Needing a happy ending

Forty years ago, in the summer of 1984, I read most of Jean Paul Sartre’s novel Iron in the Soul, the third volume in a trilogy called the Roads to Freedom.

A piece of existentialist fiction, it is set against the background of the defeat of France and people waiting on fine June days for the arrival of the invader.

On Sunday, 16th June 1940, Mathieu, one of the characters in the novel, ponders his situation:

That’s just about it, thought Mathieu: a fair bugger. He gazed into nothingness, and thought: I’m a Frenchman… and that’s a bugger, he reflected for the first time in his life; a fair bugger: we’ve never really seen France: we’ve only been in it. France had been the air we breathed, the lure of the earth, having plenty of elbow room, seeing the kind of things we do, feeling so certain that the world was made for man. It has always been so natural to be French, the simplest, more economical, way in the world, to feel that one is universal. One didn’t have to explain things; it was for the others, the Germans, the English, the Belgians, to explain by what piece of ill-luck, by what fault, it had come about that they were none of them quite human. And now France is lying on her back, and we can take a good look at her, can see her like a piece of large, broken-down machinery. And we think — so that, all the time, is what it was! — an accident of locality, an accident of history. We are still French, but it no longer seems natural. It needed no more than an accident to make us realize that we were merely accidental. Schwartz thinks that he is accidental — and no longer understands himself, finds himself embarrassing. He thinks — “How comes it that one is French?”; he thinks, “With a bit of luck I might have been born a German.” And then his face takes on a hard look, and he sits listening to the approach of his adoptive country. He sits waiting for the coming of the glittering armies that shall gleefully celebrate his change of heart; he sits waiting for the moment when he will be able to trade our defeat for their victory, when it will seem natural to him to be victorious and German.

Last week, I finished the novel. It felt an accomplishment, since January, I had wade through the other two parts of the trilogy and had come to knowm Mathieu

But Mathieu changes.  He was a member of an auxiliary unit and might have sat resignedly waiting for capture, but instead he and a friend deicide to join three French regular soldiers and to climb to the top of a church tower and attempt to halt the German advance by 15 minutes. Mathieu shoots two German soldiers. His comrades fall to German bullets and the tower is blown to pieces.  It is the end of Mathieu’s part in the story.

On Monday, I read that Sartre never intended the novels to be a trilogy, but instead there was to be another novel. Parts of the fourth novel had been published in 1949, but only after Sartre’s death in 1980 was the novel put together using fragments and notes that Sartre had left behind. I ordered a copy from Waterstones and it came today.

In a twist that did not seem to match with the unremitting gloom, Mathieu is not dead but is in a prisoner of war camp and becomes once more the central figure of the story.

It seemed an unlikely comeback, there is almost a sense that even Sartre needed a hopeful ending.


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Paying my way

The notices advise of road closures in two weeks’ time, the tens of thousands heading to the pop festival at Pilton will cram the routes

It is 45 years since I attended the Glastonbury festival.  The attendance was 12,000, a small fraction of the number of those who have attended in recent years.

It was a big event for us. It was the first festival since 1971 and, being locals, we were able to buy our tickets at Crispin Hall in Street for a discounted price of £3 each instead of at the full face value of £5.

Taking a day off from our summer jobs, a friend and I hitched our way to Worthy Farm outside the village of Pilton, including riding in an empty silage trailer for part of the journey.

We had taken with us a two man tent and sleeping bags, a camping stove and saucepan, some tins of baked beans, and a pack of twenty-four cans of Skol lager. We reckoned we could buy whatever else we needed for the three days at the festival site.

Frequenting pubs in the town of Glastonbury, we were familiar with the eccentricities of some in the community, but those whom we had seen before seemed conventional and mainstream when compared with some we encountered at the festival.

Among the crowd were members of various radical political groups. Perhaps ‘radical’ is the wrong word, among the crowds were members of various weird political groups.

One man handed out copies of the International Times. We had heard of the underground newspaper, its name had a certain mystery about it. The suggestion that there were stories about which we had not been told prompted us to read the paper. It was disappointingly dull, the editorial was vitriolic comment and outpourings of resentment; there was not a single shocking revelation.

The oddest publication of all was one that criticised the festival organisers for charging for tickets. The previous festival had been eight years previously, the 1971 festival had been free because rich sponsors had paid for it.  The critics suggested the 1979 festival should also have been free and that tickets were commercial exploitation of the festival goers.

To someone brought up to pay his way, it seemed odd, why should it be free? Who was going to pay the bills?

It was a first encounter with an attitude found among members of the middle class hippy movement that suggested someone else should pay for them to live as they wanted. In the intervening years, the question ‘why?’ never seems to have been answered.

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‘The Beatles will be remembered long after Abba have been forgotten.’

It was an assertion with which it would have been hard to argue.  It was the late 1970s and Abba were at the height of their popularity, but the point was made that The Beatles were a cultural phenomenon while Abba were just a pop group.

However, while Abba broke up in a manner as rancorous as the break-up of The Beatles, the pop nature of their music seemed to allow it to endure.

In 1999, it was the twenty-fifth anniversary of the success of Abba’s song Waterloo at the Eurovision Song Contest.  There were wishes expressed that the band might re-form for a concert.  Hopes were immediately crushed. band members commented that they were now middle-aged and not the twenty-somethings they had been a generation before.

The lack of any prospect of them ever playing again did not seem unduly troubling, it would only have been an exercise in nostalgia for those who were middle aged themselves.

But an odd phenomenon seemed to be emerging. Abba were not going away, it might have been more than twenty years since they had last recorded a song or performed a concert, but their popularity seemed undiminished.

The musical Mamma Mia! highlighted the music of Abba, but it would not have enjoyed such success if the songs were not already in the hearts and minds of those who went to see the film.

Why did their success endure?

In conversation one day with a friend who was a DJ and whose love was Northern Soul music, Abba came up in conversation.  He was unstinting in his praise of them, ‘They were pure professionals. Pure pop, but pure professional. It’s a pity the broke up in the way they did. Everyone of their songs was rehearsed and re-rehearsed, recorded and re-recorded until it was exactly right’.

Pure professional. Perhaps that was the secret for the songs are both diverse and distinctive and yet they have a discernible Abbaesque quality about them.

The assertion that The Beatles would long outlive Abba was contradicted in our school sports hall last Saturday morning.  A sponsored 24 hour rowing marathon was taking place. The young women of 5th year had been present since 5 a.m, they were tired and physically drained from turns on the rowing machines. Suddenly, around 7.30 am, the sound of the opening bars of Abba’s Voulez-vous? filled the hall and every one of those girls who were not rowing ran to the centre of the hall and joined in a joyous dance, loudly singing the lyrics of the song.

It was a moment of pure happiness, a sense of something indefinable. Abba forgotten? You should have seen them when Dancing Queen began.


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In this world and the next

There was a poetry in the hymns we sang at High Ham Primary School.  Apart from the entirely banal When a knight won his spurs, the choices from our hymnbook were weighty in theological and literary terms.  Even to someone who had few religious inclinations, there was imagery and imagination in the lines we sang.  There were words we did not understand, words that might have prompted pondering even among adults. There were rhymes and alliteration and the sort of poetic devices our teacher tried to teach us.  Lines like which wert and art and evermore shalt be linger in the memory more than fifty years after standing in that long gone classroom.

Perhaps such childhood experiences helped create a sense of timelessness, a sense of living at every moment all at once, a recalling of distant memories with a realism so vivid that the linear order of events can become confused. The boy at High Ham school is much a part of the present as are the subsequent incarnations of him, the child being the father of the man and all that stuff.

Stepping out of the car at the house that has been the family home for the past fifty-seven years, there was a moment in which all the moments seemed gathered. Perhaps it was the sense of the approach of Easter, perhaps it was simply the sound of silence and birdsong after the noise of Dublin.

The landscape of home has been inhabited for two millennia, the mosaic floor from the Roman villa lies in the county museum.  There are people who claim to have seen legionnaires passing through.

Turning toward the door, the thought occurred that the number of years when such moments might occur was much less than it had been.  How many more times might I drive the road from Fishguard to Somerset? How many more spring evenings might there be when arrival is greeted by birdsong and tranquility?

In a moment, there came the realisation that it didn’t really matter, it didn’t matter what decade it might be, none of it mattered if time was all at once.

I smiled recalling Miss Rabbage sitting at the piano in the junior classroom. The hymns, the timeless hymns, Now thank we all, our God was among them.

. . . keep us in his grace,
and guide us when perplexed,
and free us from all ills
in this world in the next.

This world, the next world, the past world, which wert and art and evermore shalt be.



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In memoriam: Private Henry Lines

‘Their name liveth for evermore’.

It was Rudyard Kipling’s idea to put words from the Hewbrew Scriptures’ book of Ecclesiasticus on the Stone of Remembrance in each war cemetery.  Kipling similarly composed the lines, ‘A Soldier of the Great War. Known Unto God’, for those whose remains could not be identified.

Perhaps the gravestone inscription has become more significant than that on the Stone of Remembrance and that it is now only God who remembers the names of the fallen. Perhaps Alan Bennett’s line in The History Boys is true and that it was never about ‘Lest we forget’, but was instead ‘lest we remember’, that all of the monuments and ceremonies were an opiate against the horrific and painful realisation of the full horror of what had taken place.

In June days last summer, I meandered along the Western Front, from the flat fields of Flanders to the deep valleys and ridges of the Somme.  The object was to visit the graves of those from the little Somerset village I called home.  An additional grave was on my list, that of Private Henry Lines.

The name of Henry Lines had been encountered in the parish of Napton in Warwickshire.  He had been an uncle or some similar connection of Bob, a man researching his family tree.  Henry Lines had been a member of the 10th Battalion of the Warwickshire Regiment and had died at the Somme on 30th July 1916.  I believe it was the first action in which he had participated.

The mortal remains of Henry Lines were interred in Caterpillar Trench Cemetery, as is the case of so many of the cemeteries, it is a place of tranquility and beauty, an experience incongruent with the events that had taken place there.

I went to Henry Lines’ grave and stood in silence before taking a photograph of the headstone. The photograph was emailed to Bob, who was unsure whether any family member had ever had the opportunity to go to Henry Lines’ last resting place.

Conducting genealogical research last month, I discovered that the General Register Office has wills online, dowloadable for £1.50.  I took the opportunity to find Henry Lines’ will.

As would have been the case with countless other soldiers, Henry Lines wrote his will on Page 13 of his paybook. It is an unremarkable will, leaving his money to his parents, but there seemed a deep poignancy in the few lines.

Bob died before I discovered the will, there are now only a couple of remote family members who might remember his name.  The declaration ‘their name liveth for evermore’ seems now to have become hollow.  Perhaps there is reassurance in the belief that God knows the name of Henry Lines.

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