Wednesday, 25 March 2020

The Poetry is in the Pity

More from the book pile

The War Poems, Siegfried Sassoon, (Faber, 1983), edited by Rupert Hart-Davis.

Sassoon was one of the War Poets who actually survived the First World War, despite being wounded several times.  His Wikipedia entry is very interesting (including his coaching and encouragement of Wilfrid Owen and the fact that he used to play cricket with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle!), and provides useful context for these poems.

The book is a rather elegant, if somewhat austere collection.  Hart-Davis brings together all of Sassoon’s wartime poems, including those published at the time and several which only survived in manuscript form, and presents them with minimal notes in the (best-guess) order in which they were composed.  He also includes a few post-War poems which take the War as their subject.  There is a brief and rather dry chronology of Sassoon’s life to create a sparse framework for the poems – it is possible to see which were composed in the trenches and which were created when he was in England, convalescing.

What emerges, slowly, is a story of a man who enlisted willingly and early on in the conflict, full of patriotism and a belief that he was doing the right thing for Country and God, but who, as he witnessed and suffered the horrors of war slowly shifted his position, eventually condemning those who led the War as well as those who eloquently supported it while staying at home. The poems in the middle section in particular constitute a complex recounting of the brutal experiences in the trenches.

There is a significant sense of tough realism to the poems, which meant that several of them couldn’t be published while the War was happening.  He speaks several times of the happiness that the soldiers felt if they received a ‘Blighty wound’ – bad enough to incapacitate them and get them sent back to England, but not killing them. (‘Splendid to eat and sleep and choose a wife/Safe with his wound, a citizen of life’ – ‘The One-Legged Man’, 1916).  And of the men who would sometimes manufacture such wounds for themselves.  He writes of rotting corpses and the arbitrariness of death, and the wretched reality of living in the trenches for months at a time.

Sassoon was an officer, and in combat was renowned for his almost suicidal bravery (his men called him ‘Mad Jack’). He won several awards for bravery.  But finally he realised he hated leading his young troops towards the enemy, and seeing them cut down.  In 1917 he wrote a statement against the continuation of the War, ‘Finished with the War: A Soldier’s Declaration,’ which was read out in the House of Commons.  This led to him being shunted out of the way to the Craiglockhart War Hospital to be treated – ostensibly – for shell-shock.  Although he did eventually return to the front.

Admittedly, none of the individual poems shines quite like, say Owens’ ‘Dulce et Decorum Est,’ but the collection as a whole has a layered, rich quality that works differently, and the whole cycle (if they can be called that) has quite a powerful effect.
I’ll include one here (picked almost at random).

               Suicide in the Trenches

               I knew a simple soldier boy
               Who grinned at life in empty joy,
               Slept soundly through the lonesome dark,
               And whistled early with the lark.

               In winter trenches, cowed and glum,
               With crumps and lice and lack of rum,
               He put a bullet through his brain.
               No one spoke of him again.
                      .     .    .
               You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
              Who cheer when soldier lads walk by,
              Sneak home and pray you’ll never know
              The hell where youth and laughter go.
                                                      (Feb 1918)

The Man Who Was Thursday

Now that we are all in (semi-) lockdown, I'm taking the opportunity to read some, at least, of my pile of unread books.  It's a bit on the towering side.

I'll post commentaries here and on Mens Sana (Facebook Group).

Here's the first one.

Mere Anarchy

G. K. Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare, (1908), (Penguin Edition, with ‘Introduction’ by Matthew Beaumont, 2011).

My, but this is an odd book. 

When I chose it from the pile of unread books, I thought I was picking a simple tale of derring-do, a ripping yarn rather akin to The Riddle of the Sands (Childers, 1903) or The Thirty-Nine Steps (Buchan, 1915), albeit hopefully leavened with Chesterton’s characteristic wit.   I knew it was about secret anarchists and plots, bombings and detectives, but that was about all I knew.  And around this time, there was a lot of fiction, and nonfiction concerning anarchists being written.

The Spirit of Revolt (Kropotkin, 1880), The Dynamiter (Stevenson, 1885), The Science of Revolutionary Warfare: A Little Handbook of Instruction in the Use and Preparation of Nitroglycerine, Gun-Cotton, Fulminating Mercury, Bombs, Fuses, Potions, Etc, Etc (Most, 1885), The League of Twelve (Boothby, 1903), A Girl Among the Anarchists (Olivia and Helen Rossetti, 1903) and  The Secret Agent (Conrad, 1907) are all mentioned in the critical apparatus in the book. 

Nobel had patented dynamite in 1866 (first demonstrated in Redhill) and gelignite in 1876.  In 1893, the Chamber of Deputies in Paris was bombed; in 1894 there was an unsuccessful bomb attack on the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, and separately the French President was assassinated; in 1897 the Spanish prime minister was assassinated; in 1900 the King of Italy was assassinated; in 1906 there was a failed attempt to bomb the King of Spain;  and in the month Chesterton’s book was published the King of Portugal and his son were assassinated.  Bombs, revolutions, assassinations and anarchists were on everyone’s minds.

And there is a plot, a story which revolves around all of this material, as a detective/poet attempts to thwart an anarchist plot to bomb the Czar and the President of France, in Paris.  It is a plot concerning the fight between order and anarchy, as conducted by a brave individual.  But it is such an extreme, madcap, ridiculous plot that you end up coming to the conclusion that it isn’t really the point. 
Partly this is because it is written by Chesterton.  As such, the book is full of witty observations, paradoxes and inversions. 

“All the same,” replied Syme patiently, “just at present you only see the tree by the light of the lamp.  I wonder when you would ever see the lamp by the light of the tree.” (p.8).

The paradoxes are even there in some of the chapter titles (11: ‘The Criminals Chase the Police’).  And while some of the observations feel hopelessly dated, many still seem quite fresh over a century later interesting – such as when he speaks of the uncanny feeling one gets at a waxworks (p.39) – an early example of the ‘Uncanny Valley’?  

Chesterton is also very good on small details and the quotidian.  He wants to describe everything, even the most mundane item.    He cares about the wonderfulness of the everyday, the banal ordinary.  As when the hero is inspired to courage by the sound of a simple, common barrel organ in Leicester Square.

At the same time, his abiding interest in the grotesque is ever-present.  Every one of the anarchists has odd, weird traits, unlikely facial expressions and tics.  None just look normal or unremarkable. 
So, in one sense this novel is Chesterton’s version of Browning’s dramatic monologues (see Men and Women (1855), Dramatis Personae (1864) and many other individual poems).  And of course, he had written his excellent book on the poet in 1903, praising his grotesqueries and his interest in the quotidian, while arguing that these were also routes to the spiritual (I paraphrase). 

Amongst the grotesques the huge figure of the President of the anarchists stands out.  And as Chesterton himself was a large man, one begins by assuming that this is a self-portrait.  After all the President sets much of the plot in action and is feared by all the others; an obvious author-substitute.  However, by the end one realises this is probably not the case.  Or not just the case.

Because the end is quite unexpected.  If the story is so extreme and the characters so unlikely, that they undermine the whole notion of the adventure-narrative, and also play against Chesterton’s fine details and interest in the ordinary, which I would contend they do, then the conclusion of the novel takes another yet turn to the unexpected.

It goes all mythic and transcendent.  Arguably this may have been the only place left for Chesterton’s madcap narrative to go, but it still comes as a surprise.  Without saying too much, it goes supernatural and religious, and there are some interesting proto-surrealist touches.

…a vast carnival of people were dancing in motley dress.  Syme seemed to see every shape in Nature imitated in some crazy costume.  There was a man dressed as a windmill with enormous sails, a man dressed as an elephant, a man dressed as a balloon… one dancer dressed like an enormous hornbill, with a beak twice as big as itself…

For Chesterton, nonsense was a type of writing replete with spiritual significance, because it so effectively communicates a sense of amazement at the ‘huge and undecipherable unreason’ of life itself. (Chesterton, The Defendant, (1901), taken from Beaumont’s ‘Introduction’).

So this isn’t just an adventure story from the early twentieth century.  Chesterton’s full title for the novel gives it away, in part.  It has all the logic of a mad dream. 

And it is a page-turner, but what those pages turn up is just not what you might expect.

Monday, 23 March 2020

The Last Few Weeks in Pictures

We are all currently in social distancing, sensible lockdown.  A lot has been happening.  In no particular order, here are some of the events here at Trees, in the last few weeks, in pictures.

Welcome to my world...

Monday, 16 March 2020


William Forster Memories

I was at William Forster School in Tottenham from 1969 (when it was, I suspect, technically still Downhills School; I was taught in the building by Tottenham Green).  I left in 1976 after sixth form, to go to University. 

For the second and third school years most of my year’s time was spent at the lower school site on Downhills Rd, closer to Turnpike Lane, and across Belmont Rd.  From the fourth year onwards, I was in the modernist brand-new building on Langham Rd.

The new school was built on the site of the old Palace Gates railway where it crossed under West Green Rd.  There is a lot to be written about the railway, and the echoes of it in my life, but that is elsewhere.  

I remember that new school building was meant to be a showcase, with a swimming pool, for example, to be built as part of phase two.  But the arrival of Margaret Thatcher, as the new Education Secretary, resulted in the cancellation of all the subsequent phases.

My mother never forgave her for cancelling the second phase of the building.

The general cry at the time was ‘Thatcher, Thatcher, milk snatcher’ because she stopped the supply of school milk, that tried to ensure underprivileged children had sufficient calcium and vitamins.  It was, I think, a hangover from wartime.  I never did like school milk, but even at a relatively young age I could see it was wrong to stop it wholesale.  

My first form teacher was Mr Kekwick (we were form ‘1KK’).  He was a cigarette-smoking French teacher, and taught well.   He was also the first and only person ever to give me the cane.  I can still recall part of the morning register he would call for the class:

‘Barrowclough, Baxter, Beckenham, Burke, Davidson, Driver, Head,…’

In that first year, I can remember the school drama society, where Tony Garwood was the star – playing Scrooge in ‘A Christmas Carol’.   I played Ignorance or Want, revealed from beneath the cloak of the Ghost of Christmas Present.

I tried to learn trumpet, too, in the first year, but struggled.  I couldn’t really practice it at home in our council flat.  

Other teachers I remember were Miss Hull, Mr Fisher (the Head, who seemed never to be around), Mr Francis (the Deputy Head who seemed to actually to run the school), Ms Frances, Miss Flowers (Music), Mr Titchmarsh (who made me re-do my UCAS form to make sure I put Durham second after Cambridge – rather than put Durham last and UEA second, which is what I’d done initially!), Miss Cherry, Mr Crispin & Mr Oakley (PE), Mr Ayres (History – and an enthusiast for local history), Mr Timpson (?), Miss Reeves (who taught me for O Level English Literature – and I really wanted to do it at A level but the school didn’t offer it), and:-

For Chemistry: Mr Jordan and Mr Messi.

For Physics: Mr Gray and Mr May.

For Maths: Mr Hill, Mr O’Driscoll, Mr Taylor and Mr Joshi.

Others have reminded me online about Mr Learner (Woodwork), Miss Sharrow (RE) and others.

I remember Richard Stevens – my best friend in the earlier years, David Kemal, Pauls Davidson, Langridge and Morris, (and others from the Morris clan, such as Pauline and Maxine), Peter Large, Omar Sattaur, Erdjan, Ian Morley, Hilary White, Tracy/Terry Rogers, Linda Brownjohn, Jacqui Thompson, Jackie Clarke, Fred Baxter, Kim Greenham, Robin Barrowclough, Sylvester McKay, Everton Herbert, Winston Silcott, Jill Stubbs, Gillian Stone,  Susan Brown, Nadira Ali, Tony Garwood, Henrik Castello, Paul Somerville, Violet Rustean, Kenny Poulton, Steve Harold, Anna Diaz, Jean Zukabitz, Ralston Maas, Andrew Kyriacou, Faizal Hussain, Konje Hussan, Aldo Oppertelli, Steven Beckenham, Danny Burke, Stephen Driver, June Anthony, Thelma ?, Steve Whitby, Stephen Young, Gary Avis, Val Walker (Locker), Stelios Charalambides.  And many others I’ve failed to mention.

While at the school I was bullied – probably from the 2nd (or maybe the start of the 3rd) year to the 5th year.  This was in the form of teasing, taunts and occasional punches from boys in my class.  Andrew Kyriacou was the worst offender, by far, while others, such as the Pauls, Richard and Ian took no part.  This ended when a teacher finally intervened.  The bullying hurt a lot emotionally; and I suspect in some ways I have never quite got over it.  But, by the end of 5th year and into 6th form, it was far better, and we all explored local pubs and clubs (I fear I still owe Mr O’Driscoll a pint).

(As an aside, in new money, year 3 was current year 9).

I really enjoyed classes.  Maths was always fun, and I particularly loved geometry, calculus (thanks to Mr Taylor), and the complex plane.  Euler’s formula

Physics and chemistry of course.  I can still remember the struggle to understand the internal resistance of a cell, but always loved Galileo’s equations of motion – what my two sons now call SUVAT.  And enthalpies of reaction, electron orbitals, all that carbon chemistry.  But not just STEM subjects. Also English and English lit in particular.  Austen and Tennyson for ‘O’ Level, I recall.  

I remember playing football on Belmont recreation ground in the mud and rain, the school production of Joseph and the Technicolour Dreamcoat (Richard Stevens as Joseph), and the annual violence of the pupils versus teachers hockey match in Downhills Park (with Mr Hill, suitably armoured-up, in goal).

Overall, I’m surely grateful to WF, and the teachers, and the friends I made there.  I certainly had a different upbringing to many I met at University in the mid-70s.  Many of whom had had a very privileged background by comparison.   In some ways, as a result, I suspect I ended up with a more realistic, or at least a richer, perspective on life.

Finally, a random few pictures gleaned from the InterWeb:

David Hill

School Tie

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And an explanation

Sunday, 15 March 2020

City Limits

Four and a half years or so ago, I was in the British Library researching early Steve Bell cartoons.

Specifically, I was looking at copies of City Limits magazine.  This was a weekly listings magazine for London that started as a result of the long-running industrial dispute at Time Out.  The latter had originally been run on far more egalitarian lines, and had had a definitely left-leaning, possibly socialist stance.

However, when the then-owner decided to change this, a lot of the journalists and commentators withdrew their labour - including Bell, who moved his Maggie's Farm strip across to the new magazine.

A few weeks later, City Limits was born.  It lasted some time (around 12 years, finally closing in 1993) but of course it is clearly no longer with us.  You can read about all this on various Web sites and there is a short Wikipedia stub.

City Limits included information about demos and marches, protests and similar events as well as films, plays and exhibitions.  There was a section on 'Agitprop'.  This was during the time of Thatcher, after all.  And the reviews were nothing if not provocative.  A far cry from today's Time Out, which is basically a throwaway collection of adverts with little critical content. 

I miss it.

So just for fun, here are a few snippets. 

Images courtesy of research in the British Cartoon Archive, at the University of Canterbury.   Highly Recommended. 

There are many more, and for sale as prints on Bell's own Belltoons site.  Go see now!