Friday, November 14, 2014

The Diary of a Dead Officer by Arthur Graeme West (1918)

WEST, Arthur Graeme. The Diary of a Dead Officer. The Office of the Herald, London: 1918. 

Posthumously edited by C. E. M. Joad, a contemporary of West both at school and at Oxford, the book consists of an introduction by Joad, extracts from this young officer’s diary and then his poetry, often thought to be the first realistic poetry of WW1 including titles such as “God! How I Hate You You Young Cheerful Men.” and “The Night Patrol.”. According to the sketch by Joad, West was an unhappy schoolboy on account of his conspicuously un-athletic nature and his love of caterpillars which he kept in his room and which created quite a stink, both of which things rather alienated him from the general schoolboy populace. At Oxford, however, he found life much more congenial but again Joad paints a picture of a young man with a sensitive nature that, like so many others, would be damaged beyond repair by the experience of war. "He was so devoid of push and advertisement, so quiet, tranquil and unassuming, so eminently companionable, and above all, such a good listener, that, though these things did not constitute his charm, they went some way to explain it... he was... one of those few people who really liked being alone, not so much because other people bored him, as because he did not bore himself."  

Beginning with his enlistment in a fever of duty and patriotism, the diary charts how the experience of war took away those beliefs and eventually even his belief in God. Although it has been reprinted, including in a beautifully illustrated edition by The Old Stile Press just this year, the first edition is very scarce. It was produced by the left-wing paper The Herald and printed by Francis Meynell’s Pelican Press, whose press mark is at the back of the book and this was in 1918. By 1919 publication had been taken over by George Allen & Unwin and most institutional copies bear their imprint on the title page. Some authorities even give 1919 as the year of first printing. Meynell also published Siegfried Sassoon’s Protest

[Francis Meynell was the son of Wilfred and Alice Meynell, both of whom were considerable forces in the world of publishing. Wilfred was the Managing Director of the catholic publishing house Burns and Oates and his son Francis, after an education at Downside and University College Belfast joined the company and showed a very high level of aptitude for the design of books. But Francis was something of a political radical and became a Director of the left-wing paper, The Herald, was involved in the suffrage movement and was rapidly becoming slightly embarrassing to the rather conservative Burns and Oates. It wasn't long before he went off on his own, or rather until he went off with his assistant at Burns and Oates, Stanley Morison, and the two designers/typographers set up The Pelican Press. They were exactly the kind of outfit that were going to take on an anti-war and rather anti-establishment piece like these works by West.]

1 comment:

Fred Coleman said...

"he was... one of those few people who really liked being alone, not so much because other people bored him, as because he did not bore himself."

In this dreadful age, where "social media" dominate and Facebook and Twitter reign supreme, these words are truly inspirational.

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