|This is the cover from the 2012 Penguin reprint
with an introduction by Julian Barnes
I first read Parade’s End when I was thirteen and in the throes of an obsession with World War One literature. I’d devoured all the war poetry I could get my hands on, read Birdsong in one long and distressing night – it had only just been published if I remember rightly – and I was on the hunt for more. I mentioned what I was doing to one of my teachers – yes I was that sort of teenager, you can imagine how well I got along with the popular girls – and said I was at an impasse as to what to read next.
He recommended Parade’s End and I will, forever, be in his debt.
Because this book speaks to something deep in my soul and, as much as anyone can fall in love with a book, I fell in love with this one. The love deepens with each re-reading, most noticeably this last time – when I pulled it out in preparation for Tom Stoppard’s dramatisation that will air on BBC One this Friday – as the things that have gone on in my life in the last few years gave me new perspectives on elements of the plot that left me stunned by their intensity. Which is actually quite impressive given how hard I fell for it the first time, let me tell you.
It wasn’t that I thought myself in love with one of the characters, although Christopher Tietjens is, to me, the epitome of a good man. And yes, I know that sounds strange coming from someone who these days normally can’t get past marital infidelity in any one, fictional or otherwise, but I never said I was a completely rational human being. But I’ll get to that later. Now I’m talking about the book as a whole.
It sweeps over big ideas one minute (like what good having a vote actually does anyone, male or female) and then focuses on minutiae the next (names of birds and grasses found in English fields and hedgerows in the early nineteen hundreds, anyone). There is talk of devils and possession alongside tea and cakes and characters go off on internal monologues that can seem completely tangential to either where they are or what they’re doing, yet it ends up being relevant and never feels out of place. Oh it isn’t an easy read but it is engrossing and stimulating and makes you think so hard that you can end up with a headache if you don’t watch yourself but that’s part of its charm – well not the headache but that might just be me so don’t let it put you off – and besides, when has anything worth doing ever been easy?
Aside from the writing itself, the plot is another reason I would rescue this book if the house was burning down; right after I’d got the dog and any guests out, obviously! Stripped bare and without giving anything away, it is a story about one man’s attempt to stand by his principles and act in a way he believes to be correct in the face of a society that is crumbling and changing out of all recognition.
Doesn’t sound much, does it?
It’s powerful, it’s soul rending and it’s so relevant to what we are experiencing today that I can’t believe it isn’t on every English syllabus for Key Stage 3. It makes you question what you believe in, how you behave and what you’ll stand up and be counted for. Everyone needs such questions in their lives, especially as a teenager when those sorts of decisions can really make a difference to what you end up being and doing.
And Christopher? Yes, I must talk about Christopher.
He’s a hero, pure and simple. An accidental hero to be sure that doesn’t take anything away from him. He’s a good man trapped in a bad situation and he does the only thing he can. He acts in the way he thinks is right and continues to make choices based on his own beliefs and morals in the face of situations he didn’t make, doesn’t like and, in some cases, have developed from changes in people and their way of thinking and behaving he simply cannot comprehend. He sticks to his beliefs, tries to act with integrity and allows his own standing in a highly judgemental society to be damaged in an effort to spare the feelings of someone else. This “parade” as he terms it, is the one thing he can hold to, understand, and live by. It doesn’t make for an easy life but it does mean he can look himself in the eyes and know he did the best he could.
Then there are the women in this story. They are many and their characters vary in a variety of ways that I found surprisingly insightful for a man of Ford’s time. The two main female characters are … interesting isn’t the right word – I’m not sure there is one descriptive noun that could do either Sylvia or Valentine justice – but I found them very real. Despite Sylvia, when she first appears, coming across like a caricature of a “spoiled rich bitch” she really isn’t. She has depth and layers that, like an onion, will unwittingly make you cry but leave it out and the recipe won’t work. She isn’t likeable but I like how Ford wrote her.
When my teacher leant me his copy of Parade’s End I thought I was being handed a book about World War I. What I was actually being given was a book on how to adhere to your own principles regardless of what is happening to and around you. The period in history that the four books which make up Parade’s End (Some do not…, No More Parades, A Man Could Stand Up – & The Last Post) are set is almost incidental to the story. If Ford were alive today he could write almost the same plot set over the past ten years and it would still make complete sense. Although I have to admit the timing gives the story more of a punch than a modern setting would; trench warfare does seem to have that effect.
If I talk any more about the book I’m going to start quoting parts of it and giving away the meat of the story. So I won’t. What I will say is this: Please go and read it!
You might find it hard going at times but you won’t regret it because it will leave your soul feeling scoured in a way few books do. This book is special. It speaks to our time despite not being of our time. And it is most definitely worth your time.