…In which, as the year comes to its end, our friends and collaborators look back on the past twelve months and share their moments;
The last piece I came to write before the tradition of this one, closing thoughts tossed like old coins down the well of a dying year, was a review of John Lewis-Stempel’s Where Poppies Blow – The British Soldier, Nature, The Great War. I started work on the review on Saturday 26th November at 13:25hrs and I have yet to finish it. Every time I have tried to conclude it, the last paragraph has drifted away from me. I have grappled with it every day, seeking a way in that would make sense of this marvellous tapestry of work.
On Christmas Morning I read an old copy of Country Fair whose Man of the Month for February 1959 was John Betjeman. Less than half a mile away at St Anne’s Church, frequented by Betjeman as a boy, the bells chimed for mass. The piece in Country Fair seemed prescient, ‘He has a room in London today “for answering letters”, and he writes most of his poetry in trains or on envelopes or, on disciplinary lined foolscap, in the Guildhall Library. (February is his best month for writing poetry.) In London streets he raises his dreadful old country hat politely to the delayed traffic at zebra crossings, and looks like an escaped schoolmaster…..He does his prose writing at home (since 1933) in Wantage, in a room booklined to the ceiling: a thousand books on architecture, five hundred on poetry. He would like to give up book-reviewing, but needs the regular money it brings. Given plenty of safe income, he would do nothing but “linger in his rightful garden” (poetry), read, look at buildings (he can quote buildings, bits of buildings, like a schoolboy quoting cricket averages) and walk the seashore, preferably in Cornwall.’
As I stopped reading the peal of bells had slowed to a succession of single chimes, ushering the congregation in. And with each one I knew what I wanted to write in reflecting upon 2016. Shadows and Reflections is the most challenging piece of work of the year: how do you put the sky in a bottle and where do you choose to pitch it into the sea? Over the years I have always written mine in the stillest part of the year, those days immediately following the winter equinox, when the light is at its quickest, when all the shadows start to form a circle and when the reflections of the year are at their most vivid. This gives me the privilege of being able to read others’ pieces. This year some of the work has not just spoken to me, but on several occasions for me, too. Neil Sentance’s heartrending ‘1963: Dreams of the Old West’ – Her sonless father works her hard, and she has equalled anything a son could have done, though she is scarce recognised for it. She’s been driving tractors since the age of ten, and milking, raking, baling, gleaning, feeding, tending, shifting, digging, herding, all hours, all weathers. Hauling out the tree stumps on this patch of land is the devil’s own job. She is suffocated with the dust of cultivation. The farmlands are not a mythic playground anymore, more a hardscrabble republic of loneliness. She looks long at her reflection in the dark window, interlaced with the falling snow outside. Laura Cannell’s ‘End of Year Thoughts and Events…2016’, ‘written on various trains’, just like Betjeman’s before her – When I was younger I spent a lot time travelling in vans with my Dad, going to the big antiques fairs, buying and selling treasure in the form of furniture and decorative or repurposed objects. We would open the back doors of the van at 4am to other antique dealers with torches who had travelled from across the UK and Europe, coming together in wax jackets, thick cords and funny hats. A big white van community bursting with the remnants of country houses, Corinthian columns, the occasional rarities from distant worlds like a Sudan chair, rare Persian metalwork or ‘plain old’ 17th Century oak coffers. Dexter Petley’s words from the other side of ‘Hell’s Ditch’ – I filled a basket with the shape of honey past. Perhaps some had escaped and returned to the hives. Perhaps it’s too much to ask, that nature rectifies an error. It seemed a good place to stand, to sum up this year, the memory at ten to three and is there honey still for tea, when more than ever I understood the point of writing, but less than ever the point of publishing. And lastly, Brian David Stevens’ sobering photo lit essay – For the past 12 months I’ve been photographing at Beachy Head. It’s a beautiful, wild headland and cliffs, but sadly it is better known as a suicide spot. Now more than ever this feels like a time we need to be looking out for each other…17th August 17.25 hours Team paged along with Newhaven Coastguard to person over cliff at Seaford our condolences to family and friends.
In finishing last year’s Shadows and Reflections I wrote, ‘Come late summer we drove up the A1 Highway to Newark where in the 1888 my great-grandfather Matthew Andrews left his job as a bargee and signed up as a professional soldier. We went to look for his grave and those of the two generations before him without success.’ Over one hundred years ago, just before the Christmas of 1916, Matthew Andrews sent a postcard from Sennelager Prison Camp to his second wife. The postcard is of a group of prisoners staring into the camera. Among them is my great-grandfather. On the back is a later annotation from my grandfather, ‘Dad went out 8.8.14 Captured 16.8.14′. Matthew was exchanged in 1915 and came back to Britain on the condition that he would not participate in the war on the Western Front. The army gave him two weeks’ leave and then posted him to Gallipoli, where, as a member of the Royal Army Medical Corps., he assisted with the wounded at Sulva Bay in the Dardenelles. He made it home but the war and those he had fought in before it (a stretcher bearer at Colenso, the South Africa King and Queen’s ribbons are visible on his chest on the postcard) took their toll. Matthew Andrews died in 1919, living in Edinburgh, teaching on the Officer’s Training Corps. course at the University and like many veterans, selling cigarettes on the city’s street corners to supplement his income. Having been awarded the Croix de Guerre for his assistance with French wounded during and after his capture, he was posthumously given the Meritorious Service Medal in 1920 for treating fellow prisoners in Sennelager.
I knew all of this because of a letter my brother Richard had written to my Uncle, my sisters and I on the 100th anniversary of Matthew’s capture, 25th August 2015, and because of an e-mail my cousin Claire sent me detailing the end of his life. And I also knew that my brother’s letter and all it described probably contained the reason why I hadn’t finished my review of Where Poppies Blow. Lewis-Stempel’s book is made up of letters and accounts sent from the front by men just like Matthew Andrews. As such it is a document that feels like one’s own piece of unexploded ordnance packed with the voices of a discordant choir of angels. To sum it up it up is not to disarm it, but to awaken the folk memory of one’s family’s own experiences of the war and to tamper with the fuse of time.
I had written my last few pages of notes on Saturday 3rd and 4th December and they were filled with accounts from prison camps. ‘The Horrors of Wittenburg : one of the doctors, Major Priestly, entered a wooden barracks hut. In the half light he attempted to brush what he took to be an accumulation of dirt from the folds of a patient’s clothes and he discovered it to be a mass of moving lice’. This was the year that had just passed: to write Shadows and Reflections is to try to brush what one takes to be an accumulation of dirt from the folds of one’s clothes, only this year to discover it is a mass of moving lice.
Losses formed long shadows which fell over my family in 2016 as they had done the year before. Sorrow broke like percussions in the air. In the months either side of the scattering of my late brother-in-law Pete’s ashes by the crew of the Newhaven Lifeboat, we buried my Uncles in neighbouring English counties so oft recalled in Where Poppies Blow. Both had been soldiers. Terry was a professional like his father and grandfather before him, from the day he joined up in the war until his retirement. Michael, with whom Terry and my father went to school in Petersfield, joined up in the war too, but came home to marry my aunt and with her dedicate their lives to teaching, a direct response to having to write letters home from the front for the many who could not.
These losses were the seismic shocks of the year, they are what I will remember 2016 by in future years. All the while the outside world has felt just that, a radio signal jammed between frequencies emitting a sound akin to a high pitched whine and a low buzz. Throughout there has been a round of doctor’s appointments and hospital treatment, of tests and scans, bursts of writing from my own desk in London, books that felt like Red Cross parcels, the good company of friends. My 50th birthday marked by an impromptu drink with a kindred spirit at the local and closed with a glass of old port in front of an open fire with the one person who has got me this far. Days were spent criss-crossing the country in the van writing pieces in my head, early mornings spent looking in the vans of my fellow antiques dealers. And the daily joy of walks with our terrier. How they would have loved him in the trenches, just as we love him with all of the love of generations of my family that have gone before. ‘The British soldier cannot exist for long without pets of some sort, and consequently all sorts of animals lead a precarious but overfed existence in the trenches.’ (Country Life , 29th January 1916).
As the year stills, I remember the afternoon of my Uncle Terry’s burial in the Hampshire village of Liss. After a drink in The Spread Eagle next to one of the oldest oak trees in the country, those gathered went as our family is wont to do to view the auction over the road. And then some of us went to visit our grandparents’ old house in nearby St. Mary’s Road. There was no one at home so my cousin Claire, her son Andrew and I walked up the path to peer through the windows. Suddenly I was overwhelmed by the knowledge that the two generations of our family who had lived there now lay together on the edge of the village. I knew where I could find them when I needed them and for the first time in my life I felt as if I knew where I was from. An English county in which I had not lived, despite and probably because of the peripatetic existence of army life. The three of us stood for an hour in the garden, recalling our memories of the place. Claire had some of me from before the age when my own memory had formed. Of us playing together in the snow. I have no doubt that the grandmother I cannot recall stood in the kitchen ‘looking at her own reflection in the dark window, interlaced with the snow outside’. I have not left that garden since. In it are a century of shadows and a century of reflections. To say another year has passed is not enough.