A symphony of lost souls

gas

Beyond the chick-lit and beside the children’s books, World War One sits on a display table.

Paperbacks by Hemingway and Remarque form a ragged front line, and behind them, slimmer and with gentler covers, Owen and Sassoon get on with being quietly ignored. But this is not where the eye lingers. Instead one is compelled to look up and stand to attention before the great pyramid of glossy hardcovers that forms the centre of the display. Ramrod straight, these books are the officer corps, full of maps and photographs and statistics and carefully considered regrets.

The pages are white. None has been mottled with damp or marbled by pressing against intestines. And on their covers, the warmongers gaze out at the bookshop’s customers.

The Kaiser’s bloodhound eyes are faintly outraged, demanding to know why he has been placed so near to the chick-lit section. But he is not alone. Generals bristle all around him. This is a rookery of moustaches, each one roosting over the same tight mouth.

The ash of time has drifted down over these faces for a century. It has softened their edges under a blanket of soft grey forgetting. The faces continue to deny complicity in any crime. Whatever we did, they say, had to be done. The uniforms appeal to order and sense. But as I look into those eyes I can’t help feeling that I am looking at men lost in a grief-stricken delusion, dreaming of the murder-suicide of Europe.

If these portraits were hung on the hall of a family home you would know you were in a place of intergenerational despair, where the fears of the father are carved into the bodies of their sons and into the souls of their daughters.

And then it fades. All of this was too long ago to sustain any kind of feeling. In this newsreel, there are too many frames missing. The columns of young men jerk past the camera, stiff-legged, waving helmets like straw boaters at a regatta, and are gone.

Some of the poetry lingers, mustily, in the high-school book room of our memories; just a line here and there – “Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling…” — a moment of drama in an otherwise monotonous English class. But the rest can seem as old and flavourless as gum chewed for too long and stuck under a desk for future knees to brush against. Even when we grow up and buy the great books ourselves they remain part of the past: a second-hand Faber edition, the price in shillings and pence, a dedication inside the cover “For my darling, Christmas, 1963”.

Margaret Atwood wrote that war occurs when language fails. Perhaps she is right. But I think that other things survive when language fails; and perhaps one of those things is music. This week I heard a piece arranged for a fairly lush orchestra. It was elegant rather than magnificent, content to be pretty, although here and there it melted into something genuinely beautiful. When it was over, I felt that I had just met someone I might be friends with.

I looked up the composer and discovered that he was 26 when he wrote the piece, and was clearly starting to flex creative muscles that had marked him as someone worth watching.

Five years later, early on a late-summer Saturday morning, he was shot in the head by a sniper. His ears, infinitely beautiful instruments, were torn off. The brain that had heard that music was splashed over a trench wall. He was hastily buried in that wall, sealed up in a catacomb of mud, and the battle of the Somme ground on. But what startled and moved me was that my new friend was nowhere.

His temporary grave become the centre of a holocaust, pounded for months by artillery. He was torn up again and again, into ever smaller pieces, and again, those pieces sheered and shocked into fragments, fragments into particles. George Butterworth, and all the music he contained, was simply gone.

The killing of an artist in a war is not a greater crime than the killing of anyone else. But artists can reach out in a way that others can’t. They can leave something of themselves lingering in the world, a taste of their humanity that asks us to feel, to regret, to mourn, even though the pictures are faded and we have our own modern fears and crises.

The poets are in danger of being shouted down, their soft word-music obliterated by the howitzer-onslaught of our text-bombarded world. But music…music has a way of slipping between the shell fragments, between the aggressive, posturing words; to introduce a person to a person, and to remind us who we are, even as we grind each other into the mud.

*

First published in The Times and TimesLive

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