Saturday, October 09, 2010

About One Hundred Autumns Ago

"The weather is only a little west of south for one of the last fair days of the year; and the gloom of the yew in the churchyard... which seems the residue of the dark past, has its antiquity full of little smouldering embers of new life again; and so a lazy man has reasons to doubt whether the millennium is worth all this hurry."
Henry Major Tomlinson, An Autumn Morning

I wish I could write like this author. Tomlinson was a veteran of World War I who was coping not only with post-traumatic stress of a war to end all wars, he was still young enough to remember the world that existed before his generation turned into soldiers; the world that was gone forever by the time the survivors returned home. The story begins in the Autumn of 1918. The war is over, but “life is real, life is earnest”.

Here’s how it begins:

“SEPTEMBER 28, 1918. The way to my suburban station and the morning train admonishes me sadly with its stream of season-ticket holders carrying dispatch-cases, and all of them anxious, their resolute pace makes it evident, for work. This morning two aeroplanes were over us in the blue, in mimic combat; they were, of course, getting into trim for the raid to-night, because the barometer is beautifully high and steady. But the people on their way to the 9.30 did not look up at the flight. Life is real, life is earnest. When I doubt that humanity knows what it is doing, I get comfort from watching our local brigadiers and Whitehall ladies on their way these tranquil Autumn mornings to give our planet another good shove towards the millennium. Progress, progress! I hear their feet overtaking me, brisk and resolute, as though a revelation had come to them overnight, and so now they know what to do, undiverted by any doubt…”

Walking on, he turns from the main road into a side street he last walked with his friend who never returned from war. It was “… a street which turns abruptly from my straight road to the station. It goes like a sudden resolution to get out of this daily hurry and excitement. It is a pre-war street. It is an ancient thoroughfare of ours, a rambling and unfrequented by-way. It is more than four years since it was a habit of mine to loiter through it, with a man with whom I shall do no more pleasant idling. We enjoyed its old and ruinous shops and its stalls, where all things could be bought at second-hand, excepting young doves, ferrets, and dogs. I saw it again this morning, and felt, somehow, that it was the first time I had noticed it since the world suddenly changed. Where had it been in the meantime? It was empty this morning, it was still, it was luminous. It might have been waiting, a place that was, for the return of what can never return. Its sunlight was different from the glare in the hurrying road to the station. It was the apparition of a light which has gone out…”

He sees a bookstore he used to visit with his friend. On impulse, he enters the store and sees the same old shopman who was always there. The shopman was pretty old school even before the war: “If you showed no real interest in what you proposed to buy he would refuse to sell it.”

Here is how the story ends:

“I came upon a copy of Walden, in its earliest Camelot dress (price sixpence), and remembered that one who was not there had once said he was looking for it in that edition. I turned to the last page and read: ‘Only that day dawns to which we are awake...’

"I reserved the book for him at once, though knowing I could not give it to him. But what is the good of cold reason? Are we awake in such dawns as we now witness? Or has there been no dawn yet because we are only restless in our sleep? It might be either way, and in such a perplexity reason cannot help us. I thought that perhaps I might now be stirring, on the point of actually rousing. There, in any case, was the evidence of that fugitive spark of the early summer of 1914 still imprisoned in its crystal, proof that the world had experienced a dawn or two. An entirely unreasonable serenity possessed me--perhaps because I was not fully roused--because of the indestructibility of those few voiceless hopes we cherish that seem as fugitive as the glint in the crystal ball, hopes without which our existence would have no meaning, for if we lost them we should know the universe was a witless jest, with nobody to laugh at it.

"'I want this book,' I said to the shopman.

"'I know,' he answered, without looking up. 'I've kept it for you.'"


Cicero Sings said...


Annie in Austin said...

Thanks for the introduction to Henry Major Tomlinson - hadn't run into him before and his writing is interesting.

But even though the war may be over for HMT, because he has returned from the front, the essay is dated September 1918. World War I didn't end until November 11, 1918. No wonder his fellow ticket-holders looked anxious!

I suppose that's kind of picky on my part, Weeping Sore, but as an amateur genealogist I've spent hundreds of hours finding records of WW I draft registrations from 1917 & 1918 for family members, along with death certificates dated 1918 with the cause of death Spanish Influenza, and recorded oral history for Armistice Night in Chicago. The fallout from the celebration itself permanently affected my ancestors' lives. Those dates are embedded in my mind.

Annie at the Transplantable Rose

colleen said...

I very much enjoyed becoming acquainted with Mr Tomlinson - thanks. Have just read one of his essays and found that many of the streets he mentiond still exist - Canton Street, Pekin Street, Amoy Place. It reminded me of a day when I sat in a pub on the river when a sailing ship went by, part of some event, and for a moment or two, I could imagine what it might be like a hundred years ago when the river heaved with activity and the scent of faraway.