Poem: Percy “Hobo” Hobart, Pt 2

Posted by RDN under Military Covenant / RDN's poems on 19 August 2015

This poem is the second of three. They are long, and intended to flow one from another, but each to make sense on its own. They have been written with an eye (or ear) to being read aloud briskly.

Sir Percy Hobart, Part 2
Hobo the man of design and fabric

 

I approach Hobart as a spider might.
I have him wrapped
in the centre of my web,
let’s say an honoured victim
snared,
cocooned,
but also preserved
in wound-up memory.

I descend a single strand
to ogle the veil
in which my prey
is caught
as slanting light
dances on the dew.

I am stitching him up,
actually,
in embroidery.

But not mummified, I hope:
I would bring him to life for you
if I could.

You’ll see, I hope,
if you will follow this
erratic track.

I’ll begin in Oxford,
and tangentially
(I am spider crossed with crab),
in the Ashmolean,
in Jacobean needlework
done beside crackling firesides
and within tree-shaded courtyards
which were for King or Parliament,
Cavalier or Roundhead,
old or new religion.

“Early modern”
sort of catches their times;
the works,
which the years have
dimmed and dusted
a little,
are glowing still,
homely and homilistic
but propaganda too.

I leant in,
a stranger to this work
and my pleasure in it,
but acquainting myself.

The threads are heavy,
some even metallic
(gold strands still warm the inglenook flames)
and some are so bulky,
in themselves or bulked-up,
they cast shadows,
sculpted knots,
alongside beads,
sheltering dust.

You’ll ask,
where’s Hobart
in this meandering tale?
and I reply:
Hold up, hang-on, if you will,
we’ll get there.

The world they were made in,
these needled histories
and the praises they sing –
the dreads they warn of –
were tougher than we can imagine
or could perhaps manage.

These small panels
glorifying dynasties,
and Old Testament stories,
say Esther and Ahasuerus,
and Hellenic myths
are women’s work,
not weak
but patient,
making household gods,
embellishing and civilising
the domestic scene
by bringing in tales of
sacrifice and revenge.

For years and years
I had not seen the point in
tapestries and embroidery,
and gave no thought to needlework.

Well, Chanel and Valentino,
and now this needlepoint,
put paid to that,
and led the way to Hobart, too.

And now
my eye tuned
(its inner TV switched off,
its cinema projector dimmed
its digitised pixelations
returned to fingerwork)
I see weaves and knots
everywhere
in rope or chain or silk,
in armoury or boudoir.

(I know, I know:
“Crack on North:
you have all day,
you do, you do,
but readers can get fidgetty”.)

The week after Oxford
(in our slowish progress –
not quite royal, yet luxurious too,
tracing the valley of the Thames
and the Chilterns),
by chance,
in Nuffied Place
– where Arts and Crafts
is hijacked by bright modernism –
just by the fence of the
holding camp for aliens,
(as it was that 70-odd years ago
and is so again),
there was Lady Nuffield’s
Coronation robe,
made to honour Edward VIII,
a golfing chum.

It was
run up for her
by Elliston & Cavell –
it’s Debenham’s now –
where, as Lizzie Anstey,
she had once worked
with needle and thread:
and now, other women did her
ermine piecework
round the corner
from Tradescant’s shrine.

And in my spider mind
I note that
Sir Percy Hobart,
maybe in 1946,
finally retired
and fearing final idleness,
worked for old Nuffield’s military division.
They liked each other’s ways,
both believing
that the man who had
made weird tanks
do wonderful work,
that such a man
might head off demands
to produce the
“crazy curiosities”,
as the
men who’d worked on Hobart’s Funnies
called machines
they feared the men from the ministry wanted.

Perhaps one day
in that sunny palace,
happily suburban,
fringed by fields and wire mesh,
her Ladyship looked up from her
needlework,
probably some trite piece
(she was at it still,
for uninspired domestic use,
a maid’s uniform, a sampler’s platitude)
and wondered at this peculiar hero
her husband had brought home.

She might have thought,
as Hobart did himself,
that he was really quite grand,
sort of primordially
the knight, chivalric and noble,
if maybe a mite crabby at times,
and with a habit of command.

Hobart, I remember,
had told young officers
the trick
to Army success
was just the right amount
of insubordination,
but he had often overdone it,
himself,
not quite from knowing better,
but from a leaping heart
making his mind and lips
impetuous.

I imagine her imagining,
that Hobart was not knighted
for merchanting and manufacture,
as her husband and the likes of her
had been;
but by the older currency
of conquest, land, and history
by marriage and muscle and smarts.
By birth in short.

And Hobart was grand
but in the grandest way:
in fancy and by longing.

In some youthful time
in some library, perhaps,
marooned in dreaming,
he had connected
to the smartest
Hobarts of all,
(though it’s clever more than chic
that they seem to have been).

The first Hobarts,
they of N orfolk’s Blickling Hall,
were great in law, land and politics,
stoutly Cromwellian,
and give us a line to John Hampden too,
and these allegiances suit our hero,
his sternness and righteousness,
stiffening his dash,
with just a whiff
of self-righteousness
in a moral
somehow rebellious cause.

But there is fantasy in Blickling Hall:
right from the start
the Hobarts were dreamers.

Sir Henry Hobart, born 1560,
Parliamentarian and Calvinist,
buying himself great bits of Norfolk,
and Blickling’s antique greatness, too,
trumpeted its heraldic glamour
as though a purchase
allowed an inheritance
as he built over
the ruins of the house’s earlier glory
as a Boleyn bastion,
where Tudors had boasted:
“Argent, a chevron gules
between three bulls’ heads
couped sable”.

Those new Hobart’s put the bull everywhere,
not just on entry arches
announcing the house
but on their coat of arms
announcing their claims,
borrowing a better past.

And now we see
our
Percy Cleghorn Stanley Hobart,
born 1885,
in a middling status
in England’s Ireland,
climb a heady ladder
spirited out of Blickling’s
borrowed splendours
but properly earned
and owed to his own
success
in middle age
in the midst
of a huge war at once democratic
and yet seeking
and making
men of destiny.

Hobart borrows old
nostalgias
and plants them,
pins and stitches
them,
ready for battledress,
and stencils them
on his armoured divisions
called
The Bulls,
just as men and steeds
have distinguished themselves
for millennia.

Stubbornly mediaeval
perennially symbolic
the heraldic bull insists
that the best men
of every age
are wont to make themselves up,
proving self-invention’s
great pedigree.

These were the dreams of a
haunted boy –
one like Robert Louis Stevenson, perhaps –
anyway one whose
bedroom wallpaper
of dragons and maidens
were ever after his
tokens of valour and force
capable of good or bad
ripe for slaying
and to be slayed
for honour.

And now,
these threads must come together,
and they do by bull, book
and probably not candle.

Under some low wattage bulb,
Percy
always known as Patrick, to his family,
or Hobo to the wider world,
in 1941
in a happy moment
amidst frantic lucubrations
drew a bull on a sketch pad
as he might have done
as a child
or as a cadet
in “the Shop”
in Woolwich
where every engineer officer
of his generation
was taught to draw.

The very paper may have
reminded
him of the cavalry pad
strapped to his  forearm
when he was mounted
in his early days
and needed to portray
some tribal domain
in the Great Game
as though a Lear or Spencer
gone even further East.

His artist’s eye
loved the scope
he found in
those hinterlands
of Tartary and the ’stan’s,
beyond all order,
where life strained the imagination,
fit for the eye of
G F Watts,
daubed in Guildford
and treasured on Sunday afternoons
by weekend
bohemians
awed by “Chaos”
by the Thames
in the Tate.

Anyway, in 1941,
he’s 56
and a mere Major General,
(his coevals were slipping
well ahead by now)
and he has taken command
of the 11th Armoured Division.
It is to be
remade in his image,
as fashioned in his mind over years,
fallowed in his banishment,
refined in his underemployment.

But even at this moment,
when subordinates look to him
for detailed conceptions
of every aspect of this
great apparatus
they have been set
to make and mobilise,
he yet sees something else,
which no-one is asking for.

Poised amidst his soldiering
there is an illustrator’s pencil
itching to create;
longing, I risk saying,
to banish all pettiness
and make loveliness
express something bolder,
clearer,
more invigorating
than a well crafted order.

Hobart drew an insignia,
a flash for his Division,
for their upper arms
and the flanks of their vehicles.
It wasn’t quite invented,
no heraldry is,
but riffed by a sort of genius:
a bull
profiled in full body.

This work of Hobart’s
has an adman’s manipulative flair,
an embroiderer’s empathy,
a herald’s clarion youthfulness.

A bull sable,
passant, regardant,
it is our Hobart’s homage
to Boleyn and the Cromwellian Hobart
and to the
Ironside cavalry
and it is balm to his soul.

His bull stamped
Hobart’s imprimatur
with every heavy
impatient step.
Speaking of heft-powered horns,
red-tipped, bloodied,
the beast was stalwart at rest
and furious when roused,
snorting through
crimson-veined
nostril-flares,
emboldening the men
who had one
patched or painted
declaratively.

Hobart sought
to mark his men
and  their machines
and make them his,
even as he gives them
an identity
so they may know each other
and be a band of men.

But it is not for Hobart
alone
to say his insignia
will pass muster.

Such things are judged
by the Royal School of Needlework
and they stitch
a fabric sample from
his sketch
and send it back.

“Oh balls”, cries Hobart
when he sees their work
or something like that
(I made that up that little outburst.)

He demands they resubmit:
he demands the bull
be
not merely embroidered
as manly in a general way,
but entire
as the vets say,
intact,
fully furnished,
well hung, if you like,
even as a sort of tapestry.

A man at his most feminine
one might say
produces an emblem
utterly masculine.

And so it is,
when Hobart’s long left that command –
the Bull’s progenitor
and the Division’s –
indeed,
nearly three years later,
in ’44 and ’45,
and the image is on
shoulder and bodywork,
when they go into action
from Normandy to Flanders
in the last months
of this oil-driven war,
as Germany’s empire
was rolled back
to Berlin
and oblivion.

Wind back though.
It’s 1941;
Hobart’s work on the 11th
is finished;
since they are ready for battle,
old Hobo must move on.

There’s a War Office faction
would have ditched him then,
altogether,
at last,
on grounds of age
and convalescence
(as it happens)
and grudges old and new.
But Churchill
declares himself
again
a fan
of nearly everything
they dislike in Hobart
and he is allowed
what he would make
his great moment.

He creates the 79th
Armoured Division,
what he calls
“the best of the Black Bulls”.

And straightaway
as though to stress
he’s at the same work,
continuing it
but advancing it,
he draws
another divisional flash
and this time it is
the Bull’s Head alone,
and he wonders then
has he been overdramatic
made too much of a point,
drawing attention to himself
as much as the cause.
He asks a friend,
“Is this too, too
“symbolical!!!”

These were khaki times,
bleak and
drab
by modern reckoning
being in monochrome,
and lived by people mostly dead
to us
who knew them as grandfathers,
traduced now as uptight
or anyway benighted.
But doesn’t his very diction
speak
of a freer time
when the upper classes
or those who aspired to them
were freely camp?

I didn’t tell you yet
the thing which Hobart did
which would make the
tissue sequence in the movie
someone might make.

The first biographer of his 79th –
Hobo’s ADC and then his GSO 2 –
his right-hand man
so to say,
the squire to his knight –
was rich and Etonian
and probably quite relaxed.
Anyway,
crotchety General Hobart
had this John Borthwick,
his smart young comrade
and confederate
(as I dare propose him)
to stay
in the beloved family
time and place
and neither had a valet,
nor the house a butler.

Some village skivvy
might have figured.
Maybe a woman who does.
Who knows?
There might have been
a “daily”
soon to come
but not yet arrived.

Anyway, Borthwick records,
a little awed,
a domestic weekend scene.

(I imagine a floral pinny,
quite faded,
preserving scruffy
cricket whites
held up by a scrawny tie;
and a threadbare carpet
runs a strip down the boards
of the upstairs corridor
just after dawn.)

Hobart brings his guest
his early morning tea
and takes away his shoes
to shine them.

And so Hobart proved himself
a man
who loved
spit-and-polish
and perhaps
the imitation of Christ
or a commanding officer’s
noblesse oblige.

Hobart’s vehicles
match him.
He is the master of peculiarities.
His tanks are
coracle confections
in canvas and steel,
and dragon conceits
with tails
of bouncing
petrol bowsers
to breathe fire,
and heaped-up
like peasant donkeys
with fascines
of innocent
half-grown coppice wood
to bridge ditches.

Hobart is congruently
the king
of the incongruous,
laying out this
rattling greasy toolbag
of dangerous delights
scattered at the feet
of younger commanders
who can bid them
go forth
and reassemble
transformed
to avenge Dunkirk
in a war
in which veterans of twenty-five
had too little time to pity
the arriving tyros of eighteen,
or the older men
newly come to the field
from the beginnings of rose gardens,
steady in the marriage bed
but unsure how military life
will treat them.

England would not be England
if all she bred where Churchill’s,
for whom all life is a battlefield
or a field of the Cloth of Gold
or the ball before Waterloo;
rather than a Chamber of Commerce
or a Bazelgette fixing the drains
or all the Chamberlains
being municipal.

And even generals come
in every form,
many quite modest
even in their pomp.
I find few I don’t admire,
even if it’s a cheek
for me to say so.

But Hobart is pre-eminent
as I prick out my virtues,
those of others,
as might a gardener
choose between seedlings
fit for the summer’s marquees.

I never read of him
saying a stupid thing
without regretting it
and saying so
or making up for it.
Even his cruelty
is only ever small
and purposed
to make men
junior to him
a bit safer
or more effective.

He loves women
and grows in his
wondering
appreciation of them
and their being both themselves
and the other half of their men.

And he ponders
the odd
luminous quagmire
that is charm
which he has largely
disadmired from afar.

By the end of his career,
his triumphs are very great
and he knows he is loved
even though peace is always
ungrateful.

He knows the value of honour
and violence
but of wiliness too.
And he knows that he should not mourn
that he has never directed
the highest
order or things.
He has taught but not spearheaded
strategy.
And now, when he knows
he has invented
whole indispensible Divisions
whose charges he never led
himself –
he is perhaps past regret.

People all around him,
above and below,
knew Hobo pretty well,
and he knew himself
too.

Hobart
is a spirit
both within near-reach
and somehow sui generis:
this is a soldier-soul,
buffeted as well as great,
pushed around by history
before our eyes,
and as it careens about
him,
he writes good letters,
and orders and specifications,
and makes
a story which lets us see
so many dimensions
of the warrior.

After the war,
this man who was loved
by those who served under him
and was so hard to manage
almost slips from view.

And yet we do see him
again,
glimpsed
in the Royal Hospital, Chelsea,
where he commands
the glamorous old warriors
and he is for once
the youngest amongst his men.

His apartment there
suits him well:
his grown-up children
and their friends,
the old Chelsea
underworld of artists –
the old Tite Street
of Whistler and  Sickert,
and the new King’s Road,
raffish and waiting for
Bacon, Beatniks and the Punks –
that bohemia
is at hand,
and some affluence too,
these lap at the gates of
the world of Wren and Wellington,
his latest domain

He is busy here as well,
perhaps too busy.
He fixed the kitchen
and
brought in physiotherapy
and an
occupational therapist
and nobody minded much.

But he saw further disgraces,
in the vaulted ceilings
of the Hospital’s
gleaming halls
and fusty windows,
glamorised
by the limp
peaceful
banners, standards, and flags
of the enemies out-flanked
and out-pounded
by British armies.

Many of these —
as in cathedrals
and churches everywhere –
were honoured but neglected
and their condition
offended our officious
Hobo.

They’d been
made threadbare
by sunlight
and probably by every kind
of smoke
and city dust.
The worst of them
he has replaced
and orders
the originals be destroyed:
perhaps he fears
they have the moth
or perhaps he thinks
they’ve had enough of shame
perhaps he merely forgets
to temper the shorn lamb
to the gales of the new.

Anyway, he was always
brisk
with a new broom
and  sure of his ways.

He has met his match,
though, and
some of the old boys
long in the tooth,
mature in the knowledge
of officers’ ways,
take the discarded
wrecked flags,
and hide them
in their own bits of privacy
beyond inspection.

Perhaps they cared,
these old soldiers,
for the plain
but forgotten facts:
they were men who’d followed
the flag,
one way or another,
and perhaps respected
the particular item,
the very thing,
the actual cloth,
which had seen battle
and watched men die
and hung over funerals.
Perhaps their own dim ears
thought the dim flags
could still hear bugles,
and were entitled to
live out their lives any
way they liked.

We are told the hospital
liked the Hobo,
and admired him,
but if he is
fabulously active
his new charges
could be really stubborn
in their slower ways.

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