Joined: 30 May 2013
|Posted: Wed Dec 23, 2015 11:56 pm Post subject: Daisies Are Truer Than Passion Flowers
|In her autobiography 'Climbing the Book Shelves', Shirley Williams partly attributes Labour's loss of the 1992 general election to what Jac o' the North would call anti-Welsh racism. She was surprised that this still existed in the present day UK.
Mike Parker would have agreed. He said that when he was campaigning for Neil Kinnock in the English midlands, he would be chased down the street by nondescript middle aged cardigan wearers, shouting variants on ''I'm not voting for that Welsh whinger/whiner/windbag/wanker.''
Mike Parker was bewildered by the irrationality of it. He agreed that Neil Kinnock had many objectionable qualities but did not think his Welshness was one of them.
Shirley Williams said it made her feel cross. She can't have an intimate knowledge of Wales. When referring to a jerry built building which collapsed in Korea killing schoolboys, she compared it to Aberfan. I'm not dissing her but she couldn't pronounce Aberfan.
But she does feel connected to Wales, perhaps through her first husband, the philosopher Bernard Williams, and definitely by blood. Her mother Vera Brittain mentioned in her Great War memoir 'Testament of Youth' that her own maternal grandfather had been a Welsh music teacher and unpublished composer.
When Shirley Williams was a child in London, her grandmother invariably employed girls straight from Wales as maids. I don't think Vera Brittain understood much Welsh if any. She was at Aberystwyth University to make a speech at the time of the abdication crisis, and said that she listened hard to all those speeches that were in English.
She mainly mentions her Welsh grandfather as the source of the musical talent displayed by her brother Edward Brittain which he was unable to fulfil as he was killed in battle on the Asiago Plateau in Italy in the last months of the Great War.
But it is not Edward Brittain who is the hero of his sister's war memoir 'Testament of Youth,' so recently made into a film. It is his school friend Roland Leighton who became her fiancé.
It is a hundred years today since Roland Leighton aged 20, lost his life, not in 'one crowded rush of glorious life' as he had hoped, but cut down by a sniper as he mended the barbed wire near his trench, as he had done so many times before. A sniper easily picked him out by moonlight just before he was planning to go on Christmas leave.
Roland had expected to become a writer. He just left a few letters and poems. He couldn't think why he had volunteered even though his bad eyesight gave him the perfect get out of jail card. The UK had not yet brought in conscription.
He thought it was probably a longing for 'heroism in the abstract', and that didn't seem a very logical reason for risking his life. He neither hated the Germans nor loved the Belgians.
Just as the fish is the last to discover the water, he could not see that he had been swimming in militarism for the sake of it all his life. Uppingham, where he and Edward Brittain endured a classical education, had made the transition from grammar to public school only in late Victorian times.
It was a poor school but it had an Officers' Training Corps and was steeped in Jingoism. At Roland's last school prize day in the summer of 1914, at which he won every single prize, the headmaster wasn't recherché enough to quote the Latin poet who said 'Dulce et decorum est pro Patria Mori.'
Instead he quoted the words of a famous Japanese general, ''If a man can be no use to his country, he is better dead.'' It sounds brutal now, but it accorded with the mores of the time.
Had it not been for the war, Roland would have gone up to Oxford in the Michaelmas term of 1914. And then his path would have been eased into professional writing. His father wrote boys' adventure stories. His mother wrote sensational novels.
It was the heightened intensity of war that rushed him into an engagement with his old school chum's sister whom he presented with passion flowers. It was somehow unreal.
Until the spring of 1915 they hardly touched except to shake gloved hands gravely at train stations. Vera looked down on people who exchanged sloppy French kisses on railway platforms.
While trying to spare her the worst details, Roland let Vera know in letters from the front that he had had a complete change of heart about the glory and heroism of war. He sent her violets 'from Plug Street Wood' where they had grown around the head of a fallen comrade whose blood lay all around.
He wrote of how on going over the top, he passed the body of a British soldier who was still crouched holding a gun. His uniform was still fresh and crisp but his hands were green and his head already skeletal. he couldn't believe that any political aim was worth the death of even one of these.
Vera took a long time to get the message. Even after receiving these letters, she was referring dreamily to her loved one as 'Roland of
Vera never really recovered from Roland's death. She jumped up joyfully to answer the phone, expecting to hear that Roland had just arrived in England for Christmas. But the news was that he had died of wounds.
Apart from Edward, she lost two other close male friends, one of whom might also have become a fiance. Ever afterwards she appeared to be a woman in a constant state of anxiety.
Vera imagined that Roland had foretold his death in a poem he wrote, in which he mentioned that she might meet after him 'another stranger.' Each verse ended with the line 'Daisies are Truer Than Passion Flowers.'
She believed he was giving her permission to marry someone else after his death. She thought it the only possible interpretation.
Somebody has remarked that there is another possibility . Perhaps it was in effect a 'Dear Jane' poem.
Kenneth Williams snarked in his diary that there was something so dull and worthy' about Shirley Williams and her colleagues. Vera Brittain had had children because she thought they might be useful.
Roland's sister Clare thought that Vera was 'basically ...a very conventional person, and one of her problems was that she was ashamed of this.' Vera was an intense, serious person, not noted for a sense of humour. Although she was waited on by uniformed maids, she joined the Labour Party on principle.
She would always have had a rival for Roland's affections, his drama queen mother, the formulaic novelist Marie Connor Leighton. Marie also wrote a memoir of Roland called 'Boy of My Heart.' One of his school friends said it was hard to believe she published it although it was easy to understand her writing it.
In 'Testament of Youth', Roland is always dignified. Even as a sixth form school boy he had the assurance of a person of 30. After reading his mother's account, it is difficult to take him seriously.
Marie gave birth to Roland after another baby son had been allowed to smother by an incompetent nurse. Marie was a possessive mother who appeared to be in love with her son and mostly ignored her two younger children.
Her daughter Clare wrote a book on her mother, 'Tempestuous Petticoat' which she had to rewrite twice to allow the anger to dissipate. Clare was known in the family as the bystander as no one took much notice of her.
Marie Connor Leighton was not literally pre-Freudian but her world view was. After several passionate passages about Roland, she would recount how her son would beg her, ''Come and see me in bed, Mother'' which she was always happy to do.
She noted that a common servant accused her of being too devoted to her son. Marie defended herself on the grounds that she was not indulgent. She had acquired a cane which she had made him acquainted with.
The old washer woman or whatever she was, was not impressed. She said there was a kind of caning that was more like petting.
One of these delightful episodes of gentle chastisement occurred immediately after Marie had gone out to buy lacy lingerie for herself as a treat for Roland. She was disappointed to find that in her absence, he had knocked his sister Clare down and trampled on her because she kept insisting a door was white after he had said it was red.
I can't believe I'm repeating this. It's absolutely embarrassing. An internet reviewer said that if his mother had written a book like this about him after his death, he'd come back and haunt her. But perhaps that was what Marie wanted.
It's evident that it was an incestuous relationship emotionally if not literally, and perhaps the latter too. Marie had always been tempestuous. Not only did she elope at 17, but according to her own account, she had a passionate relationship with a window cleaner at 10. Her parents had sent her to convent school to break it off.
As an adult she was less enamoured of members of the general public. She forbade her children to walk down streets where plebs lived. Clare thought she was a remnant of a previous age after the war, like a dispossessed Habsburg writing 'I Was to be Empress.'
If not a mother-in-law from hell, she would have been an acute embarrassment for Vera Brittain. In one way, Vera's genteel bourgeois home - which she was ashamed of - was an improvement on Marie's bohemian pad.
There were smouldering resentments in the Brittain home. Her father was depressed even before he lost his son. He would top himself in the 30s.
They would shout at each other about how she had as much right to a university education as Edward or about the higher criticism. But as unenlightened as they might have been about the suffragettes and other women's issues, Vera's were more like present day parents.
They were people you would have a blazing argument with on equal terms. There was no deliciously stern materfamilias-cum-goddess.
In any case Marie did not think women should vote but rule men indirectly with imperious and arbitrary orders. She also did not care for Vera going to Oxford. She said it was no use to a writer 'except of treatises.'