Fresh in from far out - Galloway

<em>New Statesman Scotland</em> - This torrent of bloodshed runs on

Not long ago, there was in general currency the view, put forward primarily in Eric Hobsbawm's Age of Extremes, that our century began with the first world war and ended when the Berlin Wall came down. Certainly the experience of the first world war has dominated European imaginative life in our time. In the last section of his masterpiece, The Great War and Modern Memory, Paul Fussell shows to what extent "the whole texture of British daily life could be said to commemorate the war still". Everything, from pub opening hours, British Summer Time, allotments, paper money, passports and the popularity of egg and chips, to our sceptical attitude to a press that euphemised the slaughter of the Somme, has its roots in first world war expediency and experience.

That there is no diminution in the power of the war as primary source material is shown in such recent works as Pat Barker's war trilogy and Sebastian Faulks's Birdsong. Ted Hughes, who had explored the first world war in early poems such as "Bayonet Charge" and "Out", revisited it in a series of family portraits in his 1989 collection, Wolfwatching. Though his father had been unable to talk about his war experiences, the young Hughes filled

With his knowledge.
After mother's milk
This was the soul's food. A soap-smell spectre
Of the massacre of innocents.

("Dust As We Are")

The continuing power of this distant war to interest and to move us was brought home to me some years ago when I accompanied a school trip to the first world war battlefields of Belgium and northern France. To this particular second-year group of pupils, names such as Ypres, Passchendaele and Vimy were as innocent as the rebuilt towns appeared to be. It was strange, therefore, on the one hand sharing in the high spirits of any foreign school trip, while on the other attempting to give full meaning to these sonorous place names.

At times the pupils' innocent irreverence was deeply shocking as they clambered up war memorials, taken aback by the force of our anger; at others, as they ran up and down the green hollows of the trenches as birds sang and butterflies (white, I remember) danced in the sun, they seemed to be part of some depthless metaphor. However, through accumulated battlefield tours and a sharing of our adult knowledge, something of the horror that had taken place there became part of their young imaginations. At the Menin Gate, as the last post played, as it does every night of life, many were in tears.

I remember, as a (senior) school pupil myself, reading the eastern European poets, Poppa, Holub and Herbert, and thinking how vital they seemed. History in their poetry was like a character - it could surprise you, engulf you, sweep you aside. This was not the history we learnt in school which was always safely behind us, neatly packaged in its predictable causes and effects. So, for many of us, the events leading up to the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the "unification" of Germany, were a bracing sensation of history happening now. It would indeed have been a good point at which to end the century; a wall tumbling down is a metaphor as rich as any. But the optimism of the reconstituted Europe did not last long. The hard red edges of my growing-up world were replaced not by union but by a ragged edgelessness; a proliferation of what George Steiner has called "villagism".

Fussell points out that one of the ironies of those who experienced the second world war was the way in which they were haunted by others' memories of the first. Thus Vernon Scannell writes that what he "remembers" is "Not the war I fought in/ But the one called Great/Which ended in a sepia November/Four years before my birth".

However, it is not the least of recent ironies that since the Berlin Wall fell, broadcast images of conflict seem to recall less and less of the war that in so many ways has dominated our century.

Pictures of the concentration camps, the refugees, the sites of massacres from Bosnia, Kosovo and now Chechnya suggest a continuation of the civilian brutalities of the second world war.

What Tacitus referred to as "this torrent of wasted bloodshed" runs on. As it does so, there is no sense in asking our young people to forget the sufferings of this century as we enter the next.