I’ve had mixed personal responses, though always negative, to Gove’s expressed views throughout the day. As I dislike him intensely for a wide variety of reasons, I have my immediate prejudices. I also initially reacted to a report on what Gove had said, and then the rebut from his political Education counterpart and the academic historian Tristram Hunt in today’s Observer. I have subsequently read other commentaries as well as Gove’s original observations in The Mail titled Why does the Left insist on belittling true British heroes?
Then I happened to listen to Springsteen’s The Wall from his latest album High Hopes, officially released on the 14th. The song’s lyric was written in 1997 after Springsteen had visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC, and it refers to Walter Cichon, the leader of a rock band the Motifs with whom Springsteen had grown up and who also had inspired him as a musician. Cichon was drafted to Vietnam in 1967 and reported as missing in action in 1968.
It is a lyric that works because it is honest. It is neither melodramatic nor maudlin. It seems misplaced in one sense to comment on the music, but it is perhaps the strongest track on the album because it is so simple and straightforward, a plaintive ballad sung in Springsteen’s inimitable drawl that exudes realism and thus that honesty of believable reflection and commentary. The poignant line And apology and forgiveness have no place here at all answers, to a degree, the rather false argument that Gove has tried to present, false because his motives are so suspect.
Gove’s polemic, or diatribe really, gets off to an appalling start where his premise seems to be that as young people are turning to and enjoying the study of History in school – the tacit reason being his reforms to the curriculum – they now need to be enthused by only the right [no pun intended] History. Apart from the implicit self-aggrandisement of the assertion, what follows is perhaps the best [meaning worst] example of rewriting History as Gove attacks the ‘prism of dramas’ that have represented the First World War in popular culture – naming Oh What a Lovely War and Blackadder - demonstrating whilst he does so a complete lack of appreciation for the meaning and purpose of satire, or more generally the intention of art to interpret and reflect. It isn’t a prism that distorts: it is another glass or perhaps mirror through which to observe or to reflect with a view. But I’ll have to stop this analysis [which has been additional to my initial writing] as the Springsteen lyric is being moved further and further down the page!
Of course there is and must be a place for critical and philosophical reflection, debate and analysis of The First World War as all others, but it wasn’t Gove’s intention to promote this as an alternative to what he attacks as an unacceptable and erroneous approach. It was more to take a pathetic swipe at an ‘artistic’ reflection, debate and argument about a war, a creative impulse and methodology he simply cannot comprehend – unless it is Shakespeare, presumably, affirming an English and therefore righteous ‘victory’ [and thus Gove ignoring Shakespeare’s other more philosophical, and poetic, reflections on war and death].
Cigarettes and a bottle of beer
This poem that I wrote for you
This black stone and these hard tears
Are all I’ve got left now of you
I remember you in your Marine uniform, laughing
Laughing that you’re shipping out probably
I read Robert McNamara says he’s sorry
Your high boots and strap t-shirt
Ah Billy you looked so bad
Yeah, you and your rock and roll band
They were the best thing this shit-town ever had
Now the men who put you here
Eat with their families in rich dining halls
And apology and forgiveness have no place here at all
At the wall
I’m sorry I missed you last year
Couldn’t find no one to drive me
If your eyes could cut through that black stone
Tell me would they recognise me?
For the living time that must be served
As the day goes on
Cigarettes and a bottle of beer
Skin on black stone
On the ground dog-tags and wreaths of flowers
With the ribbons red as the blood
Red as the blood you spilled
In the Central Highlands mud
Limousines rush down Pennsylvania Boulevard
Rustling the leaves as they fall
And apology and forgiveness have no place at all
And this lyric is more about sentiment and ideas than poetry: it is in the performance as a song with Springsteen's delivery that it forms the 'artistic' commentary on an aspect of war.