Reviewed by Julie Barham
This is a small book, covering the only writing published by the well – known author and broadcaster J.B. Priestley concerning his service as a soldier in the First World War. He volunteered as soon as possible, suffered many life threatening situations, and was finally injured by gas in the summer of 1918. His silence on this period of his life was perhaps remarkable, but it probably informed his sometimes controversial views on the fighting of the Second World War and the possibility of nuclear conflict. This extended short story is a dream-like recalling of what happened after a soldier suffered an injury late in the War. It is far from the usual account of battle and terrible slaughter that often typifies writing of the period; rather it is a fantasy of large proportions.
Following an injury, the narrator finds himself in a hospital unit from which he is sent to a strange establishment which seems to be in charge of booking entertainers for the troops. Thus he sees singers, comedians and conjurors, even tries their acts on stage before they are moved on. The complete incongruity of these acts performing a small distance from the battle lines upsets the writer, and he writes ‘There are times when I do not believe any longer in that fantastic depot, and tell myself that all vague memories of it must be packed up and huddled away with the scenery of old dreams.’ He recounts other mysterious occurrences before he is sent to another posting. He finds himself journeying onwards by various means before getting to a strange town, in which he finds some limited refreshment and a body of soldiers endlessly preparing for war, albeit not only this war but others long ago. Four characters emerge apart from the Major of the title; it seems as if Shakespeare’s Falstaff and his followers are present and active once more.
This is a strange little book, existing somewhere between dream and reality. It nevertheless makes many valid points about the pointlessness of war, the idiocy of entertainment in the face of carnage, the misinformation about the vital matter of an armistice, and the way that men and a few women were pushed around pointlessly. Falstaff and his men are symbolic of the way that men are pulled into fighting for causes that they do not understand, and how they have fought for centuries blindly following orders. The writing of this book is flowing, simple yet imaginative, conveying both the boredom and the absurdity of the war. It is short yet its implications are huge: a cry against the pointlessness of moving men from place to place for dubious reasons, a cry against the war that began and ended without those who fought really understanding why and when. Priestly was to go on to be an important commentator on the War to come. Here he tries to depict in imaginative language that War is made up of individuals bewildered and confused by orders and places that were beyond belief. It is a short book but has a large agenda; I was grateful to receive a review copy of this early but powerful tale.
Julie blogs at Northern Reader
J.B. Priestley, The Town Major of Miraucourt (Turnpike Books, 2018). 978-0993591334, 64pp., paperback.
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