Category Archives: Literature

Anthony Richardson : the RAF poet (3)

Anthony Richardson wrote three books of verse during his lifetime, all of them during World War Two. The first was called “Because of these: Verses of the Royal Air Force” (1942). Then there was “These – Our Children” (1943) and finally “Full Cycle: Verses of the Royal Air Force” (1946). Last time, we were looking at the first one:

Richardson joined the RAF at the beginning of the war and his career was related in the official records in the following fashion. It may give you an idea of the difficulties which may be encountered when you are trying to follow somebody’s military career:

Firstly he was a “T/2nd Lt. 05.09.1918 (reld 01.09.1921)”.

Then he was “P/O (prob) 18.06.1940 [80934]”.

Next he was “(WS) F/O (prob) 20.01.1941”

and then “(WS) F/O 18.06.1941”

He finished as a “(T) F/Lt. 01.09.1942”.

And like my father he was “demobilized 1946”

The numbers are either his RAF service number or the date he assumed his rank. Other abbreviations are “T” (Temporary), “P/O” (Pilot Officer) and then “F/O” is Flying Officer, “F/Lt.” is Flight Lieutenant and “WS” is War Service. “Prob” is “on probation”.

As far as I know, Richardson was an Intelligence Officer on a Bomber Base, which means that he would listen to the tales the bomber crews told when they returned and then write them all down, so that they could be passed on for others to correlate and thereby produce some kind of general overview:

I’ve found one or two more of the best poems from Richardson’s book “Because of these”, and I’ll be showing them to you in the rest of this blog post.

The first poem I selected is called “There is a Land”. It has an almost jokey tone to it. The poet envisages a land, he doesn’t know where, but everything is perfect. Weather forecasts are always accurate, everybody is a member of RAF aircrew, there are no sudden calls to take off, no hours spent on stand by and everything is beautiful. The third verse mentions the three types of light on a wartime RAF airbase, namely the boundary lights, the glim-lamps (glim is short for “glimmer”), and the Chance-lights, made by Chance’s, a factory in Birmingham just half a mile from where my wife lived as a child. In real life, these lights were all deliberately kept very dim so as not to help German night fighters, so in a perfect land, they all shine brightly:

When you go out in your Blenheim light bomber, everything is perfect:

Verse four speaks of “golden clouds” and a “free and boundless sky”. But, alas, in the fifth verse, they’ll all be flying near Horley Ness, where the weather is so bad that there are bound to be crashes. That will in turn create vacancies in the canteen (the “Mess”) so that the people who get back will be able to eat the extra sausages:

These next two poems are both epitaphs. Both of them rhyme, and do so without becoming ridiculous doggerel. Epitaph 1 makes the point of how a man’s body can be destroyed in an instant and leave just a burnt patch on the ground. But once winter is past, Mother Nature makes the flowers and the grass grow and they soon cover up all traces of charred earth. The poet, though, wonders how the plants can grow heedless of the remains of a hero among their roots. Every RAF man knew that he might finish up that way. Like Guy Gibson, just a single foot in a single sock. Or one of the Old Nottinghamians I have written about. He and his six companions became just five bones, some of them fingers, and not even enough for one per coffin:

The second epitaph paints an even more gaunt picture of the life of RAF aircrew. A sergeant pilot lies in his grave, having at last taken to wife the dark maiden Death. He had encountered her several times before, but on this occasion, he looks too deeply into her eyes and “she enfolded him in her embrace. Again a rhyming poem, although this time with a different pattern of rhyme:

I hope you enjoyed them. More next time.

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Alice in Wonderland (2)

Last time I was looking at how ““The Annotated Alice: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass” by Martin Gardner added to our understanding of the two books.

One of the most famous characters of Carroll’s book is the Cheshire Cat. Here’s Tenniel’s illustration:

Ao, what does “Annotated Alice” have to say about the Cheshire cat? Well, did you know that “He grins like a Cheshire cat” was already a well known saying before Alice ever met this particular cat? Or that Cheshire cheese was once sold in the shape of a grinning cat? (Difficult to believe that one!) Here’s Mabel Lucie Atwell’s Cheshire Cat:

“Annotated Alice” reveals that Lewis Carroll’s father was once the rector of St Peter’s church at Croft-on-Tees near Darlington in northern England. There, Joel Birenbaum recently found a stone carving of a cat’s head on the east wall of the church’s chancel, just a few feet above floor level. When Joel went down on his knees and looked upward, just the cat’s mouth could be seen as a broad grin.

Alice’s conversation with the Cheshire Cat has even been compared to Jack Kerouac:

“Would you tell me please, which way I ought to go from here?”

“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.”

In “On the Beat” apparently, the conversation runs:

“Where we goin’, man?”

“I don’t know, but we betta go.”

I personally would even compare a subsequent piece of dialogue between Alice and the Cheshire Cat with the novel “Catch-22” by Joseph Heller. Carroll wrote:

“In that direction lives a Hatter and in that direction lives a March Hare. Visit either you like. They’re both mad”.

“But I don’t want to go among mad people.”

“Oh, you can’t help that, we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”

“How do you know I’m mad?”

“You must be, or you wouldn’t have come here.”

The absolute “Star of the Show”, of course, is the Mad Hatter.

Apparently, in the 1850s and 60s, the phrase “Mad as a Hatter” was as equally common as “Mad as a March Hare”. The expression may originally have been “mad as an adder” but it is thought to be much more probable that it comes from the fact that hatters did frequently go mad through using mercury to cure felt, from which hats may be made. Mercury is highly poisonous.

“Hatter’s shakes” were exactly that, and eyes, limbs and speech were frequently affected. After that came hallucinations and psychotic episodes. Apart from that, “hatter” was quite a good career.

There are a good few different versions of the Mad Hatter. There are two styles of Tenniel and also Mabel Lucie Atwell, Blanche MacManus and Charles Robinson:

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My own favourite is WH Walker in his “I want a clean cup”. Notice how the ears of the Mad March Hare are used as cowls on the chimneys of the Mad Hatter’s house. Or is that all part of the hallucination?:

“Annotated Alice” has very little to say about the Mad March Hare. This is from Wikipedia:

“A long-held view is that the hare will behave strangely and excitedly throughout its breeding season, which in Europe peaks in the month of March. This odd behaviour includes boxing at other hares, jumping vertically for seemingly no reason and generally displaying abnormal behaviour.”

On the other hand, “Annotated Alice” reveals that Victorian children used to keep dormice as pets and housed them in large old teapots with dry grass as bedding. Here the Mad Hatter and the March Hare try to stuff the sleeping dormouse into the teapot:

“Annotated Alice” seems to know something about virtually every event in the two books, no matter how trivial they seem. I have only scratched the surface of what subtleties are hidden away in the story. Does anybody realise nowadays, for example, that the Victorians thought a lot about falling down a hole that went straight through the centre of the earth?

And did we notice very much about the Pool of Tears in Chapter Two? Who was in it? Well, there was “A Duck and a Dodo, a Lory and an Eaglet and several other curious creatures.”

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Did they represent anything?

Well, they represented that select group of people, who took that short trip by boat on the River Thames on Friday, July 4th 1862.

As they progressed slowly down the river, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson aka Lewis Carroll recounted the story of Alice. He was the Dodo. His stammer made him give his name as “Do—Do—Dodgson”. The duck was his friend the Reverend Robinson Duckworth, a fellow of Trinity College, Oxford. The Lory is Lorina, the eldest of the Liddell sisters. Edith Liddell is the Eaglet.

“Annotated Alice” has these and a thousand other hidden details. What an excellent book!

Next time, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, the man.

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The Fairies of Cornwall (3)

The ancient stories about the fairies were collected together in Cornwall by William Bottrell (1816–1881) when he realised that the county was changing so rapidly in the mid-nineteenth century, that the old tales would all soon be lost if he didn’t record them during his lifetime. Fairy tales had never previously been written down, but were declaimed to an audience by “droll tellers”, men who would spend one night here, two nights there, as they wandered from farm to farm, being fed and making money as the hat was passed around. This was all in exchange for entertaining the people with their traditional accounts of what mischief the fairies had got up to. They still exist nowadays to some extent:

In those days, the agricultural population would often live in groups either in, or around, a large farm, providing the farmer with his workforce and the droll teller with his audience. Presumably, the droll teller might well change the details of his tale slightly to fit the lives of the people in the particular farm where he was telling his tale. Many tales mention specific people and specific places, and the tale might be changed to take account of this. Even today, a droll teller can attract a large crowd:

 The three books by William Bottrell which I have are : “Traditions and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall-First Series (1870)”

“Traditions and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall-Second Series (1873)”

“Stories and Folk-Lore of West Cornwall-Third Series (1880)”

And here’s the cover:

Personally, I would say that the “droll tales” were already centuries old when Bottrell collected them. Some of them apparently include particular individuals from the 1600s and I would not be surprised if the tales had their origins as far back as the years before William the Conqueror. A few certainly mention the red hair of the vikings:

Fairies back then were beings who would interfere frequently in the lives of ordinary people. They had such powers that they could do whatever they wished. Physically, they were the size of humans and people were frequently  deceived by strangers that they did not realise were fairies. More about such evil-doing next time…….

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Anthony Richardson : the RAF poet (2)

Anthony Richardson was educated first at Marlborough College and then at Manchester University. Before the war he would publish a good few books, all of them detective novels, historical novels,  fantasy thrillers or what were then called  “bodice rippers”. They were almost what Quentin Tarantino would call “Pulp Fiction”, but without the sexual content. During his lifetime, Richardson probably made more money from his thrillers and detective stories rather than from his books of poetry, but that’s just a guess.

Nowadays the pulp fiction books are quite rare but they are still obtainable, sometimes at a considerable price. Here is “Ransom” (1925). The plot is that a bad boy returns as a success to the school that expelled him and marries the daughter of his former teacher. Note the UFO hovering over the book:

And ”High Silver” (1926):And “The Barbury Witch” (1927):Other books from before the war were “The Transgressor” (1928) “Milord and I “(1930), “City of the Rose” (1933) and “Golden Empire” (1938).

During the war years, Richardson turned to poetry. After the war, though, he went back to popular prose. His books included “Wingless Victory” (1951), “The Rose of Kantara” (1951):

“Crash Kavanagh” (1953):

“Rommel’s Birthday Party” (1956):

“No place to lay my Head” (1957), the tale of a Byelorussian soldier in the German army in WW2:

“One Man and his Dog” (1962):

Richardson must have made quite a bit of money too from two very successful non-fiction books. One was “Nick of Notting Hill: The bearded policeman. The story of Police Constable J. Nixon of the Metropolitan Police”:

The other was “Wingless Victory”, a World War Two prisoner of war escape story:

During the war years, Richardson wrote three books of verse. The first was called “Because of these: Verses of the Royal Air Force” (1942). I bought a copy about a year ago for two or three pounds. My book has the date April 4th 1942 written inside the front cover, presumably the date of purchase. On this date the Luftwaffe attacked the Soviet fleet at Kronstadt but without success. The book itself was bought at Goulden’s of Canterbury for 1/6d or 7½ pence in today’s money. Goulden’s, an important shop in the area, seems to have ceased trading in 1947. Their shop was on the High Street:

Here is what they sold:

I initially selected two poems to look at from this book. You have already met one of them in my first post, “W/OP–A/G Blenheim Mk IV”, and here is the second of the two entitled “There was an air gunner”.

The first four verses describe a man who lives in Devon, a particularly beautiful agricultural county in the south west of England. There are two verses which list “all that yields beauty and blessedness” in his life, which is, at that moment, completely and totally perfect. So much so that he begins to sing in sheer happiness. He sings the traditional Devon folk song “Uncle Tom Cobleigh”, which every child in England learnt until the Rolling Stones arrived in the 1960s to put a stop to all that kind of innocent childishness:

Here are the lyrics.  of Uncle Tom Cobleigh”.  And here is somebody singing them:

The man’s “lusty voice” echoes down the steep Devon valley, but there is also a supernatural note introduced because “There they echo still.” The supernatural idea is developed in the last verse by the fact that the man has had his voice cut short by violent death on a bombing mission to Cologne. Nevertheless, when the sun in spring is bright, the Devon valley now has, in ghostly fashion, “a voice its own”:

Since I picked out the first two, I’ve discovered a few more little gems in “Because of these: Verses of the Royal Air Force” and I will show you them next time.

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Alice in Wonderland (1)

I have always loved Lewis Carroll’s two Wonderland books and I recently bought myself a copy of “The Annotated Alice: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass” by Martin Gardner:

Each page of the book has a very wide margin, so that, as you read the original text of the story from 1865, there are explanations and expansions of the most interesting points.

The text of the book begins, for example, with quite a famous poem:

“All in the golden afternoon,

Full leisurely we glide:

For both our oars, with little skill,

By little arms are plied.”

But “Annotated Alice” tells us that events took place on Friday, July 4th 1862, and that in the boat for the three mile trip were Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, the Reverend Robinson Duckworth, Lorina Liddell, Alice Pleasance Liddell and Edith Liddell. The two other Liddell sisters, however, were not present. They were Rhoda Liddell and Violet Liddell, who are mentioned only once in all of Carroll’s works.

The stories told during that golden afternoon include a second poem, this time about the Jabberwocky:

“’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:

All mimsy were the borogoves,

And the mome raths outgrabe.”

But did you know that “brillig” means “the time of broiling dinner”, that “slithy” was an amalgam of “slimy” and “lithe”, that “toves” are a species of badger, that “gyre” means “to scratch like a dog” and that “gimble” is “to screw holes” in something (hence “gimblet”) ?

Are you aware that “mimsy” is “unhappy”, that “borogoves” are an extinct kind of parrot, that “mome” means “grave and serious”, that a “rath” is a species of land turtle and that “outgrabe” means “squeaked”? Or at least, that is what Lewis Carroll said about those four lines and 23 words. Thanks to “Annotated Alice”, it makes a lot more sense now, doesn’t it?

And what did Carroll write about the Red Queen?

Well, according to “Annotated Alice”, he said that:

“I pictured to myself the Queen of Hearts as a sort of embodiment of ungovernable passion — a blind and aimless fury.”

Only sixty or seventy years later in the Oz books would L. Frank Baum achieve such a frequency of decapitations. And the Queen of Hearts’ dress is exactly the same pattern as the Queen of Spades’ dress. Was the illustrator, Tenniel, trying to establish a link between her and Death?

Arthur Rackham produced an illustration called “The Queen Never Left off Quarrelling”:

The Queen is perhaps even fiercer in black and white:

But in colour, she is magnificent:

Another favourite poem of mine is:

“Tweedledum and Tweedledee

Agreed to have a battle;

For Tweedledum said Tweedledee

Had spoiled his nice new rattle”

Here they are:

But “Annotated Alice” tells us that there may be a connection between this conflict and a famous musical battle between George Frederick Handel and Giovanni Battista Bononcini which, at the time, had been described as:

“Strange all this difference should be

Twixt tweedle-dum and tweedle-dee.”

And did you know that apparently at the time, during the 1860s, the drawings of the two boys were thought to  resemble strongly John Bull in Punch magazine?

And are the two boys identical or are they a mirror image of each other? Perhaps they have their names on their collars, and that’s the difference:

More extra details about your favourite Alice in Wonderland characters next time!

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The Fairies of Cornwall (2)

Two very different geniuses (or perhaps genii), have both offered their opinion about our O-so-short existence on Planet Earth. One was the Venerable Bede (or the Venereal Bede as we used to call him at school). TVB lived from AD 672–735. He was a Saxon and he was the author of “The Ecclesiastical History of the English People” and “The Ecclesiastical History of the English People: The Heavy Metal Years”. And TVB’s views were not exactly overflowing with either certainty or optimism, despite his continuing promotions from one job to another in the hierarchy of the church, bringing him ever closer to The Big Man. Pope St Gregory III. Here is TVB, on his visit to Craggy Island:

Young Father Dougal McGuire is taking notes of the Great Man’s order for the Chinese takeaway while Fathers Ted and Jack debate whether, if priests were Chinese meals, Dougal would be Dim Sum. And TVB continues:

“The life of man upon the Earth seems to me like the flight of a sparrow through the Great Hall where the king sits at supper in winter, with his noblemen and knights. The fire blazes brightly and the hall is warm, even though the wintry storms of rain or snow are raging outside. The sparrow, flying in at one door, through the hall, and flying out at the other door, is safe from the wintry tempest whilst he is inside, but after a short interval of nice warm weather, he immediately vanishes out of your sight, passing from winter to winter again. So our life as men lasts for a little while, but of what went before our lives or what is to follow our lives, we know nothing at all.”

Shakspere, a man who couldn’t even spell his own name consistently, was ten times as pessimistic:

“Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more.

It is a tale
Told by an idiot,

Full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.”

Our understanding is not helped either by the fact that, because of the shortness of our lives, it almost always proves impossible for Man A in the twelfth century to tell another man, Man B, in the late eighteenth century, that, between them, they have discovered the two halves of one of the great truths of human existence. But without being able to compare notes, neither of the two will ever realise that, by putting the two halves together, one of our great questions may have been answered.

The two men in question both had an identical and absolutely extraordinary experience.

Man A in the twelfth century was an Iroquois hunter:

One day he gets tired from his hunting. He lies down in the forest and goes to sleep. When he awakens, a hundred years have passed. His great-grandchildren have grey hair and his children and his grandchildren are all dead.

Then there’s the Dutchman from the late eighteenth century. One day he is walking up a mountain path and accepts the offer of a drink of liquor from some elegantly dressed men. He soon falls asleep and when he awakens, twenty years have passed. His nagging wife is dead and so is his dog, Wolf, and his country no longer has a king but a president. The man’s name? Rip van Winkle:

Both men have found answers to at least one of the questions which, nowadays, we are all burning desperately to solve. But, in actual fact, the question may already have been solved centuries ago, and the answer has then been hidden away in the dust of our premature deaths, lost in the passage of time. If only 21st century Americans knew that they need to talk to a late 18th century Dutchman , or perhaps even a 12th century Iroquois to get an answer to one of our biggest questions.

And that particular question is:

Are there beings out there somewhere who have powers way beyond ours, such as the manipulation of time or even time travel itself? :

Other burning questions, near to the top of the list, are :

1         are there superior beings out there somewhere who like to spy on us?

2        do they ever intervene in human affairs?

3        do they ever abduct us and take us elsewhere for periods of time?

These “superior beings”, of course, extend upwards as far as gods and angels.

Here in Merry Olde Englande, we, of course, have the answers to all three of these questions. They are Yes, Yes and Yes/Perhaps. And these answers have all three been known to the country people of Cornwall for, possibly, ten centuries.

The Cornish country people have long been familiar with these superior beings. They may spy on us, they may take an interest in our affairs, they interfere with our lives and they occasionally abduct us and do what they want with us, for as long as they think fit. Today, in our technological society, these superior beings are now known as “extra-terrestrials” and they apparently possess technology light years ahead of our own:

In the seventeenth and eighteenth century, though, the Cornish people knew them not as “extra-terrestrials” but as “fairies”. They seem to have encountered them quite frequently and they accepted their existence without hesitation.  And those beliefs, while nowadays not quite as strong as in the past, still persist even nowadays.

All you need to know is that the Cornish fairies of centuries ago have never been quite the same as the poetic, upper class, literary fairies of JM Barrie and Peter Pan and Tinkerbell. Cornish fairies are usually just like human beings in size and appearance, and they all have very strong magical powers, rather like Samantha in “Bewitched” :

And one other thing….Cornish fairies are always nasty, and sometimes they can be very nasty indeed:

 

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Anthony Richardson : the RAF poet (1)

It is often said that there are no great poets from the Second World War, but I’m not always so sure about that.

True, there are perhaps none as good as Wilfrid Owen or Siegfried Sassoon from the First World War, but, armed only with a computer and a credit card, I’ve still managed without too much difficulty to buy around half a dozen books of decent quality World War Two poetry, all of them the original editions published in the early 1940s.

And if I do inspire you to buy any poetry books from this period, please be aware that after more than seventy years, the dust jackets can be very tatty and may even have changed colour. And if you can find a copy where the dust jacket has been covered by “Mylar”, buy that one!

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What I intend to do is to show you some examples of what I think are the best poems, with my own explanations of the difficult bits if I feel that they are necessary.

DO NOT PANIC

None of this RAF poetry is in “ye funnie lankuage” spoken by Shakspere or Geoffrey Chaucer.

There’s nothing from King Lear:

“Thou changed and self-cover’d thing, for shame,
Be-monster not thy feature. Were’t my fitness
To let these hands obey my blood,
They are apt enough to dislocate and tear
Thy flesh and bones: howe’er thou art a fiend,
A woman’s shape doth shield thee.”

It’s not from Chaucer:

“And, whan he rood, men mighte his brydel here

Ginglen in a whistling wynd as clere,

And eek as loude as dooth the chapel-belle”

The RAF poetry is all easy to understand and you might even enjoy it.

First up to the plate is Anthony Richardson, (1899-1964). His full name was Anthony Thomas Stewart Currie Richardson and he would one day marry a lady with an equally impressive name. She was Marion de Mouchet Baynham.

Richardson’s first book of poetry was entitled “Because of these: Verses of the Royal Air Force” (1942). You can even get a nice dust jacket if you are patient:

This poem is called “W/OP–A/G Blenheim Mk IV” and it was included in what is actually a rather slim volume.  A Blenheim is an RAF light bomber and a “W/OP–A/G” is a “wireless operator-air gunner”.  Read this easy bit first. Balham is a district of London:

Richardson draws the parallels between the inoffensive man at home in the first eight lines above, and then the air gunner in the extract below, sitting in his gun turret, holding his guns, ready to fight. And at eventide he wonders if he will be alive to see the rising sun greet the morning. And in the last two lines, he watches the sky for German fighters, just as once he used to watch his beautiful daughter with the firelight on her hair creating a halo around her beautiful face. And finally,  “this most strange, impersonal affair”, I think, refers to the fact that any quarrel between himself and the fighter pilot is not personal, it’s just the way things are:

All that, and it rhymes too! And the syllables have a regular pattern.

That’s why it’s poetry and not prose.

Next time, I’ll tell you about Anthony Richardson in more depth and we’ll look at one more of his poems. Poetry is like spicy food for the brain. You have to take it slowly at first.

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