Between Poperinge and Ouderdom

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Busseboom, famous place, lies between Poperinge and Ouderdom.  Can’t place it?  How about if I say it lies in Flanders, north-west Belgium near the French border.  In World War 1 Busseboom was in the support area behind the Western Front and Ypres.

Perfect place for a concert party.  Edmund Blunden fought at Ypres, at the Somme and at Passchendaele.  His poetry was encouraged by Siegried Sassoon who seems to have been a great man for encouraging others to express their horror in verse.  Sassoon was the muse of the War Poets.

Blunden survived the war, physically, but the mental scars remained with him all his life.  He could never scrape off the sticky mud of Flanders Fields.  He went on to a successful career in writing and academia, and was nominated a number of times for a Nobel prize in literature.

October 31st has come and gone in 2019, one hundred years beyond the Great War.  What have we learned?  Brexit remains on the cards.  The British Parliament persists with the madness of departing from the European Union; the greatest source of peace in the history of mankind.  The British people want to go back to the good old days when you could kick a man to death in a dark tunnel beneath the carnage of the Western Front.  In doing so they dishonour the memories of Blunden, Sassoon, Brooke, Graves and Owen.

Happy Birthday Edmund Blunden, born November 1st, 1896.

Concert Party: Busseboom ; by Edmund Blunden

The stage was set, the house was packed,
the famous troop began;
our laughter thundered, act by act;
time light as sunbeams ran.

Dance sprang and spun and neared and fled,
jest chirped at gayest pitch,
rhythm dazzled, action sped
most comically rich.

With generals and lame privates both
such charms worked wonders, till
the show was over – lagging loth
we faced the sunset chill;

and standing on the sandy way,
with the cracked church peering past,
we heard another matinée,
we heard the maniac blast

of barrage south by Saint Eloi,
and the red lights flaming there
called madness: Come, my bonny boy,
and dance to the latest air.

To this new concert, white we stood;
cold certainty held our breath;
while men in tunnels below Larch Wood
were kicking men to death.

Arnemuiden

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On this day in 1338 a French fleet of galleys attacked a flotilla of five large carracks out of England.  The English were carrying a large wool cargo purchased by Edward III to trade in the Netherlands.

England made good money in the middle ages exporting wool to Europe.  Flanders was the hub of cloth production in Northern Europe.  They converted the raw wool bales into fine cloth carrying out the carding, spinning, dyeing and weaving before passing it onwards for a hefty profit.

The huge French fleet swept down on the English at Arnemuiden in Flanders when they were unloading the cargo.

The English fought back bravely.  John Kingston, captain of the flagship, the Christopher, had three cannon and a handgun on board.  It is the first recorded use of artillery in a European naval battle.

Carracks are sailing vessels, easily outclassing galleys in the open sea, but no match for them in a tight harbour.  The huge French fleet overwhelmed the English, seized the ships and cargo and slaughtered the prisoners.  This was the opening naval action of the 100 years war.

 

Winding Wool: by Robert William Service

She’d bring to me a skein of wool
And beg me to hold out my hands;
so on my pipe I cease to pull
And watch her twine the shining strands
Into a ball so snug and neat,
Perchance a pair of socks to knit
To comfort my unworthy feet,
Or pullover my girth to fit.

As to the winding I would sway,
A poem in my head would sing,
And I would watch in dreamy way
The bright yarn swiftly slendering.
The best I liked were coloured strands
I let my pensive pipe grow cool . . .
Two active and two passive hands,
So busy wining shining wool.

Alas! Two of those hands are cold,
And in these days of wrath and wrong,
I am so wearyful and old,
I wonder if I’ve lived too long.
So in my loneliness I sit
And dream of sweet domestic rule . . .
When gentle women used to knit,
And men were happy winding wool.

Farewell to June

Royalty - Queen Elizabeth II State Visit to Ireland

May 2011 visit by Queen Elizabeth acknowledged at last Irelands WW1 legacy

As June 2017 draws to a close in broken showers and typical Irish summer weather I give you a poem about closing and June from the Poet of the Blackbirds.  By rights Ledwidge is a war poet, but it became unfashionable in post revolutionary Ireland to admit to a career in the British Military.  It took 100 years before the Irish nation could honour those Irish who responded to the call of John Redmond and spilled their blood on Flanders fields.

In a neat stroke of marketing Francis Ledwidge was cast as a poet of field and stream, of nature and songbirds.  His Lament for the Irish patriot Thomas MacDonagh was given pride of place while his poems from the French and Turkish trenches in which he fought were swept under the carpet.  Sadly even Poetry is not immune from politics.

June: by Francis Ledwidge

Broom out the floor now, lay the fender by,
and plant this bee-sucked bough of woodbine there,
and let the window down. The butterfly
floats in upon the sunbeam, and the fair
tanned face of June, the nomad gipsy, laughs
above her widespread wares, the while she tells
the farmers’ fortunes in the fields, and quaffs
the water from the spider-peopled wells.
The hedges are all drowned in green grass seas,
and bobbing poppies flare like Elmo’s light,
while siren-like the pollen-stained bees
drone in the clover depths.  And up the height
the cuckoo’s voice is hoarse and broke with joy.
And on the lowland crops the crows make raid,
nor fear the clappers of the farmer’s boy,
who sleeps, like drunken Noah, in the shade.
And loop this red rose in that hazel ring
that snares your little ear, for June is short
and we must joy in it and dance and sing,
and from her bounty draw her rosy worth.
Ay! soon the swallows will be flying south,
the wind wheel north to gather in the snow,
even the roses spilt on youth’s red mouth
will soon blow down the road all roses go.

Sunken Treasure

Shipwreck

Back in 1641 at a time when the English and the Spanish were getting along well a pair of English ships spent three years trading in the Caribbean.  The Galleons, Dover Merchant and Royal Merchant sailed back to Cadiz on their way home.  In the port of Cadiz there was a fire which damaged a Spanish vessel that was due to carry the payroll to the army in Flanders.  The English captain stepped in and offered to transport the gold and silver.

The two English ships were the worse for wear after a season at sea in the tropics.  There is no doubt that they were heavy with weed, and had bulging seams and rotten caulking.  Three years in the West Indies, under a punishing sun, can wreak havoc with planking and decking above the waterline.  They may also have been infested with ship-worm.  These days with modern steel ships, fibreglass and epoxy yachts we expect boats to be dry.  Leaks are something that must be fixed.  Traditional boat owners have a better sense of the realities of 17th century sailing.  Wooden boats must be filled with water on the inside if they are wintered on the dockside.  The timbers and caulking must be kept moist to prevent drying, which opens gaps in the seams.  I have sailed in a Galway hooker for the first outing of a season, to see cataracts of water cascade through the seams above the waterline as we heeled over in the wind.  Bailing and pumping out are part of the daily grind on a wooden ship.

Royal Merchant was leaking badly as they sailed through Biscay, being pumped out all the way.  Off Lands End the weather took a turn for the worse.  If your decks are leaking then rain and waves breaking on the deck add to your flooding woes.  The overworked pumps broke down and the leaking ship began to sink.  She went down off the Isles of Scilly, with the loss of 18 men.  The other 40 men managed to board the ships boats and were rescued by the Dover Merchant.

Royal Merchant was the most valuable ship ever to sink.  The salvage company that finds her stand to share in the region of one billion US dollars, once the legal teams figure out who owns the wreck.

Here is a poem about a sinking ship by Dora Sigerson Shorter.  Dora was one of the leading lights of the Irish literary revival and the explosion of Celtic Culture and 19th Century mysticism.  Given the context I think a closer reading may yield clues that it is not a Ship that is sinking, but something else.  But what?  Is this a poem in the vein of Yeats “September 1913” criticizing the bourgeoisie and the loss of direction in the struggle for Irish freedom?  Is it a paean for the stagnation of the art movement?  What is “the struggle” and who are “they” that shun it?  I would welcome your thoughts in the comments section.

The Sinking Ship; by Dora Sigerson Shorter

The ship is sinking, come ye one and all.
Stand fast and so this weakness overhaul,
Come ye strong hands and cheery voices call,
“Stand by!”

The ship is sinking in a summer sea,
Bless her but once for all she used to be,
Who rode the billows once so proud and free,
If you but loved a little, with a sigh,
“Stand by!”

Gone, all are gone, they neither hear or care,
The sun shines on and life is ever fair.
They shun the struggle, laughter lurks elsewhere.
The ship is sinking, passing echoes cry,
“Stand by!”

The little ships that pass her in the night,
Speed from the darkness in their eager fright.
From troubled dreams they take refuge in flight.
Why should they then, who know they too must die,
“Stand by”?

Then get you gone, desert the sinking ship,
O faithless friends, who on her pleasure-trip
Clung close with gentle words and smiling lip,
And still as ever on your own joys cry,
“Stand by!”

The ship is sinking, parting in a smile,
The sunset waters mark the last sad mile
In dimpling play and in a little while
The waters close, Death and his angels cry,
“Stand by!”

Remembrance

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À la recherche du temps perdu is a novel by Marcel Proust, often translated as ‘Remembrance of Things Past’, or more literally ‘Searching for lost time’.  It is famous for the exploration of the theme of involuntary memory.  When the author dips a Madeleine in tea and eats it, he is transported psychologically to the time of his childhood, when he shared the same food with his aunt.  In the process his mind unlocks memories that were long forgotten.

The memory of the taste of Madeleine dipped in tea is a trigger to the memories stored when he was familiar with the taste.
Proust was contemporaneous with Freud, but there is no evidence that one read the other.  Each, in his own way, was exploring the power of the unconscious and pre-conscious mind.  Each was examining triggers to unlock suppressed or hidden memories.

My own work in Market Research has made frequent forays into the realms of pre-conscious thought.  I have worked with a clinical psychologist who is a proponent of the work of Jacques Lacan.  Lacan is a revisionist Freudian who explored language as a seat of meaning.  In the modern, consumerist, paradigm language as a seat of meaning has extended to brands, logos and products.  Product consumption constellations are a blueprint for understanding self-identity.

The point of this post, if any of my blog posts have a point, is to comment on self-identity and remembrance in the context of Remembrance Day, which is tomorrow.  The WW1 armistice  on the 11th hour, 11th day, 11th month gives us the anniversary upon which we remember those who fell in battle.

For us here in Ireland the wearing of the poppy is a foreign and rejected symbol.  It celebrated those who fell defending Great Britain.  After the Easter Rising in 1916 those Irish fighting in France found themselves on the wrong side.  They wore the Khaki of the British Imperialist oppressor rather than the Green of the Irish Volunteers.  Sadly, they were ‘unremembered’ by Ireland for 100 years.  Now, at last, we begin to recognise their right to remembrance.

An important step on this journey was the visit of Queen Elizabeth to Ireland.  She laid a poppy wreath in the war memorial garden in Islandbridge.  For many Irish people it was the first time that they were aware that we even had a monument dedicated to the Irish soldiers who fell in WW1.

However, I do not think the poppy will ever gain widespread acceptance in Ireland.  Already in England there is increasing rejection of the symbol.  For many it is increasingly seen as a celebration of military violence rather than a memoir of heroic sacrifice.

Conscientious objectors who choose not to wear the symbol are vilified by the bully boy tactics of proponents of the poppy.  This further reinforces the aggressive nature of the symbol.  Tune into British TV at this time of year and you quickly draw the conclusion that someone in the wings is pinning the things on everyone, regardless of their sympathies.

Two of my father’s grand-uncles wore Khaki in Gallipoli.  My grandfather wore the Green in the War of Independence.  If I choose to remember them it will be with the far older symbol of a sprig of Rosemary.  Like Proust’s tea-dipped Madeleine, the Greeks believed that the Rosemary herb improved memory.  So it became a symbol of remembrance.  Ophelia calls it such in Hamlet.  Poppies as symbols of remembrance are far more recent, and are accredited to the John McCrae poem.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.