The Summer of '14

Ronald Pearsall on an interesting, but frustratingly-presented, account of the build-up to the outbreak of the Great War

Ronald Pearsall | Published in

The Last Summer: May to September 1914 by Kirsty McLeod

191 pp. (Collins, 1983)

What is the perennial fascination of the months leading up to the outbreak of World War I? The notes on the dust jacket have an answer: 'In myth it has come down to us as a Golden Age, the last summer before the Great War. In those long, hot summer days, it seems that the old world hung suspended, its warm glow made brighter by our knowledge of the holocaust to come.'

Myth belongs to that category of words dealt with by sundry writers in a column in the Observer every week. The usage and abusage of this four-letter word merits some attention. One of the definitions is 'a commonly-held [sic] belief that is untrue, or without foundation'. This extract from Chambers' Twentieth-Century Dictionary perhaps should not be taken too seriously. An authority which does not know that an adverb does not take a hyphen is immediately suspect.

But enough about the sloppy use of words. Was it a Golden Age? It was to the literate personages who make their entries and their exits throughout this book like creatures from a Pinero play. The society hostesses, the mandarins, and the doomed and doom-laden say their predictable lines and depart. As for the cooks, bottlewashers, inglorious Miltons and absolute nobodies it was a different matter.

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