Saturday, May 31, 2014

Leslie Banks (1890-1952)

To begin with, you want to be a parson, and after a good education at Glenalmond College and Keble College Oxford, you seem to be right on track.  But then, a change of plan:  after a while in an office job in shipping, the stage beckons, following some good experiences in amateur theatricals.  All’s goes well at first, with tours of North America, and your first performance on the West End stage.  But then war breaks out: you join up with the Essex Regiment. 

The Regiment serves during the first day of the Battle of the Somme, 1 July 1916.  As soon as the troops go over the top, they come under heavy artillery and machine gun bombardment, and then get bogged down in no man’s land.  The order comes to recommence the attack: it’s impossible, and the surviving soldiers retreat and regroup.  Later, the names of 949 officers and men of the Essex Regiment are recorded on the Thiepval Memorial, their final resting places unknown.

You survive, but with injuries.  You recover, but your face is left badly scarred and partly paralysed.  At first, it seems to be a major handicap, putting paid to your ambition to play romantic leading roles.  But after the war, you join the Birmingham Repertory Company and by 1921, you are back in the West End theatre.   On stage, you discover that you can either show the unblemished side of your face – for the kinder roles -  or the scarred side, for the melodramatic roles.

In 1932, you begin your film career.   With your large bulk and your contorted features, you become known for playing gruff and menacing parts, such as the diabolic hunter of human prey in The Most Dangerous Game (1932).  Hitchcock casts you in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934).  In Fire Over England (1937), you play the Earl of Leicester, and meet Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh during the defeat of the Spanish Armada. The Arsenal Stadium Mystery (1939) provides you with a leading role as an eccentric detective, who is called in to solve the crime when one of the opposing players drops dead, poisoned.

In the propaganda film, Went the Day Well (1942), you play the squire who turns out to be treacherous, during the nightmare scenario of a German invasion by paratroopers (the film also has the first performance by Thora Hird).   At the time, Picturegoer says “The subtle change from the quiet squire to the dangerous, scheming Nazi agent is put over by Leslie in an extremely clever and polished way. This perfectly rounded character study shows Leslie at his very best and is again proof of the versatility and abundant talent of this accomplished artist.”  
Half a century afterwards, this chilling classic would be listed as one of the 100 Best War Films, and summed up by The Independent: "It subtly captures an immemorial quality of English rural life—the church, the local gossip, the sense of community—and that streak of native 'pluck' that people believed would see off Hitler".   
For Ealing, you make Ships with Wings (1941), celebrating the Fleet Air Arm.  Later, you serve as the Chorus in Laurence Olivier’s Henry V (1944), another morale-booster, intended to inspire the country after D-Day. 
It’s a good life: marriage to another actor, three daughters, plenty of work.  You’re not a typical actor: you dislike giving interviews, you wriggle out of praise, you don’t like talking about yourself.  You continue performing until 1950, when you are awarded the CBE for services to theatre.  Two years later, you die after suffering a stroke while out for a walk.  Went the life well?

Monday, May 26, 2014

Ivor Gurney (1890-1937)

Only the wanderer
Knows England’s graces,
Or can anew see clear
Familiar faces.

And who loves joy as he
That dwells in shadows?
Do not forget me quite,
O Severn meadows.

Ivor Bertie Gurney was born in Gloucester on 28 August 1890: his father was a tailor, and he came from humble origins.  His mother was highly strung and somewhat unstable.  But a local clergyman, Revd Alfred Cheesman stood godfather to Ivor, and later took him under his wing, fostering his ideas and encouraging him.  Gurney was a chorister at King’s School, Gloucester, and studied music with the organist, alongside Herbert Howells and Ivor Novello.  Both Gurney and Howells were inspired by hearing Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis at the 1910 Three Choirs Festival.  Gurney went on to a scholarship at the Royal College of Music in 1911, supported by Cheesman.  There he was considered erratic but brilliant.  He started setting poems to music, and began writing his own.   At RCM, he met Marion Scott, who was to be so influential in his life.
In 1912, came his first mental breakdown: “The Young Genius does not feel too well and his brain won’t move as he wishes it to”, he wrote to Marion Scott.  This seems to have been the first in a life long series of episodes of manic depression.  However, by July 1914 he was able to write to his friend Harvey:
Dear Willy,

 It's going Willy. It's going. Gradually the cloud passes and Beauty is a present thing, not merely an abstraction poets feign to honour.

 Willy, Willy, I have done 5 of the most delightful and beautiful songs you ever cast your beaming eyes upon. They are all Elizabethan – the words – and blister my kidneys, bisurate my magnesia if the music is not as English, as joyful, as tender as any lyric of all that noble host.
When war broke out in 1914, Gurney volunteered, but was initially turned down because of his eyesight. In 1915, he was accepted and served as a signaller with the 2/5th Glosters.  On the Western Front he found it was easier to write poems than to compose music.  His was a private’s war poetry, verses about longing for home, dodging tough jobs and the joy of sleeping on clean straw. 
One got peace of heart at last, the dark march over,
And the straps slipped, the warmth felt under roof’s low cover,
Lying slack the body, let sink in straw giving;
And some sweetness, a great sweetness felt in mere living,
And to come to this haven after sorefooted weeks,
The dark barn roof, and the glows and the wedges and the streaks;
Letters from home, dry warmth and still sure rest taken
Sweet to the chilled frame, nerves soothed were so sore shaken.

His first book Severn and Somme was published in October 1917, thanks to efforts by Marion Scott.  That year he was first shot in the arm, and then gassed, and was sent home to recover in an Edinburgh hospital, where he fell in love with a nurse. 

In 1918, he showed renewed signs of mental illness, with talk of suicide.   He spent time in hospital in Newcastle, Durham, and Warrington: his Scottish sweetheart broke with him.  He was discharged from the army and sent back to Gloucestershire, where things improved.   In autumn 1919, he tried to take up where he left off at the Royal College of Music, but was too restless to settle.  There was much roaming and walking.  

A second volume of poems, War’s Embers, was published.  He worked in a series of jobs musical (organist, cinema pianist) and manual (farm labourer, tax clerk), but money was scarce.  He wasn’t sleeping much, but the verse was flowing through the years 1919-1922.  He found physical exertion – working, walking – essential therapy for his nerves and the voices and radio waves which he felt were persecuting him:
Visions of natural fairness were more clearly seen after the excessive bodily fatigue experienced on a route march, or in some hard fatigue in France or Flanders - a compensation for so much strain. One found them serviceable in the accomplishment of the task, and in after-relaxation. There it was one learnt that the brighter visions brought music; the fainter, verse, or mere pleasurable emotion.

He tried living with relatives – a brother, an aunt – but neither worked out.  In September 1922 he was committed to Barnwood House, an asylum in Gloucestershire, after going around asking for a revolver to shoot himself with.  He wrote letters to everyone begging to be released, and tried to run away.  Worse was to come when Gurney was then moved away to the City of London Mental Institution in Dartford in Kent.  He remained there for the final 15 years of his life, and would never see his beloved Gloucestershire countryside again.  At Dartford, he would not even go out into the grounds, because it was the wrong sort of landscape.    But he continued writing, and produced some of his best war poetry: “the pain is in thought, which will not freely range.”
I think of the gods, all their old oaths and gages –
Gloucester has clear honour sworn without fail –
Companionship of meadows, high Cotswold ledges
Battered now tonight with huge wind-bursts and rages,
Flying moon glimpses like a shattered and flimsy sail –
In hell I, buried a score-deep, writing verse pages.

It would be easy to think of Gurney like poor Septimus Smith in Mrs Dalloway, driven mad by the war.  But in truth, Gurney’s mental illness predated the conflict.  His behaviour was mainly more eccentric than insane: he couldn’t hold down a job, his sleeping and eating patterns were erratic, he liked midnight rambles.  Three-quarters of his poems show no signs of mental illness.  His friend Marion Scott described him as “heart-breakingly sane in his insanity”: she left instructions for everything that he wrote in the institution to be preserved and sent to her.
P.J.Kavanagh points out that Gurney is wrongly described as a local poet, as if his poems only have relevance to Gloucestershire.   Gurney is one of those who achieve the universal by means of the particular, a poet of detail.   His voice is a gentle and domestic voice, lacking the anger which distinguishes Owen or Sassoon:
I believe in the increasing of life: whatever
Leads to the seeing of small trifles,
Real, beautiful, is good […]

He loved Shakespeare, and used all manner of reminiscent phrasing.  He loved Whitman too, and shares a similar lyricism:

Memory, let all slip save what is sweet
Of Ypres plains.
Keep only autumn sunlight and the fleet
Clouds after rains.

Gurney wrote 200 songs and 300 poems: he was one of the very few artists who have excelled in two forms.  The revival of interest in him in the 1930s and after the war was due partly to the loyalty of his supporter at the Royal College of Music, Marion Scott, but mainly to the efforts of the composer Gerald Finzi and his wife Joy.   First, they organized an edition of Music and Letters devoted to Gurney, published in 1938: it contained tributes from Vaughan-Williams, Walter de la Mare and others.  By this point, Gurney was unable to grasp what the volume represented: a month later, he was dead of tuberculosis.   Finally, he returned to his beloved Gloucestershire to be buried.
Finzi kept pushing: he asked another war poet, Edmund Blunden, to edit a selection of Gurney’s unpublished poems, which was finally published in 1954.  After Gerald died in 1956, Joy kept sorting out the archive.  In 1984, a collected edition was published, thanks to editor P.J.Kavanagh.  

One teacher at my school was a biographer of Blunden; another was a friend of Joy Finzi.  So as a teenager, I studied Gurney’s poems and listened to his music, as well as that of Finzi.  I was also lucky enough to meet Joy.  I was enormously touched by her kindness: after I visited her home and admired a wood engraving by Reynolds Stone, she later packaged up the print and sent it to me as a present.  Her husband’s verdict on Ivor Gurney, quoted by Kavanagh, was that
“All his work, even the worst, seems to have (for me at any rate) the sense of heightened perception which makes art out of artifice.”

"Sleep" (there are also other songs on YouTube)
BBC Four documentary
Ivor Gurney Society 

Monday, May 5, 2014

Wilhelm II (1859-1941)

Nearly twenty years ago, I reviewed Young Wilhelm, John Röhl’s extraordinarily detailed book about the early life of Kaiser Wilhelm II.  Now, in the hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War, perhaps it’s an apt time to revisit this story for this blog.

Born on 27 January 1859, Wilhelm was the eagerly anticipated first grandson of Queen Victoria and equally anxiously awaited heir to the Kingdom of Prussia.  Rejoicing was widespread through England and Germany.  Queen Victoria wrote to a German friend “we are proud and happy that it is our child who has given this son to your country”.

However, the birth itself was highly traumatic for all concerned, because the future Kaiser was in a breech position in the womb.  18 year old Princess Vicky went through terrible suffering for 13 hours before chloroform was applied by Sir James Clark, Queen Victoria’s personal physician who had been sent over to Berlin for the birth.  The Royal baby was turned forcefully, and manipulated by the arms in order to be delivered: he suffered a lack of oxygen for about eight minutes during the end stages of the labour, and after birth had to be revived by a series of slaps from the midwife.

As a child, Wilhelm was hyperactive, and possibly minimally brain damaged.  His left arm was paralyzed as a result of the violence of his birth, and was 15 cm shorter than his right.  Sigmund Freud considered that Princess Vicky had deprived her child of her love because of his affliction, and that this resulted in the Kaiser’s personality problems.    Yet the evidence suggests that Vicky, like many parents of disabled children, had mixed emotions – hope, pride, depression, helplessness and desperation.   Both parents seem to have been loving towards their child.  However, perhaps because of extensive medical treatments, Wilhelm did not form a close bond to his mother and later felt that she had not been sufficiently supportive and loving.

Blaming his English mother may have been a convenient move for later German historians seeking to excuse their militarist monarch.  It was more likely that the blame lay with the corrective treatments that were attempted in order to improve the strength and function of his withered arm.  Röhl concludes that, though administered with the best of intentions, they amounted to child abuse.  One method was to insert the boy’s paralysed arm into a freshly killed hare for a so-called “animal bath”.  Another was to tie up the healthy right arm, to try and force him to use his left arm.  His mother recorded how “fretful and cross and violent and passionate” the two year old would become.  As he neared the age of four, he was noted to have a twist in his neck, as if he was turning away from the impaired arm that was such a source of psychological stress for the whole family.  Now he was put in a machine designed to straighten the neck by force.  At the age of six, the tendon on his neck muscle was cut.  Next, it was noticed that he could not straighten his left arm: another operation was threatened, but instead an “arm-stretching machine” was used, together with exercises.  Another approach was daily electrotherapy, but by the age of ten, Wilhelm was so unhappy about these bouts of treatment that it was discontinued.  In all, the poor boy had twelve years of cruel and ineffective treatment.

Wilhelm’s parents had liberal ideas, and tried to bring him up as an Anglophile.  But the tutor he was given from the age of six seems to have been rather brutal, forcing him to learn to ride, on the instructions of the Crown Princess.   Wilhelm was also shaped by the militarist Prusssian society in which he found himself.  He grew to respect a more autocratic approach than the more consensual English style of constitutional monarchy which his mother tried to impart.  When he joined a Guards regiment at the age of 21, he found his natural home among the society of soldiers.

On the death of Kaiser Wilhelm I, Wilhelm’s father only ruled for 99 days before dying of throat cancer.   In 1888, Wilhelm II acceded to the throne at the age of 29.  He rejected Chancellor Bismark’s cautious approach to foreign policy.  In 1890, he dismissed the old Chancellor completely, considering him a “boorish old killjoy”.  Wilhelm exerted more control himself, rather than leaving policy to his Chancellors.  Some of this was beneficial – such as his reforms to the rather traditional Prussian educational system.  Much of it was not – such as his desire to build up a strong navy.

Wilhelm was insecure, unstable, impatient, and lacked focus and direction.  He was arrogant and obnoxious, particularly with his English relatives.  Though he was related to most of the monarchs of Europe, he did not like them, nor they him.  However, he was anxious for his grandmother’s approval, and went to be at her bedside when Queen Victoria was dying in 1901.

Wilhelm was prone to imperialist rhetoric – such as his speech evoking the memory of Attila the Hun when sending troops off to help suppress the Boxer rebellion in China.  He regularly made diplomatic faux pas, such as a disastrous 1908 interview with the Daily Telegraph in which he managed to alienate not only the English – whom he called “ mad, mad, mad as March hares” - but also the French, Russians and Japanese.

All of this, particularly the German military build-up gives a sense of tragic inevitability to the events leading up to the First World War.  But as recent historical accounts have shown, Austria and other countries were also very much to blame.  After the war started, Wilhelm did not play a leading role in German policy. When it finished with the defeat of German and the loss of ten million lives, Wilhelm abdicated and went into exile in the neutral Netherlands, where he died on 4 June 1941.  He had hoped that Hitler would revive the monarchy.  But the Fuhrer blamed the Kaiser for the humiliations of the First World War and kept him at arm’s length.

Wilhelm was not a terrible monarch because he was disabled.  But his impairment did affect his personality, particularly due to the appalling medical treatment he endured, his strained relationship with his mother and hence his dislike of the English, and the arrogant strain in his personality which resulted from his insecurities.