Poem: Percy “Hobo” Hobart, Pt 3

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

This poem is the third 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 3
The Hobo, his generation and their books

 

Even amongst
Louis Spiers
and Pug Ismay
and Tiny Ironside,
those other youngish
late Victorians
who became oldish
New Elizabethans
and in-between
led men
or directed armies
or powerfully
whispered in the ears
of the powerful
in world wars,
yes, even amongst
these big,
writerly figures,
whom I can meet
and almost know
in their own words
even – nearly –
their own voices
in their diaries
and memoirs,
yes,
even amongst
such as these
he is
my favourite general.

With something like scruple,
I stalked Hobart at a distance
and took wandering paths
amongst musty books
haphazardly found
where serendipity dated
synchronicity,
in the military sections
in back rooms,
up or down creaky stairs
and the books seemed to hand me
from one to another.

The easy sofa journey
began with a book
haphazardly found on holiday.

It was
The Wartime Adventures of
B Squadron “Corpse”
one of those memoirs,
by an artistic,
writing
improbable NCO.
(I itch to name others
in Koestler’s
“Thoughtful Corporal Belt”.)

And this undainty
daisy chain
led to “Corpse’s”
admired leader
Hobart
(whom he never met).

And Hobart led me to
another general,
and on to another,
and yet others,
until I came back to Hobart,
and I almost
felt a member of a
confederacy.

Circling Sir Percy,
at a distance,
as befitting
the pursuit of someone
mythic or Shakespearean,
but more Quixote than
Morte d’Arthur,
and with a dash of
something bitter,
something Walter Mitty:
not a man for easy admiration,
but suiting a taste
habituated to the neglected,
honed by Baron Corvo’s
Hadrian Vll
or others somewhat sideways,
say Joseph Cornell
and his boxes.

So tempted and daunted
I detoured away;
I made a feint,
via Spears, Ismay and Ironside,
and even when I looked properly
for Hobart, and thought I found him,
I veered away again
toward Alanbrooke, Montgomery and Wavell,
these last three
all known to him
and working in his life,
at this moment
on his side,
and that moment,
powerfully not.

I am cross-threaded
and determined
on my own erratic ways
and went toward Hobart
along various of them
and toward these
other knightly heroes
now all but slipped
from living memory,
and I crept on
in hopes of hearing them all
as their fellows and followers did
as though round camp fires
from their youth
(the horses uneasy in the lines)
or in a command truck
(a wireless clerk nodding at his set)
or a commandeered Headquarters
(in a homely farm kitchen or
a chateau’s hallway).
And then I want to hear Hobo,
in particular,
in an English country house,
engineering
other men’s victories
in a draughty ballroom
nowhere near as smart
as Ryder’s
Brideshead.

I like my books, boats and coats
second hand
but my opinions
I affect
to mint
for myself.

I want to assay my debt
– not some national debt,
not yours –
to warriors
of whatever age
and in whatever cause.

I seek to know
the exact homage due
from me,
and what coinage
the survivors –
or the dead –
might accept:
and see if I can pay
my pocket’s-worth
of the debt cowardice
owes to courage.

I like the debt I owe
to military commanders
because they accept
such a weight,
and especially those
with vivid imaginations
and the wit
and sometimes
the need to explain
and exonerate
and even,
very rarely,
expiate.

“My” generals
led their Commonwealth’s
volunteers and conscripts –
from Bermondsey and Bombay,
Newcastle to Darwin,
from slums and prairies
and deserts and jungles,
and suburbs.

Blanco-ed and badged
these millions
sallied forth –
many half-unwilling;
and many even of
the plain reluctant,
and the unsuited,
grew
in the end
a fine
bolshie determination
to do the right thing.

From the Charing Cross Road
to Henley-on-Thames,
and Blandford Forum,
and Shoreham,
and Worthing,
Brighton and Oxford,
I found books
about and by their leaders,
sometimes ordered alphabetically
sometimes grouped by war,
holding their own
amongst smiling
and consoling
Gardening,
Cooking,
Travel,
and the yards and yards
of nerdy Transport,
and other less bloody diaries
and memoirs and biographies.

These volumes waited –
paraded, more or less,
but very patient –
till their temporary guardians
often in cardigan and scarves
rang up the soldierly stories
and put them in old supermarket bags;
and I did not feel rewarded –
not especially deserving,
nor undeserving –
but just blessed
to have lived long enough to want
to know these men better
now that I have better tools for it
and don’t mind learning
and glad of all the hands and minds
which had pored over these pages
over thirty, sometimes fifty, years.

As I survey these soldiers I am
like a middle-aged man
seeing Venice for the first time,
at least in the flesh,
and not like himself
as he had been
when
a school-tripper
in a coach party bubble
seeing nothing but the girl
he has fancied all year,
as arrested decay
and art and bridges,
and stories of
trade and tyrannies,
and a sort of longed-for
ache,
drift by on the edge of
chatter and scoring;
but rather –
I say –
with the
shock of experience
and with the thrill
of a pleasure
which was worth delay
and could not wisely be
put off longer.

Like those other warrior
coevals of his,
that 1880’s generation
of babies
who became generals
in the 30s
coming men by 1918
and with strength
for one last war by 1939,
Hobart’s long prime
had made him
a master of many times:
from ponies to tanks,
from pigeons to wireless.

But none of these –
my feeling heroes –
mourned tradition:
their youth had seen
cavalier romance,
and Houseman’s dancing,
singing boys,
and tribal honour
amongst martial people,
machine-gunned in the trenches,
and they’d purposed to meet
industrial evil
with industrial virtue
and some virtu, too.

No longer young
they were moderns for sure,
Modernists, perhaps,
except there was no
death-cult
in any of them
and all they knew for sure
was that they
were set to beat fascism,
the handmaiden,
the singled-voiced
shouting Siren,
of the Futurists.

This was the generation,
of leader and led,
who went –
sometimes often –
to Olivier’s Henry Five:
and light-heartedness and hope
were
all mixed up with
fear and destiny.

I want to try to be precise
in weighing
some of this,
the courage and cleverness
the clubbability and the awkwardness
especially where there is
charisma amongst diffidence
and a wit
too dry to laugh much.

I love Churchill
(I like an aristocrat on the make)
and Wellington
(I like an Augustan reactionary):
they cried a lot
like Jews
and were
immoderately cool,
under fire
or when they made
enormous decisions.
They could park regrets
somewhere
very private.

Yes, isn’t that it?
Does that not
also corral
Nelson,
that man with whom to fall in love?

Many men of many sorts
feel they are called
and suited to
honour, glory,
and duty.

Amongst them are gamblers
who challenge the facts –
those stupid unfeeling circumstances
which chain other men –
and challenge the odds
to do them down,
but all have suffered and thrived
on pure chance.
Maybe unseasonal rain
bogs down
the enemy’s guns,
or a sudden breeze
favours their own windward ship;
and they come home
drenched in blood
and success
and are wiped down
and shown off
at subscription dinners
in provincial cities,
or given estates
the size of the nation’s
pride in them
and itself,
and the luck becomes
a part of their wonder,
as though they could bend
the common stuff
of reality.

But some of them have
a special hunger;
these must
make a mark:
dent history;
redraw a map;
bring low an existential enemy:
these audacities are all that lie between
their pounding hearts –
their teeming minds –
and nullity.

These few –
these Nelson’s and Churchill’s
and maybe Montgomery too,
have a flamboyance,
some music hall swank,
some hunger for
what only the crowd
can give.

They insist
they must
make a continent or two
hold its breath,
and have mothers
tell their tales
in nursery rhymes –
scented Madonnas
bent over
sleepy infants.

The hunger of such heroes
makes them great,
for sure,
and yet a little vulgar too.

And one of this sort of hero might choose
to die as an old man
in a dressing room
in a campaign cot
as good then
as some innocent
other-ranker
and proof against flattery.

And this one picks up a paintbrush and a smock
and this is one is bosomed by Emma
and this other one runs a peace mission.

Warriors who seek atonement
seldom need it
except for themselves
or can have it:
they thought they were making history,
but it was only playing with them after all.

We ought to love our great warriors
(especially those on our side)
as we might unruly gods,
who sometimes fall into grace
but let lesser beings
pretend to be great
or become almost so
as they follow,
admiring and cursing.

I love all my generals –
I mean all the fighting men
whose lives I read –
but best of all,
those not in the top, top league.
I love these grown-up boys
who
in middle age
led young men and women
into an advanced adulthood
and death
and made some into heroes.

Some great performers –
the Churchill’s, and Nelson’s,
maybe even the Montgomery’s,
cannot really know themselves
and are as dazzled
as the rest of us
by the show they put on.

The Duke of Wellington’s
an odd case:
he knew himself
well enough
and yet could not bend
or display
except in the proper privacy
of his friends or mistresses.

The Wavell’s and
The Slim’s and the Auchinleck’s,
the very top of the second league
–  the best of the battlefield commanders –
being not so lofty,
they can see inside themselves
and let us see
their backstage areas.

There’s even more to the lesser figures,
say Spears, Ismay,
even our Ironside,
and definitely Alan Brooke
(the best thinker of them all, maybe,
but masterminding armies from afar,
and staying close to Churchill,
to contain him,
which was the stickiest battle of all).

There is something
short of greatness and genius
in these men,
but they talk to us
and teach us
how we might reach for the extraordinary,
almost by study
and diligence.

And yet, and yet,
England would not be England
if there were not Hobart’s too.
He’s not quite a visionary
but not just obsessive;
not above the fray
nor master of it
but deeply in it.

Hobart said he had no interest
in writing himself into anything,
not even a manual fit for Sandhurst.
There’d be no memoirs
for armchair generals,
no guides to leadership for boys
and girls.

Perhaps he cared too much for writing
to be  prepared to be bad at it.
He was bold and bloody
but not about to be
self-obsessed in public
as a poet must
if he’s to be any good.

And so the general who designed
three divisions,
and did it
so well
they could be lent to others
to lead,
this designer and creator,
served his men and dreams
with one last flourish.

He had chased them
from Normandy to the Rhine
and now
he gave them one last gift
and it was their own story.

When at last he caught them up,
in the last months of European war,
it fell to him
to organise their chronicle,
The Story of the 79th Armoured Division,
published Hamburg,
July 1945.
He might have written it himself,
and drawn every map of every advance
and every setback.
He might have sketched and cartooned and
crisply described
with a poetic flourish
here and there
and deftly eulogised
this or that valorous man,
this or that action.

But instead, I see him
making the thing happen.
His young unit was for the chop,
and he could marshal and inspire
its final flourish.

He commanded that it be done,
that it be deft and thorough and witty,
and speak of liberty’s heroic ambition
and the nuts and bolts
of violence and re-creation;
that it be gathered in from all the maps and snaps
to hand, or scattered through the 79th’s
armoured archipelago,
and that it be written
by his young Aide de Camp,
John Borthwick,
a high tone City butcher’s son
who wrote quite well,
his acerbic General thought,
considering the author was
“uneducated at Eton”.

And so, in the ruins of Hamburg,
where printing and graphic art
were ancient skills,
and where – I am imagining now –
Nazi propaganda was elegantly
and boldly ground out,
my mind’s eye has him
sending out youngsters
reconnoitring
and scavenging
for fonts and
rolls of paper,
and ink,
and canvas boards.

From start to finish
it was all work
he could
have mastered
as a publisher or author,
in another unlived life.

And then
perhaps under
twisted metal roofs,
and lit through
shattered windows,
or even in some
underground sanctuary,
on discovered presses,
manned by lucky Germans
(lucky anyway,
I assume,
to be alive and fed),
he ordains,
he causes –
prints and publishes-
the first,
fresh, democratic,
liberal,
modern, book
for post-war Germany
about the
defeat
of its madness –
at once primordial, and futurist –
by British guts
and eccentricity.
It’s a story
as old as
as any
war,
but especially
an existential one,
but even of
the wars of
Wellington and Nelson:
when an
ancien regime
proved itself
supple and responsive
and fully bloody-minded
against
some sort of
foreign revolution.

And here’s the neatest twist,
the typeface they found
for the titles and subtitles
in their book
was Thannhaeuser Schrift, 1929:
a very German
font
with that
strength and verve
of Bauhaus and the Gothic:
a sort of nod
to something
fin de siècle
as neurotic and necessary
as Vienna,
fraught and bold
as once.

So it’s a proper
finale –
this military book
made in war’s rubble –
a proper finale
to his long haul
as a man
who would not be confined.

And thence to disbandment:
his men and machines were subsumed
by other units
as they were wont anyway.
His Bull’s insignias –
of body and head –
were adopted by others,
in the Army’s dislike
of throwing away allegiances.

And Hobart’s reputation
never tarnished,
was somehow neglected,
except almost as
a curiosity,
as that
bloke or gent
Hobo
with his “Funnies”.

And yet,
when seventy years
have been heaped
on the youngest of his veterans,
one or two of them hang on
and are fond his memory,
and treasure the book
he caused to be made to remember them,
as they were back then,
when they were the apple of his eye.

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