Dyer Geoff

Geoff Dyer: Working the Room

Geoff Dyer’s Anglo-English Attitudes: Essays, Reviews, Misadventures (1999) was such a reliably diverting volume that I rushed into this new collection of ‘occasional pieces’. (‘Frequent pieces’ might be a better term, given Dyer’s restless ubiquity in reviewing, introducing and afterwording.) The title comes from his essay on Susan Sontag: “Critics are always working the room. The way they do so changes over the course of a career. Young critics like to disparage and tear down. Later, when they write about the heavyweights, it is not so much the subjects as their own ability to go toe-to-toe with greatness that comes under examination.” How well does Dyer – at 53, surely no longer young – stand up to this demand?

Working the Room: Essays and Reviews 1999-2010 (the misadventures are missing this time, at least in the title) seems a less eclectic volume than its predecessor. This is because, as he notes in the introduction, in the last ten years Dyer has become the go-to man for editors looking for a certain type of essay: personal but analytical, rigorously reflexive, loose around the edges. He is in demand – his working title for the book My Life as a Gatecrasher had to be abandoned as he is clearly part of the literary establishment – and many of the pieces here are quite firmly categorisable, despite Dyer’s protests at the outset.

We know from The Ongoing Moment that photography is one of Dyer’s passions (perm three from photography, jazz, Burning Man, DH Lawrence, John Berger and travel confessionals to make your own Geoff Dyer book), and my decision to read Working the Room straight through gave me pause when I realised that the first fifteen essays were on photographers, fourteen of whom I hadn’t heard of. (Martin Parr, take a bow.) I needn’t have worried. Dyer is at his best when communicating enthusiasm, striking a lovely balance between basic facts for the uninitiated and acute analysis of the works. Each photography essay is accompanied by one monochrome or colour image, which Dyers uses either as a focus for discussion or a springboard for wider reflection. So writing about Richard Avedon’s 1960 portrait of the famously scrotal-faced W.H. Auden leads to the following:

[In the 19th century], according to [Walter] Benjamin, everything about the elaborate procedure of having one’s picture taken ’caused the subject to focus his life in the moment rather than hurrying on past it; during the considerable period of the exposure the subject as it were grew into the picture’. In these pictures, ‘the very creases in people’s clothes have an air of permanence’. Avedon, of course, worked with split-second exposure times but the results were in some ways even more striking: the creases in people’s faces have an air of geological permanence. There is the sense, often, of a massive extent of time being compressed into the moment the picture was taken. ‘Lately,’ he said in 1970, ‘I’ve become interested in the passage of time within a photograph.’ So, in one of his most famous portraits, Isak Dinesen looks like she was once the most beautiful woman in the world – about two thousand years ago.

There is recurrence in these essays of thoughts previously given form in The Missing of the Somme, of photographs as memorials. Ruth Orkins’ ‘VE Day’ shows a crowd in Times Square “arranged in a way that has since become widespread in that its purpose was, partly, to be recorded”. Or for Enrique Metinides, “if something terrible happened, [he] was there with his camera, recording not just the wreckage but the way such incidents became sites of instant pilgrimage” (producing – in a clever wordplay also typical of Dyer – images that were “not so much film stills as still films”). His most obscure subject – I hope – is Miroslav Tichý, the ‘stone-age photographer’ who “put as simply as possible … spent the 1960s and 70s perving around Kyjov, photographing women.” Tichý’s work simultaneously displays a “kinship [with] Benny Hill” and offers a moving eroticism because it “gaze[s] longingly on a world from which he is excluded.” These essays show Dyer at his best: enquiring, enlightening, entertaining.

The corollary of this is that the essays that dealt with subjects I was more familiar with were less interesting to me. Primarily these are the literary ones – D.H. Lawrence, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Salter, Richard Ford, Tobias Wolff, W.G. Sebald and Thomas Bernhard. (Though it may just be that I’d read some of them before, so they surprised me less. Certainly the Salter piece was one I knew.) Still, there are delights here too – marked, sure enough, by their unfamiliarity, such as his essay on The Goncourt Journals (perhaps the only diaries to contain the words: “A ring at the door. It is Flaubert”) and Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (“an awkward tome whose identifying quality is a refusal to fit”). Prime among these pieces however must be Dyer on Ryszard Kapuściński, which I read in a bookshop cafe and which rendered me unable to leave without buying my first book of Kapuściński’s reportage.

These essays also reveal perhaps more of Dyer than he – never slow to make guest appearances in his own writing – would intend. Kapuściński is, he says, “the victim of a received cultural prejudice that assumes fiction to be the loftiest preserve of literary and imaginative distinction.” Writing about Susan Sontag, he asks, “To what extent is it possible to be a great prose writer without being a great writer of fiction?” Of Rebecca West, he notes that:

[she] is considered a major British writer. If she is not regarded as a writer quite of the first rank that is largely because so much of the work on which her reputation should rest is tacitly considered secondary to the forms in which greatness is expected to manifest itself, namely the novel. … Her best work is scattered among reportage, journalism and travel – the kind of things traditionally regarded as sidelines or distractions.

What can he be getting at, this author famous for books “whose identifying quality is a refusal to fit”? He sees it too in John Cheever, whose “principal claim to literary survival” for Dyer rests not with the stories, novels or letters, but his journals. (Not perhaps such a controversial principle, as Gabriel Josipovici similarly argues that it is not Kafka’s novels or stories, but his aphorisms which “form [his] most sustained meditation on life and death, good and evil, and the role of art.”)

The weakest pieces in the book are those where Dyer cannibalises himself entirely, perhaps not recognising that the tangents into his own life are charming in the other essays because they are based upon a stronger foundation. That is to say, the final section of the book, ‘Personals’, is largely dispensable. Similarly, the most egregious will-this-do pieces are little more than gagfests about fashion or the Olympics. The jokes are good (one couture show “was Priscilla, Queen of the Desert meets Mad Max, a combination that might one day result in a co-production called Back-combed to the Future“), but they’re just jokes. Real comedy needs more.

Still, even when he’s not on form, Dyer is a reliably generous source of aphorisms from other writers: his essays are peppered with the quotability of others. Who can consider time wasted reading an essay that quotes Maxim Gorky’s “Life will always be bad enough for the desire for something better not to be extinguished in men”? Or Philip Larkin’s assertion that holidays “are essentially a kind of penance for being so happy and comfortable in one’s daily life”? Or Søren Kierkegaard’s journal entry from 1836:

I have just returned from a party of which I was the life and soul; wit poured from my lips, everyone laughed and admired me – but I went away – and the dash should be as long as the earth’s orbit ————————————————- and wanted to shoot myself.

One of the most interesting aspects of reading a book of essays like this straight through is that we get to see what we might call the ghosts, that is, the figures who recur in Dyer’s writing but who don’t – here, at least – have a place of their own. Walker Evans, Walter Benjamin, E.M. Cioran, Miles Davis, Robert Frank, Keith Jarrett, Friedrich Nietzsche and others are threaded through the essays like totems or mascots of Dyer’s cultural life, absent and present at the same time. After the teasing references to them, any full treatment would probably be disappointing, just as I fear that reading my new Ryszard Kapuściński book will be less enjoyable than reading Geoff Dyer telling me about it. Writing on Susan Sontag, he recalls how she “cattily dismissed” a famous story of Lorrie Moore’s, which Sontag said “you don’t respect yourself for finishing.” Dyer, while full of admiration for Sontag’s critical work, cats back with the observation on her novel In America, that “I respected myself so much for finishing it I felt I deserved a prize.” Dyer’s book – the “distractions” that make up a life of letters – at its best combines both: pleasurable enough to feel guilty about, but sufficiently filling to make finishing it a source of both satisfaction and regret.

Geoff Dyer Interview

Geoff Dyer is undoubtedly one of the most interesting writers in the UK. The stock response for his books is ‘genre-defying’ – so often cited that it has more or less become a genre in itself. He is one of those few writers whom I will read on any subject – even those pieces he did with Maggie O’Farrell in Waterstone’s magazine – and the breadth of his interests can be seen in Anglo-English Attitudes, his collection of “essays, reviews, misadventures”. He has written a book about not writing a book about D.H. Lawrence (Out of Sheer Rage), a book about public memorialising of the First World War (The Missing of the Somme), and a travel book where “everything in this book happened, but some of the things that happened only happened in my head” (Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It). His latest genre-defying, Dyeresque book is a novel, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, which has been praised in the press as “an early contender for the most original, and the cleverest, novel of the year.” If you haven’t read Dyer, you must remedy that: and where better than with this interview he kindly agreed to do for this blog?

Geoff Dyer photographed by Jason Oddy

Geoff Dyer photographed by Jason Oddy

Martin Amis said that The Information was not a novel about a mid-life crisis; the novel was the mid-life crisis. Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi contains a narrator who achieves some kind of spiritual fulfilment in an Indian holy city. Is this a novel about a mid-life crisis? Or…?

I am resigned to the book being seen that way but would like to stress that the author is not in the grips of such a thing and, in fact, is not even convinced such a thing exists. Since we’re quoting Amis, it’s worth remembering that the war against cliché isn’t waged just at the level of phrases and unthinking habits of expression. People think in clichés – and the notion of a mid-life crisis is just such an unthinking mental reflex. Having said that, if after all this grumbling, we extemporise on Amis’s comment a bit, maybe the novel, as a form, is in a state of perpetual mid- or late-life crisis while appearing oblivious to the fact.


You’ve said that the distinction between your fiction and non-fiction “means absolutely nothing” to you, and also that you “dread” inventing things for books. In your new novel, when you blur the lines between Jeff and Geoff, are you making a virtue out of a necessity?

Yes, that’s exactly what one learns to do as a writer, or as any artist. You arrive at your own style by default or failure. You know, Miles Davis wanted to sound like Dizzy Gillespie but couldn’t do the high register thing so had to content himself with becoming… Miles! And although I dread inventing things I would get very bored simply transcribing things from life, as they actually happened. What I like is improvising on them, embellishing or altering them a little.

I would like to think that my books encourage readers to ask themselves about the kind of experience they are having – and that, in turn, raises other questions about the often unquestioned formal expectations brought to the act and habit of reading, i.e. to ideas of how a book is supposed to behave or comport itself in their hands! In this case, it’s not that I’ve tried to write a novel like other novels and have failed (“The woman in the first half? Oh shit, you’re right, I completely forgot about her. Sorry” ). I’ve tried to write a book which succeeds or fails within its own internal physics.

Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, like Yoga, Paris Trance or Out of Sheer Rage, is very funny but also very serious. “Everything began as a joke,” observes Jeff, “but not everything ended as one.” Do you feel ideas have to be smuggled into your books under cover of entertainment? Is one mode easier for you to write than the other, or do they all, as it were, come out of the same hands?

When you’re with friends that you really get on with, there’s a constant shuttling back and forth between joking and serious, with no change of gears at all and it’s the same in writing. One of the things I’ve really worked hard to achieve in writing is a tone or style which enables me to move freely and quickly between comedy and more discursive and analytical parts. Actually even that’s not right because the funny bits can be analytical too, so both things are happening simultaneously. I’m really not interested in entertaining the troops and can’t imagine anything worse than being a so-called comic novelist. I never read comic novels: I almost never find them funny because they’re always holding up this tacit sign saying ‘LAUGH NOW’ so one sits there, grim-faced. For me, the funniest writer is Thomas Bernhard who is also one of the most profound – you can’t stop yourself laughing.

Actually, while we’re at it here’s an example of my idea of brilliant comic writing (from The Forever War, Dexter Filkins’ collection of dispatches from Iraq and Afghanistan) about a suicide bomber in Baghdad:

Sure enough, they’d found the head. They’d placed it on a platter like John the Baptist’s, and set it on the ground next to an interior doorway. It was in good shape, considering what it had been through… The most curious aspect of the face was the man’s eyebrows: they were raised, as if in surprise. Which struck me as odd, given that he would have been the only person who knew ahead of time what was going to happen.


In Jeff in Venice…, Jeff recalls John Fowles’ distinction between “the Victorian point of view – I can’t have this forever, therefore I’m miserable – and the modern, existential outlook: I have this for the moment, therefore I’m happy.” As a writer, you must have half an eye on permanence and posterity. Or do you, like the characters in the book, seek nothing but the ongoing moment?

The books preserve those fleeting moments so it’s a way of having it both ways. And this is something that has been a major concern of many writers, since the romantic period especially. You know, it’s Wordsworth’s “I would enshrine the spirit of the past for future restoration.” Personally, I think I’ve been quite good at depicting happiness which we’re always told is difficult to do (‘Happiness writes white’ etc – another reflex non-thought). In terms of posterity etc, I think it’s really unfortunate now that one’s standing is decided so early on that it’s increasingly difficult to distinguish from the pre-publication marketing campaign (“the next big thing…”). I’ve never really been plagued by doubts about the worth of what I’ve been doing, only about my ability to continue doing it which has not really been tied up with whether that high opinion was shared by others.

You portray yourself as terminally lazy and uncommitted, but few writers are as protean, or as widely and highly acclaimed. Is Geoff Dyer the George Best of literature, gifted with such a great natural talent that he can get away with not knuckling down to make the most of it? Or is this just a pose?

What an unbelievably flirtatious question! I don’t think it’s laziness so much as a chronic, deep-down existential desire to do nothing, to down tools, to just potter away my time. But if I succumbed to that – and I get closer to succumbing to it with every passing year – I would sink into depression. Paris Trance was ultimately about the siren call of that. In a way I would like to have acquired the habits and discipline of the career novelist without becoming one. And since Thomas Mann is lurking in the background of the new book I’ll quote that line of his that I love so much: a writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people. To be honest, it’s an absolute mystery to me how I’ve ended up writing all these books. When you are younger there are more things to tempt you out but as you get older it becomes more difficult to concentrate.


You say your eclectic range of books comes from taking an interest in a subject – jazz, photography, Lawrence – and wanting to find out more about it. Are there any such projects which have failed to make it to book form? What topics do you have your magpie eye on currently?

There is something thing that I am very interested in at the moment but which I have no desire to write a book about: the US Marine Corps. My house is full of books about the Marines but there’s nothing in it for me as a writer. That grew out of, or is a by-product of, the series and book Generation Kill but, more generally, I’ve been reading all these books about Iraq, Afghanistan etc: The Assassin’s Gate, The Looming Tower, Imperial Life in the Emerald City, The Forever War etc. This is the big story of our time – in fact, these are some of the great books of our time – but there’s no chance of me trying to write anything like that. I am tempted to write a whole book about Tarkovsky’s film, Stalker. I like that as an idea: following up Jeff in Venice, which I guess has a wide potential readership, with one that has almost no readership at all. And tennis is a perpetual source of torment, both in terms of playing it and trying to write about it.

Can you recommend an overlooked book or author for readers of this blog?

I really love this American poet Dean Young, who I suspect not too many people in UK will have heard of (though I could be wrong). He comes out of that Ashbery surreal school but he’s very distinctive. Also hilarious – and profound at the same time. The various volumes all have pretty much the same proportion of great, good and not-so-good poems but the first one I read – and therefore the one for which I have a special affection – is First Course in Turbulence.

Geoff Dyer: Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi

Geoff Dyer’s non-fiction has always been more consistent – or anyway easier to get a grip on – than his fiction. With punning titles to his novels like Paris Trance and now Jeff in Venice…, just how seriously are we supposed to take them? It’s a query that doesn’t dissolve even after reading his new book. One reviewer says that reading Dyer is like making a new friend, one as silly as you but more intelligent; precisely so. I’d call him a national treasure if that didn’t imply a cosiness which doesn’t fit Dyer’s rigorous intellectual anarchy. Let’s begin from the understanding that anything Dyer writes is worth reading, and proceed from there. And as far as the difference between fiction and non-fiction goes, Dyer says “the distinction means absolutely nothing to me. I like to write something that’s only an inch from life … but all the art of course is in that inch.”

When the protagonist’s name – Jeffrey Atman – was disclosed in the opening sentence of Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, a little something in me died. I recalled from Siddhartha that Atman was a Hindu spiritualist term for the eternal soul, and I dreaded the onset of a new age tale of ‘finding oneself’. But I needn’t have worried: at least, not yet. And just in case Dyer’s reputation as a restless intellectual burrower didn’t precede him, the book has no fewer than seven epigraphs, from sources as diverse as Borges and Ginsberg.

In part one, ‘Jeff in Venice’, our louche Dyeresque hero is a freelance journalist (“if it was a proper job, I’d pack it in and do something else, but freelancing is the something else that you do after you’ve packed in your job so my options are limited”), given to wearing skateboard T-shirts, raving about Burning Man, and other activities recognisable to Dyer watchers. Jeff is sent to the Venice Biennale to interview a fading celebrity. This is a great opportunity for Dyer to exhibit his facility for slick wit. On the budget airline:

The cost-cutting was amazing, extravagant, even. No expense had not been spared. … Then he had to struggle through the coach-crowded bus terminal, with his bags, in the baking heat. It was like being in an Italian version of an oily, hugely demoralizing art installation called This Vehicle is Reversing.

This includes accurate observations – perhaps derived from Dyer’s own journalistic experiences – about contemporary art (“The work may have been puerile, but the hunger to succeed of which it was the product and symbol was ravenous. In different historical circumstances any number of these artists could have seized control of the Reichstag or ruled Cambodia with unprecedented ruthlessness”) and the business of celebrity (“part of the etiquette of being an interviewer [was] that you had to let the interviewee call the shots. It made them feel important and being important hopefully made them more amenable – though, in practice, as often as not, it just made them feel even more important, which manifested itself in their being extremely difficult”).

The plot of this first part, such as it is, comprises Jeff’s interview with the celebrity and his sexual encounters with a woman named Laura. At one point Atman observes that “everything began as a joke – or some things did anyway – but not everything ended as one”. The tone of ‘Jeff in Venice’ is of a joke, where the witty exchanges tread a fine line between maddeningly brilliant and brilliantly maddening, so it’s a relief, or at least a change, when part two, ‘Death in Varanasi’ is generally more sombre.

Here, the narrative is in the first person, with nothing but a passing reference to Venice to suggest that this may be the Jeff of part one, rather than, say, Geoff instead, or another incarnation entirely. In a recent interview, Dyer said that the book was originally intended as two discrete stories: “With my usual unerring eye for commercial suicide, I originally wanted to subtitle the book ‘A Diptych’ to make clear the two stories were separate. But I was urged not to, and when I saw a mock-up of the front cover with the word ‘diptych’ on it, I thought, ‘Oh God, that’s too pretentious even for me’.” Much of ‘Death in Varanasi’ reads like a reportage piece about travels to the Indian holy city (“the place of many names”) with “uncomprehended meaning everywhere.” Here, comic set pieces about locals who don’t respect the British addiction to queuing tend to give way to sincere observations:

What I didn’t see was any affinity between us. He was in his world and I was in mine. My world-view would never be his and vice versa. That was what we had in common. What distinguished us from each other was that he had no interest in mine – it meant nothing to him – whereas I was intensely curious about his.

As Dyer – or the fictional narrator (“the distinction means absolutely nothing to me”) – points out, “it’s possible to be a hundred percent sincere and a hundred percent ironic at the same time.” The lazy perception of a barrier between ‘a funny book’ and ‘a serious book’ is broken down. Like so many great writers, Dyer is both deeply funny and absolutely serious.

Midway through the book, Jeff recalls reading The French Lieutenant’s Woman, and how he had been “much impressed by John Fowles’s distinction between the Victorian point of view – I can’t have this forever, therefore I’m miserable – and the modern, existential outlook: I have this for the moment, therefore I’m happy.” In the first part of the book, Jeff seeks completeness through attachment to the passing moment; in part two, the narrator achieves completeness through detachment from the present.

I really don’t want to come on like someone who has gone through rehab or undergone a conversion or awakening. All I’m saying is that in Varanasi I no longer felt like I was waiting. The waiting was over. I had taken myself out of the equation.

Being a Dyer fan is a stressful experience, always expecting great things, always fearing he’ll drop the ball. He portrays himself in other books – and Jeff the journalist here – as a lazy writer, coasting by on considerable talent but without the application to transmute the work into gold. But this cannot entirely be true, when the results are so satisfying and stimulating. Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi is only an inch from brilliance, but all the Dyer is in that inch.

Geoff Dyer: The Missing of the Somme

It was the 90th anniversary of Armistice recently which led me to revisit Geoff Dyer’s The Missing of the Somme. But he was already on my mind as I had discovered that he will soon publish his first novel in a decade. His novels are perhaps the least of him, or their punning titles are anyway: his last was Paris Trance [1998] and his next is Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi (2009). It’s in non-fiction where he excels: the compendium of essays Anglo-English Attitudes; the study of photography The Ongoing Moment; his brilliant account of almost failing to write a book about D.H. Lawrence, Out of Sheer Rage. A disciple of Berger and admirer of Bernhard, Dyer is nonetheless capable of shameless silliness in a way which still manages to be charming, as in his award-winning (well, a WHSmith award. But they all count) travelogue-cum-‘memoir’, Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It. In that book he tells us, and it might apply to any of them: “Everything in this book really happened, but some of the things that happened only happened in my head.”

The Missing of the Somme (1994) came about because

like the youthful Christopher Isherwood who wanted to write a novel entitled ‘A War Memorial’, I wanted to write a book that was not about ‘the War itself but the effect of the idea of [the War] on my generation’. Not a novel but an essay in mediation: research notes for a Great War novel I had no intention of writing, the themes of a novel without its substance…

This is typical Dyer self-deprecation. This is a substantial book despite its page count. Everything has been thoroughly considered, down to his reasons for sticking to ‘the Great War’ rather than the coldly associative ‘First World War’ or (even worse) ‘World War I’. “Was there not, amidst all this grief, a faint shudder or shiver of excitement at the unimaginable vastness of it all? … Was there not a faint glow of pride, an unavoidable undertow of semantic approval, in terming the war ‘Great’?”

That ‘vastness’ is backed up by the figures. “In total 918 cemeteries were built on the Western Front with 580,000 named and 180,000 unidentified graves.” “By the time of the great battles of attrition in 1916-17, mass graves were dug in advance of major offensives.” “France and Germany each lost more than a million and a half men; Russia, two million. Three-quarters of a million of the dead were British.” “If the Empire’s dead marched four abreast down Whitehall, it would take them three and a half days to pass the Cenotaph.” We could read these numbers all day and never get closer, even almost a century on, to comprehending the scale of the deaths. Dyer’s method then is to deal primarily with the act of remembrance of the war rather than the war itself.

The war paralysed not only a generation and a decade, but bled back to infect the past.

Life in the decade and a half preceding 1914 has come to be viewed inevitably and unavoidably through the optic of the war that followed it. The past as past was preserved by the war that shattered it. By ushering in a future characterized by instability and uncertainty, it embalmed forever a past characterized by stability and certainty.

Aspects of memories of the war are preserved in statues, cemeteries and photographs. “Every family has an album like this. Even as we prepare to open it, the act of looking at the album is overlaid by the emotions it will engender. We look at the pictures as if reading a poem about the experience of seeing them.” Dyer’s liberal use of photographs through the text brings to mind W.G. Sebald, and it’s in his discursive manner too, the ‘narrative’ which looks meandering or random but in fact is highly wrought and tightly structured.

Dyer records the use of statues of unknown soldiers (“they are all over the country, these Tommies”) and how, “rotted by pollution, powerless to protect themselves, their only defence, like that of the blind, is our respect.”

The most common form of sculpture – a soldier, head bowed, leaning on his downward-pointed rifle – actually represents the self-contained ideal of remembrance: the soldier being remembered and the soldier remembering. Sculptures like this appeal to – and are about – the act of remembrance itself: a depiction of the ideal form of the emotion which looking at them elicits.

Similarly, “at the Cenotaph it is the act of remembering together that is being remembered.”

My usual method when reading a book is to mark the page margins with a pencil at a notable passage. Here there were so many – barely a page unmarked – that the best way of reviewing the book would be simply to type it all out again. In a sense this is what Dyer has done. The Missing of the Somme is peppered with material from other texts – the notes cite some 300 quotations and sources in a 130-page book – but it is Dyer’s triumph to bring all the elements together in an elegiac whole. This also provides a handy source of other books I now need to read, such as Henri Barbusse’s 1916 novel Under Fire, which exemplifies one of Dyer’s central ideas. Here, French troops discuss the bombardments they are enduring in the trenches.

‘It’ll be no good telling about it, eh? They wouldn’t believe you; not out of malice or through liking to pull your leg, but because they couldn’t … No one can know. Only us.’

‘No, not even us, not even us!’ someone cried.

‘That’s what I say too. We shall forget – we’re forgetting already, my boy!’

‘We’ve seen too much to remember.’

‘And everything we’ve seen was too much. We’re not made to hold it all. It takes its bloody hook in all directions. We’re too little to hold it.’

The key here is that the war was, in certain respects, being remembered even before it was fought. When Siegfried Sassoon suggested that Wilfred Owen change ‘Dead’ in the title of his poem from ‘Anthem for Dead Youth’ to ‘Doomed’, it became a memorial “to those who are going to have died.” Similarly, I was surprised to learn that Laurence Binyon’s famous ‘For the Fallen’ –

They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them

– was written in September 1914: “before the fallen actually fell.”

‘For the Fallen’, in other words, is not a work of remembrance but of anticipation, or more accurately, the anticipation of remembrance: a foreseeing that is also a determining. … We will remember them.