Monday, 11 March 2019

Memories - 1940's London - Caryll Houselander, 'Afternoon in Westminster Cathedral'; 'In an occupied Country'

(The following post was originally posted in 2015, and after I updated the 'label',  mysteriously appeared as a new post dated today! Rather than lose the post altogether it seems sensible to retain the post here. Thank you.)

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)