I have one of my academic colleagues, Jonathan Rix to thank for reminding me of John Pudney’s poems. He was enthusing about some of Pudney’s RAF poems – Smith and Missing
Smith, living on air,
Your astral body
A mechanic wonder
Your anger an affair
Of fire and thunder.
So I’ve been reading his collected poems, published in 1957 which contain poems from his first ten collections published over twenty years from 1933 – 1953.
His most well-known poem
was featured in the film ‘The Way to the stars’. According to the author’s notes at the back of the book it was written on the back of an envelope during a London alert in 1941 and there never was a particular Johnny: it was written for them all. However to my taste it does have the feel of something written in a hurry and is far from being his best poem – rather too much tell and not enough show. I much prefer
with its alternating voices; one which is a pilot reporting on the enemy he’s just shot down and the other the poet commentating on the situation. When the poem was broadcast in 1941, read by Laurence Olivier the BBC wanted to alter the ending ‘that’s how the poor sod died’ to ‘poor soul’. Fortunately the authorities were persuaded to allow the naughty’ word to be used. I wonder if anyone recorded the broadcast – it would be quite something to hear it.
I, of course, came to Pudney via Malta. He was sent out in 1943 to write an official account of the Battle of Malta for the Air Ministry, but being a poet as well as in the RAF he came back with a long poem, The Siege of Malta.
…. A petal
Yellow, all veined with green in the sea’s hard
Flooring of other element, of timeless running
Malta, upon blood-invested water, cactus, nettle
Leafed, old prickle, guard.