Arnold Rattenbury

Arnold Rattenbury began as an editor (Our Time and Theatre Today), became an exhibition designer and is the author of seven volumes of poetry.

Flytings: Hamish Henderson

Arnold Rattenbury, 23 January 2003

Old men can be buggers at hanging on. Hamish Henderson, who died last March at the age of 82, hung on firmly through three books, edited by others: his writings on ‘Song, Folk and Literature’, collected as Alias MacAlias (1992), a selected letters, The Armstrong Nose (1996) – both edited by Alec Finlay – and Collected Poems and Songs, edited by Raymond Ross. All three...

Even now most discussion of Second World War poetry cannot do without reference back to that of the First; and it’s true that Keith Douglas was always conscious of Isaac Rosenberg behind his shoulder, Alun Lewis of Edward Thomas. But the idea of modern warfare as one thing and of poetic response to it as another seems, in retrospect, almost Churchillian in its fixedness. Back then,...

Most loyal and protective of Gurney’s many friends, Marion Scott wrote after one of her regular visits to the asylum: ‘Ivor is so heart-breakingly sane in his insanity.’ Letters, reported conversation, music, poems all attest to the fact. He was trained and already admired as a composer before enlistment; in the trenches poetry had occupied him more and more and, when he returned afterwards to music, the poetry continued. The asylum cut him off, therefore, from what had been a life of continuous intellectual companionship – in music, poetry and trench-life. In the end, all reasoning had to be here, inside. Outside became for him one vastly simplified establishment of Church and Metropolitan Police, to which he would write long and, if you choose to see them so, quite dotty pleas, sometimes in verse, against his continuing incarceration. The world inside became increasingly the source of all creativity. Here he could chat happily with such companions as Beethoven about the music of Herbert Howells, his schoolboy friend and fellow music student; or could by turns become Schubert, Thoreau, Tolstoy, Traherne, Whitman, even Gurney – anyone, musician or author, whose work he understood to the point of loving. ‘The idea that he had written everything and composed everything persisted … But there were moments of real conversation and he spoke of real grievances,’ Adeline Vaughan Williams wrote after one of many visits with her husband, Gurney’s one-time teacher of composition, admirer and longstanding advocate. My own hunch is that other Gurney personae usually written off as lunatic fictions – Michael Flood, Frederick Saxby, Valentine Fane, Griffiths Davies and so on: there were many – may yet turn out to be comrades from the trenches, those other persons he so loved. Although writing of place-names rather than people, P.J. Kavanagh puts the matter exactly in the introduction to his wonderful Collected Poems of Ivor Gurney (1982): ‘Like most poets, he is dependent on the particular, and on being able to name it.’’‘

Come and Stay

Arnold Rattenbury, 27 November 1997

Sir Clough Williams-Ellis is best known nowadays as the owner-architect of Portmeirion, the hotel he built as a partly cliff-hanging, partly tree-nestled village on a North Wales coastal estuary, adding to it building by building across some fifty years. Always astonishing, some think beautiful, it enjoyed its greatest publicity as the setting for the cult TV series, The Prisoner. But this kind of showy reputation is not entirely representative.

Convenient Death of a Hero

Arnold Rattenbury, 8 May 1997

E.P. Thompson, historian and peacemaker, known as Edward to his friends, died at his home near Worcester in 1993. Four years on, Beyond the Frontier is a volume of material set aside far earlier. Indeed, there occurs in it a passing reference to ‘the raw material for half-finished books on William Blake and Customs in Common’, works long since published. From the mid-Eighties mountainous illness surrounded Edward, from which he nonetheless retrieved the last big works: Customs in Common (1991), which traced a disappearing culture back over ground where he had earlier seen ‘the making of the English Working Class’; the hugely original Witness against the Beast (1993) about Blake; the far less noticed Alien Homage (1993), about his father’s see-saw relationship with Rabindranath Tagore (his father, also Edward Thompson: Indianist, novelist, Georgian poet, polemicist, editor, hereinafter Old Edward – which is how I knew him). All these books are of a piece, inveighing against an academicism which mythologises history, against his hated ‘anti-history’ and attempting a greater order of clarity. In Alien Homage he abominates ‘abbreviated categories which too often close enquiry before it has commenced. Some in the West are prisoners of vast undiscriminating categories … and bring those ready-made slide-rules to measure, and often to obliterate, the complexities of the past.’ That could stand as motto for all three works. Beyond the Frontier is hacked from the same hard material, and came first.’

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