Ivor Gurney on Crickley Hill

I am these days often ensconced in the Gloucestershire Archives, beavering away at the cliff-face of the Ivor Gurney archive.   Often this is spent in the transcription of Gurney’s many poems from manuscript, in preparation for the edition I am preparing with Tim Kendall of the Complete Literary Works of Ivor Gurney for Oxford University Press.  This week I have been mopping up a few odds and ends relating to the collation of the 1973 published selection of Gurney’s poems edited by Leonard Clark; a knotty process that began in 1962 and took 11 years to finally come to fruition.

In the midst of Clark’s papers are a number of press cuttings, which include some recollections of Gurney, the writing of which was prompted by Clark’s edition.  One was published on Wednesday 29 August in The Citizen – Gloucester’s local paper — and was from Mrs Helen Herring: the then 9-year-old daughter of the farmer of Dryhill Farm, where Gurney worked and stayed in the spring of 1919.  She recalls:

I remember so well the first cup of tea in the kitchen and my mother trying to get him to talk.  But all he would do was to look out on to the wash house roof and go into raptures over the moss and broken tiles.

My father swept out, remarking, ‘A rum chap to help farming’.

The first job he was given was to groom a yearling cart colt which had wintered badly.  He curry-combed away and was knee deep in hair and lice.  But Ivor could see beauty in everything and his notebook was on the wall.  He wrote a poem about Lousy Joe — but forgot to turn poor Joe loose.

Evenings he would compose music on our old iron framed piano which had not been tuned for years.  No one would come so far into the country to do things like that in those days.  To me it was the most terrible noise.  The whole room seemed to rock as he thumped away.  Father would get his gun and disappear.  Mother would sit and worry about Ivor’s health as he would not eat while he was composing and drank, literally, gallons of milk.

When he had finished whatever it was on his mind he would have an enormous appetite.  Which was rather awkward, as one never knew when that would be.

When put to dig a potato patch, very little was done, but Ivor came in with a poem about how he met a German in the war — ‘I shot him, it had to be one of us, him or me’.

[The quoted poem is the opening line of ‘The Target’, which in fact dates from October 1917]

Mrs Herring also went and found out the old autograph book from the farm house, in which Gurney, as a guest in the household, had written a short squib:

How wonderful,

To be able

To sit one down

At the table

and write tout-suite

Straight off

A wonderful, original

Autograph.

Following the publication of this recollection, another former resident of Crickley Hill, Mrs Beatrice Blandford, came forward with her own recollections of Gurney, on his visits to the ‘Green homestead on Crickley’.

Ivor Gurney and my father, George Compton, were great friends.  Ivor was organist at Hempsted Church [an undoubtedly peripatetic post] and after service he would come to our home and entertain us by playing all sorts of funny pieces on our piano.

One of the songs of which I had the manuscript was ‘Bright is the ring of words when the right man sings them.’ He gave it to me and my father used to sing it.  […]

Although Mrs. Blandford says in the article that she has searched for the manuscript but has been unable to find it, this song is held in the archive, titled ‘Song and Singer’; a pre-war manuscript dated 18 January 1911.

Gurney and Mr Compton were ‘comrades in arms’, both serving with the 2/5 Gloucesters, and the article goes on to recall an occasion which reflects ‘Gurney’s sensitivity’, on ‘an occasion when they were relaxing behind the lines on the Somme’:

Gurney said, ‘George, let’s found an organ’, so they did — in a ruined church with the organ still in working condition.

Ivor […] played and played as her father pumped the instrument until he could pump no more.  Then Ivor broke down and sobbed like a child because his hardened hands were in such bad condition.

For any who wish to visit Dryhill Farm, and perhaps look at what is now known as ‘the poet’s room’ in the farmhouse attic, the Gurney Society is organising a walk on Crickley Hill on Sunday 10 May, 2015, as part of their annual Spring Weekend.  See www.ivorgurney.org.uk.

Isaac Rosenberg at Passiontide

Easter is nigh upon us, and many are turning their minds to the few days off they may have ahead of them. This is the first Easter in memory that I have not been engaged in singing cathedral services, and while I relish the freedom in many ways, it is the one time of year that I used to enjoy above all others. You can keep Easter Day; but the darkness and desolation of Good Friday is something I feel keenly — which perhaps explains why the idea for my War Passion for soloists, chorus and large chamber ensemble (which ends in absolute desolation) took hold and has occupied my mind for the last two years.

Composition has been moving slowly but very surely in recent months, and I have now completed half of the work. At the moment I am taking advantage of a few days away from Ivor Gurney to — in the odd idle moments I can snatch — complete one of the sections of my Passion that has been eager to escape my brain, but which I have only started to put down onto paper during the last few days: a setting of an extraordinary poem by Isaac Rosenberg, the anniversary of whose death fell yesterday, he being killed at dawn on 1 April 1918, north-east of Arras. I am setting (for solo soprano) a poem written either for, or as an off-shoot to, his play, The Unicorn, which he was writing in France (in service and in hospital) during the latter half of 1917: ‘The Tower of Skulls’.

Rosenberg’s poem comes in the third movement of my War Passion: ‘Golgotha’ [‘the place of the skull’].  This movement opens with a passacaglia describing the procession of Christ/The Soldier to Golgotha; the narrator (an alto, not the customary tenor) tells us that it was there that they crucified him, and the soprano, horror-stricken, gives her reaction to the spectacle, through this extraordinary, visionary poem.

 

The Tower of Skulls

These layers of piled-up skulls,
These layers of gleaming horror — stark horror!
Ah me! Through my thin hands they touch my eyes.

Everywhere, everywhere is a pregnant birth,
And here in death’s land is a pregnant birth.
Your own crying is less mortal
Than the amazing soul in your body.

Your own crying yon parrot takes up
And from your empty skull cries it afterwards.

Thou whose dark activities unenchanted
Days from gyrating days, suspending them
To thrust them far from sight, from the gyrating days
Which have gone widening on and left us here,
Cast derelicts lost for ever.

When aged flesh looks down on tender brood;
For he knows between his thin ribs’ walls
The giant universe, the interminable
Panorama — synods, myths and creeds,
He knows his dust is fire and seed.