Sunday, 4 November 2012

The General's Dilemma
(or "On The Perils Of Drag And Drop")

This blog might have been called "bloggerel", or even "Joe Blogs", but both of those names were clearly too obvious not to have been used before - and so, in acknowledgement of the way in which these words will be accessed (and of the new worlds that have opened up to so many of us since the advent of the world wide web) - I chose instead to take the name of the blog from a senryū that I wrote some years ago now.

It certainly isn't the first poem I ever wrote, but it is the oldest that I still have, and so, fittingly, it shall be the first:

                         Just beyond the glass
                         that which we seek lies hidden -
                         there amongst the trees

I was inspired to write this senryū by the sight, many years ago, of a friend and colleague - who we shall call "The General" - staring incredulously at his PC screen.

The files that he needed urgently, and that he knew had been in a particular directory only minutes before, had disappeared.

Twenty minutes later, after some questioning and some scratching of heads, a search of the whole tree eventually located the files in a completely different directory.  The General must have selected the files when he first found them and, when he switched to another directory, he must have accidentally dragged the files to a new location.  It's happened to us all.  Walking back to my own desk, the words above just came to me - it happens sometimes.  There was even a (punning)
kigo, "trees" bringing to mind a dark wood; a Klimt wood of close-grown birches, or that stand of conifers along the Bow River in the picture behind the title.

This isn't a statue of The General (though it could be):
Statue of Sir John Betjeman, St Pancras Station, London
Since this is my first blog post, I shall tell you about the first poem that I can remember having any impact on me at all.  The poem in question was Betjeman’s "A Subaltern’s Love Song", and, sadly, the impact that it had on me was a decidedly negative one.

I was around fifteen at the time, and "A Subaltern’s Love Song" was a set text in English at school. I was an angry, dyslexic, geeky (some would say borderline Asperger's), teenager from the English Midlands, growing up against the backdrop of declining living standards, rising unemployment and industrial strife that categorised 1970s Britain: how was I supposed to relate to a poem about the upper middle classes in the Home Counties, a poem written in 1941 (but that almost seems to be looking back to a pre-war idyll)? The only people I knew who might have "pictures of Egypt" were old desert rats and they didn't hang them on the wall, they kept them in the bottom of a draw so that they didn't have to remember which of those young men, smiling in front of the pyramids, never came home.

Of course, the teaching of English at the time could also have been more inspired.  We are, after all, talking about the same English class in which I learned to dislike Shakespeare and learned to hate being made to read "To Kill a Mockingbird".  If this was a class that could so warp my mind (a temporary aberration thankfully), is it any wonder that I grew to adulthood despising Betjeman?

I suppose I rediscovered Betjeman in my twenties - attracted to his love of architecture and landscape conservation, and to the concreteness of his poetry. Philip Larkin put it much better than I ever could: "how much more interesting and worth writing about Betjeman's subjects are than most other modern poets, I mean, whether so-and-so achieves some metaphysical inner unity is not really so interesting to us as the overbuilding of rural Middlesex".

I only recently discovered that this, my favourite Betjeman poem, though fanciful, was written with a real person in mind: Betjeman met, and fell for, Joan Hunter Dunn in 1941 when they were both working for the Ministry of Information. And really, who amongst us can blame Betjeman for his love of athletic women (see also "Senex" and "The Licorice Fields at Pontefract")?

In my fifties now, I have no trouble picturing the type of
Arts and Crafts house with a "verandah" and an "oak stair", on who's "low-leaded window" the "westering" sun might settle, and I have visited any number of houses where old family pictures, whether collected in the declining days of Empire or simply of home, hang "bright on the wall".

So perhaps all you need to do to learn to love Betjeman is to grow up (or grow old) because I have great affection for this poem now and would happily defend it against attack, not only by my boorish younger self, but by anyone tempted to dismiss it as doggerel.  The proposal and acceptance is the only part that troubles me a little: the subaltern is clearly deeply infatuated, but does she feel the same way or has she just been carried away by the youthful exuberance implied by the poem's rhythm and rhyme?

I hope that, if you have made it this far, you will also take a moment to seek out and read "A Subaltern’s Love Song" and Betjeman's other works (and to visit St Pancras Station, where the above photograph was taken, and give thanks to those who, like Betjeman, campaigned against it's destruction in the 1960s).

"Senex" (first published in: "Old lights for New Chancels", 1940), "A Subaltern’s Love Song" (first published in: "New Bats in Old Belfries", 1945), and "The Licorice Fields at Pontefract" (first published in: "A Few Late Chrysanthemums", 1954) are all available in: "The Best Of Betjeman", (1978), selected by John Guest, published by John Murray.

"Senex", "A Subaltern’s Love Song", and "The Licorice Fields at Pontefract" all Copyright © The Betjeman Literary Estate. "The Best Of Betjeman" Copyright © John Guest (1978). Extracts from "A Subaltern’s Love Song" used under the principle of "Fair Dealing".

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Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.