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Tome On The Range

100 Years: Shirley Collins Reflects On The First World War
Luke Turner , October 27th, 2018 08:48

Ahead of her appearance at a series of events marking the end of the First World War, we've an extract from Shirley Collins' memoir on the conflict's impact on her family

One of the most moving aspects to Shirley Collins' wonderful memoir All In The Downs is her recollections of the First World War's impact on her family, and the communities of East Sussex. On Remembrance Sunday, 11th November, Collins will play the Boiler Shop in Newcastle as part of 100 Years, a series of events to mark the centenary of the Armistice. Darren Hayman's Thankful Villages project, about the places from where all servicemen returned from the war, Bas Jan and British Sea Power also feature. The centrepiece of the event will be Chris Watson's A Nightingale on the Western Front sound piece, read more about that here and buy tickets here. You can buy Shirley Collins' All In The Downs here. With thanks to Strange Attractor for the extract.

I have a photograph of me at perhaps a year old, sitting on the grass in our unkempt back garden, scowling at the sun. We had a tortoise called Fu; I was fascinated by how slowly he blinked his eyes, how deliberately he munched and gulped lettuce leaves, and how he appeared to move his legs sideways and backwards in order to move forward. We had a large ginger cat, Mickey, that Dad had brought back as a kitten from a farm, a gift from a customer on his milk round. Mostly he was given dead rabbits, so this made a nice change and Mickey stayed with us for fourteen years.

I just about remember my great-granny, Mary Ann Easton, who lived on the top floor of our tall house (or so it seemed to me), at the top of dark stairs which we had to climb up to visit her. She's important to me as it was she who sang 'The Cuckoo is a Pretty Bird', which was one of the songs I sang on my album Sweet England (1958) recorded by Alan Lomax and Peter Kennedy. I have a clear picture of her, however, only from her presence in the photograph of my parents' wedding. She was tiny, shaped like a bell, in her long, full skirts with a high toque hat and dressed entirely in black ever since she had lost her son George Cyril Easton (my mother's uncle) in the First World War. He served in The Royal Flying Corps, and was shot down over Italy on 5 August 1918 aged eighteen and a half. At first he was reported missing, but the story came down through the family that on that night his mother awoke to see her son standing at the foot of her bed. He said to her, 'Don't worry, mother, I'm alright'. Then he turned to the door, waved a hand in farewell and raised his head; his mother saw that it was a skull. Next day the telegram came telling of his death.

I have the bronze plaque his parents were presented with after the war, a beautiful thing in its way, with Britannia holding her trident in one hand, and an olive wreath – or is it a laurel wreath? – in the other, a lion padding at her side, and with two leaping dolphins circling around her. HE DIED FOR FREEDOM AND HONOUR is inscribed around it, and it's set in a solid wooden circular frame. The letters that form his name are a little rubbed, and I picture his mother touching them over and over. When I hold it, I feel such pity and anger for her, and for the many thousands of other grieving mothers, wives, sisters and sweethearts, and wonder how they found the courage to endure their losses. I also have the memorial book that Great Granny made for him, full of cuttings and verses from newspapers and magazines – such sentimental platitudes, and such hypocrisy it seems to me now – though not on her part. It must have been a consolation for her, a comfort, albeit, surely, a bitter one. On the first page is this from a local newspaper:

WAR CASUALTIES – 2nd Lieut. George Cyril Easton R.A.F. was reported missing on 5th August, and no further news has been received. Lieut. Easton was a boy in our choir; he has done well, and thoroughly deserves the position he has won for himself in the army.

Deserves what?! Lying dead somewhere in Italy, shot out of the air!

His mother placed these words in the local paper: 'In loving memory of our only son Lieut. Easton R.A.F. killed in the air on August Holiday 1918.' All deaths in this conflict were unbearable, but somehow it seems extra cruel to lose your child so close to the end of the war.

There was such pride in him at first. He had, unsuccessfully, tried to join the army when he was sixteen; his father followed him to the recruiting office and hauled the under-age boy home. But at eighteen he successfully enlisted. Although but an under-gardener, his natural intelligence was noticed, and he was sent for a short while to Oxford University. As his nephew Fred FC Ball sardonically wrote, some 45 years later, in his book A Breath of Fresh Air:

"What had happened was that the war had got in a tangle and the government had decided, to the dismay of some regular officers, that certain men from the ranks should be commissioned. So Lance-Corporal Uncle Cyril was interviewed to see whether he could be taught to speak an officer's version of the King's English. And, needing a little practice, had been sent to Oxford University for three months as a cadet in the Royal Flying Corps."

Great Granny survived until 29 January 1938, missing, mercifully, yet another world war; so I would have been two and a half when she died. My memories of her are faint now; all I can recall is the tiny celluloid bath with metal taps she gave me one Christmas, with a celluloid doll and a scrap of cloth for a flannel. I never knew her husband, George Easton, who had died before I was born. My mother told me he had been a builder and decorator, part-owning the business until his partner made off with all their money. He then had to join the work force and at one point had a job at the Woolwich Arsenal, 'helping to make widows and orphans.' He had been a lay preacher, but his troubles ruined him financially, and led him to drinking heavily. He became increasingly irascible, disgusted with the social set-up, and deeply affected by the loss of their son in the Great War; they received a small pension for this – he called it 'blood money'.

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