Book group report, December 2017

By Jane Wilson

What better way to start the New Year than with a look back at the reading selections from the final Book Group meeting of 2017.

‘Executed at Dawn’ by David Johnson is a non-judgemental account of the WW1 executions of British and Commonwealth soldiers, as seen by those involved, ranging from military police, medical staff, chaplains, senior officers, even comrades and friends chosen to be part of the firing squads. Executions took part against a backdrop of non-understanding of shellshock, as well as a military need to provide a deterrent against other soldiers overstepping military rules and orders.

A complete record of his experiences in WW1 gave T E Lawrence the material he needed to write ‘Revolt in the Desert’. First published in 1927, the book is an abridged version of his work ‘Seven Pillars of Wisdom’. Having volunteered for service on the outbreak of war, by 1916, he was working closely in liaison with Arab forces in the Arab Revolt. He participated in, and sometimes led military action against the Ottoman armed forces, and the book is his account of the key WW1 role he played in this part of the world.

One group member brought along a catalogue from the current Paul Nash exhibition at the Laing Gallery in Newcastle (running until 14th January 2018). While having admired all of Nash’s art works on display, she referred in particular to the pieces of art depicting scenes of WW1, and the extra information given in the catalogue. A copy of this catalogue is available to read in the Reference Library in the Reading Room at the Bowes Museum.

The 2017 Wainwright Book Prize was won by John Lewis Stempel’s ‘Where Poppies Blow’, and the competition website describes the book as a ‘unique story of the British soldiers of the Great War and their relationship with the animals and plants around them. This connection was of profound importance, because it goes a long way to explaining why they fought, and how they found the will to go on’.

The group member who recommended this book loved the inclusion of soldiers’ poetry in each chapter, as well as the wide range of aspects of nature written about, including birds, vermin and pests, army horses, soldiers attempts to create gardens in trenches and billets, as well as the lists of those that died and their connections to nature in jobs such as gardeners, botanists etc.

An illustrated WW1 diary forms the basis of the next book recommendation, ‘Drawing Fire; The Diary of a Great War Soldier and Artist’ by Len Smith. Having managed at the end of the war to smuggle home the scraps of paper on which he had kept journal entries during his war service, artist Len Smith wrote up his diary which is reproduced in book form along with many of his own illustrations, sketches and cartoons. So, while a war diary that represents the horror read about in other journals, his humour and excellent sketching ability bring a lightness to the book that makes it a pleasure to read, and the illustrations a joy to look at.

Much as children get to bring toys and games to school on the last day of term before Christmas, some of our group took the opportunity of the pre-Christmas meeting to bring along some non-WW1 books and share with each other some of the reading material we enjoy when not immersed in Great War reading.

One choice was ‘King David’s Report’ by Stefan Heym, the pseudonym of the German-born writer Helmut Flieg. The book, first published in 1972, is a modern day re-telling of a biblical story, where King Solomon commissions Ethan the Scribe to write an official biography of King David. Charged with creating an accurate and truthful book about King David, Ethan finds conflicting information about King David’s life and has a dilemma about which life to document. Heym uses the device of writing about a society in the past to be able to make comments on current society, and he uses satire when describing the workings of politics within history.

Another linked book choice was Orhan Pamuk’s book ‘The Museum of Innocence’, set in Istanbul and following Kemal, a young man from a rich and well-connected family, and the deep love he feels for a poorer, distant relative, Fusun. The reader follows Kemal’s eight-year deep pursuit of Fusun, as well as his obsessive habit of collecting objects that chart his long-term love affair. The author, Pamuk has also established an actual Museum of Innocence in Istanbul, with many wooden cabinets housing the objects and mementoes that the books characters owned, wore, collected and dreamt of. A book about the museum shows photos of each cabinet, some of which were on display at a London exhibition at Somerset House in 2016. If two books were ever meant to partner each other, this is the perfect match.

The last two pre-Christmas choices were both non-WW1 fiction, firstly the ‘Complete Short Stories of Saki’ by Hector Hugh Munro. Published posthumously after his death in 1916 in the Battle of the Ancre, the collection of stories is an excellent satirical commentary on upper class Edwardian society. When describing his stories, many reviewers use terms such as sinister, bizarre, humorous, macabre, eccentric, unconventional – all inviting the reader to delve into a thoroughly enjoyable and satirical look into Edwardian life.

Our second fiction recommendation was from Jerome K Jerome, ‘Three Men on the Bummel’, published in 1900, and a sequel to ‘Three Men in a Boat’. The three Edwardian friends meet up again on a bicycle tour of the German Black Forest, and as well as following them on their travels, the story reveals small, humorous snippets that relate to the German way of life, and their desire to follow instruction, have a structured life and their reverence of authority. We discussed this satirical look at German life and culture, and how the three English friends highlight the differences between the German and English society.

Now that 2018 is here, and a whole twelve months-worth of book group meetings lay ahead, why not join us at the Bowes Museum for our first meeting on January 16th at 2.30pm.