‘Being his real brother I could feel I live in his shadows, but I never have and I do not now. I live in his glow…’
I once accidentally read Boy in the Striped Pyjamas on the way back from a sangria fuelled jaunt to Barcelona and I was traumatised for ages afterwards. As I wiped the tears away from my chubby cheeks while walking off the plane, I vowed to never put myself in such an emotionally taxing situation again. Fast forward three years and to Bearded Theory festival. After spending pretty much all of Sunday drinking rum straight out of the bottle and eating burritos, I turned to my new book for solace on a difficult Monday morning as I contemplated taking my stupid tent down and dragging it all the way back to the stupid car. Having been about three quarters of the way through Private Peaceful, I was looking forward to the inevitable happy ending to raise my spirits. Jesus, was I to be disappointed.
Tommo and Charlie Peaceful are brothers in a sleepy rural village who encounter much class discrimination before being shipped off to war. If that sounds similar to War Horse that’s because it is. The two books don’t just share a similar tone but also an author. Michael Morpurgo wrote both books and is considered one of the greatest living children’s authors around.
Private Peaceful is more than just War Horse without a horse however. Tommo and Charlie are both lived in and believable characters and the book is full of emotional warmth and scathing injustice so that it is difficult not to become carried away with it all. I cheered at Tommo’s triumphs and sulked along with his anger in the continuation of a worrying trend that seems to dictate that I can now only really enjoy books written for children. I think that says rather a lot about my own mental age.
There is a scene in the influential anti-war novel Catch 22 in which air cadet Clevinger is court-martialled on various nonsensical charges. Whilst it is best remembered for being utterly hilarious, there is a salience to that passage that finds Clevinger musing that in all the German beer halls and army barracks, there isn’t a man who hates him more than those on his own side that have put him on trial. This justified disdain for authority is also inherent throughout Private Peaceful; something that should absolutely be celebrated in a children’s book.
While never in danger of re-inventing the wheel, Private Peaceful is an affecting and effective meditation on war, childhood and loss of innocence. In short, it’s bloody good.