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In 1981, after a brief but exhilarating career as an opera singer, I started to work in residential care with elderly people. It was then sixty-six years after the end of the First World War. Many of the men I met during these years had fought in the war, as had my grandfather. Unlike my grandfather, they had survived, had cheated death.
One of the residents of Laburnum Lodge in Littleport, near Ely, was called Bill Waddington. He was a charming man, who had lost a leg in the First War but made little fuss about it, even though it made his life as an old man much more difficult than it would otherwise have been. He was the first old soldier I looked after and his situation made me think, for the first time, about the legacy of war on our old people. Bill was able to tell me about the trenches and his injuries. He expressed his amazement to me that he had survived. Another old gentleman I met was six feet four tall and had survived four years in France in the trenches, with the Suffolk Regiment. He, laughingly, said it was a miracle that he hadn’t been picked off by a German sniper and had spent most of the war bent double!
In 1914 men such as these, held out against an army five times their size, until the British were able to form a line of defence after the first battle of Ypres at the close of 1914. These men were said to have been described by Kaiser Wilhelm as ‘a contemptible little army’. The name stuck and these brave soldiers have been known ever since as ‘the old contemptibles’. Most of them died in the early years of the war.
Sadly, after the war, the survivors, many of them missing limbs, or suffering from ‘shell shock’ or damaged lungs from the gas attacks, were left to their own devices, like other soldiers before and since. Surviving the peace became their next battle.
By 1984, when I wrote this poem, it was all ancient history, as was the Second World War. Countless books had been written and the two wars had become subjects of academic discussion. The few surviving soldiers were still there, though, largely forgotten, except on Armistice Sundays, when a few were still able to parade and remind us of past conflicts. Otherwise, they were on their own. They had sacrificed years of their lives, of their youth, lost family and friends and lived
with the sort of memories no one other than the serving soldier can ever experience.
I wrote this poem in November 1984, thinking of the plight of all old soldiers who have served their country before and since the Great War and who have been forgotten with the passing of time.
Old age has wearied him,
His face condemned by years,
Bob Jobbins, old, contemptible,
Stands blinking through his tears.
His thoughts are shattered friendships,
And broken, rotting boys,
When fallen youth lay dying,
Wide-eyed in battle’s noise.
He clasps synthetic poppy,
That even time can’t fade,
And gazes in memoriam
As wreath by wreath is laid.
The tears creep on, relentless,
As years that line his face.
His mind grows lost and lingers
In some dark, mud-spattered place.
He hears the bugle moaning
In his dreams and far away,
And he weeps, but not for soldiers-
For himself and for today.
For the knotty bones and body,
That stands with mourners grim,
For the quick, sharp death of the soldier,
For the end that was not for him.
And most of all, he sorrows
For the years of love he gave,
To a world which now rejects him -
For his own inglorious grave.
We use words like happiness and love very loosely. Is happiness an ice cream and sunshine at the beach? Is it a new baby or a promotion at work? All of these things can make us happy and we can honestly say to ourselves, "At this moment I feel happy."
Love is a bit more complex. We know we love someone but we keep asking , "Is this really love? How do I know if it's the real thing?" The truth is that you never really know until much later, when you are better able to see through the tangle of emotions and can reflect calmly on your feelings. In the meantime you can only act on instinct to give you an answer.
Joy is an even harder emotion to grasp. You may be happy. You may be in love. You may look for joy, but can't seem to find it. This should not be surprising, because joy will not be found, so don't go looking for it! You never know, it may catch you by surprise when you least expect it.....
The paradox of joy
is that it dances round
the corner, just as you
try to clutch it;
a little like love,
which is slower on its feet,
and may yet be snatched.
Joy, unlike love,
will not submit
to the hard-luck tale,
or the tempting
heated breath of passion
of the ardent suitor,
or the one-night stand.
Nor does it smile on those
whose backs, through toil,
are twisted hard away,
day after day,
who cannot feel
the feathered touch of bliss
when it appears.
For joy will stalk you
like soft zephyrs
and touch your naked body
should it choose.
Joy will not to be found.
It may find you.
We lived in a large, converted barn of thatch and stone in Dorset. Barton Barn was the old Squire's barn, settled comfortably between the inn and the church, in the village centre.
Some time in the mid-nineteenth century Thomas Hardy was born, in a small cottage not two miles away. He went to Stinsford school and attended Stinsford Church, where his heart is buried. The rest of him is interred in Westminster Abbey. ' Max Gate', Hardy's home is only two miles away. If you were to ask a local where they lived, they might say, "In Wessex, you know, Hardy Country, near Dorchester." They might even say that Tess walked through West Stafford to get to Talbothayes, where she worked as a milkmaid and first met Angel Clare.
Such is the confusion between myth and reality in Dorset. Wessex doesn't officially exist anymore. The village has neatly trimmed lawns and is peopled by retirees and professionals. It has granite kitchens and a gastro-pub. There is little of Hardy's Dorset left, but the myths remain.
Recently, Stafford House has been the home of Baron Fellowes of West Stafford, author of 'Downton Abbey'. Could this further confuse things? Did Mr Bates, the valet, court Anna in some dark corner of West Stafford churchyard? Maybe Thomas Barrow and Miss O'Brien plotted against Bates over a pint in the 'Wise Man'?
Ruth and I were really there, after 'The Mayor of Casterbridge' and before 'Downton Abbey', lost in love and wondering about the future as the millennium mid-night came and went. Meanwhile, the old barn looked on...
In the mists of Middle England
merge Melbury and Budmouth town,
and Egdon Heath and Casterbridge.
Here, Dorchester meets Borsetshire,
where Piddles became Puddles,
and Martyrs met on Mondays,
where hired hands sowed and mow
the Wessex wheat,
on weekdays and on Omnibus.
And in this whirl of pith and myth -
the milkmaids who fight it,
the farmers who like it,
the workers who work it -
the Barton Barn prevails.
and haunted paths,
it knows the lives
of Dorset men and girls,
the farmyard fowl,
the barnyard owl,
the flutter of feathers,
the kick of kine.
Like rooted Church,
and mossy moat,
like hill and massive oak
of Dorset stone
and angled beam.
and there, inside, treads Tess.
Tess with Angel.
She and I,
who live our own mythology.
At midnight, through the windows,
two feet deep,
like Hardy’s folk in aspic steeped,
we hold each other tight and sigh -
and, fearful, watch the century slip by.
What's the best day of the week?
For couples who work all week and play on Saturdays, it has to be Sunday. For busy people, Sunday morning seems to beckon to us through the week.
We all have an idealised image of Sunday morning. For families with young children, a peaceful Sunday morning together may seem like a pipe dream. Never mind! In time, you'll get your Sundays back!
For me it is characterised by a lie-in, followed by a relaxed breakfast and some togetherness. For those of us of a certain age, every morning could be Sunday morning! On second thoughts, perhaps too much of a good thing might do more harm than good!
If somebody should ask me
what I most would like today,
I think I know just what I’d have to say -
croissants in the oven,
spluttering coffee on the brew,
some early morning sunshine
and a table laid for two.
And no-one but my love and me
and nowhere else to go
and Sunday morning silence
with nothing else to do.
But more than this
I’d like to see,
a shy, soft smile
to welcome me.
For then I’d boil the coffee dry
and burn the buns
For those of us who love their dogs, the imminent loss of the family pet is heart-breaking. A creature who has lived with us for years, shared our happiness and loved us so perfectly is mourned well before its final passing. I wrote this poem, in tears, for Wizard, our golden retriever, who was clearly failing. Tears have sprung back as I re-read it a few minutes ago. Sentimental? Maybe, but, if my dictionary is right, sentimentality is prompted by feelings of tenderness, sadness or nostalgia. That's what losing a friend feels like. That is the stuff from which poetry is made!
Clean out of Rabbits
An old dog,
like other dogs of war,
lies, carpeting the hearth
and soaking up the dying embers of the fire.
His own white heat a taunting dream
that haunts his waking day.
Was it only yesterday
he ran away and merrily
at every opportunity,
to tumble and chase
and race rabbits
frantic through the field.
Took the family for a run,
ran ten times more than anyone?
around the hedge, around the tree,
ten times, ten times more than we?
Yes, only yesterday.
So now his jaunty days have gone,
his strut has slowed, his weight increased.
Where once he snarled, a fearsome beast,
he now draws back his lips, and grins a
toothless late December smile.
The dog of dogs has had his day
and now waits, patient, for the night.
An old dog,
run clean out of rabbits.
We were in love and on our way to Parnham House to check it over as a venue for our forthcoming production of 'Don Pasquale' with Ruth's opera company, Dorset Chamber Opera.
We bought a punnet of strawberries and climbed a prominent hill, with a clump of pine trees on top, just outside Bridport. We called it Six Pine Hill. We didn't know it was called Colmers Hill. It didn't matter.
Strawberries on Six Pine Hill
They laugh and kiss
With strawberry sips,
The glistening pink
Of their strawberry lips,
And kiss and bite the flesh in half
With lips and teeth and lips and laugh.
And flesh is weak on Six Pine Hill
As Spring awakes, and passion's song
Lulls the afternoon along.
In love, they choose each fruit with care
As flesh and fruit and kiss they share.
First pubishes in Poetry Now South 1997 (Ed. Andrew Head)
© Robert Eshelby 1997
With love to Caroline and Luke who were married this weekend. x
What nicer way to start a poetry blog which is mostly about love, than with a poem about the traditional sign of affection...
A thousand lips a thousand meet,
In kisses sad and kisses sweet,
With lips that pout and lips that greet,
And lips that charm and also cheat.
But lips that meet in trust and love,
Are kisses soft as cooing dove,
That sear in soul-consuming heat
And fuse the lips in kiss complete.
So, let us lip with lip entice
And taste on Earth such Paradise!
The world is too much with us - we are out of tune. Wordsworth realised that most of us spend so much time earning our living, being successful and making money that we fail to notice the important things in life. Before we know it, we are middle-aged and then, so quickly, old. We don't spend time measuring the seasons and marvelling in Nature's wonder. Worse, we are too pre-occupied to notice true love when it comes to us and, turning round, find that it has passed us by. There is not a moment to be lost! Look for your love and when you find it, hold it close! Time and tide will not wait.
A Wedding Invitation
I ask a moment of your time,
To stop your work, your hue and cry,
And measure with your busy eye,
The suckle’s honey-helix climb.
Or weigh the ploughed field’s breathless hush,
As, weaving through astonished sky,
The lark bursts forth from heavenly high,
To still the earth’s relentless rush.
And then, one summer’s afternoon,
Before it sinks, to watch the sun,
And haste away, as I have done,
To catch your love before she’s gone.
Oh, the pain of loving and not being noticed! The misery of seeing the object of your love moving quickly away with not a care. You'd do anything just to be noticed! Just a glance ? A smile.......?
Oh, loveliest one,
Oh, lady swan,
Make me the lake
You swim upon,
The newt you tweak
With hungry beak,
The egg you heat
Beneath your seat,
The thoughts you take
When you have gone.
Make me your song
Oh, muted tongue!
And you shall sing
The whole day long.
The feather, pressed
To warm your breast,
The day, the night
That bathe your flight,
The chest to rest
Your sweetness on.
It is May 2020 and the misery of Covid 19 is rising. Ruth and I are in our lovely farmhouse in France, locked down in The Vendee. Out of the blue comes an e-mail from Hector and Iris, our grand-children, with a photo. They have found a blackbird's nest in the garden shed. What joy! And, there is the photo to prove it. Something truly wonderful at a time of misery for so many!
Five eggs nestle,
sound asleep in thistledown,
covert in a corner.
blue and gold, they lie.
still-life in a garden
where cuckoos cry.
slip away on tip-toe,
and, when the world next
calls its shout and thunder,r
remember the calm,
the eggs of lapis blue -
Robert Eshelby 7th May, 2020
For my grandchildren, Emily, Jack, Iris and Hector
There is a phenomenon, which we can all recognise as displacement behaviour. Picture a dog in front of a blazing fire, turning round and round in his own length to find exactly the right spot before he flings himself down with a sigh to cope with all the complexity of sleeping peacefully until dinner time. He could have just come in and got on with it!
This is the nearest I can get to understanding the speech displacement of some of our younger (and not so young) people. Instead of informing us in a straightforward way that a spade is a spade, we hear that a spade is, 'like, a spade,' or it is a, 'sort of, spade', or even that a spade is 'sort of, like a spade' ! As the joke goes, ' When is a spade not a spade? ' Answer? 'When it 's kind of like, a sort of bloody shovel !' This is, usually, an ingrained habit, not unlike a soldier's scattering of expletives in daily conversation. I've noticed that if someone is inclined to 'likes' and 'sort ofs', these often disappear when the speaker is truly enthused.
So! What is love?
It’s, sort of, like an ever-filling well
Inside, that, sort of, overflows,
And, like, floods the fields
With effervescent water.
It’s like, caring for yourself, sort of,
But having lots left over
For, like, every flower and leaf
And every furry little soul
That lives beneath the hedge
And around the garden.
It’s, sort of, feeling kind
To those you meet, and not
Just kith and kin.
Love is like dipping
Every morning in an icy spring,
To turn and face the world full-on,
Like a tiger, unafraid.
It’s like a mother’s soft fingers
Running through the tendrils
Of her darling’s hair.
It’s not all meek and milksop,
Full of misery and woe.
It’s not like in the movies
Or the television show,
But, sometimes, like a wild bull
Bucking or a stallion kicking,
It’s like a mighty, all-consuming flame,
That changes everything inside,
So you can touch the farthest reaches
Of the world.
And so it sears,
As prisms magnify before the sun,
Intense, until the focus softly drops
And lays you in the sweetest pool.
Love is not like anything we know.
It is kind, it is soft.
It tests, it pains.
It cares and is soothing,
And is breath-taking.
It is all these things,
Rejoicing every day.
Which is not like love,
But it certainly is, like, Love.
Robert Eshelby 1st Feb, 2021
© Robert Eshelby 2021
I was born in England soon after the war. I moved , with my family to Australia in 1966, where I was a soldier (briefly), a public servant, an opera singer, and an English teacher.