Despite all the exhortations to stop and smell the roses, that what matters is the journey, not the destination, I tend to read in something of a rush, mindful of the ever-growing stack of books that still beg to be read and rediscovered. It takes an exceptional writer to subdue this inclination and take a work at his or her own pace.
I took John Guest’s Broken Images: A Journal (1949) along on a recent trans-Atlantic flight, figuring I’d have time not only to finish it (it’s just 220 pages long) but to get through some work-related reading as well. Instead, I spent the entire flight, along with the next leg of my trip, to read it–not because it was a struggle but because Guest’s writing is so superb I wanted to enjoy every sentence.
At the time that World War Two broke out, John Guest was in his late twenties, working in a publishing house and wandering rather aimlessly into his future. He didn’t rush to enlist, but was inducted into the Royal Artillery in May 1940. Broken Images opens with a journal entry written–quite against regulations–on his second day in the Army, and continues until his separation five years later, in October 1945. Many of the entries were sent to the poet and lyricist Christopher Vernon Hassall, with whom Guest served on an anti-aircraft battery stationed near the London dockyards.
When Broken Images was first published, the Spectator’s reviewer wrote of it that, “It will be surprising if the last war produces a more rewarding set of personal impressions than the journal of Mr. John Guest.” What’s remarkable, though, is that I would never think of recommending it as a great war book. True, it is all about Guest’s experiences during the time he served in the Army, and he did experience combat first-hand in North Africa and Italy–where some of the most hard-fought battles of the war took place.
But its finest characteristic is that of a sensibility to life that never, despite all the drudgery and monotony of Army life and all the strains and fatigue of combat, seems anything less than fresh and alert. Here, for example, is an early observation from his first month in uniform:
But doing guard also has its pleasures. It is the only time when one is really alone. It is lovely, too, on warm starlit nights. Another pleasure, relatively new to me, is to see the dawn and hear the birds’ chorus; shortly after the sky has paled, one bird emits a sleepy note–do you remember that magical verse in “Tears, idle tears”:
Ah, sad and strange as in dark summer dawns
The earliest pipe of half awaken’d birds …
–and within two minutes every bird in creation is singing wildly.
Guest loved poetry and nature. He notes the flowers, bushes and trees wherever he is, knows the names of most of them, and often remembers a line or two of verse they inspired.
While he wasn’t a model soldier, he was no slacker, and was selected for officer training during his first year. Although he’d never had any association with the Army and felt no regret when he left it behind, he early on came to understand that his time in the uniform represented a personal transformation: “Something is between me and everything now. We seem to be breaking apart, diverging, but reality is on my side–vivid reality–while everything I used to be and do belongs elsewhere, connected to me only in memory, not it fact.”
Throughout much of the book, “the war” seems to be a show playing on another stage. Guest does not deploy to a combat theater until he’s been in the Army for nearly three years. He spends far more time training, taking part in exercises, and waiting, and even when he is in within eye sight of the enemy, the fighting is more often incidental than intense. He apologies, in fact, in one entry,
This is just to set your mind at ease in case you thought I was in the big attack. If you have been imagining me in the thick of battle, you would have laughed to see me this afternoon (or indeed most afternoons and evenings) sitting in a canvas chair at the edge of our olive grove–sleeves rolled up, dark sun-glasses, a book on my knee; listening to the birds and swatting flies with a grass switch. In front, the bank falls steeply away through a wood full of cyclamen, genista and honeysuckle, to a green valley below, and from where I site I can hear the stream that runs through it. But, apart from the occasional bang of guns, one wouldn’t know there was a war on.
Being far enough away from the front lines does not equate to enjoying the pleasures of peace, however. “You do not know what a country which has been fought over looks like,” he is careful to caution Hassall:
Everywhere the signs are unmistakable–one knows without thinking about the evidence. It is rather like one of those abandoned industrial areas at home; but here they are not abandoned; people are still living in them. Even if the houses are not in ruins, everything has a tired, disused look. Gates and hedges are broken. Rusting skeletons of vehicles lie in the ditches. Windows are broken. Roads in bad repair. The fields untended. Ground under trees or by the roadside all chawed up and rutted. Empty food tins. Trees cut down or splintered. Charred remains of fires. Human excreta. Broken drains, pools and floods–all the million and one things which should be mended, tidied, tended, buried or otherwise seen to, are left undone.
Guest never takes himself to be anything but a small cog in a big machine, and he often notes the tendency of the Army to grind everything down to an anonymous uniformity. Indeed, as he queues for one in the many steps involved in being processed out of the Army, he muses, “It was really a huge machine which had been churning away at top speed for six years…. All you had to mind was that you didn’t get nipped in the works.”
If there was one thing that most certainly didn’t happen to Guest, though, it was the sacrifice his individual sensibility. His eye was always alert to nuances of landscape, the life going on in the margins, and the endless human comedy. On leave in Rome, for example, he delights in the band playing in the lounge of an English officers’ hotel:
This consisted of three middle-aged Italians–two male and one female. One man played a huge sort of guitar-cum-zither which he held like a banjo and plucked. To the end of our stay I was absolutely convinced that it made no noise whatsoever, and that upon closer inspection it would transpire that the strings were made of elastic or wool. For all that, his gnarled right hand plucked and flipped with all the merriment in the world, and his left hand scrambled deftly up and down the wires.
I’ve already overindulged in the temptation to quote at length from Broken Images. It really is a deliciously well-written book that I have left riddled with dog-eared pages marking particularly fine passages.
About the time that Broken Images was published by Longmans, Green and Company, Guest joined the firm as a litarary advisor, and he remained with the firm until his retirement. Aside from The Best of Betjeman, which he edited, Broken Images is the only book he published. It earned a mention in both Paul Fussells’ Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War and Samuel Hynes’ The Soldiers’ Tale: Bearing Witness to a Modern War, but has been out of print since its first publication. Such a shame. In researching this post, I came across one review in which the reviewer gushed, “I enjoyed this book so much that it is difficult to avoid seeming over-elaborate in praising it.” I second that emotion.