Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative environment – perhaps to connect with a character, populate a mysterious place, or hold a moment still to explore its depths. This week’s post is by Suzie Grogan @keatsbabe and @shellshockedgb
Soundtrack by Nick Drake, Kenneth Branagh and the Moody Blues
An ‘Undercover Soundtrack’ reflecting the writing I have been doing over the past two years, and which I will continue to work on for the foreseeable future, offers a particular challenge. Not specifically character driven, yet evoking a sense of collective trauma across a century, my most recent book Shell Shocked Britain: The First World War’s legacy for Britain’s mental health is a call to arms for those responsible for supporting service personnel and their families on into the 21st century. It is a tough subject, taking a writer to scenes of horror and despair worthy of the darkest psychological thriller; yet the writing must inspire hope and promote understanding and compassion. Some 80,000 men were diagnosed with shell shock during the Great War, but that is a gross under-estimate. It does not include those that broke down post-war, or who suffered in silence until the ends of their lives. It does not include those on the Home Front – families torn apart by grief, or affected by the trauma of air raids. The soundtrack to Shell Shocked Britain is a varied one indeed.
The first track I have to mention is Day is Done, by Nick Drake. Drake was a precociously talented young man who found the world a difficult place to live in, despite the opportunities that it offered to express himself through his love of music. My poor husband, regularly working with me at home, was shushed and ignored as I tapped away to the complex and unorthodox guitar and the melancholy lyrics.
Can despair ever be gentle? As I wrote Shell Shocked I came to realise that ultimately it was the return to what passed for normality, the requirement to fit in to a world forever changed, that broke many men post war. One young man wrote, in a note found in his pocket following his suicide
The day is one of intense loveliness, but the purpose for which I came down must be accomplished.
He had served with great courage at the Front, but life had become meaningless for him. Men lost their way, could no longer communicate with loved ones and found solace in self-medication.
Occasionally I would reach a point in the manuscript where I felt drained of any emotion and it was then I would turn to Nick Drake. He ended his life with an overdose of antidepressants, planned or accidental. The track recharged my commitment to expose the horrors and give that despair a voice.
Is it cheating to include a recording of poetry? Kenneth Branagh reading The Parable of the Old Man and the Young by Wilfred Owen (a poet whose death occurred so close to the end of the First World War that his parents received the telegram on the day the Armistice was signed) was a track that I turned to when I really wanted to evoke that real sense of horror at what the men in the trenches suffered, without any graphic depiction of the physical privations. Read so simply, the deep meaning can elude you. But if ever I needed reminding that despite all the warnings, in the face of so much evidence, a man’s emotional and physical well-being was denied throughout the period of the Great War and then for years afterwards, this is the track I turned to. Those final lines are chilling:
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.
Researching Shell Shocked Britain I was not surprised to read that those in government were reluctant to step back from the horrors, but I was stunned at the level of ignorance that continued well after the war, and which left families to cope with damaged men, or consigned them to lunatic asylums.
Finally, no other song threads its way through the pages of my book like Question, written by Justin Hayward and sung by the Moody Blues. Question – how would we respond to a Spanish influenza outbreak that killed 200,000 people in a year? Question – how could anyone really believe that a spiritualist medium could talk to sons, brothers, lovers lost in the mud and blood of the trenches to the point where some 5000 séance circles were established and thousands would crowd halls large and small to hear a medium communicate with the dead? Question – why did doctors continue to believe men with symptoms of shell shock were malingerers or cowards well beyond the end of the war, leaving thousands of men lost in local lunatic asylums? Question – why do we hear so little about the rise of the eugenics movement post First World War, little realising that many historical figures advocated the eradication of the mentally ill from the ‘breeding’ stock of Britain. And Question – why, 100 years on are young men and women still suffering levels of PTSD wholly unacceptable in a modern military?
We may not have the answers, but we, like the Moody Blues, must keep asking the questions.
Suzie Grogan is a London-born writer, researcher and editor, published in national publications on the subjects of health (focusing on mental health), women’s issues and social history. She has had two books published and is currently working on two further commissions for Pen and Sword Books for publication in 2016 and 2017. In her spare time she dabbles in fiction and has her own imprint, Mickleden Press. Married with two children – one a philosopher, one a high jumper – she lives in Somerset but has her heart in the Lake District and London. Her long-standing passion for poetry, especially John Keats, has led to the wicked rumour that there are three people in her marriage… Find Suzie on her website, her blog, Facebook, Pinterest and Twitter, where she is both @keatsbabe and @shellshockedgb. Shell-Shocked Britain is available on Amazon or from the publisher.