Echoes Of Tears On King Street

I’ve just finished reading The Last Time I Saw Paris, which is a biography of a Parisian Street, rue de la Huchete, running from the early ’20’s to the time of World War Two. Featuring a wide cast of characters, though it’s non-fiction it reads like a novel, and I can’t remember the last time I read a book where the final words moved me so.

Anyway. There was a passage in it that reminded me of something else:

There were, in those days, certain grey-blue postcards that meant someone had been wounded or missing, and some black-rimmed white ones that spelled dark death. The women at the far end of streets would, if they saw the postman’s pouch contained no black-rimmed messages, wave and sometimes cheer with an edge of fear diminishing in their voices, and up and down the street the watchers would relax. Very often no such reassurance was forthcoming, and everyone had to wait, breath caught, nerves throbbing, until someone let out a shriek, or turned wordlessly away or dropped in her tracks and the postman wiped away a tear from his eye with the back of his hand before continuing.

I was a postman for ten years, and one of my rounds was in Cheapside, one of the oldest parts of Middleton. One of the streets there was King Street. In this photo you can see King Street, viewed from behind the cottage on Idler’s Corner, Rochdale Road, climbing ahead. If that pub on the hill is The Beehive, then this was taken before 1919, when it closed. The cottages were gone by 1925.

(Incidentally, Idler’s Corner was so called because weary travellers would stop to rest against the large York stone slabs, ‘idling’ for a time. It was directly opposite King Street.

Of course, this was well before my Royal Mail days. As was the following photograph, which lists the streets running off King Street.

This next photo, though, shows King Street as I know it.

There were no longer any houses lining the road for me to deliver to, I used it just to reach the flats that await at the top of its crest, just the odd business drop along the way.

When I used to walk up there, occasionally I would recall a story, recorded some years ago by an older resident, about a postman that had long preceded me. He was tasked, unenviably, like that postman in Paris at the beginning of this post, to deliver similar telegrams during the First World War.

Each morning, as he navigated the street, women and children would watch from behind net curtains, fearfully, waiting to see who would be the latest recipient, summoned to answer that fateful knock at the door.

Filled with a combination of dread, is he coming here?

then relief, he’s going to Maisie’s

then sadness, poor, poor Maisie

The witness told how one day the postman, having broken under the strain of this daily burden, was sat on the kerbside, sobbing, a woman from one of these houses sat silently beside him, arm around his shoulders in consolation.

I can no longer recall where it was I read this, but sometimes I would remember the story as I followed in that long-gone postman’s footsteps, climbing the hill and feeling the connection of that man and the place in which we both lived, echoes of people and homes now lost to time.

On The Centenary Of His Death

I’ve mentioned this man before on City Jackdaw, usually around Remembrance Sunday, but I feel that I should mention him again as today is the centenary of his death.

He is my Great Grandfather Albert Cartwright, of the Lancashire Fusiliers.

This is him with his wife, Ada. Maybe they had the photograph taken on his enlistment in 1914 because, you know, just in case . . .

He died at home, on this day in 1919, after being gassed during the second battle of the Marne in 1918. He was just forty. He lies in an unmarked grave at Phillips Park Cemetery, not far from Manchester City’s Etihad stadium.

That battle marked the beginning of the end for Germany. He almost made it safely to the end of the war.

He almost made it to 1920.

It wasn’t the first time he’d been injured. This photo, of course in black and white, shows Albert wearing his ‘hospital blues’, uniform they were given while recovering in hospitals back in England.

His war record states that he died on New Year’s Eve, though his death certificate says it was the 30th.

Perhaps it was either side of that midnight hour, when twenty four hours later the city would be ringing in the New Year, while his newly widowed wife Ada and his children, my Grandmother Lilian among them, would be grieving their loss.

It was a loss that reverberated down the years with my Gran.

And so, even further down the line, I remember him now, and always ❤️

The Muse In The Dark Arena

I recently finished reading Regeneration by Pat Barker. It is set in a war hospital in 1917, where a psychiatrist is treating shell-shocked soldiers. Including the poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfrid Owen. Robert Graves also features.

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This passage is from when the two poets first meet, Owen speaking:

‘”It’s not just that, though, is it? Sometimes when you’re alone, in the trenches, I mean, at night you get the sense of something ancient. As if the trenches had always been there. You know one trench we held, it had skulls in the side. You looked back along and . . . Like mushrooms. And do you know, it was actually easier to believe they were men from Marlborough’s army than to think they’d been alive two years ago. It’s as if all other wars had somehow . . . distilled themselves into this war, and that makes it something you . . . almost can’t challenge. It’s like a very deep voice saying, Run along, little man. Be thankful if you survive.”

For a moment the nape of sassoon’s neck crawled as it had the first time Campbell had talked about German spies; but this was not madness. “I had a similar experience. Well, I don’t know whether it is similar. I was going up with the rations one night and I saw the limbers against the skyline, and the flares going up. What you see every night. Only I seemed to be seeing it from the future. A hundred years from now they’ll still be ploughing up skulls. And I seemed to be in that time and looking back. I think I saw our ghosts.”

Silence. They’d gone further than either of them had intended, and for a moment they didn’t know how to get back.’

 

I can imagine the dialogue being like this, with Sassoon sensing something equally as great within the star-struck Owen.

 

From that font of all knowledge, Wikipedia:

Sassoon’s periods of duty on the Western Front were marked by exceptionally brave actions, including the single-handed capture of a German trench in the Hindenburg Line. Armed with grenades, he scattered sixty German soldiers:

He went over with bombs in daylight, under covering fire from a couple of rifles, and scared away the occupants. A pointless feat, since instead of signalling for reinforcements, he sat down in the German trench and began reading a book of poems which he had brought with him. When he went back he did not even report. Colonel Stockwell, then in command, raged at him. The attack on Mametz Wood had been delayed for two hours because British patrols were still reported to be out. “British patrols” were Siegfried and his book of poems. “I’d have got you a D.S.O., if you’d only shown more sense,” stormed Stockwell.

Sassoon became a focal point for dissent when he made a lone protest against the continuation of the war in his “Soldier’s Declaration” of 1917, culminating in him being admitted to the psychiatric hospital. Sassoon survived the war.

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Wilfrid Owen had a number of traumatic experiences, including when he fell into a shell hole and suffered concussion; he was blown up by a trench mortar and spent several days unconscious on an embankment lying amongst the remains of one of his fellow officers. Soon afterwards, Owen was diagnosed as suffering from neurasthenia or shell shock and sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital where he met Sassoon.

Owen was killed exactly one week (almost to the hour) before the signing of the Armistice which ended the war, and was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant the day after his death. There is an added sense of waste to his death when you realise how close he came to making it.

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Both men, (like many other of the War Poets), are remembered for the body of work  created in response to their dark muse in that scattered arena of death.

War And Words

I have just finished reading Goodbye To All That, the autobiography of writer and poet Robert Graves, up to 1929. In it he talks of meeting other writers such as Thomas Hardy, Wilfred Owen, and, in more depth, Siegfried Sassoon. Of most interest, though, is his account of the time he served as an officer in the First World War.

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He speaks of the horrors of war:

“…I went along whistling ‘The Farmer’s Boy’, to keep up my spirits, when suddenly I saw a group bending over a man lying at the bottom of the trench. He was making a snoring noise mixed with animal groans. At my feet lay the cap he had worn, splashed with his brains. I had never seen human brains before; I somehow regarded them as a poetical figment. One can joke with a badly-wounded man and congratulate him on being out of it. One can disregard a dead man. But even a miner can’t make a joke that sounds like a joke over a man who takes three hours to die, after the top part of his head has been taken off by a bullet fired at twenty yard’s range.”

There is also the tragi-comic, such as the soldier who wanted a ‘cushty’ wound that would get him sent back home to England:

“…so he waves his hand above the parapet to catch Fritz’z attention. Nothing doing. He waves his arms about for a couple of minutes. Nothing doing, not a shot. He puts his elbows on the fire-step, hoists his body upside-down, and waves his legs about till he gets blood to the head. Not a shot did old Fritz fire. “Oh,” says the Munster man, “I don’t believe there’s a damn square-head there. Where’s the German army to?”  He has a peek over the top-crack! He gets it in the head. Finee.”

Graves talks of the superstition among the men, and how he himself saw the ghost of a friend who saluted him through a window, who unknown to the author had been killed some time previous. He also tells how Sassoon distinguished himself by single-handedly taking an enemy frontage in daylight, but then instead of signalling for reinforcements, sat down in the German trench and started reading a book of poetry he had taken with him. His furious Commanding Officer said he’d have gotten him a D.S.O (Distinguished Service Order award) if he’d only shown more sense.

This is a good book and a timely read, what with all of the First World War anniversaries occurring around this time.

I have also picked up some more books from the Penguin Modern Classics range: some Capote, Fitzgerald, Joyce, and Stegner, to add to those I already have.

Could there be a greater collection of books out there?