Fear induced by Glenn Miller?

It was on this day in 1944 that the aircraft carrying the American bandleader Glenn Miller. It would have been three days before my late father’s eighth birthday, yet decades later he would talk about the music of Glenn Miller.

Perhaps the music infused popular wartime culture to the extent that a primary schoolboy remembered it, perhaps there was also a subliminal factor at work.

My father often recalled a poem he had learned in childhood days. It had a sinister, threatening tone, and it had haunted him as a boy. For as long as I could remember, heĀ  expressed the wish that it had not been taught to him.

The poem Antigonish was written by William Hughes Mearns, an American writer, in 1899 and subsequently re-published with various revisions:

As I was going up the stair
I met a man who wasn’t there!
He wasn’t there again today,
Oh how I wish he’d go away!”

When I came home last night at three,
The man was waiting there for me
But when I looked around the hall,
I couldn’t see him there at all!
Go away, go away, don’t you come back any more!
Go away, go away, and please don’t slam the door…

Last night I saw upon the stair,
A little man who wasn’t there,
He wasn’t there again today
Oh, how I wish he’d go away

The likelihood of a wartime London schoolboy encountering the work of a poem written for Harvard seemed slim, books were in short supply and American poetry books in London would have been a rarity.

I discovered that the explanation of his remembering the lines probably lay in it having been recorded by the Glenn Miller Orchestra in 1939, with Tex Beneke singing the lyrics.

In a world where death and destruction were daily realities, haunting songs might have made a deep impression upon a young boy.

Perhaps the fear felt at “The little man who wasn’t there” was an encapsulation of the fear of the dark and sinister world that existed beyond the front door of the boy’s home in Chiswick in west London. It was a house where his grandfather had died from injuries received when the local dairy had been bombed in February 1944. Perhaps it was an expression of the fear that must have filled the boy’s mind when his fireman father returned from firefighting duties and told the adult members of the family of the duties of the grim duties of the previous night. Rather than being a comfort to the boy, perhaps the music of the Glenn Miller Orchestra had added to the fears.

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