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The Personal Column

Fair play at the front

In 1963, what was then London Transport transported me to The Theatre Royal Stratford East and there I saw its legendary production of Oh What a Lovely War! It is an evening I will never forget; not least because I sat behind an elderly man who began to weep as the mounting casualty figures of the First World War flashed up on the illuminated screen suspended over the set. 

This simple but heartrending device continued to the end of the evening and so did his weeping. His tears had as great an effect on me as the play itself and I found myself wondering if he’d been one of the legendary ‘lions led by donkeys’ who’d endured the appalling carnage of the trenches. When the lights came up, I could see he was probably in his late 60s and I guessed he was one of those lucky ones who came back to Blighty but never spoke about the ordeal they’d been through in that ‘war to end all wars’.

I wondered too, if he’d taken part in the celebrated Christmas Day truce and its impromptu football game across the nomansland between the combatants’ trenches.

Last year, a letter from the trenches turned up on The Antiques Road Show. It was an ordinary soldier’s account of the truce and absolute confirmation that it really did occur. Unlike the letter, the writer did not survive the war but its presence on the TV screen transported me straight back to Stratford East and the shaking shoulders and bowed head of that devastated man in the seat in front of me.

He’s long dead now, but somehow the sheer lunacy of that terrible war haunts us yet. Both the Peace Pledge Union and Peace News (until 1961, the PPU’s official mouthpiece) were founded as a consequence of the First World War.

All this history came to a head for me at Christmas when I was introduced to our Poet Laureate’s sensational little poem The Christmas Truce (Picador £5.99). By ‘sensational’, I mean full of conflicting sensations of compassion and horror. The publishers have got it up with a cover like a tinselly Christmas card, but no Christmas card rhyme I’ve ever read compares with this. And how inspiring to have a poet laureate who engages with war and peace instead of trotting out bland comforts as if a versifying Lady Bountiful.

Not that Carol Ann Duffy isn’t bountiful. She’s a wonderfully productive and responsive poet and from the first line of The Christmas Truce I was carried along by its power; just as I was by Oh What a Lovely War! all those years ago. It’s possible I suppose, that OWALW! influenced its composition but the tone and conclusion of the poem is markedly different.

By seizing on that one memorable day she finds hope and humanity when….

A young Berliner,
brandishing schnapps,
was the first from his ditch to climb.
A Shropshire lad ran at him like a rhyme.

Then it was up and over, every man,
to shake the hand
of a foe as a friend,
or slap his back like a brother would;
exchanging gifts of biscuits, tea, Maconochie’s stew,

Tickler’s jam … for cognac, sausages, cigars,
beer, sauerkraut;
or chase six hares, who jumped
from a cabbage-patch, or find a ball
and make of a battleground a football pitch.

Carol Ann Duffy compresses that whole day into one poem in which not a word is wasted and its beauty and truth glints like a shivering, shy star....

And all that marvellous, festive day and night,
they came and went,
the officers, the rank and file,
their fallen comrades side by side
beneath the makeshift crosses of midwinter graves …

… beneath the shivering, shy stars
and the pinned moon
and the yawn of History;
the high, bright bullets
which each man later only aimed at the sky.

I live in Stroud where many poets live and was surprised to read how….

A boy from Stroud stared at a star
to meet his mother’s eyesight there.

And further on….

In a copse of trees behind the lines, a lone bird sang.
A soldier-poet noted it down – ‘robin holding his winter ground

Perhaps the boy from Stroud is the soldier-poet ? Whatever, the poet and his winter robin bring the poem straight home to where the heart is.