‘Now pile your dust upon the quick and the dead,’ laments Laertes in Hamlet as Ophelia is buried. It’s one of those beautifully striking phrases that I’ve remembered from university, up there with bits of Dante (‘midway along the journey of life, I found myself in a dark wood’) and Wat Tyler (‘when Adam delved and Eve span, where was then the pride of man?’). It’s alluring even in an opaque fourteenth century bible version: ‘And thei schulen yyue resoun to hym, that is redi to deme the quyke and the deed.’ Leave judgement of all souls to God, it admonishes us.
Richard van Emden’s book ‘The Quick and the Dead’ is about the fallen soldiers of the Great War and their families, and I had picked it up on the same basis of intrigue and recognition. I have read several of Richard’s books on self-scheduled Breakfast in Bed Research sessions. If you have a good book you don’t wait until finishing your porridge before picking it up. With tautly-bound paperbacks this creates balance issues – bowl and spoon must be handled deftly to keep the book open whilst the porridge goes in your mouth and not all over your pyjamas. When you’re reading books as fascinating as Richard’s, the urgent need to take copious notes complicates this precarious arrangement. One false move for a distant biro and it’s carnage. A few pages have delicately oated watermarks highlighting particularly affecting passages.
So I was keen to attend a workshop based around the themes of the book at Oxford Brookes University. It was led by Richard and heritage consultant Stephen Barker and aimed at people writing about the war. There were around ten of us in attendance, most of whom were women, so I gave myself a talking to for not having challenged my own assumptions about who’s interested in WW1. One was a retired RAF nurse, another a young Asian girl about to start an English literature degree. Several wanted to expand their own family history research. I’d met Patrick Limb, who’s writing a book about a barrister-turned-soldier shot in the Easter Rising, before, and a fair-headed young man called David who wouldn’t have looked out of place in a 1916 officer’s uniform made up the male contingent. What we all had in common was a quiet relief that we’d outed our Great War habit in a confined and sympathetic environment.
Richard had boundless energy and enthusiasm. He shared a career’s worth of wonderful stories about Great War veterans, the neap tides of publisher’s attentions, and what not to put on your book cover. He was also generous with his hard-won experience, putting someone else’s book, ‘How the Pershore Plum Won the Great War’ on a must-read list for all of us.
It was interesting to come to the workshop at this point in my own Project Lionel and notice that some of the thoughts that were crystallised for me during my own research were echoed in the discussions. The mud, blood and vermin versions of the Great War have become clichés (albeit brutally honest ones) that the media seem unable to let go of, but any writer hoping to attract a thoughtful readership has got to find the light, shade and humour amongst the gore.
We did some good break-out work on book proposals. It was painful to have to cut down to 50 words the 200-word masterpiece I drafted almost a year ago for Pen and Sword – but it was a good exercise in precision pruning. I didn’t quite have the nerve to share some of the flippant titles I’d played with – (Lionel and the Red Baron: Great War, Terrible End) but it was fun to talk about everyone’s ideas for their own projects. One genius title for a book about the Women’s Land Army came up that gave us the giggles, but I’ll leave that to your imagination and tell you all about it when the work is written and published.
I’ve taken home two things in particular. The first: don’t be a lazy author if you want to be commissioned to write again – get out there and sell. Richard had the gift of making this sound like fun instead of the complete vapour-inducing horror I’d been turning it into.
The second was that I’m now desperate for a customised filing system housed in antique walnut, with an A to Z of my archival meanderings, in order to turn all those little nuggets I had to leave out of the book, into Book Number Two.
I’ve also noticed in the acknowledgements of several sober historians of Great War aviation that my addiction to facetious alternative titles is not unusual, so I’ll leave you with a few more. (Disclaimer: these are coming from a place of love and respect and in a long tradition of RFC black humour which I hope will not offend anyone.)
Up the Family Tree and Downed on the Somme
Aunt Lil and the Red Baron: An Ancestor Descends
Farewell to Flesquieres
Croydon and All That
A Sideslip to Obscurity
Half a League from Carshalton
Ill Met By Marcoing
Hun in the Sun, Youth on the Looth (sic)
Icarus in Sheepskin
I Was A Teenage Second Lieutenant
Similar affectionate alternatives are welcomed.
Not so much a journey of discovery, more of a commute of compulsion
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