Thursday, September 1, 2011
They walked among us
Last night I picked up Dorothy L. Sayers' The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, a Lord Peter Wimsey novel that I last read decades ago. Because it is a book I have read before the scenes and characters are familiar yet due to the years that have passed since that last reading some of the details felt quite fresh to me.
This morning I woke up with a mental "itch." What was it about the early chapters of the book that had bothered me? I couldn't quite put my mental fingers on it but I knew something was there.
Then, this afternoon, I got it.
The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club does not just begin on Armistice Day in the late 1920s. The opening chapters are suffused with allusions to and memories of the Great War. The scene is a gentlemen's club in London and the members of that club, members of the social elite of the time in London, were if anything more likely to have served in the war than would the average man on the street. Wimsey himself was in the military during (what we refer to as) WWI rising to the rank of Major. Wimsey was injured before the end of the war and was one of the many soldiers who suffered from shell shock. The first person Wimsey talks to after entering the club (George Fentiman) is another veteran of WWI and a fellow sufferer from shell shock. Wimsey has arrived at the club in order to meet with a Colonel who puts on a dinner for his late son's friends every Armistice Day. The son had been killed in action during the war.
Fentiman's brother also served in the Great War and at the time book opens was still in the military. Fentiman's grandfather was a General (having served in the Crimean War.) When a dead body is found at the gentleman's club the doctor who arrived on the scene (also a club member) had been an Army surgeon during the war. Wimsey met his valet (and assistant in detection) Bunter during the war when Bunter was a Sergeant.
The Great War cast many shadows over the years between the Armistice in 1918 and the beginning of WWII. The servant "problem" grew larger as men (and women) who found jobs in the military and in factories during the war decided not to go back to the villages their families had lived in for generations. Men whose fathers, grandfathers and great grandfathers had worked the land or been in service had been taught skills and given a glimpse of a life in which one was not expected to be "at the ready" twenty-four hours a day. The ratio of men to women in Britain and Europe was altered by the war and a generation of women faced the reduced likelihood that they would ever marry. Fewer of the women in the workforce were only there until they got married and had children.
The fact that members of one's own family might be the people who are put on the front line of fighting does not make pacifists of politicians. One needs only to look at the history of the British Empire to know that. But one does wonder how much it alters things when the people who decide who goes to war (and how well equipped the troops are, and how well they will be treated when they return home, and if they have adequate pensions) know that the chances that they or someone about whom they care deeply will be on the front lines are vanishingly small. One wonders if the people who vote those politicians into (and out of) office would make the same decision in the voting booth if their support for the troops required more personal effort than putting a decal on their car.
Today the sons, daughters, cousins, mothers and fathers we send into battle are rarely people we know. Their families are rarely people we will ever have to speak to. For most of us war, fighting, death, shell shock, injury and trauma have become just another thing to be outsourced.