Dead Ground 2018-1918 review: WWII permeates the past and present
Rich and varied anthology of essays, poems, photos and meditations is unique and timely
Free French troops man American Sherman M4 tanks in a poppy field: this books takes a wide-angle view of “war making” and of individual women and men’s lives. Photograph: George Silk/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
Dead Ground 2018-1918
Edited by Andrew McNeillie & James McNeillie
There was a warren of sheds and yards wedged in behind the backs of the houses in an urban island between two well-stocked avenues of traditional red-brick family homes in north Belfast. I knew the area well. Friends lived there, shops we all visited for “messages”, a delicatessen and hairdresser and long-gone stores like Roycroft’s and Billy Duddy’s. But in the 1940s this little annex had been part of the massive preparations throughout Northern Ireland of the US army and D Day. My uncle and his mates as young teenagers used to cadge Lucky Strikes and chewing gum from the GI’s passing through by the war’s end.
Further down, along the shore side, prefabricated houses had been built to home many hundreds of people as a result of the Belfast Blitz in 1941. Others in the neighbourhood, returning home from evacuation, found, billeted in their homes, officers en route to the European battlefields. When I was about nine years old this district became my stamping ground as Richard Burton’s magisterial voiceover broadcast on BBC Churchill’s history of the second World War, The Valiant Years (1961).
Ex-servicemen could be seen in their ceremonial blazers heading off to the local serviceman’s club, the British Legion. Our house retained the blackout blinds and I recall empty ration books in a press. War was general. Whether we liked it or not the war and its legacies influenced much of what happened in the 1950s and well into the 1960s, if not beyond. Behind that wartime screen of film, dress and demeanour, the voices and lifestyles of an older generation played out its own declining destiny. A close friend of my grandmother who loved playing the piano accompanying her singing and recitations of verse, “Uncle” Oswald, with his dapper Aquascutum overcoat and short dashing moustache, wheezed at times badly as a result of a German gas attack at the Front during the Great War.
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When I worked for a time in Belfast’s Central Library on Royal Avenue, a tall, spindly older man would often be seen across from the library steps addressing skywards in a clipped northern Anglo tone where “Monty” (General Montgomery) and his troops were moving on an imaginary map. A desert, I think it was. Sitting outside the Arcade bar down town most Saturdays a partially sighted veteran played a harmonica and sought alms from those busily passing to the cinema, pubs and dancehalls.
Relics of wars – statues, regimental flags, commemorative plaques outside churches, remaining blitzed sites – the whole business of destruction, sacrifice and loss were embedded in that civic world stretching back to the first World War, which ended 100 ago in 1918. In Dead Ground: 2018-1918, Andrew McNeillie and James McNeillie have produced a powerful and lasting critical memorial to war and its impact on combatant and civilian alike. Taking a wide-angle view of many overlooked items of “war making” – the political imperatives of conflict, life at the Front and life at home, recent wars such as Afghanistan and regime-change including the Soviet Union and post-Soviet rule – of individual women and men’s lives, this anthology of 30-plus essays, photographs, poems and meditations is unique and timely.
“Dead Ground”, we are told, “in military terms is terrain into which you cannot see”. In Dead Ground though, an unforgettable light is shone on “the value of the poetical while still allowing for the unignorable pressure of historical events”. Reputably asked “what he did in the first [World] War” James Joyce replied, “that he wrote Ulysses” (Seamus Perry, “Larkin’s War”). In “War and Art: the Murals of Northern Ireland”, Tony Crowley remarks upon how he “had more than my fill of that form of direct violence, but the ways in which war structures and conditions a society, which is to say, the pervasiveness of war, its deep, seeping threat, the ways in which it got inside people’s minds and bodies, its gradual emergence as a way of life”. And the almost miraculous ways by which people cope such as the story of Mary Thickett of Grimsby told with heart-stopping poignancy by Fiona Stafford in “Home Front: 1940. Xmas. Wednesday. 2nd Xmas of War”. Or the almost-present of James Macdonald Lockhart’s illustrated reading of the Danger Zone, a contradictory landscape in the Hebrides of Scotland and its use as a testing range for the Royal Artillery with “military forces across Nato travelling to test missiles there . . . would I be able to enter? Would there be signs and flags warning me off?” As he enters, his sense of being monitored increases in direct contrast to the wildlife all about him: “At dusk, walking along the road south from Balivanich, huge flocks of starling whirled in black clouds, panicked into flight when I was still two fields away. The geese took off so heavily it looked as if they were dragging the field behind them.”
In this challenging and revisionist volume, the editors have worked a philosophical shift of mindset, retreading history so that the past is here and now while, shaped in the imagination of the varied sources of these essays, poems and photographs, the present becomes a strangely haunted and haunting place; a book to cherish and read over and over again lest we forget.
Gerald Dawe’s poetry collections include Mickey Finn’s Air (Gallery, 2014). The Corpus Clock: Five Elegies was published earlier this year in a pamphlet series from the Clutag Press. His essay collections include Of War and War’s Alarms (2015) and The Wrong Country (2018)