Not so much sniping, more a case of opening up with the machine gun and spraying everything in sight – because the Battle of the Somme began a hundred years ago today.
I don’t plan to talk about the battle itself, at least not at this stage, because there’s no need. This is one the UK’s great wartime heritage moments, a dramatic day of apparently senseless (and fabulously well-documented) national sacrifice so attractive to mass media – and so symbolic of its chosen narrative – that you’ll be getting all the Somme you can handle during the next few months. As far as I can tell at this stage, media interest in the failed Anglo-French offensive on the Somme even stretches beyond the ‘doomed lions, damned donkeys’ horizon to include some big-picture history, not all of it military – and that’s a good thing, so why have I come over all trigger happy?
Because, in much the way popular focus on the Second World War blots out the First (most of the time), our national obsession with the Somme tends to obscure anything else going during the second half of 1916. For that matter, our national preference for sentiment over deep thought, as expressed in the standard heritage obsession with personal suffering around the Somme, goes quite some way towards rendering the wider history of the age irrelevant to modern thought.
A century ago, the old order was melting down or self-immolating all over the world. It was an accelerating process, affecting the modern shape of every continent, and by the second half of 1916 the pillars were crumbling fast. European empires were disintegrating, the US was changing forever, Asia was discovering nationalism for good and ill, fundamental changes were sweeping through South Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, Eastern Europe, Ireland, Italy… I haven’t got time today to make the list comprehensive, but you get the drift. Media focus on the Somme as a sepia soap about Tommy tragedies isn’t history; it’s a tiny, partial glimpse of the past that helps keep us ignorant and vulnerable to myth.
That’s all. I got into writing Poppycock because that particular link between heritage pulp and fantasy history makes me mad, and on 1 July it makes me madder than usual – so I’m pumping lead into everything about heritage history, the televised stuff, the poncy middle-class poetry fetish, the flag-waving press, all of it. You stink, and these days you’re dangerous.