DJ Taylor: The legacy of war

How it still affects us, 70 years after it began; the exoticism of the American open road; and 'middle-class young magicians' get a literary kicking

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The emotional consequences of armed conflict can take generations to work themselves out. Towards the end of his life, the legendarily long-lived Dr Martin Routh, President of Magdalen College, Oxford, who died in 1854 at the ripe age of 100, was heard muttering about "these late disturbances".

It was first thought that the old gentleman was referring to the Chartist insurrections of a decade-and-a-half before. In fact, discreet enquiry revealed, he was lamenting the upsets of the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Doubtless, infinitely more traumatic and wide-ranging examples of this process are still at work in British society 70 years after the outbreak of the Second World War. Born 15 years after the close of hostilities, I always imagined myself to have been conceived in their elongated shadow. There were several reasons for this. One was that war's incidental treasure trove lay all over the house: the old RAF greatcoat, for example, that my father wore for spring gardening, or the cache of pilfered Nazi flags hidden in a trunk in the attic.

The other was the contrasting mental effect that six years of warfare had had on my parents. My father, who saw service in Ulster, Liberated Europe and the Middle East, had clearly been made more worldly by it: there were engaging stories of his climbing the pyramids and nearly getting court-martialled for trying to sell his blankets at a Cairo street market. My mother, on the other hand, aged seven when war broke out and brought up in a world of ration books and clothing coupons, had been made more frugal by it. Deep into the 1970s, when the family complained about already puny joints of meat endlessly eked out into shepherd's pie and rissoles, her excuse was the memory of wartime privation. Middle-class English Puritanism had a great time from 1939 to 1945, as there was now official sanction for many of its most deeply held beliefs. As for the children of the war generation, and what it did to them, the process naturally worked in reverse. For the whole of my first term at university, I remember, I breakfasted off a cup of coffee and six chocolate biscuits: I'd had enough of solitary pieces of toast. Here, surely, lie the roots of a great deal of post-war human behaviour. One can blame Adolf Hitler for all sorts of things, but the consumer-materialist Gadarene rush of the post-war age is certainly his fault, an inevitable reaction by the people (or rather the children of the people) who had never had it so bad.

***

Another 70th anniversary was in the news last week: the first publication of John Steinbeck's classic The Grapes of Wrath. The Guardian, in particular, offered a feature on the history of Route 66 since the bands of dispossessed Oklahoma sharecroppers headed west along it to the illusory golden land of the California orange groves, and there were fascinating interviews with survivors. For all its drama, and the curiously matter-of-fact quality of its naturalism – life going on whatever happens – re-reading The Grapes of Wrath can be an odd experience, if only because the imperative which drove hundreds of thousands of people out of the dustbowl states seems practically biological in its scope, a surging horde as well as a collection of individual human beings: significantly, Steinbeck (1902-1968) studied marine biology before settling down to literature.

And then, of course, there is its exoticism – those endless roads, wide horizons and ground-down migrants – for which most of us on the eastern side of the Atlantic generally fall hook, line and sinker. Some years ago, Richard Ford ticked off the late Stephen Spender for some supposedly patronising remarks to the effect that intense loneliness gives all great American literature something in common, "the sense of a lonely animal howling in the dark, like wolves in a story of Jack London". No disrespect to Mr Ford, but this is precisely what does give American literature its distinctive sheen to anyone who happens to live in a London suburb. Quite half the praise with which US literature – US culture generally, if it comes to that – is ritually showered is to do with simple geographical separation. And the tendency must work both ways. Certainly anyone in Nowhere, Nebraska, who read an Anita Brookner novel would find it just as weird as we find Annie Proulx.

***

The Daily Star, that barometer of the national conscience, carried a sad story about Jordan, aka Katie Price, being confronted by a gang of supporters of her estranged husband Peter Andre. Miss Price supposedly left the scene to jeers and cries of "You slag", a reference to her sexual exploits since Andre's very public throwing over. All this prompts the question: in what circumstances, these days, is it permissible to express moral disapproval? For years now, I have inhabited a world full of contemporaries enthusiastically following the Price template – that is, walking out of relationships as a tide of human wreckage gently recedes in their wake. Naturally, I wouldn't dream of criticising them for it, on the grounds that no outsider ever knows the truth about someone else's marriage, and that it's none of my business anyway. In a quarter century of watching this happen I think I took a stiff moral line only once, when playing cricket with a man who had left his wife of a year or so's standing to her great distress, and deciding that I really couldn't be bothered to say hello to him.

This reluctance to express any kind of judgement, whatever one might privately think, now extends to all areas of our national life. Coming back from London on the train the other day, I sat in a carriage full of people watching a girl trying vainly to subdue a fractious two year-old who, alternately ignored and snubbed, yelled all the way from Ipswich to Norwich. Thirty years ago, people would have intervened – not necessarily to censure but to offer practical advice. Here in 2009 we sat staring uncomfortably out of the window, feeling desperately sorry for poor, shrieking Connor, but darkly conscious of the probable consequences of speaking out.

***

BBC2's This World: Gypsy Child Thieves painted a dismal picture of modern Romany life, full of cut-throat patriarchs cheerfully sending their sons out to fleece cash-point queues and selling their daughters into slavery. Most reviewers took a very cautious line, deploring the moral void but making the point that if you marginalise and criminalise particular ethnic groups for hundreds of years then you mustn't expect them to conform to your own standards of behaviour. A more oblique reading of the Romany lifestyle that hovered in the ether was that national or minority-group stereotyping usually requires a degree of collusion between the exploiter and the exploited.

The stage "Irishman", a carrot-haired moron, permanently drunk on poteen, starts turning up in early-Victorian guidebooks, shambling across Kerry market-squares with cries of "Dade it is" and "Would yer honour like to see a big pig?" Historians are pretty well agreed that this relationship was in some sense reciprocal: that Seumas, Tim and co. knew what was expected from them by English visitors and played up to it. On the other hand, if you live on a municipal rubbish heap outside Naples, with half the local population keen to have you shot on sight, then a certain amount of trans-cultural collusion can perhaps be forgiven you.

***

The fallout from James Kelman's assault on the commercialisation of Scottish literary culture, made at last week's Edinburgh Book Festival, continues to descend. Kelman, who won the Booker Prize in 1994 for How Late It Was, How Late, attacked his country's literary establishment for praising the "mediocrity" of "writers of detective fiction or books about some upper middle-class young magician or some crap". He is supposed to have been referring to Ian Rankin and JK Rowling. Reaction has been horribly divided, with some pundits commending Kelman's "bravery" and others diagnosing wounded amour propre.

But the real point about the "gentrification" of literature is that it has been going on for centuries. From the angle of the Waterstone's buyer, AS Byatt is as much a genre writer as the hippest young chic-ficcer on the block. There is a ghastly moment in George Gissing's New Grub Street, in which Jasper Milvain, an up-and-coming young literary journalist, advises his serious-minded chum Reardon to give up this highbrow stuff and try "something rather sensational". Milvain's proposed title for this crowd-pleasing barnstormer is "The Weird Sisters", on the grounds that it "suggests all kinds of things, both to the vulgar and the educated". Reardon's face, as this excellent piece of advice is brought forth, is described as "that of a man in blank misery". All this was written in 1891. Jasper Milvain's great-grandson is doubtless enjoying a lucrative career as a London literary agent.

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