#secondthoughts: All Quiet on The Western Front

I’m very parsimonious in handing out 5-star reviews, but Erich Maria Remarque’s masterpiece would’ve got twice that many if they’d been available – for yes, I do believe we need a 10-star rating system for books to properly rank them, but that’s a ramble for another day.

Last year, the Reading Addicts site took a poll of their members from which came this list of recommendations of 10 books set during WWI :

Birdsong – Sebastian Faulks
The First World War – John Keegan (non-fiction)
Goodbye to All That – Robert Graves (memoir)
A Farewell to Arms – Ernest Hemmingway
Testament of Youth – Vera Brittain (memoir)
The First Casualty – Ben Elton
The Sleepwalkers: How Europe went to War in 1914 – Christopher Clark (non-fiction)
Private Peaceful – Michael Morpurgo
The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry – Various authors (poetry)
All Quiet on the Western Front – Erich Maria Remarque

The Penguin poetry collection formed part of the set reading for my English Literature ‘O’ level all those years ago, and I read the Vera Brittain when about 20 – her age when WWI broke out; unsurprisingly, it had quite the impact on me and it was years before I chose to read about WWI again. I’ve since read a number of the other candidates and wouldn’t argue with the list, except in one aspect – Remarque’s book should, now and always, top it.

Of those listed, half are fiction, and only Remarque’s was written from the perspective of the ‘bad guys’, the aggressors, the war-mongering Hun (I’m British, and that’s how I was taught to perceive the ‘other side’ in both world wars) … and it’s all the more important a read for that very reason, for this book provides the balance which is sorely needed.

otto dix skull

A couple of years ago I wandered into an exhibition of prints by Otto Dix, and this book reminded me of that experience. The obvious common ground is their sharing of the same subject matter – WWI. Others are that their work was produced later – between world wars, both were banned by the Third Reich, and both depict subjects which make you want to look away while having a power that draws you in.

All Quiet on the Western Front was written from the point-of-view of Paul – an educated and thoughtful young man – and what stayed with me were his observations.

How soldiers literally reverted to animal instinct as they get nearer the front, with Paul commenting that indulging in thought before acting could leave you dead. It made me wonder, does being a ‘successful’ soldier mean you must lose your humanity? Paul’s experience in the shell hole with a French soldier he has stabbed, and who dies slowly, demonstrates that conflict between the human and the animal all too clearly. How the fighting of a war makes one scornful of those who continue to insist on the petty military parade-ground rubbish. How those who actually fight can view the older generation, who’d whipped them up on the glory of serving their country and sent them off to a horrific war without a single thought. How going home on leave could be such a viscerally painful experience. Paul had mused previously that the older soldiers, those who’d already started their adult lives, had something concrete to return to if they survived the war. But the younger men, the ones on the brink of adulthood had nothing. They’d been schoolboys, they’d not had a chance to develop yet – and becoming a soldier, fighting in a de-humanising war, had left them empty. Paul’s experiences on leave simply served to remind him of who’d he’d been before, demonstrating that he was unable to re-connect with his past, how that person was gone forever.

No wonder it was banned by the Third Reich. Described as one of the greatest pieces of anti-war literature, it’s strength is in its subtlety. There’s no speechifying, no ranting and raving. It’s neither a gore-fest nor gung-ho, we see soldiers simply doing what has to be done. But seeing the impact that has on them and whether it can be OK for those of us who do not fight to ask that of them, is just one of the many questions you end up asking yourself.

I was recently watching Indy Neidell’s excellent ‘Great War’ channel on Youtube, when he made mention of Remarque’s book. I hastened to his review and was interested to see that, despite coming to the book from the perspective of a historian, he had the same reaction which I, as a reader and writer, had.  What was particularly interesting is that Neidell spoke of the research carried out by Remarque – research which allowed him to write such an accurate depiction, despite his own very brief involvement. Do take a moment to watch it …

 

In short, if you only read one book about WWI – this is the one. It’s an absolute masterpiece – a work of fiction, but positively dripping with historical accuracy.

© Debra Carey, 2019

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Rachael Ritchey on The Making of an Anthology. — Fiction is Food

I may have mentioned this a couple of times, but I had a story published in an anthology, and I thought you might find this behind the scenes story of interest:

Last November saw me alongside fifteen other authors published in The Crux Anthology. This is Rachael’s story on how it unfolded.

via Rachael Ritchey on The Making of an Anthology. — Fiction is Food

I may have mentioned this a couple of times, but I had a story published in an anthology, and I thought you might find this behind the scenes story of interest:

Your lucky … what?

“I wish you wouldn’t mumble …”

Jen flashed Scott a look that said “shut up” before changing the subject “two cappucinos please, chocolate sprinkles on one.”

Waiting till they sat down, Scott tried again “Your lucky what? Is that another one of those things you don’t want to talk about, so you just mumble until I give up asking?”

This time the look Jen gave Scott read ‘panic’ and indeed, she got up and headed rapidly for the Ladies. Sighing, Scott switched round their cups so that the coffee with chocolate sprinkles was in front of her, not him – barristas always got that wrong – and added a couple of sugar lumps to his cup, before stirring vigorously. Luckily Jen was in the ladies for she always ragged him about messing up the creamy head of his cappucino, asking why he didn’t just order a latte instead. To be honest, he didn’t really have an answer, he guessed his coffee order had become a bit of a habit. That and the fact he didn’t like change …

Later that day, just before they knocked off shift, a call came of “officers down”. Scott and Jen joined the rush out the door to go to the assistance of their colleagues. It was a good thing they’d gone mob-handed as it turned out the bad guys had turned out mob-handed too. After a very brisk and hot fire-fight, Scott whispered across to Jen “Got any ammo? I’ve run out but I’ve got a clear shot at the guy who appears the boss. If I can take him down … well, we may be able to bring it to and end.” He watched Jen pat down her pockets and start to shake her head.

Just as he was turning away, he noticed her pull something out from in the depths of her clothing. It was a bullet – just one bullet. As she carefully threw it to him, Jen made eye contact “Don’t waste it y’hear. It’s my lucky bullet … yeah, yeah … that why I always mumble.” Making a mental note to follow that disclosure up, Scott loaded the bullet into his gun, taking careful aim … and the guy dropped where he fell. Turned out Scott’s belief that he was the boss was right – the fight immediately went out of the remaining bad guys and they were soon mopping them all up.

As they were all drifting away from the scene, Jen seemed to be waiting for something, or someone. As the morgue attendants arrived, she quickly rushed over and spoke with them. The conversation got a bit lively, to the extent that the Examiner went over to them. Scott decided it was time he joined Jen, so when the Examiner asked her “you want the bullet that killed this guy given back to you after we’ve done the autopsy ‘cos it’s your lucky bullet, that right?” he stepped right in saying “Yeah, that’s right. It’s her personal property, not government issue. D’ya think you can do the paperwork to make it happen, or do I need to speak to my captain?”

© Debra Carey, 2018

#FlashFiction: It takes a village to raise a child

Michael was quite enjoying retirement, more so than he had expected.  He could remember some old buffer leaving the firm when he’d been the new boy.  In those days it had very much been a whip round of the team, a discrete card which everybody signed, attempting to say something interesting and unique, and of course failing.  Gold watch from Management, or something similar, everyone joshing the leaver about them escaping, all that time on their hands…and that slightly panicked look in the leaver’s eyes ass they tried to work out what they were going to do instead of the same thing that they’d done five out of seven days for the last 40 odd years.  These days, you had to go on a course about how to retire.  Progress…

Sitting in the session with a half-dozen or so others who were flying the nest, he’d tried to think about what he was going to do with himself with ‘all that spare time’.  He and Marion had been talking about this for donkeys years, but it had never seemed real before, and after all there were only so many sun-drenched holidays you could take in a year.  It didn’t seem real with Kerri and Ethan from HR trying to jolly them all along.  He’d found himself drifting into a slightly mischievous mood, and he and Derek, ‘from Accounts’, had been positively disruptive by the end, although they were both old hands at that game so no-one had even realised what was going on…

Kerri and Ethan needn’t have worried.  His days had taken on a certain work-like regularity, quite naturally.  Marion liked to be spontaneous, but luckily she had plenty of friends who liked spontaneity too.  He always made sure there was some flexibility in his schedule to accommodate ‘her indoors’ – from time to time.  Not everyday, obviously.  The regularity was comforting though, no denying that, but he was making an effort to work through all the things that he’d said he would do when he had the time.  Well, maybe not everything – he’d given up on the idea of going hang-gliding.  That was just asking for trouble.  He’d taken the garden in hand thought and turned the manicured-but-dull plot into something much less generic.  Messier, but more fun.  He’d really enjoyed setting up the watering system as well – a vast underground rainwater tank and solar-powered pumps to move it around to various water-butt when required.  There was also a labyrinthine network of drip-feeders and porous hoses to target the water where it was needed.  Marion was on an environmental blitz, trying to cut-out microplastics and such like, and if she was disheartened by the prolonged absences in the garden, she was delighted with the continuous supply of fresh, seasonal fruit and veg.

He was also catching up on his reading.  He’d heard this story of two little old ladies who’d gone into a bookshop and asked for – he could never remember how many exactly – a number of books.  They wanted some recommendations for some books that they really should read: they’d worked out how long they probably had left, how fast they read, done the maths and…well, they didn’t want to waste time reading rubbish.  Michael had made a similar calculation.  Who knew at what point he might start loosing his marbles? Or his sight might deteriorate? Or…? So, he had a bucket list of books that he was determined to read, and now that he had the spare time he spent at least an hour a day reading.

And there were all sorts of other things – his old farts group, the bridge club, online Scrabble that had started as a way of keeping in contact with his best friend, who’d emigrated to Australia, to be closer to his children, and had grown into a network of people that he only knew online.  And of course there were the Grandchildren, Archie and Amelia.  He’d known that Marion helped their daughter Judith out quite a lot with the twins, but he’d been surprised at how much he’d been inveigled into this world – and more surprised at how much he enjoyed it.

He could remember when the twins were born, and indeed, when Judith came into his life.  When Judith was born, it was still quite a new thing for men to be in the delivery suite – he’s half expects, half hoped that he would be told to wait outside.  Roll on to Judith becoming a mother, and she’d been adamant that she was going to have a water-birth, at home.  That dream had fizzled out when she’d found out she was having twins: it wasn’t verboten, exactly, but the midwife had been very clear in expressing her concerns and there was the implication that Judith would be negligent somehow, if she continued with her plans, and so she and her wife Harriet had done the hospital dash just like everyone else.

Judith had her way when it came to child-care though.  A full year of maternity leave, and then a part-time return.  She’d been adamant that she didn’t want the twins in a nursery, so she’d done some deals with other mum’s, new friends met through clubs and activities post-birth and two days a week were covered by a nanny-share.   The rest, another half a day a week, were a mix of Harriet taking leave, when she could, Marion, Harriet’s parents, and even once or twice Phyllida, Marion’s best friend.

Later, things had become a little easier when the children had started pre-school and eventually school.  He’d done the occasional drop-off, before he’d been officially retired, and there had been odd days here and there where he and Marion had taken them off to play grounds and the kind of National Trust places that were better suited to children.  There was the carnage of birthday parties and village fayres.  One of his favourite things, when they’d been old enough, was to take them to car-boot sales: £3 each and the challenge of finding the most interesting thing possible, or the most of something or – well the game could be tweaked all sorts of ways.

He’d done a good morning’s work in the garden.  He put his tools away in the shed and stumped up the garden path to the back door.  Boots off, and popped onto the welly stand that he’d made, he washed up and made coffee – instant, because Marion was out.  He settled down in his big armchair with his book and ploughed through “The Confession of Father Brown”.  As he’d suspected, it was nothing like the series on the telly.  He made himself a sandwich and thought about what he should make for dinner.  As he looked out at the garden, an idea that had been vaguely forming at the back of his mind coalesced.  That bit of the garden just there would be perfect for the children to take charge of…he was picking them up from school in a couple of hours, he could suggest it to them then.

After the debacle when he’d unwarily ended up in sole charge of the children just after he’d retired, he’d been a lot more cautious about looking after the children.  But he’d gained confidence, and he’d found having a plan always helped.  He’d also gotten used to the fact that it didn’t do to show your grown up how much you loved them in front of everyone else, nor for adults to be too demonstrative either.  As usual, he’d been given book bags and coats and drinks bottles to carry.  As usual, snacks had been demanded.  As usual, there had been a request to go to the park.  This was all pretty standard, almost reflexive, and he’d learned to let these things pass to some extent before responding.  Today Amelia was talking to a friend about how Grandad was going to take her to watch the cricket.  He hadn’t realised that Amelia had been listening to that conversation, and he hadn’t realised that she’d be interested.  What had come as even more of a shock was that Amelia’s friend had said she’d like to come too.

He’d rolled with it, and the friend’s mum had said it sounded lovely – he wasn’t sure how sincere that had been – but he resolved to take them all to a match as soon as possible, strike while the iron was hot.  Probably a Twenty20 match rather than a test…  If he played his cards right, this might become a regular thing.  Brownie points for something he wanted to do anyway…win win.

Later, after Judith had picked up the children, tsking over how grubby they were from working “their patch”, he thought about that old phrase that it takes a village to raise a child.  So true, so many people involved.  Sometimes though, a village could be one person fulfilling different roles, being different things to different people at different times.

© David Jesson, 2019

#FF Prompt: It takes a village to raise a child

Musing on the old saw that it takes a village to raise a child, it seemed like it might be quite a good prompt.  All sorts of ways you could take this…

No genre, no limitations other than it must not be NSFW.
Let the muse take you where you will …

Word count: Whatever you can get written in the time limit! 1-2k seems like a good idea, but if you can tell your story in 500, go for it.  5k feels like the top end though.

Deadline: 2pm GMT on Friday 8th February 2019.

Don’t forgot, if you miss the deadline, you can always post your story to our #TortoiseFlashFiction page


As always, please post a link to your blog in the comments below, or send your story to us via the contact us page and we’ll post it for you.