Dancing at Whitsun

(To fill a sad gap, I thought I’d revive this, which I originally published this time in 2010.  The blog was a rather different beast in those days …)

I realise that, with all the excitement of the start of the cricket season, I’ve almost allowed what are often thought of as two of the most poetical of months – April and May – to go by with hardly a poem or song.  So, as it’s Whit Sunday, here is a song which I think also works as a poem.  The lyrics to Dancing at Whitsun (or Whitsun Dance) were written by Austin John Marshall, the husband of Shirley Collins;  the tune is traditional.  The version I know best is by Silly Sisters (Maddy Prior and June Tabor), though there also recorded versions by Shirley Collins and Maddy Prior with Tim Hart.  I can’t find any of these on YouTube, so here is a version by “LiteGauge”, recorded as a tribute to Tim Hart.

The lyrics seem self-explanatory, but apparently had a slightly more specific context when they were written (the mid-1960s).  It seems that folk dancing had come to be seen as predominantly an activity for old ladies (and sometimes denigrated for that reason), and the song suggests one reason why this might have been so.

Dancing at Whitsun, by Austin John Marshall

It’s fifty-one springtimes since she was a bride
And still you may see her at each Whitsuntide
In a dress of white linen and ribbons of green
As green as her memories of loving

The feet that were nimble tread carefully now
As gentle a measure as age do allow
Through groves of white blossom, by fields of young corn
Where once she was pledged to her true love

The fields they stand empty, the hedges grow free
No young men to tend them, nor pastures to see
They have gone where the forests of oaktrees before
Had gone to be wasted in battle

Down from their green farmlands and from their loved ones
Marched husbands and brothers and fathers and sons
There’s a fine roll of honour where the Maypole once was
And the ladies go dancing at Whitsun

There’s a row of straight houses in these latter days
Are covering the Downs where the sheep used to graze
There’s a field of red poppies and a wreath from the Queen
But the ladies remember at Whitsun
And the ladies go dancing at Whitsun

(Apologies for any copyright violation.  Will remove if requested).

Consecration, by E.W. Hornung : A Poem For Remembrance Sunday

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Consecration
E.W. Hornung
(1919)
 
Children we deemed you all the days
   We vexed you with our care:
But in a Universe ablaze,
   What was your childish share?
To rush upon the flames of Hell,
  To quench them with your blood !
To be of England’s flower that fell
   Ere yet it break the bud !
 
And we who wither where we grew,
   And never shed but tears,
As children now would follow you
   Through the remaining years ;
Tread in the steps we thought to guide,
   As firmly as you trod ;
And keep the name you glorified
   Clean before man and God.
.
.
Hornung, the author of Raffles, the Amateur Cracksman, was an occasional versifier.  Most of his verse was inspired by the Great War.  Oddly, in the light of the ambivalence (verging on cynicism) of the Raffles books towards the idea that cricket was the embodiment of the Englishman’s moral code, he began by writing some fairly awful War-as-the-Great-Game-type stuff, for instance –
The Schools take guard upon a fierier pitch
    Somewhere in Flanders.
 
Bigger the cricket here;  yet some who tried
    In vain to earn a Colour while at Eton
Have found a place upon an England side

    That can’t be beaten !

His son Oscar, who had played cricket for Eton, had written from the front, comparing the War to “putting your left leg to the ball at cricket” or playing in a house match “only the odds are not so much against us here and we’ve more to back us up.”  He was killed in July 1915.  His Father volunteered to work at the front, manning a canteen run by the YMCA and organising a small lending library for the troops.
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(The pictures are of the Church of St Mary Magdalene, Newark.)

Old England by G.A. Studdert Kennedy

 

Also known by his nom de guerre “Woodbine Willie”, Studdert Kennedy was, as the dust wrapper suggests, “perhaps the most famous Padre serving in the first world war”.  The nickname derived from his habit of handing out handfuls of cigarettes while offering spiritual sustenance to the troops.  He appears to have been genuinely well thought of by the men and was awarded the Military Cross in 1917 for exceptional bravery under fire at Messines Ridge.

After the war he became a prominent Pacifist and wrote numerous popular essays with titles such as “Capitalism is nothing but Greed, Grab and Profit-Mongering” (he could never be accused of mincing his words). 

 In his poems “Rough Rhymes of a Padre” and “More Rough Rhymes” he often – as here –  made use of some conventions established by Kipling.  Like Kipling, he might be accused of putting his own words into the soldiers’ mouths.  On the other hand, he might have taken the words right out of their mouths.

His day of commemoration in the Church of England is on 8th March.

 

OLD ENGLAND

YES, I’m fightin’ for old England
      And for eighteenpence a day,
And I’m fightin’ like an ‘ero,
      So the daily papers say.
Well, I ain’t no downy chicken,
      I’m a bloke past forty-three,
And I’m goin’ to tell ye honest
      What old England means to me.
When I joined the British Army
      I’d bin workin’ thirty years,
But I left my bloomin’ rent-book
      Showin’ three months in arrears.
No, I weren’t no chronic boozer,
      Nor I weren’t a lad to bet;
I worked ‘ard when I could get it,
      And I weren’t afeared to sweat.
But I weren’t a tradesman proper,
      And the work were oft to seek,
So the most as I could addle
      Were abaht a quid a week.
And when me and Jane got married,
      And we ‘ad our oldest kid,
We soon learned ‘ow many shillings
      Go to make a golden quid.
For we ‘ad to keep our clubs up,
      And there’s three and six for rent,
And with food and boots and clothing
      It no sooner came than went.
Then when kiddies kep’ on comin’–
      We reared four and buried three;

My ole woman couldn’t do it,
      So we got in debt–ye see.
And we ‘ad a’eap o’ sickness
      And we got struck off the club,
With our little lot o’ troubles
      We just couldn’t pay the sub.
No, I won’t tell you no false’oods;
      There were times I felt that queer,
That I went and did the dirty,
      And I ‘ad a drop o’ beer.
Then the wife and me ‘ud quarrel,
      And our ‘ome were little ‘ell,
Wiv the ‘ungry kiddies cryin’,
      Till I eased up for a spell.
There were times when it were better,
      And some times when it were worse,
But to take it altogether,
      My old England were a curse.
It were sleepin’, sweatin’, starvin’,
      Wearing boot soles for a job,
It were sucking up to foremen
      What ‘ud sell ye for a bob.
It were cringin’, crawlin’, whinin’,
      For the right to earn your bread,
It were schemin’, pinchin’, plannin’,
      It were wishin’ ye was dead.
I’m not fightin’ for old England,
      Not for this child–am I? ‘Ell!
For the sake o’ that old England
      I’d not face a single shell,
Not a single bloomin’ whizzbang.
      Never mind this blarsted show,
With your comrades fallin’ round ye,
      Lyin’ bleedin’ in a row.
This ain’t war, it’s ruddy murder,
      It’s a stinkin’ slaughter ‘ouse.

‘Ark to that one, if ‘e got ye
      ‘E’d just squash ye like this louse.
Would I do this for old England,
      Would I? ‘Ell, I says, not me
What I says is, sink old England
      To the bottom of the sea
It’s new England as I fights for,
      It’s an England swep’ aht clean,
It’s an England where we’ll get at
      Things our eyes ‘ave never seen;
Decent wages, justice, mercy,
      And a chance for ev’ry man
For to make ‘is ‘ome an ‘eaven
      If ‘e does the best ‘e can.
It’s that better, cleaner England,
      Made o’ better, cleaner men,
It’s that England as I fights for,
      And I’m game to fight again.
It’s the better land o’ Blighty
      That still shines afore our eyes,
That’s the land a soldier fights for,
      And for that a soldier dies.

Picnic, July 1917 : Rose Macaulay

I haven’t yet been able to find a permanent replacement for Helen Hunt Jackson as a purveyor of monthly poems, but here is a guest poem for July from Rose Macaulay.  
 
Macaulay was a prolific literary journalist and the author of numerous novels (none of which I’ve read, I’m afraid).  Before the First War, she was a friend of Rupert Brooke’s (he was a pupil of her father’s).  During the war she worked for the British Propaganda Department : after it she was a sponsor of the Peace Pledge Union.  During the Second War, her flat, with all her possessions and her library in it, was destroyed in the Blitz.
 
Virginia Woolf described her – vividly, but unkindly – as:
 
“Too chattery chittery at first go off; lean as a rake, wispy; & frittered. Some flimsy smartness & taint of the flimsy glittery literary about her: but this was partly nerves, I think; & she felt us alien & observant doubtless.”
 
(Which, doubtless, they were.)
 
I suppose the events described here would have been a year after the Battle of Somme.
 
 
Picnic, July 1917 
 
 We lay and ate the sweet hurt-berries
In the bracken of Hurt Wood.
Like a quire of singers singing low
The dark pines stood.
 
Behind us climbed the Surrey Hills,
Wild, wild in greenery;
At our feet the downs of Sussex broke
To an unseen sea.

And life was bound in a still ring,
Drowsy, and quiet and sweet….
When heavily up the south-east wind
The great guns beat.

We did not wince, we did not weep,
We did not curse or pray;
We drowsily heard, and someone said,
‘They sound clear today’.

We did not shake with pity and pain,
Or sicken and blanch white.
We said, ’If the wind’s from over there
There’ll be rain tonight’.

Once pity we knew, and rage we knew,
And pain we knew, too well,
As we stared and peered dizzily
Through the gates of hell.

But now hell’s gates are an old tale;
Remote the anguish seems;
The guns are muffled and far away.
Dreams within dreams.

And far and far are Flanders mud,
And the pain of Picardy;
And the blood that runs there runs beyond
The wide waste sea.

We are shut about by guarding walls;
(We have built them lest we run
Mad from dreaming of naked fear
And of black things done).

We are ringed all round by guarding walls,
So high, they shut the view.
Not all the guns that shatter the world
Can quite break through.

Oh guns of France, oh guns of France,
Be still, you crash in vain….
Heavily up the south wind throb
Dull dreams of pain…..

Be still, be still, south wind, lest your
Blowing should bring the rain……
We’ll lie very quiet on Hurt Hill,
And sleep once again.

Oh we’ll lie quite still, not listen nor look,
While the earth’s bounds reel and shake,
Lest, battered too long, our walls and we
Should break…….should break……….

 

(Making my way to Desborough’s cricket ground last week to watch Leicestershire’s Second XI play Northamptonshire’s, I came across this field of poppies.  A very typical thing in Northamptonshire in late Summer, but, perhaps, a little early in the year?)       

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).

Dancing at Whitsun

I realise that, with all the excitement of the start of the cricket season, I’ve almost allowed what are often thought of as two of the most poetical of months – April and May – to go by with hardly a poem or song.  So, as it’s Whit Sunday, here is a song which I think also works as a poem.  The lyrics to Dancing at Whitsun (or Whitsun Dance) were written by Austin John Marshall, the husband of Shirley Collins;  the tune is traditional.  The version I know best is by Silly Sisters (Maddy Prior and June Tabor), though there also recorded versions by Shirley Collins and Maddy Prior with Tim Hart.  I can’t find any of these on YouTube, so here is a version by “LiteGauge”, recorded as a tribute to Tim Hart.

The lyrics seem self-explanatory, but apparently had a slightly more specific context when they were written (the mid-1960s).  It seems that folk dancing had come to be seen as predominantly an activity for old ladies (and sometimes denigrated for that reason), and the song suggests one reason why this might have been so. 

Dancing at Whitsun, by Austin John Marshall

It’s fifty-one springtimes since she was a bride
And still you may see her at each Whitsuntide
In a dress of white linen and ribbons of green
As green as her memories of loving

The feet that were nimble tread carefully now
As gentle a measure as age do allow
Through groves of white blossom, by fields of young corn
Where once she was pledged to her true love

The fields they stand empty, the hedges grow free
No young men to tend them, nor pastures to see
They have gone where the forests of oaktrees before
Had gone to be wasted in battle

Down from their green farmlands and from their loved ones
Marched husbands and brothers and fathers and sons
There’s a fine roll of honour where the Maypole once was
And the ladies go dancing at Whitsun

There’s a row of straight houses in these latter days
Are covering the Downs where the sheep used to graze
There’s a field of red poppies and a wreath from the Queen
But the ladies remember at Whitsun
And the ladies go dancing at Whitsun

(Apologies for any copyright violation.  Will remove if requested).

A poem for Remembrance Sunday : the Only Son, by Sir Henry Newbolt

The Only Son

 

O bitter wind toward the sunset blowing,

What of the dales tonight?

In yonder gray old hall what fires are glowing,

What ring of festal light?

 

‘In the great window as the day was dwindling

I saw an old man stand;

His head was proudly held and his eyes kindling,

But the list shook in his hand.’

 

O wind of twilight, was there no word uttered,

No sound of joy or wail?

‘”A great fight and a good death”, he muttered;

“Trust him, he would not fail.”‘

 

What of the chamber dark where she was lying

For whom all life is done?

‘Within her heart she rocks a dead child, crying

“My son, my little son.”‘

(Written January 15th, 1900)

Another poem from Sir Henry Newbolt.  Newbolt is best known today, I imagine, for what has a reasonable claim to be the most-mocked poem in the English language – Vitai Lampada – and various lengthy ballads on historical themes “Drake he’s in his hammock an’ a thousand miles away / Capten, art tha sleepin’ there below?” of the type which would once have been described as rollicking, but would now, probably, be seen as imperialist bluster.

He was a complex character – a Liberal in politics (a close friend of Sir Edward Grey), he discovered and championed Walter de la Mare, didn’t think much of Wilfred Owen (“I don’t think these self-pitying, shell-shocked poems will move our grandchildren greatly”) but admired and befriended Sassoon and was befriended and admired by Betjeman.

He wrote a number of poems in the manner of “The Only Son” at about this time, some of them inspired, one imagines, by the Boer War.  It’s a pity that  they are not better known.