A Sentimental Journey 9 April 2017
I’m not going back to the forest without a paper map and an old fashioned compass. I’d put a route on my phone to the Thomases’ isolated house in the heart of Epping Forest – the poet’s last address in England before he was killed in France a hundred years ago. I had intended to just reverse it when I finished and retrace my steps to the station. I found the place alright. Two houses together, surrounded by forest, the one furthest away from the road being the poet’s. I peered into the garden. Chickens. Tick. Veg and flowers: but I’m not an expert and also I find peering into other peoples’ houses a bit sad. So I mooched around for a bit, sat down on a log in a grassy clearing and thought of the footsteps that had brought me here. My footsteps, I mean. Not connected thoughts, really. Nothing like a poem. Unless the earth was a poem and the mist rising from the valley was a feeling, and the chickens pecking in the gravelly soil were echoes of old thoughts.
They might as well be a poem because there was no mist, it was twenty-five degrees in the sunshine and chickens there were none except the ones I’d heard here on another walk. It wasn’t even spring a hundred years ago according to Thomas’s widow, Helen, who was living here at the wrong end of the coldest winter since 1895. I had seen two nuthatches and heard a chiffchaff and, earlier in the day, saw a swallow, the first of the season: but it might have been a martin. I poured my tea, retrieved my flapjack from my rucksack, and opened the Thomas edited Poems & Songs for the Open Air. It fell open at a W.B. Yeats poem which I read a couple of times. I strained for a poetic response but my mind wandered off to other links between the poets.
I had brought the collection with me as a small act of defiance. I know it’s a bit of a modern cliché: celebrating the life rather than dwelling on the death, but I found Thomas’s death, in my current mood, more annoying than anything else. The list of effects in his buff folder at Kew seemed to me like so much grave dressing, mausoleum furniture. Plus I never liked all that bromance stuff and Robert Frost seemed to me an aptonym as much as a human being. I wanted Richard Jefferies and George Borrow, the open road, sea shanties. I wanted the aquifer not the sad drip of a war which he might have seen through and opposed.
It was getting dark and my phone had died, I thought I’d better skedaddle. But which way? I had definitely passed the fragrant azalea and skirted round the still slumbering rhodys and yes I had come along a reddish path for part of the way. I also remembered following a runners’ trail of sawdust. This turned out to be my biggest mistake. I think it just felt reassuring. It must be going somewhere. The sawdust was the last thing I could actually see with any clarity. I heard the police helicopter take off from its base opposite The Owl on Leopard’s Hill – and I heard a real owl and saw a muntjack. One and a half hours later I suddenly realised I had just walked round in a circle.
I noticed a light on in the old potting shed – a relic of the time this part of the forest was occupied by Paul’s Nursery. The Thomases’ house had been a nurseryman’s cottage before they moved in, after a fashion, in December, 1916. Standing outside was a tall indefinite man, between fifty and sixty years old, with a white goatee beard. He was wearing a fez, a colourful smoking jacket and jeans and he introduced himself as Richard Grim, writer in residence.
“Are you writing something about Edward Thomas?” I asked.
“Actually no, I came out here to get away from him.”
I now noticed there was a light on in the house too and I could hear a bad tempered argument emanating from it.
Suddenly a window was flung open and a book thrown out into the garden. Richard went over and picked it up: it was an Everyman edition of A Sentimental Journey, Laurence Sterne. The jacket had been torn almost in two.
“I’m writing – trying to write – about a poet who died on the same day in the same battle. Have you heard of William Sharp?”
“Doesn’t ring any bells.”
“A Scottish Yeats, if you like.”
“My war poet, Walter Wilkinson, was adopted by Sharp’s widow. William Sharp was, according to Yeats, the most psychic person he had ever met – as well as the biggest fibber (a bit rich coming from him). They were fellow travellers in what James Joyce called the Celtic Toilette. They collaborated in an attempt to set up a celtic mystical order. Sharp was a signatory of the first program for the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. I told the Corporation that I was studying the influence of Yeats on Thomas and other war poets and I got this place for a year complete with smokeless coal and as much road kill as I could eat. I had a one day licence to collect mushrooms in the forest last October. I did my best day’s writing ever that night but somehow managed to set light to the shed and woke up in Loughton Camp without any clothes on.”
We talked about the Thomas related places we knew. I should have written it down but who has the time? Two things I remember clearly. The first was that Richard had come to think that anniversaries were actually as much about forgetting as remembering. You make a compartment for memory and bit by bit it slips into the deep. “Which bit of eternity don’t these people understand?” he asked me. “Does anybody really believe that a day went by after Edward’s death that Helen didn’t suffer.
“He made her suffer quite a bit before it,” I reminded him.
The other thing he told me was that when he visited the Bois de Marouil where Walter was encamped before the battle he had come across several rather fine examples of phallus impudicus. After hearing of the Cocks Not Glocks student protest in Texas, he now wondered whether the pricke mushroom or stinkhorn had a better claim than the poppy as a token of remembrance. It was unarguably a symbol of regeneration. He also liked the fact that the fruiting head was only a tiny fraction of the mycelial connections below the surface. Moreover the mushroom existed in a symbiotic relationship with the trees whose shattered stumps were the symbol par excellence of the war’s destructive fury. Flowers too are culturally specific: phallus impudicus could be truly universal – beautiful too in their own way: and smell of death which is not inappropriate – a nudge towards a more grown up understanding of war, something more nuanced than flowers. If you sentimentalize the last war aren’t you supporting the next one?
When a cohort of old men in paramilitary uniforms march down Whitehall does it make future conflict more or less likely? Is it better or worse than an IRA funeral or an Orange parade? Should the military have any role in remembrance at all? History shows that the only thing the armed forces truly excelled at in the last century is the murder of civilians – sometimes conscripting them first but just as often not. Perhaps the whole thing would be better forgotten: the cowards who enlist alongside the brave and the blithe, the professional widows and the veterans pissing blood and special brew into empty shop doorways. Forget the arms manufacturers that sell weapons to all sides and the oil companies that fuel them, forget the politicians that start them and the religious bigots that inflame them. Forget the lawyers that spin them and the newspapers that lie and lie about them and vilify or shut down alternative voices. Forget the idea that torturing and murdering anybody is better than doing nothing.
“They don’t wear balaclavas.”
“They don’t wear balaclavas on Remembrance Sunday. And I’m not sure a country that can lock up someone who swings on the cenotaph but builds a bronze statue of Arthur Harris is ready for your message.”
I might have rung for a taxi if he’d had a phone, but he seemed to think it was an easy walk. He pointed out the start of the path by the cherry trees and told me that all the streams this side of the hill flow into the Loughton Brook. If I lost the path I was to follow the water and anyway, it was simply not possible to get lost on a cloudless night with an almost full moon.