This week an old friend sent me a copy of a poem, cut out of a magazine. It ended, or appeared to end, on a stanza that was somewhat appropriate to him. (My friend lives alone and, like many who are lucky enough to live a long time, has found his former cronies have vanished one by one.):
But the years, that take the best away,
Give something in the end;
And a better friend than love have they,
For none to mar or mend,
That have themselves to friend.
It's from 'The Chilterns' by Rupert Brooke and if you follow the link, you'll find there are actually three more stanzas.
But that's by the by. This piece of Rupert Brooke set me to thinking about him. I've always loved some of his poems, even The Soldier, which has fared so badly compared to Wilfred Owen's Anthem for Doomed Youth.
'The Soldier' has come to be seen as a slightly embarrassing piece of patriotism in an age when patriotism is a dubious virtue. I'm sure the poem was used in its day (1914, when war was new, and people and poets didn't see what was coming) to stir up battle-hungry youth. But actually, the title is the only part of the poem that mentions war, and the last line celebrates peace. If you set it next to Robert Browning's Home Thoughts From Abroad, or some of the things Edward Thomas said about his reasons for going to France to fight, it is very much in a tradition.
Also, poor Brooke did die in another country. Not of a gunshot wound or a shell explosion, but nevertheless, in Greece on his way to Gallipoli, of an infected mosquito bite. Nothing heroic about that, but fearfully sad.
Anyway, I still haven't got to the point.
Which is that I started to think about Rupert Brooke, whose poems I learned to like from my mother, who had the Complete Poems with the lovely frontispiece photo of Brooke looking irretrievably handsome in 1913 protected tenderly by a sheet of tissue paper.
She had told me how she started to read Brooke at the start of another war, the Second World War, and it was because of a man she met while watching a military parade. He had given her a volume of Brooke. I knew there was a story to this, and I remembered there was a mysterious inscription at the front of the book, but for the life of me I couldn't remember what she had said about this chap.
This gave me one of those little stabs of grief that you get when you know the people who knew the answers are all gone. My mother died over two years ago. My sister, who might have remembered something of this, died last October.
So I picked up my mother's copy of Brooke (I have my own copy too, and it's in better shape, so I rarely look at mum's) to reflect on the inscription I remembered at the front.
How mysterious it is!
A tribute to your
charming, vivacious personality
& recalling our very happy
companionship – though of
Sincere wishes for a very
Happy Future, from
Just an ordinary
I recalled her saying she thought he was probably married, that's all. What had happened? What happened to that ordinary Englishman? In 2016, I published a book of my mother's stories and anecdotes, her attempts to recover memories from the past before Alzheimer's removed them permanently. But this story wasn't in that book.
I turned idly to the back of the volume. There was a thin sheet of paper, folded and sellotaped inside with tape that had gone dark orange with years and dust. There were also two quotations in red biro, written in her own hand:
Love is like a hyacinth, it must strike root in the dark before it can produce a vigorous flower. Strindberg.
This is the measure of the love that warms me to you, that I forget one nothingness, and out of shadows make reality. [No attribution]
I unfolded the piece of paper. It was the story of the man she met who gave her the book. Typed in her own slightly wonky fashion, there it all was. I hadn't even known this existed, but then perhaps it was her secret. But she had written it down. Thankfully, she had written it down.
And so I learned that this man – the man who had given her the book – came from Sussex and that he knew H.G. Wells, who was his 'neighbour'. At that time, Wells would have been living not in Sussex, but in London. But his childhood years were certainly in West Sussex, at Uppark where his mother was in service, and later in Midhurst as a young apprentice. Midhurst, where my mother spent the last 16 years of her life. She always loved a coincidence.
The story of the man who gave her the Rupert Brooke is below. I am quite certain every word is true, and equally certain that had she not written it down, it would all have been lost forever.
A sunny morning at the beginning of September. There was a war on, and a girl with a dog stood beneath a low copper beech tree, waiting for a parade to pass, on its way from church. She was in her Sunday best, happy and seventeen, and desperately wishing ot be older, to be part of the drama taking place in the world. Then the bands came nearer, and the Territorials, the Home Guard, the Nurses and the Civiil Defence marched bravely past, heads high, arms swinging, and the sun shone and the world sang.
There was a man watching the parade, too, under the beech tree. Something that he saw in the face of the girl moved him to speak to her – the weather – the parade – the war – and in minutes they were carried into a conversation which swept them along, of books, of music, of life....
After that, they met often. They went for long walks in the crisp Autumn evenings, and she showed him the Cheshire countryside. he told her that he came from Sussex, where the soil was red instead of black ... that he was in the Army ... and that he knew H.G. Wells, who was his neighbour. But she never knew his name, or rank, or whether he was married, though she suspected that he was. Or his age, but then she never told hers, hoping that he would think her older than her seventeen years. Nor did he know her name or address. They met and parted in the same place always, and neither asked any questions of the other.
But he took her to her first opera, The Barber of Seville, and they sat in the very best seats, and she had a huge box of chocolates in spite of the war.
It was a fine Autumn, and the nights grew colder, and the leaves fell.
One evening they were walking across the fields towards Rostherne, and a bright Hunter's Moon made a path for them to walk on. Suddenly, and for no reason that she could ever explain, a cold terror seized the girl, a primitive aweful dread which froze her. The man was gentle and courteous as always; they turned round and made their way out of the fearful fields, through the dark streets, and at last into a pub where he insisted that she had a whiskey.
But it was the beginning of the end – after that she was afraid to go walking in the dark, and besides, in a small town her anonymity could not last much longer.
They had one last evening together at the ballet, and as a parting gift he gave her a book of poems, this book, with special reference to a poem called 'The Wayfarers'. It was November 1941.