What more could a young author ask for? No sooner has his book come out than the massed forces of the meedja start pumping out material on the First World War. Last week, the last veterans of the war recalling (in exactly the same words they’ve been using for the last twenty years) the trenches, and Ben Elton’s new book The First Casualty (okay, so it bumped a review of my book out of the Indy on Friday, but it’s going to be in tomorrow, so I’ll forgive it). This week, a Channel Four season on ‘The Lost Generation’…
Now, there is much evidence around the construction of this season of the great steps that have been taken by some of those working on the First World War. The director of the programme on the Somme gives a very lucid interview in which he discusses the tensions he had to overcome to create a fresh and involving piece of programming. It looks like it might be good.
But the Channel 4 publicity department has obviously gone to town over the season’s website. There’s a great game of WWI bingo to be played here, as we cross off the times we read the words ‘mud’, ‘horror’, ‘slaughter’, ‘futility’… full house!
What is remarkable is the effort that the site puts into making the First World War ‘relevant’. You can enter a competition for the best ‘last message home’ – by text – and read some fictional blogs composed by soldiers on every side.
I recognise the difficulties that this is trying to overcome – how do you interest people in a war which can seem long ago and far away?
This effort, however, is surely utterly misguided. I am not sure to whom it is more patronising. To those who went and fought to prevent the takeover of the European mainland by a militaristic hegemon, who certainly didn’t think their efforts were ‘futile’? To those who wrote back from the frontline in the belief that they were going to die and who now have their efforts reduced to a txt cmptn? Or to today’s youf, who it is presumed cannot empathise with the past unless it is presented in terms of contemporary technology?
What ‘The Lost Generation’ season is doing online is not an imaginative use of technology – far from it. It is turning the past into the eternal present, teaching people to apply an ahistoric set of standards to understanding what happened before they were born. And it is, if anything, a rejection of the real possibilities that electronic resources offer to viewers of television documentaries. Why not digitise a genuine set of soldiers’ letters from the Somme? I refuse to believe that modern audiences would not be moved by reading the original documents – indeed, I regularly experience the wonder of schoolchildren and university students when they see ‘the real thing’ in archives.
Anyway, I’m off to compose a set of entries for the competition: ‘Feelin gr8 plsre @ killin Hns! Offcrs jlly decent. Bn undrgoing lrning crve. Hpe this fnds u in pnk as lves me’