Saturday, 23 September 2017

No Roses Please

By chance, just after reading PJ Kavanagh's thoughts on Commonwealth War Graves, I came upon a Commonwealth War Grave in Wiltshire - one that deviates slightly from the vision painted by PJ Kavanagh in the passage I quoted from him in my last post; this graveyard is part of a larger church graveyard, and the parishioners have chosen not to include among the graves the usual Commonwealth War Graves roses and other garden plantings.

So Kavanagh's English country garden element is missing, but in every other way the place conforms to his ideal - that is, it honours individuals who got caught up in the maelstrom that was 1914 to 1918 in Europe.

Lying in this particular cemetery in Wiltshire are a number of Australians. They did not die as a result of battle but from the Spanish Flu:

The church itself is small and old but not especially exciting (although it does have some kneelers embroidered with maps of Australia). There is a rather charming memorial to a former local on one wall though:

"In loving memory of John Henry Leech" it says, "born 4 Dec 1862, died 29 Dec 1900, his short life was devoted to the science of entomology, to travel and sport. Ever an earnest student of nature and a staunch and generous friend."

He sounds a charming innocent. Compared to Cyril Mashford and Private M Cummings, let alone HR Phillips, one might say that his life was actually fairly long.

Churches like these are rarely well attended nowadays and they cost a fair bit to insure and keep up. Sometimes I read things about how they should be shut down or reconfigured to become community something or others, but they seem to me to be part of the beauty of Britain, just as they are, not useful now for everyone, but usually comforting for some at certain times.

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Places of Beauty and Peace

I was reminded the other day that PJ Kavanagh died two years ago in August. I used to love his pieces in the Spectator - wise, meditative essays. What I hadn't realised was that he had had another life, as a performer on television programmes with David Frost! (My allowance of exclamation marks for 2017, used up right there, but in a worthy cause, I think.)

Having recalled him, I decided I wanted to read some of Kavanagh's prose writing and, after a quick search on Abebooks, I found a book called People and Places in which some of the columns Kavanagh wrote between 1975 and 1987 had been collected. I received it today and found it included an essay about Ivor Gurney and naming, which contains a lovely section about the Commonwealth War Graves that have been established all across the Western Front since the First World War.

Over the last three years, while living in Belgium, I have spent quite a lot of time in CWG graveyards in Flanders, quite often at grave rededications. These happen when patient forensic work results in the identification of a soldier whose tombstone hitherto was marked 'Known unto God'. Kavanagh identifies the important role the Commonwealth War Graves play in reasserting  'the value of the individual, after the indiscriminate blood-letting' and it is moving to know that this task is still considered important.

The essay, written in 1982, starts with a visit Kavanagh makes to the places that Ivor Gurney mentions in his poetry. Then Kavanagh discovers the Commonwealth War Graves cemeteries:

"But all the time, slowly at first, then with increasing speed and force, it is borne in upon one that something has happened since he [Gurney] was there, something almost as enormous as what he experienced. At Aveluy there is a small graveyard of soldiers, surprisingly pretty; at Laventie there is another, and then you realise that at almost every bend in the road, hidden in cornfields, in orchards, in copses, are these small cemeteries, each prettier than the last - two thousand nine hundred and thirty-seven of them in France alone - and in each is the row of identical, well-designed headstones, sometimes no more than twenty and never too many, so that the mind is not overwhelmed, and on each of these headstones is a name...

To someone who has not come across these little cemeteries before the effect is almost indescribable; they are intimate, personal, the way Gurney's poems are. Of course I knew there were war cemeteries on the Somme but I imagined them terrible, impersonal places, with monuments. But the whole of this part of France is subtly and almost unnoticeably a graveyard and the graveyards are all English gardens, with roses and dogwood and prunus trees. That is, the Commonwealth cemeteries are. The German ones, with their tens of thousands of black iron crosses in long rows, and no flowers, give a different impression. It could be argued that they are more appropriate to the carnage they mark. What is sure is that the little British [and Empire] ones have become places of beauty and peace. As a reassertion of the value of the individual, after the indiscriminate blood-letting, they could hardly be bettered. They have the same insistence on the significance of each separate human personality that is in Gurney's poetry. Possibly he never knew of them.

They are so well and expensively kept, by hundreds of gardeners, that they are a story in themselves. The hero is a man called Fabian Ware, who began recording individual, hastily dug graves during the war. He could have had little idea of the magnitude of the task ahead of him. After many fights with officialdom and public opinion ('Why spend money on the dead?' or 'Bring them back home', or, worst of all 'How could an Office and a Private have the same design of headstone?'), he seems to have won all his battles and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission was set up, each member-country paying a share, according to the number of their losses.

After the war, teams of specially trained gardeners, "The Flying Circus", many of them ex- servicemen, toured the carnage, gathering scattered graveyards together, keeping them as near the place where the men had died as they could. Some of the ground had been fought over so often that identification was no longer possible. In which case 'Known unto God' is on the stone, a phrase contributed by Rudyard Kipling, whose own son had disappeared in this way. In some cases the sons of these original gardeners continue the work and, in the case of James MacDonald, whom we met tending the graves at Aveluy, looking entirely French in his beret, the son of one of the original gardeners (who himself fought on the Somme) is followed by his son: three generations.

In each cemetery is a book with the name of every soldier known to be there, his parents' names and his address; also a book for the remarks of visitors. The French comments are oddly French - 'Très bien entretenu', 'Endroit reposant et sage'. The British ones vary from the eloquent 'Humbled' and the conventional, though doubtless deeply felt 'They shall not be forgotten' to 'The Old Lie, Dulce et Decorum est pro Patria mori' (itself a quotation from Gurney's fellow war poet Wilfred Owen). Well - yes. But these beautifully tended English gardens do not fill one with indignation, not exactly. Who is there to blame? The politicians, the generals, seem pitifully small when compared to this vast fact, made so human and particular here. God? It was not God that invented the machine-gun. And in his only reported appearance he recommended love. These cemeteries seem a humble, and almost infinitely laborious, attempt to put a known face on a nightmare."

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Feeling Grumpy

Last night we went to the theatre called Bozar (it's supposed to be a pun; the only thing to do with something so utterly feeble is pretend you haven't noticed is my advice) in Brussels. We were going to a concert given by the Asian Youth Orchestra, conducted by their founder, Richard Pontzious, who can be seen in the first of these videos fooling around with the musicians as they play William Tell as an encore (chosen because people in Hong Kong, where the orchestra is based, are mad about racing) (listening to it I can hear some woman there with the most dreadful laugh I've ever heard; gosh, I'd be so embarrassed, if I were her):

The concert last night was the final one of a world tour. The programme began with some Richard Strauss, then a Sibelius violin concerto, with Sarah Chang as soloist, then Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 in A Major. At the very end, the orchestra (including Sarah Chang, who you will see slipping in at left) played Nimrod, because as Richard Pontzious explains, it is a tradition, begun under Menuhin:

Well, anyway, as you can imagine, I went home furious at the end of the evening. I mean, how dare these people appropriate my culture? It really is disgusting to think that the citizens of Asia think they have the right to play our music - what can they possibly know about it? Just appalling, don't you think?

And then this morning I turned on the radio and one of the announcers said there were rumours that in the next Bond movie James Bond will marry, and the other announcer said, "I wonder who the woman will be", making the assumption, for heaven's sake, that Bond would be marrying a woman. My outrage knew no bounds.

No, it didn't. The concert was wonderful. I don't care about the announcer's assumption, because it is perfectly natural. The only thing I'm grumpy about is the idiocy of modern debate and the waves of outrage about absolutely nothing that seem to be a regular feature of life today.

Monday, 4 September 2017

What I Did on my Holidays

The other day, the New Yorker reissued this cartoon from 2011 (back when it was still an interesting and varied magazine rather than an unrelenting, unvarying scream of anti-Trump obsession; I'm sure it will calm down and get back to normal eventually; if not, I guess I'll cancel my subscription in the end, but that would feel like a sad step to have to take):
Probably anyone following me on Twitter will also have a vague idea of what I was up to over the summer, but I've been well trained by countless teachers and so, as it is the start of the school year, even though I no longer go to school, and haven't for ages, I feel the need to share at least a little more of where I went and what I saw.

Mainly, I went to Alsace, where I stayed in Obernai. Obernai is a charming town with lots of half timbered buildings, an attribute it shares with most of the towns of Alsace, I soon discovered - not that I'm complaining; the towns are all extremely pretty and I highly recommend Alsace to anyone who wants to go pretty towns. Obernai is also one of those places that has plenty of faces, something I always like - but, rather than put them all here, I'll do a separate blog called Obernai Faces, so that those who do not share my passion for masonry faces can avoid it; actually, it might be better to call it Alsace Faces, as several other of the Alsace towns we visited also had plenty of buildings with faces decorating their facades.

Anyway, the big discovery for me on my holiday was an Alsace illustrator of whom until then I'd only been very vaguely aware. The illustrator's real name was Jean-Jacques Waltz, but he was affectionately known as Oncle Hansi. He was born in 1873 in Colmar and seems to have spent much of his life in Alsace, apart from a short stretch at art school in Lyon. He turned his hand to various kinds of design, including textiles:

magazines, books, menus, labels and playbills:

and shop signs - several of his charming signs can still be seen in Colmar, and there is one outside Boffinger in Paris as well:

But the works that I particularly loved - although some amongst our party (of two) judged that the element of propaganda they displayed was a little unsubtle - were the pictures Oncle Hansi produced that expressed both his love for his native area and town and his protest at its occupation by Germany, (Bismarck annexed Alsace in 1871, without the agreement of all the locals). As Oncle Hansi was imprisoned several times for making fun of the German military and German professors:

I think he was entirely justified - the kinds of people who imprison satirists definitely deserve merciless mocking.

The propaganda element is very evident in the contrasting activities going on through the school room windows in these two visions of the same town square, one under French control, one under German occupation:

However, both pictures demonstrate what I really like about Hansi's illustrations - rather like a lot of Hergé's work (the scene in the dining room in Tintin in Tibet when Tintin suddenly yells "Chang" - or does he simply sneeze? I'll have to check - comes especially to mind), it is imagined in such rich detail. Each picture of an outdoor scene contains numerous different figures, all carefully dressed and with individually imagined expressions and personalities, varying buildings, each window, doorway, roof tiling pattern et cetera, clearly delineated with interesting features, while each picture of individuals is again replete with masses of different aspects to discover:

In 1913, Oncle Hansi produced one of his apparently best loved works, Mon Village. Strangely enough, the museum of Hansi's work in Colmar had all the texts displayed but I did not see the pictures, (this may very easily have been an oversight on my part; in fact, I suspect it must have been, surely). Anyway, if you search for them on the internet, you can find many of his illustrations for the book, and they appear to be some of his most charming work.  Apparently they were modelled on Oberseebach in the north of Alsace, and they show children in traditional Alsatian costume, plus veterans from the 1870 war, mixing references to the past before annexation and the time of occupation. The text itself has a nice elegiac poignance to it, I think, with many digs at the Germans incorporated. Some might find the idealising tone too saccharine, but I would point out that the towns of Alsace are genuinely lovely enough for it to be possible that little of Oncle Hansi description strays far from reality, even today. The museum also makes the claim that Oncle Hansi saw himself as a "people's artist", trying to connect with all parts of society with his books; while Mon Village appears to be a book for children, it can also be understood as a work of resistance against German occupation, in its obvious love of Alsatian tradition and almost more obvious attacks on German rule.

Here is the text of the book, Mon Village:

"The village that I am going to describe to you is not my invention. It exists. To find it you have to go a long way off the main road in the direction of Wissembourg or Niederbronn. You will leave the train at some little flower-covered station. You will follow a narrow path bordered by fruit trees. From a distance you will see a pointed steeple soaring above wheat fields or piercing the lace of the hops. Then on the shallow track, overgrown with flowering hawthorn, you will see at the edge of the wood, small girls leaving flowers on graves or at the feet of Turks and hunters fallen in great battles (???). This pretty village, whose pleasant houses conceal some suffering, is an emblem for the whole of Alsace, and that is why I will not tell you its name.

If you search for it in your atlas, you will find it somewhere between the Rhine and les Vosges, wherever your finger lands on the map in the region which at the moment is no longer in France and that has, ever since its removal from its own country, been edged around with mourning.

The Storks

The greatest pleasure of children in my village is the arrival of the storks. The first to arrive, at the end of winter, is an old grandmother stork. She lands for a few moments on the nest on the school house, then she disappears. She has gone off to tell the rest of the storks that the nest is in a good state. The time to return has arrived. The mother stork arrives and perches on the nest, while the father, to ensure he is seen by everybody, executes a few gliding swoops around her. Then from every street and every house cries of joy ring out. All the children of the village from the biggest to the smallest come running from every direction. They gather, join hands, forming a circle, and they start to sing: "Stork, stork, you are lucky. You spend every year in France; stork, stork, bring us in your beak a little soldier" (???).


The school has two teachers. One, Father Vetter, is very old and everyone loves him. Before the war he was already teaching French to the mothers and fathers of today's little Alsatians. When a child from the village wants to go to France, it is father Vetter who teaches him the most useful words, with the help of a very old, very dogeared grammar book. Father Vetter is invited to all the weddings and all the parties of all the village families, and no small boy has ever dreamed of mucking up in his class. But one day the government decided that he was too old and sent us a young teacher to help Father Vetter. This man is haughty and tough, with a false rubber collar and a jacket made out of a green sheet. He cannot speak anything but a tormented and pretentious form of Hoch Deutsch. He has a cane in his hand at all times and is mean to all the children, except those of the policeman - to them he is all sugar and honey.

The Bakery

In autumn, we celebrate the parish holiday, called the Messti. The day before, the house begins to fill with the lovely scent of pastry. We are forbidden to disturb our mother while she is busy mysteriously constructing huge plum and apple tarts and a gigantic Kugelhopf. Afterwards, if the children are good, they are allowed to go into the kitchen and make tiny Bretzels with what is left of the pastry. In the evening, the solemn moment arrives when everything is taken to the baker's to be cooked in his oven - the large fruit tarts are arranged in serried rows under diamonds of golden pastry. The grown-ups carry their precious platters proudly. The young ones form a guard of honour agains chickens and geese. In the main street, the band marches joyfully in front of little Karl, the seventh son of the policeman, who chews black bread while little Karl fumes with rage and dreams of his plans for vengeance.


If you were to arrive in my village on Sunday just when everyone is coming out of church, you would witness one of the most picturesque spectacles anyone could imagine. You would see young girls whose calm beauty is crowned with a large black ribbon, young people whose severe clothing is set off by a pretty touch of red, and old people who still wear wide frock coats and tricorn hats. It's true that the costumes my descriptions conjure up for you are not still worn in all the villages of Alsace, but, even though traditional costume is not preserved everywhere, the Alsace spirit is. Sometimes French tourists visit us; that is a great joy for everyone. One day a little Parisian girl asked me why the girls of Alsace do not put the tricolor in their hair, as the girls in Paris do. It was obvious that she had not met our policeman.


Sunday is a wonderful day for the children. To start with, they are allowed to sleep in, on condition that they have polished their shoes the night before. Then, once they get out of bed, they get dressed up. Their mothers do the girls' hair - they wind two pretty plaits around their ears, put on a colourful skirt, an embroidered bodice and their Sunday hat. The boys tidy themselves up - they scrub themselves so hard that their cheeks shine like porcelain. They put on a black suit like the ones their fathers wear. Then they set off for the church, the smallest at the front, happy knowing their parents are behind them, admiring and loving them. Then, once the midday meal is finished, the children run to the school square. Soon under the old liberty tree blond heads, coloured skirts and red waistcoats swarm.

Messti Festival

Like all Alsace festivals, Messti begins with a lavish family meal. Soup with quenelles, hare stew and then an enormous roast. Before the tarts are served, cousins and friends from neighbouring villages arrive, carrying baskets and umbrellas. Officially speaking, the festival doesn't begin before the gendarme has made his rounds. He does this to see that the German flag is flying above any others, according to the law, and to closely inspect the pain d'épices stall, checking that none of the wares are decorated in French colours. This doe, the festival begins. There is a procession led by musicians and the prettiest girl presents a biscuit (?) to the mayor. Finally, there is a ball which lasts into the night. It is very late indeed when the last of our friends leave us."

If you object to either patriotism or prettiness, Oncle Hansi may not be the man for you. I was charmed by a lot of what he did and intrigued by the possibility that Hergé might in some ways have been inspired by the example of his minutely imagined worlds.