Monday, 21 April 2014

Poetry of the War Years: 1914-1918 Remembered Barbara Farquharson Branscombe Village Hall Wednesday 16 April 2014

One Century On
The Great War is remembered

Branscombe Village Hall
7.30pm Wednesday 16 April 2014

David Birch

On Wednesday, pianist Frances Waters made her way almost immediately from a lunchtime concert accompanying soprano Mary O'Shea to an evening of First World War reminiscences at Branscombe Village Hall.

Barbara Farquharson has organised an exhibition in the hall inspired by the effect of the war on rural communities. As a grand finale Barbara and five other poets gave a recital of poetry and writings from the time, while surrounded by exhibits.

There was music too. For John Torrence's recital of "War Cemetery at Ligny St Flochel", the sound of Claude Debussy's "Syrinx" came eerily from another part of the building - played by Chris Gradwell on alto saxophone.

Rowland Molony

Each part of the recital, which was in two halves, closed with two songs performed by soprano Val Howels, accompanied gallantly by Frances Waters on what must be one of the worst pianos in Devon. Frances was unfazed by Les Dawson style discords coming from the untuned strings, and Val sang on in perfect pitch regardless. Even the disheartening clunks that took the place of poignantly drawn out final chords could not detract from the trademark musicianship of this pair.

David Birch began the evening with "Channel Firing" by Thomas Hardy. Hardy's poem describes a precursor to war, the practice firing of ships' batteries at sea. Sitting in Branscombe Hall looking out to sea, where the MSC Napoli (formerly CGM Normandie) was stranded seven years ago, it was easy to concur with Hardy's premonitions of impending disaster.

Madeleine Birch

On a lighter note David recited Henry Reed's "Judging Distances". The military imperative to report observations without interpretation is countered by an unwilling volunteer (Rowland Molony) describing the romantic scene of two lovers.

David completed the preamble to war with Wilfred Owen's "The Send-Off". Anonymous couples rudely separated in preparation for conflict.

Madeleine Birch recreated the idyllic unreality of newly waged war in the balmy August of 1914 in Philip Larkin's "MXMXIV" and Vera Brittain's recollection of the pointless excitement of a tennis game inDerbishire which is put in perspective by the appearance of her uniformed brother in "Testament of Youth".

Robert Crick

Madeleine closed with nature's indifference to man's battles in Sarah Teasdale's "Soft Rain".

Robert Crick changed the mood completely with formal army records and journal entries from 1914 made by Robert's grandfather Captain A. G. Lind, who was invalided out in 1915 and survived to reach the rank of Colonel, and to live out his life in Budleigh Salterton.

The personal connection, in conjunction with Robert's ponderous and ominous tone, brought the details terrifyingly to life, and drew the soldiers' experiences close through his attention to detail.

Val Howels

Val Howels sang words from Shakespeare's "Cymbeline" - "Fear no more the heat of the Sun". This dialogue between Guiderius and Arviragus offers words of comfort in the loss of loved ones. Their suffering is done.

Her second song was by a contemporary of Thomas Hardy who lived in Bournemouth. Meta Orred's "In the Gloaming", set to music by Annie Fortesque Harrison, was an uplifting love song with gentle overtones of exquisite tragedy. What a beautiful end to the first half of the concert.

(Frances' one really duff note - purely the fault of the piano - came right at the end, an incongruous but fitting coda.)

Rowland Molony
& John Torrance
During the interval everyone was liberally plied with wine, fruit juice and tapas. (Well done Barbara!) Once everyone was comfortably refreshed, Rowland Molony introduced two compositions, one by himself and one by John Torrence. "At Long Wood, Longueval" recounts Rowland's thoughts while breaking his journey at the historic battle site, while "War Cemetry at Ligny St Flochel" is John's moving description of that sad memorial square. The haunting sound of Chris Gradwell's alto clarinet in the background was the perfect complement to their words.

John Torrance

John continued with two more poems. W. B. Yeats was Irish, and fifty when war broke out, so the carnage in Europe was not his direct concern. However, he was moved by the death of his friend Robert Gregory from Galway, to write a very cutting verse called "An Irishman Foresees his Death".

David Birch &
John Torrance

David Birch joined John for "Billet" by Ivor Gurney, who was directly involved in the war on the Western Front and suffered severe mental health problems as a result.

David provided the voices of Ivor's fellow Gloucestershireman, a private soldier who wished fervently that he was still working at the Brewery in Stroud. Ivor agreed.

Barbara Farquharson
Rowland, in his deceptively soft voice, delivered two polemics on the reality of war. "Exposure" by Wilfrid Owen unflinchingly describes the predicament of men in the front line. Isaac Rosenberg's "Break of Day in the Trenches" recounts his encounter with a neutral, non-partisan rat which survives, ignoring the artificial boundaries set up by the two opposing armies.
Finally Barbara Farquharson herself stood forward to speak. She recalled the wartime friendship between the poet Charlotte Mew and Edith Chick in Branscombe. Edith continued to receive Charlotte's drafts for many years after the war. "May 1915" was a recollection of the stubborn hope that survived in the depths of apparently endless war.

Rowland Molony &
Barbara Farquharson
Rowland Molony joined Barbara for a poem by Edward Thomas, a former nature writer who was encouraged by the American poet Robert Frost to turn his hand to poetry. In just a few months, while on active service, Thomas wrote more than 140 poems before he was killed by an exploding shell. "As The Team's Head Brass Flashed Out on the Turn" describes a ploughman's disjointed dialogue with a woodpecker in a fallen elm tree. (Rowland is the woodpecker.) A rational analysis of the survival prospects of the young volunteers, and the cost to the farming community of their sudden departure and poor prospects of coming back alive.
Frances Waters

Barbara ended the evening's readings with a surprise contribution, which had been received during the week of the exhibition. Barbara reminded us that she and John have written a book called "The Shooting at Branscombe Pits" about the trial of William Dean Dowell for murder in the late nineteenth century. (Dowell was acquitted.) Subsequently, Dowell married and had a son. His son did not survive the war. Dowell wrote to the Second-Lieutenant of his son's regiment ten year's later, imploring him to give a full account of his son's fate. A copy of the letter was provided for the exhibition and poetry evening. The writing betrays Dowell's poor education and simple faith in the goodness of a British officer.

Val Howels & Frances Waters
Val Howels and Frances waters hammered home the sentiments of William Dean Dowell's unassuming hopes with a modern composition by Michael Nyman. "If" describes the plaintive wish to stop all harm - if one only could.

Finally, to the accompaniment of a piano which sounded as if it had only just survived the war (but ably coaxed into life by Frances), Val drew a final tear from the already deeply moved audience with an old soldiers' favourite composed just before the war began.
"Tis ye must go, and I must bide - O Danny Boy, I love you so!"

Appeals to the Living
Roll of the Dead

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