Farcical but clever entertainment.
The Scotsman (1919)
Those who hate war plays need have no fear of this one, for there is no allusion to the horrors of the campaign. On the contrary, it is chock-full, so far as the fighting men are concerned, of that spirit of devil-may-care that carried us through the great trial.
Aberdeen Press and Journal (1926)
A review of a film of Alf’s Button said it was ‘pleasantly reminiscent of The Brass Bottle’. And certainly there’s more than an echo of F. Anstey’s 1900 tale of the genie-in-the-bottle being called on to serve an ’umble Cockney, with comic consequences. The key difference is that W.A. Darlington’s novel is set in the trenches of the Western Front.
Which doesn’t seem – a century on – to be an obvious setting for a bit of light, whimsical comedy.
But what do I know? I didn’t serve in the Great War, and William Darlington did. He was wounded at Arras. And there were veterans of the Western Front who swore that this book was ‘the best impression of what routine trench life was like for the ordinary soldier’.
So the story – for want of a better word – is that Aladdin’s lamp, long since assumed to have been lost, has actually been melted down, and a bit of it turns up as a button on a uniform issued to a soldier named Alf Higgins, currently residing in a trench somewhere in France. When he tries to polish the dull-looking button, there appears a genie called Abdulzirrilajeeb (who he swiftly renames Eustace), ready to do his bidding.
But, inevitably, there are misunderstandings. When Alf asks, quite reasonably, to be protected from German shells and bullets, Eustace the genie conjures up the suit of armour worn by the legendary King Uz. Not only is this entirely unsuitable in the circumstances, but – it being late at night – the noise of the armour falling to the ground as it materializes is mistaken for the gong that is struck to signify a gas attack. The alarm spreads quickly:
The Bosche, seeing the commotion in our lines, had sprung to arms; and both sides stood tense, each convinced that the other was going to make a surprise attack. A heavy fusillade with rifles and machines guns, rifle grenades and trench mortars began, and in its turn spread along the lines with great swiftness. Then somebody put up an SOS flare, and the guns, which had only been waiting for this invitation, joined in. For the next few minutes the Messina earthquake or an eruption of Vesuvius would have been welcomed.
As I say, it’s not necessarily what we’d see as the stuff of comedy. Treating an artillery barrage as a comic misunderstanding does not sit comfortably in the modern world; it’s much more disturbing than, say, the satire of Blackadder Goes Forth, with its explicitly anti-war message.
Anyway, Alf realizes he’s out of his depth. Confused about how to handle Eustace, he shares his situation with a friend, Bill Grant, and the two privates embark upon their adventures. The misunderstandings, however, continue. The problem is one of scale: all they want a few home comforts, but the genie is used to indulging the whim of potentates used to wielding absolute power. In anticipation of departing for a month’s leave at home, for example, they ask for a house in the country; Eustace offers to build ‘a palace like unto that of Aladdin, or even more richly bedight still,’ and has to be put right: ‘Palaces ain’t the fashion now.’
Even scaled back, the mansion they end up with for their stay in Blighty is still spectacular enough to attract great suspicion in the neighbourhood. The local villagers are convinced that the servants are ‘a lot o’ ’eathen foreign nigger German spies getting’ ready to murder us all in our beds under our noses’. And even though Alf adds a homely touch to the exotic décor – ‘a glaring lithograph depicting a dog of no known breed being mauled by a small child apparently in the advanced stages of scarlet fever’ – the gentry remain unimpressed: ‘It’s rather dreadful that a common little uneducated Cockney like that should have all that money.’
So difficult is their home-leave that Alf actively welcomes his return to France: ‘He could slip back thankfully into his old routine as an unconsidered cog in an enormous machine, and be lost in the friendly obscurity.’
Some of the comedy is too broad to survive, but there’s a lot of good stuff in here. Why is the Regimental Sergeant-Major more important in a private’s life than is the Colonel? Because the latter is ‘a mere abstraction. The RSM overshadowed him much as, in the eyes of unimaginative heathens, the priest overshadows the deity whose minster he is.’
And what happens when an RSM is promoted to become an officer? He gets carried away, and takes unnecessary risks: ‘Stories of Stockley’s daredevil deeds and hairbreadth escapes were circulating freely about the battalion, and the more Bill heard the less he liked the prospect of venturing into the line under the leadership of such a firebrand.’ (I can’t help thinking that this is what Bulldog Drummond’s men really thought of him.)
Best of all amongst the portraits of Army types, is Colonel Watts, a surprisingly savage portrayal:
Some time before the war broke out he had retired from a very long and incredibly undistinguished military career with the rank of major, and had devoted himself to bullying his meek wife and generally making her life a misery.
He re-enlists on the outbreak of hostilities, but his fellow officers find him so objectionable that he’s not allowed to join his unit in France. Instead he’s kicked upstairs to command the reserve battalion back home.
The civilians that our two heroes meet in England are equally well observed. There’s a vicar’s wife who spends her time grovelling to the lady of the manor, and not being put off by the other’s near-contempt: ‘snubs and slights slid off her back like butter from a hot stove, and she continued on every possible occasion to absorb large quantities of blacking from Lady Anderson’s shoes.’
And there’s Alf’s father ‘who might be described politically as being a half-baked semi-socialist’, and is always keen to talk about ‘Capital’ and its attempts ‘to defraud Labour’. As he rants, his wife, ‘a stout lady of placid appearance, was lulling herself peacefully to sleep in a rocking-chair, soothed by her husband’s voice as much as by the motion’.
Both Alf and Bill are terrified by women – even when the women in question are beautiful, scantily clad slaves, eager to please their masters. ‘Get those shameless ’ussies out o’ my room,’ protests Alf, while Bill won’t tolerate their assistance when he tries to bathe: ‘None of your disrespectable foreign ways for me! Why, I’ve never been washed by a female since my old mother used to give me a bath when I was a nipper!’
And it’s not just them. Despite pressure from the villagers, the local policeman in England is scared to intervene in the two men’s domestic arrangements because ‘they say that the maids in this ’ere ’ouse is niggers, an’ none too respectable at that. ’Orrible things might ’appen.’
Eventually, Bill manages to overcome his natural modesty, and starts to enjoy the attentions of a slave he names Lucy: ‘I’m thinkin’ of marryin’ Lucy, I am. She’s just what I want in a wife – she can’t answer me back, an’ the more beer I drinks the better she seems to like it.’ Apart from anything else, Lucy ‘had never advised him to boil his head’.
But really, the only woman he can cope with is the old lady who sends books over to him, hoping that they ‘may bring you some cheer in the midst of your terrible troubles’.
Darlington’s approach was ‘to tell one lie,’ noted The Times, ‘and thereafter to stick to the truth’. And it’s the little details that are revealing. After the artillery barrage that was inadvertently caused by the suit of armour, ‘the only casualty was a man who was hit in the arm by a shell-splinter, and departed for “Blighty” openly exulting in his good fortune.’
At one point, Alf gets so despondent that Bill tries to help: ‘If you feel as bad as all that, for ’eving’s sake ’ave a good cry and get it over, an’ let’s ’ave the old ’ome ’appy once again.’ Alf doesn’t take up the suggestion, but it is there as a way of coping – and it’s the first time that any of the books I’ve been reviewing in this series has raised the idea of men crying.
Occasionally, just occasionally, the comic mask is lifted and there are some jaw-dropping glimpses of the war. In an early moment of bravado, the men request the company of a woman, and Eustace whisks a young socialite named Isobel FitzPeter off a London park and deposits her in their trench. Through her eyes, we see out across No Man’s Land:
It was as though the earth had been some stricken monster, which had stiffened into death in the very midst of the maddened writhings of its last agony. For the most part it was a land without landmarks – a land featureless, but torn and tortured, poisoned and pulverized, where the eye could find no certain resting-place and the mind no relief. On every side lay the same desolate waste, pockmarked with shell-holes, each of which was filled with stagnant and stinking water, on the surface of which was an oozing and foetid scum.
The passage ends with one of the best uses of bathos I’ve ever read:
Once, no doubt, the road had run between fields green with grass or young corn; but now it seemed to Isobel beyond imagining that life would ever again come near to it. Even the vilest weed might shudder to grow on earth’s dead body, mangled and corrupted and shamelessly exposed.
Alf’s voice broke the silence.
‘It’s a bit dull ’ere, miss.’
Actually, that’s not quite the end of the passage; Darlington goes on to spell out the point, which really isn’t necessary – when you can write like that, you don’t have to explain yourself.
Darlington tried and failed to repeat the success of Alf’s Button. But he became well known as theatre critic of the Daily Telegraph, taking up the job in 1920 and remaining there right through to 1968, retiring the day after the Lord Chamberlain’s writ ceased to rule the London stage.
Maybe the lack of other comic titles is why the book is largely forgotten, and, as far as I can tell, isn’t celebrated as a war novel. More likely it’s because jokes, broad humour and comic resignation don’t fit our image of the Great War. Where’s the misery, the bitterness, the anger at the folly of staff officers and politicians?
At the time, though, it was considered very funny indeed. ‘We started reading, solemnly and gloomily, at ten pm,’ ran one review; ‘at midnight we were found helpless on the floor, shrilling forth great peals of laughter.’
The book was a major success, selling quarter of a million copies by the end of 1925. It was filmed in 1920, again in 1930 and finally – with the Crazy Gang – as Alf’s Button Afloat in 1938. A stage adaptation was also a big hit, revived frequently in the inter-war years: the actor Lockwood West (father of Timothy) made his debut in a Margate production in 1926, and Dirk Bogarde appeared in an amateur production whilst still at school.