BOOK REVIEW / In Brief: Wilfred Owen: The Last Year, 1917-1918 - Dominic Hibberd: Constable, pounds 14.95

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The Independent Culture
MOST biographies are big with the years and long on the careers of their subjects. Concise, intelligent, richly supported by photographs and facsimiles, Dominic Hibberd's Wilfred Owen: The Last Year, 1917-1918 (Constable pounds 14.95) makes the most of the little it has to go on: a short life, almost all the achievement of which was crowded into a single year.

It was an annus both mirabilis and horribilis. In the summer of 1917 Owen was in Craiglockhart Hospital, Edinburgh, shell-shocked after brief active service in France, the charge of cowardice tainting his name and self-esteem. In hospital, he recovered under his doctor, Arthur Brock, who sent him slum-visiting and set him writing tasks as part of his work-cure, or 'ergotherapy'. Owen also, famously, screwed up the courage to meet another patient, Siegfried Sassoon, who 'sat on his bed cleaning golf clubs' while the nervous young provincial introduced himself. They became friends and encouraged each other to write poems more brutally honest about their war experiences.

Between Craicklockhart and returning to France, Owen made trips to London, where he met, among others, Robert Ross and Scott-Moncrieff. Hibberd does not use the words 'gay' or 'homosexual' here: 100 years on from his birth and 75 from his death, this aspect of Owen, which so upset his brother Harold, is still shrouded in euphemism. But Hibberd is at least more candid than Owen's official biographer, Jon Stallworthy, noting, for example: 'He usually found a boy or two to befriend, wherever he was.' Hibberd is also illuminating about Owen's spells with his regiment in Scarborough and Ripon: he gives a vivid feel of both places as they then were, has walked the same walks, is particularly good on the cottage Owen rented in Borrage Lane (where he wrote some of his finest poems).

By September 1918, Owen was back at the Front. The details of his last weeks remain as poignant as ever, but Hibberd, who spares none of the horror, also rightly emphasises his courage, leadership and self-assertiveness. On 1 October, soaked in the blood of his servant, he captured an enemy machine gun, one of the first Allied officers to break through German defences. Five weeks later he was dead.

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