A New Jerusalem by Benjamin Dickson published by New Internationalist
As we stumble towards the latest Brexit political crisis we have heard of lot about our valiant island history and the sacrifices of our stoic forbears. ‘No deal? – well we managed through World War Two, through the blitz didn’t we?’ The reality of war is rather different of course and when the war is over, the soldiers return and the survivors need to turn their thoughts to renewal and rebuilding, to starting afresh.
That often leaves little time for or interest in the war veterans themselves. When the Vietnam War ended we all know of the rejection faced by returning US soldiers, but the victorious Vietnamese soldiers also found that no one wanted to talk to them about their experiences. The nation wanted to forget and move on.
A New Jerusalem by Benjamin Dickson looks at these themes. Set in Bristol at the end of the Second World War it examines the experience of a young boy called Ralph and his family. Throughout Ralph’s childhood his father has been fighting in the war and he has been raised by his mother alone. His life is one of rough and tumble, friends and enemies and playing in the bombed out buildings that litter the city.
The return of Ralph’s father is difficult. Ralph barely remembers him, but more seriously he is suffering from what was once called shell shock but which today we would call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – PTSD. Haunted by his experiences in combat Ralph’s father is a shattered man, struggling to rebuild his connection with his family and prone to violent outbursts of rage.
At the same time a shattered, wounded country was struggling to rebuild itself. The truth was the British Empire was finished, Britain was no longer a first rate power but an indebted nation in the second tier behind the United States and the Soviet Union.
If we can have full employment for war why can’t we have full employment for peace?
To the surprise of some the British did not stick by their wartime leader Churchill but instead rallied around the political promises of British socialism in the form of the Labour Party. The Labour government of Attlee was to create the National Health Service and welfare state as well as nationalising large swathes of industry.
British workers wanted no return to the hungry 1930’s and blamed the Conservatives for that time and also for Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement policy which led to the Second World War. The wartime experience of greater social equality and what was effectively a planned economy combined with admiration for the achievements of the Soviet Union to bring a radical edge to politics. Ralph’s father is attracted to this promise.
War time experiences such as the ‘soldier’s parliaments’ of the Eighth Army also played a less well-known role and if you want to read more about this I would direct you to Ralph Miliband‘s brilliant work Parliamentary Socialism.
But A New Jerusalem does not settle for an easy political narrative either of wartime glory or of the ascendancy of the British proletariat. As Ralph gets into a fight he is told that he has won, his opponent has fled. Prone on the ground covered in bruises Ralph doesn’t see it that way.
Victory is not easy for Ralph or his family. It is not easy for the country. A New Jerusalem reminded me of the brilliant Goblin by Ever Dundas, another work which took a hard look at pain and nostalgia.
Benjamin Dickson’s pencil art has a warm and soft feel which makes the sometimes brutal events portrayed even more shocking and they work well with the poignant writing.
Karl Marx noted that history repeats itself, “the first as tragedy, then as farce.” A New Jerusalem contains much to make us think and gives us a chance to learn the lessons of history.