January 1st, 2018

Death To The French: C.S. Forester

We glimpse and admire Wellington at a distance. He's Conky Atty to the troops- which means something like Arthur Bignose. He's the master of war who has gathered his forces behind the impregnable lines of Torres Vedras, having first practised a scorched earth policy which condemns the besieging French- who are still living by pillage and rapine in the manner of all historic wandering armies- to have their numbers whittled down by starvation and disease. Everyone is this book is brutal and ruthless but Wellington is brutal and ruthless in an advanced manner and that's what gives him his edge. He has rethought the art of war and the French have some catching up to do.

The central character is an English rifleman called Dodd- a sharpshooter- who has got himself stranded behind enemy lines and must somehow make his way back to his mates. Dodd is a professional fighting man; he's been at it since his late teens and it's a better life than he could have hoped for as a peasant farmer in England. He regards the native Portuguese as ever so-slightly less than human and is very good at what he does- which is killing Frenchman- or whoever else the vagaries of international politics direct him to shoot at. He is business-like, hardened but not cruel, bad-tempered but who can blame him- and if he loves anything it's his regiment.

We also get chapters from the point of view of the Frenchmen whom Dodd is killing. They're a bunch of copains, poor bloody infantry, pushed around, starved, ignorant, the lowest of the soldierly low, lacking Dodd's elite skills, just there to make up numbers on the killing fields. They're not such bad sorts considering they're the scum of the earth.

Forester- writing in the mid 1930s- views the Peninsular from the far side of the experience of '14-'18- as he makes explicit every now and again with references to the "future" refinements of barbed wire and poison gas. You think the Great War was uniquely horrible? Not so, he says. War was always just about the stupidest thing men do.

Something That Took the Form Of A Bird

My mother, who has taken to her bed though she's not particularly ill, called me into her room and said she'd seen a bird fly across from one closed window to the other and would I do something about it.

I looked. I couldn't find a bird. Not even a dropped feather. It's not entirely impossible it was a flesh and blood creature but if so it's been remarkably quiescent ever since- and that's not normal behaviour. Trapped birds don't hide; they flutter.