Saturday, 9 September 2017

We are at War - Forty Years Backward March

Pleased to hear that the Second World War Experience Centre  magazine 'Everyone's War'   will include an article I wrote last year about poetry from the North Africa campaign. 

Two poems about the outbreak of World War 2 from the point of view of teenagers in Britain, Elizabeth Jennings and Michael A. Mason

                                                     Public Air Raid Shelter in Trafalgar Square from 1941
                                                                      Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Anniversary Fatigue

Deliberately decided to avoid posting about the anniversary of Britain entering into World War 2. Have to admit that anniversary fatigue is taking its toll .

But if I have posted on 3rd September 2017  would have included Elizabeth Jennings (1926- 2001), who later went on to become one of the 1950's 'Movement' poets.  Her work is rarely included in World War 2 poetry anthologies - the exception being 'Poems From the Second World War'
 ( Macmillan's Children's books in partnership with the IWM. 2005 ).

'The Second World War' - Elizabeth Jennings

"The voice said 'We are at War'
And I was afraid
for I did not know what this
My sister and I ran to our friends next door
As if they could help. History was lessons learnt
     With ancient dates, but here

     Was something utterly news,
The radio, called the wireless then, had said
That the country would have to be brave. There
was much to do. ....."

 Personally I am drawn to the simplicity of the poem, Elizabeth Jennings would have been 13 when war broke out and this poem captures the adolescent realising that they were experiencing ' something utterly news'.  I am not in a position to reproduce the whole poem.

The same anthology contains Anthony Thwaite's poem 'Bournemouth 3rd September 1939' , about a school boy enjoying the seaside whilst waiting to start the Autumn Term.  Born 1930, he was far younger than Elizabeth Jennings.  The poem ends with the ominous  lines

"...........Later, tucked in bed
I hear the safe sea roll and wipe away
The castles that had built in sand that day. "

Forty  Years Backward March -Michael Arthur Mason 

Canadian writer Paul Nicholas Mason has  shared this poem his father  Michael Mason   wrote about serving in the RAF during World War 2, on, and has kindly given consent for the poem to be reproduced here.

This is a memory of an outbreak of war from the point of view of a boy just about to turn fifteen. Again I appreciate the simplicity of the poem, which conveys the aspect of the unreal with what Elizabeth Jennings above called 'something utterly news'. Also like characterisation of Chamberlain as 'disheartened Victorian ' ( who was, after all, born in 1869)   and the commander who has been 'demothballed' who wishes the boys a 'good war'.

Paul has supplied the following biography.

Michael A. Mason was born September 29, 1924 in Oxfordshire, England, the son of the butler to the Earl of Jersey.  He was educated in state schools, and joined the RAF in 1943.  He was released early in 1946 to return to university in London.  Michael eventually earned his B.A. (Hons), Dip Ed, M.A. and PHD in English Language and Literature, and taught at universities in East Africa, B.C. and Ontario, Canada.  He finished his teaching career as Head of English and Philosophy at Royal Military College, Kingston, Ontario.

'40 Years Backward March ' - Michael A Mason. 

Tired but precise, a voice. “We are at war
With Germany.” I’d seen him the year before
Bringing home “Peace with Honour.”
Chamberlain. “It is the evil things
That we shall be fighting against.”
Thus spake a disheartened Victorian.

Warm summer and bright sunshine brought them out.
This was a Junkers, circling the school
Low down. “To shelters?” No.
We had no instructions. Besides,
The All Clear had sounded; and so, officially,
He wasn’t there. It seems he abided by that,
Drifting away from us, taking his time.
Just curious.

Bomber in a hurry shed its cargo
Over the woods. We were below it,
Hunting for walnuts. You fling up a stick and
Down they come. Old Tom was eighty,
But outran most of us. “What’s the use?”
You ask. Why, none. We might have become
So easily part of the harvest.

Air Commodore, once retired;
Demothballed. He was old; to us, on parade,
Incredibly. “I wish you
A good war,” he said. “Resent him?”
No, not now. For what he meant was
“I hope you survive it.” In such times
This is not the way you should say it.

An outsize motorbike belting along behind trees
But raised as if to skim them. Suddenly there’s
Our first Vee-One, yammering over the fields
Towards us – you can imagine them
Looking for you (which is bad for morale) –
Till high in plain view over
The huge dead elm behind the house it
Cut, dipped as it lost momentum, and
Blew up somewhere else.
“Missed by a mile?” Or so;
Unless you were in the houses it demolished.

Before long they were common as wasps and
Rather a trouble at night: each dragon of darkness
Bringing you to the window
The better to watch that
Flaring rumble charting its
Ruinous way. “I take a dim view of this,”
So the cliché ran; but you’d heard
They sometimes swung round before dropping,
And you always had to be sure
That this next one kept right on going.

Yes, a long time ago, and just
Marginal. Of the mute and inglorious
Multitude only a memory
By another long-time survivor.
But, when nobody’s left to remember
The strange particular drumbeat
Of a Junkers, or Vee-Ones, or summer
So fine that it brought all the wasps out
And thus gave a tinge rather special
To youthful ambitions in those years,
Let’s hope there won’t be such a mustering
Of heavy battalions of nightmares
Lining up on parade at the recall
To arms for the next Peace with Honour
That, by the time that one’s been swatted,
There’ll be nobody left to remember."

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