Yes I know they sound unlikely companions but bear with me…
Earlier this week I went up to London for what turned out to be a double pre-Christmas treat. The Imperial War Museum (IWM), which is about to close its doors in January for six months, is currently hosting an exhibition of Cecil Beaton’s war-time photographs. I’d borrowed several books from the local library; his diaries and a book from the County Reserve stock of his war photographs published in 1981. I tried to persuade myself that reading the books would be sufficient for a glimpse of the man as I had neither the time nor the funds to add this exhibition to the evening’s planned theatre trip. I knew however that I’d be very cross with myself if I didn’t make the effort.
So I made my way through Lambeth’s drab and rainy streets to reach the museum somewhat wetter and colder than I’d have liked. The Museum is already being emptied with most of the planes gone from the rather chilly main hall. Then I stepped through the doors of the exhibition and there was Beaton in his official photographer uniform, with a serious expression but half smiling – look what I’ve got to show you…
The war was the making of him and he knew it.
‘Hitler has been responsible for enlarging my photographic horizon. The English do not approve of propaganda but they are content that events should be recorded.’
How hard he worked without complaint and paying no heed to his won comfort and safety. Of course he was often photographing men who he knew were likely to be killed.
“One is astonished at the youthfulness of these seventeen year olds with their subtle English looks, clear complexions, and thatch of hair shorn closely over the ears. One bright young man asked when my picture would appear, and in answer to my ‘in six weeks time’ said, ‘Oh, most of us will be dead by then.”
The years between, p86 Beaton
I had the exhibition almost to myself and was able to spend as long as I wanted with each photograph and the artefacts, his cameras pages from his diary and letters to him. Nonetheless I still managed to bump into someone – he was stepping back to have a better look at a large-scale photograph of the bombed interior of a church and I was moving away backwards from a collection of memorabilia in its glass case. To the amusement of his male companion we both did the British thing of apologising to each other.
Then I made my way towards Waterloo to meet a friend, Judi for supper. Thanks to modern technology I did eventually find said restaurant – Tas ‘no it’s not on the Waterloo road Caroline it’s on the Cut, opposite the Young Vic’. The food was very good and for London not that expensive. It was well worth meeting up there rather than trying to find somewhere on Upper Street, near the Almeida.
The second part of my treat was the play about Edward Thomas The Dark Earth and the Light Sky and it was stunning. Readers of this blog will already known about my interest in Thomas.
I had the benefit of reading the reviews before booking the tickets. The play gives you his whole life and how he haunted the people in it, his wife Helen, his poet friend Robert Frost and his other writer friend Eleanor Farjeon. I knew the story but it came to life on stage and how forty years after his death each of them could summon him back. The play should not have worked. It stuck closely to the narrative arc of his life in which there was no happy ending – he did not come back from the war. And yet somehow both last night and this morning as I write this he is still alive. I had that unearthly feeling which I got listening to Matthew Hollis and others at that reading on the South bank that somehow Edward Thomas was there listening, watching and echoing the words of his poems.
And the link with Beaton. Well Thomas needed the crucible of the first world war to allow him to make something of himself didn’t he?
I have come to the borders of sleep,
The unfathomable deep
Forest where all must lose
Their way, however straight,
Or winding, soon or late;
They cannot choose.
Many a road and track
That, since the dawn’s first crack,
Up to the forest brink,
Deceived the travellers,
Suddenly now blurs,
And in they sink.
Here love ends,
Despair, ambition ends,
All pleasure and all trouble,
Although most sweet or bitter,
Here ends in sleep that is sweeter
Than tasks most noble.
There is not any book
Or face of dearest look
That I would not turn from now
To go into the unknown
I must enter and leave alone
I know not how.
The tall forest towers;
Its cloudy foliage lowers
Ahead, shelf above shelf;
Its silence I hear and obey
That I may lose my way