Saturday, 27 February 2021

Diary: The Book of my Enemy...

I've amused myself this week by delving into the Royal Society of Literature's archive in order to write one of their short "Only Connect" pieces. I chose a fascinating talk recorded in 2014 just as the country geared up to a four years long commemoration of the Great War's centenary. 

Voices of the Great War is about the literature that was inspired by and created during the conflict. It's always going to be a poignant subject. So many writers, as Tobias Hill says of Alain-Forniere, had “such great potential” or were “on the cusp of achieving something great” when they were killed. Others might have lived to tell the tale, but it was a tale few back home actually wanted to hear in the immediate aftermath of what they already thought of as a 'war to end all wars'. 

But, as Peter Parker says in his introduction, "there are few [of us] whose families aren’t in some way touched by the Great War." Most of us have a personal story to tell. Whilst, in public, “controversy about its causes, consequences and costs persist,” says Parker. 

They always will. The Great War will be our Troy, every bit as futile and almost as long, as well as the inspiration for similarly great literature. Our Ajax by Timberlake Wertenbaker makes this link between past and present wars explicit. As she says, "writers, male and female, are tormented by war. Our job is to look at human beings, preferably with love and with at least some sympathy and to try to make sense. But with war we’re suddenly forced to look at events where sense, or more often than not, sympathy, cracks open."

No wonder we can't take our eyes off them. It's like driving past a car crash or a murder scene. Morbidly irresistible. Those battlefield “poppies whose roots are in man’s veins” as Isaac Rosenberg once wrote, are rooted in our living blood as well. 

Elsewhere, "the book of my enemy" hasn't exactly "been remaindered" (I'm reminded of the phrase, I hope, because I'm currently re-reading Even As We Speak by Clive James, finding sparkling jewels of language on almost every page) because (a) the author isn't my enemy (friend, I suppose, in an online sense) and (b) because her book has only just been published, and published to much acclaim. A Guardian review by Blake Morrison, no less, called it "moving and joyous". My better instincts are to join in the applause for Josie George. Like me, she suffers from an incurable, chronic illness; like me, she's been writing a memoir about it. Unlike me, hers has just been published while I'm still trying to get someone interested in mine. And that last fact, however hard you try, keeps on getting in the way of my otherwise unalloyed praise, applause and admiration. Because... because it's how we writers are, I suppose. 

I work my frustrations out on a design for the cover of my own book, which I like. Should it come to going it alone, this is how it'll look. It's not Bloomsbury, it's not reviews in the national dailies, but it's ok...

Writing's like that. You've got to take the rough with the smooth or you'd never get anything done. But it can be hard, on the one hand, to be engaging with the likes of the RSL and, on the other, going cap-in-hand to agents and publishers hoping one of them will like it enough even to bother replying to my email. At least George proves you can do it without patronage, without sleb status and without insider knowledge. 

And that fact is as joyous as anything that's actually in her memoir! 


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