Thursday, 12 September 2013

Oh, to be home.

'Oh, we don't want to lose you...'
(Paul Reubens)
'I shall go home, alone;
And must try to live life as before,
And hide my grief
For you, my dearest friend,
Who should be with me now,
Not cold, too soon,
And in your grave,
Alone.' (Guy Wilson)
O western wind, when wilt thou blow
    That the small rain down can rain?
Christ, that my love were in my arms
    And I in my bed again!
Does home seep beyond the clothing of our mortal flesh, permeating that hidden heart of the everlasting soul? If ghosts retain their human feelings, would those feelings drive them to try to go home? Would they long for it, as those of us who love our homes and yet must venture far from them, so long to return? So much WWI and WWII war propaganda billed the home as that which one must be prepared to sacrifice in order to maintain it when threatened. The homestead itself became a thing of essential essence, the very threads we contribute to the tapestry of our collective, lived landscapes. The sanctity of home to everyday men and women became the lynchpin for duty; the sacred crux of society. It is hardly surprising that home became a central fantasy for those soldiers, sailors, airmen, doctors, nurses, etc., and the haunting presence of such is liberally scattered through the artefacts they created abroad: letters, diary entries, poetry. The consequences of WWI and WWII was that a large portion of men and women, who ventured bravely from their homes to save them, would never return. And, in turn, those gaping absences would change the homes of those left behind forever.
These thoughts were compounded by the chance discovery of a small entry concerning the ghost of Rupert Brookes (contributed by Dr A.I. Copeland to Marchioness Townshend & Maude Ffoulkes' True Ghost Stories, first published by Hutchinson & Company in 1936). Copeland's experience occurred in 1919, four years after Brookes had died from blood poisoning following an infected mosquito bite in Greece. The story itself is a simply one: Copeland was renting rooms in the Old Vicarage, in Grantchester, where Brookes had formerly lived. One evening, whilst sitting by the fire, Copeland heard the sound of footsteps making their way around the house toward the French windows of his sitting room. Upon inspection, no one was there, and it seemed impossible that anyone could have made those footsteps and found cover before he looked through the windows. When enquiring of this to his landlord, a Mr Neave, he was promptly told that such an occasion was not unusual, and that, since Brookes had died, his footsteps had often been heard making the same journey. 
Brookes seems the ideal candidate for such a haunting. His poetry reveals a deep, romantic affection for England; a sentiment that seems to have resonated in him from early life. While some of Brookes' work has been sucked into nationalist thinking (indeed, a good chunk of his poetry is explicitly patriotic, and compounds the obligation to fight for one's country), I think what he communicates is the tenderness of remembered belonging in a time where place and self have been fractured, of being connected to a sense of home that extends the premise of bricks and mortar and reaches into all the nooks and crannies of the land itself. It is the waiting glue that will fix the wounded traveller when they are able to return, as well as the very beacon that calls them to return. This sense of home becomes an essence, something intangible that is carried in the mind, that stretches a non-corporeal chord to anchor in the familiar. It becomes an icon, to glorify, that gives meaning to the horrendous agonies caused in war. Of course, 'England' and 'home' mean more than their physical manifestations; they mean people, lifestyles, a continuation of history.
In The Soldier, Brookes writes
  If I should die, think only this of me:
    That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England. There shall be
    In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
    Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England's, breathing English air,
    Washed by the rivers, blest by the suns of home.
Death in war can give rise to a plethora of ghosts, for the dead are not accorded with the burial rites attributed by their society, and so cannot be properly passed over by their living kith and kin. In Brookes' poem, the dead body becomes synonymous with its home, that 'bore [it], shaped [it], made [it] aware'. He recognises the fear and tragedy of dying away from home, of being potentially lost in a 'corner of a foreign field'. Recently, having been attuned to memorials as part of my book's research, I've been touched by the number of beautiful WWI and WWII memorials that exist to commemorate legacy and sacrifice where bodies cannot be lovingly tucked into their native earth. There is a bounty of these memorials, strewn throughout the landscape, each settlement offering up its recognition of all that was given to preserve it. What do we do when we don't have the body to bury? We make memorials, and we encourage our fellows to never forget. Remembrance is the best we can do to give the dead their dues, and to note and reward their sacrifice.  
WWI and WWII created mammoth craters of absence, and during a time when the comforting afterlife suggested by Christianity was a crumbling on its platform as that pedestal began to tip away from certainty, its framework coming increasingly into scientific questioning. I'm a fan of the cosy crime genre, and am particularly fond of three series of books involving young female detectives in the early 20th century. Interestingly, now I think about it, that all three echo that absence. From Daisy Dalrymple in the 1920s, to Maisie Dobbs and Kate Shackleton in the 1930s, these three young women have all lost their fiancées/husbands to WWI. The Dalrymple series, which is lighter in tone, finds the heroine resettled with a widower, but Dobbs (in the early books) and Shackleton are cast adrift, unable to really invest in a new relationship as they are unable to let go of that planned future so cruelly shattered. Shackleton's position is more precarious, as her husband is listed as 'missing, presumed dead'. Again, without that certainty a body provides, time slips into a limbo. Instead of love, they turn to their work, and their desire to help those who have similarly been damaged by the aftermath of WWI.
These wars punched a hole in our history; they consumed a mass of lineages, leaving countless marriages broken, and hundreds and hundreds of children that would never be born. And those who came back did not meet what they had left behind: they were changed and this could not be undone. JRR Tolkien's Lord of the Rings demonstrates this, with his idyllic Shire a representation of an innocent, green, settled England. For ghosts, however, perhaps things continue as they were. If the 'stone tape' theory of ghost activity is true, then there is an echo of Brookes making his journey home, again and again, over and over. Imagining that, for a moment... and so, if some corner of a foreign field is forever England, then some corner is elevated to home.  
With proud thanksgiving, a mother for her children,
England mourns for her dead across the sea.
Flesh of her flesh they were, spirit of her spirit,
Fallen in the cause of the free.
(Robert Laurence Binyon)