PAT MILLS – JOE
COLQUHOUN – CHARLEY’S WAR – RETURN TO THE FRONT
Back to the front means back to
the sliced up story with no unity, no objective and no real ideology. Before
leaving London for instance, Charley bangs up his brother-in-law he finds involved
in an Royal Air Force petrol stealing operation with the accompliceship of a pilot
who crashes his plane on a tree so that the petrol can be stolen (note this is
absolutely improbable). Charley is satisfied with banging up his brother-in-law
and sending him to hospital instead of reporting him as he should have done. There
is in this vignette or cameo a very sad element that the author did not exploit,
,probably such a scam never existed. Charley is in fact becoming an accomplice
of the crime which is pure high treason. That makes the comic strip difficult
to believe: too much suspension of disbelief.
This volume, back at the front,
is centered on Captain Snell who has taken over Charley’s company. This officer
is a bad officer. We learn later that he is the son of a mine-owning family in Wales and he
has had some experience as a mine engineer in South African mines, in other
words mines with black slaves rather than unionized workers. But there is no
depth in the characterization of that man and in the pranks some men, Charley
among others, are performing. A bad officer is a bad officer. It is slightly
vain if you just play the Mickey out of him, now and then.
So this volume is an exploded plate
of comic shrapnel and we are reduced to looking for interesting elements. There
are a few because there always are a few gems in a cesspool of mud and muck, in
a shell hole, be it only the rotting bodies at the bottom of it since they are
the martyrs of this absurd war.
Captain Snell tells Charley, who
he has turned into his servant, one night at dinner: “Speak properly, Bourne! I find your cockney accent rather GRATING!”
Finally a mention of
cockney, the particular dialect of London
’s East End
. But never in the whole comic strip have I found
any use, let alone systematic use, of cockney. Actually Charley had said just
before, a remark that prompted Captain Snell’s reaction: “Pudding coming up in a tick, Sir!”
use of “tick” is by far not even a cockney specialty. That’s a real problem in
this comic strip. The language is standard English, British English if you
please, and nothing but a popular brand of some Queen’s English or Oxford
English. We do not
see, hear or feel the various dialects of these Britishers who come from all
over the British Isles
. A lot there is
missing. Where is your research Sir, Mister Pat Mills?
In the same way, the officers are
supposed to speak the type of language that is aristocratic in words, sounds
and sentences, never do so. It is extremely rare for us to find one allusion to
this aristocratic language of officers and their aristocratic origins. I found
one instance page “unnumbered,” episode “unnumbered,” find it if you can: “Raathaar! They won’t stand a chaaance against county men!”
That is rather little and officers speak just the same language as even Charley
from the London East End.
A quick meeting with some Australians,
before they are blown into smithereens on the next page by some bomb, tells us
they call this war “THE BUTCHER’S PICNIC.” But that is rather little. It
goes along with reading the name of the city of Ypres “Wipers,”
but once again that is little. Linguistically that comic strip is not
believable: it does not really reflect the linguistic situation in the British
army in this World War One. Even the few German or French phrases used here and
there are not exactly correct or accurate and they are anyway anecdotic.
But the slicing up of the story
leads the author to a very repetitive cyclical humdrum ritual of giving over
and over again some details from previous episodes necessary in a new episode
for us to understand. In other words the episodes were published as a serial
and the comic book has not even been corrected of these repetitive and now
useless rituals. If the comic strip had been conceived to be published as a
book, it would have been one thousand percent better to have these recalling
notes as footnotes at the bottom of a box or of a page, but not in the main
captions of the boxes themselves. The way things are presented sounds very
opportunistic as for publishing the book and in the end it is amateurish.
Another detail that is used only
once, though it could have been used a lot more is Back Slang on page “unnumbered”,
in episode “unnumbered.” The author gives us an explanation of course, plus an example
so that we can enjoy the two bubbles using that back slang for the first time,
and probably for the last time too. First the explanation and example:
was an INSULT language. The first letter of a word was put at the end
and an “A” added. For example: fool – oolfa chump – humpca.”
He forgot one thing and his
description is deficient. Here is the best I have found, but there are many
types of back-slang, this one is closest to the one Pat Mills uses.
There are many forms of back-slang but West Midlanders pride
themselves as being aficionados.
In this part of the country, as for others, back-slang
consists of taking each first letter of a word and putting it at the end of
that word. e.g. girl becomes irlg.
Then a letter 'a' (pronounced ay) is added
to the end of each word.
Then, irlg becomes irlga (sounded as irlg-ay).
For single letter words such as 'I' the 'ay' sound is simply
added at the end of the word - Ia (I -ay). The letter 'a' itself just has
another -ay sound added: a-ay.
For you as 'posh girls' from West Sussex, back-slang would be:
"Eway llaay omecay romefay Estway Ussexsay." (We
all come from East Sussex). Note that I have used
the 'ay' sound to help in speaking, although in writing, just a letter 'a'
would usually suffice. The written message below contains the 'ay' sound to
Odgay, ouyay eallyray oday ucksay - utbay
otna ustjay taay anguageslay!
Then the two bubbles:
“ottenra reepca! nowka hatwa ouya anca oda?”
“ticksa your cream cakes pua ourya ostrilna!”
You are totally justified in
noticing the politeness of such insults and “ostrilna” is quite polite for what
would really have been said but the expected word stating with “A” the back-slang
word would have been more difficult to produce: “SSA-A.” With the pronunciation
suggested by the description of back-slang I just gave it would have been easy
to have “SSA-A” pronounced SSA-ay.” It would also have been more explicit with “SSHOLA-ay.”
That’s surprising because that reveals the desire of the author to remain
within some strict moral standards, even in simple language. He is writing for a
family audience, or at least for children who are reading the comic strip
within a family circle and under family scrutiny.
Now what is remarkable about this
I will take only one instance to
show how ambiguous everything is. Charley has been seen so far as a chap who
helps the weaker. We are not surprised when an intellectual draftee (in other
words someone who was a university student and who did not volunteer but waited
for the draft to bring him in) is victimized and bullied by one brutal survivor
of the Battle of the Somme because he did not volunteer and thus tried to dodge
the military service everyone should have volunteered for. The bullying is
extreme and Charley is getting in between the intellectual and the bully. We
say or think that Charley is doing good and that the author is also doing good.
But the author chooses to turn
the tables around. Here are the bubbles of this intellectual in the last
think you’re being too hard on Mister Snell, Charley. He’s been very helpful to
me. He helped me fill my application to be an OFFICER.”
Snell feels. . . with my education. . . I’m destined for better things. Anyone
can carry a rifle, but it takes someone with brains to be in charge. . . I’m
more suited to commanding other people.”
Grogan’s dead [Grogan was the bully] I can achieve my full potential.”
behaviour! when I become an officer I won’t stand for that sort of things!”
Charley reacts twice to this
discourse. The first time in his own mind:
I was wrong about Grogan. Maybe the scholar needed a good hiding. And if I hadn’t
interfered and protected him, Grogan would still be alive.”
And the second time aloud:
not an officer yet, Scholar, so shut up.”
Most surviving intellectuals, poets, writers
or others were severely against the war after it was concluded, some even
turned communists because of it. But that did not mean they refused to do their
“duty,” though I would consider deserting or dodging the draft would have been
a politically correct position in front of this useless “Butcher’s Picnic.” The
author here is ostracizing poets, intellectuals, is being hostile against them
because of their education and nothing else. If it were a question of color of
skin or ethnic origin, we would speak of racism. In this case is pure
And it implies the idea that dodging
the draft or deserting actually is not a conscientious objection act but
nothing but high treason. Where is the author’s opposition to the war?
It is all the more surprising
because the author pretended in the introduction of the first volume that the
comic strip was against the war. It sounds as if the author were settling personal
accounts or business. He is neither objective nor “politically correct” from his
own point of view since he justifies the worst part of this war: the fact that
any opposition was considered as treason, and since intellectuals were hostile
to it around 1917 onward he depicts one intellectual as the vainest inhuman and
inhumane condescending narrow mind with no different alternative. This comic
strip was not good as for these details when it was first published, but it is
very bad now in the 21st century.
Dr Jacques COULARDEAU