Owen Sheers's verse drama about three soldiers from Bristol should be studied in schools alongside Wilfred Owen
Pink Mist is a tremendous book. It feels huge, engulfing, devastating, although only 87 pages long. When I finished it, what I felt most strongly was that it should be studied at school alongside the ubiquitous Wilfred Owen. It should be read and – it's a verse drama – performed, as it was earlier this year on Radio 4.
It is about three Bristol soldiers: Arthur, Hads and Taff. Sheers interviewed several soldiers and their families as the basis for these stories. The three join the army and are sent to Afghanistan. One loses his legs in friendly fire, another his peace of mind, a third does not come home alive. The book should be required reading for anyone considering a career in the army. But this is not anti‑war propaganda. It is not that simple.
Another more literary reason for reading this volume alongside Wilfred Owen is for the sense it gives one of a clear poetic trajectory. The first Owen created a space in which the second Owen freely writes. Owen Sheers moves "War, and the pity of war" unrhetorically into this century (while also drawing on the medieval Welsh poem Y Gododdin). His poetry is more powerful than any polemic. He does not stand on a soapbox. He prefers to show, not tell.
Sheers is best known as a Welsh novelist and his narrative gifts are much in evidence here, although the poem has a sure rhythm too, moves along at a lick. He never overwrites or overreacts, knowing that with material as powerful as this, less is more. The three lads join up for unheroic reasons. There are no rewarding jobs around. Arthur confides: "I'd been working down Portbury docks for, what?/Over a year by then?/Driving those Mazdas off the container ships,/parking them in perfect lines, like headstones in a cemetery." Taff is "an apprentice on crap pay to a St Paul's plumber". At 18, he is already married with a son. Hads's family is from Somalia. He has a job at Next and tells Arthur he won't be joining up. Arthur knows differently:
"I didn't say nothing to Hads right then,
but I knew, I did.
He would come too.
Cos I mean, what's next after Next?"
Afghanistan is terrifying but the challenges of returning are frightening too. It is interesting to read the approving quotation on the dust-jacket from Captain Ed Poynter, C Company 2 Rifles, saying that the poem: "captures the reality of what it's like to adjust to 'normality' when one comes home from war". Sheers makes you empathise with the difficulty some soldiers have in making sense of what they have been through. Home is alien, even drinking mates at one remove: "They weren't doing anything wrong,/just singing along to Saturday's song,/drinking to forget, drinking to belong". Arthur is alone "in my own weather".
There is no forced sentiment. When Hads's mother is asked to identify her son in hospital, his face has been so badly injured that she does not recognise him. His legs are gone but he is alive. Then she recognises his tattoo: "I gave him hell when he came back with that new tat./He was just sixteen but adamant./A coiling dragon,/its tail wrapped about his arm." It is only at the end that she allows herself the question that starts in her heart and ends in ours:
"What have they done to him? – That was all I could think.
What have they done to my lad, my boy, my Hads?"