“I was always a mad comet…”

I was always a mad comet, a dark star...”

Phillip Hoare’s short film about the poet Wilfred Owen has a sad beauty to it:

Owen died on this day, one hundred years ago, killed just days before the 1918 Armistice would silence the guns of the Great War, into whose dark maw so many legions marched, never to return. I think of Owen often at this time of year, not just for his powerful poetry from the trenches, but because of his local connection to me. Recuperating from Shell Shock he was sent to Craiglockhart, just a short walk from my flat in Edinburgh (enlisted men were rarely so fortunate, they were told they were “cowards” if they showed Shell Shock, or if treated were given brutal regimes like ECT. Not so the officers, of course).

It was there Owen was encouraged by a pioneering doctor to use his dreams and nightmares from the trenches in his writing, and meets fellow poet Siegfried Sassoon, both of these changing his writing style, increasing the power he pours into his verse. While recuperating there he would sometimes guest as a literature teacher at the school around the corner from my home; he probably strolled right past my street. Edinburgh is like that, it has as many layers of literary history and connections as it has complex volcanic geology. Here the road Sassoon and Owen walked on their way into town, arm in arm, discussing poetry. There where Stevenson ducked out of university classes in his velvet coat, to head to the pub around the corner from my old work. There where Conan Doyle met Bell, who would become his model for Holmes, here, behind rows of tenements and houses, the school where Muriel Spark studied, where a teacher would become part of her notion for Miss Brodie. Here’s where Robert Burns stayed, there is the grave of his beloved Clarinda, in the same kirkyard as his poetic muse, Fergusson.

Edinburgh it still like that – there’s the literary salon, the regular book clubs, the book festival, there are the cafes Rowling wrote the first Harry Potter book in because it was cheaper than trying to heat her home when she had no money, there’s the pub where the fictional Inspector Rebus drinks, and his creator, Ian Rankin too. As a lifelong reader and as a bookseller it’s one of the aspects of Edinburgh that makes me love living here; the written word here is written into the cityscape…

The poetry of war

The very fine wordsmith and Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy approached several contemporary bards to write a piece of poetry inspired by some of the poems which came out of the Great War, to mark the impending centenary of the start of that awful carnage which has scarred the collective psyche for generations now. The poets in the Guardian piece include the late Seamus Heaney, his poem appearing for the first time, posthumously, and Duffy herself, whose lines, written in response to The Send Off by Wilfred Owen, I found especially moving, as I have always found Owen’s.

I think on Owen and his friend and fellow wartime poet Sassoon sometimes as I walk near my home, strolling along the Union Canal and seeing just a short walk further away the stone facade of Craiglockhart, now part of Napier University, but back then pressed into service as a place to treat shell-shocked officers (the regular ranks of ordinary men had somewhat rougher ‘treatment’ to deal with this new psychological injury caused by the intensity of prolonged mechanised warfare), where he and Sassoon were treated (a fictionalised account can be seen in Pat Barker’s novel – and the film adaptation of it – Regeneration)..

Remembering the fallen 02
(a night-time photograph of the Garden of Remembrance in Princes Street Gardens I shot last year, serried ranks of tiny crosses and poppies in the cold, dark, winter night, only a few feet from busy rush-hour Princes Street, a small, quiet spot to contemplate loss, sacrifice and not to forget hard-learned lessons)

“An Unseen”, Carol Ann Duffy

I watched love leave, turn, wave, want not to go,
depart, return;
late spring, a warm slow blue of air, old-new.
Love was here; not; missing, love was there;
each look, first, last.

Down the quiet road, away, away, towards
the dying time,
love went, brave soldier, the song dwindling;
walked to the edge of absence; all moments going,
gone; bells through rain

to fall on the carved names of the lost.
I saw love’s child uttered,
unborn, only by rain, then and now, all future
past, an unseen. Has forever been then? Yes,
forever has been.