I’m sitting by myself in the Wetherspoons at Liverpool Lime Street station, in the pre-weekend hubbub of a humid Friday afternoon. There’s a poetry book on the table in front of me, a film script on my phone, and I’m waiting for a man I’ve never met to arrive on the London train. How did this happen?
It all started – at least my bit of the story did – back in the mid-eighties. I blame the nameless Department of Education bright spark who included the First World War poem Dulce et Decorum Est on the fledgling English Lit GCSE syllabus. Sixteen is an impressionable age, when we’re all suckers for talented young rebels who rail against authority. Wilfred Owen, the definitive poet of World War I, caught my imagination like some literary James Dean. Hooked on his para-rhymes and the enigmatic expression on that famous sepia-tinted photo, I spent my A Level years carrying Jon Stallworthy’s biography around with me, and pretentiously graffiti-ing my favourite Owen quotes onto the desks at Hugh Baird library in Bootle. It faded, as teenage crushes do, but I must admit I’ve been a little bit in love with him ever since.
These days, fortunately, social media rather than vandalism is the channel through which I express my interests. Earlier this year I started exchanging tweets with fellow Owen-aficionado Richard Weston – an actor, writer and director who’s making The Burying Party, a short film about the final year of Owen’s life, leading up to his death a week before the Armistice in November 1918. Today we’ve arranged to meet while visiting our respective families in our hometown Liverpool, to talk about all things Owen.
Head down re-reading the film script on my phone, I don’t immediately notice that Richard’s arrived and is towering over the table. There’s a moment of awkward laughter, acknowledging the weirdness of two strangers arranging to meet in a pub to talk about a dead poet, but soon we’re deep in conversation. Over the next two hours, we cover everything from Owen’s relationships and wartime experience to the parallels between poetry and film-making. Richard and his co-writer and brother Laurence Thompson have clearly put in a huge amount of research to both Owen’s poetry and its historical context. I’m reassured that this film about my beloved Wilfred Owen is in the safe hands of someone who could actually out-geek me on the subject.
So often reading poetry feels like you’re just looking on, while the poet essentially talks to himself in rhyme, but what sets Owen apart is the way he reaches out to his readers. The most powerful words in Dulce et Decorum Est aren’t the hideous descriptions of the gassed soldier’s final moments, but the relatively innocuous phrases Owen uses to pull the reader into the experience; “if … you too could pace behind the wagon… if you could hear…” This isn’t a poet who just talks at his readers. Wilfred Owen punches a hole in the fourth wall, reaches out and grabs us by the collar, dragging us down into the trenches and forcing us to confront the horror.
And it’s this – the unflinching dedication to sharing the truth of war – which The Burying Party brings to life most strongly. “My subject is war, and the pity of war” Owen wrote in the now famous first draft of the introduction to a volume of poetry he never lived to see published. I get the impression that this, for Richard and Laurence, is the crux of the story – Owen’s decision to return to the horrors of the front line, simply in order to write poetry about it. The Burying Party is an original and fascinating study of the blurred line between poetry and war, and Owen’s hunger to prove himself in both arenas. The script makes effective use of a voice-over to deliver some of the poetry, but lines and images from some of Owen’s lesser known poems also bleed through into the dialogue. It promises to be a film which confronts the brutality of war head-on, in a way that’s shocking at times – but also hugely compelling.
I suspect Richard and I could sustain a conversation about Wilfred Owen indefinitely but after nearly two hours it feels like it’s time to get back to the outside world. The pub is filling up and the group of skinheads at the table next to us are getting lively. I promise to write this blog to help promote The Burying Party, and we go our separate ways.
Sine Wave Media, Richard’s company, have an office just a few streets away from where Wilfred Owen grew up in Birkenhead. Keith, Richard’s assistant director, remembers Owen’s portrait hanging on the walls of his old school, Birkenhead Institute. Talking to the Sine Wave team in recent weeks, I get a strong sense that The Burying Party is a project that’s been at the back of their minds for a long time, waiting for the right moment to come to fruition.
Sine Wave are running a crowdfunding campaign (which you can donate to here) to help bring in the final funds before they start filming. This poses an interesting question for me, having spent most of my working life as a fundraiser: why, in this era of austerity, is an independent film about a First World War poet a worthwhile cause to support? The answer, for me, is quite simply because Owen matters. He challenged the rules of poetry and the way people viewed war, and he was killed tragically young, almost 100 years ago. His incredible story deserves to be committed to film. I’m delighted that that film is going to be The Burying Party, which echoes the unique and uncompromising approach which made his poetry so remarkable.
To find out more about the forthcoming Wilfred Owen film, The Burying Party, follow them on Facebook or Twitter. Or better yet, head over to their website http://www.theburyingparty.com where you can make a donation to the crowdfunding campaign. A pledge of £20 gets you a copy of the film on release, and given that independent films don’t always reach a wide audience, this seems like a pretty good way to make sure you don’t miss out. Having read the script, I can’t wait to see the finished product.