Scholarly review of A PRIDE OF POPPIES

We were delighted to see a very thorough review by Marie Ramsland of our Great War charity anthology A PRIDE OF POPPIES in the ISAA Review volume 15 number 2 of 2016. This came about because the anthology’s editor, Julie Bozza, is still a member of the Independent Scholars Association of Australia (ISAA) despite her years of living in the UK.

We felt the review was worth sharing with you in full, though please be warned that some of the following remarks about story arcs are spoilers.

Review by Marie Ramsland

For a long time, homosexuality was heavily punished. Often withdrawal from society was the only safeguard. Yet male camaraderie during the war was encouraged by military authorities, encouraging male bonding. Most of the time this was platonic; sometimes more intimate relationships were experienced. Silence or denial is generally no longer needed for such emotions. Therefore, with the centenary of the Great War well underway, this special anthology is a welcome contribution. The stories deal with the impact of war not only in the battle arenas, but also at home, for women and men, parents, siblings and friends. The hurdles the protagonists have to overcome to realise ‘happiness’ or even some sort of individual fulfilment are set up by contemporary social mores supported strongly by religious beliefs. Credibility is enhanced by real locations and lived experience.

Each story offers something special, revealing human weaknesses and strengths that unite us all, creating equilibrium from dichotomy. They reveal aspects of not belonging to the conventionally accepted norm indicated by the anthology’s titles. Three stories stand out for their depth of characterisation: ‘Inside’ by Eleanor Musgrove; ‘A Rooted Sorrow’ by Adam Fitzroy; and Barry Brennessel’s ‘Anh Sang’.

Readers are taken ‘Inside’ Alexandra Palace in north London set up as an internment camp for Germans, Austrians and Hungarians on British soil, citizens and visitors. Life is hard for all, more for the homosexual: ‘… you have to snatch your tender moments when you can … I hope, after the war, things will be easier’.

Fitzroy’s story is set in an English village where attitudes are imbedded in daily life, but love proves stronger than convention. It deals with strong relationships – mother/son, lovers – and the healing power of memory. The powerful narrative, enriched by including several contemporary issues, compels the reader’s attention.

Set in Indochina, ‘Anh Sang’ shows how the French colonisers treated their subjects daily. Fifty thousand Indochinese served in France with heavy casualties. The protagonist avoids enlistment, while his lover is imprisoned but freed during an uprising. They stay together – in hiding, hoping for a better future.

The title of Isaac Rosenberg’s 1916 poem is used for ‘Break of Day in the Trenches’ by Jay Lewis Taylor:

Only a live thing leaps my hand –
A queer sardonic rat –
As I pull the parapet’s poppy
To stick behind my ear.

The rat symbolises neutrality; the poppy, the dead. Fear, discomfort, injury and death are conjured up in the opening paragraph. Two soldiers are trapped together after heavy bombardment, another is dead. When they manage to reach their trench, they are greeted by Private Rosenberg ‘wearing a fresh poppy tucked behind his right ear’. An ambiguous ending.

There are similarities with Charlie Cochrane’s ‘Hallowed Ground’ in which a soldier and a priest are caught in a shell hole. During a philosophical discussion, the priest raises immorality and states: ‘Perhaps I should have given in to these desires. Given in, confessed, allowed myself the chance of absolution. Then I wouldn’t risk dying not knowing’. The title’s significance is explained at the end.

Jay Lewis Taylor’s ‘At the Gate’ depicts life on board a vessel heading to the North Sea at the time of the Zeebrugge raid. Beginning with humour, the narrative is soon dominated by fear and grief as the ship encounters three mines. Self-survival and helping others become Sisyphus-like tasks, as is overcoming the loss of a lover.

From the Navy to the Royal Air Force: in ‘Per Ardua Ad Astra’ (RAF motto) by Lou Faulkner, pilot and observer share accommodation and efficient bonding that goes beyond expectations. Aerial activities are graphically depicted: gathering photographs ‘for the brass’, practice for their next assignment and an evening patrol. It features a ‘bloody’ Australian! Australian pilots were known for their ability and reckless courage. Another ambiguous ending.

Julie Bozza deals with intersexuality and the problems an individual faces on enlisting in the armed forces, beginning with the medical. Now an adult, the protagonist who could be considered in ‘No Man’s Land’ tells his doctor, who argues there are other ways of supporting the war effort: ‘I’m perfectly happy the way I am’. His partner is also against his enlisting believing war ‘destroys’ the soul. This belief comes from his war experience in South Africa. The story ends with the dilemma unresolved.

In contrast, but with similar stylistic devices, Bozza has a mail(wo)man as protagonist in the enigmatically titled ‘Lena and the Swan or, The Lesbian Lothario’, alluding to the Greek myth of Leda raped by Zeus and to Hans Christian Anderson’s ‘The Ugly Duckling’. These references are cleverly illustrated by answering the questions: ‘What do women at home do in wartime?’ and ‘What happens when the men return?’

Separated by war, two young men maintain contact in letters that pass scrutiny by the authorities although they contain personal coded messages. The leitmotif of remembering brings depth to the narration. The ending shows the strength of this relationship, in ‘I Remember’ by Wendy C. Fries. Sam Evans’ ‘Before and After’ contains the same themes: separation, loyalty, contributing on the home front, fear of loss and coping with injury.

Transgender is dealt with in Eleanor Musgrove’s ‘The Man Left Behind’ with Henri[y]etta finding her true self working on a farm with other women. This is also the case with the sister in Z. McAspurren’s ‘War Life’ with her employed in a munitions factory with women ‘doing their bit’, while the men, including her brother and his partner, are fighting for ‘King and Country’. Two voices create a balance: the sister freed by work and the brother’s memories give him the will to survive. Present and past, public and private are sensitively depicted from the brother’s perspective: ‘The world of trenches was almost colourless. After a while, all you saw were browns and greys, and the occasional, disheartening splash of red. Even that darkened to a brick brown after a while … Patrick had given his life some colour …’

These stories are entertaining and thought-provoking. A future anthology that includes both ‘gay’ and ‘straight’ fiction would testify to society’s regard for equality.

We’re sure our readers agree that even in the twenty-tens there is still a place – a need! – for LGBTQ+ anthologies, just as there is still a need for Pride parades. But as we hope this volume helps demonstrate, our society has made such great progress over the past century. Here’s hoping that in another century, our future friends will indeed consider such inequalities as historical.

Meanwhile! If this anthology sounds like your cup of tea, you can find the details for A PRIDE OF POPPIES on the Press website. All proceeds continue to be donated to The Royal British Legion.

3 thoughts on “Scholarly review of A PRIDE OF POPPIES”

  1. This is fabulous! I love it when reviewers do us the great courtesy of writing about a book in this kind of detail – that’s when you know you’ve really connected with a reader, and there probably isn’t a more satisfying feeling in the world…

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