Saturday, 28 March 2009

Patrick Deer: Culture in Camouflage

Patrick Deer's Culture in Camouflage: War, Empire, and Modern British Literature is newly published by OUP. It is (in all respects but one) a strong and meticulously researched book: the endnotes and bibliography constitute more than a quarter of its 330 pages. Deer announces in his introduction that his study 'aims to remap the history of British war culture by insisting on the centrality and importance of the literature of the Second World War.' Literature is shown to play its part in a larger 'cultural field', as a kind of propaganda intended to normalise war and represent conflict in officially acceptable ways. Whereas, Deer maintains, the First World War did not produce a helpfully coherent war culture at home, every effort was made to ensure that the later war was bolstered by the arts. Those are huge and dangerous generalisations, and Deer's task (which he performs with some subtlety) is to make them seem persuasive.

This is an essential study for any account of Home Front cultural life before and during the Second World War. However, the list of writers named in chapter titles and subtitles betrays something of a bias: Ford Madox Ford, Rex Warner, Virginia Woolf, Humphrey Jennings, Henry Green, James Hanley, Graham Greene, Elizabeth Bowen, George Orwell, Evelyn Waugh, Alexander Baron. Deer's study is not the first to suggest (albeit through omission) that poetry is distinct from 'literature'; the ghettoising of poetry in recent critical developments has been widely remarked. But what a shame that a scholar as good as Deer should spend such little time on poetry. It may be, of course, that after Owen and Sassoon, poetry during World War 2 is less susceptible than other literary forms to the blandishments of power. Even so, that case needs to be prosecuted.

Those small portions of the book devoted to poetry are by far the weakest. Early on, Deer badly misquotes 'Dulce et Decorum Est' ('Behind that wagon we flung him in' is a wooden version of what Owen wrote: 'Behind the wagon that we flung him in'). On the subject of mistranscription, who shall 'scape whipping? (Cf. 'Futility' in my Modern English War Poetry). But when Deer gives two perfunctory pages to Keith Douglas, one paragraph to Sidney Keyes, and three name-checks to Alun Lewis, we suspect that here may be someone uninterested in poetry. For example, quoting from Douglas, Deer misses stanza breaks; Alamein to Zem Zem becomes 'From Alamein to Zem Zem'; 'simplify me when I'm dead' turns into 'simplify me when I am dead'; and the great ending of 'Desert Flowers' --- 'Lay the coin on my tongue and I will sing / of what the others never set eyes on' --- gets mangled into 'of what others never set eyes on'. Deer mulls over the 'ambiguity' of 'others': needlessly, because the ambiguity is caused by his own error.

In studies of Second World War literature, it can sometimes seem as if every prose hack of the period has been lavished with attention. Meanwhile, major poets are dismissed in a page or two of slapdash references. Deer has written an insightful and provocative study of what he inaccurately calls the 'literature' of the war. Someone needs to do the same for the poetry.

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