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Private David Jones, the 15th (1st London Welsh) Battalion, Royal Welch Fusiliers


Friday, 23 September 2016

Friday poetry and Happy Weekend

I always make time for poetry on Fridays, preferably with a mug of tea. This week's reading material is Jane McLauglin's prize winning first collection, Lockdown, which is being published by Cinnamon Press this weekend.

I am really enjoying Jane's use of imagery and the way her poems capture moments like snapshots. As I'm not able to go to the launch at the 'Made in Greenwich' gallery I have to content myself with reading the poems. My favourite one, so far, is

Learning about Potatoes
On the convent vegetable patch, habit hitched up.
These are Edzell Blue she says, clearing the violet skins
of mud, clagged by August rains. I remember her holding
them, Inca jewels, digging and teaching.

You should learn these things. Theirs were purple too,
but yellow inside. The Quechua word is papa.

She’d pile them into the wicker trug, a violet pyramid,
stack the spent haulms on the heap to rot.

Then pray to her garden saint, headless St Martin de Porres,
found under the convent hedge. A pot of wallflowers
and a prayer against the Late Blight, Phytophthora Infestans.
‘Think now of what you eat, and the million dead.

They still turn up bones on my father’s farm.
Food enough for all, but shipped away
to feed foreigners. And they had not a clean tuber
the length of the land.

I remember a Mayo nun in her grey cotton apron
pitching the piled weeds onto the barrow
and crying with the pain of those who lay
where they fell. In the late summer light

she digs with the fierceness of one betrayed
by men and seasons, thanks God for her violet potatoes,
holds her trug of Edzell Blue
like a lost child found.

I used this earlier in the week as a prompt for a writing exercise with my Wing Writers which was very well received. We could all see and hear that nun with her trug of potatoes and her fierce determination. You can read a few more of Jane's poems here  and buy a copy of Lockdown here.

Have a good weekend. 


Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Lallie and Victor - a mother's locket

I have written previously about my great uncle, Robert Victor Davies but not about his older sister,  Mary Eleanor who was known to the family as Lallie.

During the summer I was going through a box of miscellaneous family photographs with my brother when we came across a locket. On one side it had a dark haired girl and on the other a young man in uniform.

My brother didn't know who they were but I recognised the girl as the oldest child born to Mary Grace Davies (nee Pritchard) and Robert Samuel Davies. Further investigations into the box revealed a full sized photograph of the soldier. This was the photograph I'd been looking for ever since visting Ypres and the Menin Gate and finding Victor's details amongst the missing. Just so as there could be no doubt about his identity on the back of the photograph in my Dad's neat handwriting was the inscription
"Robert Victor Davies - killed in France [sic] during the 1914-18 war at age 20 years. Served in Ireland for a time where this photo was taken."
Robert Victor Davies

Victor was killed on the Pilchem Ridge, near Ypres in Belgium on 31st July 1917 with many others from the 15th Battalion of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers.

I went back to look at the locket with Lallie on one side and Victor on the other and remembered a conversation with an older relative when I was a child. Lallie had died young she had said. A quick check of records on the internet showed that she had died at the age of 20 in March 1916. That was when I realised with the sense of having been given something that the locket I was holding must have belonged to their mother, Mary Grace and that she had the locket made so that she could carry her two lost children close to her heart.

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

August Poetry Postcard Fest 2016 - ten years of postcards

It's time to register for the annual jamboree of poetry postcards organised by Paul Nelson and Lana Ayers. The countdown clock shows there's only a few days to go before registrations close. Once you've signed up you'll receive a list of the other 31 members of your group and it will be time to start writing cards to them.

This will be my third year of taking part and it brings such joy to August. I'm usually the lone UK participant in my group and sometimes have a little bit of a wait before the postcards start arriving from the USA.

This year I am much better prepared and already have more than enough postcards to allow me to write a postcard a day. I learned from my experience of the first year that only having just enough cards meant that I kept putting the less inspiring cards to the bottom of the heap. Since then I have been collectiong (stockpiling?) cards during the year so I have plenty. Heck this year thanks to Amy Souza I even have some hand-made cards.

Thursday, 7 July 2016

Have you forgotten yet? Afermath by Siegfried Sassoon

For me the most poignant part of the Somme Commemoration from Thiepval was Charles Dance, standing under the great arch and reading Aftermath by Siegfried Sassoon.

    Have you forgotten yet?...
    For the world's events have rumbled on since those gagged days,
    Like traffic checked while at the crossing of city ways:
    And the haunted gap in your mind has filled with thoughts that flow
    Like clouds in the lit heaven of life; and you're a man reprieved to go,
    Taking your peaceful share of Time, with joy to spare.
    But the past is just the same—and War's a bloody game...
    Have you forgotten yet?...
    Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you'll never forget.

    Do you remember the dark months you held the sector at Mametz—
    The nights you watched and wired and dug and piled sandbags on parapets?
    Do you remember the rats; and the stench
    Of corpses rotting in front of the front-line trench—
    And dawn coming, dirty-white, and chill with a hopeless rain?
    Do you ever stop and ask, 'Is it all going to happen again?'

    Do you remember that hour of din before the attack—
    And the anger, the blind compassion that seized and shook you then
    As you peered at the doomed and haggard faces of your men?
    Do you remember the stretcher-cases lurching back
    With dying eyes and lolling heads—those ashen-grey
    Masks of the lads who once were keen and kind and gay?

    Have you forgotten yet?...
    Look up, and swear by the slain of the war that you'll never forget!

    March 1919.

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Things of the Spirit

Time for a catch up about what I've been up to during the last month.  In the middle of June I went off to leafy St John’s Wood and the Liberal Jewish Synagogue for 'The Poet’s Quest for Peace', a one day festival of poetry and conversation. I’d volunteered to help with the English PEN stand which gave me the chance to engage with the invaluable work that they do as well as hearing some of the talks and readings.

The event was like an Aldeburgh festival in miniature. The emphasis was on how contemporary poetry can perhaps help people to understand each other better. It came at the end of an appalling week with the killings in Orlando and the murder of a British member of parliament so I found that sitting and listening to poetry like a small oasis of calm and a chance to draw breath. The PEN stand was alongside the stall for Modern Poetry in Translation and the evening became about how writers can speak up for those who are silenced, oppressed, in prison and facing death sentences. I really enjoyed hearing Sasha Dugdale’s close reading of Anna Akhmatova’s July 1914, written as Russia was mobilising and on the brink of being engulfed by the First World War. Two million Russians were killed  and in the poem is a prophecy uttered by a one-legged man

“Terrible times are coming. Soon
The graves will crowd out the living
Famine, pestilence, cowardice
And the lights of heaven will grow dim.”

Through English PEN I've been introduced to the work of poet Mahvash Sabet, who is in prison in Iran and one of PEN’s writers at risk. She began writing poetry after her arrest in 2008 and a collection of her Prison Poems was published in 2013. Part of the campaign to support her includes writing postcards with messages of hope which are taken to Evin prison and showed to her through the glass. I don’t know how I would keep going if I was locked up and subject to solitary confinement but she does so with great faith in the human spirit.

Monday, 4 July 2016

Commemorating the Battle of the Somme on a local scale

On the evening of first July my fellow poet, Neil Beardmore and I held a poetry reading at All Saint’s Church in Wing to remember the men killed on the first day of the battle of the Somme. In choosing which poems to include we went back to the words of the men who fought  from the well-known Siegfried Sassoon and Ivor Gurney to  the less familiar David Jones and Noel Hodgson and included in  the programme are the voices of women who did not have to go over the top and had the task of coping with the consequences of the war.  We also included response poems written by Neil, myself and Vanessa Gebbie. This was a small scale local event and not a grand affair like some of the other commemorations which took place across the UK and France but I wanted to do something quietly and by means of poetry to mark the day and to share it with other people. 

The poems were as follows
Before Action by William Noel Hodgson, MC – read by Caroline
Base Details by Siegfried Sassoon – read by Neil
The Dug-out by Siegfried Sassoon – read by Caroline
Does it Matter by Siegfried Sassoon – read by Neil
Sassoon talks to Hardy – written and read by Neil
Extract from In Parenthesis by David Jones – read by Neil
From Whitsbury Copse to Mametz Wood – written and read by Caroline
In Hospital by Edith Nesbit  – read by Caroline
To His love by Ivor Gurney read by Neil
First Time In by Ivor Gurney -  read by Caroline
Ivor – written and read by Neil
The Medal and The King’s Shilling (for my father’s father) – written and read by Neil
Adlestrop by Edward Thomas – read by Neil
Edward Thomas at Gidea Park – written and read by Caroline
Playing Trains – written by Vanessa Gebbie and read by Caroline
Extract from Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth – read by Caroline
The Litany – written and read by Caroline
Lights Out by Edward Thomas – read by Neil

I am most grateful to Vanessa for allowing us to include Playing Trains about two brothers from Adlestrop. As I explained to the audience before reading, I find it difficult to read dry-eyed at any time and especially when reading it aloud to other people. It did seem, however, entirely appropriate to shed a few tears on the evening of the day we were remembering more than nineteen thousand men  who were killed on the opening day of the battle. We ended the reading with two minutes of silence.

Photograph of Caroline by Karen Littleton

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Round up of recent and planned poetry happenings

One of the poems in Voices from Stone and Bronze inspired by the work of historian Peter Barton has been commended in the Sentinel Literary Quarterly Competition. Judge Roger Elkin comments 

"Peter Barton’s Lessons of History admirably celebrates the photographic and archaeological research into the mass graves of soldiers and tunnel excavations at the Somme by First World War historian and author, Peter Barton. Each of the four short verses begins with a negative “A trench is not just a trench”, “A tunnel is not just a tunnel”, “This passage is not just a passage”, “A map is not just a map”. This connective structural device, while echoing the cataloguing of historical findings, gives the poem a factually-unsentimental tone, but without any dilution of sentiment. This in turn endorses the celebratory nature of the soldiers’ work “dug out spade by spade”, and with “perfectly square shaft”, while recording the fact they “have no headstones” or just “a cluster of crosses”. This is a moving poem, made more moving by the fact that it does not tug at emotional strings."

A poem I wrote more recently “From Whitsbury Copse to Mametz Wood” about following in the footsteps of David Jones, author of In Parenthesis is being included in the anthology ‘A way through the woods’ being launched at the inaugural Binsted Arts Festival. I will post more details in June when the anthology has been published. 

I’m looking forward to Ouse Muse in Bedford this evening and a chance to hear Anne Berkeley read and then on Saturday I’m off to London to take part in the Poetry and Visual Art workshop led by Tammy Yoseloff. I really enjoyed the workshop in the autumn term, and having been unable to do the spring term,  I am pleased to be doing this again.