Sunday, 16 February 2014

Penguin no. 2140: Henry's War
by Jeremy Brooks

Cover drawing by Charles Raymond
He had been in London too long. The place was beginning to take on that nightmarish quality, in which every face looks maddeningly familiar, every sentence seems to have been said a dozen times before, every establishment to be a slavish echo of its fellows. This pub, now that he reviewed it dispassionately, was clearly no worse than any of his own locals...Nevertheless it was ghastly. In it could be seen every manifestation of the Great Sin of London: waste: waste of time, waste of money, waste of effort, waste of imagination, waste of human ingenuity...The horrible murals were a waste of talent, paint, and good wall-space, the customers were a waste of what must have been good human material.

Perhaps Henry's war is the one which his government has initiated by invading the Castillian Islands, and for which he has been called up to fight. Henry has no intention of taking part; the five years he has already spent in the army have left him with an abhorrence of violence and an unwavering conviction that he will never again participate in any activity which requires him to take another person's life.

Or perhaps his war is the more immediate struggle he faces each day as he works in his small London flat to complete his sixth book detailing the adventures in far-warmer climes of Peter Colchester and his adversary Krossov. Henry, known to his readers as Henry Hywel Hughes, writes thrillers, and he must complete his current project if he is to earn some money and repay the publisher's advance. But Henry is suffering some type of mental block and he knows his recent efforts have lacked quality. It seems to be part of a general torpor which has settled upon him lately, and which has him seeing the world differently, and finding fault in things which previously left him unconcerned.

I suspect the war of the title is probably a reference to an even more private battle, for Henry is fighting for the right to be independent, to live by his own conscience and to not feel compelled to abide by the strictures of others; it is a battle he must fight against his government, who would compel him to fight when he would choose otherwise, and against friends who insist he must agree with them, and condition his behaviour accordingly, or justify his refusal. In considering Henry's friends, this story seems to be examining a kind of progressive mindset which knows nothing of pluralism; it is about people who cannot abide those who refuse to agree with them.

Henry is just the opposite. He is unperturbed by the fact that he looks upon things differently from others, and he feels no need to impose his views upon them, or to call them to account for their differing ideas. His is a struggle for freedom, and so far he has achieved it only in his working life. As the writer of reasonably-successful thrillers he has freed himself from routine, and can structure his days as he pleases. This is typically to rise at midday, to work on his latest thriller until a lunchtime which he schedules in the early evening, and then to devote his nights to the consumption of beer.

The first skirmish in Henry's war of independence is fought against his fiancé Veronica, a woman devoted to good deeds who considers him to be a deserving case; she is keen to rescue him from what she perceives as his indolent ways and from friendships of which she doesn't approve. Leaving her turns out to be a simple matter, for she will brook no opposition. When Henry contradicts her in public, their relationship ends.

The problem is more complex with his lifelong friend Charlie Evans. Evans is also opposed to the war, and he and Henry initially seek to evade their recall to the army by decamping together to Wales. But when Russia starts offering support to the Castillian rebels, Charlie decides that he must fight. He may not approve of the actions of his government, but he insists that, notwithstanding his aversion to killing, Henry is morally compelled to join in the battle against the spread of Communism for the sake of humanity. Henry doesn't see it that way.

There is nothing noble about Henry's choices or his behaviour, except that he is willing to accept the consequences of his decisions. And there are no real answers offered to the difficult questions considered here, only an examination of the differing ways in which people think and behave. Veronica and Charlie were both opposed to the war and determined to do something about it, but their actions achieved nothing. Not one of the three made any difference at an individual level, but it is not at an individual level that these things are determined.

On the surface this is an amusing story about an unheroic man who prefers the world of his imagination, of easily identifiable heroes and villains, and simple solutions, to the complex reality of the world in which he lives. But this simple story is told against a background which explores the complex issues of the time, and considers how an individual might or should respond. I found it entertaining, but confusing, because the author explores issues around personal liberty and collective responsibility, without suggesting any answers.

First published by Macmillan 1962. Published by Penguin Books 1964.

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