With its fashionable but unexplanatory one-word title, Tank is an easy book to overlook or misunderstand when you first come across it. Yet its jacket gives two clues as to why it is so absorbing, astonishing and enlightening.
The first is the name of its author, the cultural historian Patrick Wright, whose earlier books include On Living in an Old Country, A Journey through Ruins and The Village that Died for England – deeply satisfying studies of what appear to be recondite or small-scale subjects but which turn out to be profound excursions into the condition of England. The other is, in fact, its title: not The Tank, but Tank, which signals that this is no straightforward history but, in the author’s own words, an appreciation ‘that the poetics of the twentieth century extend far beyond the literary page’ – extend indeed to the progress of this spellbinding piece of military hardware.
The tank is an emblem of state power, a behemoth that has transformed wars and threatened – and sometimes mown down – civilians. But it has also been seen as a ‘cubist slug’, has inspired a modernist song and dance routine Tanko, has led military men to philosophize, and installation artists to appropriate the rhomboid shape to suggest the ultimate in urban alienation. In short, the tank, as Tank so skilfully and wittily and sadly shows us, stands at the very heart of the twentieth century and points up its follies, its wickedness, its aspirations, its delusions – and occasionally its humanity.
Although the tank had its origins in a ‘modern steam chariot’ – an invention of two Cornishmen in 1838 that would, as they put it, prove ‘very destructive in case of war’– or even perhaps in Boudicca’s chariot, in medieval suits of armour that were ‘living tanks’ or in Leonardo da Vinci’s sketches, its moment was not to come until the First World War. Then
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