Not just him. All of them. All of the ex-soldiers, standing begging in the street, boards tied around their necks. All of them reminding you of something that you want to forget. It went on long enough. She grew up under it, like a great squatting thing, leaching all the colour and joy from life.
She kicks her dance dress into the corner of the room.
The war’s over, why can’t all of them just bloody well move on?
Another World War One novel. I have already admitted to WW1 as some sort of ‘guilty pleasure’ within my reading habits. It occupies a twilight space in the formation of my understanding of the modern world. It is distant enough to be history, to appear strange and foreign. I marvel at the exotic brutality of the experience of young soldiers. Yet, I also remember seeing those young soldiers bowed by old age with poppies on Remembrance Sunday, fresh tears from old memories.
The above quote from Hettie (one of the three main characters in Wake) resonated. It made me think about how history, whilst presented as one grand narrative, can be experienced in any number of individual stories. I would argue that connecting those stories is a part of the role of the social policy academic. C Wright Mills (1970) suggested that there should be a triple focus within sociology of history, biography and structure. Plummer (2001) goes on to say that to look simply at structure denies human joy and suffering. In his plea for a critical humanism, he argues that social science should not champion “looking at the wonderful, solitary human being” but should recognise that one “cannot divorce them from the social, collective, cultural, historical moment” (Plummer, 2001: 7).
This is what this novel does. The title Wake is already indicative of a range of meanings. Wake is a verb that means to rise, to face a new day. As a noun it is the collective ritualised meet that cements bereavement, and the novel plays with those suggested meanings throughout. It does this through the consideration of three women in the aftermath of the war, facing loss as a sister, lover and mother. These stories provide a source of contrast. However, they in turn are contrasted with a detailed, meticulously researched account of the planning surrounding the funeral of the Unknown Soldier.
I was over-awed by the machinery of the state and its ability to carry out with precision such a complex plan. The soldier to be buried had to British, had to be from an unmarked grave and had to remain unknown. This meant that nobody could know exactly where the soldier had been recovered from. Separate teams identified different bodies, and from these one was chosen without knowledge of the previous operations. The level of concern to maintain the secrecy of the identity of a destroyed body could be read as a form of state compassion; the ambition to thank and respect all those who had lost their lives in one symbolic act of anonymity. There is something to be applauded in the ability of public service to operate so effectively and for such an important end. It could even be argued that the secrecy within the plan was both necessary and enacted with integrity.
However, the same apparatus that planned this operation was also behind the slaughter of millions. The efficiency of the state in peacetime was borne out of previous coercion and killing and secrecy of a different order.
I always write about a novel a short while after completing it. I wait to see what traces of the novel stay with me and how they make me think about the current context. And it is secrecy that I have returned to on this occasion. Because I have an interest in domestic violence, I know that secrets can play a range of roles. They are a part of coercion and shaming: “don’t tell anyone”, “no-one will believe you”. They are also part of escape: confidential helplines, refuge addresses, safe houses. Secrets are not inherently good or bad, but their outcomes are difficult to predict. In matters of state, just as in matters of the home (not a comparison I am always happy to make), it would be foolish to call for complete honesty in all circumstances. I am less impressed by calls for transparency, than I am by calls for compassion.
This novel gives us the well-planned national wake alongside the messy, complex outpouring of individual grief. Secrets played a part in all of the stories. Secrets continue to play a part in all aspects of personal, organisational and public life. This led me to undertake a literature search about secrets and social policy. Secret is an obviously tempting word. It appeared in a number of headlines about social issues. It was linked most usually with sexual abuse. It was also used as a sales pitch – I could have chosen to unlock the secrets of good research, good teaching, good analysis, good writing, etc. There was less about the role of secrets in the policy process. However, the search led me to discover a PhD thesis from University of California by Sarah Cowan (2013) Secrets and Social Influence. Looking at abortion, secrets and their impact on communication and understanding of an issue, this is what she found:
Though abortion is more common and affects more women than miscarriage, many more Americans report knowing someone who has had a miscarriage than an abortion. Furthermore, Americans who are anti-abortion are much less likely than their pro-choice peers to hear abortion secrets and as such think they do not know any woman who has had one. This is likely not the case. Rather, women who have had abortions and the people who know about the abortion elect to keep the abortion secret from people who may disapprove. As such, pro-choice Americans hear abortion secrets and perceive – and hence experience – a more diverse network than people who are anti-abortion and do not hear the secrets. (Cowan, 2013: 2)
It is not surprising that people are strategic in the disclosure of their secrets, but seeing it written down made an impact. I am a researcher. When people tell me their stories and their secrets – that is a privilege. Hearing stories that are different from my own gives me access to new forms of knowledge that I must find ways of explaining to others, to influence policy or practice. In my analysis, I need to understand why secrets have been shared and why they have taken the form that they have. I should also be aware that not all secrets are for my ears.
Bringing this back to the novel, Hettie is annoyed at her brother’s apparent inability to move on from his war experiences. He has not chosen to tell her what he has seen. At this point, she presumably does not want to know. In this case, he is entitled to his secrets and Hettie is entitled to her opinion. But I have read the whole novel and have some knowledge of all the characters’ secrets. Through the skills of the writer, I am allowed to piece together all the stories. This means I can ask different questions. Rather than asking “The war’s over, why can’t all of them just bloody well move on?” I can ask what can be done to make these stories known to others without disturbing someone’s privacy? I can ask what can be done so that justice can be served?
This is why reading novels and writing this blog matter to my professional life as well as my personal time. It is about using stories to understand the world and to challenge and refine my theoretical understandings of structure and power.
One of the values of human experience is that you learn from your own experience, as well as from that of others. Storytelling presents itself as an effective means of sharing experiences. The sharing of experiences must be aimed at creating a new existence based on the knowledge derived from that sharing. (Amoah, 2013: 88)
Amoah, J. “Narrative: The Road to Black Feminist Theory” Berkeley Journal of Gender, Law and Justice 12 (1) 84 – 102
Cowan, S. K. (2013) Secrets and Social Influence (PhD Thesis, University of California) https://escholarship.org/uc/item/1hf7s08s
Hope, A. (2014) Wake London: Penguin
Mills, C. W. (1970) The Sociological Imagination [2nd Edition] Harmondsworth: Penguin
Plummer, K. (2001) Documents of Life 2: An Invitation to Critical Humanism London: Sage