Waterland is a book told from the perspective of the
narrator, Tom Crick, who is a history teacher at a secondary school in Greenwich.
It is a prime example of postmodern literature, due to it’s fragmented
narrative style and unreliable narrator. The book is set in both the past in
1937, and the present time thirty years later, viewed through the eyes of Tom
as an adolescent. It explores the inability of people to come to terms with the
past and its future consequences, and their failed attempts to alter it.
Tom Crick explores the conflict of The First and Second World
War, and the possibility of a Third World War in terms of his secondary school’s
syllabus, society, and most significantly in terms of family. He is able to do
this because realising he is likely to be sacked he alters his teaching method’
to show his students that everyone is a part of history by telling stories of
his past and how he had viewed things.
Straight away as Tom starts telling his story, he is interrupted
by the forces of war. As Tom, Dick, and Henry Crick ponder about what to do with
Freddie Par’s corpse in the sluice gate, they hear the “roar of ascending
bombers” echoing over the barren landscape. Tom knows that the war is
being fought yet he argues “except for the Lancasters and B24’s which
favoured for their roosts the flat and strategic country of East Anglia, no
hint of this universal strife reached us in our Fenland backwater.” He
spoke superficially, seeing as his father still bears the wounds he received in
World War I and three short years later he would be in uniform himself.
Tom’s service on the Rhine in World War II leaves a lasting
impression on him, he writes to Mary saying: “He describes, with faltering
eloquence, gutted cities, refugees, soup kitchens, mass graveyards, bread
queues. He attempts to explain how these things have given him a new
perspective, have made events by the River Leem seem, perhaps . . . Though he
leaves out how they have deepened his desire to fathom the secrets of History
and aroused, moreover, a belief in Education.” The ruins that Tom sees in
Germany are what teach him about the true fragility of civilization as a whole
Certain recurring images of war litter the book, the most
prominent of which is mud. “The wide world is drowning in mud,” he
says, and later on: “Who will not know the mud of Flanders? Who will not
feel in this twentieth century of ours, when even a teenage schoolboy will
propose as a topic for a history lesson the End of History, the mud of Flanders
sucking at his feet?” Mud has been used by Swift to describe War, as he
believes it is the perfect metaphor for it; both are endless, tiresome, and
beyond talking about the First and Second World War to consider the fears of
the current generation, the ones Tom is teaching “even a teenage
schoolboy.” Price’s fear is representative of the fear his students feel
about World War III, and the Holocaust Club he has created is almost childlike
as a way for one to vent their fear. Crick helps the students to express this fear
and to let it out to the class where it can be discussed. It is the discussion
led by Crick under the umbrella of his subject that helps to put the past into
a perspective his class can learn from, and brings them forward to the point where
they finally understand the importance of history.
Tom and Lewis, the Headmaster, fall out over Tom’s having
stopped teaching the set syllabus. The differences between Lewis and Tom
illustrate the author’s feelings towards children. Lewis’s approach to World
War III is to install a ‘domestic fallout shelter’ at the school. “For the
kids, you know, for the kids’ sake.” The headmaster’s approach to fallout
is almost identical to his (wrong) approach to education. He believes that one
must do things for the children on the assumption that they cannot work things
out themselves. On the other hand, Tom believes the opposite. As the
headmaster, Lewis was entrusted by society to make these decisions one behalf
of the children. His attitudes reflect those of a postmodern society, while
Tom’s views reflect Swift’s. Crick asks Lewis, “Do you believe in
children?” Tom believes that the discussion of war should be stimulated
and not hidden from children. In fact, the book is actually directly addressed
to children, presented as a discourse between a teacher and his pupils.
War in Waterland is
discussed both in the terms of the past and the terms of fear for their future.
The discussion of war is intertwined with history and the belief that society
must learn what has happened before in order not to repeat mistakes of the
past, and to better prepare for and mould the future. In Swift’s opinion the
future belongs not to adults, but to the children.