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The Accrington Pals and Strange Meeting

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 1972 words Published: 11th Apr 2017

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Compare and contrast the lack of understanding of the realities of war by the women in The Accrington Pals and Strange Meeting. To what extent do these misapprehensions affect the relationships between the male and female characters?

The lack of understanding shown by the women in Peter Whelan’s The Accrington Pals and Susan Hill’s Strange Meeting makes the realities of war seem all the more sombre. Consequently, this gives a lugubrious tone to both texts, and I aim to assess the impact this has on the relationships of the characters involved.

First and foremost, in Whelan’s The Accrington Pals, signing up was far from readily accepted. The women had good reason to be concerned however, as this play highlights the inevitable decimation of such a vast volunteer base such as the Accrington Pals, part of a branch of many such battalions founded as a result of Kitchener’s call to arms in 1914. The opening of the play begins in Autumn 1914, right at the beginning of the war, where attitudes to it were still largely patriotic and positive. Immediately when May Hassal enters, one of the main characters in Whelan’s play, we get a sense of foreshadowing: she is holding a pair of “iron scales”, which, although not distinctively stated by Whelan, could tie in with the cold winter morning, and her soon to be exposed cold-heart. This poses the question of why the relationship between May and Tom (a nineteen year old apprentice), is so stale and awkward, and why May has an obvious “grudge” against him. This is later revealed to the audience, as May adamantly defends her decision to refuse to join in with the “send –off” for the soldiers: “I wouldn’t waste my existence”. This is an early indicator that May did not think profoundly of the celebrations that followed the men’s’ signing up, suggesting she thought of it more as a temporary job for the men than a life-threatening act of bravery. Similarly in Strange Meeting, John Hilliard, the protagonist of the novel, is perplexed at how different his sister Beth is behaving since his return from the front. Beth too fails to understand the severity of the upcoming farewell she will have to say to her brother, and this upsets John, who “had expected to spend time with her, walking about the beach, to laugh with her, explain things, but she had been busy, going out to lunch with their mother, helping twice a week at parties for soldiers on leave, leading a social life”. This somewhat touching passage has a tone of pathos, and evokes a sense of pity for John, as it reflects his own sister being too busy to spend time with him before he leaves for war.

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The women in The Accrington Pals feel that the war is changing their men, and this is having a knock-on effect on their relationships, resulting in snide remarks made about them. During a conversation between Bertha, Sarah and Eva in Scene 3, Whelan conveys a sense of detachment of the men from the women as a result of the war: “They think they’re it, don’t they?” “You just don’t know them anymore! They even walk different”, “They look so swaggery” – this bitterness that the women are feeling is down to the men’s involvement with the war, but the women don’t understand that the men are actually making the most of their time in Accrington while they still can. Bertha, who says she couldn’t recognise her own father in his uniform (“I didn’t know him at first”) thinks that the men hold high opinions of themselves, yet after the introduction of Ralph to the scene, soon changes her negative tone, and instead joins in with the Accrington Carnival, singing a patriotic song with Sarah: “…I hit me bum instead of me drum, I’ve joined the Boys’ Brigade”. This song reflects the innocence about the war at this uncertain time for everyone involved; the effect on the audience however would be quite the opposite, having an almost jovial mood, yet this makes it all the more ironic as obviously it highlights that the women were blissfully unaware of the events to follow their men’s departure. This innocence can also be seen with Hill’s Strange Meeting, where the women thought they were doing the right thing by throwing parties for the soldiers on leave. John Hilliard observes the soldiers’ poor “shocked and pale faces from the recollection of horrors”, yet the women thought it fitting to take their photographs. As the men stood there “looking embarrassed”, the women looked “proud and pleased”, doing “what seemed to them best, they knew nothing better”. By focussing on a jovial image of soldiers on leave, they show a disregard for the hardships of re-adapting to civilian life that the men faced, and this is particularly staggering because it may make these men feel as if they can never integrate back with society, who don’t understand the harsh reality of war. This therefore may permanently affect previously strong relationships as the women who thought they were doing the right thing can never fully cater for the men’s fear-stricken needs.

As Whelan’s play progresses, Tom and May’s relationship continues to deteriorate, and May tells Eva that she thinks “Tom’s a dreamer just like [her] Father was”, subsequently showing that she fails to understand Tom’s motifs for joining up. He is an idealist who believes in a collective good and thinks that everyone has a duty to look after their fellow men. However May cannot see this, and instead holds a bitter outlook of the men of war, failing to comprehend the close bonds that they share, and thinks that they are “waiting to see you [Tom] stumble, slip back, and be as they are”. In contrast, John Hilliard’s mother in Strange Meeting, Constance Hilliard, shows a complete inability to understand the asperity of war at all. The only way she is able to offer sympathy to John is by fussing, despite him her reminding her “don’t fuss”, she is merely concerned with physical needs such as hunger (“you used to be fond of muscatels and almonds, as a small boy. Mary will bake you plum cakes, of course, they are so much better than anything we could buy”), yet often these soldiers would benefit far greater from support and affection, as found in John’s relationship with David Barton – “I love you John…yes. He was amazed at himself”. This seems to reassure John and perhaps side-track his mind from the grim realities around him.

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In The Accrington Pals, the Boggis family undergo the greatest changes as a result of their involvement in the war. Significantly, the return of Arthur’s pigeon that went with him to France, England’s Glory, has an unexpected and catastrophic effect on Annie. When she acknowledges the bird she is adamant that it is England’s Glory: “It’s his” It’s England’s glory!” This has an astounding significance, as it is an irrespective of the sacrifice that the men have made. The fact that is returns to the women could be an example of foreshadowing by Whelan that it is literally the glory of England winning the war that will return to them, but nothing more, not their men. The fact that its heart was “hardly beating” is a further example of foreshadowing that the men’s death is imminent, and Annie is the only one who senses this. It can also link to the relationship between May and Tom, whereby May’s heart ‘hardly beats’ for Tom, and this is the first time that May begins to realise her feelings for Tom were stronger than she thought. When the bird is drowned and subsequently buried, it is an example of symbolism by Whelan to represent that the relationships in Accrington are dead and will never come alive again. By comparison, in Strange Meeting, Beth’s letter to John reflects the naveté of not just the women characters but also the civilians back home, who believe the lies being fed to them; “it seems that things are going well from what we read in the papers, and that you will be back before very long”. This in a sense shows the complete disregard for John’s feelings by Beth, because is aware of the sheer harshness of the war. If John had not have returned, Beth would have been regretful of her letters and felt rather foolish, yet because of his return, she could never be made fully aware of the suffering that John was going through.

The reader is left feeling sympathetic for May by the end of The Accrington Pals, as after finally realising her true feelings for Tom, he appears to her in spirit form, and she learns the truth about his whereabouts. She blames herself for what has happened to him. As a result of the war, May begins to feel guilty about being “cold” to Tom. Upon hearing the supposedly good news about the war, many of the women assemble and march to the town hall to try to discover the truth about the men. This collectivism that these women show is the same attitude that Tom himself would have approved of, however, May declines to take part. Once the women in Whelan’s play finally discover the truth about the decimation of the Pals Battalion, they react very differently from one another; Eva reacts angrily, while May falls into a trance-like state, initially unable to function in her normal way. Right at the end of the play, May begs Eva to read a poem published in the paper. It reflects the pride felt as a result of the deaths of the town’s men, and this is not how May had felt before, thus showing her relationship with Tom and other women, and her attitude, has been changed as a result of the sudden and shocking news of the men’s deaths. Eva is “forced to continue”, thus showing she doesn’t want reminding of Ralph’s death, and so you could argue that her relationship has been destroyed by the war and her normally open personality has been completely transformed.

To conclude, the lack of understanding of the realities of war in The Accrington Pals and Strange Meeting are both painful and upsetting because it ultimately results in relationships never returning to what they were. May’s fractured relationship with Tom is finally healed as a result of the war, yet almost ironically, she only realises her feelings after hearing the news of Tom’s death, and then she consequently becomes more introspective, and loses all of her previously present ambition and her high opinions of herself, along with her hopes for the future. Instead, she resumes her old life of making do. The other women struggle to cope with the news of their men’s death; Annie goes into a hysterical state, and Eva is forced to leave. Obviously this news was completely out of the blue as they were ignorant enough to believe the cover ups found in the Accrington Observer. Many families would write to senior officers and the war office, desperate for news of loved-ones, or to discover the real facts behind a death. An example of this can be seen in Strange Meeting, when David Barton’s mother writes to John Hilliard, desperate for news of her son. The signing up of these men to fight in the war, seen as a “spontaneous demonstration” by May, led to the catastrophic waste of so many young lives, who, in The Accrington Pals’ case, fell victim to the Battle of the Somme.


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