War and literature have shaped my life. I have no actual experience of the former owing to my age and to my growing up in London as opposed to, say, Gaza or Kosovo. My father, however, fought in the Spanish Civil War, and it was the novels that he later wrote about the fascist, reactionary forces he battled against that led directly to us moving to the UK in 1960 as political refugees. I was four years old. Had we remained in Barcelona would I have still followed in his footsteps and chosen to become a writer? Possibly, but I would not have written Kitchener Blue twenty four years later - a novel set in London during World War One. And I most certainly wouldn't be taking The Rose of Jericho, my new play, to the Edinburgh Fringe this year - a play about an ex-soldier.
War. Literature. Significant forces in my life and work. Even in my role as an English tutor, the two have combined to produce some of my most memorable experiences. Studying the war poets, for instance, with students who, at the outset, have little or no interest in the subject, and seeing the change in them as the impassioned depictions of hell on earth come vividly to life, is extremely moving. These are youngsters who, like so many nowadays, spend hours playing computer games in which the human experience has been lucratively reduced to a virtual minefield of explosions and bloody, triumphant, gung ho destruction of 'enemies'. I consider it a privilege to be able to discuss with such young minds the works of Owen and Sassoon; to examine how their poetry exposes the distorted, hypocritical attitude of politicians towards war. Similarly, you cannot study a novel like 1984, where war and nationalist triumphalism are everywhere; where cinemas run endless footage of horrific battle scenes at which all are expected to cheer with bloodthirsty zeal, without discussing how constant exposure to the pornography of militarised violence ends up desensitizing society. In short, that it's a relentless, assiduously networked form of propaganda. And how, then, can the connection fail to be made between that and the prevalence of today's computer games?
It never ceases to amaze me, though, that the horrors of war and the callousness of many of those who start and oversee them, as depicted and exposed in the set texts prescribed to generations of English Literature students, are rarely alluded to once we've entered the 'real world'. This is equally true of other works advocating a more humane, fairer society. The implicit message of our education system seems to be: study these works; examine the way authors use various techniques to show how terrible things are; explore the theme of propaganda/injustice/inequality; memorize it all; get the best possible grade; go to university; obtain a good degree; accept the highest paid job - even if it involves working for the arms industry or a tobacco company; forget what you learnt about wars, poverty, political corruption and vested interests, and do what your leaders tell you.
That may sound cynical, but let us not forget that Owen and Sassoon's war, the so-called Great War, was meant to be the 'war to end all wars'. So why is it that in the hundred years since that terrible carnage began, there has barely been a time on this planet in which, somewhere, people's lives haven't been blighted by conflicts large or small? There is rarely a news bulletin that isn't tainted with images of combat troops, armed militias, drone attacks, casualties, grieving relatives, displaced refugees,... Why? Follow the money, the adage goes. Well, that clearly leads us to the multinational corporations that not only manufacture weapons of mass destruction but also own and control global media outlets. With warfare providing such a profitable market for their goods, it's hardly surprising to discover that their coverage of it is both extensive and distorted to suit their goals. The dystopian reality is that this is not considered immoral in any way. Maximising profits for shareholders, after all, is what these companies are legally obliged to do, and are applauded for doing so. The Orwellian echo is deafening.
Perhaps that is why writers, in whatever form or style or language, feel so compelled to continue writing about war - because, for the most part, the lessons these stories have to teach us aren't being learnt; the implications of the lies they expose aren't being absorbed; their warnings aren't being heeded. And like so many other dissenting voices, they will remain in the wilderness until we stop regarding education as a pragmatic, functional means to an end, and regard it instead as a lifelong moral end in itself stretching beyond the confines of the curriculum and societal pressures to conform. Only then will we be able, collectively, to turn a deaf ear to the orchestrated cacophony of distracting voices that currently engulf us.
Now that's something worth fighting for.
The Rose of Jericho will be at The Surgeons' Hall, Edinburgh Fringe, Aug 1 - 23.