Sunday, 11 November 2018

John Pudney 'For Johnny' and other 'Songs'

                       John Sleigh Pudney 1909- 1977


                    Bristol Beaufighter Mark IF of No. 252 Squadron RAF at Chivenor, Devon.
                              CH17305 , Imperial War Museum, photo taken by Mr. B J H Daventry

                                   John Pudney's poem 'For Johnny' was one of the most famous 'War in the Air' World War 2 poems. The writer was a former journalist,  who served as a squadron leader in RAF intelligence during the War. The poem was written in 1941 on the back of an envelope during an air raid alert in London, then later submitted to News Chronicle , who published the poem. 'For Johnny' also appeared in Pudney's collection of war poems titled 'Dispersal Point' ( from 1942, reprinted the same year, and again in 1943).

John Pudney had already published poetry as from 1933.  He also edited the collection 'Air Force Poetry' (1944) with Henry Treece and had seven poems included in the anthology 'More Poems From The Forces' edited by Keidrych Rhys , (1944).  He also wrote short stories about his life in the RAF under the names of PERSPEX

Famous for its simplicity, and its message that the best tribute to be paid to a deceased pilot is to take care of his children.  And for being read at the end of the film ' The Way to the Stars'   by Michael Redgrave .

                                        For Johnny

                                         Do not despair
                                         For Johnny-head-in-air,
                                         He sleeps as sound
                                         As Johnny under ground.

                                        Fetch out no shroud
                                        For Johnny-in-the-cloud,
                                        And keep your tears
                                        for him in after years.

                                        Better by far
                                        For Johnny-in-the cloud;
                                       To keep you head,
                                       And see his children fed.

In 1976, a collection of 23 World War 2 written by John Pudney was published , all taken from his 1957 'Collected Works', and not surprisingly, was titled 'For Johnny'. In the introduction, Pudney explained that there was no particular 'Johnny' in mind, which added to the poem's appeal as readers could pick an RAF casualty they knew,  and personalise the poem.

John Pudney's work has been included in subsequent anthologies such as 'The Terrible Rain'  and 'I Burn for England' . Not meeting with universal approval . Fellow poet Vernon Scannell  ( who served in the army during the War ) was quite catty about Pudney  "John Pudney's facile verses were popular during the war but their shallow sentimentality would be unlikely to find admirers now " ( 'Not Without Glory -poets of the second world war'-1976).

It is easy to  agree with Scannell if we are looking for literary merit.  Pudney's work is comforting in the way a well chosen  'with sympathy ' card can be. Or occasionally his poetry  veers to being too  clever such as  the line "Timelessly in time with time"- from the poem 'Air Gunner' below,  which could be a Yes song lyric from the early 1970's.  But John Pudney did make a significant contribution to World War 2 poetry, and deserves a mention, and can't just be dismissed in one line.

And there's a massive discussion to be had. World War 2 poetry can be appraised as literature, but also a source of writing that feeds a cultural need. 'For Johnny' might be sentimental but it has worked as war poetry if so many people can find it relevant to the whole trauma of  loss during war. I had also wondered if Vernon Scannell, who had traumatic experiences due to fighting in the North African and Normandy campaigns, and been jailed as a deserter, resented John Pudney possible lack of direct combat experience ? Scannell's 'Not Without Glory' does not draw on the writer's own war experience or his own poetry.

Two further poems from the collection  'For Johnny' . As far as I can tell they were both from around 1941 or 1942 .  'Missing' doesn't need much further comment, but draws on a similar theme to 'For Johnny' - the poem. 'Air Gunner' was more literary, about a youth finding his way into this role.


                                 Less said the better.
                                 The bill unpaid, the dead letter,
                                 No roses at the end,
                                 Of Smith my friend

                                  Last words don't matter
                                  And there are none to flatter
                                  Words will not fill the post
                                  Of  Smith, the ghost.

                                  For Smith, our brother,
                                  Only son of loving mother,
                                  The ocean lifted, stirred
                                  Leaving no word.

                                          Air Gunner

                                   The eye behind this gun made peace
                                   With a boy's eye with doubted, trembled.
                                   Guileless in the mocking light
                                   Of frontiers where death assembled.

                                   Peace was as single as the dawn,
                                   Flew straightly as the birds migrating,
                                   Timelessly in time with time,
                                   Purposeful, uncalculating

                                   So boyish doubt was put away:
                                   The man's eye and boy's were one.
                                   Mockery and death retreat
                                   Before the eye behind the gun.

In the publisher's blurb for 'Dispersal Point' third edition 1942, John Pudney was quoted as saying ;
"I hope these songs will be taken as a simple commentary on the Service and on war occasions generally. They are  only songs -not written in tranquillity, but in odd places and corners never far from the sound of aircraft. "
This is perhaps the final word to be said on his war poetry.


John Pudney entry from Science Fiction Encyclopedia

Don't forget the companion blog to this one A Burnt Ship   17th century related war poetry and prose.

Have just published an article on  RAF poet Thomas Rahilley Hodgson
on the World War Poetry website