World Wars and Waterland

Barry J. Fishman '89

World War I, World War II, and the French Revolution are all subjects that Tom Crick would be expected to cover in his History class. World War III is not. Graham Swift's novel Waterland discusses the nature of these conflicts in terms of a high school syllabus, in terms of society, and most significantly in terms of family, for Waterland is really a novel about the history of families.

Right from the start Tom's tale is interrupted by the forces of war. Even as Tom, Dick, and Henry Crick ponder what to do about the body of Freddie Par in the sluice gate, the "roar of ascending bombers" echoes over the barren landscape. (p.3) Tom knows that the war is being fought but claims that "except for the Lancasters and B24's which favoured for their roosts the flat and strategic country of East Anglia, no hint of this universal strife reached us in our Fenland backwater." (p.21) Tom could mean this in only the most superficial of senses, for his father still bears the wounds of World War I and in three short years he will be in uniform himself.

Tom's service in His Majesty's Army on the Rhine in World War II leaves a deep impression on him, as he writes in a letter to Mary. "He describes, with faltering eloquence, gutted cities, refugees, soup kitchens, mass graveyards, bread queues. He attempts to explain how these things have given him a new perspective, have made events by the River Leem seem, perhaps . . . Though he leaves out how they have deepened his desire to fathom the secrets of History and aroused, moreover, a belief in Education." (p.90) It is the ruins that Tom sees in Germany that teach him how fragile a thing civilization really is. (After reading all of Swift's works, one can't help but wonder if Tom ever met Harry Beech, the main character of Out of This World while in Germany.)

Certain recurring images of war are found throughout Swift's works. The most prominent of these is mud. "The wide world is drowning in mud," says Tom of World War I, "Who will not know the mud of Flanders? Who will not feel in this twentieth century of ours, when even a teenage schoolboy will propose as a topic for a history lesson the End of History, the mud of Flanders sucking at his feet?" (p.15) In Out of This World Harry Beech is taken by his father to a reunion of World War I veterans: "many men . . . drive to some inexplicable places in the middle of muddy fields (there was much talk about mud -- 'the mud')." (OTW p.207)

Waterland moves beyond its discussion of World Wars I and II to consider the fears of the current young generation, "even a teenage schoolboy." Price's fear is representative of his classmates' fear of World War III, and his Holocaust Club is a child's way of venting fear. Tom Crick the History teacher encourages this fear, helping the children to express it and bring it out into the open where it can be discussed. It is the discussion led by Tom under the umbrella of History that helps to put all past wars into perspective and brings his class forward to the point of understanding the importance of remembering and the importance of history.

Tom and Lewis, the Headmaster, face off over Tom's departure from the syllabus. The differences between Lewis and Tom illustrate Swift's feelings about children. (These views are also expressed in "The Tunnel" and "Gabor".) Lewis's approach to World War III is to install a 'domestic fallout shelter' (p.18), "For the kids, you know, for the kids' sake." The headmaster's approach to fallout is identical to his approach to education. One must do things for the children on the assumption that they cannot work things out themselves. As headmaster, Lewis is entrusted by society to make these types of decisions for the children. His attitudes reflect those of society, while Tom's views reflect Swift's. Tom asks Lewis, "Do you believe in children?" (p.117) Tom believes that you cannot hide the discussion of war from children. In fact, Waterland is directly addressed to children, presented as a discourse between teacher and pupils.

War in Waterland is discussed both in terms of the past and in terms of fear for the future. The discussion of war is closely linked to the discussion of history and the belief that society must learn what has gone before in order to better prepare for and mold the future. The future for Swift belongs not to adults, but to children.

United Kingdom