In 2008 I organised and undertook a charity walk in the Lake District (see my short trek blog here) to follow in the footsteps of the poet John Keats. He walked through the Lakes and Scotland in 1818 with his friend Charles Brown and although his tour was cut short by his own ill-health and that of his brother Tom at home in London, imagery in his subsequent work highlights how much the walk added to his experience.
Following my own period of ill-health as I recovered from breast cancer I wanted to get fit and raise some money for causes dear to me. Re-tracing Keats’ steps over 100 miles in my favourite part of the world seemed an obvious choice. So I researched his route (much of which is now buried beneath the busy A596) and discovered that a number of people had gone before me. Thus I was introduced to Mr Nelson Bushnell, an American who came to follow Charles Brown’s itinerary as closely as possible and who documented the many miles he covered in the book ‘A Walk After John Keats’ published in the US in 1936. The wonderful AbeBooks found me a copy and I have returned to it many times since using it as the basis of my own route, although my fitness prevented me from heading into Scotland.
Whilst dipping into it recently I remembered a passage that highlights how the subsequent events of history can make the books written in the 1930s appear naive, or even sinister in their willingness to avoid the storm that was approaching from Eastern Europe. I thought I would share it with you here, as my amusement at its jolly turn of phrase is always tempered by the knowledge of the horrors to come.
(To Fort William 12 miles afoot (plus a 12 mile side trip on Ben Nevis) Thursday July 16 1936)
Presently I found myself on a slightly rising mound that was the summit – I had achieved Ben Nevis!…… I counted myself fortunate that this, the last mountain I was to climb, was the first and only one where the rain caught me.
Dimly through the clouds I descried a couple of buildings, an inn and an observatoriy, deserted and ruinous, and in them I took brief refuge from the bitter cold wind and the vast empty wet fog that enwrapped me. And here I found my two fellow climbers likewise in retreat. They turned out to be Germans; we exchanged friendly words in my own tongue, and dug into our knapsacks to make a common meal of our chocolate, jam and biscuits.
We began the descent together, chatting of this thing and that. They turned out to be emissaries of some German movement for an international good-fellowship of youth, spending their summer holidays in foreign travel, learning to share the attitudes and gain the sympathies of their various hosts – ‘spying for gun sites and fortifications,’ I hear some die-hard sneering. They were in France last summer; how thrilling Paris was! Had I ever been there? …. Yes during… I hesitated. But why not be frank?
‘Yes during the war’ I said. We all laughed, a little sadly, a little apologetically. How ridiculous! Imagine me gloating over their wounded relatives as I jounced my ambulance over the rough cobblestones to a prison hospital; or imagine them scorching my throat with poison gas in the next war! God help us all for fools and cowards…
(Nelson Bushnell 1936)
Nelson Bushnell does not discount another war, clearly. But he cannot imagine for a moment that these friendly fellows might be doing anything other than travelling Europe in order to ‘promote an international good fellowship of youth’. Of course I might be grossly misjudging these two men. It is possible that they were part of the youth hostelling movement that had been established by a German in 1909.
But in the two years prior to this mountaintop meeting the Hitler Youth movement had begun its most significant recruitment ‘drive’ and had begun to expand by demanding the forcible merger of other German youth groups into its ranks. The international youth hostel movement was also, by 1936, far from simply a ‘German movement’ and involved representatives from eleven other European countries. Can anyone out there enlighten me on this question? Were there emissaries sent to Scotland in the mid thirties with such innocent, and ultimately forlorn hopes?
Of course the identity of these men may never be known and this is but one small excerpt from a book which, in its willingness to accept American stereotypes of quaint old Britain, is a real museum piece. But in such a gem it brings one up short. A shadow comes across the landscape and Bushnell’s purple prose suddenly seems to highlight how far the world was from understanding what the Third Reich was planning.