Right now I don’t know who wrote that line. It could even have been me. I remember it as a line in Unicorns, Almost, the one-man play that Owen Sheers wrote about Keith Douglas. But going back through the play, I can’t find it. Did I make it up? No, it’s too perfect, it captures the mood and the rhythm of the play too neatly to be a figment of my imagination. So Sheers wrote it. But the play draws heavily on Douglas’s poems, memoir and letters, so it could come from Douglas originally.
It’s a line about war, of course. Specifically about the hot, messy war in the Libyan desert from Alamein onwards. The war where Douglas, left behind in Egypt, stole a truck and drove out to the front to rejoin his unit, and found himself commanding a tank. It was still a boy’s own war at that stage, romantic, exciting. It wouldn’t stay that way: the “sudden expanses of desert flowers” that Douglas spoke about later weren’t necessarily botanical.
Douglas died in France three days after D-Day, he was 24. The times had made those few years an extraordinary lifetime.
I’ve known the name, Keith Douglas, for practically as long as I can remember. The only truly great war poet of World War II. But though I have known the name, I haven’t read more than an occasional poem or two in an anthology. The poems that Sheers includes in this play amount to the most thorough grounding in the work that I have ever had. I feel I must remedy that.
Sheers, I am much more familiar with. I’ve seen him on television a few times, wonderful programmes about poetry. But I first encountered him not as a poet but as a novelist. His novel, Resistance, is to my mind one of the very best alternate histories about Hitler winning the Second World War. The whole novel is restricted, claustrophobically, to one narrow and remote Welsh valley. The men folk have all disappeared, supposedly off to join the resistance, but by now probably dead. The women are left to tend the farms, raise the flocks, throughout the harsh winter, with the fumbling help of the German troops stationed there. It’s a story of humanity and antagonism and circumstance, and it is beautifully written. Those same Welsh valleys recur in White Ravens, his second novel which is a retelling of one of the stories from the mabinogi; and there’s war in that, too. It seems that war is one of his subjects. I’ve not read any of his other plays, but I know that his verse-drama, Pink Mist, for instance, is about the Afghan war. But for Sheers it is always the squaddies’ war, war from the ground up, the simple humanity of trying to stay alive and function as a human being in such circumstances. As such, they do not present as war stories, and, as in this play, the work can be extraordinarily moving.
Take the opening of this play. Douglas begins by telling us: “The most impressive thing about the dead is their silence.” Then he goes on to describe them like “Theatrical dummies holding impossible poses. Until the gases inside them heated up, of course. Then they’d go wriggling off, crawling at a queer angle to the scenery.” Matter-of-fact, grotesque and vivid, all at once. Whether that is pure Douglas or pure Sheers I do not know, and do not care. But Douglas (through Sheers) is constantly at a queer angle to the scenery. Throughout the play, you are taken aback by sudden unexpected perceptions of the war. The noise in a tank is so great that looking out on the battle outside is like watching a silent movie; the way that “the clothes on a dead body often have an instinct for decency, wrapping themselves around the places where arms, legs or heads should be.”
It’s not a long play. 64 pages of text, I’m not sure how long a performance would take. But it seems, like Douglas’s short life, to be packed with more than can be logically fitted into the space. The play ends with one of Douglas’s poems:
Remember me when I am dead
and simplify me when I am dead.
This may be memory, but it is far from simplification.