Out in the Channel, the dead water
shines like melted wax. Behind in the dark
is England; ahead in the dark, France
and everything untold.
A raw winter’s afternoon. A track peters out into stones and earth, a slight slump in the middle of fields. Pylons step across the dun-grey landscape. We can see maybe two miles in each direction, a horizon of copses, hamlets, farms.
This is – more or less – where my great-grandfather Albert Brown was killed. We don’t know exactly: he wasn’t an officer, so the diary entry has only a few details, including the pencilled word ‘killed’, at the end of the brief record for the 26th February 1917. He was 37 and had been in France about six weeks; he left Annie to bring up six children.
His body wasn’t found. The buzzing pylon and surrounding scrub don’t feel like markers: we’ve just run out of track. We stand freezing for a few seconds, my dad and me; then we go back to the car.
The villages are ancient and they aren’t. Aerial photographs from 1918 show nothing but dark weals; yet here are hedgerows, huge trees, honey-stoned cottages and walls. Graveyards cluster along the lanes, the same stone cut into trim slabs and lined up, almost touching. Everything is small and close: 100 graves in a garden plot; six villages in a ten-minute drive. A dozen fields run down to the Ancre. I look at the maps from 1914, 1916, 1917. The villages disappeared but the red lines were more or less the same. Men came up that road, year after year, and were killed. When it was finished people came back, rebuilt their houses, planted trees, ploughed the land again.
Around Ypres, over the border in Belgium, farmers call it the Iron Harvest. Each year their ploughs uncover munitions, barbed wire, remnants of rifles. Sometimes the flotsam of older conflicts turns up – lead and iron from the Napoleonic Wars (known, until 1918, as the ‘Great War’) and the Hundred Years’ War.
Digging down takes me through horrors in the cultural strata. Wilfred Owen (who fought in the same fields as Albert) and David Jones; Napoleonic Frankenstein and his monstrous progeny, Goya and his; the macabre paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, who lived in the shadow of the Hundred Years’ War (three million killed); and Thomas Malory, knight, possible veteran of France, probable career criminal. Here is a rough-stitched portmanteau of French romances and Celtic myth, spun with Christian morality and nationalism for the domestic market; and at its core, capacious and contradictory, the heroic, doomed quest of a fading empire. Bones jut out of the earth: men sent to fight someone else’s battles. Those returning tell horror stories, or stay silent.
In his introduction to Malory’s Works, Eugène Vinaver is confident that Thomas Malory fought, not only in the Hundred Years’ War but later (on the losing Lancastrian side) in the Wars of the Roses. These events, along with the long list of indictments and imprisonments, make him something of a Falstaffian figure. In this context, the Tale of the Sankgreal appears to occupy the same political ground as Shakespeare’s Histories: an attempt to curry (or, in Malory’s case, rekindle) political favour in turbulent times.
The narrative, unwieldy as it often seems (ellipses and non-sequiturs abound), can be summarised around a basic theme: the attempt to resurrect national unity of a once-great polity in the face of fading influence and factionalism. The Shakespearean seed-sowing in the first pages makes it clear not only that something is rotten, but that we are invited to anticipate a tragic arc. Gawain, as Arthur’s nephew (and first champion), feels duty bound to announce the quest to find the Holy Grail with which the maimed king can be healed and the waste land made whole again. There are signs and wonders but also personal and political intrigues, centred round Launcelot (the current beste knight of the worlde) and his illegitimate son Galahad, newly arrived at court and stirring difficult emotions in his lover Guinevere. Arthur fears the worst – his grete sorowe lies in his reckoning that
my trew felyshyp shall never mete here more agayne.
A doomed adventure, then – but one in the course of which the destiny of the nation is played out through the lives and reckonings of individuals. A mask of confusion is sustained through a range of contemporary literary conventions (dream visions, ‘miracles’, and predestined occurrences) – as well as events and moods which for a modern audience bring to mind Gothic (revivalist) novels, grand guignol theatre, Bergman backlighting (school of Malory’s near-contemporary Brueghel), or the ketchup and screams of Hammer films. Whether following the dismal trails of the knights over heaths and through forests, entering the ghost ship with Percivale (where his dead sister lies, having sacrificed herself to the Grail’s thirst for blood), or witnessing the ‘elevation’ of the berserker Galahad, we are consumed by a dreadful trajectory. The achievement of the Grail by the pure means death; failure means a return to a home that is unchanged – and yet which is now estranged by the experience of those that undertook the quest. When Launcelot and Bors embrace in the final scene, we see them with a modern sensibility – as survivors of trauma.
Europe was full of wanderers
and sickness: men who’d tracked
the Grail roads and found only wastes
and dark versions of themselves.
A picture on the cover of a book, Forgotten Voices of the Great War. The book is full of personal accounts; but it was the cover, hand-coloured, that got me. Three injured soldiers walking towards us through a wrecked landscape, their faces bearing witness to horrors we can never know. They could be the ‘champions’ of Malory’s Quest who return, damaged but alive, to tell their tales of prowess, ultimately to fall quiet, broken, perhaps, by survivors’ guilt. In that story it is those who don’t return – Galahad and Percivale in particular – who are most celebrated: pure, heroic, ‘whole’ men whose sacrifice is the ultimate, ennobling destiny.
The soldiers in the photograph – two British, one French – walk in step, arms linked in fellowship. What binds them – the shared experience of war – won’t help them in their return to the everyday. The felyship of the Round Table, that necessary prerequisite to soldiery, cannot ultimately make a kingdom whole:
And ye have sene that they have loste hir fadirs and
hir modirs and all hir kynne, and hir wyves and hir
chyldren, for to be of youre felyship.
Albert signed up in 1915, before the slaughter of the Somme brought in conscription. It’s easy to imagine how a community can persuade its lads to go to war (or at least, ensure that any act of objection is made in the face of wholesale disapproval, even disgust): but a working, family man in his thirties? The 2/5th wasn’t a Pals battalion; nor was it likely, at the time of his enlistment (it was a Territorial battalion), to involve front-line service. The initial optimism of 1914 had begun to harden into a grimmer view: the sense was growing that the war would be long-lasting and attritional. In all likelihood, it was with a more general sense of ‘doing his bit’ that Albert joined up. No longer an adventure, it was still a just cause: in fact, as the casualties continued to mount, men still at home would have felt an increasing responsibility to play their part.
At home he dreamed of this:
his brothers’ bodies cast
on the mud, piled like logs
for the earth’s winter.
Edward Thomas was the same age as Albert when he was killed at Arras a few weeks after him – and he enlisted at a similar time. He had prevaricated, his conscience wrestling with a sense of, if not duty, then fellowship: an identification with his fellow countrymen and the physical connection with territory which is central to his poetry – and which provides a deep and enduring bond between him and his ‘tribe’. Most Englishmen in the early twentieth century had not travelled abroad, and had no sense of shared identity with ‘foreigners’. If the chain of events which led to war was political, it was nationhood, an emotional concept based on a sense of belonging – and, necessarily, not belonging – which provided an army. Though much is made of the power of community coercion – the Pals, the white feathers – millions of men joined up voluntarily in 1914–15 to protect their own against the ‘other’.
It is argued that the period of the Hundred Years’ War (1337–1453) saw the emergence of the idea of English national identity and the nation state, exemplified by the spread of vernacular English as an expression of national confidence. Though this view centres on the second half of the fourteenth century, focusing on the writing of Chaucer and Langland, it reached its fulfilment with Caxton’s printing of Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur in 1485. Although the conflation of vernacularity and national identity can be seen as simplistic, Malory’s overtly nationalistic schema – the ‘matter of Britain’ identified as a heroic quest to restore a broken realm – is persuasive.
Those three wounded comrades emerging out of the waste land trigger, then, an identification across five hundred years of nationalist politics which draws its soldiery from an idea of ‘us’ and ‘them’. It goes on. The current rise of populist demagoguery and vicious nationalism across the West is but another, depressingly familiar tide, made possible by the limitations of human memory: those with direct experience of Western war grow old or are dead – so we are stirred by bugles more than we are appalled by horror, or feel it as physical fear.
In 2014 the Telegraph published a remarkable series of photographs by Thom Atkinson. Inventories of War: Soldiers’ Kit from 1066 to 2014 showed how little had changed in what British infantry took with them into battle – until the development of automatic weapons in the early 20th century. The similarities of both arms and personal items provided further correspondence, for me, between the wars in Malory’s fifteenth century (and by extension, how he considered the experience of Arthur’s knights) and the First World War. I have interleaved the sections of The Grail Roads with short comparisons as a way of maintaining a sense of identification between the conflicts.
We drive down to the river, follow it through villages and hamlets: Miraumont, Baillescourt, Beaucourt. The road turns uphill at the station towards Beaumont Hamel, where Albert camped the night before his death (and where those of his fellows whose bodies were recovered are buried). We are banked below the open fields to our right, formerly cut by the tangle of trenches, climbing gently to the pylons at the front line. A green lane tracks along to our left. It is quieter and warmer here. The regimental diary reports the advance of Albert’s regiment on 25th February down this road ‘and thence to Front Line… Shelling of Battalion Sector by evening normal.’ The same continues the following day, with ‘Shelling of ‘B’ Co’s Sector’.
CASUALTIES: KILLED, 4885 Pte A. Brown, ‘B’ Coy, 3475 L.Cpl J.W. Pearson, ‘D’ Coy […]. WOUNDED, 3363 Pte W. Hope, ‘B’ Coy, 3703 Pte H. Hastelow.
The Grail Roads is the third full-length poetry collection by Rob Hindle. A beautifully produced 144-page hardback, it is available from Longbarrow Press for £12.99. You can order the book securely by clicking on the relevant PayPal button below.
The Grail Roads: £12.99 (hardback)
Rob Hindle is the author of several collections of poetry, including Some Histories of the Sheffield Flood 1864 (2006), Neurosurgery in Iraq (2008), The Purging of Spence Broughton, a Highwayman (2009) and Yoke and Arrows (2014). Five long poems and sequences, collectively titled Flights and Traverses, appear in the Longbarrow Press anthology The Footing (2013). The Grail Roads is his first full collection with Longbarrow Press. Click here for further details and to read poems from the book.
From the corner you could go anywhere, Leveson Street,
Warren Street, under the arches of Norfolk Bridge, over the river…
This is a place in Attercliffe, Sheffield – an intersection, where the narrator of one of my poems in The Footing, and the historical subjects he is tracking, raise their eyes to the possibilities of the urban horizon. It’s a point on a map; it is also a moment: a place reached, a pause in which the narrator’s present (which was mine, sometime in 2010) collides with the present of a gang of men, in the spring of 1925, walking away from a crime – a fatal attack on an Attercliffe man, for which two of them, a few weeks later, were to hang.
The title of my sequence is ‘Flights and Traverses’, chosen because I wanted to indicate how the poems describe movement away from a point (the ‘flight’) and also the phenomenon of that movement (the ‘traverse’ or crossing). But the sequence also has a subheading: 5 Itineraries; and it had an earlier, working title: ‘A Cartography’. Both suggest the original motive: I wanted to follow footsteps – but I was also interested in the imaginative possibilities of mapping and the itinerary.
‘Itinerary’ has its roots in the Latin for ‘travelling’ and is usually understood to mean either a plan or a record of a journey: it can therefore refer to an experience anticipated or recollected. There is also something of the professional: it traditionally refers to a day’s travel especially for the purpose of judging, or preaching, or lecturing. In many senses, it is a ‘setting out’.
When we consider the word ‘itinerant’, however, the intention is less about professing, more about exchange. We think of salesmen or peddlers: tinkers: wanderers: tramps. A story or song from the road for a fag or a sup. There is something, perhaps, about a bargain or a contract. This is implicit in the flights and traverses I’ve chosen to map out. A man pays his way out of his homeland at the toll house on Grindleford Bridge:
Where are you going?
Far as I can.
When will you get there?
Where have you come from?
Over the moor.
Will you return?
He accepts the deal; and intrigued, taken in, I follow. Here is a story: a narrative: a passage from something known to something unknown.
I have a memory of childhood: a halt on a moorland track, my dad ‘getting the map out’, taking bearings, making judgements. We are at the moment between getting lost and finding a way forward – between the original itinerary and a new route, made at that moment and not until then. I find this moment entirely creative, and settling, and inspiring. We might be on a track thousands of years deep, but in passing along it, we are itinerant: we are at a point between the journey recorded and the journey anticipated. And when we stop and take bearings and judge our surroundings, we acknowledge this. I now stop with my family and ‘get the map out’.
There’s a milepost on the old turnpike road over Houndkirk Moor. What you can’t see, obviously, is the other side – which, due to the weather, is a pitted surface, entirely illegible.
On the north face just runes and weather.
My ancestor Richard Marsden, traversing the Moor and at this point, in sight neither of the valley he grew up in, or of the town to which he was headed, is at this point itinerant. He must make a new map.
On midsummer’s day in 1842, an Attercliffe woman walked out of her house, set herself behind the coffin of her son and started the slow walk through Sheffield to the General Cemetery. The cortege passed 50 thousand people, come to observe the procession of the Chartist Samuel Holberry, broken by hard labour in Northallerton Gaol and dead at 27.
When I set out on this journey, the maps I consulted were relics: the Blitz of 1940 and the go-getting 1960s had done for the medieval town. Had I found a record of the route taken – most likely along Norfolk Street, Union Street and South Street, then up Cemetery Road – I would have felt compelled to follow it: The Crucible, Café Rouge, The drills and hoardings on The Moor. Fortunately, I found only the barest details: a connection between two points, and an understanding that the route must have crossed the river at Lady’s Bridge, where there had been a travellers’ chapel,
a plate by the chancel where you’d drop a coin for safe journey,
the water light through the glass
pattering the walls
I had the opportunity, then, to make my own path: to drift: to become itinerant. I could go off-grid, turn corners into quiet, slower route-ways, peer through smashed windows.
They turn into Eyre Lane,
its workshops full of shades.
These were his neighbours;
they have stilled their wheels
and files for him.
I could stop and notice things growing – now in the middle of the city, then at its edge, the sounds of its industry still proximate to the rush of the Porter Brook:
In an alley near South Lane
someone has planted flowers
in drums and pails:
poppies, daisies, nasturtiums;
sweet peas, pink and lilac
against the black brick.
Over the Brook – now, over the Ring Road – I should have climbed the hill to the old gate on Cemetery Road, with its worm and leaf mould all ruin and renewal. But, honouring Holberry, I wanted to make a way to the grander entrance on Cemetery Avenue: to cross the Porter Brook once more, formally this time, paying my dues of passage into the underworld, from where I could look back, take stock:
Now they can see where they came,
the line of people all the way back
to the town. Still they come.
There are other ways of map-making. In 1932, my great-uncle Harold died in the South Yorkshire Asylum – later called the Middlewood Hospital, and now a housing development which, with its tidiness and discreet cameras, aspires to gated status.
I never knew I had a great-uncle Harold. He spent most of his life in institutions – his learning difficulties presumably too much for the wider world to handle – and died in this one aged 27.
This was the first journey I took – a short, harrowing walk from his parents’ house off Hillsborough Corner up to Middlewood. It is the most personal section of ‘Flights and Traverses’: not only because of Harold, but because I recognise these terraced streets:
Now there is the click of a back door,
the chitter of a budgerigar.
Then you are hurrying from one of these houses,
hair brushed, tangled feet booted,
your undone laces tripping behind you.
There is something inevitable, too, about the journey which, though in terms of its topography is a gentle climb, is emotionally and psychologically a descent. I follow Harold towards his end, beyond the tram terminus; and I walk back – and down – through a bit of my own past:
This was once my territory, that hill with the GR
post box at the bottom, school at the top,
the park where I rushed along one day, my mind,
gleeful and vicious, running after me. Middlewood,
childhood cant, that thing in all our cellars,
I shouldn’t have dared. I pay out my breaths
like twine, each step shortening.
I expected ghosts at the Asylum, in the bottle-green shade of the Cemetery, by the milepost on Houndkirk Moor. I got glimpses: stilled vices through workshop windows, arches upturned on the skin of the river, the ghost of myself in the glass of Saville House. Walking through an urban landscape, particularly, enables you to accrue perspective: there is a traversing of time as well as space. You lose yourself, take note, adjust your bearings, set out again. Cutting away from current thoroughfares, you pass into other ways, older, narrower, quieter. You uncover or discover gennels, doorways, rat runs: even when you are tracing itineraries which are irrevocable, you are making new paths, unfurling the twine of a narrative by which to mark your way back.
Where I finish in ‘Flights and Traverses’ is a picture of chaos:
Stained glass exploding into Campo Lane,
corn from a slashed sack.
The map shows where, in December 1940, the bombs fell, which was everywhere, just about; but even this catastrophe can be narrated. The bombers came from a point in space, departed for another; the bombs fell thinly on the leafy places, thickly on the old centre; they fell crashing into the silence of the school
but spared the church,
its praying faithful, its sinners.
When I get off the bus on the Hathersage Road, it is a winter afternoon, the sun near to setting. The shires range southwards, hills, woods, fields. North, across the boundary stream, the road begins its descent into Sheffield. My long shadow stretching out in front of me,
I start down.
Rob Hindle’s Flights and Traverses appears in the Longbarrow Press anthology The Footing. ‘Cartography, Flights and Traverses’ is the text (and accompanying images) of a presentation by Hindle that opened the launch of The Footing at The Shakespeare, Sheffield, 25 November 2013. Click here to visit Rob Hindle’s website.