Diary of a Corbyn foot soldier
by Michael Murray
Facebook: Michael Murray London- a commentary/digest of political and general interest news for busy people.
Dictionary definition of foot soldier: “…a dedicated low-level follower.”
In this issue: In the Armistice Centenary:
A foot soldier’s Remembrance and Reflexion
(1) “Soldier On”
(2) The Veterans for Peace UK
“You talk of better food for us, an’ schools, an’ fires, an’ all:
We’ll wait for extry rations if you treat us rational.
Don’t mess about the cook-room slops, but prove it to our face
The widow’s uniform is not the soldier-man’s disgrace.
For it’s Tommy this, and Tommy that, an’ “chuck him out, the brute!”
But it’s “Saviour of ‘is country” when the guns begin to shoot;
An’ It’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ Anything you please;
An’ Tommy ain’t a blooming fool – you bet that Tommy sees.”
“Tommy,” poem by Rudyard Kipling, first published in “Barrack-Room Stories,” 1892.
(1) “Soldier On”
I saw a play the other night: “Soldier On,” performed by several former servicemen – and women – in a large cast, which included professional actors, many with military backgrounds, including service in Northern Ireland. It works so well artistically, you’d have to consult the programme to work out who were the military vets and who the actors. In one case, though, it was obvious. An ex-Royal Marine, now turned successful professional actor lost a leg, in the Afghanistan war. He performed with exposed prosthetic – waving it over his head at one point, for black comic effect, while balancing, perfectly, on the other. It is a powerful, fleeting, image of the triumph of physical – and mental – resilience over adversity and, is, rightly, depicted on the play’s programme cover.
In the words of Amanda Faber, an award-winning producer/writer and director for TV, Cinema and Theatre, responsible for this production – whom I had the pleasure of meeting on the night, along with cast members – the play, which has been performed up and down Britain and just come to London, can be summarized as follows. “A group of veterans and actors rehearse a play about a group of veterans and actors. The bonding, the humour all help to put them back together again. It’s a story about surviving the forces, dealing with traumatic experiences and what happens when you leave the military family.”
In other words, its premise is the cathartic power of storytelling in the healing process. This is something Amanda feels so passionate about that, in a busy life, she founded and guides the Soldiers Arts Academy (soldiersartsacademy.com)
Yes, it was all Pongos and Bootnecks amongst the characters – no representation from the Andrew, my British service background. No Airy Fairies either. Nor Sky Pilots – an interesting omission about a play on the theme of life, death and the whole damn teleogical thing. Compare how O’Casey dealt with the latter in “The Silver Tassie”? The exhausted squaddies lying in their muddy trench in a lull in the murderous, hopeless, unnecessary war singing “We’re here because we’re here because we’re here…”? A favourite theatrical moment of mine.
The most impactful moment in wartime drama, though, has to be the execution scene in the early 1960’s film, “King and Country,” based on a play by John Wilson which I saw earlier this year, revived, no doubt, for this Armistice centenary year and doing the rounds of the national fringe theatre. Sometimes stage plays have more dramatic intensity than the filmed version of the same story; and sometimes the reverse. “King and Country” is an example of the story-telling power of cinema.
In the film, a shell-shocked soldier is found guilty of desertion by a field court martial despite all the evidence presented that this was not premeditated desertion but mental collapse after living through the horrors of four years of war, culminating in having been covered in the liquidized body parts of his mate blown to smithereens beside him. So, the decision is made “higher up” to shoot him, “pour encourager les autres” on the eve of another “push.”
But the execution is botched. The soldier (played by a young Tom Courtney) lies in his own blood and filth in the mud, still conscious. It is the execution party officer’s job to finish him off, or administer the “coup de grace,” as they would say in the Officers’ mess. The officer (played by Dirk Bogarde) draws his ’45 revolver, cocks it, kneels down and pushes it towards the half open bleeding mouth of the prone Courtney. As he is about to have his head blown off, Courtney is heard to say in a pathetic mumble: “Sorry, sir.” Picture it. “Sorry”… “Sir.” And then oblivion.
He is sorry to be putting Bogarde through this dreadful experience. English class deference. The tragedy of lions allowing themselves to be led by fecking donkeys! To be fair to the officer character played by Bogarde, he too is a victim of the murder machine that was the British Army in WWI. In another time he could have been the high-ranking ex-officer in the cast of “Soldier On” who hasn’t a misanthropic bone in his body, exuding “noblesse oblige” and man’s humanity to man – even egalitarianism, insisting on being called Tom, not “Sir.”
In the same film genre “A Month in the Country,”1988, we see two such young WWI veteran officers, played by Colin Firth and Kenneth Branagh, attempting to find themselves by immersion in their pre-war passions: one is an art restorer/conservationist (the Firth character); the other an archeologist (Branagh). The film doesn’t show what they’ve been through with flash-back, flash-bang, action scenes, but, subtly, through a sensitive portrayal of their symptoms: the Firth character’s stammer, Branagh’s ‘comfort’ hole in the ground – into which he can dive when the ever-present remembered guns begin to roar – discretely hidden in the tent he occupies in the middle of his archeological digging site.
Once, during a love scene in beautiful, sunlit woodlands, a million miles from the killing fields of France – a farmer, out of vision, discharges a shotgun at some crows. This sends the Firth character diving for the ground, at the feet of the woman he’s courting, clawing into the earth to escape from his demons. And a tender moment is shattered, never to re-emerge with the same intimacy and promise.
“A Month in the Country” is mentioned here because it shares the same theme. Though, what was for a long time called “shell shock,” wrecker of many soldiers’ relationships as well as their own lives, is now known as “PTSD” – Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
In “Soldier On” there is a moment when the director of that play within the play, in exasperation with his cast, slams the heavy file of his directorial notes onto the wooden floor of the stage causing a loud bang – and sends the cast diving in all directions. We get it. This isn’t playacting the veterans are involved in, it’s serious shit. There is much at stake: people’s mental health – and lives. To paraphrase Yeats: “tread softly, Mister Theatre Director for you tread on my nightmares.” And we see the Director learn that lesson in further dealings with his cast.
In a generally favourable, and sympathetic review of “Soldier On,” acknowledging the quality of the production, theatre critic Christopher Hart writes in his piece in The Sunday Times: “One thing is certain about PTSD. It’s over-diagnosed.” He makes some grudging exceptions of those who experienced the most traumatizing moments in recent military encounters and bemoans the emphasis of modern theatre on the hidden injuries of war, not the heroism and gallantry.
Amanda Faber, Producer of the play would disagree with Hart and PTSD. She told me there’s a veritable “sunami” of PTSD ahead in the Britain, citing the now identified delay between traumatic experiences of war and acting out the symptoms: the Vietnam war’s delayed impact on US veterans being an example.
“There’s a sense” Hart writes, “ that the only kind of soldiers we should pay attention to now aren’t the professional, highly trained combat forces who perform so outstandingly when put to the test, but those damaged souls who return home in need of care…. What you are never going to see on a modern stage or screen is a play about heroism, comradeship, sacrifice even the raw (if for some civilians, tasteless and taboo) thrills of combat. (Sunday Times, 1stApril, 2018) “Those damaged souls who return home in need of care”? Don’t you just love it when the right-wing press tell it as it is?
Michael Billington of the Guardian has a different take. Having acknowledged that the play shows the rehabilitative power of putting on a play, he says: “I’d like to have heard if ex-combatants feel a retrospective anger at the sacrifice they were expected to make.“ (Guardian, 30/10/2018) A fair comment. Another issue is: what about the damage inflicted by the military, in the course of conflict? What about the so-called “collateral” damage to the old, the innocent – and, yes the enemy combatants?
A question I put to one of the actors, invalided out after long service, with PTSD, over a pint in the bar – to which most of the cast adjourned happy to talk to audience members. I wouldn’t have presumed to put Billington’s blunt question to him. Instead, I asked how the experience of being in the play had changed his views of Army life and purpose. His answer was immediate: “180 degrees change.” I didn’t pry further. I didn’t have to.
(2) The Veterans for Peace UK
Over the last year especially I’ve had a lot of contact with UK military vets, through the Labour Party, in which a number are active members. In the interval, after the First Act I thought: this is a dramatization of all the conversations I’ve been having with VFPUK members !
VFPUK was founded in 2011, as an open, democratic ex-service persons’ organisation. Some of its oldest members saw WWII action and members have deployed in every war in which Britain has been involved.
“As a result of our collective experiences,” a VFPUK statement says, “we firmly believe that: War is not the solution to the problems we face in the 21stCentury. “We are not a pacifist organisation, we accept the right of self-defence in response to an armed attack.” “We work to influence the foreign and defence policy of the UK for the larger purpose of world peace.”
There is an idea emerging in some parts of the VFPUK that the time has come for it to consider becoming a part of the Labour Party, through reserved places for vets on local party branches, so that, like trade unions, they can pursue their social agenda more effectively than lobbying from the outside. Conversations have persuaded me that the multiplicity of inter-related social problems unique to ex-servicemen deserves recognition.
Finally, a question to Michael Billington, Guardian Theatre Critic. I first became aware of the VFPUK when a number of them gave testimony of their Iraq experience at Amnesty International’s launch of Peter Oborne’s book “Not The Chilcott Report” in the summer of 2016, addressing Michael Billington’s concerns. But did his colleagues at the Guardian report that conference, and the soldiers’ verdict on their experiences of the war?
I thought not.