Discovering ‘The Forgotten Army’ in Elvis over England

Discovering ‘The Forgotten Army’ in Elvis over England

“He revved the engine to the clear the way, and he saw them raise their glasses in the rear-view mirror, he felt like a conquering hero.” This extract is taken from Barry Hines’s last novel, Elvis over England, published in 1998. The novel centres on Eddie, and his journey of self discovery. As the extract emphasises, Eddie is the novel’s post-industrial “conquering hero”. This blog, however, will focus on another (anti)hero in the novel, Jack, Eddie’s stepfather, and a soldier in the “Forgotten Army”, in the process revealing some of the ways in which Hines read and utilised historical source materials.

Barry Hines is not known for writing about historical events. In fact, from reading the critics’ reviews of his novels a conclusion can be easily reached that Hines is hermetically sealed within contemporary South Yorkshire. However, the figure of the soldier allowed Hines to encounter different countries and to go beyond the histories found in his locale. The soldiers found in his works – in the text discussed here, Elvis over England; in novel and in film form in Looks and Smiles (1981); and in an unpublished work, Rosa – allowed him to travel across the boundaries of Barnsley and Sheffield to explore distant but analogous social and political landscapes.

In reading the research material connected to Elvis over England, retrieved from Hines’s own archive held at The University of Sheffield, we can see his creative process in detail and we can begin to trace the history behind the depiction of the soldier in the novel. Hines’s initial research notes illustrate his reliance on several published recollections of those who had witnessed the Second World War first hand.

The source of Hines’s initial inspiration for Jack can be found in a book by Ben Wicks entitled Welcome Home: True Stories of Returning from World War II, published in 1991. Wicks’s book details the thoughts and feelings of the women left on the home-front during World War II: the mothers, the wives, and the girlfriends of those facing the enemy. And one such wife, Elsie Moyer, was an invaluable source information for Hines. Elsie recounts how her husband was “captured in Torbruk [..] and spent three and half years in various POW camps in Italy and then Germany”. Hines was obviously inspired by Elsie’s history of her husband’s capture by the Nazis, and his subsequent return home after internment, because he copied her account verbatim in his research notes and subsequently placed his character within this scenario:

Jack called up in 1940. Married in 1939. Captured in Tobruk in N. Africa. Spent 3 ½ years in various POW camps in Italy then in Germany

Thus, Jack was initially conceived as a prisoner of war in Italy and then later in Germany. This early characterisation would not be realised in the finished novel, however, and from reading the research material we can decipher that Hines was subsequently drawn to another military figure; one that was not fighting in Europe at all.

Welcome Home, offers a panoramic perspective on warfare, and indeed, captivity. Wicks’s interspersing of diverse perspectives from the theatre of war must have influenced Hines to alter Jack’s initial storyline. In the section of Wicks’s book which features Elsie Moyer’s reflection on her husband’s return, there is a recollection from another wife of a service man – Rosina Smith. Like Elsie Moyer’s husband, Rosina Smith’s husband was also captured and then imprisoned by the enemy. However, Rosina’s husband was not fighting the Nazis; he was fighting another enemy on a different continent, the Japanese Imperial Army. As Rosina elaborates herself: “He landed in Singapore and was taken prisoner on 15 February 1942”. Hines did not use Rosina’s account as his basis for Jack’s characterisation yet he must have been drawn to Asia as a setting after reading her recollection of her husband’s return. From reading Hines’s own research, it would seem that the representation of the prisoner of war held captive by the Japanese army was not a subject that Hines was willing to integrate. But, this does not mean that Hines was not unsympathetic to those who had suffered under the Japanese during the war. Hines’s research reveals that he had a determined storyline for his soldier; a storyline which would articulate the dissatisfaction felt by victorious and hopeful servicemen who returned to an England unchanged.

The research notes for the novel also reference another book that Hines used, this time, however, it was one written by a soldier who took part in the Burma campaign. Richard Rhodes James was cipher officer in Burma during World War Two and he published his experiences of the campaign in 1980. Rhodes James’s Chandit describes in intricate detail the everyday existence of those who were part of Burma’s Forgotten Army. What Rhodes James’s recollection also provides is a narrative of the campaign that had been long overlooked. Although, Rhodes James was not captured by the enemy, his memoir details the ferocity of the Japanese army and how perilous fighting in Burma was at that time. Moreover, Hines’s research notes from Chandit show that the conditions in which the Forgotten Army fought were unimaginably demanding and horrific. In one particular note taken from Chandit, Hines breaks down the distinct hardships that those serving in Burma faced; it reads as follows: “humidity, jungle, heavy packs, heat stroke, malaria”. It would seem that Hines was drawn to the suffering that soldiers endured while fighting the Japanese army. Not only were the soldiers of the Forgotten Army facing a ferocious and almost unconquerable enemy, they were also battling the conditions found within the Burmese jungle.

Hines would go on to detail the horrors faced by those fighting the Japanese Imperial Army in Burma via Jack’s narrative in the published novel. But Jack’s story is contained within another narrative schema, one that details a voyage of self-discovery and a coming to terms with past events. Ironically, but not necessarily deliberately, Hines almost camouflages the historical significance of his chronicling of the Forgotten Army. However, what does arise from Hines’s writing of Jack is that the figure of the soldier offered Hines a way into dormant historical narratives of working-class struggle.

by Rachel Hughes

Rachel is a PhD student in The School of English at The University of Sheffield. Rachel’s research explores Hines’s lost and unpublished works through the lens of ‘unspeakable masculinities’.

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