Arthur Benjamin in the Trenches

In early 1917 the composer Arthur Benjamin was serving with the Royal Fusiliers in the trenches of France.  In the Gurney archive, at Gloucestershire Archives, is held a letter, dated 26 January 1917, that I cannot help but transcribe for his description of his situation.  Benjamin writes to Marion Scott:

These are lines of intense frost, clear skies & dainty sunsets.  It is so cold that in one of our worst trenches where there is, as a rule, 2ft of water, one can walk dry-shod on 3 inches of ice.  Of nights myriads of stars and the narrowest of sickle moons give us that feeling that Heaven is closer to use; and if Turner could have lent Corot his palette we should have had a reproduction of last week’s sunsets.  No splashes of vivid orange or red, no purples, no silhouetted clouds[;] in short, none of the fantasy of the east or south.  Simply the blue merging peacefully into rose-grey and a ball of orange infusing an aura of its own colour into the rose-grey and dipping behind lace-like trees and shrubs of that green-tinged grey only Corot could mix.  If only Turner could enliven Corot and Corot subdue Turner!

It is all very lovely.

Benjamin’s letter begins whimsically, responding to a letter from Marion Scott in which she evidently reported the illness of her cats, Fluff, Tumble, and Lady Audrey — this latter immortalised in their mutual friend, Herbert Howells’s, four movement work for string quartet, Lady Audrey’s Suite (1917), in the manuscript of which Howells refers to himself as ‘the Composer–person’ (see here).  They (the cats & Marion Scott) evidently sent Benjamin a card featuring a golliwog (with the first movement of Howells’s suite being titled the ‘Four Sleepy Golliwogs’ Dance’, I presume that Scott had a menagerie of black cats), in response to which  Benjamin writes,

I think it delightful of them [the cats] to have thought of me while feeling so unfit.  Please thank them & give them my love.  The Gollywog will fraternize I’m sure with my other mascot[,] a ‘Touchwood’.  They have a piece of uncut amethyst (my lucky stone) to amuse them and the wishbone of a pigeon to dine from.  Also they have very warm quarters in my pocket-book. So they can’t grumble.

At the end of the letter Benjamin adds as a postscript, ‘The Gollywog’s patriotic pantaloons are vastly diverting!’.  We can only but wonder!

[Letter at Gloucestershire Archives D10500/8/2/1/1.]

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6 thoughts on “Arthur Benjamin in the Trenches

  1. Philip, a most interesting find. A few years ago — perhaps five or more now someone offered to sell me a letter Marion Scott had written to Benjamin. I recall that he was asking an outrageous price for it. I suggested to him that instead of selling it he might donate it either to the Scott collection at the RCM or to the Gurney Archive. I never heard back from him and assume that he continued to try to sell it, perhaps with success. He did send me a photocopy of one of the pages that I have filed away. I will try to find it and copy it for you. Marion did indeed have cats throughout her life.In the 1940s she described the reaction of one her cats upon hearing Beethoven’s “Pastoral”. Audrey Lovibond would have been nine years old when HH wrote his dedication. The great treasure trove of letters written by Marion would be the 100 or so she wrote to Kathleen Richards Dale. I have never been able to locate them and wonder if they were thrown away or if they will surface one day in an attic or tucked away in an archive.

    Letters are so important and are invaluable in helping us with learning details that one will not find elsewhere or in providing leads to information that would otherwise never be found.

    • Yes indeed, Pam. I do worry about those seeking to do what we do in a century or so, looking back on an era when everything is so intangible in electronic form. I still like to write letters when I can, which are somehow more precious and better appreciated — by both writer and recipient — now that most communication is so ephemeral.

  2. Correction! The letter I was referring to was to Sydney Shimmin, not Benjamin. But that said, somewhere I do have a photocopy of a page of a Benjamin letter. This will require some serious trawling because I have a lot of files and I’ve “retired” many of them.

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