Jean Moorcroft Wilson's Isaac Rosenberg: The Making of a Great War Poet - A New Life
Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2008
As the jacket publicity remarks, this new biography of Rosenberg —the first in more than thirty years— is long overdue. In the history of English literature he shares a very special place with the other fine Great War poets who did not survive the conflict, such as Rupert Brooke, Wilfred Owen, and Philip Thomas. Brooke in particular has passed into legend as the archetypal English war poet, a young, handsome, patrician officer who volunteered out of a romantic patriotism and was then cruelly cut down in his youth (although in reality he died of blood-poisoning on the way to the front). Rosenberg presents a striking contrast to this image: a small man of infirm health, from the slums of Whitechapel, he had little appetite for war and volunteered in 1915 to help with family finances. When we read the poets killed in World War I, there is a danger that our knowledge of their deaths can make us interpret their poetry as if it is imbued with their own prophetic sense of foreboding. This trap is especially tempting in the case of Rosenberg, who prior to 1916 had written much that, although extremely promising, was not of great consequence. He subsequently found the private soldier's experience both immensely hard, and uplifting in a way that no other event in his life had matched.
Jean Moorcroft Wilson is a distinguished scholar of the period who has written extensively on war poetry, most notably that of Sassoon. With this Rosenberg biography she takes on the task of separating the poet's work from his death so that we can see his poetry for what it is, a magnificent human achievement in the face of overwhelming inhumanity. In her introduction Wilson clearly states her position on Rosenberg: "Private Rosenberg lacks the rank he deserves and his work demands." Later, she asks the telling question, "How many people can quote, or even identify one line of Rosenberg's verse?" This is the dilemma that she confronts: Rosenberg is little-known except in anthologies (the great collection of World War I poetry Up the Line to Death contains just five of his poems). He led a fairly conventional life, and although he was published in his own lifetime he was never regarded as anything more than a promising 'work in progress.'
Wilson meticulously charts Rosenberg's early life in Whitechapel, and is right to emphasise the importance of his Jewish cultural background. She examines the relationships that Rosenberg formed with the other Whitechapel Boys, and places much significance on the friendship he shared with Bomberg after the two of them met at the Slade School of Art in 1911. She builds up a detailed picture of this group of aspiring Jewish artists and writers who were attempting to break into the English art establishment without completely compromising their own Jewish identity. A particular strength of the book is the way Wilson analyses the development of Rosenberg's writing. Her examination of the early poems and the difficult verse play Moses (which Rosenberg published in 1916) enables her to draw out the key events in Rosenberg's life, and show the reader how he came to the point at which he was able to produce his intensely powerful war poems. The influence of revolutionary Blakeian ideas on the young writer is made explicit, and Wilson traces it in all the major poems written in the final years of his life. Only those with a particular interest in Great War poetry are familiar with Rosenberg's poems of the war. This seems to have nothing to do with the quality of the poetry itself, and may be due to more complex reasons. While it would be overzealous to claim direct anti-Semitism at work, this was an issue in England throughout the twenties and thirties, when war poets' critical reputations were being cemented. It is certainly true that some of the best-known writers of the interwar period—T. S. Eliot and Wyndham Lewis, for example— have been accused of harbouring anti-Semitic tendencies. It may be that simple prejudice explains why the poetry of this 'little Jewish private' was not placed on the same level as that of Gentile officers.
The ninetieth anniversary of Rosenberg's death has provided us with a unique opportunity to re-appraise and appreciate his work as never before. After viewing the recent Ben Uri exhibition of his artworks (reviewed elsewhere in this edition) and reading this exceptional book, it seems clear to me that Rosenberg not only stood in the front line in World War I, but now takes his place, as a matter of right, alongside those great artists who make terrible experiences accessible to us while still preserving the dignity and humanity of those involved. Wilson's work is a significant contribution in the ongoing effort to raise awareness of his achievement.--Paul Flux
Byron Rogers' The Green Lane to Nowhere: The Life of an English Village
It has been remarked many times before that the Midlands have not fared terribly well in the literary imagination. Hilaire Belloc famously described them as "soggy and unkind," and Dickens captured their blackened nineteenth-century landscape in The Old Curiosity Shop. Thank goodness, then, for Byron Rogers, an affectionate chronicler of the bucolic corner of Northamptonshire that he made his home in the early eighties. (The title of the book is in fact a little misleading, since it is about a number of different villages within the same area, not just Rogers' own.)
Rogers obviously adores English country life, and captures it in poetic, tender, sometimes singing prose. (His first language is Welsh, and its influence renders his English style--to use a cliché--often musical). This collection gathers together Rogers' countryside sketches over two decades for the Sunday Telegraph, Sunday Express, Evening Standard, Country Living and Saga. Given the politics of some of these, it is surprising to find Rogers so forceful on the subject of the enclosures and the "rights which went when the hedges came." His ire is particularly stirred by the rapacity of mediaeval sheep farmers who turned peasants' land over to grazing, a process which was later repeated in Scotland in the more famous, because more recent, Highland Clearances. When Rogers is sworn in as local Warden of the Paths, he remembers the time when "parson and squire conspired to cheat the poor of their rights to graze animals and walk freely, rights which had been theirs since Neolithic times." There are numerous stories of the madness, badness, and dangerousness to know of various feudal rulers: the womanising local Squire is only one example. Antiquity renders Rogers even more lyrical than normal, and he gets tremendous resonance out of snippets of local history, especially pre-1066; the Romans and Saxons are great favourites with him. "A Saxon charter is not like the Domesday Book, which is a piece of accountancy; a Saxon charter is a historical record as it night have been kept by the Ramblers' Association of the Dark Ages."
Rogers is a superb nature writer, evoking the wild beauty of an overgrown railway viaduct ("Byzantium on the Great Central"), and musing on the mysteries in the landscape, such as the massive fortifications nearby and the Hansel and Gretel house located in the midst of a dense wood. His gnomic sense of humour lets him get tremendous fun out of the PR campaign surrounding the introduction of the wheelie bins, his own fraught journey in a hot air balloon --"three men in what one of them was acutely aware was a laundry basket at 2000 feet"—a European beer-tasting session which completely overwhelms the locals, used to English small beer, and his own triumph at a quiz night through knowing "all there was to be known about Rupert Bear." He is a master of the kind of light humorous writing that we don't see enough of these days.
He specialises in discursive, deceptively meandering interviews which somehow turn into sharp and revealing character studies, and many of these contain significant social history. There is the sly humour of the local mason, the pensiveness of the oldest inhabitant ("He finds himself wondering what they do for a living, the young men in the company cars who come and go. Sixty years ago, when he was young, they would either have been on the land or down at the Hall"), the village car mechanic on whom everything in modern country life depends, the mortgage controller who pursues a Good Life-style in his spare time, the infants teacher, the new and absent-minded vicar who caused a commotion by going away and leaving his front door open, the Wild West history enthusiast who bought himself a castle, the pub landlord, the parish clerk, and many others. One interviewee recollects the village outing to Southsea in 1929, where, mesmerised by their first sight of the sea, the trippers failed to do much of anything ("'We just sat on the beach and picked up shells…. Sea just flopped right up on the front. And the more we looked at it, the more we worried about missing the bus.'") This is Sitwell country, and there is a delightful interview with Sir Sacheverell, who shares his favourite misprint, about a Salvation Army meeting: "'Long after the audience dispersed a huge crow remained on the platform singing 'Abide with me.'"
Despite the many light-hearted pieces, the book is melancholy in places, covering the sadness of contemporary farming—particularly in the face of the nineties BSE crisis— and also its farcical elements, such as the rigmarole of poultry swabbing (don't ask). The discovery of a slave's tombstone in a local churchyard leads to a plangent reflection on the lives of such "exotic pets," while a piece about the death of an elderly neighbour attacks the institutionalisation of the old. However, the dominant minor theme is the incredible rate of recent rural change and the demise of the traditional English village. The final piece, "Endings," muses on the slow but steady annexation of Rogers' village by incomers from London ("of seven families farming before the War, three are still here. The frontier holds, but only just"). Roger captures the loneliness of life in a modern village where no-one knows anyone else and native villagers are priced out of local properties, and reflects on how increasingly cut off we are from the natural environment: most people don't pick and eat things any more, leaving whole crops of blackberries and cob-nuts to go bad. "We forget the names of things, then we forget their uses, and finally we become frightened of them."
The author does not so much broach a topic as sidle up to it and take it by surprise, and while this is often beguiling, it can also confuse the reader, though clarity always--eventually--dawns. Since this is a collection of sketches about the same area there is occasionally overlap between the pieces (the Squire's proclivities are revisited more times than is strictly necessary), but this is a small complaint. Notwithstanding the sadder essays, The Green Lane to Nowhere is on the whole a very cosy book. It is certainly sentimental, but sentimental in the best way.--Isabel Taylor
The first poetry collection from a secondary-school English lit teacher in Willesden, this brilliant debut explores in miniature the complexities of English-Asian lives. From new arrivals' impressions to second and third generation reflections on identity and belonging, the book packs an incredible amount of observation and insight into its relatively few pages, waxing melancholy, humorous, joyful, and prickly by turns. Exclamation marks fizz off the page, conveying the excitement of making a new life in a new country, while the sporadic use of rhyme and half-rhyme carries an undertow of tentativeness and uncertainty.
The richness of Nagra's language is particularly striking. The Punjabi-inflected English of first generation immigrants, with its eerily apposite malapropisms that double as metaphors ("cardigan arrest," for example, in "The Speaking of Bagwinder Singh Sagoo!") allows him many opportunities for outrageous wordplay. It is interwoven with the more distanced, ironic voices of their children and grandchildren: indeed, "Arranged Marriage" contains more than one turn of phrase that, with its combination of sadness, wry humour and down-to-earth colloquialism, is reminiscent of Larkin ("Numb, I sat/necklaced in flowers/a costumed prat/from another world.") In "The Furtherance of Mr Bulram's Education" Nagra humorously contrasts the flowery diction of the classical English poetry that the narrator is studying with the Punjabi English of his neighbours, while the title poem is both a homage and a challenge to Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach," showing how a borderline looks from the other side.
Out of all the playful linguistic pyrotechnics, various serious themes emerge. There is the bitter taste of immigrants' unfulfilled hopes and their pipe dreams of return; their children's attempts to fit in, and resulting conflict with older family members who have a keener sense of post-colonial resentment; the small but important cultural give-and-takes of a cross-cultural relationship; and tradition, which, while it can be an assertion of cultural pride, for example in the dizzyingly rich "Our Town with the Whole of India," a triumphant incantatory naming ("Our cafes with the brickwork trays of saffron sweets,/ brass woks frying flamingo-pink syrup-tunnelled jalebis networking crustily into their familied clumps....") can also create a disorienting disconnect between the realities of individual lives and the ceremonies which punctuate and surround them, as in "Sajid Naqvi," about the funeral of a Smiths-loving maths prodigy. There are also the great universal themes of love, birth, and bereavement (explored in "Tonight at 8" with its relatives who "would simply freeze you/ with that wholly unsayable look of love").
The collection asks some uncomfortable questions of non-Asian readers ("Did you make me for a gap in the market/ Did I make me for a gap in the market" enquires "Booking Khan Singh Kumar," ostensibly a poem about arranging a gig for an Asian artist, but really a demand for clarification of the role that Asians are expected to play in English society). Of course, racial prejudice is a prominent theme: Nagra opens the volume with a spiky quote from Orwell satirising mid-century attitudes to Indians. The saddest poem about racism, "Parade's End," relates Nagra's family's experiences in Sheffield (after someone poured acid over their newly-painted car "we swept away the bonnet-leaves/ from gold to the brown of our former colour"), but it is most sinisterly evoked in the gut-churning "X," about post-9/11 racial profiling.
No review can really do justice to the moments of sheer magic in this collection, whether in the tiny, poignant poem "University," about a man letting go of his daughter ("Five birds pluck their wings off the train/and fly") or in the dazzling description of a cultural festival in which "butterflies aspire to kaleidoscope the sky." The poems demand to be re-read again and again. It is probably impossible for a non-Punjabi-speaking reader to fully decode all their echoes and allusions, despite the puckish "Punjabi to Ungreji Guide" at the back, which, among other snippets of information, tells us that ladoo is "not as compelling as chum-chums." A few of the poems are completely impenetrable, but Nagra's debut is, on the whole, a marvel of open-hearted honesty.
The collection mixes hope and bitterness in fairly equal measure, but it is book-ended, significantly, by two love lyrics: the opening "Darling & Me!" a giddy paean to newly-wed bliss, and the closing "Singh Song!" which has already been quoted by other reviewers. Suffice it to say that, with its masterful shift from broad comedy to an evocation of the insulating power of love in what can be a cold climate, it sends shivers up the spine. One for the anthologies; Nagra may shortly find himself having to teach it in GCSE English.--Isabel Taylor