It was an entirely fortuitous and serendipitous encounter. Major Howard was
sitting at a table outside Arlette Gondree’s cafe. (Arlette’s house was the first
French home to be liberated.)
I was in the company of Major Michael Hickey, a military historian who
was with my choir. We were singing The Brahms Requiem seven times
in ten days, all over Normandy, along with a French choir and the
orchestra of Basse Normandie. We sang in different towns
and we sang in German. The audiences were in tears. It was an
emotional and healing experience for all involved.
Photo: 9th June, 1944. Wikimedia Commons
Generous gesture – German flag festoons,
hoisted with the Allied banners. Bunching,
fussy boudoir blinds. Here swooping platoons,
like death’s head moths, stealthily came gliding.
Across the bridge John Howard bravely strode,
piper ahead, deflecting sniper shot.
Now European coaches block the road;
the dispassionate stamp postcards they’ve bought,
sending snapshots of Hell to those who knew
the mark of Caen first-hand. Wish you were here!
He was: a fact to startle and imbue
those that have eyes to see and ears to hear.
The café’s bright umbrellas shelter all
from noonday’s heat, so one could fail to spot
cool nonagenarian. By the wall,
hero’s crutches propped, ready for action.
His longest day is past; his time now short:
German beer his major satisfaction.
Photo by Candia Dixon-Stuart
The Post Office is closed; a flyer pokes
out of a letter-box; thin rivulet
trickles down a bridleway, aiming for
the Evenlode. A profusion of blue
chicory shivers in the breeze. The church,
sanctified by its topiary cross –
reminiscent of Jane Austen’s necklet
which she wore as she left the rectory
on merciful missions to village poor –
stood firm during Napoleonic Wars.
Its roof vault is as azure as that sky
the poet contemplated on his brief halt,
when his depression lifted on hearing
birdsong, which trilled above the hiss of steam.
From trenches, could he see that cloudless square?
When someone failed to set the station clock,
did Time itself revolt at what would come?
Could we also be on the brink of war?
Yet pale Wisteria seems to conquer
fear and heraldic tulips blazon hope.
A yellow poster in the bus shelter
promises that all money raised
from a talk on Edward Thomas will fund
Syrian refugees – will help those ‘wontedly,‘
or wantonly, driven out of their homes.
Who will attend? Some wealthy weekenders?
Thomas never actually made it here,
although his spirit is ubiquitous.
Pervasive silence invites us to pause,
in the name of Poetry and Beauty,
before all clocks are permanently stopped
and there are no more birds in Gloucestershire.