A NEW HAR­VEST OF GREAT­NESS FROM FIELDS OF FLAN­DERS

It may sound like a bold claim, but as we ap­proach the cen­te­nary of the Armistice CHAR­LIE CONNELLY finds a new work that de­serves to sit along­side the great­est po­etry in­spired by the First World War

The New European - - Eurofile Books - The Grail Roads by Rob Hin­dle is pub­lished by Long­bar­row Press, price £12.99

They call it the ‘iron har­vest’. Ev­ery year when the farm­ers of Flan­ders set out to plough their fields there’s a reg­u­lar clunk and tap un­der the blades to sig­nify the lat­est an­nual sur­fac­ing of me­tal­lic de­tri­tus. Bul­let cas­ings, shell frag­ments, barbed wire, bits of hel­met, mess tins; a muddy churn­ing of the rusted orange and le­sioned rem­nants of the at­tri­tional war that em­bed­ded it­self in the flat plains of the Franco-bel­gian coun­try­side a hun­dred years ago.

I’ve seen for my­self the lit­tle piles of metal the farm­ers col­lect at the edges of their fields, at once an ir­ri­tat­ing agri­cul­tural in­con­ve­nience but also a poignant re­minder of ex­actly what hap­pened there a cen­tury past.

The poet Rob Hin­dle vis­ited Flan­ders with his fa­ther last win­ter, trac­ing the foot­steps of his great-grand­fa­ther Pri­vate Al­bert Brown of the York and Lan­caster Reg­i­ment right up to his death in Fe­bru­ary 1917. The evoca­tive lo­ca­tion and sto­ries of the iron har­vest gave him much to pon­der, es­pe­cially when he learned that the ploughs don’t just turn up items from the Great War, they also un­earth de­tri­tus from the Napoleonic Wars and some­times even the Hun­dred Years War’, a con­flict that spanned the 14th and 15th cen­turies.

Re­turn­ing home, Hin­dle poured out his thoughts and feel­ings in a poetic nar­ra­tive he called The Grail Roads, just pub­lished in a beau­ti­ful edi­tion by the small but con­sis­tently ex­cel­lent Long­bar­row Press.

As the cen­te­nary of the Armistice ap­proaches it takes a brave poet to re­lease a col­lec­tion ded­i­cated to the First World War. For one thing there will be any num­ber of books whump­ing into book­shop de­liv­ery bays for this last lit­er­ary hur­rah be­fore pub­lish­ers de­cide peo­ple have had enough of the First

World War for a while. For an­other, if there’s one area of po­etry that’s prac­ti­cally sa­cred ground it’s the po­etry of the Great War.

Doc­u­men­taries, me­mo­rial ser­vices, an­tholo­gies: the war po­ets are go­ing to be ubiq­ui­tous as we ap­proach No­vem­ber 11. With good rea­son too as the Great War pro­duced some of the great­est verse in the English lan­guage, which is ex­actly why it’s an al­most im­pos­si­ble act to fol­low.

It would take two things to make a new Great War-re­lated po­etry col­lec­tion stand on its own two feet. One, a fresh and in­no­va­tive ap­proach to the sub­ject, two, the po­etry it­self would have to be re­ally, star­tlingly good. For­tu­nately, with The Grail Roads Rob Hin­dle has ticked both boxes.

The many lay­ers of war de­tri­tus be­ing churned up by the plough ev­ery year gave Hin­dle an idea. The bat­tles that have heaved back and forth across north­ern France and Bel­gium from Crécy on­wards are sep­a­rated by cen­turies but united by the com­mon ex­pe­ri­ences of the par­tic­i­pants.

He thought about the sixth book of Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’arthur in which the Arthurian knights of leg­end set off to find the Holy Grail, re­called how the Malory scholar Eugène Vi­naver was con­vinced Malory him­self had fought in the Hun­dred Years’ War – and hence pos­si­bly those same Flan­ders fields – and took the bold step of in­sert­ing the myth­i­cal Grail knights into the West­ern Front.

It was a risky prospect and one that in less sen­si­tive hands could have back­fired wildly to pro­duce a clunk­ing, clumsy at­tempt to lay one strand of his­tory onto an­other. In­stead The Grail Roads is a beau­ti­ful piece of work, a mas­ter­piece, a book that quite pos­si­bly de­serves to stand along­side the works of Owen, Sas­soon and the rest when in fu­ture years the po­etry of the First World War is gath­ered to­gether.

Of Malory’s orig­i­nal work Hin­dle has writ­ten, “The nar­ra­tive, un­wieldy as it often seems (el­lipses and non-se­quiturs abound), can be sum­marised around a ba­sic theme: the at­tempt to res­ur­rect the na­tional unity of a once-great polity in the face of fad­ing in­flu­ence and fac­tion­al­ism”. Sound fa­mil­iar? The con­tem­po­rary res­o­nance is sub­tle but lends ex­tra depth to a work that scarcely needs it.

This sense of a mil­i­tary con­tin­uum, of sol­diers fight­ing the same bat­tles over and over again while their ar­moury pro­gresses from the hal­berd to the Heinkel, of the same mis­takes be­ing made and the same lessons ig­nored, is what makes The Grail Road such a pow­er­ful and poignant read. Bors, Gawain, Launcelot, Per­ci­vale and the rest slot so eas­ily into the nar­ra­tive of the West­ern Front you al­most for­get they are cen­turies out of time. These myth­i­cal heroes, key founders of an en­dur­ing na­tional story, never seem re­motely bolted on to the 20th cen­tury, suc­cess­fully pulling off a tacit but ac­com­plished nod to the hero­ism of or­di­nary men like

Al­bert Brown of the York and Lan­caster Reg­i­ment.

The book fol­lows the chronol­ogy of the First World War from the first flurry of en­list­ments to the re­turn of sol­diers af­ter the Armistice. At the start of the book Gawain, for ex­am­ple, “comes straight in off the night shift, eyes livid in the hall’s gloom. The sergeant is putting up posters”.

We fol­low them across the Chan­nel. Bors, who in Malory’s tale is one of the knights who achieves the Grail, notes how “the dead wa­ter shines like melted wax” while squeezed into a ship with the “crush of packs and great­coats” where: Men are sour with sweat but many are shak­ing as they stare into the sea.

Bors, eyes shut, sees St Ge­orge’s Cross on a flag, its red raw and swollen against the white.

The Grail Roads doesn’t just keep us an­kle deep in the mud and hor­ror of the trenches. We’re in ru­ral Eng­land as the na­tion’s horses are req­ui­si­tioned for ser­vice at the front. We see the Women’s Aux­il­iary Army Corps pause in their main­te­nance of the ceme­tery at Abbeville as Launcelot passes on horse­back, the wheels of their flower-filled bar­rows halt­ing briefly be­tween freshly-dug graves.

We’re at home with sol­diers on leave:

Up on the moor line the burn­ing heather smokes and flares.

Men will be patched up, sent back; some, maimed or blind or mad will stay: will empty them­selves with ev­ery cough or dropped cup.

We’re back in the Mid­dle Ages with the tapestry mak­ers of Flan­ders.

Their knights flowed into bat­tle smil­ing and glib: even the dead ones beamed,” we learn, but of course war is never like this be­cause “here and in ev­ery war it is cheat­ing and slash­ing and tear­ing at eyes and bel­lies; it is whelps in a cor­ner spit­ting and shak­ing, ter­ri­fied, dumb.

At Amiens we’re with Gawain watch­ing fel­low sol­diers re­lieved from the front rest­ing and smok­ing in Place Par­men­tier near the cathe­dral. “Arms and shoul­ders shake; heads jump; voices hum and mut­ter; one shouts, not at his pals or any­thing here, but in some place where his life was, where his peo­ple are.”

We’re in the és­taminets, the bars where the sol­diers can let off steam and woo lo­cal girls. One woman no­tices a sol­dier who looks no more than 16 en­ter­ing ner­vously and tak­ing a seat, “the ghost of his mother fol­low­ing”. She knows he’s doomed, “too in­no­cent for a world of slow grief ”.

One of the strengths of The Grail Road

is Hin­dle’s evo­ca­tion of time, place and at­mos­phere through half-no­ticed in­ci­dents like these. Many of the po­ems here are con­cerned with events and sce­nar­ios that are al­most trib­u­taries of the war, time-stilled mo­ments oc­cur­ring away from the guns and trenches yet still dom­i­nated by hor­rors and in­jus­tice. His style is vivid, sparse and un­pre­ten­tious; there’s not a sin­gle spare word in the book and it’s a rare tal­ent to evoke so much through so lit­tle. There’s a par­tic­u­larly heart­break­ing ac­count of a man shot for cow­ardice that both con­jures the scene and puts us in­side the man’s head in just 16 short, emo­tion­al­ly­taut lines.

There are po­ems in the style of Ted Hughes and Ed­ward Thomas – the book closes with an ex­quis­ite homage to

Adle­strop, an­other brave move, again a wholly suc­cess­ful one – and Hin­dle riffs bril­liantly off quo­ta­tions from David Jones and Wil­fred Owen, all the while cre­at­ing im­ages that stay with the reader long af­ter fin­ish­ing the book. The sol­dier talk­ing to a chap­lain, for ex­am­ple, re­liv­ing the dread­ful things he’s seen and demon­strat­ing how he’s be­come in­ured to the hor­ror as he:

Chan­nels a trench walled with bones: some mark the way in dark­ness, oth­ers make use­ful han­dles through a mire.

There aren’t many po­etry books that ben­e­fit from be­ing read in one sit­ting – most po­etry is best con­sumed in small doses, re­flected upon and con­sid­ered – but I gen­uinely couldn’t put this book down. The po­ems move be­tween places, top­ics and some­times even eras, but the reader is pulled along by Hin­dle’s ex­tra­or­di­nary gift for vivid, con­cise em­pa­thy.

This is a book that I can’t rec­om­mend highly enough. It’s a per­fect med­i­ta­tive com­pan­ion to the forth­com­ing Armistice com­mem­o­ra­tion, it should be on ev­ery school syl­labus and it should be pre­sented to ev­ery politi­cian who might con­sider send­ing a na­tion to war or even em­ploy­ing its rhetoric in in­ter­na­tional po­lit­i­cal dis­course. Un­der­pin­ning the beauty of these po­ems is the tangible frus­tra­tion that lessons are never learned.

As Hin­dle him­self says in a prose af­ter­word, “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”.

For all that the iron har­vest will go on, the Flan­ders earth throw­ing up its rusty relics from the strata of his­tory in an elo­quent rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the cor­ro­sion of mem­ory.

Photo: © Hul­tonDeutsch Col­lec­tion/ CORBIS/CORBIS via Getty Im­ages)

OR­DI­NARY HEROES: British troops on the West­ern Front dur­ing the First World War

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