First and Last – the poetry of Judith Williamson (1947-2015)

judith williamsonToday on my blog I am really pleased to be able to share the poetry of a woman I knew nothing about, until I was contacted by fellow writer David Venner who, in writing this post, drew my attention to the work of Judith Williamson. Reading The Supporter, shared below, I marvelled at the warmth and wit in her work and, with the poem Home,  the breadth of her work is illustrated. A collection of her poetry was published posthumously in 2015.

The name Judith Williamson may not be familiar to readers of this blog. As ‘J L Fontaine’, Judith was a published author. She had been writing since her teens but her first novel The Mark was not published until April last year. Her poetry, beautifully crafted but until recently known only to close family, reached a wider readership in 2014/15 through her participation in an online poetry project, ‘52’, in which over 500 aspiring poets were encouraged to write a poem a week, inspired by a shared prompt.

Following Judith’s untimely death last October, three of her fellow online poets compiled a collection of her poems and this was published by CreateSpace under the title First and Last. Many of Judith’s poems are autobiographical and so perhaps it might be thought that they will have meaning only to those who knew her. But I think they have a much wider appeal because they deal with subjects, ideas and feelings that are universal. As the compilers of First and Last noted, “Judith had the knack of projecting human warmth through the foggy glass of modernity”.

Judith WilliamsonBefore introducing a small selection of her poems, a few biographical notes may be helpful. Judith was the daughter of a village schoolmaster – her mother was the school secretary. She trained as a legal secretary, married and had four daughters. As the blurb on the cover of her novel The Mark puts it “she worked on a chicken farm, in hospitals and old people’s homes and, as ‘JJ the Clown’, children’s entertainer and puppeteer.” After gaining a post graduate diploma in counselling, she later worked in a college and as a police welfare officer in Sussex.

Once her children had left home Judith moved to France, living in a lovely rambling old house in a village between Poitiers and Bordeaux. Here she found time and space to write. She also found a French partner and, after a few years, moved with him to Senegal in West Africa, where some of her later poems are set. These and one or two earlier ones are among my favourites. They can be funny, thought-provoking or moving; they all engage the reader and often strike a chord with one’s own experiences. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.

 

The Supporter

I must have been bowled over, to arrive
each Sunday afternoon,
to make cucumber sandwiches
and watch a game
I never understood.
I watched him triumph
week after week,
his bat raised in acknowledgement of
our polite applause.

I stumped him.

I swapped him for a rugby player
but that seemed, mostly, mud, maul,
testosterone,
and odd-shaped balls.

I kicked him into touch.

The hockey player
was fast and furious,
most of the time,
especially in bed.
He wielded a very short stick.

The ball was finally lost
in the undergrowth of neglect.

I huddled on a cold and windswept beach
to watch his dinghy
cross the finishing line.
Waking just as the klaxon sounded, signalling
his victory.

I took the wind out of his sails.

The footballer was easy.
He only required that I hold up a mirror, so
we could both admire him.
It was a game of one half.

Overnight, I moved the goalposts.

It seems, however,
my path was set.
And that I have spent my life
shivering on the sidelines.
Admiring.
Supporting.
Applauding.
Waiting
for the real game to begin.
Several of Judith’s poems convey her restlessness and her search for her true self.

Home

My need to wander far and wide,
to uproot and downsize,
two suitcases containing
all that I possess
reflect how rootless I have felt
since childhood,
It took me many miles
and years to find
my home inside me.

After her move to Senegal, Judith’s sense of injustice comes through strongly in her later poems.

Tourist Trade

Delicate as the fallen flowers that
carpet my yard,
the girls arrive.
Blown by the wind of poverty
into the gaudy town.

At night in bars and clubs,
their young faces
gashed with painted smiles
they are draped
like bright scarves
over ageing flesh.

In the bellow and roar
of bloated tourism
they can no longer hear
the heartbeat
of the village
or the crying child.

Sometimes Judith abandoned the short line verse format (she never constrained herself by rhyming her lines). The following paragraph of prose contains, in 125 carefully chosen words, so much to admire in the style but at the same time so much to rail against in the subject she is writing about.

Progress

Cooking in my little kitchen, I reflect that my African sisters, along the track, are cooking on wood foraged during the day and carried home on weary heads, their splay-legged babies, bobbing on their mothers’ backs, lulled by rhythm. The women cook, squatting on sand in darkened yards, or by the light of a mobile phone. Their husbands sit, resting after a long day of lying around talking to friends and drinking tea. The male children play in the road, chasing old tyres or kicking tin cans while their sisters crouch by their mothers, ready to help or fetch or carry, vilified if they are too slow. In my well-equipped kitchen, very advanced, sophisticated, I cook while my husband plays on the internet.

Sadly, Judith Williamson’s life and burgeoning writing career were cut short just when she had found her voice and had started to receive recognition for the quality of her work. Her poetry, her published novel and others that may still find a publisher, will hopefully form an enduring legacy.

 

David Venner (Judith’s brother-in-law)

My sincere thanks to David for sharing this with me. His own book Despatch Rider on the Western Front 1915-1918 was published by Pen and Sword Books in 2015 and he wrote about it on this blog HERE.

Posted in Books, Guest posts, Literature, Poetry, Reading, Writing | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Six years of randomness – blogging a writing life

“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say” Flannery O’Connor

sixthSix years ago today I started this blog!! At the time I wondered if I would keep it going more than a week; but here I am older, wrinklier and wider, if not wiser more than 300 posts later.

I chose No Wriggling Out of Writing as the title because, until that moment, wriggling out of doing what I love most had become a habit, and as the blogging boom took off I was encouraged to give it a try. I am not surprised, looking back, that within six months of putting finger to keyboard I had decided to have regular counselling sessions, and the quote from Flannery O’Connor, above, is a feeling I can identify with. Writing on here has helped me to identify those issues that are really important to me, and those that support me when I am struggling to come to terms with my health anxieties, a slow down in book sales, or world events that threaten to overwhelm me. I am more confident in what I hold dear and what I genuinely feel.

So a sincere ‘thank you’ to all those who have read my blog , regularly or just by chance. Looking back, my blogging has changed a lot over the past six years. I started off as part of the ‘mummy’ or ‘parent’ blogging community, becoming less keen as it seemed to morph into something that focused more on freebies and PR than on genuinely held beliefs.

I also realised that to be true to myself I would have to have a blog that went against those ‘blogging bibles’ that suggest you need to find a niche and stick to it; write for an audience and ensure you mop up every possibility to ‘monetise’ your blog. Marina Sofia on the lovely finding time to write blog, recently wrote a piece I could really identify with called Professional Blogging vs. Personal Connections , and for me it has been those personal connections I have made – with other writers and readers – that have been most valuable. My blog is random; posts about my favourite poet John Keats sit alongside those written on the subject of my book, Shell Shocked Britain: The First World War’s legacy for Britain’s mental health (a book that would never have been written if not for this blog). Book reviews share space with my love of Cumbria or the occasional rant. I love to have guest posts on my blog, and appreciate the opportunities blogging has given me to write for others. Blog statistics vary wildly from day to day and, still, the post that has had most views (more than 30,000) is the quick one I wrote in 2012 mourning the death of David Barby, the Bargain Hunt expert. All that effort to be literary…..

frostWhen I mentioned my bloggaversary to friends on twitter, and wondered how best to mark it, I had lots of suggestions – many involving cake or alcohol – and one I certainly took up was to look back at my early posts to see how I had progressed over the years. Things have certainly changed, and I found that those I like best, and those still read most regularly, are ones in which I focus on a particular poet, or poem.  When I write those I am often working through my own thoughts or concerns, but I find I connect with a global audience of other poetry lovers. Lots of people seem to recognise the ways in which a poem can take the real essence of a feeling and describe it in a way that can get to the ‘heart of the matter’, express your deepest thoughts, help you feel less lonely or support you through tough times. It is in poetry that I think Flannery O’Connor’s words resonate for me, alongside the Robert Frost quote, above. Those ‘Oh yes, that’s it!’ moments that can also be felt when listening to the lyrics of a favourite song, or hearing a few bars of a familiar piece of music. I have changed through my love of poetry, and my ever wider reading of it; changed as a writer and as a person. The knowledge that others feel as you do is never as well expressed as it is in poetry and it has taught me so much.

So, on a day when I am reviewing what I have achieved in my six years of blogging – things I would never have done had I not written that first, tentative post –  I thought I should end with a poem on the subject of loving poetry by the fabulous Billy Collins.  If nothing else, I hope this blog has shared my enthusiasm for verse and encouraged you to give it the opportunity to work its magic on you. If you are someone who still can’t connect with poetry, take Collins’s advice and drop a mouse into a poem – as with my blogging experience, you never know what he or she will be when he has found his way out….

Introduction to Poetry 

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

Billy Collins

Posted in Books, Poetry, Random musings on family life, Reading, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

The loveliest of love letters? Keats to his ‘Bright Star’

keatssevI have just had to empty and refill my bookcases, seeing them painted and replaced in our newly decorated dining room (which doubles up as a work space). So I have been able to take another look at my lovely array of books of John Keats‘s poetry and letters, biographies written over the past 150 years and critical discussion of his writing. I wanted to run away for a week and reread my favourites – there just doesn’t seem time to do them justice amongst the jumble of other things I do in the week to earn a living. At times of stress I regularly turn, in short bursts, to my copies of ‘The Letters’ and ‘The Poems’ of Keats,  and may fit in another viewing of Jane Campion’s film Bright Star , preventing as they do the pulling out of hair and the breaking of cups and dinner plates.

John Keats wrote the most striking letters – philosophical, romantic  and frankly heartbreaking. Many explain his poetic philosophy and add significantly to the power of his poetry, others are amusing and lighthearted. One I recently revisited would have many women swooning. It was written by Keats to Fanny Brawne in the summer of 1819, the year in which he wrote much of his best, and best known poetry. He had fallen deeply in love with Fanny over the previous six months and was spending the summer away from her on the Isle of Wight with his friend Charles Brown. In Bright Star, excerpts from this letter are read by Ben Whishaw, who plays Keats, as heard in this clip (although the images are not from the film):

However, it is wonderful to read the whole, veering as it does between barely inexpressible joy and a deep despair:

Postmark: Newport, July 3, 1819

Shanklin, Isle of Wight, Thursday

My dearest Lady — I am glad I had not an opportunity of sending off a Letter which I wrote for you on Tuesday night—’twas too much like one out of Rousseau’s Heloise. I am more reasonable this morning. The morning is the only proper time for me to write to a beautiful Girl whom I love so much: for at night, when the lonely day has closed, and the lonely, silent, unmusical Chamber is waiting to receive me as into a Sepulchre, then believe me my passion gets entirely the sway, then I would not have you see those Rhapsodies which I once thought it impossible I should ever give way to, and which I have often laughed at in another, for fear you should [think me] either too unhappy or perhaps a little mad.

I am now at a very pleasant Cottage window, looking onto a beautiful hilly country, with a glimpse of the sea; the morning is very fine. I do not know how elastic my spirit might be, what pleasure I might have in living here and breathing and wandering as free as a stag about this beautiful Coast if the remembrance of you did not weigh so upon me I have never known any unalloy’d Happiness for many days together: the death or sickness of some one has always spoilt my hours—and now when none such troubles oppress me, it is you must confess very hard that another sort of pain should haunt me.

Ask yourself my love whether you are not very cruel to have so entrammelled me, so destroyed my freedom. Will you confess this in the Letter you must write immediately, and do all you can to console me in it—make it rich as a draught of poppies to intoxicate me—write the softest words and kiss them that I may at least touch my lips where yours have been. For myself I know not how to express my devotion to so fair a form: I want a brighter word than bright, a fairer word than fair. I almost wish we were butterflies and liv’d but three summer days—three such days with you I could fill with more delight than fifty common years could ever contain. But however selfish I may feel, I am sure I could never act selfishly: as I told you a day or two before I left Hampstead, I will never return to London if my Fate does not turn up Pam or at least a Court-card. Though I could centre my Happiness in you, I cannot expect to engross your heart so entirely—indeed if I thought you felt as much for me as I do for you at this moment I do not think I could restrain myself from seeing you again tomorrow for the delight of one embrace.

But no—I must live upon hope and Chance. In case of the worst that can happen, I shall still love you—but what hatred shall I have for another!

Some lines I read the other day are continually ringing a peal in my ears:

To see those eyes I prize above mine own
Dart favors on another—
And those sweet lips (yielding immortal nectar)
Be gently press’d by any but myself—
Think, think Francesca, what a cursed thing
It were beyond expression!

J.

Do write immediately. There is no Post from this Place, so you must address Post Office, Newport, Isle of Wight. I know before night I shall curse myself for having sent you so cold a Letter; yet it is better to do it as much in my senses as possible. Be as kind as the distance will permit to your

Present my Compliments to your mother, my love to Margaret and best remembrances to your Brother—if you please so.

Having regained composure after having her breath taken away by the longing expressed in this letter it would be a cool woman who didn’t relish these words, but the intensity might also be a little frightening. Fanny was in her late teens; Keats just 24; his references to loss – the sepulchre, the death or sickness of loved ones, the draught of poppies, three days of delight as butterflies – are I think so very romantic, but quite chilling. Keats asked that all Fanny’s letters to him be burned after his death, a request his friends met. We have no idea of Fanny’s response, but there is a sense in his subsequent letters that whatever words she wrote back to him were never enough to convince him that she loved him as much in return. I believe, though, that the fact that she nursed him in the weeks before his final voyage to Rome (dealing with the consequent gossip that such an arrangement would have attracted); didn’t marry for seven years after Keats’ death; wore his ring on a chain around her neck all her life and kept every one of his letters, contradicts the insecurities Keats felt (no doubt made worse by his failing health) and I for one have always admired her.

When these letters were published a few years after Fanny’s death in 1865, Keats’ reputation was damaged – the Victorians found their sensual language and occasionally angry intensity disturbing. Fanny, until then completely unknown to Keats’ growing readership, was not seen as a fit object of his adoration. However, this view has changed in recent years and Bright Star certainly went some way, albeit fictitiously, towards giving us an understanding of the relationship. There is much we will never know, but I for one find the romance deeply moving.

Posted in Keats, Literature, Poetry, Reading, Romanticism, Writing | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Shell Shock on the Somme: keeping the stress of war in the news

sommeWhilst I was researching for my book, Shell Shocked Britain: The First world War’s legacy for Britain’s Mental Health (Pen and Sword Books October 2014),  I came to understand how, during certain periods of the war, concern about the numbers diagnosed with shell shock, and the possibility of it becoming an ‘epidemic’ grew. Never was this a greater worry than during the battle of the Somme, when official reports suggest that, in a six month period, more than 16,000 men were recorded as a casualty of war owing to the trauma they experienced during the Somme offensive that lasted from July  1st to November 2016.

They suffered the classic symptoms – mutism, blindness and deafness, facial tics, paralysis and depression, alongside nightmares – reliving the horrors night after night. My grandfather was a victim, which led to lifelong anxiety and a terror of thunderstorms. My great uncle was hospitalised for a year with war trauma and, four years after the end of the war, he committed suicide, first murdering his ex-girlfriend by cutting her throat. It is the story that inspired my book , and, as I discovered, there were many similar tragedies played out across the country in the years after the war.

Featured Image -- 5439Of course, as Shell Shocked Britain describes, even the extraordinary figure of 16,000 would be a gross underestimate. Many men were recorded as physically, rather than mentally, wounded and others did not break down until later, even many years later, when an event seemingly unrelated to their military experience would trigger a breakdown. It is important too, to note how class based was the diagnosis and record of a man’s experience. As I sat in the various libraries, researching my book, the fact that officers were more likely to be diagnosed with ‘neuresthenia’ (or a long term break down resulting from the pressures they were under) where others might be categorised as ‘Shell Shock Sick’ and therefore not a ‘real’ casualty of war, became clear. Post war, men who remained hospitalised as a result of their trauma had their pensions docked to cover their treatment, where a man with physical wounds did not, leaving many families impoverished.

The First World War was a very different kind of war to that anticipated in the heady patriotism of 1914. The battle of the Somme was one of the first full scale battles in which volunteers and conscripts took part, and they had to endure days of heavy bombardment as thousands of shells were used by both sides. They could be buried alive in the stinking mud as trenches collapsed, blown into the air by a shell or mown down by machine gun fire. The would lose many close friends, often as they stood in the same trench, and it is of little surprise to us now , when we know that even the battle hardened regular troops were breaking down, that many thousands of others with less experience should find it hard to cope.

It is a subject I return to again and again as I give my talks – the sheer unfairness of the response to shell shock; the desire to ‘keep the numbers down’ in an attempt to ensure morale was not affected; the different treatments meted out depending on which hospital, which doctor and which class you were classified in – all are shaming. What is worse, in my view, is that 100 years on, things have not  changed sufficiently to prevent significant numbers continuing to suffer from what is now often referred to as ‘combat stress’. Veterans of conflict (or some ‘peace-keeping missions’) still find it is hard to ‘come out’ about any mental health problems they are experiencing and some are left with the same lifelong psychological wounds as their forbears in the Great war,  leading to alcoholism, family breakdown and ultimately, suicide.

So as I end my talks, I would just like to end this piece, marking as it does the start of that battle, with the thought that this commemorative period will come to mean little if we don’t, during the four years, work to properly understand the issues men faced then, and those our forces veterans face now. We must keep the pressure on the necessary organisations to ensure that research into the causes of and treatments to alleviate the symptoms of combat stress, PTSD or whatever we now choose to call it is properly funded. Charities are finding themselves overwhelmed as the MoD and NHS fail to meet the needs of men and women affected by war trauma. And the sort of legacy  left by the terrible crisis in the Middle East and the horrors experienced daily by civilians and troops in the war zone is incalculable.

So, even whilst the madness of the political situation Britain currently faces seems to hog the limelight, be sure to remember what happened 100 years ago, and consider the horrors still witnessed that leave a psychological scar that may never heal.

Shell Shocked Britain is published by Pen and Sword Books and is available from their website HERE or on Amazon HERE. It can also be ordered from any bookshop.

 

Posted in Book, First World War, History, Mental health, psychology, Shell Shocked Britain, War, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Review: Top 10 Walks in the Lake District…

My regular readers (and even irregular ones…) will know that I am at my happiest when I am in the Lake District. As soon as I cross that border into Cumbria, and see the first fells in the distance, worries melt away and I feel as if I have come home.

OK, it must sound sentimental to many of those who live and work in the area, who undoubtedly have to deal with the same day to day pressures as I do back here in Somerset, and may not get the time to wander the fells full of fine feeling (I love a bit of alliteration) but I am not going to apologise for it. I am, after all, one of millions who visit the area, catch the lake district bug and return again and again. Just four weeks ago I had a blissful week of fine weather (too hot to walk one day!)  and good walking, supported by two fabulous little books in a series I have only just discovered.

The Lake District Top 10 Walks series is published by Northern Eye Books, and includes a wide range of pocket sized books perfect for the walker who enjoys a morning or afternoon walk of about five or six miles, with the sure and certain knowledge that they are on the right track to something extra special. From high fells to low fells; from waterfalls to lakesides; literary to historical; there is something for almost everyone.  This year we packed Walks to Viewpoints by Stewart Smith and Walks to Pubs (yes OK I know….) by Vivienne Crow.

ViewsAt £5.99 each they are great value. Smith’s Viewpoints includes walks to try wherever you might be based and it introduced me to areas I would not normally have considered – Great Mell Fell in the north, and Gummers How in the south. I wish I could have tried them all, but there is always the next time, and I have to mention one walk I was particularly impressed by – a low level walk around Wastwater which offered me an entirely new perspective on a lake that already enjoys the distinction of having at its shore ‘Britain’s Favourite View’. On a sunny day, near a pool created by the River Irt and on the southern shoreline after a walk through the bluebells of Low Wood, the stillness seemed profound, until I heard the gentle lapping of waves in a slight breeze. Looking up, to our right, at the terrifying screes, it was, genuinely a view to savour. On the return stretch via Greendale we met with an American couple, carrying the same book,  who had been misdirected and had started the walk the wrong way round. Apart from being a good sign that the book is selling well, I almost envied them, as the view back to the lake from this point onwards is fabulous.

IMG_1882

The view back to Wasdale

Crow’s Pub Walks offered us the chance to follow a wonderful walk around Great Langdale and Mickleden, my own ‘favourite view’. It starts and ends at The Old Dungeon Ghyll Hotel and takes you on tracks along the side of the fells and on valley paths.In the Mickleden Valley you genuinely feel tiny, as the peaks of Crinkle Crags, Bowfell and the Pikes loom over you. And, of course, the pub is great!

IMG_1957

Walking in Great Langdale to Mickleden

Now, I have a few problems with my legs [let’s do a bit of awareness raising here – it’s called primary lymphoedema and I inherited it from my dad. It causes my legs to swell, become very heavy and at risk of serious infections and I have to wear sexy (if you are a bit weird) high compression stockings to manage it. It is a bl**dy nuisance but I have had it a long time and I don’t let it rule my life] which can make walking difficult. I can walk for miles, but ask me to climb a difficult stile, or slip down a steep gravel path and a normally word conscious woman will be cursing with the best of them. So I have to be cautious what I take on. This is perhaps the only caveat with some of the walks – Stewart is a fit landscape photographer, and Vivienne also has masses of experience so when they say a walk is steep, it most certainly is. The walks took me quite a bit longer than suggested in the book, and after consultation with my much more experienced brother in law I discounted a couple as a bit ambitious for me. This makes it doubly important to take the relevant OS map with you as the publisher recommends, and even though they might seem a relatively manageable length and  supported by well written and accurate directions, it is still possible to get lost. The photographs are beautiful (I have my very own Stewart Smith print on the wall at home), but taken in the best conditions, so make sure you still go properly prepared for all weathers.

I would heartily recommend both these books, and intend to buy others in the series. So many books of circular walks are too big to stuff in a pocket, and these are just the right size. After a week they are already well-thumbed, and I still go back to them to remind myself of the walks we did. Do give them a try – they are available from the publisher and all the usual outlets as well as nearly every outdoors shop in Cumbria.

 

Posted in Books, Photography, Reading, Travel, walking, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Q & A with Suzie Grogan

This gallery contains 6 photos.

Originally posted on Milly Wonford's Blog:
A few weeks back I sent a couple of questions to Shell Shocked Britain author, Suzie Grogan, for Warfare Magazine Online. Her answers left me with prickly skin up my arms, making my…

Gallery | Leave a comment

Albert and The Somme: From Idealism to Realism by Pamela Davenport

large3As we approach the centenary of the beginning of the Battle of the Somme, it becomes more important than ever to recognise the sacrifices that were being made by the troops fighting at the Front. There were hundreds of thousands of casualties, and whilst researching Shell Shocked Britain, it became clear that post war estimates of approximately 60, 000 shell shock victims in that offensive alone, is still a significant underestimate. Many survived the battle only to return home undiagnosed, and mentally shattered. I am always interested in hearing stories from those who know something of the war-time experience of the men and women in their family, and here is a particularly interesting piece by No wriggling favourite Pamela Davenport, who has sought to understand her ancestor’s experience the better by studying art works of the period.

To his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren Albert Edward Davenport was a distant and cold person, preferring to spend the time after work in his local public house rather than at home. Little is known about Albert, except that he had joined the army in 1908, but never completed his 7 years’ service. Instead he was “bought out” of the army by his mother Emma two years later and returned to his family’s terraced home in Bury Lancashire. Four years later the world was turned upside down and Albert would be on the move again.

By August 1914 it had become inevitable that Britain would join forces with the Allies against a German Army that was determined to dominate Europe. When the war commenced, Britain was the only major European power not to have a mass conscripted army. In a wave of patriotic fervour, thousands of men were encouraged to volunteer for service in Lord Kitchener’s new armies. With nationalistic feeling strong, many British soldiers departed for training with a copy of Rupert Brooke’s poems tucked into their kitbags. Military service and death was seen as both heroic and noble.

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.
And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

Meanwhile in Bury, Lancashire, Albert now aged 28, was a painter and decorator and a father of 4 children. He enlisted in October 1914, as a volunteer in the 2nd 5th battalion of the Lancashire Fusiliers. Whether he was attracted by Kitchener’s recruitment strategies, the valiant words of Rupert Brooke, or the fact that soldiers serving overseas would be able to claim additional money for his wife and dependants, it is difficult to know. By 6th October 1914 he packed up all his troubles in his ‘old kit bag and smiled, smiled, smiled’, as he headed off into the unknown.

unknown drummer and buglerAlbert, like other new recruits, would have had three months basic training, which was intended to build up physical fitness and confidence, instilling discipline and obedience, as well as teaching basic military skills. This image of the unknown Drummer and Bugler from the 2nd 5th battalion, provides a brief glimpse into the lives of young soldiers who were unprepared for the horrors to be faced on The Western Front. By May 1915 Private Albert Edward Davenport 200845, was on the way to France and possibly the greatest and most terrifying adventure of his life.

2016 marks the centenary of The Battle of The Somme, which was fought between 1st July and 1st November 1916 and was one of the bloodiest battles in history. On the first day alone Britain suffered more than 20,000 fatalities and over 57,000 casualties. It is difficult to imagine how the heroic sentiments, which had been displayed in 1914, could rest easily with the terrible devastation experienced on the Western Front. Although news would have reached Albert’s family about events in France, little is known of his life on the Western Front, as no letters or photographs survive. But Albert did survive this battle.
The overwhelming loss of life which was experienced in the Battle of the Somme was partly as a result of the German army proving to be more experienced in the tactics of defence against Allied offensives. This proved to be costly to the British and Allies on the Western Front and added significantly to the length of the campaign.

As they retreated in November 1916, the Germans left desolation in their wake. Not a shelter that might serve as a billet, not a road or a bridge, not a blade of grass or a wisp of hay that would feed horses; this was truly vandalism on a gargantuan scale. It is difficult to imagine how Albert coped with the havoc and destruction of both his battalion and the landscape.

To gain some insight into Albert’s experiences between 1915 – 1917, I have chosen the art of two of the most distinguished artists of this remarkable era of social and political change. In contrast to Brooke’s patriotic sonnets, as years of devastating losses and with no clear resolution to endless fighting, there was a general change in mood from idealism to realism. Many war artists offered a harsh realistic visual depictions of the death and destruction that resulted from combat. A current exhibition at The Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester highlights some of the graphic images produced by C.R.W Nevinson and Paul Nash. The paintings convey the pathos at the plight and experience of the ordinary soldiers who became nameless heroes. Their “Visons of the Front 1916-1918” do not glorify war and were intended to shock public reaction to the losses in battle. These shocking images still resonate as much today as they did 100 years ago.

Both Nash and Nevinson emerged from a remarkable group of artists from the Slade School of Art and like many other artists, writers and poets ended up on the Western Front. Both saw themselves as messengers of the terrifying realism on the Western front. It must have been a sense of cruel irony that the destruction and depravity of the battle field fed the imagination of these incredible artists.

“I realise no one in England knows what the scene of the war is like. They cannot imagine the daily and nightly background of the fighter. If I can, I will show them…”

large

© IWM (Art.IWM ART 518)

In Nevison’s painting Paths of Glory (above) the starkness and irony is apparent. The viewer is presented with the sight of two dead soldiers lying in the battlefield mud. It is difficult to identify or identify with these unnamed heroes, as their faces are obscured and their bodies merge with the murky earth. A death in a waste land, a dreadful sense of a loss of identity and a waste of young lives. It is little wonder the official censor of paintings and drawings, Lieutenant – Colonel A N Lee censored this painting, what type of message would the sight of rotting and bloated British soldiers convey to the British public? But these were the type of images which Albert would be faced with.

large2

© IWM (Art.IWM ART 2242)

Nash’s experience as an officer on the Western Front and an official war artist completely transformed the way in which he painted. His early work was romantic and light hearted. By 1917, as he travelled towards Belgium, he began to note changes in the landscape. In one of his most famous paintings, The Menin Road (above) we are drawn into a completely ruined landscape with an apocalyptic sky, a wasteland of mud and standing water. This is really a strange disturbing and alienating place. The scene shows a place of chaos, irrevocable change and wreckage. It is difficult to imagine how anyone could survive physically, emotionally and psychologically from this experience. It is estimated that over 750,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers were killed in the trenches surrounding Ypres, but Albert wasn’t one of them.

Albert was to see action at Hallencourt, the 4th phase of The Somme and the first phase of the third battle of Ypres, but this was not an enviable European tour. Having survived the Battle of the Somme Albert was promoted to corporal in March 1917, but six months later he received an honourable discharge under the category “No longer physically fit”, and awarded the Silver War Badge.

Although awarded 3 medals, the Star Medal, the Victory Medal, the British Medal, Albert, a weary but resolute British Tommy, did not return to a “Land for Heroes”. Instead Albert returned to a country which had lost a generation. Wilfred Owen’s haunting elegy Anthem for Doomed Youth is a judgement on the experience of war, the impact on the “sad shires” and those who were left to mourn.

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

Albert returned to his family a changed man, dying aged 71 years in 1953. He never mentioned his experiences in France and Belgium, post-traumatic stress syndrome was a condition which was not recognised in 1918. But Albert would ruefully reflect and contemplate on “each slow dusk a drawing- down of blinds” and the many young men who became doomed youths.

Sadly his war records and his medals are missing, but it is thanks to the Lancashire Fusiliers Museum in Bury that I have been  able to provide some insight into Albert’s army life.

Posted in Art, First World War, Guest posts, History, Mental health, Shell Shocked Britain, War, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments