The other day I learnt that one of my favourite journalists - essayists would be a much better word - P.J. Kavanagh, had died. He was also a poet, novelist, broadcaster, memoirist, lecturer and actor (he played, believe it or not, Fr Seamus Fitzpatrick, collector of Nazi memorabilia, in a classic episode of Father Ted). But I knew him best from his writings in various newspapers and magazines (notably The Spectator and TLS), pieces about books and writers and, preeminently, people and places - which is the title of a collection of his essays that I recently spotted in a local charity shop. Naturally I pounced on it, but then saw that is was priced at an exorbitant £20, because it was signed. Undeterred, I took to the internet and had soon tracked down a copy of People and Places for a couple of pounds. When it arrived, I was delighted to find that it too was signed...
The superb essay that opens the volume - Naming Names - is a good example of Kavanagh at his best. Its subject is the power of names - a subject Kavanagh explores in relation to the poet and composer Ivor Gurney, whose Collected Poems (1982) he edited. Kavanagh takes a journey - 'an exercise in humility and continuity' - in the Somme region where Gurney served in the Great War, an experience that the poet returned to obsessively in his troubled later years. He finds the mausoleum at Caulaincourt into which Gurney and his fellow soldiers crawled for shelter - finds it by asking a workman at the roadside who knew instantly what Kavanagh was looking for and grinned widely: 'The Boche never found them out.' He visits Laventie, 'The town itself with plane trees, and small-spa air' - Gurney's spot-on description (we've all been to, or through, such towns in northern France).
Kavanagh is moved to come across some of the countless tiny war cemeteries, like English gardens, tucked away in corners of cornfields, orchards and copses all over the countryside, still carefully tended. He quotes in full a Gurney poem about a hasty wayside burial, Butchers and Tombs, and tells how, finding the names of two of Gurney's fellow Gloucesters in a later poem, he telephoned the War Graves Commission and in 20 minutes had the locations of their graves.
All this and more is done in six elegantly written pages. Then there is a two-page postscript describing the unveiling of a plaque in Westminster Abbey to 16 'war poets', including Ivor Gurney. Rightly Kavanagh has reservations about the use of the term 'war poet' - not least because 'it held back the recognition of Edward Thomas for years, because he hardly deigned to mention the war, although he fought and was killed in it'. Delving in Gurney's manuscripts written in the asylum where he spent his later years, Kavanagh thought some were signed 'Ivor Gurney. Was Poet.' 'This sounded heart-breaking, as well as heart-broken. But when I grew used to his handwriting and saw that he had written not 'Was Poet' but 'War Poet', the pathos was even louder. He had heard of the new category and was crying out to be included: anything, to be heard.'
People and Places s going to be at my bedside for some while, I think. Meanwhile, here is one of Gurney's songs - the extraordinarily beautiful Sleep.