A possible penny drops

Yesterday Calderon sent his wife three large closely written pages of letter, today he sends her four.  He describes tents, ‘messing’, people, clothes, furniture, military equipment, horses, exercises, soldiers, officers, all in vivid detail and thick with names.

His back was still painful and he would usually have to be heaved into the saddle.  At dinner on the 17th, however, he had made a surprising and useful acquaintance:

I sat between the jolly-faced (not handsome) fellow I mentioned yesterday and Surgeon-Major Pares, brother of Bernard Pares the Professor of Russian at Liverpool […].  Pares gave me belladonna lotion for my back, which took out all the pain so that I slept softly for some hours.  Though bed felt hard later on.

In 1909 George had been instrumental in setting up the Liverpool School of Russian Studies, to which Bernard Pares was Professor (later he became Director of London’s School of Slavonic and East European Studies).

Although nominally only an interpreter, Calderon got up at 5.15 reveille today and reported for duty:

I went down to the parade of my Squadron, but nothing happened; they rode off (all very friendly greeting).  So I took my German to the mess tent, where the Colonel found me; said I had better ride, and ordered me a horse.  We set off, three together — the Colonel, myself and ‘Beef’ or ‘Beefy’ or ‘Beefer’, I haven’t discovered his name; the bald conscientious bullocky man who had the range finder yesterday — to find the Regiment in the hills.  As we galloped over the first I lost my cap and had to go back, but picked up the Colonel later, tracked him down with Beefer, in the corner of a field, visiting the machinegun section.  He explained how the machinegun was the ‘pivot of an attack’ that hinged round on it.  Range finding and judgment of distance.  Then we went through shallow woods and along bristly hill sides to find the squadrons: climbed a steep round hill and came to an old Roman Camp with trenches 20 feet deep; crossed the first and found one of the troop-horses lying dead in the second.

Unaccustomed to being picketed, the hunters and hacks in the camp break loose sometimes and run away at night and break their legs and necks in steep places in the dark.  Beefy and the Corporal-Bugler who rode with us climbed down and examined the body.  Then we rode down a long hill and came on the Regiment; three squadrons at long distances apart.  My cap blew back and hung on the back of my head by the chinstrap (which, like most, I wore under the chin, for there is a brisk half-gale still blowing) as I came down to the nearest squadron, a little spoiling the effect.  I followed the Colonel about wherever he went, dismounted now and then to rest the horse and hopped on nimbly, thanks to the belladonna lotion.  Sometimes we met Generals and things in the open […]. The Brigadier cropped up again and criticised and advised.  The Regiment formed column and line and changed direction to all the airts [quarters], and I spent my morning trying to steer clear and get out of the way; but kept being nearly caught by a sudden new evolution of the Squadrons or the machinegun section, which galloped nobly over dips and ditches, like two small boats in a storm.

[…]

Soldiers know one another so much, that they feel personally about the enemy: ‘Those are the fellows that killed dear old so-and-so, and so-and-so’.  They go out to meet real personal enemies.  And by the bye, soldiers are not called ‘Tommies’, so I gather, but ‘men’.

And so Calderon writes on.  He closes today’s letter to Kittie: ‘I have written at length to give you the first impressions.  After this, I shall not write so fully; for I must be using the time I am awake in study, of a hundred things.’  Yet through the next six weeks he does continue to write to her at length!

Along with other reasons that I have touched on, it begins to dawn on me that he wanted to join up and become ‘combatant’ for writerly reasons, although this is not once alluded to.  Perhaps at this stage he was not even aware of it himself.  He thought he was ‘odd man out’ in the Blues — although warmly accepted — because he was an ‘interpreter’ and ‘a private’, but actually his position approximates more to that of a war correspondent. Perhaps Colonel Wilson, whose wife had been a war correspondent during the Boer War, foresaw that, since he must have been aware that George was a professional writer.

These letters, which I have never read closely before, resemble those that he wrote Kittie whenever he was abroad: detailed descriptions, wry observations, thoughts, records, sometimes ink sketches.  Although his letters to her from Tahiti have been lost, they must have been like this, because he used them to invoke the spirit and facts of his 1906 stay on the island when he came to write his book in the winter of 1913/14.  Perhaps he would have done the same for a book about the Great War.

To write his early short stories, his two novels, his articles, his plays, and the letters that he used for Tahiti, he had had to have Kittie to write to and to bounce his writing off.  She was the exclusive ‘other’ of his life.  All the time he could write to her, he was in ‘touch’ with her.  ‘When he was at home’, she wrote later, ‘I hardly ever went away even for a day.  He at once seemed to feel left and lost.  He absolutely needed one.’

Next entry: Kittie’s Feelings

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About Patrick Miles

I am a writer who specialises in Anton Chekhov and is writing a biography of George Calderon.
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