The lost generation Michael Morpurgo’s Private Peaceful enables Diane Samuels to explore distant memories of the first world war Private Peaceful by Michael Morpurgo Time and memory shape this latest work, set during the first world war, from Michael Morpurgo, the children’s laureate. The style is simple and eloquent, the pace as gentle as it is persistent and ominous. A watch, given by an injured captain to the private who rescued him under fire, marks the passing of the minutes and hours through one night.
Each chapter signals its progress: five past ten, twenty to eleven, nearly quarter past eleven, the watch ticking like a heartbeat you can almost hear, until we reach our destination at one minute to six the following morning. Private Tommo Peaceful is sitting in some kind of vigil, the true nature of which is revealed in the closing pages. As he forces himself to stay awake he tracks the journey of two brothers in arms, himself and the older Charlie, from their home in the west country to the killing fields of Ypres. It’s like we’re living two separate lives in two separate worlds, Tommo,” Charlie tells his brother on returning to the trenches after a stint back home to recover from an injury. “I never want the one to touch on the other. ” And so he has not told his mother, his new wife Molly, or his simple-minded eldest brother Joe about the terror of a gas attack, the carnage in the mud, the lice, the rats and the sheer exhaustion of staying alert to Fritz.
He has said not a word about seeing childhood friends with blank eyes and a bullet-hole in the head, about waiting for the next bullet or shell to have his own name or that of his brother written on it. It is left to Tommo to bring the two worlds together in his mind, and it is this that he does as he waits through his long night. “Remember. Remembrances are real,” he exhorts himself, and summons up his memories. There is a quiet defiance in the way he asserts the depth of his experience, proving that he is not simply war-fodder, a target, a bayonet-wielder.
This is a whole human being, son of a forester on a landed estate. He remembers his first boots for school, his fear of his bullying teacher. He still loves the girl from his first class who ended up marrying his brother. He can still dream the monstrous dreams about his mother’s aunt, Grandma Wolf, like some grotesque being from a fairy tale, who used to strap him daily. More than anything else, he carries with him the guilty secret about his father’s accidental death under a falling tree.
This is the world of English rural life, no idyll but vibrant and class-ridden, which he enables the reader to inhabit with him, untouched for the most part by the war, for the first half of the book. Then the landowner of the estate, the colonel, threatens to eject the Peaceful family from their tied cottage unless Charlie joins up. Tommo insists on accompanying him. He cannot bear to think of himself as a coward. He cannot desert his brother to his fate.
Nearly a century later, Morpurgo invites his reader to enter a defining moment in history through the doorway of individual experience. It is a humanising and humane work, rooted in the land of England and the wastelands of Europe. It brings alive the holocaust of young men at the beginning of the 20th century for those who might not even be aware that the killing fields existed. The book never overplays the tragedy, nor does it resort to horror, yet I have a reservation. Tommo remembers his childhood as if he is relating it to someone rather than evoking the memories within himself.
The internal voice sounds throughout like that of the writer rather than that of the character: it needs to be more impressionistic, less a monologue directed at the reader than a soliloquy in which the reader overhears Tommo in his most private state of mind. This “telling” tone, which sadly gives this well-written book an air of literary conceit, might well owe something to the fact that Morpurgo drew his inspiration from interviews conducted with three farm-boy veterans in their 80s. It is as if this long perspective has permeated the narrative and imbued it with a sense of distance. Time and memory can play some funny tricks.