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Land fit for heroes

The View in Winter
George the Walking Wounded, aged seventy-nine
(page 1)

What of us who, flung on the shrieking pyre,
Walk, our usual thoughts untouched,
Our lucky limbs as on ichor fed,

Immortal seeming ever?
Perhaps when the flames beat loud on us,
A fear may choke in our veins
And the startled blood may stop.

Isaac Rosenberg, 'Dead Man's Dump'

George, in his late seventies, has lived and will die, he says, by 'the spirit of nineteen-eighteen'. That was when he was eighteen and when a bullet crippled him for life. He has lived with pain and disfigurement ever since. One leg is bowed out and shortened so that his movements are gripped in a vigorous rolling motion. In spite of such a handicap, he looks well and strong, has had a successful business career and is celebrating his golden wedding. The war remains the moral pivot of all his experience, attitudes and dreams, and the older he gets, the more the trenches call. He is aware of belonging to a group which was for a long time fairly average and ordinary, but which is now dwindling into exclusiveness. He is part of the diminishing brotherhood and of the remnant that was actually present to pull, as Rosenberg put it, 'the parapet's poppy'.

    Poppies whose roots are in man's veins
    Drop, and are ever dropping;
    But mine in my ear is safe,
    Just a little white with the dust.

George could righteously annex another line from the poem - 'It seems you inwardly grin as you pass strong eyes, fine limbs . . .' , for this is what he has actually done ever since, though not sardonically. Now old, he has no doubt whatever that his bad wounds were a good price to pay for what the war eventually gave him and it is hard to detect a scrap of regret. For him, its idiocies and injustice are as legitimate a part of its terrible splendour as its celebrated camaraderie. Omit nothing, nothing extenuate, is how he sees it, ghastliness and loveliness devouring each other as, due to the special social realities and myths of the period, they would never do again. 'You would think that after all these years you'd forget 1918 but it's in your bones and you can't, it's in your blood and you can't.' In the grotesque bones with which it left him and in the blood which drained out of him for six hours on a summer's morning in a field near St Quentin.

'You see, I have never looked upon it as a disability,' he insists. And he is right. Seeing this sudden wrecking of his body within the spread of nearly sixty years is to see that it has been creative. 'When I came back I walked about on crutches and why my wife ever thought of marrying me, I'll never know. Fancy marrying a cripple! I was so young when it happened and it was so long ago that I can hardly remember being straight. Sixteen days on the Western Front made me like this - and made me, as I am now. That's all there is to it. There's no good letting your troubles get you down when they can set you up, if you know what I mean. Before 1918 I played tennis. After 1918 I had this bike with a fixed wheel and a pedal cut off, and I rode it about with one leg. I was too young to be changed by what happened. The changes all came after it had happened.'

Like so many old soldiers, George's beliefs are centred upon a form of Anglican nationalism, masculine and kindly, which found expression in symbolic reunions, summer camps, rallies and social welfare during the twenties and thirties. Now even to its most loyal adherents, most of them very old, it is plain that the whole thing is worn out. It is activated by the sentiment of their own involvement and must disappear when those who were actually implicated in the guilt, as well as in the heroics, of the war, themselves disappear. Like those who sum up traditional good manners with references to giving up one's seat to a woman, George grouses about contemporary irreverence towards the national anthem and hymns sung at football matches - 'It doesn't mean a thing to them any more.' But this 'it' intends to convey something far more complicated and profound than standing to attention for 'God save the King', of course. George is voicing the familiar bewilderment of so many old people when their ethics and customs have passed through the phases of being popularly shared, popularly challenged and popularly ignored.

'I don't know whether I should say it,' says George's old friend, but I'm beginning to wonder if Toc-H hasn't fulfilled its function. Toc-H to me and the other old-timers isn't anywhere near what it was once. It was a movement for certain. But we can't get anyone young in - it means nothing to them. It means no more than the Crimean War means to us. So I think that Toc-H has fulfilled its function. And as I've been a member for over fifty years it sounds as if I've fulfilled my function too! That's what getting old means. The things you belong to wear out and yet you feel you have to go on making do with them. You feel loyal, .you see, because you had them when they could do you a bit of good.'

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Tuesday 20 December 2005