Viewing single post of blog Sleep-drunk I dance

When my Soldier’s child came back from an exhibition a while ago, it occurred to me that my father had been a soldier’s child too. His father had fought in WWI and returned with a disease of the heart (not metaphorically speaking). He died when my dad was 13. I wonder how my boy-dad was affected by what his father carried, and how that impacted on him when his war started.

I was trying to find the right term for the kind of troop my father would have been part of (battalion? regiment? company?), and came upon this entry for infantry:

From Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary (1913) [web1913]:
Infantry In”fan*try, n. [F. infanterie, It. infanteria, fr.
infante infant, child, boy servant, foot soldier, fr. L.
infans, -antis, child; foot soldiers being formerly the
servants and followers of knights. See {Infant}.]

1. A body of children. [Obs.] –B. Jonson.
2. (Mil.) A body of soldiers serving on foot; foot soldiers,
in distinction from cavalry.

This makes sense. This makes no sense at all.

You may remember that I bought a 1930s sailor-suit on ebay, thinking I might let it stand in as a kind of heirloom. It’s an inverse version to my dad’s, being white with blue stripes, and would have been worn by a very young boy. The outfit is beautifully made – partly machine-, partly hand-sewn, and much mended. It is threadbare in places, frayed at the seams, esp. under armpits, nape of neck, crotch – anywhere where movement of limbs strained the fabric. The trousers are lined with soft, gossamer-thin white cotton; where layers of fabric overlapped French seams were sewn (which wouldn’t have chafed on the infant’s skin) – the comfort of the child was considered.

The areas directly surrounding the (ivory nut?) buttons on front and back of the shirt, connecting to the trousers, are careworn. Someone buttoned up and unbuttoned the outfit regularly. I project tender hands (a mother’s, a nanny’s, a sister’s?) because there are no violent tears, only the thinning of fabric until it finally gave way, and a bursting of seams as the child grew.

The two buttons on the side have not been used as much, a question of efficiency maybe, or a worry that too tight a fastening might constrain the child too much? Was the suit worn by one child or was it passed on to others? From older to younger sibling? From well-off family to less so? The good thing about not knowing whose outfit this was, is that the suit doesn’t take sides.

During national socialism the sailor-suit (worn by all German boys before the division into Aryan and Jewish drew an inexorable line) went out of fashion, so-to-speak. 1934, when Donald Duck in navy shirt was created in the US, the Hitler Youth-uniform became de rigueur in Germany, childhood much indoctrinated and militarised. A forging of soldiers-to-be. A hardening in body and mind. Us-and-themness. Hemming in/out. Sides.

Years ago, when my mobility wasn’t quite as limited I discovered Crivelli‘s painting of the Annunciation,with St. Emidius at National Gallery. With its crisp outlines, glassy, gleaming colours, and a city’s architecture encrusted with ornament, it is a strange painting. What fascinated me was the child witnessing the annunciation. I kept wondering what she saw (I chose to see a girl, although boys and girls probably wore the same clothes) from her shielded vantage point, what sense she made of it. Through the child’s presence something extra-ordinary becomes almost ordinary.

As a boy Alfred Brendel saw Hitler travel through Graz in an open car, with arm outstretched, the streets lined by cheering masses (see post 20/11/13). In Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will thousands of children raise their arms in unison for the Hitler Salute.

My father… My mother… My uncles and aunts… (My grandfather did not want my dad to join the Hitler Youth, but I can’t be sure if he joined after his death in 1939. I don’t think so but am wary of my motives.)

Austerlitz, in WG Sebald‘s book of the same name, wonders if objects remember us, bear witness to what we have forgotten. My sailor-suit inspired great tenderness in me, its frayed edges, the careful mends, the way the buttons are affixed. In these traces the suit holds something of its wearer(s)’ body, growth, movements, hints of the care shown him/them. That I can hold it in my hands 80 years later helps me follow and connect all kinds of threads. I still wish I had my dad’s though.

Its tears are like wounds, but really the fabric is just time- and care-worn. Something troubles me though. A sailor-suit carries meaning. It is a kind of fancy dress, even if worn daily, or as Sunday best (class and economic circumstances come in here). The words custom and costume have the same origin: silently, after 1870, a military orientation crept in. Am I going too far if I think that this was a place too where a kind of groundwork was laid very early towards warfare?

Walter Benjamin was photographed as a five year-old in Hussar-uniform (special occasion – see post 1/4/14) and wearing a sailor suit on normal days. In Jane Potter‘s Wilfried Owen. An Illustrated Life you can find several photographs of child Wilfried in sailor-suits, and a couple where he is dressed up as a small soldier, in one instance in a Hussar-uniform made for him by his mother.

Let me jump ahead now, pull at another thread, away from childhood where my sentimentality-alert-system can’t be trusted. I’ve been working on the images I’m posting today for a couple of months now, off and on, and find them hard to look at – I may come apart at my own seams. The reaction of the person I showed them to a couple of weeks ago made me realise that I’d found a way of letting my dad/myself express something of the effect war had on him. I’ll let them speak.


1 Comment