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The unwritten rule of WWI art and literature



With the 100th anniversary of the end of World War One fast approaching, I have been reflecting on the art and literature associated with this particularly tragic conflict. My paternal Grandfather was a Corporal in The Royal Engineers and fought at Battle of the Somme. As a teenager, I read his letters home from the trenches and his experiences had a profound affect on how I viewed the History of the period. I went on to study History at university and then taught it for over a decade in Secondary schools.

As part of my teaching career, I have addressed the facts of the 1914-18 conflict many times, but it is in the art and literature associated with the era that I have always felt the nearest approximation of the horrors of that war are truly conveyed. My favourite novels dealing with the war are Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy, which neither glorifies nor shies away from the darkness experienced by the men who fought on the Western Front. They are also wonderfully written novels that explore the complexities of the emotional and physical effects of the war on both soldiers and civilians.

Whether it is through the poetry of Sassoon and Owen or the paintings of Paul Nash and Stanley Spencer, or even the satire of Blackadder and Horrible Histories, the horrors, banality and, at times, comic realities of the war have been extremely well chronicled. So what is the unwritten rule that governs all the truly great art of World War One?

It is simply that there should be no glorification of conflict and violence. This is because the war of 1914-18 squandered young lives in their hundreds of thousands. There is no glory in dying for your country in this manner. That is what Wilfred Owen taught us in his poem Dulce et Decorum est and I, for one, have never forgotten the lesson.

So it does concern me to witness a new type of writing emerge, one which uses gratuitous violence to explore the impact of World War One. The BBC drama Peaky Blinders I feel falls into this trap. The 1920s gangsters who populate this series have been inured to violence because of their experiences in the trenches, we are led to believe. Yet this violence does not remain an unseen menace within the series, but is played out with unflinching detail in pretty much every episode. To me, this breaches the unspoken understanding amongst writers and artists that WWI should not be used to celebrate man’s inhumanity to man. Instead, it should be used only to guard against other such futile wars happening in the future.

Dramas like Peaky Blinders make me worry that 100 years is too long; that we have forgotten the message  those wonderful artists worked so hard to convey. I sincerely hope not. Sometimes, rule breaking just isn’t appropriate or clever.

War has traditionally generated great art, but the great stuff doesn’t set out to glorify, celebrate or use violence for entertainment. If the 100th anniversary of this war to end all wars teaches us writers anything, it should teach us that.




Is a good novel all about how it makes the reader feel?

Woman with Wreath of Flowers in Her Hands

When reading a self-help book about writing professionally for Kindle, I came across an interesting piece of advice. The author pointed out that whatever the genre, fiction or non-fiction, what was crucial to a book’s success, was the way it made people feel.
Now, this might seem obvious. Nobody would want to absorb themselves in a piece of work that made them feel bad, would they? Surely it was just a truism and didn’t need to be said.
But the more I thought about it, the more complex the concept appeared to be. I’m certain the advice is correct, but the difficulties arise when we try to analyse the nature of the feelings that we as writers may wish to provoke.
As human beings, we are a complicated bunch. Some of us enjoy being exhilarated or even terrified by a book. Whereas others seek escapism and comfort. With this in mind, it is worth considering the genre in which you are writing. For me, this is crime fiction, and even within this category I don’t believe that all readers are looking for the same thing out of the books they consume.
In my case, I enjoy a puzzle. I gain great satisfaction from a clever and well spun plot. If there are holes in the storyline then it absolutely spoils it as far as I am concerned. I simply can’t overlook the mistake. I like tension and suspense, but not horror or graphically detailed violence. I prefer this aspect to be left to the imagination. Too much violence and I no longer feel good, the experience is ruined. Sometimes, it is the characters that make me feel good. I come to know them and what makes them tick. I want to share their highs and lows and am desperate to discover what happens to them next, whether I like them or not.
I know the self-help book author was trying to be constructive with his advice, but in reality, he has introduced an insoluble conundrum for me. You cannot hope as a writer to deliberately evoke a certain set of emotions from a reader. Where on earth would you start? The only thing we can do is to write the stories that make us feel good. If a book doesn’t enrich the author’s life in some way then frankly, why should we inflict it on others? Our novel may make us cry bitterly with grief in places, but by the end of it you should be able to create a sense of hope and optimism.
I’ve read plenty of novels that left me feeling bad; whether it was disgust, anger or inadequacy, it amounted to a negative experience, which reading should never be. So the advice was sound, but I may just spend the rest of my writing career trying to work out what to do with it.

5 things I should really start doing now I’m 40


Yes, it’s a bit of a milestone. But let’s face it, turning forty isn’t what it used to be. Us fortysomethings still like to think we’re pretty sprightly and youthful. Many of us have small children, babes-in-arms or and are only just stepping onto the property ladder or getting hitched – all of those activities that are typically associated with proper adultdom.
So now I’m finally there, here are a few things I feel I should probably tackle:

1. Writing a book. Hoorah, I’ve done that one (five times!) and was almost certainly spurred on by the approach of the big four 0. Sometimes, it helps to give yourself a timescale for achieving your writing goals, otherwise the big ‘idea’ that has been circling in your head for all these years never gets fleshed out into a full blown novel or short-story. Whether it’s 40, 50 or 25, give yourself a target and stick to it.
2. Make sure I’m in the right job. this is really connected to no.1. The age of forty creeps up on you fairly swiftly and sometimes the career that you entered after university/school/college wasn’t necessarily the one you envisaged yourself in for the long-term. I’m not trying to encourage a mid-life crisis here, but this might be a good opportunity to re-evaluate the day job. Don’t do anything hasty, but it could be time to take an evening course/online qualification in the career you always really wanted.If you don’t like it after all, you can feel more happy and contented in the path you did choose.
3. This may sound corny, but it’s definitely the right moment to spend more time with/appreciate my family. Time is something that at this stage in our lives is seriously at a premium, but actually, small acts of kindness really make a huge difference here. Many of us find it extremely difficult to express our gratitude and love. Usually because we’re too busy/tired/grumpy/resentful of being constantly put-upon. Try to take a breather and make a positive approach to someone you really do appreciate the support of. This may actually lessen your overall burdens, it will certainly make you feel better about yourself.
4. This is a bit of a girlie one, but I’m going to stop worrying about my weight. This is a concern which plagues women (and many men) from teenage onwards. When I look at photographs of myself over the years I am very hardpressed to notice a great deal of difference in my general size and appearance, yet I’ve wasted an awful lot of pointless energy thinking about it. So as long as I am in the realms of the healthy, from now on, who cares!!
5. Flossing. This is a silly one, I know, but my dentist has been telling me to floss for about twenty years and I’ve never really understood what the fuss is all about. As soon as I turned forty, I started to do it. Not quite sure why, but I suddenly thought that perhaps it was about time and might just keep my gnashers operational for a few more decades.

There are most likely dozens more things I should be doing now I’m a proper adult, but these will do for now.

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