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26/11/04 Offensive

Researching at Brit Lib newspaper archive at Colindale this week I came across a bound volume of The Wipers Times: a satirical magazine written in the trenches. (Ian Hislop told the story of this little jewel in Are we as offensive as we might be? on Radio 4, last Sunday).It is searingly funny and poignant, and a great humaniser: especially good news for a rather jaded researcher trying to make sense of dusty military documents and endless rolls of microfilm.

One of the Times's targets was the Daily Mail's W. Beach Thomas who we might now call an "embedded reporter" with the BEF in France. Beach Thomas recorded the battle at the Ancre on 3rd September 1916:

Mr Beach Thomas on the new battle

From W. Beach Thomas with the British Army in the field Sunday September 3rd.

At set intervals from dark to full moon this morning British troops who had crept up day and night nearer and nearer the walls leapt to scale the German ramparts. They reached the barriers, and entered the bastions, they won some great successes and suffered some repulses. But the measure of the magnitude of the achievement was the expectancy of the enemy.

(From The Daily Mail overseas edition September 9th 1916 p.520: complete text here) The Wipers Times, which by then had morphed into The Somme Times, needed to do very little to Beach Thomas's epic prose style - already patently bonkers - to make it "funny":

A message from Mr Teech Bomas

By our special correspondent Mr Teech Bomas

Mr Teech Bomas speaks

No Man's Land, 20/July/16

I write from the middle of the battlefield. There are a lot of bullets but I don't mind that. Also the air is thick with shells. That also I don't mind. Let me tell you all about it while I can think clearly. Before the battle commenced I took up a favourable position in No Man's Land, the little larks were larking and the morning was fine. Then Hell broke loose and as things got really hot I climbed up the rope of a sausage and joined two A.S.C.'s who were also watching the proceedings. Let me tell you of the gallant dash of the Umpshires: - into the thick of the Prussian Guard they dashed. The few of the guard who remained cried "Kamerad" and surrendered. That rush was epic. I then walked over the German lines to have a look at them. There were a lot more bullets but what would you? Now I thrill with an ecstasy. Here they come, the wood is ours. Strange associations, here we see the submarine co-operating with the cavalry and shells falling thickly. Then - the peasants - I witnessed the thrilling scenes of the last peasants leaving their happy farms in No Man's Land, harnessing their mongrel dogs into their little carts and driving off when the battle got a bit hot. It was epic. Taking a place is one thing but putting it back is another. Profound but true, and so the wood was won. A correspondent must always see to write. This may appear unnecessary to the cognoscenti, but it is so. Tomorrow I will tell you more. I return now to the battle.

[From The Somme-Times with which are incorporated The Wipers Times, The "Newchurch" Times, and the Kemmel Times, No 1, Vol. 1, Monday 31st July 1916, price 1 franc.]

Further to last week's semi-fictional genealogue, I've posted a rather good description of Wandsworth Prison, by PJ Betts, here. PJB was roughly a contemporary of my grandparents (she was five when the war broke out) and her childhood memoire, People Who Say Goodbye, ("The most amusing book of childhood memories I can remember reading." Graham Greene), describes growing up in Wandsworth Common when it was still a countrified suburb. The title refers to the young men who took leave of the family when goodbye always meant forever.



23/11/04 Sing Me Back Home

"The warden led a prisoner down the hallway to his doom"
Merle Haggard, Sing Me Back Home

"The Scouts had parted on their search,
The castle gates were barred;
Above the gloomy portal arch,
Timing his footsteps to a march,
The warder kept his guard,
Low humming, as he paced along,
Some ancient Border gathering song."

Sir Walter Scott, Marmion, Canto I, v II.

"My great-grandfather G. was not hanged, I can tell you that, but that is nearly all I can say at the moment."...
wrote my grandfather, D., in 1980, which sounds recent, to me, or nearly a quarter of a century ago, which doesn't...

...The cause of death was, however, uncontroversial: two vertebrae severed and a red weal round his neck from Adam's apple to Adam's apple.

It still took the jury several minutes to come to a verdict (they didn't want to appear unquestioning) of lawful killing.

My paternal great-grandfather, W., took a long draw on his cigarette and expertly manoeuvred, with his tongue, an errant twig of tobacco from behind his teeth. He'd seen the soldiers bring the lad in and was struck by something - he didn't know quite what - about him. W. was disinclined to give the matter too much thought. You do the crime; you face the consequences.

But he still lost his appetite on execution days and he could forget about sleeping properly for a week or so until the normal rhythms of life returned.

Wiping the window with the back of his sleeve he could see two new officers making very heavy weather of the hole in the sodden prison yard, each spadeful having to be scraped off with a trowel. I should go and help them - he thought - get a bucket of water: keep your spade wet - then the clay will fly off. Otherwise, you'll drown in it.

Years ago in the days of the hulks they used to bury convicts out on the marshes beyond Woolwich. W. had heard a story that one parson, rather than venture out on the foetid bog, would shout the funeral service from the quarterdeck while convicts, guarded by armed prison officers, lowered their unclaimed cohorts into the shifting mud.

Of course, after a high spring tide, it was not unusual for the ex-cons to find more freedom in death than they ever had in life, and their mortal remains became part of London's river: physical and temporal. They would feast their swollen eyes on the riches of the empire arriving in the Port of London or mingle (as though to evade capture) with the black rockweed in the creeks and saltmarshes of the pale dawn estuary.

It normally fell to W. to post the notice of execution at the prison gate. The procedure would almost invariably follow the same pattern. The crowd would be chatting animatedly, staring into space, reading newspapers, rocking prams. They'd have walked up from town or across the common, or taken the omnibus from Clapham or further afield. W. would appear some minutes past the hour with paper, hammer and pin.

The crowd would fall silent. He would post the notice at the prison gate, and then a collective sigh, like a withdrawing wave, would break from those closest and spread back through the crowd.

But this time there would be no notice and no collective sigh.

The trial, at Middlesex County Court, off Parliament Square (I sat on a jury there myself many years later), was conducted in camera, the execution carried out in secret, and notice, written by the authorities, presented directly to certain newspaper editors only after the execution.

The German Spy, X.,
was executed today in
Wandsworth Prison.


11/11/04 Naked

Crushed under foot, shorn of his green summer guise, shivering in anticipation against the hoary blasts of discontent winter...

But enough about me. Tuesday I went for a ramble Heathwards to forget all that existential stuff.

Originally I was going to 214 it up to Highgate and walk down but as ever I was too impatient and set off up Highgate West Hill past new cafe/dance/media centre, "Panini's People". (I'm showing my age with that dreadful pun.)

By Highgate ponds I'm immediately cheered (or jeered) by a couple of parakeets who seem to look brighter at this time of year against unbroken grey skies and dishevelled, bled leaf canopies. I enjoyed the spectacle of a whippet chasing a disgruntled duck into the water. Rather than striking out for Kenwood I hang left into woods and follow stream to boggy source thinking smugly about perched water tables and counting off wild service trees.(See Guide link).

Under the Bird Bridge, a crushed Scrumpy Jack tin in iron-rich orange stream is somehow appropriate in a kind of back-to-nature Tess of the d'Urban-villes kind of way.

Fungi not as ubiquitous as Epping Forest a few weeks ago where one gentleman was pulled over by Forest Rangers (its illegal to pick fungi in the forest without a licence) with 18 kilos of ceps. Our own Epping foray (legal and above board) produced one cep -- and evidence that we weren't the first there -- but a basketful of colourful fungi nonetheless. Though "edible" mostly only in the sense that they won't kill you rather than any stamp of culinary merit -- though the black, funnel shaped Horn of Plenty (Craterellus cornucopioides) aka black Chanterelles or (Fr.) trompettes de la mort ("trumpets of death") were very tasty in spite of scary name.

Yesterday some very colourful Orange Peel Fungus (Aleuria aurantia) aka Orange Cup growing in clay tree ball. It may or may not be edible if "cooked properly": as well as spelling out the initials of a future betrothed if you toss it over your shoulder. (Well, I lied about one of those facts).

I also saw a woodpecker. I may have seen an owl -- though it was (2 o'clock ish) a bit early. A squirrel pack (if that's the right word: they were certainly mob-handed) and more sticks then you could shake a dog at. I also managed to tease out a few paths that I haven't used before. So much so that when I reached the lime tree avenue, still in full green leaf, I didn't know which way was up or down. I call that a success in the middle of one of the largest cities on earth.

Pat Barker was on radio 4 this week as Regeneration was featured on Bookclub.

There is a useful article on Barker's trilogy in the blog I mentioned last week.

I'm not absolutely sure that the academic cultural/history approach is very useful to me. I'm torn between the need to know the best modern thought on our perception of the period with the need to free up my imagination to draw a living, breathing story (albeit a micro-story) from -- mostly unread -- original documents. On balance though, I do need to know what the arguments are. It seems a pointless exercise to replace crusty old myths with shiny new -- but equally bogus -- ones.

On the subject of mythmaking: why have embedded journalists in Falluja stopped prefacing their reports with the usual "this report was made under military restrictions"? Perhaps media coverage of war hasn't changed as much as we would like to believe since the upbeat reports of British and allied successes on the Somme, 1st July 1916.


1/11/04 last Sat to Sheep Island aka Sheppey in search of fossils. Some of them human. Both my G-fathers had associations with lowland Kent. Dennis (76405 Gnr. Goffey D.G.) spent the winter of 1939 billeted in huts on Iwade marsh - on a ten inch thick sheet of solid ice. In November, 1918, my paternal G-father, George, then a Rifleman in the 20th Bat. King's Royal Rifle Corps, went AWOL in Sheerness after a sick furlo at his parents' house in Wandsworth (he had contracted a respiratory disease whilst serving with the B.E.F. in France), and was fined 7 days pay. We'll never know the full story. Like many men of his generation, George didn't talk about the war. Happily the military authorities agreed that he wasn't fit to return to France and, a day after his late return to Sheerness he was posted to the 5th Bat. KRRC, and would serve the rest of the conflict at home.

On the subject of WWI, two new anthologies published this week
(Info from BBC Breakfast / Thursday 28 October):

In Flanders Fields: Poetry of the First World War - edited by George Walters, is published by Allen Lane. ISBN: 0713997230 and First World War poems edited by Andrew Motion is published by Faber and Faber. ISBN: 0571221203.

Esther McCullum Stewart, who was a researcher for the first of these also runs her own blog of war poetry: What a Lovely War, which is required reading for warbloggers, and others.

One book I can recommend is The River The Thames in our Time by Patrick Wright. An epitome of the thoughtful coffee table effortlessly flowing (like the river itself) from Conrad to Dr Feelgood, Eton to Dagenham Docks. It's reassuring (sort of) to know that Gnr. Goffey's defence of the realm stretches back in an unbroken line to the anglicized Saxons who nailed the skins of two Danish raiders to the church door at South Benfleet. (Bless).

Wright's chapter on Sheerness: "Apocalypse Any Minute Now" takes in Joseph Conrad (buried at Canterbury) who describes the Thames estuary in The Mirror of the Sea, first published in 1906 and now available free on www.

The chapter also features Johnson, Uwe rather than Boris, who wrote an article on the Richard Montgomery, an American munitions ship which sank in the entrance to the Medway in August 1944. It is, apparently, still there. Too dangerous to move, hence the chapter title.

Wright is also good on the concrete and steel forts that can still sometimes be seen rising from the sea. The story of Sealand is one you simply couldn't make up.

But I'm digressing again. Oh, and we didn't find any fossils. We got the tide all wrong and arrived with the fishermen and women who cast their lines - more or less -from the comfort of their cars. Had a nice walk tho', along the seawall at Shellness and a crunching stroll back along the naturist beach (well, it doesn't appear to be a naturist beach in October) admiring the ramshackle fishermen's huts and thinking how well placed they are for a writer's hideaway. What is it about old men and the sea?

Finally, a propos of last week's blog and problemas technicas: an excellent Biff cartoon in the Graun this week - so check back here to see it online next week. But don't visit if you're in a hurry because you will get stuck in the archive. OK do then.


13/10/04 27/10/04 shady has been off air for a couple of weeks due to leaves on the line and other problemas technicas, mostly involving hard drives. Many thanks to BMD for a paddle, and Stevil for an admiralty chart of Sh*t Creek. We are now unsinkable. Yeah, right…

This time last week (well, it would have been if I was posting the blog when it was written) to Epping Forest for soulful autumnal. Enfield Lock Station (Liverpool St) was the jumping off point. My route east at first shared with the London Loop along canalised and nameless (at least according to O/S map) tributary of the R. Lea.

Views back over waste incineration plant to colour coded tower blocks of …

Contemplates mortality, North London (7,3) _ _ _ _ _ _ _ / _ _ _

BNP graffiti on garage door. Himalayan balsam (Bogus balsamii) on banks. More at home than the dumped 3-piece suite and roll of carpet. Arguably. (For more on the subject of native/non-native flora check out Aliens at BBC R4: listen again until 1 Nov.)

At the lock, the Royal Small Arms Factory, home of the famous rifle, is now "an exciting new village community", according to the tin. Grim looking nightclub, "Rifles", offering an unlikely array of stars. Kind of place, at least from the outside, you feel you just might be seen dead at.

Perhaps the loss of the rifle factory is a testament to a more peaceful world: bullet point democracy has now been established. Or perhaps rifles just went the way of camera film and old carpet.

But I'm rambling. At least I should be. Nurseries to the left of me, nurseries to the right. I climb the northerly edge of Barn Hill and up onto the ridge formed when the Lea was something like a river. And where the sandy deposits (High Beach) denote the presence of an even older watercourse.

There are over 800km of Green Lanes in Essex, ancient untarmacced "roads" that survive as footpaths and bridleways. At Mott Street I join one heading S and then another, E, up to Lippits Hill, John Clare's "Leopard's Hill". I stop to photograph Micklemas daisies in the autumn sunshine, various fungi; and lunch.

Serious views back across the basin from Lippits Hill. I watch a police helicopter take off, head S and E to hover above a distant plume of smoke. I briefly imagine an al-Qaida ghost ship and a hole where Tilbury used to be (if that's not a contradiction in terms). I also imagine myself in a writer's caravan in the trailer park: my trusty Cairn terrier basking in the glow of his morning constitutional, espresso machine gurgling with pleasure, I pour myself a small single malt and sit down at the typewriter… I get up again, look at the Guardian for a minute, put the washing in, make a phone call, mull over a "to do" list, making a mental note to start one, and that's it day over. How the fcuk did that happen? They probably don't allow pets, anyway.

At High Beach in the forest proper, I head SE below church and start snapping fungi in earnest (mostly fly agaric) before hooking up with the green ride and trotting S to Connaught Water.

Round about four a new nip in the air reminded me that it was indeed autumn and, about the same time, a mood of irritable tiredness replaced endorphined good will.

The walk was, point to point, 10km but, I reflected, mad dogs and photographers rarely follow a straight line, at least not for very long.


Words & Music

North/South/Orphaned Lyrics 2003

Epping Forest 27 Oct 04

Sheep Island 1/11/04

Naked 11/11/04

Aliens at BBC R4

Hampstead Heath - The Walker's Guide
by David McDowall and Deborah Wolton

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