Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Memories - 1940's London - Caryll Houselander

Tragically, war is always with us. Every day through the media, we are assailed with details and images of death and destruction, terror and suffering, experienced on a wide scale in different parts of the world. We hope and pray that we will not be caught up in these horrors, and pray for peace in the world. I am of an age for which life in Britain during the Second World War has a particular relevance, for this was the time of my  childhood, a period which I lived through, and certain details of which I can remember quite well.This is no place to enlarge on these memories, however it so happened that in 1946 I was enrolled as a boarder at Westminster Cathedral Choir School when it re-opened after the war. As choirboys there were very few days on which we failed to be involved in one or other of the liturgical services in the Cathedral, and I have never lost that sense of mystery and of God ever present in the Cathedral, even to me as a small boy. The following extract from the poem 'Afternoon in Westminster Cathedral' reinforces these impressions.

'Afternoon in Westminster Cathedral'
 Caryll Houselander (1901-1954)

‘In the cathedral
through ages and ages of men,
the people come and go.
They sorrow, but One endures,
they falter, but One is strong,
they pass, but One remains,
they change, but One is unchanging.

Christ is there,
in a corner behind a lamp,
He is in the world,
as a man’s heart in his breast,
almost forgotten,
until a lover,
lays her head on the piteous ribs,
of the cage of bone,
and hears
the mysterious beat
of  the pulse of life.

We have rejected
the yoke that is sweet,
and  bowed to the yoke of fear.

We have feared discomfort and loss,
pain of body and mind,
the pang of hunger and thirst,
we have been abject
before the opinions of men.

We have been afraid
of the searching ray
of  truth.
Of the simple laws
of  our own life.

We have feared
the primitive beauty
of  human things.
Of love
and of  birth
and of death.

We have lost
the integrity
of  the human heart.

We have gone to the dying embers for warmth,
to the flickering lamp for light,
we have set our feet on the quicksand,
instead  of the rock.

We are the mediocre,
we are the half givers,
we are the half lovers,
we are the savourless salt.

Lord Jesus Christ,
restore us now,
to the primal splendour
of first love.
To the austere light
of  the breaking day.

Let us hunger and thirst,
let us burn in the flame.
Break the hard crust
of complacency.
Quicken in us
the sharp grace of desire.

Let us not sit content
by the dying embers,
let the embers fall into cold ash,
let the flickering lamp gutter and die.
Cover with darkness
the long shadows
thronging the lamp.
Make the soul’s night,
absolute and complete,
the shrine of one star.

Shine in us,
Shadowless Light.
Flame in us
Fire of Love,
Burn in us,
Morning star.
Go with us!’

 'Afternoon in Westminster Cathedral' (extract)
From 'The Flowering Tree'- selected poems by Caryll Houselander.  (Sheed and Ward)

As a child during the war I was evacuated out of London, but occasionally was taken by my mother to see friends and relations who lived in London, travelling by train and bus or tram. I cannot remember much of these visits but the following description of London during the hours of darkness, with blackout regulations strictly enforced, has a familiar ring about it. I seem to recall in particular the blue lights in the buses, the lighted cigarettes of pedestrians, and the red, amber, and green crosses on the traffic lights. I am grateful to say that on these visits I was never in the vicinity of bombing raids.

The Blackout

'The weather continued warm, but the nights were lengthening. People looked forward to the winter and the long cold darkness with no relish.  The streets emptied now after dusk, and the black-out became largely the property of the wardens and the police; though in the West End there persisted a dogged and darkly hurrying crowd of revellers. A City bereft of electric and neon light took on a new beauty – by moonlight the great buildings assumed a remote and classic magnificence, cold, ancient, lunar palaces carved in bone from the moon; and angular overdressed Victorian eccentricities were purified, uncoloured, quietened by the moon’s ubiquitous sanity. But in clouded nights and moonless nights it was not so beautiful – in the total blackout nothing could be seen. Torchlight was rationed by a filter of paper, the insides of passing buses glimmered blue, cigarette ends became the means of demonstrating one’s passage. A match might not be struck, nor a headlight switched on. A glimmer of ‘starlight’ filtered down from some street-lamps in the main thoroughfares, the red, green, and yellow traffic lights were masked to show only thin crosses of their colour. This darkness flared into sudden relief – in the yellow flash of gunfire, in the whitish-green hiss of incendiaries, in the copper-red reflection of the fires, in the yellow flare of the burning gas main, in the red explosion of the bomb. In such light the gilt tracery of Big Ben’s tower flashed into colour, the sombre drab alleys round Covent Garden blazed with a theatrical daylight, the corrugated skylines of Park Lane and Knightsbridge showed black against the deep red sky, the streets of Pimlico and Soho saw the high scarfing columns of a naked gas flame flaring like some giant idealization of the naphtha flames that through the years had lit their fairs and their stalls.
    These were the lights – but there were also dark streets, streets where suddenly a house of blackness collapsed with a roar, shifting down heavily like some bricked elephant lumbering to its knees, thickening the darkness with a poisonous cloud of dust, shrouding the moment after its fall with a fearful empty silence broken only by small sounds, the whispering of broken water pipes, slight shiftings of debris, moans and little cries of the injured; then into the torchlight of the wardens there would stagger those un-trapped, lonely figures in the dust-fog, bleached grey with powder and streaked and patched with black blood; or – there would be nobody, and not a sound, only a living silence in the knowledge that under a smoking, spawning mass of timber and brick and dust there lay pressed and stifled the bodies of warm people whose minutes were slowly ticking away, whose rescue was absurdly blocked by a mass of intractable weight that angered those standing so few yards above.
These are not pleasant memories, but they must be written – otherwise the picture that was essentially one of dirt and anguish becomes too clean. Death and wounding from such explosives was never as neat as a bullet in the head; but the details shall be left to a Barbusse. One of the few consolations was that the explosive force proved in most cases so great as to shock its victim into unconsciousness or at least into a physical incomprehension of what had occurred.'
 Westminster in War (1947) 
'London is London' by D.M.Low (Chatto and Windus) 1949.                                                                                                                                      
Recently I saw a photograph of a dwelling house in the Ukraine, severely damaged by gun-fire. The photograph included two elderly women walking in front of the house, going who knows where. The whole scenario was one of tragedy and suffering, made worse by the knowledge of the futility of this war, and the helplessness of those caught up in it. The following short poem, again by Caryll Houselander, is particularly appropriate.

In an Occupied Country

Mother of God,
Save the walls of my cottage.
They are only bricks and mortar,
But they embrace
The memory of my son.

War is so cruel!
It not only treads
Our children’s faces
into the mud,
and waters the harvests of sorrow,
with their innocent blood,
but it shatters
the four walls,
where an old Mother,
(who asks no more in the end)
could cover her grief.

My home
Is only a ruin,
But the four walls are sacred,
They hold and embrace
The memory of my son.
They are the shell
That once was around
My little chicken.

Mother of God,
By Christ’s empty tomb,
Leave me the walls
Of my ruined home.

Caryll Houselander(1901-1954)
From 'The Flowering Tree' - selected poems of Caryll Houselander (Sheed and Ward)

Saturday, 10 January 2015

Freedom of Expression - Rights and Responsibilities

There have been two incidents over the last few days which have hit the headlines, one internationally and one nationally. The first is of course the terrible massacre of the editor and staff and others at the premises in Paris of the French ‘satirical’ magazine ‘Charlie Hebdo’, when they together with  two police officers on duty at the premises, and a visitor, were shot dead by two hooded assassins armed with  machine guns. The assassins then escaped in a stolen car, one having first ensured the death of one of the police officers lying wounded on the ground, by shooting him in the head. It has since transpired that the men were young men, Islamic fundamentalists who had apparently decided on this course of action  in retaliation  for the publication in the magazine of  blasphemous and offensive cartoons insulting Mohammed. Naturally this murderous incident has evoked world-wide condemnation, as indeed it should, however having seen examples of these ‘cartoons’, it is apparent that some are indeed blasphemous and some grossly offensive, verging on the obscene. In this and possibly other Countries, the public display and sale of such material would be against the law, in as much as it would be considered an incitement to racial and/or religious hatred. Once fondly regarded as the ‘eldest daughter’ of the Catholic Church, France has been a secular nation since 1789, the advent of the French Revolution, with legal and societal values based on ‘Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity’. In the wake of this recent terrible massacre much has been said and quoted in the media about the right to free speech, and the right of publishers to publish this type of material, and their intention to carry on doing so in spite of the murderous response that it has evoked. What seems to have been overlooked is that with rights comes responsibility, and it appears that  many voices today clamour for  rights but do not want the responsibility that goes with it. In the case of ‘Charlie Hebdo’, it seems that the publishers consider it a right  to publish literature which is  deliberately and grossly insulting to the religious sentiments of so many of its own citizens, knowing full well that it will offend and stir up religious and racial hatred. Power without moral responsibility is a recipe for disaster, and the tragic and terrible events in Paris are the result of evil provoking an even greater evil, with many blind to the evil in the cause seeing only the evil in the effect.

The second incident to have occurred involves a 26 year old professional footballer Ched Evans, who in 2012 at Caernarfon Crown Court, was convicted of rape,  and sentenced to a term of five years imprisonment. He has recently been released on parole and has declared his intention of resuming his footballing career; he was of international standard having represented Wales.  He first applied to be allowed to train with Sheffield United, a Championship side, and although initially his request received favourable consideration, the plan  was stymied by opposition from the Club’s commercial sponsors  and supporters, on the grounds that it would not be a good advertisement for the Club to be associated in any way with a convicted rapist.  He then applied to Oldham, another Championship side, to join them, and again initially the response was encouraging. However a campaign on the internet, raised 60,000 signatures opposing this, with two of the Club’s corporate sponsors threatening to remove their sponsorship with immediate effect. Again the main reason for this opposition appears to be that employing a man convicted of rape would reflect badly on the image of the Club and the sponsors.  It is important to remember that Evans had paid the penalty for his crime, and what he seeks is the opportunity to carry on in the job which he knows and for which he has been trained. Certainly the crime for which Evans was convicted was a serious one, but there are many sportsmen convicted of serious offences who have been able to continue their sporting occupation once their judicial debt had been paid. One of the main objections put forward is that Evans as a footballer might become a good role-model, but Evans as a convicted rapist would certainly not.
This thesis might look impressive on paper, but is the reality quite like this? Not many professional footballers achieve role-model status, particularly in the lower divisions. I suspect that any fame achieved is remarkably transient, depending primarily on goal-scoring ability and achievement, and is always subject to team performance, results, fitness, etc. Undoubtedly Evans would experience verbal abuse from some, particularly in the early period of  rehabilitation, and some might say that he deserves it, but if he is prepared to accept this there is every likelihood that in a relatively short time the vast majority of football supporters will judge him on his footballing abilities, not on anything else. I wonder how many of those who signed the on-line petition are supporters of Oldham Athletic, or how many are even football supporters?  I am reminded of Jesus’ words to those who brought the woman accused of adultery to Him, ‘Let those of you who have not sinned cast the first stone’. And we know from the Gospel account  that they all walked away, and Jesus said to the woman,‘They have not condemned thee, neither will I condemn thee. Go, and sin no more’. Evans has consistently denied his guilt in this case, and some would say ‘he would, wouldn’t he’. However he has issued an apology for the course of events, if not for the alleged offence. It seems ironic, cruelly so perhaps, that his case seems to have been targeted by a certain section of the community, blown up by the media, and earnestly and publicly pronounced-on by such ‘eminent’ political leaders as David Cameron and Ed Milliband – you would really think that they must surely have major political problems of their own to deal with, or is it a question of any publicity is better than none?
Evans himself describes the difficulties that he is encountering, as brought on by ‘mob rule’, and in the circumstances he seems to be right.  The power of the internet, which can be an influence for both good and bad, can also become  judge and jury, creating a dangerous precedent. Certain football club managers have spoken out on the need to give Evans a chance, notably Harry Redknapp of QPR and Steve Bruce of Hull City, both Premier League Clubs, and I suspect there are others who share their opinion. From the point of view of natural justice, Evans has served his punishment and should not be subject to a double-whammy. He has not asked for favours and will sink or swim as a professional footballer entirely on his own merit, but first he must be given the opportunity.

 Thoughts from St Alphonsus

‘Souls enamoured of God live always with a tranquil heart and in continual peace, because like the sunflower that always turns to the sun, they in all events and in all their actions seek always to live and act in the presence of God’

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

'Bab Ballads' by W.S.Gilbert - not all light and joy.

Sir William Schwenck Gilbert  (18 November 1836 – 29 May 1911) was an English dramatist, librettist, poet and illustrator best known for the fourteen comic operas  (known as the Savoy operas) produced in  collaboration with the composer Sir Arthur Sullivan. The most famous of these include H.M.S.Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance, and one of the most frequently performed works in the history of musical theatre, The Mikado. These, as well as several of the other Savoy operas, continue to be frequently performed in the English-speaking world and beyond by opera companies, repertory companies, schools and community theatre groups. Lines from these works have become part of the English language, such as "short, sharp, shock”, "What, never? Well, hardly ever!", and "Let the punishment fit the crime".
    Gilbert also wrote the Bab Ballads, an extensive collection of light verse accompanied by his own comical drawings. His creative output included over 75 plays and libretti, numerous stories, poems, lyrics and various other comic and serious pieces. His plays and realistic style of stage direction inspired other dramatists, including Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw. According to The Cambridge History of English and American Literature, Gilbert's "lyrical facility and his mastery of metre raised the poetical quality of comic opera to a position that it had never reached before and has not reached since". (Wikipedia)

William S Gilbert

The ‘Bab Ballads’ appeared originally in the columns of “Fun”, and were subsequently republished in two volumes viz. ‘The Bab Ballads’ and ‘More Bab Ballads’. The author, WS Gilbert, was not satisfied with the finished product, and after withdrawing certain Ballads which he felt were not up to standard, arranged for those remaining to be re-published in one volume.
     ‘At a Pantomine’ is taken from the revised volume ‘Fifty Bab Ballads’, which is prefaced by W.S.Gilbert, 24 The Boltons, South Kensington, and dated August 1876. The numerous caricatures illustrating the Ballads were drawn by Gilbert, and signed ‘Bab’, a childhood nick-name.

‘At a Pantomine’,    by A Bilious One.

An Actor sits in doubtful gloom
His stock-in-trade unfurled,
In a damp funereal dressing-room
In the Theatre Royal, World.
He comes to town at Christmas-time, 
And braves its icy breath,
To play in that favourite pantomime,
Harlequin Life and Death.

A hoary flowing wig his weird
Unearthly cranium caps,
He hangs a long benevolent beard
On a pair of empty chaps.

To smooth his ghastly features down
The actor’s art he cribs, -
A long and a flowing padded gown
Bedecks his rattling ribs.

He cries, “Go on – begin, begin!
Turn on the light of lime –
I’m dressed for jolly old Christmas, in
A favourite pantomime!”

The curtain’s up – the stage all black –
Time and the year nigh sped-
Time as an advertising quack –
The Old Year nearly dead.

The wand of Time is waved, and lo!
Revealed Old Christmas stands,
And little children chuckle and crow,
And laugh and clap their hands.

The cruel old scoundrel brightens up
At the death of the Olden Year,
And he waves a gorgeous golden cup,
And bids the world good cheer.

The little ones hail the festive King, -
No thought can make them sad.
Their laughter comes with a sounding ring,
They clap and crow like mad.

They only see in the humbug old
A holiday every year,
And handsome gifts, and joys untold,
And unaccustomed cheer.

The old ones, palsied, blear, and hoar,
Their breasts in anguish beat –
They’ve seen him seventy times before,
How well they know the cheat!

They’ve seen that ghastly pantomime,
They’ve felt its blighting breath,
They know that rollicking Christmas-time
Meant Cold and Want and Death, -

Starvation -  Poor Law Union fare –
And deadly cramps and chills,
And illness – illness everywhere,
And crime, and Christmas bills.

They know Old Christmas well, I ween,
Those men of ripened age;
They’ve often, often, often seen
That Actor off the stage!

They see in his gay rotundity
A clumsy stuffed-out dress –
They see in the cup he waves on high
A tinselled emptiness.

Those aged men so lean and wan,
They’ve seen it all before,
They know they’ll see the charlatan
But twice or three times more.

And so they bear with dance and song,
And crimson foil and green,
They wearily sit, and grimly long
For the Transformation Scene.


 Ack  ‘Fifty Bab Ballads’ by W S Gilbert
Although famous for his wit and light-hearted humour, Gilbert had a darker side to his character which I think is well illustrated by the above Ballad. He was a realist and was not afraid to express views which could be socially and politically unpalatable. He received his early education in France, and his later education at Kings College, London. In 1856 he joined the Civil Service employed as an Assistant Clerk in the Privy Council Office, remaining there for nearly four years, apparently hating the job. From 1859 to 1874 he joined the Militia – a military organisation formed for the defence of the realm, as a part-time volunteer, ending up with the rank of Captain. At the same time and for only a few months, he practised as a Barrister, after which his ability as a writer, reviewer, and illustrator, brought him increasing patronage. In 1863 he professionally produced his first play, and during the following six years he produced opera burlesques, farces, and pantomimes. From 1869 to 1875 he, with Thomas German Reed, was fully involved in theatrical reform, producing family entertainment and comedies 'suitable for young ladies', in contrast to the then current vogue in Victorian burlesque. In 1875 his operetta Trial by Jury was performed in London as a back-up to a major opera, and proved a great success. In 1877 the theatrical impresario Richard D’Oyly Carte founded the D’Oyly Carte Comedy Co., and during the next twelve years the Savoy Operas, comprising all of Gilbert’s major operettas, were performed to great acclaim, both national and international. In 1889 Gilbert was responsible for the building of the Garrick Theatre in London. His long standing professional relationship with the composer Arthur Sullivan, with whom the Savoy Operas had been so successfully created, deteriorated in the early 1890s. His operettas continued to flourish and grow in popularity, and whilst new works were few, Gilbert was fully occupied in directing and advising on new productions of the Savoy operas. He was appointed a Justice of the Peace, and in 1907 was knighted. He died in 1911 having suffered a heart attack whilst trying to rescue a young woman who had fallen into the lake adjoining his house.

Memorial to SW Gilbert
on Victoria Embankment,London.
by George Frampton 1914.
(photo ack. lonpicman GNU free documentation licence)


In contrast to the rather somewhat depressing effect of the above Ballad, I would like to finish on a rather lighter and brighter note with a short poem by Joyce Falkner. 

Christmas Poem

A Star for the Christ Baby's birthday,
The Moon for His Mother the Maid,
And the Sun for the light of God's mercy
As the new dawn disperses night's shade.

Today is the day of the children,
The feast of the wonder of birth,
Of the innocent, weak, and dependent
Brought forth to replenish the earth.

And how will our children be living
In the world we're now helping to plan?
Do we teach them not grabbing, but giving?
To praise God by caring for man?

Have we faith that these little ones, maybe,
By the Star and the Moon and the Sun
Will create in the name of that Baby
A world fairer, more kind than we've done.
                                                      Joyce Falkner 1979.

Christ is born! Give Him glory! Christ came from Heaven! Greet Him all!

****  ALLELUIA   ****

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