The seventh in a new series where we ask authors to revisit the opening sentences of their stories. Here, Patrick French talks about memoirs and selfies.

 

‘From a distance it looks more like a running stitch on a pillow or sampler than a collage of men.’

‘After The War’ was difficult to write, probably because I had never written about myself before. The idea came from Granta’s editor, John Freeman, who pointed out to me about five years ago that whenever I wrote in the first person, I never revealed much. I disputed this briefly and then gave up. It was true: I tried to keep my work separate from myself. I didn’t think my life was anyone else’s business. Or to put it another way, I didn’t think there was any point in writing about it unless it was true. Memoirs are often a mix of vainglory and obfuscation; the best are painful to read.

The opening lines were a reaction to something I remembered from James Wood, where he described an old photo and then said it was a bad idea to open a novel in this way. I can’t remember why. He probably had a good reason. But it set me thinking: would it be possible to start the piece, for perversity’s sake, with descriptions of old photographs?

I have always liked images from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They seem, because they were so often stylized, to tell you a lot about the way people saw themselves and wanted to be seen by others. In that sense, they are more like selfies than snaps from the era of mass production. I have found, when writing biography or social history, that old pictures reveal a great deal about status and relationships. I also believe it is possible to read a life by looking at a face, ideally in person rather than in a photograph. With World War I pictures, the temptation is to believe destiny is fatally inscribed into the image – this man must die, this man will live. I didn’t perceive my great-uncle, Maurice Dease, in that way, although he died in the opening battle of 1914, winning the Victoria Cross, but I did gain a sense of the atmosphere he grew up in from the surviving pre-war photos.

The image above, showing ‘G’ Company of the Fourth Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers a few years before the outbreak of war, troubled me because it reminded me of something else. I didn’t know what. I tried squinting, and placing it on the far side of the room. If the man holding the dog were to release it, and the dog jumped diagonally four feet to its left, it would land in Uncle Maurice’s lap.

The image below, which I have just found on my iPhone, is a picture of the picture. Behind it you can see a reflection of my hands and behind that, I think, a ceiling vent at Warwick University. I was trying to blur or copy the photo in order to see what it looked like, and then it came to me – it was a running stitch.

In Edwardian days, if you were growing up in England (though Maurice was from Ireland) your life was regimented. You were stitched and machined into a grid of expectations. The photo of the Fusiliers offered a glimpse of that structured, hearty, and masculine world – a world that was to an extent still in place when I was a child in the 1970s and 80s, and which I hated, and was intending to write about along with aspects of my army childhood: provincial life, mental illness and Catholicism.

Once I had the first sentence down, I could go on:

About one hundred soldiers are arranged by height on a tiered stand, each horizontal row of heads hyphenated by the shining belt of the man behind, each vertical line of brass buttons punctuated by a white face beneath a cap badge. This act of creative precision is matched by the backdrop: a high, symmetrical brick wall. The only deviations come at the periphery – you can make out a drum, a dog, a stick, a trumpet, a tuba.

The creative precision in the writing was critical to what I was doing. It was a way of controlling the prose in order to communicate emotion and passion. The essay that followed was an antidote to a particular kind of English writing and the cult of the Great War.

 

Image courtesy of Patrick French

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