Penelope Lively on Keith Douglas, Alamein to Zem Zem

The Poet and Piccadilly Jim

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Alamein to Zem Zem bears as a frontispiece a photograph of its author. Keith Douglas leans against the bonnet of a lorry, arms spread out, smiling. He wears khaki shirt and trousers, officer’s cap. He is 22 but looks older. His moustache contributes to that effect; a moustache seems to have been mandatory officer equipment in the Libyan campaign of the 1940s, judging by other contemporary photos.

Douglas arrived in the Middle East in 1941, managed to get to the front in time for the second battle at Alamein, advanced west after the defeat of Rommel’s forces, was wounded, recuperated in Cairo and returned to the Tunisian front. On 9 June 1944, three days after the D-Day landings, he was killed in Normandy, aged 24.

The Second World War did not spawn poets in the way the First World War did. Keith Douglas is one of few, and a leading name. The Complete Poems of Keith Douglas (edited by Desmond Graham) is a slim volume, swollen by his juvenilia and by poems of which several drafts are given. He had so little time: a burst of creativity in 1942 and 1943, when action as a tank commander allowed, and that was that. He had hardly found his voice as a poet, but there are some memorable poems, and lines that stick in the mind, images that compel: ‘On scrub and sand the dead men wriggle/in their dowdy clothes’.

There is much death in the poetry, and graphic death imagery in the pen-and-ink drawings with which Douglas illustrated Alamein to Zem Zem – he was a talented draughtsman: a contorted corpse in the sand, bodies spilling from a bombed lorry. But there is also, in both the poems and the narrative, exuberance, a keen and maverick appreciation of the physical world, wit and humour, and evidence of a roving imagination.

And, on the evidence of Alamein to Zem Zem, he was a remarkable prose writer. Written in the immediate aftermath of the experiences, with, it would seem, little structural con

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About the contributor

Penelope Lively’s most recent novel, How It All Began, is now available in paperback.

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