Friday, February 06, 2009

Thursday 22nd June 1944

To Town by the 10:38, dressed rather like an ex-soldier in mufti. As previously instructed, I rang the Company when I reached Fenchurch Street and was put through to Mr Percy. They've decided that I shall remain in or around London much longer than at first suggested, whilst I learn about industrial paints. (“They're the paints of the Future,” said Mr Percy alluringly!”

Now I may be in Town all the summer; it's a pity they didn't decide this earlier, before we'd arranged to move to Great Burstead, in the depths of the country. Well, I'll have to travel to and fro, that's all. Lunch at a rough cafe in Villiers Street. (Sausages, mash and peas; at my request, the sausages were burnt ones.)

“May I look at your book, please?” asked the woman who served me. “It's poetry,” I said dubiously. “I know. I love poetry.” “Well you won't love that,” I said, “Anyway, I don't. It's modern stuff – free verse chiefly. Not much rhyme and usually no metre.”
“I certainly don't know these authors,” said the woman, strolling away away with the book, “Except Sitwell...” “Edith?” “Yes.”
“Pretty deadly verse in there, isn't it? I'm only reading for educational purposes.”
(Presently she'll tell me her favourite poem, I thought amusedly, cutting up a sausage, that's what this is leading to, really.)

She came back and put down my “introduction to Modern Poetry”. “I've been looking everywhere for a copy of “Cynara,” she said, “My husband read it to me once and I'd like to get hold of a copy...” “What's that – a book?” How do you spell it?” “C-Y-N-A-R-A Just a poem. By Dobson, or Dowson – some such name.”
“I know it! “I have been faithful to you, Cynara, after my fashion”” “Yes! If you ever find a copy, leave it here. The manager will pay for it, if I'm not in.” “And you are?” “Joan Clark. Mrs Joan Clark.”

Half way through the mash and peas and nearly entirely through the burnt sausages, I looked up to hear Mrs Clark, beside the tea-urn declaiming Omar Khayyam! “Lovely lines, those. I like the sadness of, “... has gone with all his rose...” I don't read it for escapism, like some. I read poetry because I really love it. Do you like Ben Johnson?”
“Don't know him,” I said regretfully, and beginning to enjoy the conversation – one so seldom meets anyone who want's to discuss poetry. “Do you like the start of the Rubiyat?” “Yes!' she exclaimed, “'Awake! For morning in the bowl of night...'” “... 'Has flung the stone that puts the stars to flight'” “'And lo! The hunter of the East has caught...'”

“Mash, pie and beans, please,” said a girl, coming in. “And tea?” asked the poetess, ceasing to recite. “Yes, please.”
“From the sublime to the ridiculous” hissed Mrs Clark, going to fetch it.

(“Mad,” I thought privately, “or neurotic. Or a real poetry lover. Or pretending to be one. But I haven't time to find out”)

All the better for this encounter, I went on to the Ministry of Pensions. There was an alarming number of soldiers (ex) sitting on chairs or standing in queues. Despite their civilian clothes, they had an alarming air of uniformity. There were also war widows, bless their hearts. A filtering system chuffed me along from room to room and different groups of people until I was being interviewed by a specialist. To my disappointment, he only wanted to know if I was settling down well and all that. “Ah well! You'll be alright!” he added breezily.

“But what about a pension?” I asked. “Nothing to do with me, my boy,” he said boisterously. “Try for one if you like. Write to the Ministry at Blackpool.”

Air raid sirens wailed every now and then. Near Tottenham Court Road I saw an area cordoned off. Rescue squads were busy. It seemed as if Schmidts and Charlotte Street had disappeared...

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