Spring from the Bunker

Oddly enough I had switched off the Today program on Wednesday morning (22 March). I only ever listen to five minutes whilst I’m making porridge so it has to be pretty bad for me to hit the off button early. I objected to the casual Moslem-bating tone of someone taking the piss out of the idea of virgins in heaven. I wondered what Christians do up there all day long. I couldn’t quite imagine them listening to the Today program. Shopping, probably, eating perhaps. I will never know, sadly.

The Thames at Kew
The Thames at Kew

My mid week walks have been shoehorned around other things than heaven. Last week (15 March) I was going to Berko – Tring, in fact – so my walk was from home to Euston via Leighton Road and Camden Square. The only sign of spring I consciously clocked was a dandelion. Which at least has the advantage that it is quick to write down. I enjoyed the walk though. I absorbed the spring and the peace of a less dieseled route into town.

I was briefly resentful of the fact that I was also carrying the Arcades Project back to Hertfordshire Libraries more or less undented. Then I reflected that Walter Benjamin carried the manuscript over the Pyrenees pursued by the Nazis. I felt a bit silly. Also, as excuses for not finishing a book go, his was rather better than mine.

On Thursday (23 March) I combined a walk with a trip to the National Bunker. I’m pleased to report that the weeds have returned to Attwood’s Alley: luxurient blue alkanet, named from colloquial Arabic al-Ḽannat “the henna shrub” and a member of the borage family:

Sovereign plants to purge the veins
Of melancholy, and cheer the heart …

White flowered comfrey, too. Which I didn’t know, until I checked the spelling just now, is also a member of the borage family. The Dictionary of Food and Nutrition is a bit more more circumspect than Robert Burton about the plant’s health benefits: “Leaves may be cooked like spinach or fried in batter, but they contain alkaloids that cause liver damage.”

I stepped over a discarded syringe in the alley as well, which is another way of keeping the blues at bay not without downsides.

I was going to Kew to look up two flyers who had trained with the Inns of Court OTC in Berkhamsted. Both joined the Royal Flying Corps, the forerunner of the RAF, on the same day – 13 March 1917 – in a batch of 83 cadets from Berkhamsted. 2 Lt. Trevor Evans’s letters have been published online. The editor has made one or two unfortunate transcription errors: or it might be that the letter writer himself got a date or two wrong. It doesn’t detract from the letters anyway which give a fascinating snapshot of a cadet’s life in Berkhamsted in the early part of 1917 (not 1916/17).

The other flyer attracted my attention because he was from Hemel Hempstead and, like my great uncle, a Berkhamsted school boy. I was energized reading 2 Lt. Walter Needham’s army file in a way that online documents can’t really do justice to. Here was headmaster, Charles Greene (father of Graham)’s signature, certifying Walter’s moral character. The whole of the modern world with its crises of faith, dodgy intelligence, conflicted loyalties, seemed to be peering over my shoulder.

Whilst I was waiting for the casualty report, I googled Walter’s father, Edgar Needham who Walter had described as a “Newspaper Proprietor and Printer.” The paper turned out to be the Hemel Hempstead Gazette and its sister publication in Berkhamsted.

I sometimes surprise myself how miserable I feel in the Bunker. You imagine you would develop some immunity, a second skin. The casualty report was desperate. It wasn’t the description of Walter’s injuries which upset me so much as the prosaicness of the cause. Coming back from a combat mission, he had simply got a little bit lost. By the time he got back it was dark. He crash landed on the airfield (See “Local War News”) and died the same day. Done for by the earth spinning the wrong side of the sun.

His observer, J.E.M. Evans died of his injuries (See “This Wireless Affair”) two months later, leaving a wife, Emily Ethel, and parents, William and Eleanor, in Pembroke Dock.

One hour of unbroken sunshine in the whole day which exactly coincided with my walk from the Bunker up the tow path to Richmond. It is a beautiful walk, one of my favourites. You always pass a few people, even on a weekday, but long stretches you are alone with your thoughts and the herons. The deep red catkins of the poplars – devil’s fingers – reminded me that there are other sources of good tunes. It was only about 8 degrees and the ENE wind was brisk – more than once I thought I heard a plane only to realise I had been tricked in the tree tops rising bare above the green willows.


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