Thursday, 19 May 2011
GOODBYE TO ALL THAT by Robert Graves
Graves wrote this memoir when he was just a year older than me, 34, going through an ugly divorce, and on the point of leaving England forever. It is an awesome exercise in wholesale bridge burning.
It makes me feel like writing my memoirs, except that fortunately for me I have not had quite such an event filled life as Graves, who was in that unlucky generation that left high school in 1914, and so swapped one uniform for another, entering the First World War as teenagers.
We begin with his childhood, which is largely spent in one of these famously damaging English public schools, and he seems to have been accordingly damaged. He is bullied relentlessly (honest to god, where are the ADULTS in these places? When I was teaching I regarded one of my main jobs as keeping a beady eye on the big ones - anyway), until he takes up boxing. He has some success with this, and that seems to help keep the worst kids off him. He’s also astonishingly frank, for a book written in 1934, about falling in love with a younger boy, Dick.
On graduation, he volunteers for the army and is sent to France. The first dead person he sees there is a soldier who has killed himself rather than carry on, and things go downhill from there. Graves writes a very straightforward account, including detailed accounts of the bungling by high command. At one point he is declared dead, and his mum gets the condolence telegram, but with all the rude health of nineteen he pulls through.
On one of his leaves he marries a young woman and when the war ends they live in Oxford together. You might think, from the prosaic way he writes, that he was not as damaged by the war as some; but then he calmly tells you all about how he keeps seeing dead people piled up on the streets, and how these daymares are with him constantly until at least 1928.
He has four children by his wife, who is an early feminist, and when they lose all their money in a failed business venture, very laudably pitches in with this mountain of childcare for many years. Even more laudably, given that this book is written during a bitter divorce, he refrains from bashing on the feminist wife too much.
A grimly honest account of an interesting thirty four years.