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The Missing of the Somme

posted on 19 May 2017

The Missing of the Somme by Geoff Dyer

Over the past thirty years Geoff Dyer has earned himself a reputation as one of the most deceptively hard-working slackers in literature. Despite the fact that his books – a sort of restrained gonzo journalism of a very English kind – quite frequently revolve around his own failures and pratfalls in tackling the subject in hand, he has written a lot of them and they are rarely less than entertaining.

Recently, after years spent looking, I found a copy of his 1994 book about the Great War, The Missing of the Somme.

It is a short book about how the Great War is remembered and memorialised. Its central idea, now widely acknowledged, is that the struggle to decide how the war would eventually be enshrined in the collective memory began even before the first waves of infantrymen were walking into the machine gun fire. What Dyer calls the “anticipation of remembrance” began early: Laurence Binyon, for example, wrote For the Fallen (“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old”) in the very first weeks of the war; John Masefield wrote August 1914 even before the war had begun.

Dyer uses war memorials, photographs, poetry, and personal history (his grandfather fought at the Somme) to examine how and especially what we remember of the Great War. It is an unashamedly personal perspective and this is both its strength and its weakness.

On the positive side, Dyer has learnt the lessons of cultural journalism well and can often achieve in a handful of lines what others would spend pages on. His methods frequently offer moments of marvellous, compressed insight that are a pleasure to read. He can also be extremely funny (though occasionally less  funny than he thinks). He is also capable of mixing and bending genres, even of creating new ones that better suit his purpose.

But in this particular book the negatives are many.

The personal ‘gonzo’ elements – he and a couple of rowdy friends drink and banter their way from one war cemetery to another – may be meant to be funny (ironically, perhaps even transgressively so), but they strike the wrong note and come across as merely clumsy and facetious.

He is also deeply in thrall to his influences – and none moreso than John Berger at his most gnomic and mandarin. Dyer’s first published book was a study of Berger’s work, and this has proven to be a career-long influence on what might be called Dyer’s intellectual style. His ‘reading’ of photographs, for instance, is pure Berger and while it is reasonably well under control in this book some will find what he says pretentious and cryptic rather than blindingly illuminating. (It was this tendency which to my mind made Dyer’s ‘big book’ on photography, The Ongoing Moment, unreadable.)

But for some, the biggest failing of the book will be that ultimately it offers little that isn’t a sort of popular gloss on Paul Fussell’s magisterial The Great War and Modern Memory (1975). Dyer acknowledges this. He read Fussell, he says, “searching for what is not there…for what remains to be said”. Now to be strictly fair, one might add that Fussell’s book requires considerable effort and so one offering a popular update of some of its central ideas has a useful purpose. But viewed from the least charitable perspective, what Dyer found missing in Fussell’s book was…what Geoff Dyer thinks about the Great War. And so in Dyer’s book, as in everything he has ever written, the author is centre-stage. Your tolerance for its views, its methods and its approach will ultimately be determined by your tolerance for Geoff Dyer.

It was this, I think, that so divided reviewers when the book was first published. The Observer thought it “the great Great War book of our time”. The Independent’s reviewer said it made him fear for the future of the Great War – that in the hands of writers like Dyer it would end up simply “as so much ammunition for Theory”.

That in my view judges the book – and Dyer – a little too harshly.

Dyer’s aim is to consider how those who have no direct experience of war can approach the task of writing about it. What perspective can we legitimately have? What do we have to say that is unique to our particular historical distance? I think that is a legitimate field of enquiry and a worthwhile undertaking. The problem is that Dyer’s usual methods, while perfectly suited to lighter subjects, to cultural polemic, and to the kind of laconic well-read humour that informs virtually all of his work, are not up to this task and the immensity of the subject seems to outweigh the means at his disposal. But while it isn’t entirely successful, it is sufficiently arresting – as early reviewers found – to divide opinion, and on this basis I will almost certainly revisit it in the future.

Alun Severn

May 2017