Revivals of First World War literature have been in plentiful supply throughout 2014, though few are as conceptually charged as Trevor Royle’s latest offering. From the “doldrums” of the Kailyard – the rural arcadia that had become intrinsically linked with the nation’s written word – Royle’s introductory essay alleges that war sparked an identifiably Scottish “literary renaissance”. Acting almost as an extended appendix, this volume juxtaposes the familiar fiction of John Buchan and Saki with revelatory personal writing to reflect the editor’s central thesis with varying degrees of success.
Progenitor of the title quote, Charles Hamilton Sorley, a University of Jena student fighting against his adopted homeland, ranks among Royle’s most valuable “revelations”. Eschewing the “sentimentality” and xenophobia of many contemporaries, his posthumously published letters are refreshingly free from the trappings of tub-thumping patriotism. Sorley’s denigration of “unpoetical” warfare was cut short by a sniper in 1915, yet, when sharing paper with Sir Harry Lauder’s ardently patriotic reflections upon the “glorious death” of his son, it is the pair’s shared ties to tragedy that shine through.
In fact, the nation’s newfound relationship with sudden mortality provides the collection’s most powerful motif. Buchan’s whimsical tale, “The King of Ypres”, gains a sense of poignancy through the abrupt demise of its female lead. In painting this phenomenon, few of the represented join Lauder in ennobling the “chivalric” fallen soldiers. Eric Linklater’s reports from the Black Watch, are enlivened by satire of such sentimentality; black humour was, of course, rife among the self-effacing “saviours of the western world”. Perhaps the most harrowing extract is novelist Naomi Mitchison’s evocative account of her husband’s recovery from a brain injury. Revisiting her war diaries in her autobiography, trivial entries regarding the social faux-pas of her in-laws are exposed as a sanitary façade, masking the hardship of her husband’s mental decline. Similar self-censorship can be elucidated from Sir Ian Hamilton’s impenetrably-highfalutin account of the “whizz-flop-bang” of naval warfare, adding a morbid undertone to what would otherwise be a much-needed source of comic-relief.
Censorship of the institutionalised variety is an equally prevalent phenomenon, with Rebecca West’s grim snapshot of Dornock Munitions Factory clad in murky secrecy. J. Storer Clouston’s delightful account of a bicycle-riding German Lieutenant infiltrating Orkney thankfully suffers rather less from being unable to reveal the identity of its “Windy Isles”. Tales of secret Russian battalions being freighted across the land and German corpse factories hidden beneath the streets add a flourish of intrigue. Tabloid journalism though Neil Munro’s writings may be, the collected “absurdities” have undeniable macabre charm.
Royle’s collection does, however, suffer from its breadth of form and subject. John Maclean’s anti-capitalist diatribes from “Red Clydeside” may well be of interest to historians of the Scottish Labour movement, yet anyone looking for evidence of a “literary renaissance” will find little in his admittedly powerful rhetoric. Royal British Legion founder Douglas Haig’s colourless, dispassionate account of the Somme suffers similarly; his restrained tributes to the “fine fellows” in the trenches utterly obscure the tragic reality. The editor’s choice of alphabetical ordering over chronological or thematic could weaken the emphasis placed upon his central ideas. In reality, however, unlike many similar volumes, the limited contextualisation actually allows Royle’s thesis to subtly evidence itself without the unwelcome hammering of constant reinforcement.
As a collection, the material herein may prove too scattered in form and content to convince all readers of a Scottish “literary renaissance”. In the war’s centenary year, however, few collections are likely to illuminate the nation’s pervading familiarity with sudden death so starkly, or capture the despondency that would grow to outlive the conflict with such subtlety. On the evidence of this aspect of Isn’t All This Bloody?, Royle’s seat on Holyrood’s Advisory Panel for Commemorating the First World War is richly deserved.