"We watch your coach-loads
gawping at shell holes, watch bored little girls trailing round new
museums, watch older men standing (at least heads bowed) under the
arch at Ypres, listening to The Last Post, and I can feel the guilt,
feel the relief - we don't have to go through this, and this, this
this and fucking this - and they'll go back on the ferry, the
plastic, beery ferry with its orange seats, its kiddies shouting and
swearing, young blokes like us bored shitless, reading magazines that
no self-respecting man would show to a lady in my day."
Reviewed by Mark Staniforth
The twenty-one short stories that
make up Vanessa Gebbie's latest collection, Storm Warning,
explore war and conflict. It is, Gebbie makes clear, a way of paying
tribute to her father, a WWII veteran who was, according to the back
cover blurb, "an ordinary and gentle man… who suffered the
after-effects for the rest of his life."
These are no Boy's Own cliches of
dashing fighter pilots and Victoria Crosses. Gebbie's stories -
jagged little fragments, some of which stretch to barely a page -
invoke the harsh reality: her stories are about ordinary, gentle men
like her father whose toils expose the futility of war and the
inadequacy of our memorials.
The majority of the stories
revolve around the two World Wars: the collection starts with The
Return Of The Baker, Edwin Tregear, about a Cornishman who
returns from the trenches to his job in the mines only to receive
rather less than a hero's welcome from those who stayed behind:
There was a laugh, and
Jarvis, the Miners' Federation type, pushed his way forward. "So tell
us, Edwin Tregear…' he leaned against the wall, folded his arms.
Tell us, what exactly did you do to be a hero?"
Gebbie's message is clear: for
those who served, the horrors of war did not end with the final
spatter of gunfire or the echo of a Churchillian victory speech. They
are wars they cannot escape from, and which they will be fighting for
the rest of their lives. In Confessions of a Drowned Dog, a
Falklands veteran mourns his lost colleague; the old submariner in Background Noise shouts his war stories by the railway because "it
takes a loud noise - like the coal train - to cover the sounds up in
his head for a while."
There are sharp tales too from
other, more recent conflicts - from Africa and the Middle East - as
if underlining how little we have learned from past mistakes. A young
girl is haunted by the sight of a potential escapee shot down
attempting to cross the Berlin Wall. A boy is helpless to prevent his
father being hauled away for a necklacing - "it is a dreadful
smell, rubber burning", the narrator notes with shocking
under-statement. In the book's most graphic passage, a woman meets a
slow, horrific death in The Wig Maker.
Yet Gebbie's narrative, always
raw and unflinchingly honest, never strays towards shock tactics. The
(necessary) passage in The Wig Maker is notable as an
exception. One of the most moving stories, Letters From Kilburn
consists entirely of an exchange of letters between a young illegal
immigrant who has fled the war in Iraq and a sympathetic deputy
secretary at Buckingham Palace. It is an absolute triumph, hauling
humour out of a bleak, hopeless situation; the absence of a final
return letter from the Palace saying so much more than page upon page
of laboured description ever could.
This is not an easy book to read.
You won't find it in any of the newspapers' summer reading lists, and
its likely Richard and Judy will give it a miss. You get the
impression the author wouldn't wish it any other way. It's tough and
uncompromising and there is not a hint of the glamour which society
seeks to smear upon so-called successful missions, as if to thicken
the surface so as not to expose the awful, tragic truths below.
Gebbie's bravery in digging deep
beneath that veneer is to be applauded. Her collection is deeply
affecting, and a moving testament to men like her father, who gave
their lives for their country, whether they came home or not.