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20 June 2014


Boy Scout archive

IT IS 2014, and we cannot but remember. Each of us will be observing the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War in his or her own way. I dwell on a diary, the tiny 1916 Boy Scouts Diary that, 16 years ago, I picked up from a stall at a Salvation Army fête.

The diary belonged to one Arthur Atkinson, of Dewsbury, who, I guess, must have been in his mid-teens. His brief diary entries make for poignant reading. The first week of 1916 was an eventful one for him. On Saturday 1 January, he "got wet through". The terse entry for Wednesday 5th is: "Horse ran away with me".

Sunday 9 January was Arthur's birthday, and he tells us that he was given "a tenor horn". The Salvation Army Citadel, with its band andits rousing worship, is the centre of the boy's life. Several evenings a week he is at band practice. He sells The War Cry on the streets. Once or twice, he tells us that he sits at the "penitent form", but he does not confess to his diary what moves him to do so.

Arthur suffers from warts, recurrent headaches, and indigestion. Despite these afflictions, he often goes to his local baths, and he proudly records diving off the top board. (Once, he loses his "draws".) During the year, he goes out to work, starting on the "cutting machine" at 12s. a week.

Arthur might have been just old enough to have been conscripted - despite his warts - before the war was over. I hope that he was not called up, or, if he was, that he survived the slaughter. Dewsbury has its war memorials, and the Salvation Army its archives; so I suppose I could find out. But I haven't the courage.

Unspoken memories

IT IS 2014, and we cannot but remember. Yet how rarely they reminded us. I think of "Tiny Palmer" - all six foot eight of him. Noel Palmer was badly wounded on the Western Front. After the war, he was one of the leaders of the Evangelical revival that swept through the universities in the 1920s. Much later, he was my vicar at St John's, Bromley.

I looked up to him because he towered over me. And I looked up to him because the light of Christ was in his eyes. Only once did he speak to me of his time in the trenches. He asked me how I was getting on at university, and I whinged about my "digs". Noel said just six words, muttered more to himself than to me; for how could I be expected to understand? "Better than a hole in France."

Magical in Llareggub

IT IS 2014, and we cannot but remember. We remember Dylan Thomas - "roistering, drunken, and doomed" - born 100 years ago. I take down my copy of Under Milk Wood, and a sheet of paper falls from between its pages. I recognise it as a page of notes for a talk about Dylan Thomas which I gave in what now feels like a previous incarnation.

My audience was an army selection board, charged with determining whether I was officer material. More is required to lead men into battle, apparently, than a high-falutin' taste in poetry, and I was summarily returned to the ranks.

I have always loved Under Milk Wood. I listened to the first broadcast on 25 January 1954. I heard those magical opening words: "To begin at the beginning: it is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and Bible-black," and I was immediately under a spell that is unbroken to this day. Under Milk Wood contrasts two accounts of our human condition - in the depiction, for example, of the Revd Eli Jenkins and Jack Black.

As dusk falls, Jenkins recites his sunset poem:

We are not wholly bad or good
Who live our lives under Milk Wood
And Thou, I know, wilt be the first
To see our best side not our worst.

As Jenkins is praying, Black sets off for the woods. "He grinds his night-teeth, closes his eyes, climbs into his religious trousers, their flies sewn up with cobbler's thread, and pads out, torched and bibled, grimly, joyfully, into the already sinning dusk."

Jenkins and Black have both been with us from the beginning - although the latter has always had the louder voice.

Hirsute in Hove

THE ringing in your ears as you near the south coast is not, as you had feared, incipient tinnitus. Nor is it "the grating roar of pebbles on the strand", which - as Matthew Arnold reminds us - Sophocles heard long ago on the Aegean.

It is, rather, the sound of your diarist furiously back-pedalling. As I said last time, my claim not to be doing anything these days is not quite true. For instance, much of my time and energy nowadays is devoted to growing my beard.

This appendage, untrimmed for several years, is, I notice, now being noticed. Fellow-beardies - for we are a fraternity privy to secrets - nod to me knowingly. Little children nudge each other, giggle, and point. More than once I've been told that I'm the spitting image of George Bernard Shaw. But the greeting that pleases me most is a passer-by's merry "Hi, Gandalf!"

The Revd Dr John Pridmore, a former Rector of Hackney, has retired to Brighton.

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