… if not to read … and read …
Alexander Scrimgeour kept a (totally illegal) personal diary as a trainee midshipman for the first years of World War I, and wrote many letters home. In this selection there’s a good deal of superficial snobbery, and a lot of growing up, while the content is a wild mixture of experiences as he met them. One minute he is complaining that the girl he fancies doesn’t have enough hair and is therefore ineligible to be his girlfriend. The next he is giving an unembroidered but terrifying description of a storm in the north Atlantic – a 40 degree roll going on and on, everyone sleepless, soaking and freezing, ship’s biscuit and chocolate the only food, the ship’s boats being snatched by huge waves, one after another, electric shocks from the deck, and finally the huge sea which demolished the fore-bridge, wheel house, chart-room and intelligence office and threatened to dislodge the funnels (he records with surprise that nobody was lost overboard). In a more reflective mood, Scrimgeour describes the frosted-up ships in a squadron looking “like great white icicles”, or then indulges in some sarky remarks about the all-pervading Admiral Beatty and his even more all-pervading wife. In a letter of December 1915 he records his admiration for the ship’s stokers (possibly the most looked-down-upon seafarers of all): “their whole life in war-time is a vivid succession of discomforts and hardships, unparalleled in severity and monotony” – a respect he was incapable of experiencing a year earlier.
Diaries can be wonderful because the author is writing in the moment, unbiased by hindsight. This author never had a chance for any hindsight, and reading the diary is coloured by a sobering dramatic irony: we know, as Scrimgeour did not, that he would be killed at Jutland, aged just 19.
The conceit of this slim volume is that poets submit one of their own poems, alongside a poem from another writer who has influenced them. Somehow this didn’t quite come off for me (perhaps some of the selections were too predictable). Not without gain, however. I’m very happy to have met quite a few poems which will grow on me, especially Robinson Crusoe’s Wise Sayings by Ian McMillan (“…If you talk to a stone long enough you’ll fall asleep…”) and the Warning to Children by Robert Graves. Well, I think they should be warned.
Slightly had my doubts (*whispers*: American you know) but was encouraged to find Cobb thanking St Augustine in the author’s acknowledgements, alongside colleagues, editors, copyright granters etc., and making an early nod to the failures and transgressions of theology. Thus fortified, I pressed on, enjoying some decent writing, and a thread of optimism which the author himself sees as defiance.
Fiction for younger children is remarkably poor. Remarkably, because picture books are often superb, and fiction for children of 9+ is often very good too; but stories for 5 – 7 year olds mostly have no excuse for existing. No wonder children don’t want to read, I mutter viciously, as I flick though another 40 vacuous pages. Most maddening of all, there are a number of books where you can see a good story trapped inside the lack-lustre writing. This was a case in point: I really wanted to know about Jellyblob. But no; Jellyblob’s poignancy and weirdness are forever veiled behind the pedestrian plot and worthless protagonists.
Before John Arlott went global with TMS, he wrote this brief account of the Test series (MCC against South Africa) in 1947. According to the fly leaf, it cost eleven shillings, a not inconsiderable sum in 1948, and perhaps it seems a little odd that anyone would fork out to this extent for summaries of matches a year old. Still less worth reading about matches of seventy years ago, you would think; but cricket tends to generate good stories, and this book had found its reader. There’s interest in the conditions of cricket at the time, as these were four day tests, with uncovered wickets, and Arlott mentions players still trying to regain fitness after war-time food rationing. But mostly it’s the writing. Arlott of course adored both the game and phrase-making, and even a cricketing moron like myself could visualise it: “England’s Nos. 9, 10, and 11 – looking like Nos. 11, 12 and 13”; Dawson on his follow-through taking “a barely Christian caught-and-bowled”; Nourse who “doled out runs like slowly thought-out insults”. My favourite story was the one about the batsmen panicked by a phantom ball. Too long to post here, but oh, joyous.