In his latest blog post Professor Mark Connelly discusses R.H. Mottram’s novels and essays on the First World War.
Among my presents on Christmas Day 1985 was a book called Three Personal Records of the War. I remember that it was in beautiful condition. Its binding was amazingly tight and was, to use the Dylan Thomasism, ‘bible-black’ in its blackness. Looking inside I found that it contained three long essays authored by R.H. Mottram, John Easton and Eric Partridge respectively. I had heard of Eric Partridge. Thanks to being interested in Oh What a Lovely War!, I had come across his wonderful, The Long Trail: Soldiers’ Song and Slang, collated with John Brophy. The other two were complete mysteries to me, and to be honest my grip on John Easton remains slim to say the least (is he the same chap who wrote about postage stamp design in the 1930s?). Then there was the publisher, Scholartis Press. By this stage, thanks to my parents being very good at snapping up things about the Great War in our local second hand bookshop, I was used to a good range of publishers such as Methuen, Blackie, Macdonald, Hodder and Stoughton, Chatto and Windus (or more properly Chatto & Windus: the ampersand is everything). Thanks to that teenage immersion, those names will always conjure up visions of offices in courts somewhere off Fetter Lane deep in the heart of a still very Dickensian City of London. Scholartis on the other hand stumped me, and a bit like John Easton, still means nothing to me aside from this particular volume. On flicking through its creamy, thick parchment-like pages, all in perfect condition, I became more and more convinced that no one had ever read this book. I found myself wondering whether it had been bought as a present for someone very interested in the war, but steeped in things like Churchill’s The World Crisis or Sir John French’s, 1914, found this a poor substitute, and promptly shoved it into their bookshelves in a room that didn’t see much summer sun. Was it simply a very dull collection of pieces that no one else would publish I found myself thinking.
Distracted by other things, I got no further than a quick dip into it myself and put it back on my shelves. Then another piece of the jigsaw fell into place. Whilst scrabbling about in dear old Edward Terry’s (the second hand bookshop of my London suburb), I saw the bright orange and faded white cover of a 1930s Penguin classic. What really caught my eye was the title and author, R.H. Mottram, The Spanish Farm (originally published in 1924). I knew from the details about each author in Three Personal Records that Mottram was the author of something called The Spanish Farm Trilogy, but had no idea as to its contents. I picked it up and saw that it was a novel about the Great War and the setting was somewhere between Dunkirk and Ypres and not much further south than Hazebrouck. It was very cheap and so I bought it, took it home, flicked through it a bit more, found that it seemed distinctly lacking in drama and put it on my bookshelves.
The two books sat there not much examined until I was an undergraduate studying a module on the Great War and literature and I noticed there was an essay question on R.H. Mottram. Totally intrigued as to what this chap was doing among the Sassoons and Owens, I couldn’t resist picking it. I also strongly suspected that no one else would go near it and so the secondary literature items associated with the question would probably be easy to grab from the university library shelves. Hurriedly retrieving my copies of both books, I started to read. And, as you have probably guessed, I was instantly hooked. The Spanish Farm amazed me. Nothing seemed to happen, certainly nothing particularly interesting about the front line anyway, but everything happened. As a suburban East Londoner, I was deeply engaged by his portrait of the British Western Front. Described as an area with a population about the size of London, he identified its West End as the rearmost areas where the great base hospitals and headquarters could be found often in highly civilised settings. The zone a bit closer to the line was like the City of London for it was the heart of administration and planning. The final component was the East End, the industrial zone, the front line where the killing was carried out with mechanical regularity. Deeply attached to The Diary of a Nobody and Betjeman’s tender solicitude for London clerks, I found in Mottram’s Western Front a world of khaki-clad Pooters and Metroland dwellers. By the same token, this author clearly inspired by Galsworthy and Trollope, also plunged me into a Zola-esque world of Flemish peasants who did not give a stuff about Germans, French or British soldiers and just wanted everyone to bugger off and leave them alone. This was a stunning revelation. They were no longer the anonymous, miserable swindlers, crooks and beggars of Graves’ Goodbye to all that, but passionate, stubborn, resilient people who had had their lives turned upside down by the war and were determined to get even by squeezing every penny they could get out of the British to cover the costs of billeting and the damage done to their property by largely clumsy, and only occasionally malicious, British soldiers. Madeleine, the daughter of old Vanderlynden, owner of the Spanish Farm, seemed terrifying in her single-mindedness and cunning. She is aged twenty at the start of the novel, my age as I was writing the essay, but she seemed infinitely more savvy than me. I felt very, very innocent next to Madeleine. Finishing the novel, I quickly got hold of the other two in the series, Sixty-Four, Ninety-Four (1925) and The Crime at Vanderlynden’s (1926). As I read, I saw more and more how deeply Mottram understood the culture into which the British army had intruded, and also how deeply the war had affected him. His ability to provide so many different pen portraits of peoples and landscapes – often buttressed with references to the paintings of the Flemish masters – revealed a man who had soaked up the war through the sodden Flanders soil.
After finishing the novels, I finally picked up Three Personal Records and read his essay. Mottram was clearly the star turn of the three. Even the book’s title seems to concede the fact being uncannily close to the title of his own essay, ‘A Personal Record’. Although producing another minor masterpiece of understated, middle-brow prose, as with The Spanish Farm Trilogy, Mottram revealed his determination to grapple with issues ignored almost entirely by other writers. Most remarkable to me was the decision to discuss the disturbances at Etaples in 1917. The public record of the British Army’s conduct allowed no entry for the one outbreak of large-scale indiscipline, and yet here was a man who tackled the subject head-on. He used the intriguing metaphor of the ‘Headless Man’ to describe the phenomenon, but in doing so shrewdly reduced the incident to something unplanned, uncoordinated and totally lacking in revolutionary fervour. It was just a lumbering, zombie-like mass of men crashing around because they were fed-up. As such this must have been deeply reassuring to a middle class fearful of Bolshevik infiltration of British life. But, he also sent out the dreadful warning never to repeat what he labelled ‘the nightmare of waste’. I found myself more and more intrigued by Mottram’s beliefs about the war and his own war experience. He introduced me to the idea that ambiguity about the war was not only possible, but very probably the dominant response to it. Here was no Sassoon raging about a confidence trick played upon his generation. Here was no Owen agonising over the pity of war. Instead, Mottram maintained his pride at being a volunteer, his insistence that his fellow soldiers revealed wonderful reserves of sang-froid, stoicism and good humour, that on the whole the cause Britain fought for was justified, but at the same time he was horrified by its vast cost which brought the civilised world to the verge of collapse.
Being so intrigued by Mottram’s world, I tracked down many of his other writings about the war including Ten Years Ago ‑ A Pendant to The Spanish Farm Trilogy (1928), containing a series of short vignettes many of which flesh out incidental figures and details from the trilogy; Through the Menin Gate (1932), a collection of essays mainly reprinted from newspaper articles and his finely crafted guidebook cum meditation, Journey to the Western Front (1936). At the same time, I began searching for traces of his environment on the Western Front. Among the copses on the north side of the road leading from Steenvorde over the Belgian border and on to Poperinge can be see a hunting lodge. It corresponds closely – ‘a little hunting shelter, brick, with mock Gothic windows and leaded lights, encircled by a timber-pillared verandah’ – with the description of the one belonging to Baron d’Archeville, the local landowner of The Spanish Farm Trilogy. I am also pretty convinced that the model for the Spanish Farm itself – ‘a single-storied building of immensely thick walls of red brick’- can be found in the great barrack of a farm on the north side of the D948 at the crossroads for Abeele. I always point it out as I pass with any group I happen to be guiding and usually face a sea of unimpressed faces. Very few show any flicker of recognition when I mention The Spanish Farm Trilogy. It seems amazing that a writer who won the Hawthornden literary prize for The Spanish Farm, making him a celebrity often invited to comment on matters relating to the war by newspapers and magazines, could be almost entirely forgotten. But, perhaps Mottram and the world he explored in such detail is about to be revived. With more and more people interested in topics such as nursing, the hospital camps and the huge behind-the-lines infrastructure required for the maintenance of fighting units, Mottram’s focus becomes a wonderful snapshot. But a photograph is probably not a metaphor Mottram with his reverence for Flemish culture would have appreciated. Rather, he urges us to explore a distinctive physical and spiritual landscape of the Great War where sky and soil are so sharply contrasted: ‘that wide blue vault that the old painters loved… out of a Flemish picture ‑ a Van Dyck… a Hals or a Jordaens.’
Could this building have been the inspiration for Mottram’s ‘Spanish Farm’?
Image © 2014 Google