Friday 20 June 2014

'The Private Life of Pawns' by A L Berridge

We all know soldiers have private lives. Novels about war naturally devote space to characters’ back-stories, thoughts, feelings and relationships, and everyone knows a manly war hero can be given a softer side by bunging him the obligatory love interest. Yet there’s another, even more private side, and I’m beginning to realize it’s more important than I thought. 

My journey began while working on my present novel of the Crimean War. In ‘Soldiers of the Queen’ my hero is placed for good dramatic reasons with the 34th Regiment of Foot, but I was depressed to discover that the best primary sources are a digest of the Regimental log, a handful of officers’ letters, and a portion of an officer’s journal. Those are all very helpful, but my characters include several private soldiers and a particularly crucial Colour Sergeant, and none of those documents showed much interest in such lowly souls. The log didn't even give names of anyone below the rank of ensign, and casualty lists record them only as numbers of 'Sergts' and 'Rank and File'.

Then came the miracle. A delightful lady called Anne Beal wrote to me about the Crimean Memorial Appeal, and mentioned in passing that her interest in the war arose from the fact her great-grandfather George Clarke had served in it. He was a Colour Sergeant, as it happened. In the 34th Regiment of Foot. And she had a dozen of his letters sent from the Siege of Sevastopol.

We all know those moments when the words ‘Holy Grail’ dance in golden specks before our eyes. I shall draw a decent veil over my embarrassingly slavering response, but fortunately Anne was kind as well as god-sent, and she sent me not only photographs of the letters themselves, but perfect clean transcripts with explanatory notes from her own research. Eleven of the letters were to George’s wife Mary Anne, who’d been left behind with the rest of the regiment at Corfu, one was to her parents, and the whole set covered the exact period of my book.

Original envelope of one of George Clarke's letters - by kind permission of Anne Beal

They were everything I could have hoped for. What I needed most were everyday details of life in the regiment, and George’s letters were pure research gold. How much did it cost to send a letter home? What kind of ‘souvenirs’ did soldiers loot from dead Russians, and what could they expect to sell them for? There were so many of these gems that I’d noted the first six letters before it really occurred to me what was missing.

The war.

After a year’s research I probably knew more of what was happening than poor George did, but I still found the omission intriguing. War is a pretty big thing for a soldier, this was almost certainly George’s first, and yet he seemed hardly interested in it at all. There are dutiful references, of course, but even these are mostly concerned with how soon the siege will be over and he can be reunited with his wife. At first he thinks the siege won’t last long ‘for the Russians are actually eating their horses for want of food’, but later notes sourly that despite the constant firing he doesn’t see ‘the slightest alteration in the place’. A month later he still doesn’t know when he’ll be coming home, but thinks ‘there will be no more fighting’. Two months later he writes with endearing honesty: ‘I shall be very glad when this affair is over for I am getting tired of it.’

There could be many reasons for this reticence. The siege was in stalemate, there was little real progress to report, and George himself points out that the regiments were so widely spread that general news was thin and unreliable. Yet even when his regiment is actually engaged, George’s accounts of the action are the briefest I’ve ever seen. Writing on the day after the Grand Sortie of March 1855, he doesn’t even mention it until his third paragraph when he’s already discussed domestic details of money and his wife’s health.

George Clarke's signature - by kind permission of Anne Beal

That’s what’s fascinating. It’s not that the war isn’t worthy attention, but that George is far more concerned with his own quiet little private life. He writes about sick friends, relays news of his brother in the Rifle Brigade, gossips cheerfully about lapses of behavior among fellow NCOs, and is desperate for real newspapers from home. He worries about money and frets about the unreliability of the post, but most of all he is anxious about his wife, and how well she’ll be treated by the regiment without him there to look after her:

I received your two letters dated 11th & 12th December in which I find your face and throat to be much better which gave me much pleasure to read but on the other hand I was sorry to hear of the ill treatment of Sgt Howfield to you. But my dear, don’t have anything to say to him only what you cannot help for I am sure he would do you an injury if he could.

Of course he worries. Anyone would, and the more I read the more I understood how natural George’s approach really was. The famous letters of Timothy Gowing of the Royal Fusiliers might be full of patriotic wishes to ‘strike a blow for good old England’, but Gowing was a young man with no dependents, and those with adult lives outside Crimea were bound to have a different perspective. George’s ‘outside life’ wasn’t just his ‘back-story’, it was pretty well his whole story, to which war was only the backdrop.

And as a writer, that made me think. My job is to keep a story moving forward, to keep attention focused mainly on the action in foreground, but is that really a realistic way to show war? I’ve dealt with a soldier’s all-engrossing home life before in the character of Woodall in ‘Into the Valley of Death’, but that was a significant story, and often the reality is in the sheer ordinariness of everyday life. Shouldn’t I be doing more to show that?

The obvious answer has to be – only with caution. A commercial novel needs to be reality with the boring bits missed out, and if I devote pages to my characters worrying about whether a cake will still be all right after a long voyage then it’s going to play havoc with the pace. But reading George’s letters have made me wonder if there isn’t a greater danger in exploring the real ‘private lives’ of soldiers, and if I need to be very careful about going there at all.

Because ordinary life is universal. Have a character shot in the leg and readers will sympathize in an intellectual way, but have him get cramp or have a stone in his shoe and the reader is instantly there with him. George’s worries are ‘real’ to most of us in a way that war is not, and as I read his letters I completely forgot about research and saw him only as a human being.

That's what trivia does. It's absolutely the truth of soldiering, but it has a power like no other to humanize and make real. Look at this little video, for instance, made by the Donbass volunteers in Ukraine, where from 4’40” the footage is rough video shot at a rebel checkpoint. The English subtitles are delightfully dreadful, but enough key words are translated to tell us what these men are talking about.

From 5’31” the men are actually sitting under fire, but still the conversation drifts round important topics like cigarettes and socks. Trivia, laughter, the stuff of normality, and at once their Russian nationality is lost in the human nature of the universal soldier at war. This is what soldiers are like, this is their real private life, and even if it's a 'front' to help them deal with stress then the 'front' is part of the reality of who they really are.

That kind of trivia we can write. Not too much of it, or we'll destroy the pace of action sequences, but we need to see men talking about the things that really interest them rather than those things the plot demands. They don't talk about the war because they're living the war, and what they really want to think about is everything else.

As George Clarke does. His isn't an epic adventure story, but the letters give an insight into his real life outside the borders of war, and it was impossible to read them without personal feeling. George died of cholera on 30th June 1855, and when I read his last letter of June 23rd I'm afraid I even cried. His poor wife! They were obviously a very close couple, and at the time of his death she was even expecting his child – the baby he so much wanted to see christened. I wondered how on earth the poor woman would cope alone.

George Clarke's last letter

That's a good reaction, exactly the one I would hope for in a reader, but what made this situation dangerous is the fact that I found out. Anne herself told me the expected child was born in August 1855, and since the father was not listed as deceased it seems likely poor Mary Anne didn’t yet know she was a widow. That child was Anne’s grandfather, and it was from him that she learned that Mary Anne had always kept George’s letters with her, and carried them about in his old cutlery holder.

This cutlery holder, to be precise.

George was real, his loss was real, and I felt with full force the personal impact of war. I’ve been campaigning for over a year to erect a proper memorial to our fallen in Sevastopol, but this one man who died there was suddenly proxy for them all.

So perhaps that's the one part of a soldier's life that needs to stay private - at least in an action adventure historical. If I’m writing ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ then of course I must make the reader feel every human shred of the cost of war – but if I want my readers to enjoy the fight then I need to keep back something of what that cost really is.

That sounds like a cheat, but I think it's a necessary one. Generals can't think of their soldiers on so personal a level, or how could they send them to death as disposable pawns? Soldiers don't do it either, and one thing I've learned from veterans is how they condition themselves to laugh and joke even about each other's deaths. It's the only way a soldier can do his job and stay sane.

Maybe the same is true of writers. I admit I take a possibly rather warped pleasure when a reader berates me for killing a character they loved, but I don't want the loss to be so unbearable that they can't enjoy the book at all. I'll go into the 'private life' of my characters, I'll make them as real as I know how, but unless it's absolutely essential for the story then I'm not going to explore their loss beyond the grave.

Perhaps that's a cop-out. Perhaps I even know it is, but I'm beginning to think that when it comes to commercial fiction about war then T.S. Eliot had it absolutely right: 'human kind cannot bear very much reality'.

A very, very big thank you to Anne Beal for allowing me to write about her great-grandfather, and for giving permission to show her photographs. There is much more to the story, and I very much hope that one day she'll publish it herself.

Meanwhile the much duller A.L. Berridge's website is here.


Marie-Louise Jensen said...

What am amazing stroke of luck to see those letters! The lives of ordinary people are so difficult to unveil, as I found out when I tried to research stable boys. And they wouldn't have nbeen able to write, so no chance of letters.
What a sad ending George had - like so many. I suppose that his letters were only presevered because he did die. They because valuable because, beside the baby, they were all his loved ones had left of him.

Joan Lennon said...

What a wonderful resource those letters are - thanks for telling us about them!

Clare Mulley said...

Gosh, how wonderful for you to have so generously been given this access and insight and, conversely, how wonderful for Anne Beale and George's family to have found such a responsive writer.

Leslie Wilson said...

What a find! And yet, you know, I'm not sure about the importance of keeping private lives private. But then I am a pacifist, and I think it is important to know, in order to understand what warfare truly is, that 'this history of the world lies under every gravestone' as the poet Heinrich Heine put it. Very thought-provoking, anyway.

Leslie Wilson said...

Soz, meant to type 'the history of the world.'

alberridge said...

Thanks so much, everyone - and again huge thanks to Anne. There's much more to be mined here, but I didn't want to nick the best bits!

Leslie, I think I agree. I'm a pacifist myself and think it's crucial that we understand what war really means in human cost.

I suppose what I'm wondering is whether commercial action adventure is the place to really push it. Then again, I start wondering if we should really write war as ANY kind of entertainment - at which point my head explodes. Way too big a subject to discuss here, but it's been on my mind a lot and I wanted to bung it out there.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Thanks for a fascinating post, Louise! It really desn't surprise me that the letters, valuable as they were for research, didn't have anything exciting in them. For George, what he discussed WAS important. Some years ago, I unearthed a diary I kept in my teens. I lived in some of the most exciting years of the twentieth century, I remember going hoe from school to see the moon landing on TV, but what was in my diary? Details of my everyday life, my lives, hates, friendships ...Not one word of what was on in the news! Not even,"Went to (my friend) Denise's house to eat condensed milk and watch the moon landing." Disappointing to Sue, the writer and researcher, but very important to the teen I was.

alberridge said...

That's it exactly, Sue - and it's why our diaries would actually be of more interest to historians than we'd suppose! Everyone knows about the moon landing, but anyone wanting real understanding of that period would find your diary a goldmine.
Not that anyone's going to be allowed to see mine from the Seventies. Just - not ever.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Maybe my diary would be a gold mine to historians wanting to know about my life, in case I'm ever famous, but anyone else would soon get bored with this teenager's friendship issues. :-) Even memory can fool us. I have a clear memory of someone running into the school shed where we were painting sets for the annual play and saying, "Hey, the prime minister has just drowned!" It couldn't possibly have happened, because he disappeared during the school holidays. And I was in my first school play that year anyway, not building sets till I was comfortably settled into the drama club. Yet I remember it, clear as anything. If I'd written it in my diary...

Anonymous said...

What a treasure trove! Fascinating and thought-provoking.

Anonymous said...

What a treasure trove! Fascinating and thought-provoking.

Leslie Wilson said...

War as entertainment.. the thing is, you put stuff out there, and people make of it what seems good - or fun - to them, and that's the risk of ANY fictional writing, or even non-fiction. However, there is so much writing that glorifies war, I think it's crucial to show it exactly how it is. Some people will find that enjoyable, of course, but you have said what seems important to you, and some people will get what you are putting out. To me, the worst form of war as entertainment was the way in which the first night of the bombing of Baghdad was reported in the second Gulf War. It was horrific to hear people treating it as fun - and I had an ex-student in Baghdad, who had gone back there to be with her mother, who is disabled.