Friday, 28 February 2014

What’s London Reading? by Aoife Mannix

It’s been nearly a hundred years since Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie were gunned down in the streets of Sarajevo.  Few at the time could have predicted that this assassination would lead to the First World War and the death of over sixteen million people.  Not to mention the complete transformation of the Western world and the power structures that govern it. 2014 is the centenary of one of history’s most deadly conflicts and an extraordinary number of events are taking place across London to mark this dark and troubled time.

Cityread London is an annual month long celebration of literature in the capital.  While the start of World War I may not be anything to celebrate, the huge number of fascinating and compelling books that have been written about it certainly is. Cityread London’s ambition is to get the whole of London reading the same book.  Faced with the enormous task of choosing one of the many brilliant novels about WWI, we picked two. Louisa Young’s My Dear I Wanted To Tell You and Michael Morpurgo’s Private Peaceful.

As well as being a deeply moving love story, My Dear I Wanted To Tell You is a book that connects the suffering of the Londoners who went to the front with the suffering of those who had to stay behind.  It offers profound insights not only into life in the trenches but on how the war impacted on the society of the time.  It looks at class, politics, power and the position of women.  It shows how no aspect of ordinary life was left untouched by a conflict that continues to impact on us today.

Private Peaceful is a novel for younger readers that focuses on the lives of two teenage brothers sent to the front.  It shows how the First World War destroys their youth and how they are the victims of a society that exploits those who are poor and vulnerable.  It asks important questions about loyalty, bravery and betrayal as well as what kind of world do we want our young people to grow up in?

It’s perhaps tempting to think of World War One as something horrific that happened a long time ago.  Yet a hundred years is just on the edges of living memory.  Terrorist attacks, like the one that killed Archduke Ferdinand, are still very much with us.  Europe is still a deeply divided continent with huge economic and social problems.  It’s difficult for us to imagine the ramifications of current events.  This morning I listened on the radio to the speculation about where the former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych has fled to and what the Russians will do now the Americans have warned them that any kind of military intervention could have serious consequences. How do we know if this is just one more crisis that will pass or if we stand on the brink of the abyss?

What literature offers us is a way to imaginatively explore the past that is not dusty or dull or irrelevant.  It helps to bring back to life the suffering and courage of ordinary people caught up in events that made little sense to them at the time.  It gives a perspective that allows us to experience what it was like for them and thus to imagine what it might be like for us in the future. Join Cityread London in celebrating the literature of the First World War by reading the books and taking part in the huge array of workshops, reading groups, performances and events that we are running this April.  To find out more visit our websiteFacebook page and Twitter.

Aoife Mannix is the official blogger for Cityread London. She is the author of four collections of poetry and a novel. She has been poet in residence for the Royal Shakespeare Company and BBC Radio 4’s Saturday Live.