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Posts Tagged ‘World War Two’

The Tunnel, Eric Williams (1951)

Eric Williams’ The Wooden Horse (1949) is a classic not just of its genre but of English literature as a whole, I’d say. This later book about an earlier time isn’t a classic even in its genre. Or maybe it just suffers by comparison. Either way, it’s definitely better at describing what life in a German prisoner-of-war camp was like, because most of it is set in one. In The Wooden Horse, Williams is beyond the wire and on the run much of the time.

Not that he names himself: both of these books are written in the third person about two prisoners called Peter Howard, who’s Williams himself, and John Clinton, who’s a friend of his. The third person gives The Tunnel a novelistic quality, as though Williams is thinking himself in a character’s head rather than describing what it was really like to be that character:

As the tunnel moved steadily on towards the wire the possibility of escape loomed larger and larger in Peter’s head. […] From waking until sleeping he carried with him the warm comforting thought of that long, dark, slippery, suffocating burrow that would, one day, take him and John under the barbed wire and away to that free, almost unreal world that lay beyond. Whenever he walked along the path between the cookhouse and the Russian compound he knew he was walking over the tunnel, remembering lying there and hearing the footsteps walking as he was walking now. (Part 2, ch. V)

Those adjectives – “long, dark, slippery” – make the tunnel sound like a vagina that he’ll pass through to a second birth. But that’s what Williams himself thought: being in the tunnel, he says to his friend John, is “almost like going into a woman.” And tunnelling is “a sort of retreat, almost like burrowing back into the womb.” Despite the simplicity and clarity of their prose, The Tunnel and The Wooden Horse are profound and psychologically sophisticated books. They conjure both the external and the internal world of the POW camps: what it was like to be there physically and what it was like to be there emotionally.

And even before his second birth, the tunnel-vagina offered him another kind of escape:

He enjoyed working at the tunnel face. Lying flat on his stomach, picking away unseeing at the clay in front of his head, he felt that he was really getting somewhere, really doing something towards getting out of the camp. Moreover he was alone, lying there in the darkness and dank air of the tunnel: alone in a small world of silence, a world bounded by the feeble rays of the lamp that guttered by his head. He was more alone than he could be anywhere else in the camp. Up there in the crowded barrack block, on the teeming circuit, he was aware all the time of his fellow prisoners; their habits of speech and the almost maddening proximity – the body odour and the unconscious elbow in the ribs. But down in the tunnel it was dark and lonely, and he sang to himself as he picked away at the hard clay and felt sorry when it was his turn to leave the tunnel to go back to his place in the shaft. (Part 2, ch. V)

But I corrected part of that as I transcribed it: in the paperback from 1973 that I own, it says “a world hounded by the feeble rays of the lamp”. I like the typo and the serendipity of its meaning. And I liked correcting it as though I were a scribe many centuries ago. In some ways the paperback and Williams’ story are closer to scribal times than they are to the twenty-first century. Paperback and story are pre-internet, and the story is effectively pre-electronic. The POW camp didn’t have surveillance cameras, only a seismograph. The prisoners could get away with much more than they could have today.

Williams couldn’t have been aware of that, but he was aware that he was writing in a very long tradition: “What was it Marcus Aurelius had said? At what time soever thou wilt, it is in thy power to retire into thyself, and to be at rest, and free from all businesses?” (Part 2, ch. X) The quote is from the Meditations (161-180 AD) and The Tunnel asks questions about human existence in a similar way. Why are we here? How should we act? How should we respond to frustration, suffering and injustice?

The Wooden Horse asks and answers the questions better. Or doesn’t answer them better. Williams did not discover the meaning of life while he was imprisoned or on the run. But he did discover the importance of consciousness and the beauty of small aspects of a very large world, which was here long before we existed and will be here long after we’re gone. After the war, he conveyed the importance and beauty in his writing. The Wooden Horse is the classic that made his name, but The Tunnel is definitely worth a read too.


Previously pre-posted on Papyrocentric Performativity:

Escape and Essence — review of Williams’ The Wooden Horse (1949)

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Jet and Rocket Aircraft of the Third Reich by Terry TreadwellRocket and Jet Aircraft of the Third Reich, Terry C. Treadwell (Spellmount 2011)

War accelerates technology. Aircraft entered the First World War in 1914 as little more than powered kites that fell apart easily, didn’t carry weapons and barely figured in military strategy. By 1918, they were fast-climbing, power-diving sharks of the air equipped with machine-guns and bomb-racks. They had also become central to military strategy.

As this book describes, technology was also accelerated by the Second World War. But it happened most obviously on the German side. The Allies began and finished the war using propeller-driven aircraft. The Germans began with props and finished with something extra: jet aircraft like the Me-262 Schwalbe (Swallow) and rocket aircraft like the Me-163 Komet. The ingenuity and technological sophistication of these aircraft aren’t the only astonishing things about them. The odds against which they were developed and put into service are astonishing too.

The Third Reich was being hammered by British and American bombers from the west and relentlessly ground down by the Red Army in the east. Fuel, parts and pilots were in ever-shorter supply. But both the Schwalbe and the Komet saw active service. Other aircraft described here, like the Bachem BA-394 Natter (Viper) and the Heinkel He-178 Volksjäger (People’s Fighter), didn’t get that far. An unofficial name of the He-178, the Salamander, is a clue to why. The Volksjäger was commissioned in late 1944 and by then the Reich was on fire. In legend salamanders are said to dwell in fire and flourish there. The He-178 didn’t flourish, but Terry C. Treadwell delivers this verdict: “Despite the dead ends and final defeat, Ernst Heinkel had made a major contribution to the world of jet- and rocket-propelled aircraft” (pg. 122).

Treadwell seems to know his subject and navigates the complicated history of test-flights, modifications and specification changes with assurance. His introduction to the book begins in “A.D. 1232, during the Mongol siege of the city Kai-fung-fu”, which was where the “first recorded use of a rocket” took place. He discusses the development of rockets, then devotes the first chapter to the “Messerschmitt Me 163B ‘Komet’” (pp. 19-69). Even today the Komet seems like something out of science fiction: a bat-winged rocket-plane powered by highly dangerous chemicals – C-Stoff and T-Stoff – that would “ignite on contact with the skin” (pg. 41). That’s why the pilots and ground crew had to wear protective gear: a photo caption on pg. 48 describes “Leutnant Fritz Kelb wearing his asbestos flying suit climbing into the cockpit of his Me 163B”.

It was a tight fit there, because the Komet was a tiny aircraft. And it was probably more dangerous to its own side than to the enemy. Test-pilots fractured their spines and lost their lives trying to correct its failings. Hanna Reitsch, the famous “Nazi aviatrix”, nearly died when she crash-landed a Komet in 1941, for example. Hitler and Göring sent flowers to her hospital bed and “critics of the Me 163 projects saw their chance of having the programme stopped” (pg. 38). However, another test-pilot for the Komet, Rudolf Opitz, “demonstrated the Me 163B with take-off dolly attached to the satisfaction of all concerned” and the programme continued.

The Komet was still being flown as a glider at that stage. Adding an engine added more complications, more dangers and more delay. The “first operational sortie” wasn’t until 13 May 1944, when Hauptmann Wolfgang Späte tried to shoot down two P-47 Thunderbolts. But the Komet’s speed got in his way: he was chasing the Thunderbolts and about to fire when “the left wing suddenly heeled over and the whole aircraft began to shake violently” (pg. 52). Then the engine “flamed out”: Späte had “inadvertently touched the ‘Sound Barrier’, as it was later to be known”.

That exceptional speed was apparent again later in the month:

Another encounter took place on 31 May 1944, this time between a photo-renaissance Spitfire and a Komet from No. 1 Staffel. The Spitfire pilot was at 37,000 feet and about to make his first run over the target, when he noticed a white trail some 7,000 feet below and about a mile away. The Spitfire pilot climbed his aircraft to 41,000 feet and saw the tiny aircraft just 3,000 feet below him and about 1,000 yards away. The sudden realisation that the tiny machine had climbed around 8,000 feet in the same time that the Spitfire had climbed 4,000 feet was quite disturbing. The only description the pilot could give of his potential adversary was that it appeared to be all-wing and travelled exceptionally fast. (ch. 1, pg. 54)

If Allied bombs were turning Germany into a hell of high explosive, then bats were rising out of that hell. While its fuel lasted and its rocket engine functioned, the Komet was uncatchable, but like the Me-262 the Me-163 was highly vulnerable when landing:

As he ran out of fuel and glided into land, the P-51 Mustang attacked and hit the little rocket plane. The Komet made a perfect landing, but when the ground crew got to the pilot they found the pilot, Feldwebel Herbert Klein, dead in the cockpit with a bullet hole in his head. The bullet had passed right through his seat armour. (pp. 68-9)

That was in January 1945, when the Third Reich was close to final defeat. In February, the Luftwaffe High Command “ordered that production of the Me 163B cease”. As Treadwell notes, of the 364 Komets built, “only 70…ever saw combat”. Like its celestial namesake, the Komet blazed briefly and then faded to black. It was an astonishing aircraft built and flown in atrocious conditions and a worthy choice for chapter one.

Chapter two is devoted to an even stranger aircraft: the Bachem Ba-349 Natter, a vertical take-off rocket-plane designed to fly, attack a bomber formation, then fall apart in mid-air and descend to earth on parachutes. The first manned test-flight killed the pilot, Oberleutnant Lothar Siebert, but the programme continued and ten Natters were eventually “assigned to an operational air defence site at Kircheim, east of Stuttgart” (pg. 82). The pilots waited more than a week to intercept a “heavy bomber formation”, but encountered an “American tank unit” instead. The Natters were destroyed “to prevent them falling into the hands of the Allies” (pp. 83-5). Three were nevertheless captured intact elsewhere, lasting proof, as Treadwell puts it, that “ingenuity could be born of desperation”.

The remaining eight chapters of the book describe more ingenuity and more desperation: the near-suicidal Fieseler Fi 103R Reichenberg, a piloted version of the pulse-jet V1 Doodlebug; the Arado Ar-234, “regarded as the world’s first pure jet bomber”; the Junkers Ju-287, with its revolutionary swept-forward wings; and so on. The tenth and final chapter is about the most important aircraft of them all: the Messerschmitt Me-262 Schwalbe, the “twin-engined jet fighter” that might have altered the outcome of the war if it had been delivered sooner and in greater numbers. The Reich might have won or forced a truce, rather than being battered into unconditional surrender.

But because the Me-262 is more important, it’s received much more attention from historians of military aviation and Treadwell is right to leave it till last. It’s the most attractive aircraft here too: Schwalbe, Swallow, is an appropriate name. Despite its deadliness – at least when its engines worked and its airframe held together – the Me-262 doesn’t seem to belong with the sinister, bat-like Me-163 and the stub-winged, embryo-like Ba-349. Those are alchemical aircraft, born of fire, blood and flesh-eating chemicals. They belong to the final days of the Third Reich and aeronautically speaking they’ve stayed there. Rocket aircraft never became routine and captured Me-262s were the great prize carried off at the end of the war by the Americans, Russians and British.

So the strange and sinister come first, the significant comes last. That’s the way readers of this book will want it. The prose here is functional rather than polished, but that suits the subject and there’s a well-judged balance of text and photos. Rocket and Jet Aircraft of the Third Reich is an excellent introduction to those aircraft, describing both highly advanced technology and age-old politicking, as the Luftwaffe and SS compete for control of aviation in a collapsing empire. Bombs fall, cities die, and bats rise out of hell in a way that is still fascinating and disturbing more than seventy years later.

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Anthony Burgess discusses Evelyn Waugh:


From Ninety-Nine Novels: The Best in English since 1939, A Personal Choice by Anthony Burgess (1984).

Brideshead Revisited [1945]

The creation of a television series based on this book (in 1981) was a pretext for the reappraisal of the book itself. The general consensus was that Brideshead Revisited was a sham and a snobbish sham. This referred as much to Waugh’s recension of the book in 1960 (he trimmed off the fat, meaning the gluttony appropriate to deprived wartime but reprehensible in peace) as to the self-indulgent first version. Everything in the novel would seem to be wrong — the implausible invention of a rich English aristocratic family haunted by the God of the Catholics; the Hound of Heaven pursuing the agnostic narrator-hero; the implication that only the upper class can be taken seriously. Charles Ryder, who narrates the story, is seduced by Brideshead Castle and its denizens: but this seduction is merely the prelude to his improbable seduction by God. The eschatological does not sit well with the sybaritic. And so on. And so on.

And yet. And yet. I have read Brideshead Revisited at least a dozen times and have never failed to be charmed and moved, even to tears. It is, appropriately, a seductive book. Even the overblown metaphors move and charm. The comedy is superb: Mr Samgrass, Ryder’s father, Anthony Blanche are wonderful portraits. And the evocation of pre-war Oxford and Venice, where Ryder “drowns in honey”, is of great brilliance. This is one of those disturbing novels in which the faults do not matter. (Increasingly one finds that the greatest works of literary art are those with the most flaws — Hamlet, for example.) Waugh’s regular Augustan stance, suitable for a comic writer, becomes confused with one romantic as a rose blown by moonlight, but it does not matter. Apart from its literary qualities, it breathes a theological certainty which, if a little too chic, is a world away from the confusions of Greeneland and the squalor of the Irish. It is a novel altogether readable and damnably magical.

Sword of Honour

Evelyn Waugh [1952-61]

This work was not originally planned as a trilogy. Men at Arms came out in 1952, to be followed by Officers and Gentlemen in 1955. The author considered then that he had said all he had to say about the experiences of his near-autobiographical Guy Crouchback in the Second World War, but he changed his mind later and completed the sequence with Unconditional Surrender in 1961 (published in the United States as The End of the Battle). In 1966 he pruned and revised and issued the trilogy as a single novel in one volume. Most readers prefer to take the items severally and in their unrevised form (compare Brideshead Revisited).

Guy Crouchback is a Catholic gentleman with a castello in Italy and a private income. His wife has left him to indulge in a series of marital adventures and his religion forbids divorce and remarriage. He is lonely, dim, dull, and has rejected the current of life. The coming of war fires him with a crusading zeal, but he is in his late thirties and the fighting machine does not want him. Eventually he joins the Halberdiers, trains, sees action in Dakar, Crete, finally Yugoslavia. Waugh does not push Crouchback too much into the foreground at first. There is a fine galaxy of comic characters — the magnificent Apthorpe, Brigadier Ritchie-Hook, the uniformed clubmen, as well as some more lovable than the satirist Waugh was previously able to give us — honest professional soldiers like Colonel Tickeridge, old Mr Crouchback with his firm and simple faith, eventually Uncle Peregrine, a universally dreaded bore who is not boring. But the pathos of Crouchback’s situation is woven strongly into the fine war reportage and the superb comic action. Virginia, his wife, divorced again, rejects his advances. His new bride, the army, is proving a slut. Disillusionment about the true nature of the war grows with the entry of the Russians into the conflict.

The age of the gentleman is disappearing. Men whom Crouchback admires prove treacherous or cowardly. There is a new type of hero emerging, summed up in the failed officer and imposter Trimmer, a former ship’s hairdresser. Trimmer sleeps with Virginia and begets a child on her. Crouchback and she reconsummate their marriage and ensure that a great Catholic family has an heir, though — by an irony appropriate to the new age — this child is really a proletarian by-blow. Crouchback survives the débâcle of Crete, is sickened by the “people’s war” in the Balkans, feels the death-urge, regrets the passing of an old order of chivalry and humanity but, with the stoicism of his kind, makes unconditional surrender to history. He had much in common with the hero of Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End (a tetralogy of the First World War on which Waugh’s work seems to be modelled) — Christopher Tietjens, the incorrupt and traduced gentleman of Christian ideals. What Ford’s book did for one war, Waugh [sic] has done for the other. Sword of Honour is not merely the story of one man’s battles; it is the whole history of the European struggle itself, told with verve, humour, pathos and sharp accuracy.

Extracts from Little Wilson and Big God: Being the First Part of the Confessions of Anthony Burgess (1987).

The great English Catholics of the age of toleration, from Cardinal Newman to Graham Greene, have all been converts. A cradle Catholic finds it hard to take them seriously. They missed out on the suffering, never gave a drop of blood to the cause, and yielded not one rood of land to the Henrican expropriators. (Little Wilson and Big God: Being the First Part of the Confessions of Anthony Burgess (1987), pp. 7-8 of the 1988 Penguin paperback)

The converted Catholics of modern literature seem concerned with a different faith from the one I was nurtured in — naively romantic, pedantically scrupulous. Novels like The Heart of the Matter, The End of the Affair, Brideshead Revisited and Sword of Honour falsify the faith by over-dramatising it. Waugh’s fictional Catholicism is too snobbish to be true. It evidently hurt Waugh deeply that his typical fellow-worshipper should be an expatriated Irish labourer and that the typical minister of the Church should be a Maynooth priest with a brogue. [I disagree: I think he might have enjoyed this in a perverse way.] (pg. 8)

Jack Tollitt became, like Greene and Waugh, a fierce and pedantic Catholic, shame and example to us all. (pg. 53)

The situation presented in Evelyn Waugh’s Men at Arms applied to potential rank and file as well as to Oxford gentlemen like Guy Crouchback. What could be sickening about that novel, if the nausea were not mitigated by comic irony, is the assumption that a certain segment of British society was, on the grounds that it had an income from land, an Oxbridge education, and friends among the ruling classes, specially qualified to lead those with none of those irrelevant advantages. Kingsley Amis, reviewing Men at Arms, was right to ask what was wrong with Guy Crouchback’s enlisting as a private in the Pioneer Guards if he were so keen to do his duty. Hore-Belisha’s army reforms, which assumed that the gift of leadership was something to be learned by anyone who could learn it, and not a paracletic bestowal on gentlemen graduates, were considered to be Jewish impertinence. (pg. 222)

Evelyn Waugh was right, in his Put Out More Flags, to point to the peculiarly dreamlike nature of that first war winter. It was cosy. There was no shortage of Player’s cigarettes, real cream cakes and whiskey at twelve shillings and sixpence the bottle. There was a blackout, but this on moonless nights was a call to erotic adventure. (pg. 223)

Trevor Wilson, a Malayan Information Officer with whom I had dined in Kota Bharu, had given me some silk shirts to take back to his friend Graham Greene. Greene had an apartment in the Albany, no longer decorated with the miniature whisky bottles which he had been collecting and was to empty into the pages of Our Man in Havana. He was amiable and I signed a copy of Time for a Tiger [which I think is better than anything by Greene] for him. He took me to lunch at the Café Royal and, as it was Friday, we ate fish. Greene made it clear to me that he had achieved much and had reached a plateau where he could afford to take leisurely breath. He had not written the definitive Malayan novel which would match the definitive Vietnamese one entitled The Quiet American, and he did not seem to think I would write it either. I was comic, there was frivolity in my book. He praised the other great Catholic, Evelyn Waugh, and considered The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, which had just appeared, a masterpiece. My own Catholicism, being of the cradle variety, was suspect. I was evidently not to be taken seriously as a novelist, rather as a colonial civil servant who had had the luck to find excellent fictional material in the course of his duties. I was an amateur. This was pretty much my own view of myself. I shook hands with Greene, whom I was not to see again till we were both settled on the Côte D’Azur, and went to look for a job. (pg. 418)


Words on Waugh’s World

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Small Arms 1914-45 by Michael E. HaskewSmall Arms: 1914-45, Michael E. Haskew (Amber Books 2012)

Aircraft can be beautiful without being deadly. Guns are sometimes beautiful, always deadly. This is a book about death-machines designed to be used by a single individual: pistols, rifles, machine-guns, flame-throwers, rocket-launchers. It’s part of series called the Essential Weapons Identification Guides and covers every major army, conflict and theatre between the beginning of the First World War and the end of the Second. And some minor ones too. There are photographs and drawings of the weapons, technical specifications, occasional cut-away guides and scenes of the weapons in use, like “a rare photograph showing Axis troops manning a Maschinengewehr Solothurn 1930 (MG 30) somewhere on the Eastern Front” (pg. 135).

I found the contrast between the totalitarian and democratic armies interesting. German soldiers during the Second World War look disciplined and highly competent; American soldiers look sloppy and insubordinate. It’s natural soldiers versus decadent conscripts: the German military were out-gunned and out-numbered, never out-classed. The stern, purposeful faces of the “Soviet partisans” on page 135, who are armed with the “super-reliable 71-round-drum-magazine PPSh-41 submachine gun” in Belorussia, 1943, reminded me of this passage from Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949):

At the age of three Comrade Ogilvy had refused all toys except a drum, a sub-machine gun, and a model helicopter. At six – a year early, by a special relaxation of the rules – he had joined the Spies, at nine he had been a troop leader. At eleven he had denounced his uncle to the Thought Police after overhearing a conversation which appeared to him to have criminal tendencies. At seventeen he had been a district organizer of the Junior Anti-Sex League. At nineteen he had designed a hand-grenade which had been adopted by the Ministry of Peace and which, at its first trial, had killed thirty-one Eurasian prisoners in one burst. (Nineteen Eighty-Four, Part 1, ch. 4)

Orwell’s satire was based on an unpleasant reality: as the technology to enhance life advances, so does the technology to destroy it. War is a serious business and this is a book for people who are serious about war and its weaponry.

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Danger UXB by James OwenDanger UXB: The Heroic Story of the WWII Bomb Disposal Teams, James Owen (Abacus 2010; paperback 2011)

“Unless I got clear, I had exactly twelve seconds to live.” It’s not difficult to make a book on bomb-disposal an interesting read. And a disturbing one:

As we stepped over the rope, there was a vivid flash and a deafening explosion. The houses seemed to rock, and above the bomb site there appeared a red haze, changing to a moving pattern of red and black smoke from which descended debris, human fragments and a dew of blood. (ch. 10, pg. 151)

James Owen describes how the disposal of UXBs – Unexploded Bombs – wasn’t as dangerous as it was popularly supposed to be, but it took a special kind of psychology and courage and it was a job where practice did not make perfect. Fuzes – “the spelling used by engineers to distinguish the complex initiating mechanism of a bomb from a simple fuse or delay such as the cord in a stick of dynamite” (ch. 1, pg. 3) – evolved to become more dangerous as the war went on. An experienced bomb-disposer encountering a new type of fuze suddenly wasn’t experienced any more.

And old types of fuze could behave in unpredictable ways. They could seem harmless and not be. The tools of a bomb-disposer’s trade could also turn against him, like the liquid oxygen used to freeze the battery of the deadly new “Y fuze”, which was specifically designed to kill anyone attempting to remove it:

Two days later [Major Cyril] Martin went to a house where another Y fuze was lying at the bottom of a deep and ill-ventilated shaft. It was being frozen by Frank Carlile, the officer who had brought in the first example, and he had just begun to extract this one when he was engulfed in flames. The highly oxygenated atmosphere had spontaneously ignited a substance in the shaft, which then started to belch fire. … Carlile was terribly burned, but by August he was back on duty. Later that month he was killed by a fuze that exploded at a bomb dump at Horsham. He was forty-two. (ch. 17, “Y Fuze”, pg. 265)

So he was old for a bomb-disposer:

Up came the bulk of the bomb until it was suspended a couple of feet above the hole. It began to swing a touch freely and Blaney stepped forward to cushion it with his hands. As he did so, it exploded.

In the evidence that he later gave to a military inquiry, [Staff-Serjeant (sic)] Fox noted that the bomb could not have been in a more lethal position. In a microsecond it was transformed into a searing blast of noise, light and heat that tore outwards at supersonic speed, clawing at flesh, pulverising bone, annihilating all in its path. Max Blaney and Richard James died instantly, as did Charlie Roberts, Lance-Corporals Doug Mills and Stan White, Sappers Joe Maycock and Ted McClaren, and Drivers John Pickering and John Lauchlan. Most of the men were in their twenties. (ch. 1, “Danger UXB”, pg. 7)

That was on Friday 13th December 1940. The early year is significant, because an important lesson was still being learnt: bomb-disposal should endanger as few people at a time as possible. The ideal is one man against one mechanism, not a crowd. That way, only one man dies if it goes wrong. But often that ideal wasn’t possible: bombs had to be dug for, lifted or pulled into new positions. Disposal required brawn as well as brain. Bullshit too, in some cases: bomb-disposers got involved in propaganda, sometimes for the service they represented, sometimes on their own account. Bob Davies, dubbed “the hero of St Paul’s” for supposedly saving the cathedral from an enormous UXB, received the George Cross from the King in the same week of February 1942 as he was “placed under military arrest” for “fraud and dishonesty of the gravest kind” (ch. 16, “Conduct Unbecoming”).

Success in war is sometimes owed not to courage, but to psychopathy. Psychopaths don’t mind inflicting violent death and don’t fear suffering it. Perhaps that explains Davies, who reminds me of a character in Evelyn Waugh’s novel Put Out More Flags (1942), set at the beginning of the war:

“You’ll be in more danger crossing the Atlantic than staying in London,” said Basil. “There won’t be any air raids on London.”

“For God’s sake don’t say that.” Even as she spoke the sirens wailed. Poppet stood paralysed with horror. “Oh God,” she said. “You’ve done it. They’ve come.”

“Faultless timing,” said Basil cheerfully. “That’s always been Hitler’s strong point.”

Poppet began to dress in an ineffectual fever of reproach. “You said there wouldn’t be a war. You said the bombers would never come. Now we shall all be killed and you just sit there talking and talking.”

“You know I should have thought an air raid was just the thing for a surréaliste; it ought to give you plenty of compositions – limbs and things lying about in odd places you know.” (Put Out More Flags, 1942)

Basil Seal was right: an interesting composition appeared when a V1 – the first of Hitler’s Vergeltungswaffen or “Vengeance Weapons” – struck a trolley-bus “crammed with home-going workers” in 1943:

“The roof and upper deck, together with the passengers, was blasted away. Standing passengers on the lower deck also were flung against the fronts of houses on the other side of the road. The lower deck passengers were all dead.” Although many of the victims had been decapitated, they were still sitting down, as though waiting for their fares to be collected. (ch. 19, “Hitler’s Last Hope”, pg. 281)

But the quote beginning this review is from someone who almost certainly wasn’t a psychopath: sub-lieutenant Jack Easton, who had worked as a solicitor before the war. He’s describing what flashed through his mind when he heard the “whirr” of a parachute mine arming itself for explosion. He had less space to get clear than his companion, Ordinary Seamen Bennett Southwell, which was why he ducked behind a “brick air shelter” rather than sprinting down the street like Southwell. It’s also why he survived: Southwell’s headless remains weren’t found till six weeks later (ch. 11, “For Gallantry”, pg. 167).

Parachute mines and an “1800-kilogram bomb” nicknamed Satan were two of the biggest challenges faced by bomb-disposers; the two-kilogram butterfly bomb was one of the smallest. And most cunning:

One of the first anti-personnel cluster bombs, it was dropped from containers that held two dozen of the coffee-jar-sized devices. As they fell, their cases fell open, forming a pair of rudimentary hinged wings that rotated in flight like a sycamore seed. This armed the device by twisting out a spindle as it twisted to earth.

The tactical intent behind its use was to cause deaths and injuries among those rushing to put out fires started by the incendiaries with which the Splitterbombe was dropped, so hindering efforts to fight the flames. The butterflies weighed just two kilos and their disc-like wings would become caught up on telephone wires, roof gutters and tree branches, waiting to be triggered. (ch. 18, “Butterflies”, pg. 270)

The butterfly bomb was small, cheap and highly effective, whereas the V2 was just highly effective. The V-weapons are described at the end of the book: the V1, a subsonic pulse-jet, was frightening because it announced its own arrival; the V2, a supersonic rocket, was frightening because it didn’t; the V3, a kind of super-cannon, was never completed. Explosives are one of the most horrific weapons of war but also one of the most interesting. The story of bomb-disposal combines engineering, chemistry and electronics with psychology, surrealism and violent death, which is why this is such a memorable and disturbing book.

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Front cover of The Screwtape Letters by C.S. LewisThe Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis (1942)

C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) is most famous for what are, in my opinion, his weakest books: the incoherent and inconsistent Narnia series. The best things there are usually Pauline Baynes’ illustrations. As a fantasist, C.S.L. isn’t as good as his friend J.R.R. Tolkien, let alone the greatest of them all, Clark Ashton Smith. But I can’t imagine either of them writing this book. Smith and Tolkien could be concise, entertaining and psychologically sophisticated, but they couldn’t mix the everyday and the exotic like Lewis. The Screwtape Letters is proof of that. It’s presented as a series of letters from a senior demon, Screwtape, to his nephew Wormwood, who is trying to tempt a young Englishman to damnation:

You say you are “delirious with joy” because the European humans have started another of their wars. I see very well what has happened to you. You are not delirious; you are only drunk. Reading between the lines in your very unbalanced account of the patient’s sleepless night, I can reconstruct your state of mind fairly accurately. For the first time in your career you have tasted that wine which is the reward of all our labours — the anguish and bewilderment of a human soul — and it has gone to your head. … But do remember, Wormwood, that duty comes before pleasure. If any present self-indulgence on your part leads to the ultimate loss of the prey, you will be left eternally thirsting for that draught of which you are now so much enjoying your first sip. If, on the other hand, by steady and cool-headed application here and now you can finally secure his soul, he will then be yours forever — a brim-full living chalice of despair and horror and astonishment which you can raise to your lips as often as you please. (Letter V)

You don’t need to be a Christian or to believe in the Devil to learn from this book: it isn’t valuable simply as literature or as an insight into England before and during the Second World War. It’s valuable as an insight into England at any time. Or into France, Greece or Outer Mongolia. That’s because it’s about human nature and human imperfections. Screwtape wants human beings to be unhappy, so he’s full of cunning advice about how to foment quarrels, breed resentment, blind individuals to their own faults and sharpen their eye for the faults of others. All readers of The Screwtape Letters will find their own psychology and experience under discussion, because all readers will be human.

Okay, we might not really have personal demons feeding us malicious advice and leading us astray, but if we suppose that we do, we can direct our thoughts and emotions better. Simply ask yourself: “Would this train of thought please my personal demon, supposing I had one?” If the answer is “Yes”, you’ll know that it’s self-defeating. Screwtape points out again and again that human beings sabotage their own happiness, embracing the negative and rejecting the positive. Inter alia, they unthinkingly accept ideas that make them unhappy. After the war starts, Wormwood’s target begins work as an air-raid warden and Screwtape offers some advice on how to exploit what he will see as part of his work:

But there is a sort of attack on the emotions which can still be tried. It turns on making him feel, when first he sees human remains plastered on a wall, that this is “what the world is really like” and that all his religion has been a fantasy … we have got them completely fogged about the meaning of the word “real”. They tell each other, of some great spiritual experience, “All that really happened was that you heard some music in a lighted building”; here “Real” means the bare physical facts, separated from the other elements in the experience they actually had. On the other hand, they will also say “It’s all very well discussing that high dive as you sit here in an armchair, but wait till you get up there and see what it’s really like”: here “real” is being used in the opposite sense to mean, not the physical facts (which they know already while discussing the matter in armchairs) but the emotional effect those facts will have on a human consciousness. … The creatures are always accusing one another of wanting “to eat the cake and have it”; but thanks to our labours they are more often in the predicament of paying for the cake and not eating it. Your patient, properly handled, will have no difficulty in regarding his emotion at the sight of human entrails as a revelation of Reality and his emotion at the sight of happy children or fair weather as mere sentiment. (Letter XXX)

Those are adult ideas and you won’t find them in the Narnia books. But what you’ll find both in Narnia and in Screwtape’s letters is Lewis’s biggest theme: free will. Screwtape’s central concern is manipulation and deceit: he wants to trick human beings into making wrong decisions, into believing false and harmful things, into constantly turning away from Heaven and towards Hell:

For you and I, who see that position as it really is, must never forget how totally different it ought to appear to him. We know that we have introduced a change of direction in his course which is already carrying him out of his orbit around the Enemy; but he must be made to imagine that all the choices which have effected this change of course are trivial and revocable. He must not be allowed to suspect that he is now, however slowly, heading right away from the sun on a line which will carry him into the cold and dark of utmost space. (Letter XII)

“The Enemy” means “God”: part of the irony of this book is the way it inverts the Christian worldview, denigrating what is holy and praising what is unholy. But Lewis isn’t simply being ironic: his point is that Screwtape, as a misery-loving, human-hating demon, knows what he’s doing when he rejects Christianity. Christians reject Christianity without realizing it. And there’s part of the entertainment, for me at least: spotting the fallacies in Lewis’s concept of free will. If Wormwood’s target is finally damned, it will be because he didn’t properly understand what was going on. Screwtape’s advice is to confuse, to befuddle, to prevent thought as much as to pervert it:

You will say that these are very small sins; and doubtless, like all young tempters, you are anxious to be able to report spectacular wickedness. But do remember, the only thing that matters is the extent to which you separate the man from the Enemy. It does not matter how small the sins are provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing. Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one — the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts. (Letter XII)

If the choice between Heaven and Hell were clear during life, no-one would choose Hell except lunatics and imbeciles – that is, people who can’t reason, can’t understand and can’t act in their own best interest. That’s why Screwtape describes “one of [his] own patients” saying this on arrival in Hell: “I now see that I spent most of my life in doing neither what I ought nor what I liked” (Letter XII). The damned soul saw the truth only when it was too late. That’s why he’s culpable, in Lewis’s eyes: he should have seen earlier, should have avoided those choices in life that led to his damnation after life. But he didn’t see because he was weak and imperfect. Meanwhile, other weak, imperfect individuals make the right choices and arrive in Heaven. And salvation is as revelatory as damnation: Screwtape says that only at death will a saved soul see its guardian angel and its tempting demon clearly “for the first time” (Letter XXXI).

I can’t accept these ideas or Lewis’s insistence on free will. Justice seems to demand that all souls have an equal chance of ascending to Heaven or descending to Hell. If the chance is 50/50, it seems impossible to distinguish free will from coin-tossing. But Christian tradition says that chance is in fact weighted heavily in one direction. According to the New Testament, the majority of human beings will be damned:

7:13 Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: 7:14 Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it. (Gospel of Matthew)

Lewis wasn’t happy with that and in The Great Divorce (1945) he suggests that souls continue to have a chance of Heaven even after death. He wasn’t happy with the traditional idea of Hell either:

9:47 And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out: it is better for thee to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire: 9:48 Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched. (Gospel of Mark)

Screwtape’s Hell isn’t fiery or physically frightening, but it’s still thought-provoking:

Music and silence — how I detest them both! How thankful we should be that ever since our Father entered Hell — though longer ago than humans, reckoning in light years, could express — no square inch of infernal space and no moment of infernal time has been surrendered to either of those abominable forces, but all has been occupied by Noise — Noise, the grand dynamism, the audible expression of all that is exultant, ruthless, and virile — Noise which alone defends us from silly qualms, despairing scruples, and impossible desires. We will make the whole universe a noise in the end. We have already made great strides in this direction as regards the Earth. The melodies and silences of Heaven will be shouted down in the end. But I admit we are not yet loud enough, or anything like it. Research is in progress. (Letter XXIII)

That research has indeed progressed. It means that Screwtape would like a lot of modern music. And that “reckoning in light years” is a reminder that Lewis wasn’t very knowledgeable about science. He seems to think that “light year” is a vast unit of time, rather than of distance. But if his understanding of science was weak, his understanding of psychology was strong. That was why he could make insightful critiques of science in books like The Abolition of Man (1943). Weak and imperfect human beings are gaining more and more power over nature. Lewis didn’t think it would end well. The trends he saw beginning in the first half of the twentieth century are coming to fruition in the first quarter of the twenty-first. He discusses some of them in The Screwtape Letters, partly because they’re important for his perennial theme: free will. I don’t believe in that and Lewis’s concept of Hell isn’t frightening or disturbing enough to make me consider becoming a Christian.

Maybe I’m wrong. I’m mentally weak and morally imperfect, after all. That’s why I enjoyed this book and learned things from it, because, in talking about humanity, it talked about me. Even Lewis’s weakest writing, like the Narnia books, can stay with you for life. The Screwtape Letters contains some of his strongest writing. Something I’ve always remembered from Lewis’s introduction to one edition is his point that, for proper balance, he should have written the heavenly equivalent too: letters to the guardian angel with whom Wormwood was wrestling for a human soul. But imitating an angel would be impossible for a human being: it’s much easier to think down than to think up. Lewis was a pessimistic conservative and rejected the idea of true happiness on earth. But he knew human beings can always be happier. This book contains lots of advice on how to achieve misery, so readers will understand better how to avoid misery. They’ll also be well-entertained on the way.


Elsewhere other-posted:

The Brain In Pain: Choice, Joyce and the Colour of Your Hair

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