|Sorley's Ghost Wednesday 10 December 2008
From letter to the Master of Marlborough, Aldershot, May 1915:
" ... when I next come down to Marlborough it shall be an entry worthy of the place and of the eneterer. Not in khaki, with gloves and a little cane, with creased trousers from Aldershot - "dyed garments from Bozrah" - but in grey bags, an old coat and a knapsack, coming over the downland from Chiseldon, putting up at the Sun! Then, after a night there and a tattered stroll through the High Street, feeling perhaps the minor inconveniences of complete communion with Nature, I should put on a gentlemanly suit and crave admittance at your door ... " 1
We arrived from the opposite direction: Bedwyn, on the First Great Western, walking up through Savernake Forest. We were pretty hungry by the time we rolled up at the pub with only about an hour's daylight to spare. Enjoyed the log fire and the genial atmosphere among the regulars, the shoppers and VI formers bunking off games. Reminded me of The Swan in Berko back in the day. Food was not disappointing to hungry stomachs but was a tad generic and only a really brilliant poet could have made the chips memorable. Fortunately, Sorley was a really brilliant poet. So we ate them because he couldn't, and raised a glass to Sorley's ghost.
1 1990, Jean Moorcroft Wilson ( Ed.) The Collected Letters of Charles Hamilton Sorley, London : Cecil Woolf, p221.
Poetry and the Memory of War Wednesday 12th November 2008
Poetry and the Memory of War event at IWM was amazing. We were transfixed for two hours. No wonder they had to provide a video link because of the huge demand and even then, there were still 400 people on the waiting list for tickets. Prof O'Prey, who worked with Robert Graves in the seventies and is President of the War Poets Association, was a genial host and gave a convincing argument for the importance of war poetry being in its collective voice, rather than in its individual voices, however distinctive. Then again with so many families present, I suppose he had to be diplomatic: readings were given in alphabetical order.
Pictures of the poets were projected on to a screen at the back of the stage and one of the most interesting and moving and slightly weird things was looking for facial similarities among the children and nephews and grandchildren of the poets whose images we know so well staring across to us across the decades from the birth of the modern world.
Jon Stallworthy demolished the revisionists. I wondered how many were in the room keeping quiet. The IWM is after all claimed by them as well. It has a dual function as the belly of the beast and licenced critic. Kingly power and court jester. And there were, perhaps surprisingly, many laughs during the evening punctuating deep draughts of sadness and loss: shared laughter making the shared sadness more poignant.
It was also apt that these weren't readings by actors or professional poets or soldiers (though they might be in the future: Kendall Sassoon's son is joining his great grandfather's old regiment) but family members. Just as the poets were mostly not professional soldiers but civilians. The readings were by a raggle taggle army. Unpolished, sometimes hesitant, choked. Made universal by their uniqueness.
Andrew Motion looked at poetry about the war written later by non-combatants. He read Larkin's poem, MCMXIV, as well as a poem by Ted Hughes from his first collection. He also read his own poem, The Five Acts Of Harry Patch, which was very interesting. I hadn't read it very closely so did not realise that all the old man's memories - from before and after the conflict - are fliltered through the pain and suffering of his few months at the front.
The armistice was a magic number - 11.00, 11.11. - that didn't work for those who returned from the slaughter. It marked an end to the fighting but did not draw a line under the physical and psychological suffering.
Jon Stallworthy read a very bitter response by, I think, Sassoon to news of the armistice, which I need to look up. And Prof O'Prey spoke of how Robert Graves' daemons returned to haunt him at the end of his long life.
Questions were invited from the floor. I did think of one, half-joking, about setting up a buddy system between poets and military historians. They could meet up maybe once a year, kick ideas around no-man's-land. A united voice would have even more clout at the level of policy. Perhaps, together, they could consign war to history. But the moment past. It would never have run anyway: the two sides are too firmly entrenched, and under strict instructions not to fraternize - even over a glass of the sherry which the poet laureate is donating to PEN this year.
© Richard Shepherd, 2008
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