A Great War poem for August 2014: MCMXIV (1914) by Philip Larkin

largeAs the weeks fly by and publication of Shell Shocked Britain approaches, I have been turning to poetry in an (often vain) attempt to relax and clear my mind of proofs and tweets and the general organisation of the launch.  The poets of the Great War have, of course, been the focus of programmes about the war on television and radio. The work of Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon et al is moving and descriptive of the horror of the trenches. They describe, angrily, their views of the establishment that sent young men to war, encouraging more and more to join up whilst they sat back in England, in apparent comfort. Poems such as Dulce et Decorum est by Owen and The General by Sassoon have framed the ways many people imagine what that war was like and have fed the myth of ‘lions led by donkeys’ so brilliantly exemplified by Blackadder Goes Forth.

imagesBut  I heard a reading of a very different type of poem this week, by a man born after the end of the First World War  – Philip Larkin. Having been unfit for active service in WWII due to poor eyesight, he was unfamiliar with the direct horrors of war, but he was a man who understood the power of the emotion present in ordinary lives. His expectation of life was low and he was something of a curmudgeon. But in the following poem, written 50 years after the Great War began, he looks back as we might do, 50 years on into a new century. As if inspired by an old photograph he describes those early, August days of the war and the queues of men, seemingly  in holiday mood waiting at the recruitment office as if they were going to a cricket or football match. The title is MCMXIV (1914); even those Roman numerals harking back to days long gone, as the four verses take as from the shops of the town to the big country houses via a countryside that seems remote from the coming carnage:

Those long uneven lines
Standing as patiently
As if they were stretched outside
The Oval or Villa Park,
The crowns of hats, the sun
On moustached archaic faces
Grinning as if it were all
An August Bank Holiday lark;

And the shut shops, the bleached
Established names on the sunblinds,
The farthings and sovereigns,
And dark-clothed children at play
Called after kings and queens,
The tin advertisements
For cocoa and twist, and the pubs
Wide open all day;

And the countryside not caring
The place-names all hazed over
With flowering grasses, and fields
Shadowing Domesday lines
Under wheats’ restless silence;
The differently-dressed servants
With tiny rooms in huge houses,
The dust behind limousines;

Never such innocence,
Never before or since,
As changed itself to past
Without a word–the men
Leaving the gardens tidy,
The thousands of marriages
Lasting a little while longer:
Never such innocence again.

The very normality of the scenes depicted brings back all the research I have undertaken for  Shell Shocked. Millions of lives were affected by the war across every class and so few, in those early months, understood the reality of the war they were called to join. Larkin reminds us of those things that touch and fascinate us now – the nostalgia of the individual shops, the tins and packets emblazoned with brands long gone and the Downton Abbey, Upstairs Downstairs world of the stately home. There are those ‘thousands of marriages’ that were celebrated by our grandparents and great grandparents. And there is that sense that the very fields  – ‘Shadowing Domesday lines’  and reflecting the poppy fields of France – were part of a history about to be thrust into the past; an old world.

I think it is a poem we should read over the coming month as the commemorations really begin and we look back, with Larkin, at our forbears  walking almost blindly into a carnage that stripped back the veneer of innocence and threw Britain into a century of total war and total change.

‘In relation to’ what? On ‘Talking Books’ and chewing words….

Baby-chewing-bookLots of people have asked me how my new radio show is going and how they might listen to it again or online. That is very good of you, my friends but I thought I ought to listen to it myself first…. What a scary experience!

After a little bit of intro, where I was myself interviewed about the programme and what I hope it will offer, I was lucky enough to have author Beth Webb as my first guest, a storyteller by trade and writer of books for children and young adults (see my previous post). Listening to it again I am very conscious that I a) waffle a bit b) sat further back from the microphone than my guest, who has the mellow tones I want to cultivate and c) giggle quite a lot and say ‘in relation to’ a little too often. It was nerves – those erudite sentences just slipped away from me. I will try and ensure I sound a little more ‘serious’ in future and will also make sure the producer of the day knows of my propensity to forget I have to talk into the mic….

So here is the link. Remember – you can listen to this live online at 10Radio.org every other Friday morning at 11am, repeated following Monday at 6pm. The next show – which will include a discussion about crime writing is on Friday 12th April. Any requests for poems, themes or discussions gratefully received. As are broadcasting tips….

Perhaps I am being a little hard on myself as I have had some really positive feedback. I certainly enjoyed it and that at least, I think, comes across. Fingers crossed people want to hear me enjoying myself every other week for the foreseeable future.

Even if you can’t listen to the whole programme, just catch the first few minutes to hear what I will be up to on the show. I will be asking for your input via Facebook, Twitter and this blog  – so please do let me know who your favourite fictional detectives are; the crime writers you most enjoy and the adaptations for large and small screen that you think work best.

Thanks for listening!

Temps Perdu – on deja vu and Dorothy Parker

I have been experiencing some odd feelings of deja vu in the last few weeks. Trying to explain them to a friend, I struggled and frankly  sounded slightly odd.

Perhaps this was because in every day terms we have come to use the phrase ‘deja vu’ in a slightly flimsy, inaccurate way. Reading more about it for this post, it seems it is a phenomenon that is still open to a myriad interpretations. It is not simply a trick of the mind, or false memory that gives us a shiver at the time and which can easily be laughed off. At the most scientific level, it can be an aspect of epileptic episodes; at the least evidence based end of the spectrum it is evidence of reincarnation. I don’t believe either of these describe my sensations, which are rather more prosaic.

I can’t explain easily what I have been experiencing, but as an example I might be driving into my home town and have the sense that I am driving into somewhere completely different, albeit subtly so. (It might be nice to drive into Wellington and imagine it is Rome, but sadly that level of fantasy is beyond me.) Does that make sense? It is almost as if it is a memory that is struggling to reconnect with my current life but each time I try and grasp at it to find out what it is trying to show me it slips away.

Recently I have also found myself sensitised to old photos; to fading roses; to songs and classical music; all of which currently have a greater power to bring on a fit of melancholy. I have also been thinking about what happens ‘from now on in’ – after all there are only so many new careers you can try, and at my age I ought to settle on something and stick to it…. Continue reading “Temps Perdu – on deja vu and Dorothy Parker”

A ‘me! me!’ meme. Seven things you didn’t know about me..

I am not a one for ‘meme’s as a rule. Not because I don’t like them – lists have always fascinated me. As a child there was a ‘Book of Lists’ that came out to a great fanfare (these things still having some sort of novelty in the ’70s and 80s) and I was glued to the brick sized volume of endlessly useless and often inaccurate facts. However I have that gnawing feeling as I start to compile my own list of favourite albums, children’s books, green vegetables etc etc that I am going to be a lot less interesting than everyone else. So there are just two on my blog.

But this morning I read on the fabulous Diary of a Desperate Exmoor Woman (writer Jane Alexander’s blog) her response to another blogger’s meme, ‘7 things you never knew about me’. It was written a year ago, and I know lots of others have taken this meme on since but Jane had come up with some really original ideas (helped by having interviewed David Byrne and Phil Collins). Having promised in my last post to take opportunities, get writing and risk failure, I have decided to use this as a prompt to get tapping away and expose myself to the derision of my peers (see no. 2).

Continue reading “A ‘me! me!’ meme. Seven things you didn’t know about me..”

Jake Thackray – a genius….. and a genealogist?

Having felt a little in need of cheering up recently and browsing the wonderful Spotify I quite randomly came across The Best of Jake Thackray. His biography describes him as a ‘singer-songwriter in the French tradition’ firmly rooted in the English countryside.  But that seems too mild a description for a poet who sang songs that are funny, sad, rude, irreverent and satirical. He poked fun at all that was self-righteous, self-important and hypocritical. The French influence is definitely there and his lugubrious expression has more than a suggestion of pavement cafes and Gauloises about it.

Continue reading “Jake Thackray – a genius….. and a genealogist?”

‘Parenting is such sweet sorrow…’

I am feeling drained at the moment. Sleeping badly; feeling physically creaky; eating all the wrong food again after five weeks on a healthy eating blitz: it is no wonder that my emotional reserves are in the human equivalent of the little red part of our vehicle’s fuel gauge. Every stop at the lights, traffic hold up, or emergency brake to avoid an idiot feels as if breakdown is imminent.

I have the most beautiful kids. To be honest they are young adults; but we are always our mother’s children aren’t we, however old we are? At the moment, and in their different ways, they are testing my emotional strength. Neither has an insurmountable problem in their life, they love me and both are happy. But whereas they live through their pain and recover quickly, I have absorbed their recent hurt and frustration and it affects me long after they have, as horrible modern parlance would have it, ‘moved on’.

As I get older it seems to become harder to ‘let it go’, to recover. This may be because as adulthood looms (for them, not me – although that is open to debate) I can sense that the least stressful years of their life are behind them and my role as protector is now a redundant one. They have to go it alone. I have to watch them fledge and just be there if they ever need tips on nestbuilding. I need to be ready.

I was in this mood at my reading group last night. We read a short story by J.G. Ballard – ‘Having a Wonderful Time’ – and then turned to two poems. One, ‘Morning Song’ by Sylvia Plath, was wonderful, but lost me for two verses and required the reader to work hard to appreciate complex images. The other was thus allotted just five minutes. We read it and left; but in it’s simplicity it stayed with me in a way that Sylvia did not.

For a Five-Year-Old – Fleur Adcock

A snail is climbing up the window-sill
into your room, after a night of rain.
You call me in to see, and I explain
that it would be unkind to leave it there;
it might crawl to the floor, we must take care
that no one squashes it. You understand,
and carry it outside, with careful hand
to eat a daffodil.

I see, then that a kind of faith prevails;
your gentleness is moulded still by words
from me, who have trapped mice and shot wild birds,
from me, who drowned your kittens, who betrayed
your closest relatives, and who purveyed
the harshest kind of truth to many another.
But that is how things are. I am your mother,
and we are kind to snails.

Fleur Adcock was born in New Zealand in 1934 but has lived in England for many years. Her poems are conversational and witty. However, familiar themes – family, childhood, identity – are approached with irony and such accurate psychological insight that the stab of recognition is almost a physical one. However harsh we know the world to be and however brutish we consider some of the things we have done in our lives, our instinct is to protect our children. We know though, that in that moment we have created a very fragile truth.

Continue reading “‘Parenting is such sweet sorrow…’”

The Eurovision Song Contest – you’re awful, but I like you….

A cheesy title for a cheesy subject, but I couldn’t resist it. I have just been out to buy a lot of nibbles and a lot more alcohol and tomorrow from 8pm this household is going to par -tay.

Seriously – this is really a follow on from a recent post I wrote about the Grand National in a way. Eurovision was with me as a child in the 70’s, stayed with me for a while in the 80’s, lost me for about fifteen years and then in 2001 became something I could share with my own children.  My daughter watched it aged 7 and fell in love with it. Ten years later, she watches it with more cynicism and with eyes only for hot male singers but importantly we still watch it together. Tomorrow she has invited three of her friends and they, along with my son (who accepted the invite with enthusiasm) myself and my sister will eat crisps, drink alcopops and laugh at Graham Norton’s jokes. It has become another one of those family traditions that are just so difficult to let go of.

Continue reading “The Eurovision Song Contest – you’re awful, but I like you….”

On finding real truth, peace and reconciling ourselves to the future

It is Good Friday. I once again maintained a Furneaux family tradition quite alone by eating far too many Hot Cross Buns. I am anticipating chocolate eggs on Sunday and looked forward to having the family around me for a few extra days over the weekend instead of finding myself alone at the computer all day.

And then this morning, instead of the usual Homes Under the Hammer or Animal 24/7 with my coffee I found myself catching the final few minutes of Bettany Hughes discussing forgiveness, and how hard we have to work to say ‘I forgive you’ or ‘I am sorry’ with any true meaning. I cannot say my life has been transformed, but my morning certainly has been. I remained seated for the first part of The Story of Jesus, examining the man’s life from an historical perspective and reading of the four gospels. Suddenly, the day seemed to have some significance beyond buns and chocolate. As my husband continued with some dubious puns and general mocking of religion it occurred to me that the increasing secularisation of society might have some direct correlation to increases in stress, anxiety and depression. I am sure this is not an original thought, but it crystallised for me the idea that my search for a place in the world, my anxiety about the future and my desperate need to find peace of mind and a place of safety might relate to my relationship with society as a whole.

This thought may not have been prompted by Bettany Hughes at all. I felt the first stirrings yesterday; once when I went to browse in Marks & Spencer and saw a whole range of chick and bunny decorated kitchenware. Who needs (or has the money for) tea towels, tea pots, cereal bowls, etc etc specifically for Easter? Christmas has long been lost to rampant commercialisation, but there has always been something rather more reserved about Easter, shocking though it is to see chocolate eggs in Sainsbury’s in January. I also thought shops had to remain shut on Easter Sunday, but on checking opening times for my daughter I found that Clarks Shopping Village in Street is open all day. Is there now no day in the year where we have to sit quietly with our own thoughts? Or does society now demand constant opportunities for distraction? Is our need for chicks and bunnies to celebrate one of the holiest days in the Christian calendar more to do with our love of childhood; our nostalgia at the loss of innocence?

I have never been able to commit to organised religion. I have long suspected that the need to ‘find God’ related more to my desire to shift responsibility for my life on to someone else than a real need for his spiritual presence in  my life. However, listening to Bettany Hughes; drifting along on the calm voice of Archbishop Rowan Williams; feeling uplifted by the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu; I felt more strongly than ever that we all need to find some peace in this mad world.

I believe, though, that to find peace you need to find truth. A real truth and an understanding of what is truly right and wrong in this world. With the increasing commercialisation of every aspect of society and the state of the British media how can we succeed in that search? Only yesterday the Daily Express printed figures about the number of people on long-term Incapacity Benefit owing to what they clearly saw as ‘lifestyle choices’ – obesity, drug and alcohol addiction. The words were then taken across internet news channels and supported by Conservative politicians. Apparently these ‘scroungers’ are costing us billions of pounds a year. Apart from the fact that as my friend wurzelmeone pointed out these claims amounted to less than 4% of the total, are these people seriously suggesting that people are staying on drugs, ruining their lives and relationships with addictions and eating until they can’t get out of a chair just to avoid work? Shouldn’t we be berating the fact that the budgets of voluntary sector organisations supporting these people out of self-destruction have been slashed in recent months whilst investment bankers continue to reap the rewards of their own destructive behaviours – gambling with our money? Or looking at our enthusiasm for another war in the Middle East where our oil interests lie when there are dictators in other areas of the world who can continue to persecute their own people without our intervention?

How can I, or anyone in society interested in finding a way to reconcile opposing values in the years to come, find the ‘truth’ necessary to offer the calm atmosphere necessary for clear and rational thought?

I have on many occasions been ‘accused’ of ‘thinking too much’, of being ‘too sensitive’. ‘Life isn’t like that, get on with it!’ is a phrase thrown at me on suggesting there ought to be a different way.

Well on Good Friday, whether you have an interest in established religion, seek a spirituality of your own or just ‘get on with it’ I think we ought to take a long hard look at the way we live now. It is not only me that needs to find some place of safety in this mad world.

On the occasion of my 100th blog post – I give you a time machine…

I am a centenarian! I cannot believe that this is the 100th time I have posted on no more wriggling out of writing. It was in July 2010 that the first tentative jottings went out into the blogosphere and at that time I wasn’t even sure if I could keep going for a week let alone eight months. So I must first thank everyone that has read my blog and supported me, even if just one post caught your interest I am grateful and I fully intend to make sure there are many more you might find interesting.

Anyway – to business. For this 100th post I thought I would set you a challenge. I am afraid there is no prize, but I will be sure to link and promote the best answer or comment I get in response. I know from the fascinating blogs I read that there could be some brilliant ideas to come.

So, in a similar vein to the Time Travel post recently put up by my old friend at The Blog Up North, I am offering you the opportunity to travel back in time to three historical events that you have wanted to witness for yourself. They can be well-known and well-documented, part of your own family history or even a key moment in your own personal history that you would like to revisit and make sense of. Fun or serious, there are just a few rules:

1) You can only spend 24 hours in any one place

2) You can only observe, not interfere. We all know what happens if you try to do that…

3) You cannot make monetary gain out of your trip. So anyone planning to go back and buy a lottery ticket after the draw – shame on you.

So – what would I choose to do? I was thinking about becoming a one woman marketing machine for John Keats, but then I realised it would have made less difference in 1820 than it can do now, and most things in my family history offer the possibility that like Michael J Fox I may end up risking my own conception. So…. Continue reading “On the occasion of my 100th blog post – I give you a time machine…”

The history in our supermarket trolleys – 50 years of food fashion

I have just been given a book called ‘Battenberg Britain’ by Nigel Cassidy and Philippa Lamb. It is fascinating, but not a little frightening. Reading through it one wonders how anyone over the age of twenty has survived the onslaught of hydrogenated this and additive filled that offered to us by supermarkets in the early years of their move to world domination. However, much of what they describe is still available and is, put simply, the history of British eating habits in the 20th century. I have to agree with the authors when they conclude ‘ ..tuck into a nostalgic British feast.. It’s your family history on a plate.’ I was filled with nostalgia and felt inspired to share a meal or two with you. Aren’t you lucky?!

Breakfast then. How about a nice bowl of ‘Ready Brek’? The authors of the book describe how, in the mid-1950s a factory manager at J Lyons & Co made ‘instant porridge’ from a dried out liquid derivative of oat flakes (yum..), but it failed to take off. That was until market researchers discovered that children adored the gloopy consistency and thus it was rebranded and marketed specifically at them. Apparently, we could all trundle off to school glowing weirdly, as if we had stepped too close to Hinkley Point or Sellafield whilst our mothers smiled at the thought that we were warmed by ‘central heating for kids’. Business boomed until Lyons, a firm started at the end of the 19th century, hit financial difficulties and was sold off to Allied Breweries. Ready Brek is now owned by Weetabix, a product which closely resembles kiddy porridge after just a few seconds of pouring on the milk.

Elevenses anyone? How about a cup of ‘Camp’ and a ‘Tunnock’s Teacake’?

Continue reading “The history in our supermarket trolleys – 50 years of food fashion”