Tag Archives: biography

Book Review – Some Desperate Glory

Some Desperate Glory

Max Egremont

Picador (2015)

Paperback 335 pp  £9.99

ISBN-10: 0374280320

ISBN-13: 9780374280321

This book is trying to do too much at once. It’s a history of the Great War, a book of biographies, a poetry book and, cynically, a book to take advantage of the centenary.

As eagle-eyed readers will have deduced from the £1 sticker in the picture, booksellers obviously found it difficult to shift.

My first observation, before even opening it, is simply that I can’t think why any writer would re-use such a well known title. I know it’s a good quote, but when I hear it I always think of Edwin Campion Vaughan’s memoirs. It’s confusing, to say the least.

It was heavy going to start, though it did get easier towards the end, and proved to be worth the effort. Trying to fit history, biography and poetry into a flowing narrative is tough, and it isn’t helped when you have to fit the origins of the war in too. It flows better towards the end: by then the history is simpler and many of the poets are dead  or recovering from wounds.

There are eleven of them in the beginning – in the army, joining the army or thinking about joining the army. By the Armistice there are five left. It’s a tragedy, but it does help the flow of the book.

Finally, why just eleven poets? The eleven selected subjects are all listed on the War Poet Memorial in Westminster Abbey. What’s wrong with the other five? No Aldington, no Binyon, no Gibson, no Jones and no Read.

Then of course, there is the question of the war poets who weren’t amongst the 16 on the memorial. I won’t try to address the question, as it would double the length of the review and the internet is already bulging with material of dubious worth.

Anyway, to cut to the chase. I enjoyed it in the end, though I did struggle at first. It felt like I was being lectured at times, and the way the narrative was interwoven made it difficult to get into a reading rhythm. It was worth reading for the information and context, but wasn’t really a pleasurable read.

I’m currently halfway through reading And All Roads Lead to France. It concentrates on Thomas and poetry preceding the war, so it isn’t a direct replacement for Egremont’s book. But it is a pleasure to read, and proves that it is possible to cover a broad area and still keep it readable.

I’d recommend Some Desperate Glory as an overview of some of the poetry of the Great War with the proviso that it is limited in scope and you will have to work at it.

 

 

Book Review: Famous 1914-18

Famous – 1914 – 18

by Richard van Emden and Victor Piuk

Pen & Sword Military (2009)

Paperback 352 pp  £10.99

ISBN-10: 1848841973

ISBN-13: 978-1848841970

Sorry it’s another Great War book, I’ll try something lighter for the next review, I promise.

It’s a slightly misleading title, as the people in the book weren’t really famous between 1914 and 1918. With two exception they were famous after the war, and this is what they did in the years of the war. The exceptions are Ned Parfett (the newspaper boy from the Titanic picture – who was famous in 1912) and Peter Llewelyn Davies, known as the boy who inspired the character of Peter Pan. Davies, after the death of his parents was brought up by four guardians, including J M Barrie and Guy du Maurier (see previous review).

I have to admit I was also thrown by the name Tom Denning, before it clicked that this meant Lord Denning, one time Master of the Rolls. I’m not really sure how famous he is these days, though he was hardly out of the news at one time. That’s the problem with this sort of book, where do you draw the line?

The subjects need to have been reasonably famous after the war, but quite a few people with post-war fame have been left out. That’s because they need to have left information about their wartime exploits – there’s not been a great deal of digging out original material here. So, post-war fame and memoirs seem to be the requirements.

That means Jack Warner has been left out, as has Victor McLaglen and Victor Silvester. I suppose they just aren’t famous enough, despite interesting wartime careers. To be honest, I didn’t realise how much Silvester had packed in until I just checked the reference. I knew he’d participated in a firing squad, which was why I looked him up: the rest was all new to me.

To be fair, I don’t want necessarily want a lot of original research, I’m happy with an entertaining book, and that’s what I got.

It also helped me out with a question hanging over A A Milne, who was criticised for his unsoldierly manner in a book of war poetry I was reading recently.  It left me feeling he’d been a bit of a slacker, but it’s clear from Famous 1914 – 18 that he did his share, and did it well.

It’s not a fault of the book, but if like me you were interested in reading more about John Laurie (who served in the Honourable Artillery Company during the war) you will, like me, be disappointed. He isn’t in, despite the write-up in the Amazon blurb. I wrote to tell them, using the button for reporting inaccurate content but so far it’s still there.

So, as long as you don’t want information on John Laurie, it’s a good read, and, because of the length of the chapters, easy to dip in and out. For the Dad’s Army fans out there, Arnold Ridley and his service in two World Wars is covered.

Amongst others it covers C S Lewis, J R R Tolkein, Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce (next to each other in the book as they were in the post-war Holmes films) and Christie of Rillington Place fame.  I won’t give you a list of all the names, as it will spoil the surprise…