Sunday 10 November 2019


This morning – happily a bright and sunny one – I was at a local remembrance ceremony, along with all the local worthies (a category that doesn't include me, I hasten to add). After the Minister's introductory sentence, the Mayor stepped up to the mike – far too close to the mike – and began to bellow, in a pawl-and-ratchet monotone, something that I assumed must be a poem. From the few words I could make out through the booming distortion, I guessed it was something by Wilfred Owen, always popular on these occasions. Consulting the programme afterwards, I discovered it was this one, The Send-Off

Down the close, darkening lanes they sang their way
To the siding-shed,
And lined the train with faces grimly gay.
Their breasts were stuck all white with wreath and spray
As men's are, dead.
Dull porters watched them, and a casual tramp
Stood staring hard,
Sorry to miss them from the upland camp.
Then, unmoved, signals nodded, and a lamp
Winked to the guard.
So secretly, like wrongs hushed-up, they went.
They were not ours:
We never heard to which front these were sent.
Nor there if they yet mock what women meant
Who gave them flowers.
Shall they return to beatings of great bells
In wild trainloads?
A few, a few, too few for drums and yells,
May creep back, silent, to still village wells
Up half-known roads.

Naturally this puts me in mind of Philip Larkin's thematically similar MCMXIV,  a poem more contained, more vivid, more controlled, and, I think, more eloquent for its restraint...

Those long uneven lines
Standing as patiently
As if they were stretched outside
The Oval or Villa Park,
The crowns of hats, the sun
On moustached archaic faces
Grinning as if it were all
An August Bank Holiday lark;
And the shut shops, the bleached
Established names on the sunblinds,
The farthings and sovereigns,
And dark-clothed children at play
Called after kings and queens,
The tin advertisements
For cocoa and twist, and the pubs
Wide open all day;
And the countryside not caring,
The place-names all hazed over
With flowering grasses, and fields
Shadowing Domesday lines
Under wheat's restless silence;
The differently dressed servants
With tiny rooms in huge houses,
The dust behind limousines;
Never such innocence,
Never before or since,
As changed itself to past
Without a word – the men
Leaving the gardens tidy,
The thousands of marriages
Lasting a little while longer:
Never such innocence again.
Between the Laurence Binyon ('They shall not grow old...') and the Kohima epitaph ('When you go home, tell them of us and say, For your tomorrow, we gave our today') came the Last Post, the silence and the Reveille. Unfortunately the bugler was having a bad day, had lost his high notes and had but a shaky grasp of the lower ones, so the Last Post sounded like a solo by a member of the Portsmouth Sinfonia, and the Reveille was little better. 
This was all as it should be, of course. This is England, and we English are naturally suspicious of anything too slick, preferring to give an appearance of amateurism, even in things we're rather good at. Like winning wars.  Or maybe that should all be in the past tense. 


  1. Oh my gosh, thanks for the introduction to Portsmouth Sinfonia, that is comedy gold!

  2. Terrific, isn't it – nothing quite so funny as music played really badly but with absolute conviction. Enjoy!