Thursday, April 05, 2007

A Shropshire lad

Graves and Housman, the latter I gave back.

Between 6th Form and University, I took a 'nanny' job for a few months at a private boys' boarding prep. school on the Hereford-Worcestershire border, where there are many such establishments, in the lee of the Malvern Hills. At first it was hard; the boys were generally wealthy, often miserable and frequently obnoxious, and the other girls, though nice, were quite different from me in background and aspiration. But after a time I settled in and I have fond memories of the time and place. by coincidence, the third in the trio of Penguin poets from the store cupboard, WH Auden, had also once worked at the school, before the War, and could be seen in archive photos on the wall of the entrance hall.

I ate three stodgy school meals a day and learned to smoke, but I must have been fit because I rode a heavy old gearless bike up and down the slopes of the Malverns, gossiping all the while with one of the other girls, stopping only to drink deeply of the free and delicious spring water, the original Schweppes, which flowed, abundant and unceasing even in drought, from the side of the hill through a pipe into a stone trough, then pedalling on to the top of that marvellous whaleback ridge...

' And see the coloured counties,
And hear the larks so high
About us in the sky.'

While I was there, I had a great yen to read Housman again. I wasn't in Shropshire, but had the sense that it was just over the hill. I didn't know until  quite recently that Housman himself was not a Shropshire lad at all, that, as I did, he looked yearningly north and westwards, from the edge of the Midlands. His 'land of lost content' was one where he seldom went. It makes sense.

The Housman edition in the picture, a rather unlovely and poorly glued paperback, was sent to me at the school by the young man whose rather tiresome reality had taken over from my crush on my English teacher at the centre of my romantic preoccupations. He was generally a washout, which fact I recognised and acted on before too much time had been wasted, and no matter, bruised young hearts mend quickly,  All knots that lovers tie /Are tied to sever...  However, he was always good for standing me a poetry book. But this isn't about him, but about another boy of a similar age, 18, perhaps 19 who had passed through my life some 10 years earlier, a true Shropshire lad. I don't remember his first name, though I do that of his sister and his brother, nor the surname of his family. I probably only saw him once or twice, because after that he was dead.

It was, I think, the summer of 1971, when I was 9. Quite how we came to be in the place, I don't know. It was supposed to be a site for our caravan, and some pony riding for me. We towed our old Sprite Alpine over the Long Mynde to get there, unaware when we set out, on directions from someone in a shop who hadn't seen the nature of our equipage, that the narrow ribbon of road which hugs the precipitous edge of that looming rugged hill, was woefully unsuitable. The campsite was a sloping field of which we were the only occupants, the pony was Snowy, an unkempt Welsh Mountain, sweet and stubborn as a donkey, a working animal, the most practical means of rounding up sheep on the heathery rough terrain of the Mynde. I fell utterly in love with the place, with the sense of elsewhere in time and space it had, with its wildness and isolation, with the purple, brooding hills, with heather and bilberries.

The family consisted of a handsome, quiet father, fair and raw-boned, a Saxon; a kind-faced mother who, it turned out, was a Londoner, having married her husband when he was a soldier during the War - it must have been a shock to her when he brought her back to his home in the hills; and at least five children, grown and growing. One of the girls, Christine, at about 16, fair and tall like her father, would catch Snowy for me, which often required the patience of Job, and sometimes stay around while I rode him, or let me take him into the field where the caravan was. My mother spent that holiday always with a carrot in her pocket. We would take Snowy to the bottom of the slope, rein him in, she would walk back to the top, wave the carrot, and with a kick and a word, he and I would gallop to the top. A woolly Welsh Mountain can achieve a fair turn of speed when there's a carrot at the end of it. Occasionally he would take off in unexpected directions, and I did fall off him, but I was always relaxed, the grass was soft and it wasn't far to fall.

There was another younger girl, shy and dark haired, and a mentally handicapped older sister of indeterminate age, who I'm ashamed to say, rather resembled Poor Rennet in 'Cold Comfort Farm', silent and thick spectacled, a face like a leveret, pale wavy hair, old-ladyish, always indoors, sitting docilely in a corner of the big, sooty heavy-beamed kitchen, now and then brushing flies from the sides of fat bacon that hung above her head. The oldest son was a dark, intense but distant young man in his early twenties, a Skarp-Heðin figure, constrained by but committed to his home responsibilities, with a feeling of latent, powerful energy about him. And there was the other son.

I don't know what I really remember of him, and how much imagination has (mis)informed memory. I see him as a lighter, fairer, gayer character than his brother, cheery and rather reckless, and like all the family save the sad sister, handsome. A couple of miles off was a Pony Club camp,and the lure of all those pretty, probably rather posh, teenage girls, was irresistible to him and his friends; in the long summer evenings when their duties were done, they would head over there to hang out. That night he had borrowed the tractor, which as was normal then, had no cab, and taking a slope towards a gate, probably larking about and showing off a bit for the pony girls, he turned it right over and was crushed to death.

Unknowing, my mother and I went to the farmhouse, for milk or whatever, the following morning. My mother and the farmer's wife seemed to be passing the time normally, and then the woman said, almost matter-of-factly it seemed, " We lost one of our lads last night." She looked pale, distracted, not tearful, in shock, doubtless.

'Yonder see the morning blink
The sun is up and up must I,
To wash and dress and eat and drink
And look at things and talk and think
And work, and God knows why.'

It is hard to imagine that two mothers of growing children, who meant their whole lives to them, and who got on well with one another, at the exchange of this piece of news, would not cry out, embrace, weep together, either ignoring or including the nonplussed girl-child of one standing by. But that was not what happened. Those were different times. Admittedly my mother was incredulous and confused, uncertain to have heard aright, as indeed was I. I'm sure she pressed the woman's hand as she told us the tale, made the usual expressions of sorrow and condolence, but the exchange was subdued, restrained. Mum offered that we should leave, but the farmer's wife was clear this was not what she wanted; it would, she said, be a help to have people around. At this moment, it seemed the isolation the family lived in threatened to be a torment. I think Mum said it would perhaps be better if I didn't speak of it with Christine.

This was perhaps a little over half way through our fortnight's stay. A day or two later Christine was with me and the pony in the field in the evening, when Snowy decided he had had enough, and set off down the track that led to the farmhouse and the home paddock. A group of the young people, family and friends, stood around outside, leaning, talking low and intermittently. The eldest son stepped out and stopped the pony, and stood glowering at me.

" Awkward bugger, isn't he." he said.

His eyes burned into me, behind them lay a desolation. I was frightened. Frightened of his pain, his rage, his intensity, feeling it all without being able to identify it, and aware too of being out of place, proposterous even: the little girl in the riding hat from the soft and townie South, the outsider, the intruder, the would-be pony girl even, though that insight comes with hindsight... I had never seen, and perhaps I haven't since, such raw, dark black grief, like a menacing and amorphous shadow moving under the surface of things.

Christine caught us up, and stood awhile, holding the pony, needing to be part of that circle for a moment. John had just been to see his dead brother. He kept saying "I couldn't believe he wasn't just going to get up, speak to me..."

But there he will lie where they laid him:
Where else would you trust him to sleep?

After a time Christine said gently, glancing at me, " All right John, don't go on now." She was the kind of girl who would look after others' feelings before her own.

Later that evening I wept, but said I didn't know why. My mother said, " I know you're feeling sad for that poor family." I assented, but knew this was not an adequate or accurate way to describe what I was feeling.

There where hueless is the west
And the darkness hushes wide,
Where the lad lies down to rest
Stands the troubled dream beside.

" They were talking about it." I said.
"What were they saying?" she asked.
"Just talking."

Poor Mum. I reproach her still for keeping doors closed, but from early on I closed plenty of my own, my inner world jealously guarded. Her mother, my gran, had died not so long before that. I was not distraught; she was old, had been ailing, I was not particularly fond of her, her relationship with my mother was often strained. Mum had disappeared to look after her in her last few weeks; Dad had had plenty of time to master ineptitude without her, but he did all right, except to burn my favourite trousers with a too hot iron. That was the only time I cried. When our mother came back, she kept herself apart from us for a while, not long, the bedroom door closed, or banging the wainscot with the vacuum cleaner upstairs while we were down. 'Upset' was the explanatory word, we would see her when she was better. Exactly as it was when she had gastro-enteritis, so that the two occasions tend to be conflated in my memory; the messy, inappropriate, undignified business of grief treated just the same, something embarrassing, awkward, to be recovered from and put behind one as quickly as possible.

But in that young man's eyes I had seen into a dark and extraordinary land, come near a raw and bloody bone of truthfulness. It was not comfortable, it had frightened me, but I see it now as an experience I was privileged to have, not one I needed to be protected from.

'They say my verse is sad: no wonder;
Its narrow measure spans
Tears of eternity, and sorrow,
Not mine, but man's.'

We went back to the farm on a brief visit the following year while staying in Herefordshire. The family seemed OK, they were nothing if not resilient, and loving too, I'm certain. My pony phase was over, but Christine caught Snowy for me and I took him for a ride, but it wasn't the same. I kept him on a tight rein, and was not so much nervous with him as constrained. The uphill gallops, the wayward scamperings and occasional tumbles were something I no longer relished. I was growing up.

'Fall, winter, fall; for he,
Prompt hand and headpiece clever,
Has woven a winter robe,
And made of earth and sea
His overcoat for ever,
And wears the turning globe.'


Unknown said...

This kept me gripped.I like the way you weave the quotations in. A sad growing-up story.

Anonymous said...

Yes, as plutarch said. Wonderful writing, Lucy.

herhimnbryn said...

So, I thought I would just drop by box elder and then dash out with the dog for a walk. But L. this kept me glued to the page ( screen?) and the dog went back to sleep.
Beautifully poignant writing.

Anonymous said...

Poignant is the word, yes. Thanks, Lucy.

Avus said...

What a superb posting, Lucy. Plutarch says it all for me.
(An aside - you took a Sprite Alpine 'van up the terrace road onto the Long Mynd? That's a pretty hairy road with just a car! I caravan and love Shropshire but I have never even contemplated taking one up there.)

Anonymous said...

Brother Dave
Lucy, you have captured her stoicism. It was her greatest strength and her greatest weakness. Maybe it was the personal attribute that got that generation (and her mother's), through two world wars.

Lucy said...

Bless all of you, for having the patience to read such a long post.
Avus - it's a delight to have someone who appreciates the hair-raising nature of that particular journey, I often wondered if it had been exaggerated with memory and in the telling, but you've confirmed that it wasn't!
Brother Dave, 1000x smiles to see you here. Stoicism is the essence of it, and I wouldn't wish to be hard on it. (And of course the farmer's wife was the same). Reading the Housman and thinking back, I felt that their stoicism was the real earthbound thing, born of actual suffering and experience and necessity, which made his look all rather intellectualised and self-conscious: I take this dose of bitterness on purpose, to inoculate myself, like Mithradites, a matter of choice; they had no choice.

Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

What a thrilling essay! At first it reminded me of the "Lark Rise to Candleford" genre, a fond and gentle reminiscence of bygone rural English life, with place names that in themselves are enough to send me into an anglophilic swoon -- Shropshire, the Malvern Hills, Long Mynde -- and then Auden teaching school, and the original Schweppes spring! -- but then it turns so much darker and deeper. The portrayal of John's inarticulate grief is so penetrating that I hesitate to praise it as entertainment for fear of violating the reality of his emotions. Lawrence would have been stirred by it. And your understanding of the traditional stoicism and your identification with it. It's a bit more than I counted on for a casual Saturday morning's blog-read (as Herhimnbryn notes) and I'm thankful for it. I must read more Housman, too -- in fact, to disagree with you, I think he probably had real earthbound cause for suffering -- and that jacket photo is most un-unlovely. Your piece also reminded me at times of Hopkins' "Spring and Fall: To a Young " and especially of Frost's "Out, Out --" without losing anything of its own.

Lucy said...

RLC - once again, I greatly appreciate your taking the time and trouble both to read and comment at such length; I want to give you the compliment of a more considered response, so if I may I'll do so by e-mail; likewise brother Dave, thanks for yours and I'll reply 'properly' very soon. but now spring is here, the sun is shining, dog and camera are wagging their tails; part of me wants to just sit and wallow in feeling so blessed and happy but there's a million and one interesting things to do...

Marly Youmans said...


This is my favorite of all you have done here...


P. S. For you, something Housmanish from "Books & Culture" and reprinted here:

Lucy said...

Oh Marly, that's terrific, thank you!

Jan said...

What a wonderful posting, Lucy. You write beautifully. I'm glad I discovered your blog.
I have a distant relation who taught at Malvern college ( I believe Jeremy Paxman was one of his students).
He's well into his 80's now ( my relation, not, of course, Mr Paxman..) but we still meet up each Christmas with other family folk and although long retired, he's still in touch with the school and still very fond of it. It appears the sons Of eminent and wealthy Russians are now very much in evidence.