Stride Magazine -


The Invasion Handbook, Tom Paulin
[Faber, £12.99]

The first of 3 projected books on the Second World War, funded by a grant from the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts.
Sean O’Brien recently spoke in York about having to ‘face up to living in history’, something that would be well to bear in mind as Paulin takes us here through narratives about Auden, Joyce and Eliot and how they behaved in wartime. He wanted to record the events leading up to the Second World War at a time when they are vanishing from living memory. If there’s one thing we can learn from history, as the saying goes, it’s that we don’t learn from history.  At such a catchpoint in global politics its concerns are uncomfortably familiar; politicians making, amending and breaking treaties and their effects on the ground.

On first reading one catches the gist of the narrative. Barely punctuated and in Paulin’s digressional conversational style, the road to war reads fast. Gradually names stick and things start to make sense.

The received wisdom is that the severity of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles encouraged
Germany to seek extreme solutions, in extreme leaders, to its dire problems. Decreeing ‘Peace’ in unjust conditions is like decreeing an abolition of ‘Terror’. We must understand the reasons behind people’s actions to prevent them occurring otherwise it is impossible to contain a situation. Domes are a repeated image, shifting, in a subtle reference to Sylvia Plath’s holocaust imagery, to a bell-jar. After the injustice of Versailles, the more reasonable Locarno Pact is merely a parcel within a parcel.

The extremity of the impositions on

is displayed in a list of the figures of destroyed German arms (‘600,7000 rifles and carbines / 243000 machinegun tubes / 28000 gun chassis…’) and hints at the scale of the counterbalance to come. Eventually the discrepancy is written in one line

$1 = 3,760,000,000 marks

Thus Hitler, remedying this inbalance, in a brilliant (and historically-accurate) image ‘would spoon sugar into vintage wines’. The result is an unnatural creation, ‘like leathery eggs’. Elsewhere, the horrible image of a bar of human soap sticks in the mind. One wonders at the sanity of anyone who could deal with this mentally. 

Paulin is the one to write this, being so well read he is able to explain how this has happened before and concerns us now: ‘I tell you, this is a Carthaginian peace. We are sewing the earth with salt’. Many poems are subtitled ‘After…’; he’s read his stuff.

There is a changing ‘I’ throughout the poems. The project is described as a ‘cento’, a collage of scraps and notes and this ‘meandering journey’ as Paulin calls the road to war, but which serves equally well for the book, gives the sense of everyone being affected; a Jewish banker in his house thinking he is surely beyond approach (there in the title ‘An Indefinite Article’), a ‘sense of unsettled space’ that belongs to ‘almost any Irish play’. ‘Strange how everything comes back / to poor Coleridge’s caves of ice’ says T.S. Eliot at one point. The various voices include Latin and French, prose and verse, text and symbol. Verse passages, posters and, once, newspaper clippings, are slanted and juxtaposed as in Mark Z. Danielewski’s ‘House of Leaves’. Characters include numerous politicians and poets Wilde, Joyce and Verlaine.

The poems fall into two groups. First, the politician poems; vivid characterisations of Clemenceau and Churchill, fascinating and at times difficult to penetrate, structured around various treaties. Second is a physical representation of the predicament, an incarnation of events. These are gripping. When German freedoms are scrutinised following the war (‘What need one?’):

Lipp was concerned at a puddle that was found in the ex-King’s bathroom, because the king could spend hours playing at toy boats.

As German forces enter the Rhineland, a ‘dodgy field telephone … keeps trying Locarno’. ‘Imago 1919’, one of the strongest poems, creates an urban cityscape of double-meaning and opposites like those computer-graphics of streets where every window is a word saying ‘WINDOW’, the street made of the word ‘STREET’. At the close, the narrator admits he had deliberately been heading to the quartier rouge, not avoiding it as he had claimed. Is one attracted to war like one is attracted to vice?

The divided layout of the poem, lines broken in the middle like a spine, demonstrates the dislocation of parity. Words are often defined by their opposites and the many ‘un-’ words – ungrow, unhope - demonstrate that as far as the pendulum swings in one way it will swing back. Paulin’s main theme could be said to be balance. The man who travels back in time must beware of altering too much, as things can come to have great import in the future. So in the present. Paulin sees the Locarno peace treaty as ‘two pails of water / balanced … on a plank’.

The changing times and modernist approach to objects is everywhere; as apartments become ‘residence machine(s)’, there is ‘the look of buildings / that are hiding something / buildings whose windows / somehow never meet your eye’. As cross-dressing becomes popular and Schwitter practices cut and paste art, in

          - it’s abstract too
          a student tosses a bomb at Plehve
          who becomes blood and brains
          steaming on a snowy street

Motifs dot the text, wood appearing in Britain’s timber leg, Mussolini’s shaved head – ‘a fencepost’, his bodyguards ‘fenceposts in suits’, and the taste of smoked Swiss cheese. Unspoken joinings of dots are tangible in a whisp of burnt hair. Paulin asks the reader in rhyme, ‘Can you think what it is?’ (The answer is Auschwitz).

With hypnotising inevitability we are led to the climactic 12-page poem ‘Battle of Britain’ which is as breathlessly exciting and shocking as any action adventure comic. There is a sense of pride, after that long chronological list – The Night of the Long Knives, Kristallnacht, - when Britain’s ultimatum takes Hitler aback. We see Churchill’s re-appointment as prime minister from inside his mind and come to understand the gravity of decisions – ‘Bomb Berlin! Churchill orders’ - and tactics:

          - Goering he promised
          the defence of Southern England
          would last exactly four days
          and the Royal Air Force four weeks
          -we can for the Fuhrer
          guarantee invasion within a month
          but Stuffy Dowding he’d studied
          their tactics in Spain
          and he pulled us back
          wisely from Dunkirk
          now in Sir John Soane’s
          Bentley Priory
          his mind moves over maps

One must mention Paulin’s fantastic language in these poems. He twists  Shakespeare to describe a student double-agent with burst eardrums:

          he runs back into the night
          and wanders through pure storm
          a silent night
          like a tale told by an idiot
          signifying nothing
          only spectacle

An allied soldier escapes,

          down like Aeneas
          among the living shades
          among twentypacks of Players
          floating on the tide

Throughout, Paulin considers other writers, including Sun Tzu’s ‘Art of War’. He is mocked in ‘Male Poet Enlists’ which considers the poet as soldier, and yet in the poem ‘In the Blackout’, a poster which urges you to pause before leaving the lightened subway and entering the dark, has ‘its own civic poetry / and will survive … our passing’.

In a final image, he describes the pen as a balancing pole. By digging for root causes to explain events and inspiring interest in its subject The Invasion Handbook is worth every penny of the grant that brought it about.

Matt Bryden 2002