First world war

‘I glimpse her ahead of me’ – a solo female traveller follows her hero across Turkey

Green-eyed Gertrude Bell belongs in Charles Doughty’s Travels in Arabia Deserta, that slab of velvety antique that enthralled the English (they were not yet British) in the love-affair phase of their relationship with the Arabs. County Durham-born to a wealthy industrialist father, Bell (1868-1926) was a key player when the Powers tried ineptly to mould the Middle East, as the Ottoman Empire crumbled. She is well covered in the literature and appears in a large hat alongside Churchill in conference photographs. But as Pat Yale announces in this new book: ‘Her time in Turkey has been largely overlooked.’ Bell travelled extensively in that country before the first world war (starting

Was Vera Brittain really this insufferable? Buxton Festival’s The Land of Might-Have-Been reviewed

‘Ring out your bells for me, ivory keys! Weave out your spell for me, orchestra please!’ It’s lush stuff, the music of Ivor Novello, and when the Buxton International Festival announced a new musical ‘built around’ his songs, the heart took flight. Novello is one of those fringe passions that are, one suspects, a lot less marginal than fashion might suggest. If his great hit operettas of the 1930s and 1940s – The Dancing Years, King’s Rhapsody and the rest – really are unrevivable (and the jury is still out on that), a sympathetic, newly constructed showcase for his finest material in the manner of the Gershwin reboot Crazy For

The 100-year-old opiate had lost none of its potency

Our neighbour Michael is a keen and knowledgable attender of vides-greniers, the equivalent of our car-boot sales. His focus is on old bottles, full or empty, and old china, but he’ll pick up anything that piques his fancy. Some months ago, for example, he bought for €1 a glass tube of opium tablets issued to the French infantry during the Great War. Last week he reissued me with three of these little brown pills knowing that I had an abiding interest in the first world war and was using a modern version – white crystals of morphine sulphate in a red gelatine pill – to mask the pain I was

Don’t bring me sunshine: a week in the Surrey hills

I’m staying for a week in an 1850s house in the Surrey hills that looks-wise might have been built for the suburban 1920s. I came last night. ‘Sorry about the rain,’ said the UK Border Force lady. ‘Rain is exactly what I was hoping for,’ I said. This morning the owner went to work, leaving me alone in the atmospheric old house. Before he left he warned me about the dictatorial cleaner. ‘She’s called Maria and she comes from Madeira and she’s particular about you not being in the same room while she cleans,’ he said. When she came in I was sitting at the kitchen table looking out of

Quietly devastating: Benediction reviewed

Terence Davies’s Benediction is a biopic of the first world war poet Siegfried Sassoon told with great feeling and tenderness. The result is quietly powerful, quietly devastating and, happily, is not afflicted by the usual clichés that afflict this genre. Sassoon never, for example, crumples what he’s just written and throws it across the room. For this we must be grateful, and are. The film juggles two timelines, with the young Siegfried played by Jack Lowden – once a rising star, it is probably now fair to say he has fully risen; he is wonderful here – and the old Siegfried played by Peter Capaldi. We only ever encounter the

The joy of the Great War memoir

Harley Granville-Barker, actor, director, playwright, manager and critic, was a pasha of the Edwardian London stage. As a director, his Midsummer Night’s Dream of 1914 was a theatrical landmark. His own plays were provocative and controversial. The Secret Life, for example, was an analysis of the torpor of the British ruling classes. Waste, involving a married woman’s lethal abortion, was suppressed by the Lord Chamberlain. In 1916, aged 38, at the peak of his celebrity, the great Harley Granville-Barker volunteered for a walk-on part on the Western Front as a Red Cross auxiliary. Last week I came across an account of his opening night in the trenches, as related to

A hidden side of the Somme

Noticing via this Low Life column that I had trench fever, the Western Front Association treated me to a year’s membership and subscription to their excellent quarterly magazine Stand To!. And if that wasn’t enough, they also offered me a place in their contingent at this year’s Service of Remembrance at the Cenotaph — a dream come true. ‘It’ll make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck,’ promised WFA legal trustee Richard Hughes in an email. My torch might be sputtering but my trench fever burns still brightly. ‘Not another book about the first world war!’ says Catriona as she hobbles up the path with yet another

Trump should take lessons in lying from Joe Biden

Gstaad It snowed on the last two days of August up here, and why not? We’ve traded freedom of speech for freedom from speech, so on an upside-down planet, snow in the Alps in August is the new normal. The world is suddenly a grim place, a sick prank when you think about it. It’s a kamikaze fantasy with the bad guys winning and being cheered on by the left and the media. The virus is now a metaphor, religion having been cast aside by the global elite who follow only their interests and think of the rest of us as cannon fodder. Reading the papers a couple of weeks

Jam and Opium on the Somme

Phone calls aside, the only human contact I had on my ten-day Somme battlefield tour was with the lady who ran the bed and breakfast establishment. My bed was on the upper storey of a disused light railway station in a clearing in a beech wood. Madame lived with her husband in a modern bungalow 100 yards down the line, but came along each morning to cook my bacon and eggs. The greater part of her clientele consists of British Great War buffs. But Covid-19 had kept them away and I had the breakfast table, the old station and indeed the Somme battlefield entirely to myself. The dining room was

The beauty of military cemeteries

They are starting to cut the corn. But apart from combine harvesters and tractors, the roads up here on the Somme ridges are empty, the villages more or less deserted. It’s been just me and my bike, the wind, the skylarks, the familiar English sky, the chalk ground, the strange flints, the green and famous woods, and the thousands of British dead lying under Portland headstones in these beautifully kept military cemeteries, the grander ones designed by Sir Herbert Baker. They dot the hillsides all around like defensive outposts of a lost civilisation of warrior gardeners. Airport bookshops a few years ago were selling a paperback called Is it Just

My Great War obsession

Bernafay Wood B&B, Somme, France I came up on the TGV yesterday from the Midi to northern France and it went like the clappers. I fell asleep zipping through stony, sun-baked vineyards and olive groves and woke an hour later in dairy country obscured by rain. What I had hoped for was an empty carriage or at least a socially distanced one, but this particular Sunday train was packed to the rafters. A woman behind me sneezed at my head from one end of France to the other. A bloke across the aisle was soaked in sweat, his head lolling this way and that on the bends and he looked

Lloyd Evans

Not even a genius could make Much Ado About Nothing funny

The RSC’s 2014 version of Much Ado is breathtaking to look at. Sets, lighting and costumes are exquisitely done, even if the location is not established with absolute clarity. The date is Christmas 1918 and we’re in a stately home that has been converted into a billet, or a hospital, for returning soldiers. The prickly Beatrice (Michelle Terry) seems to be an unemployed aristocrat working as a volunteer nurse. She fusses around the ward making discreet enquiries about an old flame, Benedick, whose memory she can’t shake off. Enter Benedick played by Edward Bennett and the fun starts. These two absolutely get inside the skins of their characters. Terry’s portrait

Chaotic, if good-natured, muddle: Hytner’s Midsummer Night’s Dream reviewed

Nicholas Hytner’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream opens in a world of puritanical austerity. The cast wear sombre black costumes and Oliver Chris, with menacing swagger, brings a note of palpable sadism to the role of Theseus. Then things relax as the ‘mechanicals’ in modern boiler suits prepare to rehearse the play. Hammed Animashaun (Bottom) dominates this little scene with his impish charm and unpredictability. He’s a high-calibre talent of whom more will be heard. After this solid opening, disaster strikes. The forest sequences, already devilishly overcomplicated, are presented on double beds which move restlessly all over the shop and make the story almost impossible to follow. And Hytner has flipped

War and plague have menaced theatres before, but rarely on this scale

It seems a long time ago now. I was meeting the artistic director of a pub theatre near Westminster on the afternoon of 16 March. Already it was clear that this was one of the worst days of his professional life. That evening’s performance of a John Osborne play had been cancelled because a cast member had caught a severe cold over the weekend. During the morning, four more shows had withdrawn their productions, and the theatre had nothing to present for the next eight weeks. As we spoke, his phone pinged. Another cancellation. The door swung open and the production manager came in with a look of doom on