War Poet.ca - A CFAP Project by Suzanne Steele

notes from PhD land - that generation

It is the privilege of writers to be mistaken; great writers can be most mistaken.
~ Ronald Duncan on Henry Williamson

the more I spend time amongst them, read them, read of them, that broad generation born in the 1870’s to mid-1890’s, the more I begin to understand them, have great compassion for them (though some abhorrence for some too) and am fascinated at how they told, or didn’t tell, their story – J. R.R. Tolkien, Sigfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, Edmund Blunden, Dorothy L. Sayers, Remarque, John Masefield, Mary Borden, C.S. Lewis, Ford Maddox Ford, Hemingway, David Jones… just some of those who survived and wrote (and yes, I include Sayers, she loved a man with “soldier’s heart”, had her heart broken by him, married another who suffered his entire life with “soldier’s heart”).

today I read of Henry Williamson (1895-1977). writer, novelist, animal writer, walker, hiker, proto-eco-warrior, and for many, a supporter of strong-beer-unpalatable political ideals (a search on Williamson will enlighten the reader), soldier of the Somme, moody, sometimes waspish, his own worst enemy – or so his good friend Ronald Duncan says in Henry Williamson, the Man, the Writer … and I think, having just co-taught a course in the war poetry of that generation, who the hell would blame Williamson for moodiness? [Williamson’s] life from the Somme onwards was one long wound, writes Duncan, his good friend. Williamson, was present at the 1914 Christmas Truce.

one of my favourite places in the world is in the basement of the old university library. there in the deserted rolly-stacks, those strange cogged metallic shelves, I unwind a row and enter the homeland of the long dead – they’re all there, bound and sewn into faded yellow, red, blue, green cloth bindings that now are sometimes held together with a few ribbons, or clear, thick cellotape. I adore holding these books – publishers were so damned civilized in those days – a pocketbook really did fit into a pocket then, and the paper is of lovely weight, the print, the typography is pressed, not computered. and sometimes. there’s a nice dedication written in fountain pen ink on the inside cover … John, from father, Xmas 1932.

and I love that some of these books, published mostly in the 1920’s and 1930’s haven’t been checked out of the library since 1975. they are benignly but beautifully neglected, they are, for the most part, deeply unfashionable. except to me and perhaps my supervisor. and I like to imagine that after the library’s lights are out, the books open up and the authors rise out of their books, stretch, take over a row of study desks, pour cocktails and then carry on a big, noisy conversation – competing, arguing, cooing, sending love notes, threats, reminiscing, shaking, crying, laughing, telling long-winded stories (a lost art), boasting (maybe about sales or reviews or ?) and maybe getting into fistfights…

not terribly interested in his politics, what I find interesting is that Williamson, best known for Tarka the Otter and other animal stories, though he wrote much else, tried so hard to return to the land, to Eng-land, to find himself again after the war, and to look towards creatures for some sort of redemption. I’m fascinated in how Williamson and his generation coped with their Sommes.

Ted Hughes called Williamson one of the truest English poets of his generation.
I’m about to embark upon a Williamson jag and I’ll let you know what I think. I’ve seen the manuscript to his Patriot’s Progress about his First World War experiences. I’ve held it in my hands. soon I shall return to the rolly-stacks and make my way through his book on Salmon, then on the Otter. after that, who knows who I shall find down there in the basement of the old library.

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The page you're reading contains a single diary entry entitled notes from PhD land - that generation. It was posted here on March 21, 2013.


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