A War Book, but not a novel: All Our Yesterdays by H. M. Tomlinson (1930)

All Our Yesterdays is a strange novel; or rather, it is not really a novel at all. At first I was flummoxed by the structure – we seemed to move from scene to scene and from character to character with no guiding narrative. We start with an unnamed first person narrator – who remains unnamed and never gains any substance – then suddenly the narrator is third person and omnipresent.

In a sense the structure is very clear: the book is divided into five parts. Part one is the year 1900, part two 1908, part three 1914, part four is titled ‘War!’, and part five is the years 1916 to 1919. A group of men are followed through the book: the unnamed narrator; Jack and Charley Bolt, and their father ‘Old Bolt’; and Jim Maynard.

The first part focuses on the London docks, where Old Bolt works, and Fleet Street, where Charley Bolt enters journalism. The strong feelings aroused by the Boer War are another focus, and there is rather confusing scene (at least to me!) where a tobacconist’s is destroyed because the owner is suspected of being pro-Boer. The second part follows Maynard on an expedition up the Amazon in to the jungles of South America. Part 3 describes the prelude to war. Part 4 follows Maynard and the narrator to France as journalists reporting on the war. Part 5 is in the trenches with Jack Bolt.

 George Simmers has written an insightful account of All Our Yesterdays on his blog, noting that before Tomlinson wrote his novel he was best known for atmospheric travel pieces, and that the novel feels more like a collage of prose pictures than a surging narrative. This is certainly true! But George thinks it is well-written, and I cannot always agree. The simple breakdown of the novel I have written above caused me some me some trouble – I spent the first section asking ‘Who are these people?’ ‘What is going on?’

 There’s some seriously purple prose. This is Maynard in South America:

 The sky was lustrous, but it dimmed the floor of earth, which was heavy with the burden of its implication and reserve.’ (p. 182)

 I have not a clue how a floor can be heavy with the burden of its implication and reserve. Answers on a postcard please.

 Charley Bolt, the budding journalist, has also written a novel, which he asks a colleague to comment on. His colleague’s comment could well be applied to All Our Yesterdays:

 “No, it is not at all bad. I think it is good. You ought to go on. I was going to write to you. But if you don’t mind my saying so, good writing isn’t quite enough for a book. Your stuff is so metaphysical. That’s its trouble, to my mind. Abstract. And, er, haven’t you noticed that you haven’t got a woman in it?” (p. 226)

 All Our Yesterdays can be very abstract, and there are no women, save old Mrs Bolt quietly making tea in the background.

However, I must stop being so critical – there are some good things about this book. It is unusual in placing World War I in a broader context, reaching back to the mistakes of the Boer War. As a politician dryly observes in this section,

‘The war the generals always get ready for is the previous war.’ (p. 129)

I found the book to be strongest by far when it tackles World War I itself. Purple prose is left behind when there is a genuinely important subject. The bigger the tragedy, in fact, the more restrained the prose becomes; sentences are shorter, words plainer, and the previously frequent allusions to classical mythology are fewer. For example:

 ‘We took to the road again. Four abreast marched with us a column of men, newly taken from their families, for gun meat. It was motley consignment of respectable fathers, still smelling of their trades, and raw from the homes they had just left.’ (p. 303.)

 ‘Gun meat’ is a phrase that will stay with me. 

 Tomlinson is also particularly persuasive on the sheer stupidity of the war, and is deeply critical of the high command at the War Office. His analysis appears to be the war is the fault of the ‘governing classes’. In the final scene it is 1919 and Jim and the narrator have returned to the Somme. They see a car-load of tourists, apparently looking for souvenirs.

‘I was disturbed. “You see, Jim? There’s High Wood. There’s the Butte. And you see what it all means to them. They allowed it to come, and they kept it going, and now the bitter end is a souvenir for them. It is not easy to forgive them.”

Jim Maynard eyed the dust-cloud diminishing from this visit of democracy. He shook his head. “There is nothing to forgive. They never knew what they were doing. They don’t know now. …” (p. 538)

 Tomlinson is one of that group of writers who were highly regarded and very popular during their lifetimes, and are little known today. We have an edited collection of his writings published in 1953 to celebrate his eightieth birthday. The editor’s introduction tells us a lot about Tomlinson’s literary status – and about literary hierarches in general:

‘When I was about sixteen I discovered that the word literature must be given a capital L. About the same time I decided that only the best would do for me. When a book or a writer came to my notice I asked my stock question, “Is it Literature?” –  upon this point I was satisfied with the opinion of the local librarian: it was not for me to pass judgement.

 Those were the years of the war books; The Enormous Room had come my way, and Undertones of War, A Farewell to Arms, and some others. Now a book called All Our Yesterdays was apparently numbering good intellects. The writer was H. M. Tomlinson and I made my customary enquiry. It was all right, I learned, I could go ahead. Tomlinson was Literature.’ (p. 11, Kenneth Hopkins, (ed.) in H. M. Tomlinson, A Selection from his Writings (London: Hutchinson and Co., 1953).

Tomlinson is no longer remembered in ‘Literature’. And I wonder, does anyone ask this question today? And would you ask a librarian?

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