I’ve just finished reading A Very Long Engagement, and thought it was very moving (once I’d managed to get past the feelings of rage against Michael Gove that arose every time I picked it up). Of course, last week the Gove-inspired debate about how we should remember the war flared up again, with the minister in charge of the commemorations saying that there would be no ‘celebration’. Historian Gary Sheffield (one of the ‘good’ academics cited in Gove’s Daily Mail piece for his attempt to rehabilitate General Haig’s reputation) was for some reason quoted in every paper calling this judgement into question, despite having previously commented that the centenary shouldn't be "a jingoistic carnival of celebration", which is basically all the minister said.
In light of all that, I thought I’d share this little passage, which is spoken by a French soldier towards the very end of the book:
“I can wait. I’ll keep waiting, for as long as it takes, for this war to be seen in everyone’s eyes for what it always was, the most filthy, savage, useless obscenity that ever there was; I’ll wait until the flags stop flying in November in front of the monuments to the dead, I’ll wait until the Poor Bastards at the Front stop gathering, wearing their damned berets and missing an arm or a leg, to celebrate what?”
What struck me on reading it was the way the wheel turns: by the time that book was published, in 1991, it’s probably fair to say that the war was seen that way. But less than 25 years later, here we are, batting back Gove’s attempts to reclaim it as a moment of national glory. And he thinks we’re the ones with politically motivated delusions about history…