Persephone Book No.22: Consider the Years by Virginia Graham

A forum for Persephone readers where we write about a new book every month.

Only very occasionally does the Persephone Forum find itself ‘in sync’ with the Thursday afternoon Reading Group at Lamb’s Conduit Street. It is rewarding and informative when it does, and a pleasure for the Country Cousin to meet Persephone readers in the flesh.  I hope I am not misrepresenting the group when I say that we all admitted to a slight reluctance to picking up a volume of poetry, generally preferring the ‘total immersion’ of the novel.

Short stories meet with similar, initial, reluctance. The last time Forum and Reading Group coincided was over Tell it to a Stranger, a collection of short stories by Elizabeth Berridge (Persephone Book No. 15). We agreed that, once started, we found it difficult not to rush on to the next story, with the result that, though we loved them, we found that with a few notable exceptions, there was a slight tendency to confuse one with another.  We decided then that ‘little and often’ was by far the better approach, and one which ideally we should adopt with poetry.

The short story connection was in fact twofold.  While encapsulating many of the scenes and experiences of Few Eggs and No Oranges by Vere Hodgson (Persephone Book No. 9), Consider the Years  reminded us quite as much of  Tell it to a Stranger, and Mollie Panter-Downes’ Good Evening Mrs Craven, The Wartime Stories (Persephone Book No. 8). The Speaker, a latter day ‘recruiting officer’ in Sound the Trumpet,  urging her audience into the factories or the forces, ‘If Russia can do it, surely we can too’, could have stepped straight out of Good Evening Mrs Craven, together with her eager audience who

 

…. beat their pointed umbrellas like tom-toms on the floor.

            (Their ages averaged, roughly, sixty-four).

 

food-leader-badge

The WVS began the Food Leader Scheme to advise housewives on food saving.

 

Some of the poems are short stories. ‘Air Raid Over Bristol’ has a small but full cast of characters, worried shopkeepers, the know-all grocer focusing his binoculars, the anxious granny, and in the starring role, the WVS Food Officer (a self-portrait?), trying hard to maintain a stiff upper lip, dutifully keeping up the spirits of others, ‘They have superb shelters in all the schools, I believe';  while convinced that she is about to die, inconsequentially removing candle grease from her coat lining. Throughout the drama, which could, in reality, have turned into a tragedy, our heroine never forgets the purpose of her visit,

 

            (Madam, do you keep your pig-food in a separate bin?

            It is a sin

            against the nation not to preserve each bone.)

 

When the all clear sounds and others scour the street for shrapnel, she can hold her head up high,

 

             I bow to the proprietress of the shop,

            and now that I mysteriously feel such a credit to the nation

            I hand her a leaflet on Salvage from the Corporation.

 

The women (they are mostly women) in Virginia Graham’s poems display a sort of dogged courage, fighting, with small acts of defiance, on their own front. In Occupied Paris women wore their best hats and brightest lipstick. The ‘grand old girl’, in ‘Final Gesture’ stands her ground:

 

No, dear, I will not eat in the scullery!

I will go down with my colours flying.

 

‘One must keep gay if one can and try not get one’s thoughts hopelessly embedded in war affairs’, Virginia wrote to Joyce Grenfell. If a stiff upper lip was undoubtedly a useful part of her armour, as it was for so many, it was also a sort of weapon.

 

'Avid for more action we then became one of a team of stirrup pumps,' Virginia wrote with a certain glee to Joyce Grenfell.

‘Avid for more action we then became one of a team of stirrup pumps,’ Virginia wrote with a certain glee to Joyce Grenfell.

On a personal level, judging from her letters to Joyce Grenfell, she didn’t have a bad war. Her husband survived; their flat in London, other than having the stairs covered in glass ‘from some bomb or other’, which made her very ‘kloss’, was undamaged. The worst of it was having to move to Bristol for a few months, a blow perhaps softened by taking her cook and housemaid with her. Virginia may have had to make do but she didn’t have to do a great deal of mending (when her cook, not the same one, retired in 1991, she taught VG, now eighty, how to heat up food from Marks and Spencer). She led a privileged life, but money, though useful, did not protect her from loneliness, or loss, or fear.

Virginia and her mother took refuge in Claridges at the start of the war, as did the Kings of Greece, Norway, and Yugoslavia and the Queen of the Netherlands.

Virginia and her mother took refuge in Claridges at the start of the war, as did the Kings of Greece, Norway, and Yugoslavia and the Queen of the Netherlands.

At the beginning of the war Virginia was 28 and newly married to Tony Thesiger, who joined up with an anti-aircraft unit in Bristol.   She knew the plight of The Depressed Bride, alone in the new home, where ‘with the wedding silver I shall eat':

 

 

‘…. Our substantiated dream,

            the freshly painted walls, the covers cream,

            the yellow curtains hanging crisply new,     

            the pale unfurnished shelves with books askew’.

 

She sympathised with those who were made to leave London, to give up

 

… noise, and lights, and little corner shops,

            And fuggy cinemas and sooty rain ..

 

Her dislike of  country life – for she was as devoted to London as any East End evacuee – dated from before the war and did not diminish when it was forced upon her.  Nature did not stir her soul and she hated the cold.  ‘Now That You Live in the Country’ still strikes a chord:

 

You’ll believe you’re the selfsame person,

               but no, as the years unfold

            you’ll get hotter and hotter,

               and your visitors colder than cold.

 

The bouncy rhythm of Four Little Miles does not altogether hide the fear behind the lines:

 

‘Oh, pity us who only share

            The same bombardment from the air.’   

 

bomb-damage-bristol

Bristol suffered badly from bomb damage.

 

Virginia Graham was not a stay-at-home wife, not one of the Ladies in Waiting: what a gift she had for titles – Autumn Leaves, those furloughs too short for any meaningful communication; Lebensraum, not a nationalistic ambition, but memories of a childhood bedroom, requisitioned as a military billet; The Answer’s in the Negative, a touching description of moist photographs of absent sons, hanging askew in bathrooms.  She joined the Women’s Voluntary Service  as a driver in 1939 (Joyce Grenfell thought she looked most attractive in the bottle-green tweed uniform), giving up matinees and quiet strolls along the Mall to

 

go to Wanstead Flats

            with bales of straw, or a cargo of tin hats…

 

wondering, like many of her fellow volunteers in this ‘espèce d’organisation de femmes’ (her poems in French are as witty as her English verse – real French but very English humour), what, after the war, she might tell her grandchildren:

 

How can I convince them that it was to England’s good

            that I went to Waterloo to meet two goats travelling from Camberley,

            and drove them in a car across to  Victoria, where I put them in another train,

            third class, non-smoker of course, to Amberley?

 

The WVS uniform was designed by the Mayfair couturier, Digby Morton.. Volunteers had to use their own clothing rations and pay for their uniforms. The suit cost 79s 6d and the blouse 6s.

The WVS uniform was designed by the Mayfair couturier, Digby Morton.. Volunteers had to use their own clothing rations and pay for their uniforms. The suit cost 79s 6d and the blouse 6s.

 

Virginia Graham knew she was one of the lucky ones,

 

‘We who have husbands at home should be very quiet,

            for we do not know

            the meaning of days ….’

 

 

We Who Have Husbands at Home,  is a moving poem, which uses her ‘trademark’ bathos to powerful effect:

 

‘Let us not speak

            too loudly of war restrictions and rationing and the black-out

            for there are eyes that seek

            empty horizons, skies and deserts and sad grey seas,

            and a sign from God,

            while we who have husbands at home look in the shops

            for wool perhaps or cod.’

 

Her range is remarkably wide, from comic verse: ‘The Watch on the Rhine’ ,is the sad lament of an Opera House Rhinemaiden:

 

We strive with our arms to display all the charms

               Of sirens who lounge upon rocks,

            But our legs are congealed and our bosoms concealed

               In the most uprovocative frocks.

 

to poems which seem to be serious, but have a twist in the final lines. The ‘Prayer to Ceres’, begging for all her bounteous gifts, but ‘please, please, PLEASE, no more plums';  a deliberately mawkish reflection on friendship and love is brought firmly down to earth:

 

‘Tis love alone makes the world go round,

            And so, of course does a double rum

            Thoughtlessly poured on an empty tum.’

 

 

and at the other end of the spectrum some which are genuinely serious.

 

Some of the post-war poems vividly convey a feeling of grim exhaustion. Victory is not to be celebrated unreservedly. Like many others Virginia Graham reacted with shock and despair to the dropping of the atom bomb and to what was perceived as the ‘sell-out’ of Eastern Europe to the Soviets. There is irritation at the return of the old order, as the rich who had spent the war in country houses ‘leased at such vast cost’, reclaim the city, the theatre seats, the restaurant seats and he taxi seats. And fury at the inadequacy of the public (a particularly insensitive section of the public) reaction to the revealed horrors of the concentration camps. A note accompanying a parcel to one who has lost everything ends on a note of bitter humour,

 

            I, full of compassion, send for your comfort,

            Two of my husband’s vests and a pair of old tennis shoes.

 

Should we heed Virginia Graham’s own words and refrain from using the term poem. ‘I have been writing verse for a number of years, but I have never yet succeeded in writing a poem’. ‘Poets are inspired from within,’ she continues, ‘whereas writers of verse are more observers of the outward and visible things of life’.  She is a brilliant observer of life, with a finely tuned ear, a sharp eye, and a glorious ability to create word pictures, not least in that self-deprecating assessment of her own talent: ‘We verse-makers, therefore, are really the hack-workers of the profession, and when the Muse visits us, she is merely slumming.’ One can almost see lofty Calliope stepping gingerly through the grime, brushing aside the strung out washing.

For a writer with such an easy way with rhythm and metre, and a serious grasp of verse form – her parody Kipling’s ‘If’ is brilliant – she is absurdly modest.

She was also irrepressibly witty and many of the ‘entries’ (what are we to call them? I still incline to poems) were written for Punch, that is for an intelligent reader looking to be amused more than to be moved, to share such comedy as could be found in times that were essentially tragic. A wry smile is not an invalid response.

 

 

 

Quotes ….. do share your favourites

Somewhere there must be women reading books,

and talking of chicken rissoles to their cooks …

(‘Somewhere in England’)

 

The moment is gone now, it is past recall;

But we walked there in the sweetest scented breeze,

And I spoke, I know at some length of evacuees,

And you of the maps you had pinned with flags to your wall,

I think, my friend, more than this was expected of us.

(‘Missed Opportuniy’)

 

Oh, were the socks and jumpers lain out flat

Together side by side,

With all the undies and the crocheted shawls,

They’d cover ninety times with ninety palls

The heart of every bride

Who has to stay at home for once and tat!

(‘Ladies in Waiting’)

 

 

Regardez, madame, cette jupe d’une simplicité exquise,

      D’une serge bleu marin – très jeune, très écolière !

Et je parie que Madame aura l’air d’un Marquise

      Dans ce balaclava de poil de dromadaire.

 

A la fin, je vous offre, comme pièce de résistance,

      Des sabots ! Une plaisanterie extrèmement gaie !

Ils sont d’une incommodité immense,

      Mais là-dedans vous marcherez vers la paix.

(‘Our Winter Collection’)

 

If you have enjoyed this book, you might also enjoy:

It’s Hard to be Hip over Thirty  by Judith Viorst  (Persephone Book No:12)

Lettice Delmer by Susan Miles (Persephone Book No:36)

Amours de Voyage  by Arthur Hugh Clough (Persephone Book No:82)

 

 

What other bloggers have said about this book:

….you probably won’t know Virginia Graham as a recognized poet, or even as a famous person  (but Persephone Books has republished the book, bless them!), and I must warn beforehand that you should not expect unique, unforgettable poetry à la Shakespeare. Does any English expression translate the French “vers de mirliton”? It means childish verses, funny puns and poetry not intended to be highbrow or literary at all…

… The poetry equivalent of the beloved slogan “Keep Calm and Carry On”. In short, a short poetry ration when you see disaster around and still have to carry on with your day even if your heart is heavy, like these days in face of tragedy. smithereens


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