Owen Sheers on In Parenthesis

On 10 July 1916, the 15th battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers attacked Mametz Wood in northern France. Their assault was part of the recently launched Somme offensive, and followed the now familiar method of British attacks over this period. Walking in four lines across a no man’s land of thistles, wild flowers, self-sown mustard and wheat, the men of the 15th slowly advanced into sweeping machine gun fire and artillery. As conscripted soldiers, the strategy behind their offensive was no more sophisticated than that they outnumbered their professional German counterparts three to one. By the time they reached the wood that advantage had already been reduced by a third.

Among the infantrymen taking part in the attack that day was a young Londoner of Welsh descent called David Jones. At 20 years old, Private Jones was an aspiring artist with no intention of becoming a writer. Twelve years later, however, it would be with a pen, not a paintbrush, that he would sit on the balcony of his parents’ house in Portslade, near Hove, and try to “make a shape in words” of his wartime experience.

Over the following three years, that “shape in words” grew into what WH Auden called “the greatest book about the first world war”; the extraordinary and unique In Parenthesis. Part-biography, part-fiction, the book is a lyrical epic that traces, via an alter-ego called John Ball, the contours of Jones’s own wartime journey, from his embarkation for France in 1915 to the Somme in 1916.

Owen Sheers in The Guardian in June 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/jun/25/in-parenthesis-no-longer-who-was-the-author-of-the-greatest-poem-of-the-first-world-war

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