Monday, December 29, 2008

Wednesday 10th March 1943

Disappointment! I remarked yesterday that the once listless sailor had become quick, and talkative and alert. Now, I notice he is too quick, too talkative, excited and jerky. He still seemed normally alertful until late last night, about 8 o'clock, when he came across and began talking to me.

“I've been in hospital three months!” he said, “Lost two stones! You wouldn't believe how strong I was when this started.” He went on to tell me, lucidly and clearly about his sporting history (... “That year I cleared 18 foot 2 inches in the jump... and I'll do it again – if they'll just let me stay here another month while I get my strength back"...) But then, an odd inconsequence became discernible in his conversation. “I knew I did wrong – but I've been punished for it, losing my health. Now if they'll only explain to me what it was...” And later he said, “Mind you, it's been a wonderful experience, except for losing my health. I've lived my whole life again in these three months – my childhood, the ships I sunk... I heard them all. I can still hear them.” “Really?” I said, “They all come back in their proper order?” “Yes! Just as they happened.”

He'd previously said he did not smoke, but while he talked, eagerly, he smoked three of my cigarettes. “Getting quite a boy, aren't I?” he exclaimed, as he opened my box (unasked!) for the third time. Then he spoke, in a rational manner, of the many letters which had come from his wife. I couldn't stop him talking. (“And he's got the most boring line of sales talk!” remarked a cynical orderly.)

“Of course, I've been a fool, about the wife, you know!” went on the Killick abruptly. “Have you?” “Yes. You see, the last time I was home I found a man in the house. I came in, dressed in civvies, like this...” (he demonstrated) “...there was my wife, and here, by the fire place, was the man. He was the insurance agent, but I didn't know. So my wife said, “This is my husband, Mr Collinson”. And he said “We've met.” I'd seen him that morning, but I didn't remember at the time. I expect he was trying to find out things about me...” “Yes?” “Yes.” The story petered out suddenly!

Long after I'd gone to bed he was talking excitedly to the night orderlies, about his extraordinary experiences in another hospital – how a mysterious man used to come stealing razors and things; and when Killick looked at the ward windows, they all flew open – crash! crash!; and how he used to leave his bed at night and go out and lie in the grounds; nobody seemed to interfere with him but all the other patients in his ward were not really ill – they were good class people like bank clerks – but were there solely to spy on him. “Yes, it was a queer place,” I heard the Killick saying as I dozed off, “There were two big Raids there – not air raids, but mystery-men. And when I left, the whole hospital was closed down...”

Tuesday 9th March 1943

“How do you feel this morning, Sailor?” “Well, I can't say I'm too good, really. I hardly slept at all... Are you going to shave in this mug, Corporal” “Yes.” He laughed. “you have plenty of uses for this mug, don't you?” It is delightful when the leading seaman laughs and thinks and speaks like that!

And a few minutes later a man came in from the kitchen and said vaguely, “Will someone give me a hand with dishing the porridge out?” “Yes,” I said, glad to do something – but the sailor was too quick for me! “Yes!” he said, “I will!” and off he went with the bowls, up and down the beds. I feel as pleased as if I had cured him myself, instead of being a mere spectator!

When I came back with the clean clothing – this is a much better job than sweeping the ward or arranging things in a uniform manner – the black sergeant was being hustled out and back into his solitary tent again. (I do not weep for Adonais).
N'Souki and Ghandi were in a hell of a state, but they were quiet and happy again, half an hour after he'd gone.

After two or three days of dull, round-eyed, close-cropped silence, the Cypriot has moved elsewhere. In his place has come a Greek. He slept about 12 hours but now (5:30p.m.) is awake and seems quite interesting. Conversation is going to be difficult,as he knows only a dozen words of English and even less Arabic. He's a Western Desert man, as is witnessed by his Iti Breda grenade - “red terror,” now used as a cigarette case. Also, one imagines he's a communist, as he made the sign of the clenched fist to me this afternoon and rattled off a string of Greek (“pleased to meet you old man,” or “greetings comrade,” perhaps) when I returned the salute. One also assumes he is of a suicidal temperament, as I saw Jack Penn making a rigourous search of his kit this morning, whilst he slept. For instance, not only did Jack examine each article in the pockets but he also ran his hands carefully up and down the seams and around the lining of his greatcoat. “What are you looking for?” I enquired. “Razor blades,” said Jack laconically, “You'd be surprised.”

The new orderly glanced around the ward, hearing the two Bechuna darkies chuckling, and saw that Jock was suddenly smoking three cigarettes simultaneously – one in his mouth and one in each nostril. He took the cigarettes away. “Now why do you want to do that, Jock?” “I'm happy, see?” cried Jock, not resenting the conclusion of his triple smoke, “'Cos I've got three chances, and I know when the end of the world is comin'. So I'm happy, see.” Everyone else was laughing. “My!” said the orderly coming back, “This is a rum place! You can't help laughing though.” “And we're all happy too!” said someone.

That's the queer thing. Instead of this being a sad place where men grope for lost souls, it is happy. And laughter is the secret. The medical staff and the patients all laugh and are amused – at themselves.

Monday 8th March 1943

A grey sort of day, although sunny.

The nigger sergeant has come back. The volatile Ghandi, once known as the genial waste, seems to be i/c the blacks just now, by virtue of being the fittest – temporarily.

The bottom end of this tent looks like the interior of Uncle Tom's Cabin.
That nigger sergeant gives me the shivers. No one else here gives me that same uncanny feeling. The other two Bechuana blacks are all right and I'd feel quite lost without Ghandi the Basuto. But that sergeant... He's so ghastly that he makes the very rank of “sergeant” repulsive.

Sunday 7th March 1943

MO's rounds: “Please, I want to go back to my company,” says Hamad, “Your name, Captain Soon.” “What?” asks the MO, startled. “You, Captain Soon. Always say “soon,” “soon.” Please (consulting a document covered with Arabic writing) what is your age?” “My age?” “Yes,” says Hamad sternly, pencil in hand, looking like a clerk taking particulars, “Your age?” “Fifty,” says the MO solemnly (adding in an aside to the Sister - “If he asks my mental age, that's 90!”) “Fifty,” says Hamad, “OK.” and writes it down laboriously.

“And why am I Captain Soon?” enquired the MO anxiously. “Every time I say I want to go to my company. Every time you say “soon,” “soon.” Captain Soon, yes.” And he smacks the back of his head.

My God, the Leading Seaman is no pale ghost now! He's been up all day, spick and span, with colour in his cheeks, chatting and joking. He laughed loudly just now when I told him my experiences as a waste on HMS Broke. Now, he's quietly writing a letter, in a neat hand. What an amazing recovery! He had hardly moved or spoken for a month before I arrived here.

Purzitts left us today, for a hospital near Tel-Aviv. He seemed a little better. I think he is by nature a silent, depressed man, but he brightened up a good deal this last week!

Saturday 6th March 1943

They had a second session of mass injections yesterday. Queer stuff but it has quite certainly livened up the sailor who laughed a little and talked normally yesterday afternoon. He didn't sleep too well but has got up this morning and, dressed, is strolling up and down the ward.

But the miracle cure is Jock! He's so placid and happy that he's evacuated his special kennel and moved out to a bed in the ordinary ward, with the rest of us. This was the highlight of the morning! “You are going to lose your little house, Farrell,” said the MO. “Thank Chreest forn that!” cried Jock loudly. And out he came.
The special pen already has another occupant, though, someone out of the other ward. So this tent is getting quite full now – there are 12 of us altogether.
However, I'll stay in here; the other tent seems nasty and big somehow.

Ghandi took Holy Communion this morning. He was very pleased with life afterwards. “How are you, this time?” enquired the Sister. “A'right!” said Ghandi, and then, with a wink and a grimace and a wicked leer, he added in a conspiratorial stage whisper, “OK? Kiss, sister? Kiss?” The Sister, laughing, filed away.

The barber visited the ward this afternoon, and everyone was very happy and had haircuts there and then. Hamad emerged from his bed for this and subsequently broke his fast, at ka-time. “Shufti!” cried Ed Din, waking up suddenly, “Where Scotchman?” He'd just noticed that the enclosure now contained a different man. “Jock finish now,” I told him, “Keeter mokh. OK” My announcement came at the wrong moment for Jock appeared to have had a slight relapse towards vacuity. At the end of the tent he was leaning with head and shoulders out of the window, hands in pockets, legs crossed at a ridiculous angle. As we looked he began chanting, “So I'm a waitin' of her comin' down... the richt girrl...”

“Kateer mohk?” cried Ed Din with derision and collapsed laughing. So did I.

Interview with the MO this evening. Towards the end, I heard him use these wondrous words:- “I don't think you'll go back to your regiment, Dawson. We'll find you work that suits you better.”

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Friday 5th March 1943

I went to see Denny. We didn't talk much about the Regiment. He is in the dysentry ward.

A “new boy” arrived in this tent today. He's a Cypriot or something – he seems dull and doesn't talk at all. Probably he's come here from gaol, anyway his head was shaved in the most repulsive fashion.

In consequence of a squabble, Hamad ceased eating as from this morning.

Thursday 4th March 1943

A grey, rainy day. The Colonel did not make an inspection but they got everything just the same. On account of the rain however, the bottom end of the tent and most of the windows were left closed. In any case, it didn't worry me much as I was out of the ward most of the morning, filling the stoves, getting kerosene and the laundry and what-not.

I waited outside the hospital kitchen with an orderly. We had come to fetch the food for lunch. “Ward 9!” yelled a cook, and in we went. “Ward 9?” I heard a chuckle behind me, “They're all magdnoon in that ward!” I turned around rapidly and saw an apologetic, embarrassed look flash across the face of the man who had spoken. He needn't have worried. “Yes,” I agreed heartily, “We are all crazy in number 9.”
Oh, there's quite a distinction about being in Ward 9! Everyone knows it!

Last night, just before bed time, Taffy began whistling Ravel's “Bolero.” He whistled tunelessly and probably unconsciously, for 10 minutes or so. By the time he finished, I also had finished – 32 lines of staccato verse entitled “Wheels.” It was easy to write, with the cadence of “Bolero” throbbing rhythmically in my ears:

...“Then, force flows slowly and a wheel
a symmetrical wheel of steel
moves, moves gently, relentlessly...
... With movement of shafting shift
change, the range will swiftly lift
and leap
as steel bites deep
grinding and grating
This is the palan
of the great machine,
while each wheel, to axis bound,
flies for ever round and round”

The main thing is, I'd had no ideas for about three weeks. Now I'm writing again!

N'Souki and Joe Louis are both in their beds nowadays, very quiet. The mad sergeant next door is still diss. of course. Which leaves gibbering Ghandi as the sanest of the blacks! He's pretty lucid at present, actually, and even helped Sister yesterday by translating into English some of N'Souki's remarks on his sick headaches! However, everyone is pleased that Ghandi's sane spell has not detracted from his grimacing, eye-rolling, giggling and other play acting. Today he was taken out to talk to the nigger sergeant next door. (Ghandi made a dignified exit complete with comic-opera cap and scarlet cigarette holder at a defiant angle.) He spent a couple of hours consoling the sergeant and then came back. In the middle of the ward he and Hamad did an impromptu tribal dance – yes! Africa danced with Asia! And I could see Ghandi's extraordinary face all the time...

My God! He's worth putting in the films. He won't be though. The old sod wouldn't even let me photograph him, as he reckons a camera has the evil eye.

The latest acquisition to this ward is Ed Din, a Syrian Jebel Druse Arab from Hamad's unit. I have called him “Playboy” Din on account of the amorous and alcoholic pursuits he specialises in (by his own account) when not in a magdnoon hospital. Hamad, needless to say, has already grasped this new word, “Playboy.”

Wednesday 3rd March 1943

This morning I encountered a New Zealander in Hunt's tent who told me all about his nervous experiences and hospital history. We also discussed some good old desert divisions such as the 9th Aussie. And Tobruch, and Mechili, and Mersa Matruh. (It's funny I can remember the old days, up to last year well enough. But the last 12 months or so seem hazy.) New Zealanders and Aussies are the right sort. They're Britishers, not like South Africans.

When I got back to my own ward, there were signs of recent excitement and much groaning was going on. There had been mass injections of some strange dope. Taffy, a spectator of what had happened, seemed quite shaken. Hamad had not been injected; he brightly asked me what had been the purpose of the operations? (“What for this?”)
“Mokh, Hamad,” I said. “Mafeesh Mokh, so they puttem in with needle.” Subsequently, Hamad asked the Sister if he could have an injection! “I lose brains, Sister. Give more brains, in arm.”

Today is just as nice as yesterday was foul. Now I'll do some French.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Tuesday 2nd March 1943

Denny Search has arrived in this hospital and has sent a message that he'd like to see me. That means I must go across and sit talking about the Regiment... Feel pretty fed-up today, altogether. It has been a grey sort of day.

“I'm a Scotsman, in the Middle East Force. M-E-F M-E-F And nine and twelve makes nineteen. And four and three makes forty three. And this is...” The droning monologue stops abruptly and Jock calls out in a quiet and normal voice, “What's the date, Jock?” “March the second” says someone. “Aye...” and he begins again. It sounds just like hearing a telephone conversation. Every now and then he pauses, presumably while the invisible person at the other end of the wire makes some replies. “It's March the second, 1943. Yes, March. March forward to death. Death for you and death for all.”

“How are you? Hullo! Scotsman! How are you?” cries Hamad gaily.

“Me? I'm alright.” And a few minutes later - “Yes, I saw her in 1942. On Sunday the fifth of June, about 5 o'clock. Or maybe the second of June... And so I'm waitin' for her to come down. The right girl. She's a WAAF so she can fly down here... Rain from heaven, pennies from heaven... One, two , three. And the other four thousand six million times... And then two more... “Yours till the stars lose their glory”... A Saturday night it was... Glasgow Playhouse 5o'clock...”

I wrote the above just to convince myself I could still make a normal observation of others, even when feeling miserable! No poetry though, none worth entering in my book, since the 12th of last month. I could make the rhyme easily enough, but there are no ideas.

Monday 1st March 1943

The mad Scots lad, leaning far out of his window, is shouting, “B-E-T-T-Y... and L-E-N-N-I-G-A-N! That's Betty Lennigan. And I want her right here beside me. That's in the Middle East Force...”

Medical Officers' rounds here are informal affairs. He comes in smiling, accompanied by a Sister and an orderly. The patients, mostly laughing and grinning, stand or lounge by their beds. (With the exception of the Leading Seaman, although I have seen him laugh once, at Ginger's instigation, and the other day he smiled wanly, at me.)

The Killicks reply to the MO's enquiry is almost indistinguishable. The the MO says, “You are much better today, aren't you?” and the Killicks lips just move, again. Next, the Russian Jew, Purzitts, who also seldom smiles, usually standing, stiff' worried and earnest beside his bed. “You – good man?” asks the MO “Yes,” says Purzitts sternly. “That's fine, just keep on being good!” Taffy is the next, still in bed. The MO lingers here a bit, checking up on temperatures etc., although Taffy looks very bright and cheery.

But after that, all seriousness vanishes, for the next call is genial Ghandi. I can't describe his beaming smile and mass eye-rolling and confidential winking as the MO approaches! The MO and all his retinue begin to laugh; also the patients. Ghandi's scarlet cigarette holder and mirror are examined, then the MO re-arranges Ghandi's cap at an even more incredible angle. “Naice!” giggles Ghandi.

Coming towards me, now, the entourage stops opposite the sanest nigger, (I think his name is N's'outoo) who gives a flashing smile in reply to the usual query, with mass white teeth. Next there is the recently recalcitrant darkie, whose name is unpronounceable, but we call him “Joe Louis”. “Bad” mumbles Joe, clutching his stomach, but on receiving a request for a smile from the Sister, his face crumples and he smiles coyly. Hamad of Beisan is a different proposition. He is already smiling, and now gives an exaggerated salute and claps the back of his head. “How are you today, Hamad?” invokes a question in reply. “How are you, doctor?” “I am good, Hamad.” “And you, Sister?” “Good also, Hamad.” “I am same. You good, also I good. I want please to go back to my company.” “Soon Hamad!” “Always you say soon,” smiles Hamad, smacking his head again, “Tomorrow, same. After three years I go back, maybe. Finish brains.”

I am next and am naturally looking pretty happy by this time. “You alright Dawson?” “Yes, fine sir.” “How do you like the way we've arranged the beds today?” he asks humorously. “Quite OK today sir.” “Ah, good!” The last call is Jock, in his little enclosure. A few minutes earlier, he might have been eating the fluff of his blanket, standing on his head, or giving one of his monologues. But he is usually subdued and sounds normal, when he sees the MO. “Och, I'm a'richt sirr, thank you. Very happy the day. Just richt,” he says very quietly.

Normally, in other hospitals, I would dread the formality of doctors' rounds, but here it is something to look forward to, each day. And the above is the theme, but with variations.

Sunday 28th February 1943

“Ghandi” is very happy at present, smoking a cigarette in a scarlet holder, with his mirror in his hand. He rolls his eyes, peers at the looking glass then turns and gazes placidly through the window. Last night he was very naughty though. When someone brought his supper, he immediately threw the cheese, bread and cocoa on the floor. Then he hit an orderly, leapt on to his bed and began to do a violent native war dance, shouting madly. Another orderly slowly went towards him and Ghandi became more frantic. “Back!” he screeched, “Back!!” At last the orderly, hands on hips, stood with his face about 18 inches from the grimacing black face. Ghandi reared up until he looked remarkable like a giant snake, bared his teeth, and hissed. The orderly looked at him stolidly. What a look it must have been, for suddenly the snake collapsed and became a docile, eye-rolling nigger, whom the orderly tucked into bed! A dramatic exhibition of will-power!

Hamad, a bright and merry little Arab nowadays, is learning a good deal of English from me, whilst I am picking up bits of Arabic from him. He has now appointed me King of America and King of the Village of London. He, in turn has agreed to be King of Hedjaz, Yemen, Palestine and Syria, but refused Egypt. “Egyptians no good,” said Hamad, “Plenty dance, plenty cinema, plenty woman, plenty lazy, no work.”

Saturday 27th February 1943

The black sergeants' frenzy is so bad, next door, that his three mates have been sent back here. They have not slept since Wednesday night, except in snatches. The two big darkies carried their own beds etc but chattering Ghandi was escorted in by several orderlies, carrying his kit. He stalked in, very dignified, pyjama-clad, and cap at usual ridiculous angle. He went straight to his bed without a sound and settled down after a five minute inspection of himself in a mirror. He seem very subdued; so do they all. “It shook 'em up, in there,” said an orderly. “Like bloody bedlam... We've just given 'im another shot of dope...”

I now find, to my surprise and disgust, that these poor blacks were moved out because the South African didn't wish to sleep in the same tent as native soldiers... He has agreed to stay in here with them for tonight “as a favour”. Tomorrow he is being sent to the nearest South African hospital (in Cairo, many miles away); and a good riddance too. Apparently he is of a higher caste to us, and higher than the caste of the English Sister' who work here and look after everyone, black and white. Absolutely disgusting. And they pander to his babyish demands! He is given coffee each day, as well as the tea we get. The coffee is brought in specially, from the kitchen, and offered to him... It wasn't possible to get him 100 African cigarettes a week though, so he has to have 50 English cigarettes, like us. He continually whines about that “injustice”... A South African and a man of high caste...

Hunt took me for a walk this afternoon. (ie. I was in his nominal charge) There is genuine country just outside the hospital, and we were able to stroll pleasantly across grass, with a little river on our right and orange groves on our left. The river went down into a valley, towards distant, snow-covered mountains. Of course, we couldn't walk too far, in our conspicuous blues... But the short outing we did take was very nice. (Pipes burning merrily, of course!) How quiet it was, except for the river noises. Beyond the river, on a green hillside, was a picturesque little village, rising in tiers and terraces. Qwise!

The red-haired Corporal (only he's not a corporal, which just shows the state I was in when I arrived here), sits beside me, writing up his report on the habits, progress etc. of the patients. “Are you studying French again?” he asks suddenly. “Yes.” He nods, and rapidly makes an entry. I can visualise it: “Dawson, quiet and happy, taking interest in French...”

Presently Ginger, after looking thoughtfully at a very silent patient says, “Now, how would you define the word “Preoccupied”?” “Oh, “wrapped up in one's thoughts,” you know, sort of “aloof,”” I reply. “Yes,” nods Ginger in agreement and writes in his book again. “Say, aren't I improving Ginger? When I first came, you just asked me if I knew who I was, and all that sort of stuff. Now you ask me the meaning of long words!” The blue eyes twinkled alertly, but nothing is said in reply.

Thursday 25th February 1943

Didn't sleep too well last night. First poor Taffy had an attack of stomach pains and had to have an injection; then, for the rest of the night, the nigger sergeant was screaming and shouting abuse. He's in the next tent, so the sound carried all too well...

Today was bullshit day – Colonel's inspection. I felt thoroughly miserable and began to realise I was a neurotic after all. The Colonel apparently saw I was a waste and addressed the usual stupid questions to the MO, not to me. “Who is this?” “This is Dawson, sir.” “What's he in?” “Artillery, sir.” “Good!” (bloody fool, what was good?) “And is he getting better?” “Oh yes, he is much better sir.” Lucky he didn't ask me! I'd have told him I felt a good deal worse because of his ridiculous inspections.

To keep my brain alive and to break the monotony, I am learning French once more. So the work I did early in 1942, before the desert inertia gripped me again, is not to be wasted. A couple of days ago I began revising the old exercises, and have now finished with revision and am breaking new ground. I have just completed the eighth lesson.

Wednesday 24th February 1943

The nigger sergeant got worse, if anything, today. He leapt about the tent, peered furtively from the window, lay on the cold stone floor and went through the motions of frantic swimming. In all these antics he was restrained. At intervals, he screamed, sang hymns and threatened and denounced the “whites.” “You are no good. (in a deep, resonant voice) You are evil. You try to put my people in chains... WITH GOD ALL THINGS ARE POSSIBLE!!”

This afternoon the four blacks were moved in to a tent on their own. I was not sorry to see the religious maniac go, but shall miss gibbering Ghandi, the genial madman. Ghandi had been very excited all morning, jabbering, rolling his eyes, gesticulating. I think the old boy was warning us of the hostile intentions of the nigger sergeant, as the latter obviously did not like his chatter, and the agitated gestures of Ghandi told a story in dumb-show.

We are a small family in here now. There is a Palestine Jew (homicidal/suicidal) who suffers from depression and sometimes refuses food because he feels he is a waste; the Leading Seaman; a Welsh RAF man (homicidal/suicidal) who is nearly fit again and is now reading my “How Green...”; a Guards Sergeant who looks a queer hawk but is alright when there is no noise; the merry little Arab from Beisan, called Hamad (homicidal/suicidal) who hasn't had an attack of any kind for two days and is now peacefully knitting. We also have two patients in enclosures now – Jock, still talking to himself in a monotone, as though dictating a signal message (“We must- have-further supplies-of blood. Young blood-because-one-two-three...”) - and in the other enclosure is a South African who has been demoted from the upper class tent where Hunt has gone. This Springbok nurses a grudge against the English (funny how these racial feelings come out) and particularly against one orderly, so he has refused all food today.

I was offered a chance to move into the partly sane tent this evening, but said I'd rather stay here. It might get a bit monotonous in there, if everyone is well behaved. It has been quite quiet in here, since the blacks went, but something is always liable to happen.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Tuesday 23rd February 1943

There's a nigger sergeant here. He speaks English and is very dignified, with a Paul Robeson head. Usually he is very helpful with the other three darkies here, of lower caste. He's got religious mania I think. He became sullen this morning though. (He was queer last night too, kneeling on his bed crying out, in prayer, with a bible clasped to his face. “Buena, Buena!” Two of the blacks were very impressed and joined him in excited jabberings when he had finished, but the third is a genial madman who doesn't care a bugger for anyone, so long as he can sing and wail a bit, and be taken to the lavatory and play with a nice, pretty handkerchief.)

This morning, one of the darkies would not get dressed. “Tell him to get up, Sarge,” said an orderly, but the sergeant was sulky and mumbled, “I cannot do this.” The genial waste chuckled and sat on the end of his bed, wearing a cap, and a greatcoat over his pyjamas. But luckily one of the sergeant's friends – who'd been quiet violent a few days ago, himself – was feeling sensible, and quickly pushed in between, jabbering soothing words, when the recalcitrant nigger eventually jumped up and struck the orderly. So peace was restored; the sergeant looked on sullenly, the interposer went back to his bed well-pleased with himself, and the obstructive one, sobbing, got dressed. Heaven knows what would happen if those three hefty niggers got awkward together!

Hunt and I were allowed to use nice knives and forks at lunchtime!

The nigger sergeant remains sullen; one of his mates became violent and had to be put to bed by a crowd of orderlies and the doctor. He wasn't being hurt but he screamed terribly in his own tongue and cried for his “Mama,” and in English shouted, “Get a rifle and shoot me now!” They put a screen around his bed, and a small cool nurse slipped inside, among the struggling men, with a hypodermic needle in her hand. He is sleeping quietly now.

Hunt is apparently less dangerous than me, for he has been told to move into the quiet ward next door. I'm sorry he is going; this will be even less restful and soothing when he has gone. Yesterday the silent, depressed man in the next bed to me, had to be forced to eat his lunch. It hardly aided one's digestion.

I am much better, though, despite this place; even this is better than that ghastly Routine. I can now answer queries about the time with equanimity. But a horrible fascination makes me glance at my watch every now and then and I keep a check on things. 6:30a.m. - they'll be getting up; 7a.m. Roll call, caps will be worn. Then some will rush into the wash house, others will start stacking their kit. All brass work will be polished. All webbing will be scrubbed.... and so on. Ad infinitum. Curiously enough, now that the harm is done, my watch is not keeping such good time. It loses 5-10 minutes each day.

8:15p.m. Uncanny sort of evening. Dead silence broken suddenly by dogs howling, and then two of the niggers began to get restive (not old Ghandi though; he remained immobile beneath a mound of blankets and his inseparable great coat) Then dead silence again, except for the mad Scotsman in the cubicle, talking softly to himself: “One, two, three, four, five. And one for you and two for my king and country. That leaves three wonders. One for my left foot, one for my right foot, one for my right head... Tonight is – Tuesday – I don't want to die tonight – I want to see tomorrow – For tomorrow is another day. I want to see – tomorrow night – that's Wednesday night...”

All day long, hour after hour, a thin ghost of a naval leading seaman sits propped up in the bed opposite. He never speaks, except to mumble indistinctly when someone asks a direct question. He never smiles; the sad expression on his face never alters. I feel more sorry for him than anyone else. Tonight, he broke another of the uncanny silences by suddenly saying in a clear, authoritative voice, “Orderly!” And the orderly jumped! “Yes sir?” The Killick pointed to the bowl from which he'd just had his soup. He was kind and polite but still authoritative, “I wonder if you'd be kind enough to see if you can get me a bowl of mixed fruit.” Cultured voice. “I'll look into it right away,” said the orderly nobly. Presently he came back apologetically, “They haven't got any in the place but they've sent out to the next hotel. All right?” But the Killick had sunk back into apathy again. “What?” he whispered, “Oh, it's alright, it doesn't matter now. Thank you.”

Sunday 21st February 1943

Those two days in the CCS at Damas did me a lot of good. It was so quiet, and no one bothered me. I talked not more than a dozen words to anyone until last night, when I had a long chat with an American (suffering from the after effects of snad fly, I think) who was in the next bed. He was a refined, cultured man, the first American I had found so. He was in the film industry before the war and was full of anecdotes of California, New York and the country between. He was well read, too. We discussed books and I found my memory gone to hell.

Those quiet days have stood me in good stead though for my sense of humour has come back again, a little, so that I can laugh at today's events, not hysterical laughter either but genuine whimsical mirth.

After a long ambulance journey across the mountains, we arrived here, at a hospital of tents near the sea. The 22nd General, at Sidon, to the south of Beirut. Gentleness but firmness was the key note of my treatment. First, my kit bags were taken away to the pack store and I was led to a ward. All the remainder of my kit was deposited on my new bed – except for my haversack! This puzzled me. Then I noticed, with sudden shivers, how quiet and still, the other occupants of the ward were. I had come among Isobel's people.

I didn't want to get into bed, but one of the two orderlies gently but firmly! told me I must, until the doctor had seen me. Feeling hungry I took a bar of chocolate out of my pocket and a jack knife. As I opened the knife, I felt, did not see, everyone go quiet and still near me; the two orderlies and another patient.
I cut off a piece of chocolate, and an orderly came across and said, “We'll have to have that knife, you know...” Thank God that sense of humour had come back!

Someone brought my lunch and the missing haversack. I seized the latter. “Don't worry about that now,” said the bringer of food, “Eat your lunch.” I obediently did so, and then undid the haversack. “How Green was my Valley” was still there, and my cigarettes and other things. But, as I had guessed, my knife, fork, spoon, razor blades and razor were gone. Tucked away in a corner were a small pair of scissors, which I conscientiously produced and surrendered. They were politely received.

“How do I shave?” I asked the Corporal, a twinkling-eyed, red-haired man who said he'd worked at Severalls Asylum before the war. “You're allowed to shave – under supervision,” said the Corporal, all a-twinkle.” The Corporal came over and sat on my bed. “Where are you?” he asked. Unfortunately I didn't know at the time, so said, “I don't know. South of Beirut, maybe.” The vagueness of my reply didn't seem to surprise him. “Yes” he said, quite encouragingly, “and how old are you?” “Thirty!” I said definitely. “Good! And where did you live, when you were in England?” “Various parts,” I said sadly, doomed. The Corporal sighed and filed away.
“I forgot my pay book,” I said plaintively, “I left it behind at the other hospital.”
“Never mind. They'll send it on.” “And can I have pay?” “Yes, but you won't tear the money up, like that Arab opposite, will you?”

In a nearby corner, a lad of 22 sat smiling, as he disintegrated a fly swat. “Now why have you done that?” asked the Sister. He giggled hysterically and cried, “To help win the war!” (My brother. There but for the grace of God – Yes, that's how I'd have been, if I'd waited much longer.) The lad got more excited, and was put in a special little enclosure. My God, the faces around.

Suddenly a new patient was led in. An absolutely normal-looking bloke. To my relief, he was put in the next bed. I sympathised with the shock he felt, when he gazed around the ward, as I had done. And his surprise, when they took away his knife, razor etc. “I say, does this happen in every ward?” “Well...” “Oh, I see, this is the ward where they're absolutely bats!” And he looked around again.

“Have a couple of bananas?” I offered, when he was safely in bed. “Thanks old man!”
Apparently he'd had some sort of an epileptic fit, probably through overwork. It was pleasant to talk to someone sane, someone who could still laugh, utterly sane laughter. “You and I ought not to be in here at all, old man,” he chuckled. “No! But the worst loonies of all, always think that, boy!” “D'you know?” he said confidentially, “These blokes even look at one with suspicion! And they asked me if I ever get rough when I had a fit.” “Queer joint this.” “Yes old man, and queer people.” “So are we, boy.”

Dawn 1943

“Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time...”

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Saturday 20th February 1943

My “ships label” has been taken away to the office. That means I'm not staying here. Sure enough, I now learn I am going to a hospital in Beirut tomorrow. Even that may not be my journey's end.

Four sergeants came in to see me this evening – Ling, White, Nade and Neal. All looked frightfully jolly and cheerful. “We're moving up to Aleppo next week, Steve. See you up there, shortly, boy...” I felt rather like the soldier in “The Road Back”, who was left behind, while his comrades tramped out of the hospital and on, homewards.

Here ends Stillness 1943

Friday 19th February 1943

Yesterday evening I sat in the canteen and listened to the music. Quite a few people asked me the time but more people came along and said, “What's this I hear about you going to hospital, Steve?” On my saying yes, I was going to hospital, they all said, “Oh, what's wrong?” “Headaches,” I replied, usually.

This morning about 11a.m., I set off for my last walk through the camp, towards the MI room. Ahead of me I saw a signaller, plodding along a line, phone on back, clouds of blue-grey tobacco smoke rising around his head every few yards. It was the Communist Cornishman, Bill Semmons. It seemed a familiar scene, somehow, one I'd seen before, in the desert.

I can't quite remember, but I do think I saw this when I first arrived back in the battery last autumn, just before El Alamein – Bill Semmons (I hardly knew him then) tramping along a signal cable, with a telephone, smoking. If so, it's a coincidence – first and last sight.

There was another sort of coincidence in the MI room. I decided to read a book, so took along Llewellyn's “How Green Was My Valley” I'd had it in my pack for a couple of months, unread. Now, sitting on my kit, all ready to leave the Regiment I joined in 1938, I opened the first page and read:

“I am going to pack my two shirts with my other socks and my best suit in the little blue cloth my mother used to tie round her hair when she did the house, and I am going from the Valley...”

Like Huw, my valley which was once so green is now only a dismal rut full of memories. Now I am in hospital in Damascus. It is a large ward, with many empty beds, and very quiet. But there is nothing for me to do.

Thursday 18th February 1943

I duly reported at the MI Room, but owing to a mistake of the medical orderly, I missed the duty truck. The road sentry got me a lift on a signals truck going into Damas and I eventually reached the hospital an hour late. I was afraid the interview would have to be postponed; but fortunately this was not so.

Whilst waiting, I sat right underneath a big clock in the corridor but even then, my bogey man appeared, this time an RAMC private who strolled past and then, as if devil-inspired, turned back and said “What's the time, mate?” (Damn you, I thought, you live here and you must know there is a clock on the wall just over there!) But I said nothing, I just held my watch up for him to see. The man came closer, peered at the watch, then nodded his head, satisfied, and walked on.

After the interview with the Medical Specialist, I came out into the street, wondering how I'd return to camp. I walked to the YMCA hopefully and found a 3 tonner outside marked with the familiar fox-head and the figure 55. Pat Geraghty was inside having lunch, so I joined him and then came back to camp with the cakes and cigarettes.

Tomorrow I have to go to hospital for a while. Hope I don't have to see eyes like Isobel's in about the year 1922... Hope it's not that sort of place...

Wednesday 17th February 1943

Yesterday I felt queer and irritable all of a sudden. Nerves taut and “edgy”. Felt so foul that I went sick on a “special”. I made out my own B256 and went across to RHQ. There I found L/Bdr. Staffer, an Essex man of 519, who was the day's regimental sick orderly. “Feel queer, Steve boy” he said quietly in his slow Essex brogue. And he took me to the MO.

Thank God! This MO is more of a doctor than an officer. I had to see him again this morning and tomorrow I go for an exam. by a nerve specialist. They must do something for me. Suddenly everything has got beyond bearing. Routine... and silly little things. When someone asks me the time – someone asks me the time DOZENS OF TIMES A DAY – I always reply - “Ten past!” or “Quarter to!” whatever it may be, not mentioning the hour. I can't mention the hour, it is too maddening! And every time, the damn fool will need to be re-assured about the hour. If I blurt out “Five past!” I am immediately asked, “Five past six?” or whatever it is. As I told the MO, I am not trying to “work” a Base job. I'll gladly go back to the desert, to Tunisia, now. That might cure me. I must have a change, I must get away from this routine.

Sunday 14th February 1943

While we spend our time here in tedious, ingeniously heart-breaking bullshit, other units of other armies are on the move.

The Russians! They began their offensive weeks ago and during this last fortnight Jerry's line has suddenly crumbled. Leningrad relieved! Voronezh relieved! Stalingrad relieved – an entire German Army went in the bag there; according to the radio, all Germany was shaken. Since then, Jerry has been driven out of the Caucasus. And in this last few days, Krusnodar, Voroshilovsk, Novocherkassk, Voroshilovgrad, Rostov-on-Don, Kerch and Kehartov have all been re-occupied by the Red Army.

We've been following the offensive on the big map, in the canteen. Now Stalin, and Orel are coming into the danger zone. One pocket of Jerries remains in the Black-Caspian Seas isthmus – at the Black Sea naval base of Novorossisk. Well, the longer they hang on there, the less chance they have of getting away.

If only I were there, instead of in the midst of this ghastly, ordered routine!

Saturday 13th February 1943

"Lighten our darkness O Lord...”

If I made such a prayer, it was answered in some way today, when a little mail from home dribbled through. I had one letter – and it was from April! It was gay yet sad and had a similar effect on me.

“The photograph... is on my dressing table and always the last thing before I go to sleep I have a little chat with you... I'd like a new photograph of you. Please xxx ... and just when the photographer is ready, conjure up in your mind a picture thus:- a green-walled bedroom, a small dark wood bed with a blue eiderdown and a five foot three inch green-eyed blonde in blue silk and lace 'jamas from the man she loves and with the most mischievous twinkle in her eye. ... But always there was a little wall of reserve... and we were never really lovers... but as Fate being kind we intend to belong to each other for good and always...”

Friday 12th February 1943

There's something queer about this unit nowadays, something hateful. It is not the dear old EY any more. I'm not the only one who has noticed this, if one can judge by the sullen spirit which prevails.

Tonight I finished off a sonnet, called “Far Horizon”. A moderate piece of work, but good enough for my note book.

“... that which once was almost akin
to the unreachable rendezvous
where a rainbow seems to begin...
Love and love and truth and truth...
... the gallant galaxy of youth...”

The usual bitter note crept into the last two lines!

“... forward to this, our great crescendo.
But careful! Oh heart, on this splendid day,
lest your cynical feet slip on the way”

No wonder there's a “bitter note”. This is rather like Almaza last year – minus Bob Dewhurst, too!

Tuesday 9th February 1943

I celebrated yesterdays' anniversary by writing eighty lines of narrative verse, “Auf Wiederschen,” which I polished up tonight. Not too good though; not much of a theme, for one thing, and rather irregular.

“... Chaotically, incoherent,
as youth was ripped out by the roots,
at the end of all refinement,
while the thudding of soldiers' boots
carried him past her inexorably
he cried out, suddenly, desperately,
“Auf Wiedershen my love!”
and heard her softly call
“Auf Wiedeshen” above
the sullen footsteps' fall...”

This extract is enough to show where I got the idea from! - Sunday's diary!

Sunday 7th February 1943

An anniversary today, for many of us in the Regiment. And what an anniversary.
It is three years since we left England. At this hour, three years ago tonight, we were lying off Southampton. When the dusk deepened, earlier in the day, I'd taken my last look at the English coast.

As you were! I've just checked dates and events in the appropriate diary and I was wrong. Tonight, three years ago, we were leaving Southwell... Sentimental departure. Reading back, I was surprised to remember how Eileen had stirred me. Now it is April, April, April.

Then: “I cautiously flashed my torch in the prearranged way. I whistled “La Paloma” It was possible she would, somewhere, hear that tune from the body of men standing in the road... “B Troop, quick march!” and I heard her call from the pavement outside the gate, “Good luck, Stephen!” I think every man in the troop yelled in answer. It was chaotically incoherent, but as the thudding boots inexorably carried me further away from her, I called, “Auf Wiedershen, Eileen!” “Auf Wiedershen, Stephen!””

So! (That was a very neat sentence, about the inexorably thudding boots) That's the way it was, then. What strange instinct made me shout, at that moment, in the tongue of our enemies – “'till we meet again!”? Well, I fear we shall not meet again, little Eileen, but you were very nice and brought colour to my last weeks in England, so I thank you and remember you.

Three years abroad, and their ending seems to find me at my lowest ebb of gaiety. Seldom have I felt so depressed with the Army, the Regiment and the future. The old Regiment has gone, not suddenly, but insidiously, as one man after another of the old Essex Yeomanry disappeared. It is different now. The 104th RHA is growing more and more like Almaza, The Base Depot RA. Signalling? I'm absolutely sick and tired of it and feel I could scream at sight of cable reels and wireless sets...

This morning we were told that there was a voluntary church service. All men who did not volunteer would be put on fatigues. Every man in HQ Troop, nearly everyone in 519 Battery, was therefore put on fatigues. The food nowadays is the worst it has been for some time. The cooks do their best, but the rations are simply inadequate. Bread every other day...

Jack Chenery and I climbed Jebel Mazar this afternoon. Did some tricky rock scrambles too. It was quite enjoyable, but somehow I could not shake off my fit of depression, even with Jack, in high clear air.

The Wednesday night gramophone recital went adrift. It was to be held tonight, so I tramped hopefully through the mud to the camp cinema building. At last I would hear the full “Swan Lake”. But all was darkness in the cinema. Monty Liss and I heard eerie whisperings and faint sounds of singing. We couldn't tell if there were two people or a hundred in there. I struck a match, which revealed Jack Chenery, George Kerry, Armstrong and Dent.

Waiting... The Padre had re-arranged the times, and there was some sort of service on. We waited half an hour, then Bill Bax – who'd been enticed into the service – called us in. The Padre hadn't got the gramophone there, or any records. He began to make plans for this. And should we go somewhere else for the recital. And what records were to be fetched? Faust? Beethoven? Mozart. “What about the “Swan Lake” sir?” asked Bill. “Oh, that. I don't think I've got it now,” said the Padre.

At this point, I filed away in disgust. Armstrong, Bax and the rest came into the canteen later on. They said there had been no recital at all, in the end. If only these officers, incompetent, would let competent men run their own social pleasures! Such as Bill Bax. I'm rather glad not to be running the canteen any more, too. The officers are interfering too much, nowadays, telling Pat how to run it. Not to mention he officer who took £S8 from the canteen funds to buy paint for bullshit purposes in his troop and refuses to pay it back...

Saturday 6th February 1943

A half day and (because of my complaints re last Wednesday) I was free of duty.

Went into Damas. Pretty deadly and impoverished. Not very much to do; however I did have a tepid shower bath, after 45 minutes wait at a very cheerless Church Army hostel, and had an excellent haircut at a very nice hairdressers' shop.

Went to a queer cinema at night, and saw a ten year old film. There was a heating stove with mass pipes, in the centre of the auditorium. There was the smell of stale garlic in the breathing of the people around me...

Finally, the long ride back in the lorry, with drunken men sprawling around.

Friday 5th February 1943

I had a pleasant evening with pen and ink, during which I re-wrote my note book of “the complete verse of SJD, a poet unhonoured and unsung”. I threw away all record of the worst poems and only entered the better ones into my new book.

Wednesday/Thursday 3/4 February 1943

First day back on normal duty. Being a half holiday, I applied for a pass, so that I could go into Damascus to have a bath and haircut (nothing more; I am almost sans piastres, not having received any pay since coming to Syria). However at lunchtime I was detailed for regimental guard and felt exceedingly bitter. Spent the afternoon morosely getting ready. By the time I had reached the parade ground, my clean gaiters, boots and trousers were all muddy again...

I had anticipated hearing a gramophone recital (Bill Bax i/c) in camp tonight; the programme included “Swan Lake” This hope was also ruined. My God! The guard room was freezing cold! There were two heating stoves, both out of order, but fortunately there was a primus cooker which worked fitfully. I slept from 10 to 11p.m. Then the guard was turned-out by the orderly officer. Subsequently I felt too cold to sleep, although I was fully dressed and wearing a greatcoat beneath my six blankets. So at midnight I took over the watch and the sergeant went to sleep.

Thus I celebrated my return to duty. However, I also celebrated the occasion during the early hours, in between brewing hot tea for the sentries, by writing a sonnet called “Fragile Flames” It is better than the two lumps of tripe I ground out a few days ago and leaves me happy, for it has proved I shall still be able to carry on with my poetry.

“... like fragile flames a-fluttering,
like candles dimly guttering,
and small brightness, by darkness daunted
in a chill wilderness wind haunted...”

It is 5a.m. now but surprisingly I'm not very cold and not sleepy. Sitting here concentrating on a sonnet, primus and brews has kept me awake and warm. In half an hours time I'll put on the water for the reveille brew. This primus has made the night hours shorter and more congenial.


The guard was dismounted at about 5p.m. I had tea, then went into the canteen. Jack and Pat were getting ready for opening. I retired to the rear, took my boots off, lay down on my bed and pulled the blankets on top of me. I heard Jack switch the wireless on and start tuning in...

“Aye, Steve! Do you want some tea?” I opened dazed eyes. I could hear Jack counting the coins in the till. Dance music was throbbing out of the radio. Pat was by my bed. “What's on, Pat?” “We've just closed Steve. You've been asleep for hours. Want some tea?” “Yes.”

I went to bed again an hour later, and slept well. A warm night.
Checked the stock,with Pat, this afternoon.

Final figures:

Trade value stock £S275.25
Balance of Dr. over Cr. 11.40
Cash in hand 203.05
Total assets £S489.70
Present Assets 489.70
Initial Assets 147.13
Profit £S342.57

It was very nice to hand over to Pat. He's a “steady file” not a pushing, “keen” type. When we'd finished he suggested what had never entered my gloomy head – that I should continue to sleep in the canteen. So we re-arranged the stores in our little bunk room behind the green rush screen and found there was plenty of space for three beds. So for the present, I'll continue to live, as a lodger, in the comfort and privacy of the canteen; besides I can help, as well, when not on duty. I dare say this plan will not suit the Powers and that eventually I'll be sent forth into the outer darkness of the barrack huts. However, the time between means I shan't have too sudden an awakening from my paradise.

Yes, - quite apart from this – it was pleasant to have Pat as a successor. It was difficult to say when my reign ended and his began. Perhaps when he offered me a cup of tea this afternoon, and a cake, and said, “Oh, there's no need to pay for the cake, Steve!” when I dropped a coin in the till.

Monday 1st February 1943

Alas and hell, that rumour was true. Pat Geraghty has been given another stripe and takes over the canteen, and Jack Hargraves comes in as his assistant, tomorrow.
And I? I go back to be what I was from September 1939 to April 1942; the BHQ Signals NCO. I feel rather fed up about this. They put me in charge of the canteen during it's embryo stages, then when things are finally getting organised, I'm sent back to duty.

I notice everyone avoids stating they were responsible for fetching me back. Today I have seen Ken White, the Battery NCO Sigs; Lieut. Corbett-Thompson, the Signals Officer; and Stevens (Waste) the new BSM. Ken says it was the Sigs. Officers' demand, he says Sgt.White asked for me, the BSM says it was the Major...
“I shall want you to take the signals classification next week,” said C-T. “Classify sir?” I said indignantly. “I qualified as an Ack1 only last October!” “Oh, did you?” he said indifferently, “That makes it rather different, doesn't it?” “It does sir!”

So today, with some trouble, I secured a truck – the road being open again – and went into town for the last time, as a canteen buyer. Spent about £S180. Our stocks were pretty low after two days of being snowed-up. It was much warmer in town; in the mountains around our camp there was deep snow, in all directions. Then, after three or four miles travelling down-hill the snow suddenly thinned and disappeared altogether. After we'd been in Damascus a while, the ice on the canvas roof of our lorry dissolved into several gallons of water.

We had lunch at the YMCA. It was warm there. Apart from the set lunch, I had mass cakes and then felt replete – the first time for many a day. After ordering a hundred cakes here, I went along to the queer little shop (“George Garden Meeting Room”) where we get our bread. Here I was received with the usual deference and offered a glass of wine, which of course I accepted. Then Frank Brooks came along with the truck – he'd been to the market – and we went to the bulk NAAFI. By then we were both feeling hungry again, so called in again at the YMCA for egg and chips. Qwise! And finally the grim journey back into the snow, with the air gradually getting colder.

Well! There was quite a rush tonight, when I arrived! Everyone seemed half starved. Now it is 9:30p.m. and quiet. We'll check the cash in hand and I'll make up the books, for the last time. Then, perhaps, a spot of music from the radio, before we go to bed. Shan't go on parade tomorrow – no hurry! The stock must be valued and the profits estimated, before I can hand over to Pat.

Sunday 31st January 1943

The roof held! Snow was driving bitterly over a bleak white waste all day. It was pretty ghastly on the canteen roof this morning. Bill Bax, Ted Gayler, Bill Lemmas, Jock Wilson and I gingerly went along the edge, brushing off the snow. Today, the small, bitter, hurrying flakes don't seem to have settled much.

Eight refugees from a collapsed troop hut have moved in here temporarily. Despite the blizzard, Abraham turned up for work – only an hour late. The roads are all impassable, so the rations have been pretty grim this day. And of course, it was impossible for me to go into Damascus for any stores. We are sold out of every eatable thing in the canteen now.

Ted Gayler has been posted to BHQ to “C” Troop and there is a rumour that I am to leave the canteen and go back to bloody signalling in his place. This whisper leaves me gravely disturbed, for I do not want to go back to signalling, especially at a time of colossal bullshit and strict discipline like this. The thought makes me realise how fine this job is, despite all it's worries.

Saturday 30th January 1943

We move, we move! Abraham has been accepted as an official worker and a small wood-burning stove has been installed in the canteen! Action! This was achieved after much weary plodding to and fro in the snow. It has been a deadly day, but anyhow we – or rather the customers, for we fixed the stove at the far end away from the bar – are a bit more warm in the canteen now.

All day it has snowed; during the day time the snow didn't settle very much – just three or four inches. Tonight however it is 14 inches deep on the gun park. I guess there'll be no trip to Damascus, and no stores either, tomorrow. The snow gathering has caused several roofs of these tin huts to collapse... So far the canteen is OK. We have done what little we can to lessen the weight on the roof.

Thursday 28th January 1943

Quiet afternoon, so after Abraham had tidied up and I'd had a wash in hot water (it was rainy and muddy outside) I entered two new rhymes into my notebook of “The Complete Verse of SJD, a poet unhonoured and unsung”. Neither are of the same class as “Full Circle”, “Lengthening Shadows” or “No Such Place”. “Tinkling Tune” is a weak sort of poem about one's first love and subsequent memories:

“... And if some tinkling tune was the theme
of his incoherent boyish dream...”

“Good-bye and Damn You” is another sort of regimental poem, like “Regimental Rhyme”. Not so good though; pretty staccato in style and irregular:

“Were we browned off
after two years there?
We had le cafard
too bad to care.
But – hell! - the heat
of khamsin days,
our tired feet, and flies always!...”

It concludes:

“We've come north now to pastures new
So, good-bye desert and damn you.”

Shall I write again and something better than those earlier this month? The more I look at these last two, the more feeble they seem. Hardly worth putting in the book, in fact!

Wednesday 27th January 1943

Tonight, on the canteen wireless, we heard a recording of New Zealand bren-gun carriers and Scots pipers entering Tripoli... Yes, Tripoli fell to the 8th Army a few days ago. They're 40 miles beyond Tripoli now. Much as we hated the desert, I think most of us would like to have been there, to have reached the city we were struggling to attain for more than two years in the desert. The Allied armies seem to be advancing all over the world, this month – in the Pacific, in Tripolitania, in Russia, in Burma. They're held up in Tunisia, but soon the good old 8th Army will be there to help, no doubt.

Wonder what we're here for? Nothing in particular? Or to attack through Turkey? Or for defence in case Turkey is attacked? Meanwhile we wait and there is much bullshit. Thank God for this canteen job, I could hardly stand the ghastly bullshit that the lads are suffering now. It is as bad as the old Palestine 1940 days, by all accounts.

Jebel Mazar I find, is 1634 metres (5312 feet) above sea level. My highest hill! This camp itself is roughly 3700 feet up. More than Mount Snowdon, anyway!

Friday, December 12, 2008

Tuesday 26th January 1943

On Sunday night I sat up in the bitter cold until midnight, cooking the books. I'd found, on checking the accounts, that we were about £S40 (£E4) short in cash. I think this was probably due to an incorrect calculation of the profits on the previous day. Anyhow, I eventually “re-arranged” things – after tearing-out and re-writing a couple of pages in the a/c book!

“Alexander” arrived late, yesterday morning, so I told him to file away again. In the afternoon, Jackson introduced another Armenian, named Abraham. He's only about 17, but seems a pretty good lad. Hope to get some proper pay arranged for him, later.

Went in to Damascus today for stores. Had some eggs and chips at the NAAFI before returning. When I came out to the truck again, there were two Wogs sitting in the back, with massed bottles of beer and wine. The driver was giving them a lift to Mazar Camp. At first I thought they were Syrian Arabs, NAAFI employees, of the NAAFI in my camp. OK! But I noticed stinking breath, gold teeth and a certain oiliness, and found they were Egyptians... Zift!

We drove off and picked up two 519 men who'd been to the de-lousing centre. There wasn't room in the back for all of us so I detailed one Wog to get out. In the argument, I found they weren't NAAFI men, but were taking the drinks to a stinking grog shop in the village by our camp... Still more zift! However, I was placated by the promise of three bottles of beer and we set off. The last straw though, was when we halted down the street and the Wog who'd previously alighted, climbed on again and sat down coolly, saying “OK, George.”

So I slung them both out, and their filthy beer, whilst a small crowd gathered in the main street. As I dropped one heavy sack at their protesting feet on the pavement, there was an ominous crack! and frothy beer flowed into the gutter. “Drive on now,” I said sternly, (but with some remorse at thought of broken bottles). One Egyptian ran after us a few paces, furiously, gold-teeth agleam, “I'll see you badin!” “OK, mate!” I shouted fiercely. To ease my conscience, I explained to the two puzzled men from the de-lousing centre, “They were Gyppo, see, and wanted a lift to the grog shop in Mansours.” “Wogs, huh? Zift,” said Lofty Morrison, now free of lice and “crabs”.

The officers closed this canteen tonight, at 6 o'clock. There's a lecture on until about 7:15p.m. or later. The canteen was full when they came, too, and the wireless giving out some good music. Everyone was smoking “Dawson Java” Cigars (I got a box this morning) and feeling like playboys, no doubt. It seemed rotten, for them, when the BSM marched in and shouted “Everyone outside!”

However, I retired behind my green screen of rush mats, and thus had time to write this. Also, sitting a few yards away from the lecturing officer, I'm smoking and sipping cognac to keep me warm. Which is very nice. I bought a bottle of cognac today for myself, in the queer little shop where we buy our bread. Tonight, before Pat and I go to bed, I'll warm the bottle in some hot water, and then we'll finish it off. Should keep us warm until we go to sleep.

On Sunday night I slept beneath six blankets and a greatcoat, wearing a pullover, socks and scarf. Yet still my back was cold for some time. So last night I put a kit bag in the bed and slept with my back against that. I kept warm, this time, so the same scheme will be used again tonight.

I found that Pat Geraghty was a Leicester man, yesterday evening! We talked of Leicester for some time, until we fell asleep, leaving the oil stove burning, (a good idea). We eventually established mutual ground; he had worked at Gent's, opposite to Mellor Branley's in St. Saviours' Road East and for many a day had been courting Freda Freitch, who worked at the British United and lived next door to us in Ellis Avenue.

Sunday 24th January 1943

This morning it was Pat's turn to get up first, so I was awakened from under my six blankets, pullover and greatcoat, at 6:45, with a cup of tea. Whilst my shaving water was heating, I dressed (a simple process, I simply put trousers, boots and scarf and battle dress blouse on top of the clothing I'd worn during the night) and strolled down to the latrines, pipe alight.

What a glorious morning! The ground was firm and hard, there was thick ice on what had been puddles of muddy water the day before. The sun shone, the air was clear,still and brittle. So still was the air that, looking back, I could see each separate puff of blue-grey tobacco smoke, disintegrating very slowly behind me. It was the sort of morning when in England, I'd enjoy a long walk ending with lunch at a country pub.

Jackson left us – an amiable parting – today, as he'd found a job with pay. Before going he introduced us to “mon ami Alexander”, another Armenian, who will help us in his stead. Alexander can speak English.

A quiet afternoon, so I went up that enticing hill, Jebel Mezzar, which towers above the camp. I took my camera and wore boots and gaiters, trousers, belt and shirt. That was enough although it was a cold, frosty day! I was sweating (profusely of course!) before I reached the top. I didn't take the track around the shoulder of the hill, I went straight up the slope facing the camp. There was plenty of work for hands, but no real climbing. Soon I'd scrambled up into the snow area. My first experience of mountain snow! There was a false summit. I felt tired after half an hour and fit and fresh after 45 minutes. Many Yeomen were climbing, and I did the last stretch with George Payne and “Pixielated” Rogers.

There were two rocky crests, each marked with a pole. Don't know which was the highest point; anyhow we went to both! There were old French defence works of rocky walls and trenches all along the ridge. Our camp, lay stretched below – very neat lines of vehicles, and the cluster of huts – as seen by an airman from 2000 feet or so. The hills around stood out like the pattern of a relief map. There seemed three higher hills within sight, and all were snow-capped. Mount Herman was clear and distinct today – it seemed only a couple of miles away – and had a solitary cloud nestling on it's side, well below the summit.

I came down alone, very rapidly, and rashly, slipping and sliding across the snow and rocks, sometimes hitting a soft spot and sinking in a couple of foot. I descended in less than an hour (pausing for photographs on the way). The upward climb took an hour and ten minutes.

Saturday 23rd January 1943

This morning and yesterday evening there was a frost. Fine! The mud became hard and dry. Today has been sunny – and quite warm – however, so we have our mud again. The snow on the mountain above us, has thinned somewhat.

Tried to make up a bit of verse this afternoon, whilst it has been quiet. A satire on the old song; “Oh dear, what can the matter be?” But it was hopeless, couldn't write four lines. I'll have to wait until we've thoroughly settled down, before I can write again!

Friday 22nd January 1943

A sunny day – but still damn cold! The snow line on Jebel Mezzar has come down further towards the camp. We have lined the inside walls of this tin hut with rush matting. Might make it seem warmer, anyhow.
I have an unofficial assistant here whom I thought was an Arab, but who turns out to be an Armenian (Christian) whose name is - Jackson! He's a good worker. We get him food from the cook house and occasional little presents – yesterday a bar of chocolate and a wool cap, today a packet of English tea.

L/Bdr Pat Geraghty and I are otherwise alone. We get an occasional man detailed to help. We've got an office/bedroom partitioned off with rush matting. It is four times the size of my snuggery at Cowley Camp but not so warm and cosy! Praise the gods that we're in here, and not on normal duty! The bullshit is going to be ghastly.

Thursday 21st January 1943

Too cold to write; my fingers can hardly hold the pen. This canteen has three paraffin stoves; they don't create much heat and there isn't enough paraffin to keep them alight more than eight hours each day. So it is bitterly cold in here, always. Men come in muffled in greatcoats, and the place is usually empty by nine o'clock. Everyone goes to bed early, to keep warm – we have six blankets each, now.

I went into Damascus today, for stores. It is warmer there, in the valley. I had to wait four hours before there was a truck back, so had a look round the town, with Geoff Pyman. We had a bath at the Mobile Bath Unit – a pretty crude experience after the luxury of Cairo hotel baths. The town seems impoverished and hard hit by the war. There are poor stocks in the shops, and few proper cafes. Some of the people seem half starved. This is not the fault of the British, who are in fact doing what they can to alleviate the hardships of the civilians. They'll be no splendid clubs here; no Music for All; no comfortable restaurants. On the other hand, there are no Cairo “Wogs”; the Syrian Arabs are a better type. The military police here are an improvement too. They are very helpful and friendly, not like the officious swaggerers of Cairo. In Le Cavie, I should have been arrested for appearing in the streets in my muddy boots, ragged overcoat and dirty buttons!

Damascus is pleasantly “foreign”, too. It has few soldiers in its streets and one has to speak French or Arabic in most of the shops. Altogether it is a nice change from Cairo, despite it's poverty.

Another thing lacking in this canteen is a stove for heating water etc. The cook house will let us have a limited supply of hot water later on. There was none tonight, so the crowd of men with mugs, hoping for a hot drink, slowly dispersed.

Stillness 1943

“They will not come, the gentian days,
With the cornfield white in summer, or the long
Provencal noon, but with the autumnal storm,
Strikes in the north, and random shots.
They will come back, the strenuous days,
On Peternet Ridge, the Eagle Nest,
And cross the gap of trivial time
Sure as the wind, the night express...”

Wednesday 20th January 1943

Mileage on the trip here: 118+172+130+160+25. Altogether 605 miles from Cairo. Good!
This mud is amazing. Never experienced such a glue-pot in the Army. But to me, at any rate, it's better than dust!

Yesterday afternoon and today have been deadly. Worrying, working, planning the canteen. Went into Damascus to find the bulk NAAFI and change our currency. £E = £S 9.057... We were open tonight, after a fashion, with inadequate heating and lighting and no cakes, bread or chocolate. No primus for brews, but we got hot water from the cook house. There's still a lot to do. Days of work. The very mud which comes in on the boots of every man who enters, constitutes a problem. From time to time, I look longingly up at Jebel Mezzar, still hidden in clouds at it's summit. This afternoon snow suddenly appeared on it's upper slopes. I'm going to climb that hill!

I shall write no poetry, much as I'd like to do so, until we've settled down to routine. Can't write unless things are normal and ordered!

Tonight's receipts (£S 46.261) bring my cash in hand to £S 127.785. Not so much as it sounds, in a standard currency. Our total profit is good though. Over £20 sterling now.

Tuesday 19th January 1943

Left the transit camp on our final stage of the journey, at 9:30a.m. Cold, cold morning. No sunshine. Seemed funny, no sun. And plenty of mist on the mountain tops around. There were many leafless and wintry-looking trees in and near Damascus. Wintry? Then perhaps they have spring-time here. The citizens of Damascus gathered to see us pass; they seemed friendly enough.

We left the city by the Beirut road, which was lovely at first. High brown cliffs, narrow gauge railway and a river on one side of the road, a river, trees and scattered houses on the other side. Cascades of water were splashing down mossy banks... it was as near being in England as one could be. The anti-tank obstacles, which had been built against our attack, 18 months ago, still remained. We saw a graveyard in the hills, of Christians and Moslems. Was this one place where they had made a stand? After about two hours we reached our final destination, in the hills. Acres of mud and corrugated iron huts. This was Jebel Mezzar Camp. Right above the huts rose a mountain – perhaps 1500 foot above the camp level. This big hill was Jebel Mezzar. It's head was hidden in the clouds. Further away was another hill, snow-crowned.

The canteen hut is on the edge of the sea of mud, nearest of all to the mountains. If I can stand the cold I'll be fit here. Already I've got the hell of an appetite!

Monday 18th January 1943

We came into Syria. It was a day of many impressions, which grew more chaotic as the day and our mileage lengthened. We came through the Mus-Mus Pass in a drizzle of rain. And we thus reached the Plaines of Esdraelon and Affula. Last time I came here, a bridle path led down from the Pass to Affula; now there is a good road.

Through the town, we turned right off the Nazareth road, towards Tiberias. The convoy crawled. Kelly, a keen RC, was very disappointed. He wanted to see Nazareth. To placate him: “There it is” I said pointing, “Those white buildings on the hill, about four miles away. They're at Nazareth.” “Ah!” said Kelly, leaning forward happily. “Nazareth! Where our Lord worked, once!” “That's right.” Kelly drove on happily. Anyhow, it probably was somewhere near Nazareth.

We'd been following some slow and broken-winded old trucks. After a while, defying orders, we cut past them and pushed on fast. The convoy ahead, we found, was out of sight. After a few miles we lost sight of the rear vehicles behind as well. Alone! This was fine. At each hill crest, I looked forward and back. Nothing in sight, for miles! Sheets of blinding rain struck us suddenly. The windscreen wouldn't close. As Kelly drove on miserably, I could see him making fierce, mental resolves to get that defective windscreen rectified!

Hilly country, empty roads. Then, out of the squall loomed up a truck. It was A2, ditched. They'd slipped off the road and into soft earth. We tried to tow them onto the hard surface, failed, and went on, leaving them for the following fitter's trucks... Out of the mist, far below us, loomed vaguely a sheet of water – Lake Tiberias. To my regret, we overtook the rear of the convoy now, and tagged on behind.

The rain decreased to a thin drizzle. It was much warmer, as we went around the lakeside. Saw an almost ideal house about 2 kilos from the town. The house was small and snug and stood by the roadside. It's big garden sloped steeply, or dropped in tiers, down to the water's edge. Many flowers and a good deal of grass. I expect there was a boat, too. The garden gate stood open. It was the sort of house where an artist or writer or musician should live; but in it probably dwelt some ruthless business man who'd fought his way into the money – if he didn't inherit it. Life is like that.

We halted for lunch and then drove on, at last into country which was strange to all of us. We followed curving, zig-zag roads into great hills. It became colder. Trucks began to fall out by the wayside. We had to take a limber in tow. We saw hill tops wreathed in cloud. Sometimes we ourselves, as the road climbed, were level with the clouds. Tank traps and wire. Was this the frontier?

A mile further we passed under an archway where a French flag flew. There were English MPs and French soldiers. Was this the frontier? “Beyrouth gauche, Damas droit” said a sign. The convoy turned to the right. Down into a valley, through a quaint hamlet. Beret-wearing folk languidly watched us rumble through. In this valley there were big trees – not date palms – and a river – not a wadi - and cattle and sheep grazing in green fields!

Up hill again. Colder still and bleak again. But it was always grass or rock, never sand! “Malaria. No camping next 10 miles” said a notice. Great hills all around. More rain. The afternoon grew greyer. El Quneitra, small town we raced through, with MPs holding up all other traffic.

Then – mountains! Beautiful at first, he sunlit brown slopes, we being in dark shade. The rain had stopped, leaving many swirling streams running in the fields on either side of the road. The Arabs by the road, begging, were nearly all bare-footed, poor devils. The clouds shifted, revealing a bigger lump of savage mountain and we could see as much of Mount Hermon (9,150 feet) as we were to see this day. The sunlit slopes went black as we circled the mountain. Above, incredibly higher, sheets of snow swept up into the gloomy clouds. Grim! I shivered with cold each time I looked!

It was dusk, and bitterly cold now. I huddled down in my seat, letting the heat from the engine play on my face. But sometimes a fatal fascination made me turn and stare back at that deadly mountain. Black rock, white snow, grey mist, grey cloud. Brgghh!
I shuddered but couldn't help looking!

We had a breakdown, then pushed on following another late truck. “DAMAS 5 KILO” a sign flashed-up in our headlights. Downhill. Dim mountains on the left. French sentries... A wireless station. An MP: “Straight on. Close up in the town. Are you the last?” “Don't know.” “Hope you are. G'night.” The streets of Damascus suburbs, almost empty and no wonder. Lights in windows. Tree lined avenues. A street crossing and an MP. “Next turn right, to the transit camp!” “OK”

I looked to my left at a place where there were no houses – and there was the main city, stretched out below a mountain. It looked bewitching! Blue, bright yellow and dim yellow lights below a great dark rock! There were woods beside us now; wide roads. A lighted tram almost empty, clanked past. I saw a man with a fez at a street corner.

Then we left the city and drove along quiet roads through woods of bare, wintry trees. And so came to transit camp. The others were just marching to supper. We soon joined them. We were to sleep in thatched huts but these had no doors or windows. I came back from the latrines (which I was pleased to find were marked “OFFICERS ONLY”!) and there was Kelly on the vehicle park, unloading chairs and tables from A7, in our usual manner. “Kelly!” I said. “Yes?” “You're a lone wolf!” “Sure!” he cried smirkingly. “Smirkingly, Steve!” “Awa,” I responded, helping with the unloading. So we slept in the rear of A7 as usual, not forgetting our usual mug of hot milk, either!

Sunday 17th January 1943

Reveille was at 5a.m. today; so we got up at 4:30 and were almost ready to move by breakfast time. We had a mug of hot milk before venturing out of the truck into the chilly pre-dawn air. Jove! It was cold this morning! Besides my battle dress, thick vest and Angola shirt, I wore a pullover, wool scarf, gloves and greatcoat. And thus, was just warm enough.

We started before dawn and came on into Palestine. The first day of this trek, we did 118 miles; second day 172; today 130 miles. The desert road... Beersheba, a brief break in the monotony. I was amused to notice that the flag (A Union Jack) at Beersheba Police Station was flying upside down, just as it was when I stopped there to report with a convoy for As Huj, in 1940. (In those days, it was “Don't proceed beyond Beersheba after dusk!”) How improved the road is! Then it was a rough rutted track. Now it is a modern highway. The river we forded is now spanned by a fine arched bridge. War gives us progress, in some ways!

The land was the same however, growing more fertile gradually, until it was finally green at Gaza. The Arabs were the same, too. Well—built, healthy looking men, often carrying swords or daggers, usually proud, aloof and slightly hostile. So different, these Palestinian Arabs, to the crawling, filthy sycophants of Egypt!

We halted between Gedera village and our old camp. The Jews have grown much more friendly. Now they smile, wave, give the “V” sign, or bring us oranges. An Arab approached us near Gedera offering four oranges for an akker. “Ha!” I said with scorn, “Yehudi henna gibbit arbah baksheesh!” (“No. Jew here, gave four for nothing!”) The Arab saw his chances of a sale were hopeless, gave a wry smile and filed off.

We travelled along the Tel Aviv – Haifa road. It was sunny, and I discarded my coat, gloves and scarf. It seemed like a Sunday afternoon. It always seems like a Sunday afternoon on this road.
At the Nathanya cross roads we turned right for Tulkarem and went into bivouac about two kilos short of the town. It was a pleasant staging camp off the road, reached by a lane between the orange groves. I knew it well, for we came to this spot in 1940 to “bombard” Tulkarem with our howitzers, on a drill order.

It's 8:45 p.m., so I'll turn in now. Just heard the familiar Palestine jackals howling. It is good to be back, even if we are just passing through.

Saturday 16th January 1943

At Bir As Huj after a weary and monotonous crossing of the Sinai. At any rate we're out of Egypt now, even if we are in a pretty deadly part of southern Palestine. We've cleared out some of the furniture and I'm now in the lamp-lit, warm, windless interior of A7.

It was worth the extra work, this morning! We got up at 5a.m. instead of 5:45a.m., lit the lantern, packed our beds and got dressed, then lit the primus for some hot washing and shaving water. Whilst we were reloading A7 half an hour later, everyone else was struggling out of dew damp blankets, shuddering in the chill air, or getting washed in ice-cold water. We were first at breakfast too; an excellent start to the day. Let's hope that things go equally according to plan tomorrow.

Friday 15th January 1943

We crossed the Suez Canal, by a new bridge somewhere near Ismailia, at about sunset. Now (8p.m.) we're in bivouac not far from the canal, in the Sinai Desert. A long desert run tomorrow, to Bir As Huj.

Yes, we're over the Canal again. So it is true. I wasn't quite sure until, coming out of the Cowley/Mena Camp lines, the convoy turned right, towards Cairo, instead of left towards Alexandria (and the Western Desert!)

Kelly and I have cleared out some of the tables and chairs in A7 and made our beds in the narrow space thus vacated. The lantern is alight, so I'll have a few minutes read and smoke before going to sleep. Quite like old times, as they say!

Thursday 14th January 1943

8:15p.m. In the tent where the noisy, likeable canteen used to be – until this afternoon. The only thing left now, is the wireless set. The tent seems large and empty; no lights except for the lantern; no office; no table; no hot tea... The wireless is turned low; it doesn't need to blare forth now. “Annie Laurie” is being sung, softly.

Reveille 0600, tomorrow. Roll call 0630. Breakfast 0700. Ready to move 0800.

At this last hour, I am almost sorry to be going away. It is such an uprooting. Hell of an afternoon, packing, stock-taking, balancing accounts, loading. Those figures just wouldn't balance with the officer's! And I couldn't concentrate! There were so many other things to think of – the careful packing of the £30 stock in various boxes, so that it would come to no harm on the 4 day journey; the soap and paraffin to be kept apart from the cigarettes and foodstuffs; 30 tins of bad milk to be returned to the bulk NAAFI at the last minute; which lorry were we to have? Dozens of things cropped up at the last minute, and eventually we left the accounts unfinished. (Think I've got then all right now though, after working alone here in the quietness.)

Just went up to the tap on the hill near RHQ for a wash and to fill my water bottle (“Webbing and water bottles will be worn during the journey”). It was dark and cold up there and a dreary, dusty wind was blowing. (Damn you Egypt! But it will be even bleaker, where we're going!) Didn't have a very good wash, for the wind blew the lather off my hands and face, replacing it with gritty dust. I was glad to come back to this tent, light the lantern, close the door, and switch on the wireless.
The canteen stores have been loaded onto Kelly's truck, A7, so I'll be in my old home during the journey, anyhow.

As I write, Mary Ellis – whom I saw singing at His Majesty's on my first night in London, September 1933, is singing (on the wireless) a song from Ivor Novello's “Dancing Years.” 1933? I've only just realised that the start of my happiest two or three years was nearly ten years ago... And now, on my last night in Egypt, Mary Ellis is singing, “My Dearest Dear.”

9p.m. Now, I will clean my boots, two cap buttons and my cap badge. Then I'll make my bed right by the wireless set, and switch off when I'm ready to sleep!

Wednesday 13th January 1943

8p.m. and £E22 cash in hand. We've run out of bread, eggs and chocolate and there are only a couple of dozen cakes left. So it will be quiet now. We're selling a good many cigarettes – nearly 3000 a day in the last three days. Men are taking in stocks for the journey. This canteen closes at 2p.m. tomorrow and opens again (in Asia) next week I hope. There's something final about this move, I think. Perhaps we really are finished with Egypt and the Western Desert, for a while. This canteen has been a success. Our takings in less than a week have been £E60 and the profits are over £E12! (I took a check of the stock held yesterday.)

I was given a half-day pass yesterday and got a lift into Cairo (for the very last time?) on an RHQ truck at 2p.m. Did some shopping and went to “Music for All” for a haircut and shampoo and the usual tea and creamy cakes. Sat writing in the lounge whilst the string quartet played.

At 6:30p.m. I went to the “Diana” to see the film of this war - “This Above All”.
They showed me to my seat in the balcony, and dimly in the dark, I could see Jack Chenery smiling sadly in the next place. This didn't surprise me as I'd given him the corresponding ticket to mine that morning. “This Above All” very good but it shook me – the girls in uniform, the barbed wire all over England, and the bombing of London.

Not being a holiday, it was quiet in Cairo, and after supper Jack and I got a taxi very easily and were back in camp by 10:45p.m. He came into the canteen (debris littered) for a mug of tea before going on to 339's lines. German dance music was throbbing out merrily from the wireless set.

I can still write poetry! During the last three days I've written a narrative poem called “Full Circle” Pretty long – 128 lines and pretty gloomy and realistic.
It starts:

“The earth revolves in a circle around the sun,
for ever round and round till it's course is run.
Here is the tale of a common sort of man
who life revolved upon a similar plan...
His parents, weary went to bed
Early, to save the gas...”


“Now he felt a sparkle of sudden romance
for a girl he picked up at a shilling dance...
... This night put her in the family way
but he married her before the day
of her labour, with a ten bob ring...”

There was some poetry in this “poem”:

“They say that to each of us is given
one day more wonderful than the rest;
the zenith time, when we're nearer heaven
than we'll be again; our final crest...”
“... and a single poetic instinct stirred
in the man, and he looked above
puzzled by the blueness, and slowly said,
“Doesn't the sky seem big out here?””

But it comes back to grim-ness:

“...they started their war and the holocaust grew
and the working men's land and several more
unhappy nations marched into hell...”
“For a month or so he limped and fumbled
around the ruins where his two dears
had once lived before the whole slum crumbled
under a rain of bombs two years
after he'd gone away...”
“... pennies for the meter in his room,
closed door and window and turned on the gas
and died there deserted, in the gloom...”

At any rate, the ending is neat:

“... thirty years later their son was dead
but 'ere his soul could pass,
because he wasn't very brave
he spent what they had tried to save”

For the last three days I've been scribbling and re-scribbling “Full Circle” and have felt content. Now it is finished and I'll feel restless, waiting until I have another idea.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Saturday 9th January 1943

£E11-39-0 in my till tonight. Spent £E7-41-0 at the bulk store this morning, but the good day more than made up for that.

The receipts today were £E9-68-0. I now have a System of keeping accounts. I evolved it yesterday and after “arranging” my figures, made them balance – but not until I'd experimented with simple round numbers and discovered the basic facts that 1) Payments plus cash in hand = Receipts and 2) Receipts minus cash in hand = Payments!Tonight, after closing time, whilst Cliff Hanley and Basil Appleyard watched in silence, I importantly worked out various sums on my night's balance sheet. Then, as I inked in the final figures, I gave an exultant whimper, “Gosh it balances!” Appleyard laughed loudly. He didn't realise it was a triumph, not a comedy.

I'm getting up to all the tricks, bit by bit. Such things as displaying more prominently those articles which seem to be selling slower than the rest. I didn't display my 150 bars of chocolate (non-perishable) today at all, whilst I was selling 600 cakes. They'll go on the shelves tomorrow with some 50 choice doughnuts which I kept back (there'll be a shortage of cakes tomorrow. That's why I laid in a stock of chocolate yesterday).

There was an inspection by the CO today. I did not even stack my kit; just folded my blankets, which I always do. Of course we had to have the canteen tidy and attractive, which it was a pleasure to do in any case. This job suits me fine except that I have no mental escape from it. It will stifle my imagination, eventually.

I've finished “Lengthening Shadows,” a poem of seven 6-line verses. Can't say whether it is weak or only mediocre. A bit obscure perhaps, - a difficult subject.

“The shadows lengthen on the lawn;
the veils of tears are gently torn
from our tired eyes for one last sight
in the kindliness of fading light...
... of the quintessence of refinement...
... and now it is just too late
to withdraw our clever hate...” And so on.

I wrote most of it before I had this job, I only polished it off, made it scan, this week. Since I took over this canteen I have had no new ideas – and now I have finished piecing together the fragments I started earlier. I ask, is this the end of all I have to write? Are my verse dreams just might-have-beens? We shall see. I want to keep on writing, even if it is only tripe. Everything I write will help me to eventually produce something decent.

This job is as near to civilian life as an artillery soldier can get, I think. I'm doing nothing towards winning the war, unless making soldiers happy counts as a war effort. Two days ago there was a drill order. I watched the vehicles pull out, and was content. I had hot tea and cakes ready for their return.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Thursday 7th January 1943

Up at 5:15a.m. this morning and within three or four minutes, I'd heated up a mug of cocoa on the primus (I had a tin of Cadbury's out from England with an Xmas parcel). Afterwards, shaving in hot water by lantern light, I could hear the coughing of the men on hardening training.

Trip to the bulk NAAFI after breakfast, for 10 loaves, 200 cakes, 200 Gold Flake, 1000 Players and 1000 Woodbines – and smaller items. They're robbers at the bulk NAAFI, of course. They gave me 4 loaves short (which I discovered and rectified) and 10 cakes short (which I didn't detect until arrival back at the canteen). They're also very keen to give one stale and drab-looking cakes, keeping the luscious ones back, probably because they are too lazy to go and fetch them. I had to demand the manager this morning, before I got what I wanted.

Got back to camp about 9:45a.m. My two henchmen had been getting things ready in my absence and we opened punctually at 10:15a.m. Break-time and a rush of mass men... We did it! No one had to wait unduly and no one was turned away. There was enough tea. We sold out of cakes; I cut lots of tomato sandwiches. We took about £3.

10:30p.m., leaning on the bar. In two days we have taken (£E7-69.5pts today) altogether £13-45pts, but I had to spend over £6 this morning, so at the present moment there is £E7-6.5pts in my cash box. We'd have taken more tonight, only we'd run out of cakes by the end of break and bread was exhausted by 8p.m. Hope to get 600 cakes tomorrow. My God! I'm getting a business mind! Can't write about anything else!

At present I'm listening to dance music (broadcast by our enemies, the Jerry!) and have put out the electric lights leaving only a storm lantern. A mug of hot tea is by my elbow. It's time I wrote a letter, but I lack the imagination. Hope this job won't do my dreams too much damage!

I'm smoking a Gold Flake at the moment and this seems a satisfactory sort of war to be fighting. Don't want to go to bed yet and am not in the mood for reading, so guess I'll copy my latest work into my note book of the collected Verse of SJ Dawson. That won't take much mental effort! My latest (a polish up) is the story of the men of mixed blood who make up this unit today, and it is about 80 lines. Definitely less of a poem than usual and it's called “Regimental Rhyme” It certainly is – just a rhyme:-

“... And still they poured
a growing horde
from Brum and Leicester, Leeds and Kent,
from Atherstone and Stoke on Trent...”

Wednesday 6th January 1943

11p.m. in my little home. The canteen opened at 5p.m. (we got the electric lights installed at 4:59p.m.!) A busy day and a busier evening. With my two fatigue men, who proved good men at the bar, I got rid of mass sandwiches, cakes, cigarettes and tea. Takings for the evening £5-75 ½ pts. There were no mass queues and no panics. “Smokey Joe” Whitfield, at the primus, worked like a hero. I didn't have much time to look around but when I did, the scene looked very much like a pleasant canteen,with the wireless on, and the bright lights; some men talking or playing darts, other quietly reading.

Tuesday 5th January 1943

Yesterday, I noticed a squad of men erecting two EPIP tents joined together. “What's that for?” I asked; and was told, “This is the battery recreation tent, mate.” Your library is going to be in here, too.” another working man told me. “Ah!' I said.

(My library, by the way, made a steady and unspectacular start a few days ago, and now has about 20 regular borrowers and contains 84 books. Each day a couple or so more people join and each day I receive about a half dozen more books. This is absolutely as it should be. Small and steady beginnings...)

This morning the welfare activities in which I seem to have become engaged were vastly enlarged. I was standing on parade with the Battery signals class, when a gun sergeant came up and said something to the signals officer. The latter told me to fall out. “Apparently you know all about it?” he said. “You won't be with us any more.” Concealing my lack of knowledge, I was taken to see the BSM. He stood by the EPIP tents I'd noticed previously. A squad of men was hard at work, joining on a third tent. “I want you to take over the furniture and accessories,” he stated abruptly, “Got a pencil and paper? Right! 8 chairs wooden, 12 chairs basket...”

“What's all this sir?” I demanded. “Haven't you been told then?” “No sir.” “Good Lord! Well, you're in charge of the new recreational room. There'll be a canteen to run as well. You're excused all other duties, of course. We want you to be open by tomorrow night, if you can. You'll have a lance bombardier with you. All you need do is organise. There'll be two fatigue men detailed each day. And you're to carry on until Bdr. Cartwright comes back from hospital, which won't be for some weeks.” I digested this with commendable lack of astonishment, and “took over” the furniture etc. Even my intelligence was enough to cope with this.

It's been a busy and fiddling day. I've been to the bulk NAAFI to get the initial stock of provisions – about £12 in value. Brewing tea for 200 men between 10:30a.m. and 11a.m. each morning seems rather a problem – with only one good primus cooker. There don't seem any other major difficulties in the catering direction. There is a canvas floor and a bar counter and one shelf. The darts board has been satisfactorily installed, the electric light has not.

For myself, I have got a little screened off recess behind the bar, about 7 foot by 6 foot, complete with my own little table, lantern and box to sit on. My private office and bedroom, in fact!

Monday 4th January 1943

Last night I went into Cairo. Towards 10 o'clock I found a few Yeomen about and we decided to take a taxi back. We waited near Ezebekiah Gardens. The wind freshened; suddenly – there in the heart of Cairo – a fine spray of dust splattered into our faces. And was gone. I looked up at the sky; a few, hurrying clouds, SW wind.

“Going to be dusty out there,” I said gloomily. “Yeah,” said someone, “Proper shit storm, I shouldn't wonder.”

The taxi came, we got in and were back at camp within half an hour. It was dusty there, sure enough, and the wind getting stronger. One of the walls of our tent was flapping loose, I secured it, went in, turned on the electric light and got my bed ready. Quite cosy in there; every one else asleep, no music coming from the tannoy loudspeakers. I put out the light and slept.

Sometime in the early hours I awoke, quite gently, and found myself lying in the open with clouds of dust driving into my face. The wind was howling... the tent lay across my legs, a tangled heap of canvas and ropes. Gayler and Skewes were underneath, others were half covered like myself, and some were on the miredam, quite clear of the tent.

“The tent's blown down!” yelled Hallows, “Can't we get it up?” He was groping about in the dark; the dust stung my eyes. Ingue laughed. “Can't we do anything?” shouted Ted, struggling from underneath the ruins. “No”, I mumbled, “No use till morning.”

And I dragged the blankets and a coat up around my head to keep the damned dust out.
Foul awakening this morning, in the cold and dark. All coughing and spitting... It was some satisfaction to see that other tents had been blown down...

We got the tent up by first parade, despite the wind and dust (ah! the joy of standing in it's windless interior, when we'd put the walls up again!) The wind has not fallen, nor is it any less dusty now, and this is 8:30p.m. in the still, permanent, security of the YMCA.

My head aches. All our heads ache. Our throats, noses, eyes, hair, mouths are all full of the damned zift dust.

Saturday 2nd January 1943

I've read so much poetry lately that I'm beginning to think in rhyme – just as I did last March in Tobruch, when I produced my epic, “Land of Lost Dreams.” Now, all in the space of a few days, I have added four poems to the other children of my sentimental brain! They are:-

“When”, with two verses and an odd but rhyming line – a love poem.
“No Such Place”, of three 10 line stanzas plus two lines as an epilogue. This is a fantasy and quite original in thought!
“Sometime when I'm with you”, which is twenty lines of slop, not very good, and
“To Our Fallen”, which is of two 10 line stanzas and a bit better in style and theme.

I think “No Such Place” is the best. It looks attractive and is simple and picturesque and quaint. Anyhow, I'll keep on writing, when the mood comes, then I'll gradually find a style and may eventually write something worthwhile.