Pequeña detective by etringita, under a Creative Commons license
'Night bomber pilot, just a trifle drunk … I tell you there are ghosts … somewhere between Brighton and the stars …’
These were the fragments of a poem someone asked us to find quite a few years ago, and they haunted me.
At the time I wasn’t able to track down the poem or the slim volume of poetry our enquirer had seen it in during the war. But every now and then I do check up on these long lost things, as more and more material is digitised, and a while ago I found a reference to it on the internet, from The War Decade: an anthology of the 1940s, compiled by Andrew Sinclair. I’ve now got a second-hand copy of the book, and can read the poem in full. It’s by James Monahan, who served with Special Forces, and whose book of poetry Far from the Land was published in 1944. The poem is called ‘Ghosts’, subtitled ‘Three years after the Battle of Britain’, and tells of a bomber crew on a routine return flight, whose intercom is taken over by other voices –
First crackly fragments, things like a flight of Spits
correcting formation as they took the air,
then laughs from ‘Dick’ to ‘Rabbit’ …
and there it was again, jokes, then a warning
‘Dorniers starboard, low’; a silence after,
stretching and stretching to a single call,
once, twice, three times and then a fourth time – ‘Rabbit,
you O.K., Rabbit?’ There was no reply.
The bomber crew fall silent too, realising that
… the night around
was busy with the wings of the three-year-dead
and we through their territory riding …
It brings the hairs up on the back of your neck.
What would we do without the internet? Would I ever have found that poem without it? Well, it is a mighty resource, but as a tool can also be clumsy, throwing up false connections which can mislead the unwary …
Last week we were asked if there were any copyright issues with a poem someone wanted to reprint on a family history website. From a copyright point of view it was no problem, as it dated from the 1850s, but when I was checking it, I found a completely different author from the one mentioned by our enquirer. He had found (from American sources) that the poem was written by John Baldwin Buckstone and published, under the nom-de-plume of Luke the Laborer, in the Glasgow Sentinel. I traced it to a John Anderson, a self-appointed campaigner for the Temperance movement and against social injustice, and was able to confirm on the printed page in our much-used anthology of minor 19th century Scottish poets that Anderson penned ‘a series of political sketches in verse’, entitled ‘Dashes at Iniquity, by Luke, the Labourer’. So which one was really posing as ‘Luke’?
Well, Buckstone was an English actor and playwright, who wrote a popular play entitled Luke the Labourer. He lived what seems to have been a very busy life on and off the stage in England, and entirely free of any Scottish interest. Anderson, on the other hand, was just the sort of man to send something protesting about a Scottish landowner to a Scottish newspaper (the poem is a rant against the Duke of Hamilton’s probably well-intentioned distribution of goods to his tenants), and with some distinctly Scottish sentiment in the last verse:
Petitions for bread let us strongly despise,
A mendicant's wail is not Scottish nor wise;
Let us seek independence in trouble and strife –
That peril of manhood – that jewel of life.
As a mate for our Thistle – our Thistle so grand –
This virtue must bloom in our dear father-land;
Till every lone nook shall partake of its cheer,
And pauper relief, like a curse, disappear.
No doubt a mix-up over ‘Luke the Labourer’, but it just shows you.
Two new enquiries we would like some help with:
– a request for a copy of the poem ‘Today and Tomorrow’ by Charles Mackay – it urges men to do today whatever good they can do for others; our enquirer tried to translate it into Serbian almost sixty years ago when he was learning English. Now he has found his old translation but doesn’t have the original poem for comparison. We cannot find a copy here in the Library nor yet online – can anyone point us in the right direction?
– a recitation heard over 50 years ago, at a church social. It concerned a wifie doing her cleaning when interrupted by a visit from the meenister; when he is departing and asks if she would like him to put up a prayer, she replies that she would rather he put up her gasselier . (Solemn note from ed.: a gasolier, with several different spellings, seems to have been a ‘branched hanging fitting for gaslights’).