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Wilfred Owen: The Peter Pan of the trenches

The anti-heroic reading of the First World War did not begin with Blackadder - Wilfred Owen has far more to answer for than Richard Curtis, says the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams.

Young soldiers from the Royal Lancers in Tonbridge
during the First World War, 1915.
Photo: Popperfoto

Wilfred Owen 
Guy Cuthbertson
Yale University Press, 346pp, £25

Listening to the rhetoric of the Secretary of State for Education and his allies, you could be forgiven for thinking that the anti-heroic reading of the First World War began with Joan Littlewood, or even Richard Curtis. The truth is that the culprits are far more deeply entrenched in the cultural and educational world: the rot set in with the eyewitnesses whose records of the war made such an anti-heroic version almost canonical within a few years – the journalists and memoirists and, above all, the poets. Wilfred Owen has far more to answer for than Rowan Atkinson.

The prevailing reading of the 1914-18 conflict among most thoughtful people – across the class divides – was that it was a nightmare of ineptitude, squalor and waste. Geoffrey Studdert-Kennedy (“Woodbine Willie”), the army chaplain whose brave, sometimes nakedly sentimental poems shaped the response of huge numbers during and after the war, famously described the conflict as a “Waste of Muscle, Waste of Brain, Waste of Patience, Waste of Pain … Waste of Glory, Waste of God.” In another of his poems he describes his feeling after a week of conducting funerals: “God! What sorrow and what rain!” The stubborn affirmation of the dignity and, yes, heroism of individual soldiers is not allowed to obscure the absurdity and offence of the whole enterprise.

But it’s hardly as though these were the first poets to observe the horrors of war. There is Shakespeare’s startling prose meditation – tellingly, in the voice of a private soldier – in Henry V (“the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make when all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in a battle, shall join together at the latter day and cry all, We died at such a place”). Looking back from this, there is Homer; forward, Tolstoy. Why should anyone going into the trenches have had any illusions about war? Was it really such a shock?

Part of the answer is perhaps that the First World War was the first major conflict in which mechanised weaponry made mass killing possible on a scale that must have rendered any individual acts of heroism virtually meaningless. The sheer industrial magnitude of the operation meant that giving significance to the routine atrocity and suffering all around was unprecedentedly hard. The shock was not the physical danger or degradation itself, but the mixture of a protracted stalemate and an uninterrupted production line of technologically crafted killing.

Hence, as Guy Cuthbertson rightly notes in this very readable and focused biography, Wilfred Owen’s deepest protest is captured in one of the best-known poems, his sonnet “Anthem for Doomed Youth”, which starts “What passing-bells for those who die as cattle?” It is not, says Cuthbertson, a protest against war as such but against a war that seems to silence proper mourning and to blur the distinctive human actions and human faces of the victims. It is a very uneven poem: the octave is full of sharp consonantal blows and images of violent chaos, and the sestet softens into a liquid gentleness – skilfully done, but at the cost of a slightly cloying romanticism (“The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall,/Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds”). Yet the stark opening is justly thought of as one of the iconic statements of the war.

Owen vacillates about the justifiability of armed conflict, although he becomes more convinced a pacifist as time goes on; but here he is not making a point about war so much as underscoring something about the new levels of depersonalisation in modern conflict. It is indeed a religiously haunted poem – though Cuthbertson wrongly thinks that passing-bells are a Roman Catholic convention rather than something any country parish in England would be familiar with – in its search for an appropriate ritual in which to reclaim lost dignities.

This wobbling of tone between starkness and sentimentality is one of the more challenging things about Owen’s poetry. Cuthbertson quotes a fair amount of the pre-war material, much of which is frankly dismal: quite a lot of sub-Tennysonian maundering, medieval stage-setting and just a hint of flirtation with 1890s sensualism, though very much at second hand. Poetry – or rather “Poesy” – is presented as a kind of antidote to the risks of physical passion (“God’s soothest answer to all passion’s plea”), a way of conserving imaginative energy through continence.

Passages such as this raise the difficult question of Owen’s emotional and sexual life – a very complex matter that Cuthbertson deals with intelligently and unsensationally. On balance, he is inclined to think that Owen consummated no relationships, with men or women; he remained profoundly attached to a mother whom he addresses in quasi-religious terms, and his deepest attachments seem to have been with young teenagers of both sexes – uncomfortable for a modern reader, though not by any means unusual in the period.

His poems for Arthur Newbolt, a boy he befriended during his stay at the Craiglockhart hospital, are not simple rhapsodies to youthful male beauty: Arthur is (in a striking turn of thought) “not yet young”, and “youth” is what will bring the shutting down of innocence, the arrival of irony (“wry meanings in our words”). Once again, there is a real unease about sexual self-awareness: poetry is there to conserve a pre-pubertal clarity and intensity of vision.

Cuthbertson offers little encouragement to those who want Owen’s identity to be straightforwardly gay but he acknowledges that there is a good deal of vague homo­erotic subtext in much of his mature verse – and that Owen was taken up by the discreet, fastidious and rather solemn group around Oscar Wilde’s loyal friend, Robbie Ross. He quotes some hair-raisingly silly and offensive observations by Robert Graves to the effect that Owen and Siegfried Sassoon were shocked by the deaths of soldiers because they were homosexual (that is, they felt the same shock and intensity about male victims of violence that others would feel about “fields of corpses of women”; this gets worse the longer you think about it), and that Owen’s “passive homosexual streak” made him a “weakling”.

This tells us a great deal more about Graves than about Owen or Sassoon but at least it reminds us, Cuthbertson notes, of the risks of tidy binary categories in the reading of the literature of this period (Graves himself recognised the imaginative and emotional confusions connected with the conventions of middle- and upper-class education and with the exclusively male environment of the army, and seems to have been troubled by ambivalent memories of his own schooldays, “honourable and chaste” as they were).

In his introduction Cuthbertson quotes Owen’s characterisation of the poet as essentially “childish” – “a Child of Nine” – and the theme recurs, making the war poetry still more poignant: Peter Pan in the trenches, a boy (though Owen was in his mid-twenties when he died) determined not to grow up, yet confronted with unmanageable adult trauma and not turning away from it. No wonder that another of his iconic poems, “The Parable of the Old Men and the Young”, depicts an Abraham who has no compunction in slaughtering his child, despite God’s vain efforts to persuade him otherwise. Cuthbertson rather oddly thinks that this has more to do with Owen’s conflicted feelings about his father than with the war, and gives the poem less weight than it deserves; but it is difficult not to see in this a protest about everything – the war above all (why else the reference to “parapets and trenches”?) – that spells the doom of childhood perception.

One of the things that makes Owen still compelling is surely this style of celebrating the child’s eye – not in Trahernian or Wordsworthian directness but obliquely, by the furious lament for its violent destruction. It may seem strange to think of the hardened troops in the trenches as childlike, yet we need to remember not only Owen’s air of “innocence” (the descriptions of his social skills in mixed company make him sound like a schoolboy) but the bare fact that so many of the casualties of the 1914-18 war were virtually children. Only now, after all, are we slowly waking up to the truth that sending adolescents into battle has a few moral questions around it.

Cuthbertson’s judgements can be a bit uneven and some of his occasional identifications of literary or other echoes do not quite persuade. I cannot see that the wry “I am the enemy you killed, my friend” in “Strange Meeting” has anything to do with Wilde’s “Each man kills the thing he loves”, for instance. For Owen, what is happening is the ironic discovery only on the far side of death of a solidarity that has been there all along; not Wilde’s insight at all. His touch is also rather unsure on the obscure question of Owen’s religious sensibility: he tends in some passages to assimilate a rather autopilot medievalism to specifically Catholic promptings or interests (as with the passing-bells, and as with “The city lights across the waterside”, which is mostly standard and rather lifeless antiquarian stage-setting).

Owen had some passing interest in Catholic culture, not surprisingly, given his long sojourn in France, but his religious feeling was always difficult and independent. His evocation of the impact of war-shattered roadside crucifixes and ruined churches is powerful. But the most interesting thing Owen does with this is to suggest that the violence of the war has somehow stripped away the comfortable veneer of familiarity from the worn images of unspeakable suffering that litter churches. As for Studdert-Kennedy in his more unsophisticated verse, there is something about the trenches that makes for both the most extreme and angry protest about religious confidence (“Near Calvary strolls many a priest”) and the most intense sense of a real but helpless divinity (like the God who fails to stop Abraham’s sacrifice).

There seems to have been a conscious decision not to spend too much time comparing Owen with other war poets. Graves features a little, Sassoon a bit more, but Ivor Gurney rates only a couple of mentions, and David Jones – admittedly a rather special case – does not appear at all. It is an intelligible choice; but there might have been some allusion to the way in which the Jones of “In Parenthesis” tries, with brilliant effect, to “rescue” the archaic language of a heroic age for the unheroic casualties of the trenches and to clothe them with a mythology, religious and secular, appropriate to their human richness. And – though this may not be wholly fair – it is a bit surprising to find no use made of Pat Barker’s wonderful recreation of Craiglockhart and its inmates, especially her absorbing account of the process of Owen revising “Anthem for Doomed Youth” under Sassoon’s guidance.

This book does not aim to replace Jon Stallworthy’s definitive biography, or to be a comprehensive critical survey; but it is a vigorous, well-documented narrative, with fresh light to cast on some central themes. It is excellent on the Shropshire background, on Owen’s educational career, including his long-lived nostalgia for the Oxford he had never attended, and on the curious life he led as an émigré in France. It offers too some intelligent analysis of Owen’s growing technical accomplishment as a poet (it is tempting to connect his skilful use of chiming consonantal groups and vocalic half-rhymes with some Welsh genetic imprint from the classical form of cynghanedd). Quite properly, it does not try to explain the process by which a rather immature flâneur, writing mostly imitative and slack verse, comes to be not only such an emotionally raw and unsparing writer but one, increasingly, of hard-nosed technical proficiency.

Exactly what hurts anyone “into poetry” is not easily charted. But it would be sad if, in the confused noise currently surrounding the commemoration of the 1914-18 conflict, we domesticated the hurt or persuaded ourselves that “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” was any more innocent a slogan than Owen thought it was.

Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, has joined the New Statesman as a lead book reviewer. His new poetry collection, “The Other Mountain”, will be published by Carcanet in October

Image: young soldiers from the Royal Lancers in Tonbridge during the First World War, 1915. Credit: Popperfoto

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 19 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The Space Issue

MARTIN O’NEILL
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The new young fogeys

Today’s teens and twentysomethings seem reluctant to get drunk, smoke cigarettes or have sex. Is abstinence the new form of youth rebellion?

In a University College London lecture theatre, all eyes are on an elaborate Dutch apple cake. Those at the back have stood up to get a better look. This, a chorus of oohs and aahs informs me, is a baked good at its most thrilling.

In case you were wondering, UCL hasn’t rented out a room to the Women’s Institute. All thirty or so cake enthusiasts here are undergraduates, aged between 18 and 21. At the third meeting this academic year of UCL’s baking society, the focus has shifted to a Tupperware container full of peanut butter cookies. One by one, the students are delivering a brief spiel about what they have baked and why.

Sarah, a 19-year-old human sciences undergraduate, and Georgina, aged 20, who is studying maths and physics, help run the baking society. They tell me that the group, which was set up in 2012, is more popular than ever. At the most recent freshers’ fair, more than 750 students signed up. To put the number in perspective: that is roughly 15 per cent of the entire first-year population. The society’s events range from Great British Bake Off-inspired challenges to “bring your own cake” gatherings, such as today’s. A “cake crawl”, I am told, is in the pipeline. You know, like a pub crawl . . . but with cake? Georgina says that this is the first year the students’ union has advertised specifically non-drinking events.

From the cupcake boom to the chart-topping eminence of the bow-tie-wearing, banjo-plucking bores Mumford & Sons, the past decade of youth culture has been permeated by wholesomeness. According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), this movement is more than just aesthetic. Not only are teenage pregnancies at their lowest level since records began in the 1960s, but drug-taking, binge drinking and sexually transmitted infections among young people have also taken significant dives. Drug use among the under-25s has fallen by a quarter over the past ten years and heavy drinking – measured by how much a person drinks in an average week – is down by 15 per cent. Cigarettes are also losing their appeal, with under-25 smokers down by 10 per cent since 2001. Idealistic baby boomers had weed and acid. Disaffected and hedonistic Generation X-ers had Ecstasy and cocaine. Today’s youth (which straddles Generations Y and Z) have cake. So, what shaped this demographic that, fairly or otherwise, could be called “Generation Zzzz”?

“We’re a lot more cynical than other generations,” says Lucy, a 21-year-old pharmacy student who bakes a mean Welsh cake. “We were told that if we went to a good uni and got a good job, we’d be fine. But now we’re all so scared we’re going to be worse off than our parents that we’re thinking, ‘Is that how we should be spending our time?’”

“That” is binge drinking. Fittingly, Lucy’s dad – she tells me – was an anarchist with a Mohawk who, back home in the Welsh valleys, was known to the police. She talks with deserved pride about how he joined the Conservative Party just to make trouble and sip champagne courtesy of his enemies. Lucy, though decidedly Mohawk-free, is just as politically aware as her father. She is concerned that she will soon graduate into a “real world” that is particularly hard on women.

“Women used to be a lot more reliant on men,” she says, “but it’s all on our shoulders now. One wage isn’t enough to support a family any more. Even two wages struggle.”

***

It seems no coincidence that the downturn in drink and drugs has happened at the same time as the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. Could growing anxiety about the future, combined with a dip in disposable income, be taming the under-25s?

“I don’t know many people who choose drugs and alcohol over work,” says Tristan, a second-year natural scientist. He is one of about three men at the meeting and it is clear that even though baking has transcended age it has yet to transcend gender to the same extent. He is softly spoken and it is hard to hear him above a room full of sugar-addled youths. “I’ve been out once, maybe, in the past month,” he says.

“I actually thought binge drinking was quite a big deal for our generation,” says Tegan, a 19-year-old first-year linguistics undergraduate, “but personally I’m not into that. I’ve only been here three weeks and I can barely keep up with the workload.”

Tegan may consider her drinking habits unusual for someone her age but statistically they aren’t. Over a quarter of the under-25s are teetotal. Neither Tegan nor Lucy is dull. They are smart, witty and engaging. They are also enthusiastic and seemingly quite focused on work. It is this “get involved” attitude, perhaps, that distinguishes their generation from others.

In Absolutely Fabulous, one of the most popular British sitcoms of the 1990s, a lot of the humour stems from the relationship between the shallow and fashion-obsessed PR agent Edina Monsoon and her shockingly straitlaced teenage daughter, Saffie. Although Saffie belongs to Generation X, she is its antithesis: she is hard-working, moral, politically engaged, anti-drugs and prudishly anti-sex. By the standards of the 1990s, she is a hilarious anomaly. Had Ab Fab been written in the past couple of years, her character perhaps would have been considered too normal. Even her nerdy round glasses and frumpy knitted sweaters would have been considered pretty fashionable by today’s geek-chic standards.

Back in the UCL lecture theatre, four young women are “geeking out”. Between mouthfuls of cake, they are discussing, with palpable excitement, a Harry Potter-themed summer camp in Italy. “They play Quidditch and everything – there’s even a Sorting Hat,” says the tall, blonde student who is leading the conversation.

“This is for children, right?” I butt in.

“No!” she says. “The minimum age is actually 15.”

A kids’ book about wizards isn’t the only unlikely source of entertainment for this group of undergraduates. The consensus among all the students I speak to is that baking has become so popular with their demographic because of The Great British Bake Off. Who knew that Mary Berry’s chintzy cardigans and Sue Perkins’s endless puns were so appealing to the young?

Are the social and economic strains on young people today driving them towards escapism at its most gentle? Animal onesies, adult ball pools (one opened in west London last year) and that much-derided cereal café in Shoreditch, in the East End, all seem to make up a gigantic soft-play area for a generation immobilised by anxiety.

Emma, a 24-year-old graduate with whom I chatted on email, agrees. “It feels like everyone is more stressed and nervous,” she says. “It seems a particularly telling sign of the times that adult colouring-in books and little, cutesy books on mindfulness are such a massive thing right now. There are rows upon rows of bookshelves dedicated solely to all that . . . stuff.” Emma would know – she works for Waterstones.

From adult colouring books to knitting (UCL also has a knitting society, as do Bristol, Durham, Manchester and many more universities), it is hard to tell whether the tsunami of tweeness that has engulfed middle-class youth culture in the past few years is a symptom or a cause of the shrinking interest in drugs, alcohol, smoking and other “risk-taking” behaviours.

***

Christine Griffin is Professor of Social Psychology at Bath University. For the past ten years, she has been involved in research projects on alcohol consumption among 18-to-25-year-olds. She cites the recession as a possible cause of alcohol’s declining appeal, but notes that it is only part of the story. “There seems to be some sort of polarisation going on,” Griffin says. “Some young people are actually drinking more, while others are drinking less or abstaining.

“There are several different things going on but it’s clear that the culture of 18-to-25-year-olds going out to get really drunk hasn’t gone away. That’s still a pervasive social norm, even if more young people are drinking less or abstaining.”

Griffin suggests that while frequent, sustained drinking among young people is in decline, binge drinking is still happening – in short bursts.

“There are still a lot of people going to music festivals, where a huge amount of drinking and drug use goes on in a fairly unregulated way,” she says. It is possible that music festivals and holidays abroad (of the kind depicted in Channel 4 programmes such as What Happens in Kavos, in which British teenagers leave Greek islands drenched in booze and other bodily fluids) are seen as opportunities to make a complete escape from everyday life. An entire year’s worth of drinking, drug-taking and sex can be condensed into a week, or even a weekend, before young people return to a life centred around hard work.

Richard De Visser, a reader in psychology at Sussex University, also lists the economy as a possible cause for the supposed tameness of the under-25s. Like Griffin, however, he believes that the development is too complex to be pinned purely on a lack of disposable income. Both Griffin and De Visser mention that, as Britain has become more ethnically diverse, people who do not drink for religious or cultural reasons – Muslims, for instance – have become more visible. This visibility, De Visser suggests, is breaking down taboos and allowing non-mainstream behaviours, such as not drinking, to become more socially accepted.

“There’s just more variety,” he says. “My eldest son, who’s about to turn 14, has conversations – about sexuality, for example – that I never would’ve had at his age. I think there’s more awareness of alcohol-related problems and addiction, too.”

De Visser also mentions the importance of self-image and reputation to many of the young non-drinkers to whom he has spoken. These factors, he argues, are likely to be more important to people than the long-term effects of heavy drinking. “One girl I interviewed said she wouldn’t want to meet the drunk version of herself.”

Jess, a self-described “granny”, is similarly wary of alcohol. The 20-year-old Liverpudlian, who works in marketing, makes a bold claim for someone her age. “I’ve never really been drunk,” she says. “I’ve just never really been bothered with alcohol or drugs.” Ironically, someone of her generation, according to ONS statistics, is far more likely to be teetotal than a real granny at any point in her life. Jess says she enjoys socialising but her nights out with close friends are rather tame – more likely to involve dinner and one quick drink than several tequila shots and a traffic cone.

It is possible, she suggests, that her lack of interest in binge drinking, or even getting a little tipsy, has something to do with her work ethic. “There’s a lot more competition now,” she says. “I don’t have a degree and I’m conscious of the need to be on top of my game to compete with people who do. There’s a shortage of jobs even for people who do have degrees.”

Furthermore, Jess says that many of her interactions with friends involve social media. One theory put forward to explain Generation Zzzz is that pubs are losing business to Facebook and Twitter as more and more socialising happens online. Why tell someone in person that you “like” their baby, or cat, or new job (probably over an expensive pint), when you can do so from your sofa, at the click of a button?

Hannah, aged 22, isn’t so sure. She recently started her own social media and communications business and believes that money, or the lack of it, is why her peers are staying in. “Going out is so expensive,” she says, “especially at university. You can’t spend out on alcohol, then expect to pay rent and fees.” Like Jess (and as you would probably expect of a 22-year-old who runs a business), Hannah has a strong work ethic. She also has no particular interest in getting wasted. “I’ve always wanted my own business, so for me everything else was just a distraction,” she says. “Our generation is aware it’s going to be a bit harder for us, and if you want to support yourself you have to work for it.” She also suggests that, these days, people around her age have more entrepreneurial role models.

I wonder if Hannah, as a young businesswoman, has been inspired by the nascent strand of free-market, “lean in” feminism. Although the women’s movement used to align itself more with socialism (and still does, from time to time), it is possible that a 21st-century wave of disciples of Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, is forswearing booze, drugs and any remote risk of getting pregnant, in order to get ahead in business.

But more about sex. Do the apparently lower rates of sexually transmitted infections and teenage pregnancies suggest that young people are having less of it? In the age of Tinder, when hooking up with a stranger can be as easy as ordering a pizza, this seems unlikely. Joe Head is a youth worker who has been advising 12-to-21-year-olds in the Leighton Buzzard area of Bedfordshire on sexual health (among other things) for 15 years. Within this period, Head says, the government has put substantial resources into tackling drug use and teen pregnancy. Much of this is the result of the Blair government’s Every Child Matters (ECM) initiative of 2003, which was directed at improving the health and well-being of children and young adults.

“ECM gave social services a clearer framework to access funds for specific work around sexual health and safety,” he says. “It also became a lot easier to access immediate information on drugs, alcohol and sexual health via the internet.”

***

Head also mentions government-funded education services such as Frank – the cleverly branded “down with the kids” anti-drugs programme responsible for those “Talk to Frank” television adverts. (Remember the one showing bags of cocaine being removed from a dead dog and voiced by David Mitchell?)

But Head believes that the ways in which some statistics are gathered may account for the apparent drop in STIs. He refers to a particular campaign from about five years ago in which young people were asked to take a test for chlamydia, whether they were sexually active or not. “A lot of young people I worked with said they did multiple chlamydia tests throughout the month,” he says. The implication is that various agencies were competing for the best results in order to prove that their education programmes had been effective.

However, regardless of whether govern­ment agencies have been gaming the STI statistics, sex education has improved significantly over the past decade. Luke, a 22-year-old hospital worker (and self-described “boring bastard”), says that sex education at school played a “massive part” in his safety-conscious attitude. “My mother was always very open [about sex], as was my father,” he says. “I remember talking to my dad at 16 about my first serious girlfriend – I had already had sex with her by this point – and him giving me the advice, ‘Don’t get her pregnant. Just stick to fingering.’” I suspect that not all parents of millennials are as frank as Luke’s, but teenagers having sex is no longer taboo.

Luke’s attitude towards drugs encapsulates the Generation Zzzz ethos beautifully: although he has taken MDMA, he “researched” it beforehand. It is this lack of spontaneity that has shaped a generation of young fogeys. This cohort of grannies and boring bastards, of perpetual renters and jobseekers in an economy wrecked by less cautious generations, is one that has been tamed by anxiety and fear.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war