Monday, 5 August 2013

One foot in each world

It rained heavily for a few hours this afternoon, and as the storm started to clear, the sky turned an extraordinary sickly colour, the like of which I'm not sure I've seen before. It had a sort of greeny, yellow hue, which made researching gas attacks at the Battle of the Somme particularly gruelling.

I've just finished reading Covenant with Death by John Harris, which is a loosely fictionalised account of what happened to the Leeds Pals regiment in the First World War. My previous assumption was that these Pals regiments (non-soldiers who signed up on a wave of patriotism at the start of the war) would have largely been made up of working-class lads, steel workers, miners and the like, but I'm fast discovering that they came from all walks of life; university lecturers, press men, the sons of families who'd made their fortune in the industrial revolution. Their only commonality was the town from which they came; towns which would struggle to recover if the regiment found itself in the wrong place at the wrong time. 

The Leeds Pals were in the first wave of attacks at the Somme and were mowed down in their thousands by machine guns. "Two years in the making. Ten minutes in the destroying," as Harris writes in the postscript of his book, which is one of the most brutal and detailed accounts of the war I've ever read. Utterly compelling and relentlessly upsetting. No book has ever touched me like this. 

As with the Pepys Motet, doing detailed research for this project has led to my feeling as though I've permanently got a foot in two worlds. I'm pretty sure historians must feel like this all the time. There's a little space in my head where an ever-growing battery of First World War images is being stored. Some are becoming so life-like they almost feel like memories. As the project begins to develop, so this particular area of my brain will grow. 

I'm certainly not making things easy on myself. At every twist and turn on this particular journey there's a tragedy lurking. There are no happy endings in the Great War. None that I've found anyway. Even the lads that came home physically unscathed left something of themselves behind in France. 

The rain has stopped, we've opened the window, and the glorious smell of pizza dough and garlic is drifting up from the restaurant next door. It's making us hungry. 

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