Richard Warren

20thc British art and poetry (mainly), plus bits of my own – "Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

Wargaming with W H Auden

Alternative history, like wargaming, is really rather a blokey thing. But it has a bit of a post-modern, quasi-academic tang to it, which makes it kind of OK. So no apologies for mentioning A Very British Civil War (VBCW for short), a recently developed wargames scenario largely promoted by Solway Crafts and Miniatures. In this alternative 1938, a constitutional crisis follows Edward VIII’s refusal to abdicate, and Oswald Mosley of the British Union of Fascists is installed as prime minister, provoking a motley plethora of opposition groups into armed conflict. On this fruitful premise a splendidly Captain Mainwaring-esque parody of the Spanish Civil War has blossomed. The Solway handbooks illustrated by Pete Barfield will give the idea.

Good to see the dear old C of E, in the shape of the Anglican League, arrayed against the forces of reaction, for once. Though I am surprised to see so little emphasis on the Kibbo Kift and the Social Credit Movement, which could have provided a readymade shirted paramilitary column (with its own drum corps and some fine modernist flags) to counter the BUF. Maybe it will make an appearance soon – Come On, the Green Shirts! Though with anyone free to pitch in on this scenario, there is a constant risk that creativity may tip over into the Pythonesque, as in an occult-fascist militia called the Sons of Crowley, or this unit of armed Morris dancers (fifth photo down). But I do like this image of the Inland Revenue Volunteer Rifles in action at the Battle of Ambridge. Personally, I’d imagine that the fun lies far more in embroidering the scenario than in the tedious business of actually fighting it out with dice and rulers on a table top …

But much of this parallel Britain has an oddly familiar ring. Running through the ‘thirties writings of W H Auden was his own not dissimilar version of an alternative England.  Except, of course, that he was extrapolating it at the time, not at our distance, nor with our ironic nostalgia. His vision was part psychological landscape, part political satire, part prophecy. Later, in 1942, he wrote:

The first time that I dreamed, we were in flight,
And fagged with running; there was civil war …
Farms blazed behind us …

His often obscure early poems had indeed set out a dreamlike terrain of industrial decay and rural decline, divided by invisible frontiers and passed only by unidentifiable spies preparing for some unspecified but inevitable conflict:

 … dismantled washing-floors,
Snatches of tramline running to the wood,
An industry already comatose,
Yet sparsely living.

Smokeless chimneys, damaged bridges, rotting wharves and choked canals,
Tramlines buckled, smashed trucks lying on their side across the rails …

Control of the passes was, he saw, the key
To this new district, but who would get it?

… They ignored his wires.
The bridges were unbuilt and trouble coming.

This conflict remains, to different degrees, imminent:

Look there! The sunk road winding
To the fortified farm.
Listen! The cock’s alarm
In the strange valley.

The horns of the dark squadron
Converging to attack …

But in Auden’s unperformed “country house charade”, Paid on Both Sides, written in 1928 and published in 1930, this desolate landscape becomes the setting for established civil war of a sort, in the shape of an endless feud, almost military in its body count, between two rural clans, the Nowers of Lintzgarth and the Shaws of Nattrass. The cause of the feud is obscure, but honour demands its perpetuation: “We cannot betray the dead … We must fight to the finish.” Stage directions require that “the two hostile parties should be marked by different coloured arm-bands”.

At first, Auden seems to have been preoccupied with civil war only as a symbolic or psychological theme, a conflict of fragmented personality, fascinating but without political significance. In 1929 he could write:

… this is our study and our interest:
The fortunes and manoeuvres of this civil war,
Man’s opposite strivings for entropic peace,
Retreat to lost homes or advance to new …

And Stephen Spender recalled him, as an Oxford student, suggesting with apparent detachment that “ ‘the poet’ would ‘enjoy’, in a civil war, lying on a roof and shooting at his best friend, who was on the other side.” Spender noted that the images of impassable frontiers and broken bridges “seem to express his feelings of personal isolation, but in impersonal guise.” Auden himself was later to talk of “psychic frontiers”. In this way he arrived at politics by way of psychology, as this stricken landscape took on contemporary social overtones. Eventually the fantasy was overtaken by the reality of the Spanish Civil War and the Japanese invasion of China, both of which he witnessed at close hand.

As the actuality came closer, his tone became more satirical. Book II (“Journal of an Airman”) of The Orators (1932) was explained by its author as a critique of the revolutionary-romantic-fascist personality. The airman of the title is related to the élite and heroic airshipmen of H G Wells, but seen from a very different perspective. His fragmented and enigmatic diary builds to a surreal-satirical climax as the country topples into an absurd civil war:

As I thought, A tells me they have been in Kettlewell and most of the outlying farms. A doesn’t believe they intend to move before October, which should give us time if only B will move. We know for a fact that tanks are being built at Cockshutt Forge. Can’t B see what this means?

August 23rd, 3 p.m.
We are lost. A cart has just passed carrying the plaster eagle. The enemy are going to attack.

G.H.Q. Commands.
1. That the attack take place on Aug. 28th. First penetration of the hostile position, 7.10 a.m.
2. A feint landing by pleasure paddle-steamers near the bathing-machines on Beach V.
3. A flank attack in an E.N.-E. direction by troops carrying special golf-ball grenades, to secure the heights above the club-house and to cut the York road.
4. A Main frontal attack. Divisions to be concentrated in the Shenly brick-fields and moved forward to the battle zone in bakers’ vans, disguised as nuns.
5. G.H.Q. retains command of 2nd Guard and 26th Nuthatchers.
6. Remaining Armies to act in accordance with the operation order 6925, dated July 26th.

The “Six Odes” of Book III of The Orators are saturated by this comic-nightmare vision of internal mobilisation:

You’ve got their names to live up to and questions won’t help,
You’ve a very full programme, first aid, gunnery, tactics,
The technique to master of raids and hand-to-hand fighting;
Are you in training?
Are you taking care of yourself? Are you sure of passing
The endurance test?

Now we’re due to parade on the square in front of the Cathedral,
When the Bishop has blessed us, to file in after the choir-boys,
To stand with the wine-dark conquerors in the roped-off pews,
Shout ourselves hoarse:
‘They ran like hares; we have broken them up like firewood;
They fought against God’.

The absurdism of The Orators incorporates something of the menacing atmosphere of political violence that Auden had lived with in Berlin in 1928-9, but weaves it with a peculiarly British whimsy. The boy soldiers parade again in the final scene of The Dog Beneath the Skin (1935), by far the best of the ‘thirties plays written by Auden with Christopher Isherwood. Here they satirise heavily the way that comical rural naivety can slide into menacing reactionary politics. The hero returns to the sleepy village of Pressan Ambo (where “corruption spreads its peculiar and emphatic odours”), to find it “moving with the times”, and in the grip of the Lads of Pressan, a militarised boys’ brigade founded by the vicar and a retired general:

“Miss Iris Crewe is Patroness and Mrs Hotham Honorary Colonel-in-Chief. The uniforms have been designed by the Vicar. Today, the Brigade is to have its first inspection by General and Mrs Hotham. The Vicar will preach a sermon on Bolshevism and the Devil. And Miss Iris Crewe will present the Standard, which will then be blessed by the Vicar. Later, there will be Field Communion, tea and athletic sports.”

Banners proclaim “The Lads of Pressan teach Britain a lesson” and “Pressan is having breakfast: Wake up, England!” The Lads march in to “a flourish of bugles” and fife and drum music. They are armed with dummy rifles, which will soon be exchanged for the real thing, courtesy of Miss Iris Crewe’s fiancé, the well known munitions manufacturer, Mr Rudolf Trunnion-James. After the wedding her ancestral pile, Honey-pot Hall Estate, will be presented to the Lads as barracks, parade-ground and playing-fields.

I think Auden would have felt entirely at home in the culture of A Very British Civil War. It would be good to see the Lads of Pressan having a small presence somewhere in a VBCW order of battle for the Royalist forces.

I suppose the new challenge might be to envision Audenesque conflict in the setting of post-2012, without the VBCW trappings of retro-quaintness. Mind you, some things don’t change much. The Countryside Alliance already has the right ring to its name. In my leafy corner of Shropshire it would be the Rotary and the Masons, riding shotgun in their union jacked four-by-fours, who in the event of national economic collapse would enforce our allegiance to King Charles III and Queen Camilla …

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