September 1 1939

I read something somewhere recently that, historically, August was the month where things – bad things usually – kicked off.

As a theory, if you only looked at the 20th Century, you’d certainly want to check it out.

I listened to a politics podcast last week – a summer edition, with snappy soundbites from the last tumultuous twelve months – that lent weight to the Dangerous August Theory – by closing with a reading of these verses from the end of Auden’s poem, September 1 1939. It was hard to think it nearly 78 years old, so prescient it seemed. Or is it that all human crises feel the same when they are about to break over you?

This was what was read:

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

This is the whole poem, read by Dylan Thomas:

By the way, the podcast, Talking Politics, really is worth a listen.

September 1 1939

When you’d rather be outside

The sun is shining here – rare pleasure this August – and, sitting unwillingly at my desk, back to the window, I can hear children playing in the garden next door. The sound reminded me of this, from Burnt Norton:

Sudden in a shaft of sunlight
Even while the dust moves
There rises the hidden laughter
Of children in the foliage
Quick now, here, now, always-
Ridiculous the waste sad time
Stretching before and after.

Ah well, not long till lunchtime.

When you’d rather be outside

A A Milne at war

I was looking for a verse by AA Milne – one of the usual ones that everyone knows from Now We Are Six – when I came across this.

I admit I know nothing about Milne outside of Christopher Robin and Pooh – Wikipedia tells us this:

Milne joined the British Army in World War I and served as an officer in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment and later, after a debilitating illness, the Royal Corps of Signals. He was commissioned into the 4th Battalion, Royal Warwickshire Regiment on 17 February 1915 as a second lieutenant (on probation). His commission was confirmed on 20 December 1915. On 7 July 1916, he was injured while serving in the Battle of the Somme and invalided back to England. Having recuperated, he was recruited into Military Intelligence to write propaganda articles for MI 7b between 1916 and 1918. He was discharged on 14 February 1919, and settled in Mallord Street, Chelsea. He relinquished his commission on 19 February 1920, retaining the rank of lieutenant.

I think the poem tells us more:

In days of peace my fellow-men
Rightly regarded me as more like
A Bishop than a Major-Gen.,
And nothing since has made me warlike;
But when this agelong struggle ends
And I have seen the Allies dish up
The goose of Hindenburg—oh, friends!
I shall out-bish the mildest Bishop.

When the War is over and the Kaiser’s out of print,
I’m going to buy some tortoises and watch the beggars sprint;
When the War is over and the sword at last we sheathe,
I’m going to keep a jelly-fish and listen to it breathe.

I never really longed for gore,
And any taste for red corpuscles
That lingered with me left before
The German troops had entered Brussels.
In early days the Colonel’s ‘Shun!’
Froze me; and, as the War grew older,
The noise of someone else’s gun
Left me considerably colder.

When the War is over and the battle has been won,
I’m going to buy a barnacle and take it for a run;
When the War is over and the German Fleet we sink,
I’m going to keep a silk-worm’s egg and listen to it think.

The Captains and the Kings depart—
It may be so, but not lieutenants;
Dawn after weary dawn I start
The never-ending round of penance;
One rock amid the welter stands
On which my gaze is fixed intently—
An after-life in quiet hands
Lived very lazily and gently.

When the War is over and we’ve done the Belgians proud,
I’m going to keep a chrysalis and read to it aloud;
When the War is over and we’ve finished up the show,
I’m going to plant a lemon-pip and listen to it grow.

Oh, I’m tired of the noise and the turmoil of battle,
And I’m even upset by the lowing of cattle,
And the clang of’ the bluebells is death to my liver,
And the roar of the dandelion gives me a shiver,
And a glacier, in movement, is much too exciting,
And I’m nervous, when standing on one, of alighting—
Give me Peace; that is all, that is all that I seek…
Say, starting on Saturday week.

poohandtigger

A A Milne at war

Garden delights

What wond’rous life in this I lead!
Ripe apples drop about my head;
The luscious clusters of the vine
Upon my mouth do crush their wine;
The nectarine and curious peach
Into my hands themselves do reach;
Stumbling on melons as I pass,
Ensnar’d with flow’rs, I fall on grass.

Meanwhile the mind, from pleasure less,
Withdraws into its happiness;
The mind, that ocean where each kind
Does straight its own resemblance find,
Yet it creates, transcending these,
Far other worlds, and other seas;
Annihilating all that’s made
To a green thought in a green shade.

From The Garden by Andrew Marvell

Garden delights

Easing the spring

I was walking down the garden this evening (clutching a camera – as you do…) when I saw this bee working its way up the pagoda of lupin flowers:


I thought, he’s easing the spring. Does anyone else have phrases, culled form who knows where, that have simply become part of the way you see the world? ‘Easing the Spring’ comes from a poem by Henry Reed called, Naming of Parts. I read it at school back in the sixties, where it was one of the first ‘grown up’ poems that really struck home.  In those days we were only twenty years or so from the end of the Second World War and barely five years since the last draft of National Servicemen had been called up. Army life – boring and absurd –  felt very familiar.

It wasn’t so different, after all, to my boredom – a discontented schoolboy sitting in my new school uniform, unfamiliar shirt and tie chafing and choking me, looking out of the window at sunlit playing fields and dreaming of freedom.

It’s probably not such a surprise that , after reading it, I registered as one of the school’s first a conscientious objectors rather than join the Combined Cadet Force. 

Here’s Naming of Parts now:

Today we have naming of parts. Yesterday,
We had daily cleaning. And tomorrow morning,
We shall have what to do after firing. But to-day,
Today we have naming of parts. Japonica
Glistens like coral in all of the neighbouring gardens,
And today we have naming of parts.

This is the lower sling swivel. And this
Is the upper sling swivel, whose use you will see,
When you are given your slings. And this is the piling swivel,
Which in your case you have not got. The branches
Hold in the gardens their silent, eloquent gestures,
Which in our case we have not got.

This is the safety-catch, which is always released
With an easy flick of the thumb. And please do not let me
See anyone using his finger. You can do it quite easy
If you have any strength in your thumb. The blossoms
Are fragile and motionless, never letting anyone see
Any of them using their finger.

And this you can see is the bolt. The purpose of this
Is to open the breech, as you see. We can slide it
Rapidly backwards and forwards: we call this
Easing the spring. And rapidly backwards and forwards
The early bees are assaulting and fumbling the flowers:
They call it easing the Spring.

They call it easing the Spring: it is perfectly easy
If you have any strength in your thumb: like the bolt,
And the breech, and the cocking-piece, and the point of balance,
Which in our case we have not got; and the almond-blossom
Silent in all of the gardens and the bees going backwards and forwards,
For today we have naming of parts.

Easing the spring