Monday, 28 November 2016

The Scottish World War 2 Poets- part one

                              The Scottish World War 2 Poets and the Desert

"There are many dead in the brutish desert
     who lie uneasy
among the scrub in this landscape of half-wit
stunted ill-will. For the dead land is insatiate
and necrophilious . The sand is blowing about still.
And sleep now. Sleep here the sleep of the dust." 

From the First Elegy of 'Elegies for the Dead in Cyrenaica'
Hamish Henderson.

                                                      Thanks to Boing Boing net : Image of WW2 plane found in desert

World War 2 followed the Scottish Renaissance of 1920s and 1930's, a new Scottish cultural  awareness in poetry and fiction writing, particularly emphasising national identity, folklore and language. In such a background the Scottish National Party was founded in 1934.

The North African 'Desert War'  involved a fair number of poets, many were Scottish, including ; Edwin Morgan, Sorley MacLean, Hamish Henderson, Malcolm MacCleod, G S Fraser, George Campbell Hay. Some of these poems were originally written in Gaelic or Doric. Vernon Scannell was from Buckinghamshire but served with the 51st Highland Division, as did fellow poet John Jarmain from Shrewsbury.  Other poets who fought here included Spike Milligan and Keith Douglas.

In fact with was the North African campaign that gave rise to the most significant attempt to collect World War 2 poetry, the Cairo based 'Oasis Trust' that published its first anthology by service personnel in 1943 . This organisation was revived as the Oasis Salamander Trust which ran from 1976- 2012, and a whole series of anthologies resulted. Yet  war memoir has not defined later views of  the Desert War:  Keith Douglas 'Alamein to Zazem'  first appeared in 1946, two years after the poet's death in 1944. Vernon Scannell's 'Argument of Kings' ( 1987) and Spike Milligan's comic 'Rommel?'Gunner Who? A Confrontation in the Desert' (1976) also deservea mention. But no work steps up like 'The Cruel Sea ' does , a book that became a film, and contributed so much to how the Atlantic convoys are portrayed.

               There was an  understandable reluctance to glorify nature, reminding one of World War 2 Royal Navy serving writers such as Alan Ross and Nicholas Monsarrat  admitting that they hated the sea. War was not shown as somehow fracturing an otherwise rural idyll. The desert climate saw extremes of heat during the day and cold during the night. Sandstorms were a hazard, flies a major plague.

There was a lack of triumphalism evident in the Desert poetry. Hamish Henderson recalled a captured German soldier saying to him "Africa changes everything :In reality we are allies, and the desert is our common enemy."

               Sorley Maclean's 'Death Valley' , just as Keith Douglas in this poem 'Vergissmenicht' - was moved to write about a dead German soldier

Sitting dead in 'Death Valley'
below the Ruweisat Ridge,
a boy with his forelock down about his cheek
and his face slate-grey;

And in the last three verses stresses a shared affinity; the soldiers on both sides are sent to fight by those in power:

Was the boy of the band
who abused the Jews
and Communists, or of the greater
band of those

led, from the beginning of generations,
unwillingly to the trial
and made delirium of every war
for the sake of rulers?

Whatever his desire or mishap,
his innocence of malignity
he showed no pleasure in his death
below the Ruweisat Ridge.

Whilst John MacInes, writing about the Allied victory of El-Alamein in his poem of the same name,

That victory was not with price-
We paid for it with our hearts' blood;
We are leaving thousands prostrate
In graves in the dust of Alamein. 

Of course the contrast of the desert and home memories were marked in poetry; To return to Hamish Henderson, from the 'Second Elegy of  Elegies for the Dead in Cyrenaica',  there's a great passage showing a soldier portraying the harshness of nature shrinking into a stage set, as a way of somehow managing the ferocity of desert warfare. But such a respite can only last for an instant.

                       The dreamers remember
a departure like a migration. They recall a landscape
associated with warmth and veils and a pantomime
but never focused exactly. The flopping curtain
reveals scene-shifters running with a freshly painted
incongruous sets. Here childhood's prairie garden
looms like a pampas, where grown-ups stalk (gross outlaws)
on legs of tree trunk; recedes; and the strepitant jungle
dwindles to scruff or shrubs on a docile common,
all but real for a moment, then gone.

Many Thanks  for all their help
Richie McCaffrey
The Scottish Poetry Library

Further reading ' From the Line-Scottish War Poetry' edited David Goldie & Roderick Watson
                            (The Association for Scottish Literary Studies, 2014) ..Quotes from poems were taken                                 from this work.
                            'Return to Oasis-War Poems &Recollections From the Middle East 1940-1946'
                             (The Salamander Oasis Trust, 1946)
                             'Scottish Poets in the Desert' Angus Calder, (article from 'Southfields 1999'

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Coventry 14th November 1940

           "The raiders first fired the medieval centre, crowned by its beautiful cathedral, which was gutted. They then poured hundreds of tones of bombs into the city, in an attack which lasted ten hours. Approaching one-third of the ctiy's houses were made uninhabitable, .....A hundred acres of the city centre were destroyed. Five hundred and fifty-four people were killed, eight hundred and sixty-five seriously wounded."
'The People's War Britain 1939- 1945' -Angus Calder

Painting of bombed Coventry Cathedral, November 1940 ~ by John Piper, 1940 


by John J.Rattigan, November 1940

Who can forget that night of death,
Wrought by the sky devil's fiery breath,
Who can forget that night of pain,
Dealt out by a madman's twisted brain.
We shall not forget as our homes we rebuild,
On bomb-scarred ground where innocent were killed,
We shall not forget as we look at the land,
Where once stood a building so stately and grand.
Even God's house is not safe from this Hun,
Who bombs and destroys at the setting of the sun.
So let him send over his cowardly hordes,
Who shatter the homes of paupers and Lords.
That night was severe, there is no doubt,
We had a hard blow, but they can't knock us out.
For our men are of steel, our women won't kneel,
Nor children for mercy plea.
A new hope will arise, when the world is free,
From the rubble and ashes of Coventry

( Not sure who owns the copyright to this work but quoted with kind permission from )

Particularly appreciate the defiance of the poem, the use of the term 'Hun' seems archaic.So much war poetry emphasises evokes the helplessness and hopelessness that war can generate, whilst this poem confronts the horror war but suggests rejuvenation. Along with the reminder of how air attack ensured that civilians could have direct experience of warfare.  The notion of a war poet being  on some mission to depict the 'pity of war' to pampered civilians was over, and bombs don't differentiate between the homes of rich and poor.

As we are now approaching Remembrance season, been thinking over the work of Alun Lewis, ( 1.July 1915- 5.March 1944). Serving as an Intelligence Officer  with the Royal Engineers, he died near Arakan , Burma in what his regimental history described as (being) "accidentally wounded by a pistol. " Lewis left only one collection published in his life time 'Raiders Dawn' (1942)

Vernon Scannell noted in his work 'Not Without Glory' (1976)
"He did not directly experience the terror, exultation, weariness and despair of battle and hammer out records of what he endured. He was a soldier-poet of a different kind; the reluctant unhappy warrior, suffering boredom, exasperation, loneliness, exile, frustration and anxiety, the civilian in uniform, fighting not the enemy in arms  but the debilitating longing for the lost peace, for comfort and love. He was in some ways the representative  poet of the Second World War."

This poem 'Peace'  is taken from 'Selected Poems of Alun Lewis' selected  by Jenny Hooker and Gweno Lewis with a foreword by Robert Graves. Graves's own son Ltn. (John) David Nicholson Graves, who like his father served with the Royal Welch Fusiliers, was killed in action near Arakan, on 18th March 1943.


"The wind blows
Through her eyes,
Snow is blanker
In her whiter thighs,
The birds are frantic with
Her last distress,
And flutter and chatter over
Her nakedness

And her blind
Eyes are prayers
Where she lives
By the boulders
The strong shoulders
Of the Earth
Who is kind
And harvest
Her prayers
And abideth
His time.

Destroyed is the well
Of her magic,
But where she lies silent
And tragic the earth
Pallid in reverie
Stirs with the birth
Of the flowers, the white
and the red that she gives,
The tendrils and swarming of all
That still lives, oh still lives ! 

And she comes from the dead,
Smiling without mystery,
Homeward slowly turning
Century by century,
And all the heart's deep yearnings
In her Being is burning, burning. "