Strange Meeting – Susan Hill

SMI have been haunted by Wilfred Owen’s poem ‘Strange Meeting’ ever since I first heard it as set to music in Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem.

 I have also been interested in Susan Hill since I head her ‘In the Springtime of the Year’ about sudden death.

 We met to discuss this book in a city centre pub and many of out members, in their twenties, had never really thought about the Great War and found this book intensely moving and well-written.

 The author is good at scene-setting: where it becomes easier to sleep in the trenches than at home, the nightmares, shooting  is a skill but the bayonet is hated, the rotten trench smell, the orchard spoiled by the burned body of a pilot, men have ‘feelings’, letters waiting to be censored, singing on the way to the trenches but meeting a dispirited group coming in the opposite direction, Garret says that reconnaissance is a pointless strategy and a criminal waste of men but he is overruled, jokes among the men became childish or obscene as life became more tedious, Hilliard on a boat full of wounded men.

We see the fabled ineptness of management – people slept in a field as too many men were sent to same place. Half the men were lost because they hadn’t had an order telling them that the second push was cancelled. Half the artillery blew themselves up with their own guns because somebody hadn’t attended to them properly.

 Superstitions and folklore about: ‘Well be home before Christmas.” “You’ve had your wound now so you’re not due for another.”

We get to compare family backgrounds. Hilliard’s: the owl’s bones kept in a drawer, his mother wants to come with him to station, his amputated left leg.

Barton’s: Hilliard said he wouldn’t mind a shilling for every letter Barton had written. He has become callous and is still reading Browne, he is never ill and is now obsessed with a small injury to his foot. Barton has a Forster novel. He gets a telegram – David missing presumed dead.

The relationship is well portrayed: Barton is more self-possessed so he seems more mature despite being a year younger than Hilliard. Hilliard wants to go across to him as he did to his sister’s bed. Hilliard had pride, pleasure and love welling up but never said anything. Hilliard worried for Barton’s safety: a fear he had never known before. Barton says, ‘I love you.’ Hilliard responds, ‘Yes.’ Barton wished that Hilliard had no family so that he could bring him under the wing of his own. ‘I want to show you everything, have an outer circle of friends but things like this don’t happen often in a lifetime. Hilliard was filled with words he wanted to say, his head rang with them but he could say nothing. He recognises everything about Barton’s home.

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