By Lawrence “Mack in Texas” Hall
“Perhaps my very thinking’s out of step.” -Hugh Lofting
This month is the 100th anniversary of Hugh Lofting’s Doctor Doolittle yarns, which I have never read. When it comes to talking animals I prefer Donald Duck and Bugs Bunny and the wonderfully selfish, grasping Uncle Scrooge.
However, there is much more to Mr. Lofting than conversing with rabbits and squirrels – after all, everyone does that.
Lofting was a civil engineer working in Africa, the West Indies, and Canada as a surveyor, prospector, and builder of railways, but lived most of his life in the USA. In 1916 Lofting returned to England to volunteer at the age of 30, and was wounded in France.
While in the Army he wrote letters to his children with little animal stories and pictures, not wanting to share the horrors of warfare. These letters were the beginning of Doctor Doolittle.
In 1942 Lofting wrote his one adult work, Victory for the Slain.
Recently I finished a first reading of Victory for the Slain, and then, immediately, read it a second time, slowly and carefully, savoring each line and each cultural and historical allusion.
Mr. Lofting was wounded in body and soul in the First World War, and in 1942 wrote this deeply-felt and deeply-thought poem as a rebuke to the keyboard commandos who in every generation are eager to sacrifice the lives of young men and women (not their own children, of course; their children are sent to serve our nation bravely at university) in wars, most of them undeclared.
Mr. Lofting’s Catholic upbringing and solid education are obvious; Victory for the Slain is a work built upon a life of faith, study, thought, prayer, and bloody experience. It is a message poem, all right, but a brilliant and disciplined one. One often reads the tired old weak defense of a poor piece of work with, “But it’s from the heart” – well, this poem is from the heart, certainly, but it is also from the head and from the careful consideration of the thousands of years of civilization.
Walmer is a small press (but not literally a press; the book was printed in the USA) in Shetland (http://michaelwalmer.com/index.html). They have taken this neglected poem and printed it on beautiful, cream-colored paper in a beautiful, accessible typeface.
Inexplicably, the cover is a mess. The design bridges the aesthetic gap between Hammer Studios and a Big Brother poster for 1984, made worse by incorporating that long-cliched ban-the-bomb thingie from the 1950s and made yet worse again with a greasy / finger-printie surface that is repulsive to the touch. The stiff boards are too much for the thin volume, which should have been bound in paper for ease of handling, and while coping with this reader-hostile thing I was repeatedly tempted to rip the boards off and burn them. As it is, I hope I can find a bindery to recover the book with something worthy of Mr. Lofting’s poem and the quality of Walmer’s paper and type; Victory for the Slain is brilliant.