”On The Black Hill” by Bruce Chatwin Essay Sample

”On The Black Hill” by Bruce Chatwin Pages
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Look again at the section of the book which describes events in the twins’ lives during the First World War. How does Chatwin present different attitudes to the War in these chapters? You should look particularly at his portrayal of social class and its effects, and at his use of different kinds of language, especially in the various speeches which are made. Go on to compare Chatwin’s novel with the poetry of the War, especially poems by Brooke, Owen and Sassooon. How far do you think Chatwin was influenced by having read these poems?

Chapter 19 starts to describe events in the twins’ lives during the First World War. It states that there had been no real war since Waterloo, so really, at that time, there hadn’t been a war for about a century and people really didn’t know what to expect, they weren’t experienced at all about wars.

Amos clearly thinks that the war is bought about by England as he glared at Herefordshire when he found out that Germans had marched into Belgium and rejected England’s ultimatum. There is a very definite divide in Amos’ mind between England and Wales, he blamed everything onto England and wanted nothing to do with it. Mary, like other people, hopes that the war will soon be over.

‘ Besides, it’ll probably be over by Christmas, ‘ Mary said.

This is a kind of irony because we all know that it was a long war and many people died as a result of it. Mary wore her apron which was streaked with purple stains from pickling beetroot, this is giving an image of blood. This is like an omen; it has taken on another meaning of what might happen in the war, in that many people might die. Chatwin also brings in other details of surroundings to create atmosphere.

‘ The sky was deepening from crimson to gunmetal ‘

This again brings in the element of war. Crimson is dark red, the colour of blood, and he deliberately refers the colour grey as gunmetal to create more effects.

We begin to see the social divide between the rich and the poor when people were invited to go to the lantern lecture. Because people of high rank was going to be there, the Major and the Colonel travelled by limousines. It was parked in the lane with chauffeurs; the farm boys had never seen anything like those at such close distance before. There were fur rugs and leather upholstery in the limousines, which shows off their wealth and their high rank in society and symbolises luxury. Ironically, although the farm boys were wearing, to them, ‘their Sunday best’, these were nothing compared to the upper class.

Mr Gomer Davies, the congregational minister said that the war was a ‘Crusade for Christ’, so we do not just have the authority, telling young men what they should be doing, but also the religious people, the Church putting pressure on those poor men. The Major had lost his arm in the war that he’d been to before. This is as if trying to say how proud the Major is for fighting for his country although he lost his arm as a result and that he is not ashamed of it. It could also be implying to people that they could be like him, fighting for their country and be as high rank as he is.

The language used by the high rank people was obviously very different than the lower class. Colonel Bickerton was ‘having a jaw ‘ with a Boer War veteran. ‘Having a jar ‘ is a very English upper class phrase. His silk hat is also a sign of wealth. The ministers pay respect for the squire, they’re trying to be in the squire’s good books, someone who has a higher social status than them. When the Colonel replied to the ministers, his language was very obviously a real contrast. He uttered every syllable to perfection. He uses very upper class and good language. Chatwin puts it so that we could almost hear his voice in the way he speaks :

‘ Thank you for looking after me so well. Pretty good turn-out, I see. Most encouraging, what? ‘

Miss Isobel was probably the highlight of that evening. All the boys in the lantern lecture wanted to please her. She symbolised softness, gentleness, somebody whom they could be emotional for but she’s unattainable. Her ‘silver fox-fur cape ‘ and her ‘dainty hat which spurted a grey-pink glycerinated ostrich plume’ showed how high in society she is, it makes her even more unattainable by the young men. Some young men ended up going to war for Miss Isobel and for what she stands for. The Colonel probably deliberately brought her along as a symbol of what the young men are fighting for.

The clergyman’s speech was not church – like at all, he portrayed violent images. He described the Germans as ‘ cancer ‘ that has to be ‘ripped out of European society’, and referred them as the ‘alligator ‘ and told people to kill it. But we have the vicar giving the men a speech, someone who practically has nothing to do with the war, someone who has no personal knowledge of the war at all. When the slides were shown, it only showed pictures of happiness; it showed ‘Tommies’ basically having a good time and having fun. Some of the slides were very fuzzy, I think this is implying the question of how you can know what really happens. Those pictures didn’t show what happens in a real war. Violence, killing, torture and blood were missed out. It’s only trying to persuade the people to join the Army. All the pictures have obviously put the people on their side, the men have been stirred up to violence. The Colonel talks about people who will join the Army and fight for their own country, he addressed them as the ‘aristocracy’, he’s offering men the dream of being like that, the dream of rising out of the farm labourers and being someone who’s being looked up to, like the Colonel himself.

‘ …..of knowing that the have done what England expects of every man : namely, to do his duty…’. The Colonel is drawing on something that the people know, the phrase of Nelson from the battle of Trafalgar. This is so that people are familiar with it and they can relate themselves more to it. The Colonel emphasised ‘duty’, that it’s the young men’s duty to fight in the war. The people in the upper class, the people that do not have to go to the war certainly thinks that fighting for your own country is your duty and that anyone who’s not willing to do it should be ashamed of themselves. He then said that when Lord Kitchener says he needs you, he means YOU. He makes the people feel that every single one of them is needed. And when he answered the question to when someone said, ‘ What about Wales?’, he talked about how he himself is half Welsh and English. I think he’s trying to take on both sides and that’s why he had brought two automobiles with him, one for people who want to enlist in the English Regiment, and people who want to enlist in the Welsh Regiment. The ones joining the Welsh one will be able to go with his daughter Miss Isobel. In the end, it was probably sexuality that attracted the men, and it included Jim the Rock.

Mary is one of those people who obeyed orders from Mrs. Bickerton and knitted garments like gloves and balaclavas for men at the Front while Amos behaved in the opposite way. He hated the war; he hid his horses from the Remount Officers and ignored orders from Ministry. As a Welshman, he didn’t want his sons to fight for the English. He joined the Rechabite. The Rechabite believed in pacificism as some people did at that time. They believe that there should be no killing of life whatsoever and were so were very much against the war. Chapter 20 is already in the middle of the war, and the twins are old enough to register and to get called up. By that time, lots have already been killed. Mr Arkwright drove up to the twins’ house and begins by blaming and demanding Amos in an aggressive language and making judgement on them that the Vision was too small a farm to warrant exemption for more than one son. He’s very dismissive and wouldn’t listen to what Amos has to say.

While Lewis was away working near Rhydspence, he came across a funeral procession. The coffin was draped in a Union Jack. It was a very elaborately staged and formal funeral. There was a sort of attraction between Lewis and the war then I think, maybe he feels guilty that he’s not in the war and another man has fought in it, and sacrificed his life for his country. Especially when a high class women came up to him and accused him of cowardice and that he should be in the war, she’s putting pressure on him.

In Chapter 22, there was the Tribunal. The ‘jury’ was the Military Representative, the agricultural merchant, the vicar, Mr. Arkwright, and the Colonel, representing the Army, as the chairman. All of them were in the upper and middle class, they’re all making not just ordinary decisions, but life and death decisions for the young men in the lower class, so there is again the element of the division of the social classes. The juries have all had a good day, and most of them were a bit drunk. Reverend Pile actually felt ‘excited’ by the idea of young men going out there to fight and dying, while the young men waited outside in a gloomy corridor, as if they were prisoners, guilty of something, prayed that they would be exempted. The Colonel arrived late and he already was in no mood for granting further exemptions having at the previous session exempted two of his hunt servants and his valet. Yet his opening speech said, ‘ This Tribunal must be fair’ when he already made up his mind not to exempt anymore men, so really he wasn’t going to be fair at all. Major Gattie doesn’t care about Tribunal at all, to him it was just like a daily routine. It seems that the upper class were not taking it as seriously as they should be.

Tom was the first to be called up. He was not making himself very clear as he was not used to speaking to high rank people as the jury. The Colonel just made fun of him. When Lewis was called up, the Colonel deliberately didn’t recognise them. Lewis was granted exemption with a gracious leave. But when Benjamin was called up, Major Gattie ‘drawled’, this is a sign of superiority. He seems to have no recognition that these men are all individuals. When Benjamin challenged the vicar about his faith, the vicar was very shocked. He wasn’t prepared to be spoken back to in equality. In the end, as a kind of punishment, Benjamin was granted exemption.

Chapter 24 described the celebrations of the war. The names of the ‘gallant thirty-two’ who had made the ‘Supreme Sacrifice’ was on the memorial. They are in quotation marks because that was the exact words engraved on the memorial. The words made the war seemed very pure. It’s a long way from the death of the young men. It makes it sound so clean and bland. It was like brainwashing people of how the men actually died, in pain and in horror. It used those words so that it wouldn’t’ sound as bad, it covered the reality of what really happened. The people who died will never return.

Lunch was graciously provided by the upper class to the returning heroes.

There was a big argument to who was going to go first in the procession, who would take the more important position. There are all sorts of people claiming to have been important for the past four years during the war ( in order of ‘importance’ in the procession ) – the Choristers, the scouts and guides, firemen, railway workers, land Girls, the Red Cross, the W.A.A.C, the brass band, and lastly, the soldiers. The people who actually fought for the people in the country and the country itself in the war appeared to be the less important group out of all the others and marched at the back.

People forgot to bring out the Bombardier. The Bombardier was the greatest hero of all, the Rhulen hero who had rescued his commanding officer. He was completely destroyed. He couldn’t do anything for himself and was sat in a basket-chair. In a way, it seems to be an irony. All those people, especially the upper class was telling the men to go the war, but the war is over and they have all had their say, as a result, the Bombardier couldn’t even speak, he could only make a rattle sound in his throat. He’s both physically and mentally destroyed. He has no idea what’s happening, everything, including people cheering at him is terrifying the little remained life of him.

Mrs Bickerton wanted lunch to be in the dining room but the upper class didn’t want to fraternise with the lower class so the party for the lower class had to be moved to where the horses were, a shed.

There was a great description of the massive feast that they all had. Beef, turkey, pork pies, salmon etc. Despite all these, Chatwin has a paragraph of one sentence on its own :

‘ A pot of calf’s – foot jelly had been set aside for the Bombardier.’

The Bombardier had a jelly type of food prepared for him, the sort of food for invalids that requires no chewing. The jelly had to have someone feeding it to the Bombardier. After all, he had been through the war, but yet he couldn’t even eat food that normal people would eat and enjoy.

Mr Arkwright’s speech began with the words,

‘ Now that the sword is returned to the scabbard…’

There were no swords at all in the war. The war involved guns, bombs and cannons. Swords give such a romantic image. Arkwright didn’t actually think about what he was saying, he was still using images of a hundred years earlier, he avoided what war was really like. His speech was very ‘clichï’ which gave a stale image. He was using ‘dead’ language, he dramatised without actually being specific at all. All the things he said were obviously not based on personal experience. All through the speech he used stale metaphors and similes. He used words like ‘ justice’, ‘honour’; they are all very big words. Despite all the glamorous things Arkwright said, it is all irony as he actually poisoned his own wife. He doesn’t have the right to give the speech to the young men. He himself was not honourable as he was in the black market. Then he was coming towards the ‘coda’. This is like a ending with a flourish, a memorable glorious finish. He continues to use dramatic yet stale words :

‘ So at last, righteousness and justice prevailed and, with God’s help, a treacherous and inhuman foe was laid low.’

He said that ‘ all those present have played an honourable part’ but then he said,

‘ Or should I say, almost all of those present. ‘ It was obviously pointing the ones who didn’t go to the war, including Lewis. It was very blasphemous.

The Carnival started and in came the upper class dressed in glorious clothes. The Brigadier gave a very long speech with a lisp. He said that all those sacrificed, ‘died in a good cause’. Immediately the crowd fell quiet. He continued talking about when he was in the army in a previous war and how he was appalled by the gas-shelling.

He had no idea what it was like, the five gas victims sat at the side, ‘coughing and wheezing like an exhibition for the horrors of war’. He even said how ‘filthy’ it was when ‘one went for days without a change of clothes’ or ‘weeks without so much as a bath’. The things that he had was nothing in the world compared to what the young men went through. The Brigadier recited a few lines of the poem of Brook. But then he started going very off the point and talked about deformed cattles in the country. After the pageant and all the fun, the reality of violence comes in once again. As Lewis and Benjamin were leaving, they got into a fight with the N.C.O. Four or five Army louts were blocking their way deliberately and said hoarse words of violence to them and they started the fight. After all the talk about the gallant honour, here we are, four to five soldiers picking a fight against two people.

The final irony is that the Bombardier didn’t survive the celebration. After all those things about him being the Rhulen hero. He was forgotten and left out all night to die in the storm. No one had remembered him in the rush for shelter.

It is very clever in Chatwin’s chapters of the war in the way that we, the readers already know what had happened and we are measuring with what the people said at the time. He uses the fact that we, as the readers, are looking back at what happened in the war and we know what happened.

I think Chatwin’s was greatly influenced by war poems, especially ones by Brooke, Owen and Sassoon. When he wrote those chapters, as well as looking at history books to see what had happened, he must’ve looked at the poems to get an idea of how people felt about it at the time.

The first three lines of the poem ‘ The Soldier’ by Rupert Brooke were recited in the Brigadier’s speech. Brooke was a very influential figure. This poem is really, the idealism of war. It’s a very positive statement. It doesn’t focus on the nature of war. Only a glimpse of a potential death is mentioned :

‘ That there’s some corner of a foreign field.’ It’s like a field burial instead of a grave. The word ‘England’ was repeated many times, the idea of patriotism. The war is destroying the decadence of society and the there’s a sense of evil being cleansed by the experience of war. It was probably written at the beginning or just before the war. This poem reflects what the upper class has been saying to the lower class, persuading them to fight for their country.

The poem ‘ Twelve Months After’ by Siegfried Sassoon included direct conversations between the upper class and the lower class. We can hear how different people speak. There’s also the contrast of the language of the General and the joking language of soldiers. This comes up in Chatwin’s novel. The good language that the Colonel Bickerton uses, every syllable said to perfection. Another poem ‘Base Details’ also by Sassoon is about the divide between the social classes. How the authority was ruling the war and the poor men were just fighting for them. Sassoon described the authority as if it was an animal, ‘ guzzling and gulping’. It’s saying that the upper class does not realise what it is like for the ordinary soldiers. The people of high rank just issued orders but were not actually involved in the war. They do not care less about the soldiers who died in the war :

‘ Yes, we’ve lost heavily in this last scrap.’ This is as if the whole war is a game or something. The ideas raised in this poem really did reflect in the chapters of war in Chatwin’s novel, the divide between the rich and the poor. The poem ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ by Wilfred Owen talked about the death of the soldiers. It is a tight, brief but yet intense poem. This poem talks of the reality of war and so is very different from ‘The Soldier’ by Brooke. It draws on memories of what Owen saw, the funerals of those who died. All have come to mourn for them. The families and friends of dead soldiers are just waiting for them at home, for them to return, when they know it is not going to happen. Another poem of Owen’s ‘Dulce et Decorum est’ describes the real horrors of war. Young soldiers becoming like old men after the war. There are also sorts of similes to express how Owen must have felt. They were ‘bent double, like old beggars under sacks’, and ‘knock-kneed, coughing like hags’. They are all physically and some mentally damaged. All their sensations have been destroyed. They’ve all given up hope. The second stanza described Owen’s experience of failing to save a man’s life from the chlorine gas :

‘But someone still was yelling out and stumbling

And floundering like a man in fire or lime’

The man was drowning in the gas and was like in a trapped burning hell. Something was blocking Owen’s vision and he was cut off from the man’s death. The last two lines of the second stanza described the mental effect of war.

‘In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,

He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.’

He’s changed from using past tense to present tense, it means that he always sees these terrible scenes replaying in his dream and these are all still haunting at him. Also there’s the fact that he is filled with guilt that he couldn’t’ do anything to help him then, but now he still can’t do anything to help him, not even in his dreams. He has been cursed with these dreams. The last stanza basically said that how can people say that it is right to die for your own country. It is a complete lie. This again reflects in the novel. The people in high rank was willing to say that phrase but in the end, the people lower than them has to do the actual thing, to fight and die for their country. What happened to what Colonel Bickerton said about the people who will fight in the war and come back and be the ‘aristocracy’ of the country? There was no glorious heroic return of the soldiers. They were lucky to even return, alive. They were all destroyed by the war.

All Owen’s poems, including ones I haven’t mentioned like ‘ The Sentry’ reflected the real reality of war, how the soldiers suffered, which are all big contrasts with Brooke’s ‘The Soldier’.

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