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...
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