Tuesday 6th November
You find me east of Ipswich this morning at The Ship Inn in Levington. It’s a lovely old boozer: thatched, big hearth with a large woodburner, polished oak L-shaped bar, red-tiled floor, open beams separating different section of the bar room. There’s also a ship’s wheel, resting on the floor and leant against the bar. It’s warm, slightly soporific and there’s a good crowd assembling for lunch. All the food is sourced locally, and there’s a list of suppliers on a chalk board on the hearth.* In short, it’s beautiful, comforting and safe.
I’ve been here since half ten. Look East (local BBC news, for those of you outside of East Anglia) were filming me performing a poem for their armistice special. I’ve posted the poem below if you fancy a read. It’s one of five I wrote back in 2014 for a project called Now The Last Poppy Has Fallen, focusing on the home front in Essex during the First World War. The poem is set in The King’s Head, Harwich (another boozer than has become a house), so we’re cheating slightly by filming it here. But it’s the right place in spirit.
I wrote one poem for each year of the war, this was the last, and while the others focused on women and children (and particularly the resistance the patriarchy put up to women being on invasion committees and doing traditionally male jobs), this focusses on a group of sailors about to leave for war.
The zeal and passion with which young boys signed up for war in 1914 has been fairly well-documented** but I got to thinking about those later recruits: the ones who had seen the invalided soldiers, the ones who had read the telegrams sent home. This poem will be on BBC One East at roughly 6.55pm on Friday 9th November. I’ll be back at The Ship tomorrow.
The Kings Head, Market Street, Harwich, 1918
On Market Street near Harwich dock
the shore-leave sailors stop the clock
and fill their throats with yards of beer
as if the final days were here.
Debouched and broached, The King’s Head groans
with battered thick-slurred baritones
as fear is scrubbed with boozy prayer
in gas-lit, blue-tinged, smokey air.
And can you blame these sozzled kids
for wanting some escape from it?
Tomorrow they haul anchor then
they sail away from homes and friends.
From Danbury; from Peasenhall;
from Edmonton; from Coggeshall;
from terraces up pot-holed lanes
from hamlets never touched by trains
from farmhouse, workhouse, market hill
from trading streets that chirp and till
from nooks that never make a noise
apprentices and grocer’s boys
step up and say that they are keen
despite the fact that they’ve all seen
the letters home, the telegrams,
and fresh-faced widows pushing prams.
They’ve watched their brothers not return
they’ve heard of how their young lungs burned
with gas in reeking sodden ruts
and now they feel it in their guts.
The churn of dark uncertain days
they gulp it down, the newly brave
play brutes and beasts until they’re sore
and summon what it takes to leave for war.
* I had halibut for my lunch. My word – it was utterly stunning. Best lunch I’ve had in months – and I’ve been to London.
** You may recall Lieutenant George’s testimony in Blackadder Goes Forth: “Oh me? I joined up straight away, sir. August the 4th, 1914. Gah, what a day that was: myself and the rest of the fellows leapfrogging down to the Cambridge recruiting office and then playing tiddlywinks in the queue. We had hammered Oxford’s tiddlywinkers only the week before, and there we were, off to hammer the Boche! Crashingly superb bunch of blokes. Fine, clean-limbed — even their acne had a strange nobility about it.”