The Victory Ball, by F.W. Skerrett : a Poem of Remembrance

My latest find at the Harborough Antiques Market, which seems to have the wonderful knack of providing me with things I didn’t know I needed, is this volume of verse – Rhymes of the Rail by F.W. Skerrett “The Locomotive Poet“, published in 1920 by Goodall and Suddick of Leeds.

 

I thought, from the cover, that it might be some collection of whimsical verse recalling the great days of steam – right up my street, or siding –  but, in fact, it is something quite different.  Skerrett, it appears, was a driver who operated out of Manchester, and was a keen Socialist and Union activist (with ASLE&F, the train drivers’ Union).

The verses, which are Kiplingesque in style (his epigraph is from Kipling, and he includes a pastiche of If  in praise of ASLE&F) are propagandist in intent, and were written to be to be recited.  In his foreword the Secretary of ASLE&F J. Bromley writes

“Those who attended our 1918 and 1919 Conferences, and heard some of Mr. Skerrett’s poems rendered at the concerts, knowing the beauty of them, will welcome this little book.” 

I’m not sure about beauty, exactly, but the poems certainly provide some interesting insights into the working life of the train driver, and the bitterness of the sentiments expressed lend them a good deal of power.

This particular poem, which I thought might be appropriate for Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday, is an example of that.  I think it must have been occasioned by the Peace Day celebrations of 1919.  Although the Armistice was announced on 11th November 1918 the negotiations at Versailles did not conclude until the following June, and it was decided to celebrate the formal declaration of peace with a Peace Day on 19 July.  Lord Curzon (who was in charge) originally proposed a four-day celebration, but this was felt to be a little extravagant, and it was scaled down to a single day.

Even so, there was considerable feeling against the event.  A letter to the Manchester Evening News put the case –

Sir,
I am sure the title Peace Day will send a cold shiver through the bodies of thousands of ‘demobbed’ men who are walking about the streets of Manchester looking for a job. Could a term be found that would be more ironical for such men. Perhaps, after the Manchester and Salford Corporations have celebrated this ‘Peace’ and incidentally will have wasted the thousands of pounds which it will cost, they will devote their spare time to alleviating the ‘bitterness’ and ‘misery’ which exist in the body and mind of the unemployed ex-soldier.
It is high time some very forcible and active measures were taken. Many Manchester businessmen refuse to employ the ex-soldier on the grounds that he has lost four years of experience in this line or that line of business through being in the army. What a splendid and patriotic retort to make to the men who were chiefly instrumental in saving their business from being in the possession of the Hun.Manchester Evening News July 10th 1919

Elsewhere, the Norfolk ex-Servicemen’s Association formally boycotted the event, and, most dramatically, in Luton, protests culminated in the burning down of the Town Hall (a story for another day).  

Skerrett puts the case against in verse (it might help to read it in the voice used by Stanley Holloway for Albert & the Lion).

   

The Victory Ball

The fighting was finished ,

And peace was declared;

The crowd idly gathered –

As crowds do – and stared

At a building illumined

With a great brilliant light

Whence the music proclaimed

Of a gay festive night.

By motor or carriage

The dancers arrive,

Their adornments denoting

E’en on war some will thrive.

The crowd stands amazed

At the sight of it all:

‘Midst their suffering and loss

‘Tis a Victory Ball.

 

A demobilised Tommy

Stood by in the crowd,

And when asked his opinion,

He spoke it out loud:

“Why, Guv’nor, this here’s

Just an insult and crime

‘Gainst the lads buried there

‘Midst the mud and the slime.

Work they refuse us,”

He bitterly said,

“Yet for them and their kind

We have fought, aye, and bled.

They may want us again –

Let them want, that is all –

To ‘ell with the lot

And their Victory Ball.”

 

To this sad-faced young widow,

With babe at her breast,

The scene must recall

Thoughts of him she loved best;

And his last parting words

Ring again in her ear:

“If I fall in the fray

They’ll be kind to you, dear.”

Thus their kindness is shewn

To that poor aching soul;

Their’s is riches to flaunt,

Her’s a pitiful dole;

They in jewels arrayed ,

She an old tattered shawl –

Christ have mercy on those

At that Victory Ball.  

 

(Thanks to this site for the letter to the M.E.N. – Aftermath).

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s