some love affairs yet destroyed others. In a nod to the inspiration for A Farewell to Arms, the book charts how Ernest Hemingway fell for the nurse tending his war wounds at a Milan hospital in 1918. The most affecting tale is that of an English captain on the run in occupied France who falls for a local beauty. The couple’s doomed affair ends, however, when the French belle’s neighbours betray him to the Germans. Ephemera including photos, letters, journal entries and maps vivify the stories.
Ivy Press, 192pp, £14.99

The Oxford Illustrated History of the First Word War
Edited by Hew Strachan

Professor Strachan’s primer includes chapters from 25 of the most distinguished historians of the conflict. Tackling subjects such as the origins of the war and manoeuvre warfare, it also discusses economic mobilisation, the role of propaganda and the rise of socialism. This new edition contains significant new material on the Central Powers’ strategy, the role of women in the war, mutinies and military morale. It is an essential introduction for all students of the First World War; the many photos included will also make it appeal to a general audience.
Oxford University Press, 400pp, £25

Outside Verdun
Arnold Zweig

This new translation by Fiona Rintoul of a German novel first published in 1935 presents the events at Verdun (in which Germany attempted to “bleed France white” by attacking its strongest point, resulting in more than 600,000 casualties) with grim clarity. Based on Zweig’s experiences as a Jewish private, it invests the German forces with the ills at large in society: class prejudice, anti-Semitism, incompetence. It is a thoughtful, sturdy novel and a response to the nationalistic fiction that sprang up after the war: it was subsequently burned by the Nazis. Zweig later fled to Palestine, returning in 1948 to become an MP.
Freight Books, 432pp, £12.99

Zeppelin Nights: London in the First World War
Jerry White

The war, writes Jerry White, a historian of London, changed the capital profoundly. It became a mechanised hub: a hospital for wounded soldiers and an entrepôt for fresh ones, a munitions factory and a target for German Zeppelin raids. The effects were by no means all negative. The war also brought London full employment and improved public health and transformed the prospects for women. This is a rich social history and White is as adept with individual characters as he is with the statistics of munitions production or the rise in prostitutes walking the city’s streets.
Bodley Head, 368pp, £25

Secret Warriors
Taylor Downing

The war was not fought in the trenches alone. Scientists, Taylor Downing contends, played a crucial, if underacknowledged, role in Britain’s victory and their efforts enhanced our understanding of medicine, psychology, intelligence-gathering and aviation. Downing’s fascinating study of these pioneering men – and a few women – is as much about class as about science. Today, in an era of mass surveillance, it is amusing to think that army officers and government officials were reluctant to use aerial photography or cryptography to spy on the enemy as it seemed “ungentlemanly”.
Little, Brown, 448pp, £20

This article first appeared in the 25 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Who was Franz Ferdinand?

Nicola Snothum / Millenium Images
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The end of solitude: in a hyperconnected world, are we losing the art of being alone?

In the end, Solitude feels a bit like an amiable cop-out. 

Michael Harris is a Canadian writer who lives in a big city and whose life is defined and circumscribed, as so many Western lives are now, by digital technologies. He finds it hard to leave his phone at home in case he misses anything. He worries about his social media reputation. He uses apps and plays games, and relies on the internet hive mind to tell him which films to watch or where to eat. Here is what happens when he goes on holiday to Paris:

Disembarking from the train from London, I invited a friendly app to guide me to a hotel near the Pompidou . . . The next morning, Yelp guided me towards a charming café in the Marais. There, wizard-like, I held my phone over the menu and waited for Google Translate to melt the words into English. When the waiter arrived, I spoke into my phone and had it repeat my words to the grinning garçon in a soft, robotic French. Later, at the Louvre, I allowed a Nintendo-sponsored guidance system to track my steps up the centuries-old Daru staircase as I squinted confusedly at its glowing blue you-are-here dot . . .

Terrifying, isn’t it? Well, I thought so as I read it, and Harris thought so afterwards. It was situations like this, during which he realised that his life was controlled, confined and monitored by distancing technologies, that led him to wonder whether solitude – the act and the art of being alone – was in danger of disappearing.

Harris has an intuition that being alone with ourselves, paying attention to inner silence and being able to experience outer silence, is an essential part of being human. He can remember how it felt to do this, before the internet brought its social anxiety and addiction into his life. “I began to remember,” he writes, “a calm separateness, a sureness I once could live inside for an easy hour at a time.”

What happens when that calm separateness is destroyed by the internet of everything, by big-city living, by the relentless compulsion to be with others, in touch, all the time? Plenty of people know the answer already, or would do if they were paying attention to the question. Nearly half of all Americans, Harris tells us, now sleep with their smartphones on their bedside table, and 80 per cent are on their phone within 15 minutes of waking up. Three-quarters of adults use social networking sites regularly. But this is peanuts compared to the galloping development of the so-called Internet of Things. Within the next few years, anything from 30 to 50 billion objects, from cars to shirts to bottles of shampoo, will be connected to the net. The internet will be all around you, whether you want it or not, and you will be caught in its mesh like a fly. It’s not called the web for nothing.

I may not be the ideal reader for this book. By page 20, after a few more facts of this sort, I had already found myself scrawling “Kill everyone!” in the margins. This is not really the author’s fault. I often start behaving like this whenever I’m forced to read a list of ways in which digital technology is wrecking human existence. There are lots of lists like this around at the moment, because the galloping, thoughtless, ongoing rush to connect everything to the web has overcome our society like a disease. Did you know that cows are now connected to the internet? On page 20, Harris tells us that some Swiss dairy cows, sim cards implanted in their necks, send text messages to their farmers when they are on heat and ready to be inseminated. If this doesn’t bring out your inner Unabomber, you’re probably beyond help. Or maybe I am.

What is the problem here? Why does this bother me, and why does it bother Harris? The answer is that all of these things intrude upon, and threaten to destroy, something ancient and hard to define, which is also the source of much of our creativity and the essence of our humanity. “Solitude,” Harris writes, “is a resource.” He likens it to an ecological niche, within which grow new ideas, an understanding of the self and therefore an understanding of others.

The book is full of examples of the genius that springs from silent and solitary moments. Beethoven, Dostoevsky, Kafka, Einstein, Newton – all developed their ideas and approach by withdrawing from the crowd. Peter Higgs, the Nobel ­Prizewinner who discovered the Higgs boson particle, did his best work in peace and solitude in the 1960s. He suggests that what he did then would be impossible today, because it is now virtually impossible to find such solitude in the field of science.

Collaboration, not individuality, is fetishised today, in business as in science and the arts, but Harris warns that collaboration often results in conformism. In the company of others, most of us succumb to pressure to go with the crowd. Alone, we have more chance to be thoughtful, to see differently, to enter a place where we feel free from the mob to moderate our unique experience of the world. Without solitude, he writes, genius – which ultimately springs from different ways of thinking and seeing – becomes impossible. If Thoreau’s cabin in the woods had had wifi, we would never have got Walden.

Yet it is not only geniuses who have a problem: ordinary minds like yours and mine are threatened by the hypersocial nature of always-on urbanity. A ­civilisation can be judged by the quality of its daydreams, Harris suggests. Who daydreams now? Instead of staring out of the window on a train, heads are buried in smartphones, or wired to the audio of a streaming film. Instead of idling at the bus stop, people are loading up entertainment: mobile games from King, the maker of Candy Crush, were played by 1.6 billion times every day in the first quarter of 2015 alone.

If you’ve ever wondered at the behaviour of those lines of people at the train station or in the street or in the café, heads buried in their phones like zombies, unable or unwilling to look up, Harris confirms your worst fears. The developers of apps and games and social media sites are dedicated to trapping us in what are called ludic loops. These are short cycles of repeated actions which feed our brain’s desire for reward. Every point you score, every candy you crush, every retweet you get gives your brain a dopamine hit that keeps you coming back for more. You’re not having a bit of harmless fun: you are an addict. A tech corporation has taken your solitude and monetised it. It’s not the game that is being played – it’s you.

So, what is to be done about all this? That’s the multibillion-dollar question, but it is one the book cannot answer. Harris spends many pages putting together a case for the importance of solitude and examining the forces that splinter it today. Yet he also seems torn in determining how much of it he wants and can cope with. He can see the damage being done by the always-on world but he lives in the heart of it, all his friends are part of it, and he doesn’t want to stray too far away. He understands the value of being alone but doesn’t like it much, or want to experience it too often. He’ll stop checking his Twitter analytics but he won’t close down his account.

At the end of the book, Harris retreats, Thoreau-like, to a cabin in the woods for a week. As I read this brief last chapter, I found myself wishing it was the first, that he had spent more time in the cabin, that he had been starker and more exploratory, that he had gone further. Who will write a Walden for the Internet Age? This book is thick with fact and argument and some fine writing, but there is a depth that the author seems afraid to plumb. Perhaps he is afraid of what he might find down there.

In the end, Solitude feels a bit like an amiable cop-out. After 200 pages of increasingly disturbing facts about the impact of technology and crowded city living on everything from our reading habits to our ability to form friendships, and after warning us on the very last page that we risk making “an Easter Island of the mind”, the author goes back home to Vancouver, tells his boyfriend that he missed him, and then . . . well, then what? We don’t know. The book just ends. We are left with the impression that the pile-up of evidence leads to a conclusion too vast for the author, and perhaps his readers, to take in, because to do that would be to challenge everything.

In this, Solitude mirrors the structure of many other books of its type: the Non-Fiction Warning Book (NFWB), we might call it. It takes a subject – disappearing childhood; disappearing solitude; disappearing wilderness; disappearing anything, there’s so much to choose from – trots us through several hundred pages of anecdotes, science,
interviews and stories, all of which build up to the inescapable conclusion that everything is screwed . . . and then pulls back. It’s like being teased by an expert hustler. Yes, technology is undermining our sense of self and creating havoc for our relationships with others, but the solution is not to stop using it, just to moderate it. Yes, overcrowded cities are destroying our minds and Planet Earth, but the solution is not to get out of the cities: it’s to moderate them in some way, somehow.

Moderation is always the demand of the NFWB, aimed as it is at mainstream readers who would like things to get better but who don’t really want to change much – or don’t know how to. This is not to condemn Harris, or his argument: most of us don’t want to change much or know how to. What books of this kind are dealing with is the problem of modernity, which is intractable and not open to moderation. Have a week away from your screen if you like, but the theft of human freedom by the machine will continue without you. The poet Robinson Jeffers once wrote about sitting on a mountain and looking down on the lights of a city, and being put in mind of a purse seine net, in which sardines swim unwittingly into a giant bag, which is then drawn tightly around them. “I thought, We have geared the machines and locked all together into interdependence; we have built the great cities; now/There is no escape,” he wrote. “The circle is closed, and the net/Is being hauled in.”

Under the circumstances – and these are our circumstances – the only honest conclusion to draw is that the problem, which is caused primarily by the technological direction of our society, is going to get worse. There is no credible scenario in which we can continue in the same direction and not see the problem of solitude, or lack of it, continue to deepen.

Knowing this, how can Harris just go home after a week away, drop off his bag and settle back into his hyperconnected city life? Does he not have a duty to rebel, and to tell us to rebel? Perhaps. The problem for this author is our shared problem, however, at a time in history when the dystopian predictions of Brave New World are already looking antiquated. Even if Harris wanted to rebel, he wouldn’t know how, because none of us would. Short of a collapse so severe that the electricity goes off permanently, there is no escape from what the tech corporations and their tame hive mind have planned for us. The circle is closed, and the net is being hauled in. May as well play another round of Candy Crush while we wait to be dragged up on to the deck. 

Paul Kingsnorth's latest book, “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist” (Faber & Faber)

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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