Entry 51: Strange Meeting- Fifty years ago, I was required to memorise Dulce et Decorum est as part of my English homework. While I would love to report that I did so grudgingly- but have lived to cherish the imposition forever- that assertion would be less than truthful. I neglected that piece of homework (and several others, if I am being dragged to the truth.) My English teacher banished me to the study hall during his lessons.
By some unexplained protocol, I should have begged forgiveness and then been re-admitted to the sanctuary of learning that was, in fact, Mr Leahy’s wonderfully enlightening classroom. But it didn’t happen. Being a “newbie”, to use an anachronistic American locution, (and why not, seeing as I was not long returned from Aruba and a US educational system,) I kept on reporting to the study hall for a few weeks.
The College President (this was the title given to the Principal of the establishment) found out, somehow, that I was languishing in the study hall, out of class, and sent for me. By this time, I knew that the gradations of punishment tended to increase in direct proportion to the status of the personage one would have to confront- so you can imagine the fearfulness with which I approached the imposing presidential door. Big Bill, or more formally, Father William Tumelty, gruffly interrogated me about my sojourn in the study hall.
I knew, from rugby training, that on the northern edge of the college grounds due east of the pitches and piggery, on a knoll overlooking the Sea of Moyle, was a photogenic replication of Golgotha. I was in no doubt that I would be nailed up there as a warning to other recalcitrant avoiders of homework. Did I cry? No. At that age, and with just a few weeks of learning that you were a snivelling shite if you reacted to the cane, I resorted to the age-old student defence of limitless ignorance- helped, of course, by the truth that it was not really a stretch.
So, I was returned to class, Big Bill having determined that I was little more than a blithering idiot and therefore having been punished sufficiently by just being myself. A lucky escape, I told myself. And, while I never actually memorised the great poem, Dulce et Decorum et cetera, I grew to love the poetry of Wilfred Owen. One of the most moving, for me, was Strange Meeting, which details the meeting in Hades of two opposing soldiers. The masterful handling of pararhyme creates a haunting, otherworldly soundscape as we follow one of the protagonists deep into the underworld and feel his dislocation as he comes upon one who leaps up,
With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,/Lifting distressful hands, as if to bless./And by his smile, I knew that sullen hall,/ By his dead smile I knew we stood in Hell. “Strange friend,” I said, “here is no cause to mourn.” /“None,” said that other, “save the undone years,/The hopelessness. Whatever hope is yours,/Was my life also; I went hunting wild/After the wildest beauty in the world,/Which lies not calm in eyes, or braided hair,/But mocks the steady running of the hour…
That Wilfred Owen, at the age of 25, could write such poetry- poetry that would bear comparison with his compatriots, Keats and Shelley, is one of the great treasures of literature, and one of the great tragedies; that, like the incomparable Keats and Shelley, he would perish, like them, still in his twenties.
“I am the enemy you killed, my friend./I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned/Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed./I parried; but my hands were loath and cold./Let us sleep now. . . .”
The pity of war– that phrase is found in the poem and has been engraved in hearts and minds in the decades since it was written. The title would form the germ of an idea for a song I would write fifteen years later. As a teacher now myself, at Ballymena Academy, having recently returned from Australia, I formed an easy relationship with a bunch of senior students who were interested in music and had won through to the finals of a UK music contest being held in Manchester.
They asked the powers that be that I accompany them to the contest. I can remember work-shopping lyrics with them in the bus to the airport- they were still short one original composition for the contest. Typical students- but they had won through to a prestigious, nationwide event, where one of the judges was John Entwhistle of The Who. And they were placed fourth- not bad for a little pickup school band from N.I.
The pressure of the process helped me to write the song at the end of this entry. We were in digs in Manchester University and I sat up with my notepad and guitar and, while the band were out clubbing in central Manchester, I struggled with the lyrics and chords and finally, about 4:00 am, finished, just about when the student revellers were returning.