Philip Larkin in his poem ‘MCMXIV’ wrote “never such innocence / never before or since”, reflecting on pre-WWI Britain, tainted by the beginning of the war. In her prose fiction piece, Rachel Eng responds to this poem. Set in 1925 in between the two World Wars and told from the perspective of a war veteran, MCMXXV provides a probable, poignant account of contemporary experience, while writing against the cynicism that our 21st century selves might bring to discussions of war.
I remember, once, a young woman coming up to me on the street. She was wearing a poppy badge in her lapel and had assumed the appropriate expression of mourning that came with November. You’ve probably seen the type; left-wing, sympathetic, anxious to rail on my behalf at the faceless men in moustaches who sent my mates to die. “I’m sorry,” she said, “that you had to fight a war that didn’t matter in the end.”
I gave her a smile and looked down at the row of badges I was wearing. I said, “it mattered to us.”
Mum would take us out to Hyde Park on August Bank Holidays, Charlie and me. There’d be bunches of little kids with their scones and jam and clotted cream and there’d be fights over whether you ought to put the jam or the cream on first. A man was always at the entrance of the park selling hot cocoa and we’d get two glasses for two farthings each. Mum would wear her best dress, always the same sheer-patterned one, and a broadbrimmed hat that Charlie and I would laugh at. We’d sit on the grass and eat our sandwiches and feel like there could never be anything wrong with the world. I know it was London and we’d always expect it to be pouring, but somehow on those bank holidays the sky was always blue. I remember the birdsong the most, the gay chirping of sparrows, the sweetness of the lark.
The reason I remember it is because they had those same birds in France. They corkscrewed in the clear blue sky singing while I pulled the trigger of my machine gun. It makes a staccato-noise, if you’ve never heard one, a thud-thud-thud like a rapid drumbeat, as if the red flowers that bloomed on soldiers’ shirts were set to some bizarre sort of orchestra, the birds the melody. It was all very beautiful, the way war is, explosions like dust motes in the sun. Don’t believe the pictures of the Somme that’re all cold churned-up mud and barbed wire. The Somme looked exactly like Hyde Park in autumn, gentle curves of rolling green grass as neat as a military cemetery, and the Serpentine curving lazily through it all.
Charlie died on the fourth day, so they told me later. He’d gone up after the artillery had stopped and the German drums had tattooed their beat into his heart. He’s still there somewhere, under those wheat-specked fields. Almost as if in some way he’d made it home.
I didn’t pity the fatherless children after the war (and there had been so many of them, dark-clothed and restless as they tugged at their mothers’ fingers by the graves). They studied history, we studied history, but it wasn’t the same thing at all. We were reared on stories of clever Odysseus and brave King Richard and the tanned pith helmets of Rorke’s Drift. And we never had to question any of them because they were, in our mind, all true; we could strut around the schoolyard, as tall and proud as Nelson. Those children were taught that nineteen thousand two hundred and forty men died on the first of July, 1916. And that over a million men were lost for the glorious cause of a six mile stretch (twenty five rounds around the track, some cynical P. E. teacher might say). They would have grown up with the Cenotaph large and looming in their memory, unfamiliar roman numerals etching a reminder into their heads every year.
Charlie was married for a total of sixteen months and seven days. I still have the letter Captain Graves sent his wife that deeply regretted to inform her of Private Charles William Price being officially reported as killed in action fourth July sympathy from the Army Council at the soldier’s death in his Country’s service. There isn’t a full stop or any sort of pause. It reminds me of a delivery boy who just wants to finish his job and never think about this again. I got a letter as well, although mine was probably shot out of my hands at Amiens.
Charlie was a gardener and kept the little plot of land outside the house so tidy. He’d do little yellow flowers and trim the hedges every day after work. Then he’d sit by the window with a cup of tea and look up once or twice at his lovely little patch, smiling.
It is far worse, I think, to have something taken away from you than to have never had it at all.
The girl gave me a long hard look and then launched into a lecture about the failure of the League of Nations and Adolf Hitler and why there would never be peace in the world. She was one of the dark-clothed children. You all are. I listened politely and nodded until she walked away.
You see: it mattered to every young man waiting patiently in line, as if pledging their loyalty to football. It mattered in an age when one could say for king and country without irony or cynicism, and it mattered every day I carried Captain Graves’s letter in my jacket pocket. It has to. Maybe the world will never know such innocence again, but it is important to remember that they did. The only way I can understand it is if I believe that Charlie gave his life for something. Something that mattered to him, even though they decommissioned farthings a year after he died.
I go back to Hyde Park sometimes. Now there are eateries next to the Serpentine and the grass is trampled under tourists’ feet. There are benches and streetlamps and a quiet memorial to the boys of the Royal Regiment of Artillery, just next to Wellington’s triumphal arch. The birds are still there, though no more staccato beats haunt their song. I look at them and think of scones. Cocoa. Broadbrimmed hats. A garden, still tidy, its yellow flowers dancing in the breeze.
For a final year history undergraduate at UCL, RACHEL ENG still makes the most atrocious puns. An enthusiastic collector of pop culture references, her hobbies include writing, graphic and web design, and watching more British panel shows than she would care to admit. Her achievements include memorising the periodic table and finishing the LOTR/Hobbit EE marathon twice (it’s like the London marathon, but cooler). She spends most of her time pretending that Manchester United can actually play football.
Photo credit: Rachel Eng