The thickness of events…

When writing a biography, you can go for months in its subject’s life without hearing a word from them, as it were: no letters from them to anyone have survived, they are not recorded as having said anything to anyone else, indeed as having ‘been anywhere’ at all.

On the other hand, when long letters have survived from them every day and when they are caught up in cataclysmic events that are also affecting their friends and the whole nation, there is an almost overwhelming abundance of connections between their life and others’ and the whole country’s.  How does the biographer select from this thickness of events?  Someone told me that he thought the story of George Calderon in World War 1 was a book in itself (maybe, but not yet, please!).

Here are some strands in George Calderon’s life over the last four days that I doubt whether I could find space to weave into the biographical narrative.

On 19 September Calderon received news from Kittie that Jim Corbet had been badly wounded at the Marne (see my post of 8 September).  ‘Perhaps “badly” means half an arm or a leg gone; but I am sure it must be less than “dangerously”’, he replied to Kittie, and enclosed a letter for her to send on to Jim’s mother.  The day after, he heard from Kittie that Jim was better than expected.  In fact, we know from Jim Corbet’s diary that five days after he was wounded by shrapnel in three places the wounds were ‘healing nicely’, and eight days after the event an X-ray showed that he did not have a bullet in his stomach after all.  He arrived back in London twelve days after being wounded, ‘wearing the same pyjamas and dressing-gown together with a pair of khaki knickers and the woolly I was wearing when I had been hit.’  He was sent to Sister Agnes Hospital, Grosvenor Gardens.

I am told that most people do not post or read blogs on a Sunday, so I was going to take the day off myself, but today is such an important literary and national anniversary that I would anyway have had to mention it.  On this day, 21 September 1914 (a Monday), Laurence Binyon’s poem ‘For the Fallen’ was published in The Times.  It was written a while before at Polzeath, in response to the publication of the first B.E.F. casualty lists, and in effect contains the most-read lines of any of our War poets.  Binyon was a close friend of Calderon’s from their days together at Trinity College, Oxford.

Units of the Blues had seen action at Mons, Le Cateau and the Marne, and were now engaged in the chaotic Battle of the Aisne.  At Windmill Hill Camp officers received letters from their comrades at the Front, so they were well aware of who was being killed.  This led George Calderon to return to a theme that obviously preoccupied him — how men behaved when they actually went into battle:

Those Germans are piling up a big debt of vindictiveness; great slabs of conversation are concerned with casualties and rumoured casualties; ‘poor old Jimmie’s been killed’, ‘So and so’s other son is wounded’ and the like.  These things will be remembered when they charge; not in a terrifying silence, but with a sudden spontaneous cheer.

Amusingly, the ‘Russian theme’ suddenly pops up in George’s letter of 19 September.  ‘Amusingly’, because his knowledge of Russian was totally irrelevant in his new role, he seemed to have bundled all that into a cupboard and slammed the doors, but he was after all one of the top Russianists in the country and couldn’t forget it.

He observes the officers around him and compares them with War and Peace, one of his and Kittie’s favourite books:

[Tolstoy’s] types are here; one young commander (the young rule the old) is a bristly hairy ruddy Denisof, with black deep shining jolly eyes.  Another impudent faced Dolokhof commands another squadron, and spends a lot of time chaffing and ragging, with a serious face, a very tall fair lad, Lord Alastair something, who is an object of general sport, though not at all ridiculous, but, for all his youth, able to take care of himself, good humouredly, in simple philosophic phrases.

The last sentence has a rather Tolstoyan syntax, and in the same letter George even refers to the Ballets Russes, with whom he had been working in London up to the end of July:

In the sun today, the mellow autumn sun, the camp looks like the Polovtsian camp in ‘Prince Igor’, with tents and hills in groups, fading away into the distance; but no Polovtsiennes to dance among them to cheer your little Prince Igor.  The greyhounds [belonging to an officer] give a feminine touch. Ladies come in motorcars in the afternoon, a few, mothers and wives of officers, and walk about and have tea.

The ‘Polovtsian Dances’, choreographed by George’s friend Fokine, had created a sensation in London during Ballets Russes’ first, 1911 visit.  But what George is really hinting at here is his lack of female company and his own irresistible urge in female company to charm and lightly flirt.  As he wrote to Kittie in 1899: ‘I am undermined in all my actions by the desire to please an audience.’

Soon after the Fokines had arrived back in Paris, war was declared.  Usually they would now have returned to St Petersburg to perform in the winter season, but they were wondering how, with Russia at war as well, they were going to get there.  George was in touch with them by letter.

Next entry: 22 September 1914


About Patrick Miles

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