Leaving for the Front

 

Before I die I must find this rhyme.

Be quiet, my friends, and do not waste my time.

 

We’re marching off in company with death.

I only wish my girl would hold her breath.

 

There’s nothing wrong with me. I’m glad to leave.

Now mother’s crying too. There’s no reprieve.

 

And now look how the sun’s begun to set.

A nice mass-grave is all that I shall get.

 

Once more the good old sunset’s glowing red.

In thirteen day’s I’ll probably be dead.

August 17, 1914

(Alfred Lichtenstein was killed seven weeks later)

 

It was a cold wet day. Typical weather for a funeral.

However, many of the graveside mourners were smiling as the coffin was lowered into the ground at the back of a house in Malvern Mews, north London.

There was also a brass band on hand as Michael Meany was laid to rest. But Michael was far from dead.

The 33 year-old barman was starting the first in a toe-curling 61 day internment in his attempt to enter the Guinness Book of Records for being buried alive.

The thought is enough to make most of us break into a cold sweat but Michael was well prepared.

The lid of his foam-lined coffin was fitted with books, magazines and a torch, while two pipelines provided him with air, food and a means to communicate with the world above.

A doctor provided him with a high calorie diet and friends kept a round-the-clock vigil nine feet above ground in case of trouble. He even had his favourite tipple, stout, piped down to him.

Michael bide farewell to well-wishers in February, 1968, wearing his favourite green pyjamas and clutching a crucifix.

Two months later an expectant crowd waited outside as the coffin was exhumed and Michael emerged to roars of congratulations.

The Irishman and his coffin were paraded in triumph through Kilburn’s crowded streets on the way to a reception at the Admiral Duncan pub where he was met by blonde actress Diana Dors.

Doctors were amazed he’d suffered no ill effects from his internment, but the coffin man from Kilburn took success in his stride.

“It was no problem, he said. “I could have stayed down there another hundred days.”

The current record is 150 days held by Geoff Smith from Mansfield, England.

 

‘The new in history always comes when people least believe it.  But, certainly, it only comes in the moment when the old become visible as old and tragic and dying and when no way out is seen. We live in such a moment: such a moment is our situation.’ Paul Tillich

 

Conquistador Hernando Cortez had a novel way of focusing the minds of his six hundred strong army that landed in Santa Cruz in 1519.

The small band of soldiers had come with the intention of plundering the wealth of the Aztec Empire but knew they were heavily outnumbered and isolated.

Once his men and supplies were on  land Cortez ordered all the boats to be burnt cutting off any possibility of retreat.

Losing wasn’t an option if they wanted to see home again and their lives depended on focusing their collective will on what lay before them.

Cortez went on to conquer the Aztecs, despite seemingly insurmountable odds.

We can’t go around invading countries these days – unless you are the US – but what if you focused all your effort and commitment on a single goal? That you refused to entertain the thought of failure, burned your personal boats, and committed yourself to success? Powerful idea.

 

Rex Edwards is never short of loose change.

The Stanmore coin collector, who is president of Harrow Coin Club in north London,  has amassed an impressive collection during the past 30 years.

The club is one of the oldest numismatic societies in the country and is somewhere that enthusiasts can exchange coins and listen to guest speakers extolling the benefits of anything from metal detecting to Japanese military currency.

So what’s the attraction of putting your hand in your pocket for money that has lost its value?

“Coins have a way of reflecting significant times and events,” says the retired civil engineer who spent much of his career in far-flung parts of the world like Papua New Guinea and Brazil.

“It’s a fascinating subject.  Once you start reading about the history surrounding a coin, one thing leads to another.”

Rex’s globe trotting career has allowed him to build an extensive collection of several thousand coins along with paper money and tokens.

His oldest coin dates back to the reign of Alfred the Great more than 1,000 years ago when Britain’s shores were under siege from Viking raiders.

Surprisingly, older currency is not as rare or expensive as you might imagine.  And much of that is down to the work of metal detector enthusiasts.

A silver drachma from the reign of Alexander the Great can cost as little as £30, while a silver denarius from one of the early Roman emperors can cost just £15.

Not that some coins don’t cost a pretty penny.

The most expensive tend to be limited issues that never make it into public circulation such as an 1933 American double eagle, which sold at auction for £4.1m.

Nearly half-a-million were produced during the height of the Depression but a dispute over the design led to them being scrapped and melted down.

US Treasury officers later discovered that ten of the coins had disappeared. Nine were recovered but the tenth eluded their grasp and later turned up in a private collection owned by the King of Egypt.

It disappeared again in the mid-1950s before resurfacing in 1996 when a British coin dealer attempted to sell it to Government undercover agents in New York.

Things are decidedly less racy at Harrow Coin Club but Rex puts his monetary talents to good use by helping sell coin collections donated to local charities.

He said: “I usually manage to raise about £10,000 a year on their behalf. The collections are often donated when someone dies and no-one else in the family is interested in the hobby.”

Harrow Coin Club meets bi-monthly throughout the year except in July and August. Anyone with an interest is welcome to attend.  For details, ring Rex Edwards on 020 8952 8765.

 

Artists find inspiration in many things. Vincent van Gogh loved the intense colours of the Provencal countryside, Paul Gaughin the exotic beauty of the South Sea Islands and Monet his beloved gardens which inspired his famous water lily paintings.

Louis Wain’s passion was cats.

The London-born artist produced tens of thousands of drawings and illustrations of cats in a variety of human poses and occupation. His caricatures gently poked fun at the absurdity of everyday life but his humour hid a lifelong struggle with mental illness.

At his height of his fame, Wain was one of the world’s most popular artists but tragically died alone in a mental hospital in 1939.

His unique talent would have gone undiscovered but for his wife’s encouragement.

The couple had received a kitten as a wedding gifts and, when his wife fell ill with cancer, Wain spent hours at her bedside sketching the cat as it played among the covers

Louis already worked as a newspaper artist and his dying wife suggested he show his boss the cat drawings.

His efforts were snubbed until several years later when the editor of the Illustrated London News discovered them gathering dust in a drawer.

He suggested that Wain draw a double-page illustration for s festive edition of the magazine showing a cats’ Christmas party. Wain responded with a picture containing more than 100 cats.

It might have seemed a Herculean task but Wain could draw with either hand with equal deftness and often amused his fellow workers by drawing with both at the same time.

The illustration was a huge success and he spent the next 15 years drawing up to 1,500 cats a year for newspapers and periodicals. Wain’s cats played across nursery walls of the world and appeared on postcards, posters and playing cards.

They played golf, drove cars and went fishing and reflected the various fads and fashions of their owners. When Europe went to war in 1914 the cats donned khaki and nursing uniforms.

The author H.G Wells said: ‘He made the cat his own. He invented a cat style, a cat society, a whole cat world.  Any British cats that don’t look and live like Louis Wain cats should be ashamed of themselves.”

Louis won a place in the hearts of a nation of animal lovers and suddenly found himself regarded as a world authority on felines. He was elected President of the National Cat Club, attended jamborees and fetes and was often quoted on the subject.

His success spread to America where he was on the verge of pioneering the film cartoon about a character called Pussyfoot.

Pussyfoot was later acknowledged as an inspiration for Felix the Cat and several Walt Disney characters.

Unfortunately, Wain was hit by a bus and seriously hurt just before he could sign a film contract and spent several weeks in hospital.

It marked a turning point in the artist’s fortunes.

He had never recovered from death of his beloved wife Emily and a series of bad investments and bad luck – a ship transporting a container full of his china cats was torpedoed and sunk during the war – left him with little money.  His mental health began to unravel

Wain had always been a generous man lending freely and rarely quibbling over the cost of commissions. 

He didn’t want to trouble his friends with his problems and stopped visiting his old haunts to avoid them.

He became a recluse preferring the company of his 17 cats. His mental condition worsened and he was committed to Middlesex County Asylum suffering from schizophrenia.

Hardly anyone realised what had happened to the reclusive genius until a journalist recognised him during an unrelated visit.

A number of public figures including Prime Minister Ramsey McDonald and H.G Wells launched a public appeal and Wain was transferred to a hospital where he had a private room and could continue painting.  

His illness was mirrored in a series of cat paintings that become progressively more abstract as his grasp on reality loosened.

The colours became increasingly vivid, the images blurring and disintegrating into a vortex of kaleidoscopic patterns during the worst bouts of his illness. The paintings are today regarded one of the most important and graphic representations of mental illness recorded.

Louis Wain died in Bethlam Hospital in 1939.

If you happen visit his final resting place in St Mary’s Cemetery, Kensal Green, tread carefully. 

Local legend says that, for years, a cat was seen playing by the graveside of its master.

 

A medical orderly found the last words of Leslie Coulson carefully folded inside the dead soldier’s tunic.

They were stained in the poet’s blood and described the horror of life in the trenches during World War One.

Coulson, born the son of a warehouseman in north London, is not as well known as some of the major war poets like Wilfred Own, Rupert Brooke and Siegfried Sassoon.

But his poems continue to haunt readers several generations later.

The Times described him as ‘the most brilliant of our younger writers’ and his most famous work, Who Made the Law? and But a Short Time to Live, rank among the finest war poems written.

Coulson’s two great passions were Nature and writing, and the dreamy youngster often spent his weekends wandering the countryside surrounding London penning verse.

His ambitions as a writer led him to Fleet Street where he became an assistant editor of the Morning Post before enlisting at the outbreak of ware in 1914.

Coulson turned down the opportunity of being an officer and set sail in a troopship bound for Malta on Christmas Eve.

He would never see home again.

The 25 year-old private’s short military career got off to an inglorious start when he went down with mumps and wrote his first war poem, A Soldier in Hospital, followed by The Ebb.

A year later Coulson went into action on the beaches of Gallipoli

It was a bloody introduction to the reality of war and thousands of soldiers were slaughtered before retreating in disarray.

Coulson was wounded but promoted and then sent to France. There he found it hard to reconcile his love of Nature with the carnage of the Western Front

The landscape had become a featureless mass of mud and crater holes. Few trees were left in a countryside pounded by incessant shellfire.

The slaughter of millions of soldiers on both sides inspired Coulson to pen Who Made the Law? and But a Short Time to Live in the claustrophobic confines of the trenches.

He managed to survive nearly a year including the Battle of the Somme were some 60,000 soldiers were injured or killed on the first day.

But time was already running out.

Weeks later he was among the first wave of soldiers advancing on a fortified German position Called De-Drop Trench.

He was hit by machine gun fire and dragged back to a casualty clearing station where he died the next day.

His grief stricken father later honoured his memory by publishing a posthumous collection of his son’s poetry called From an Outpost.

Nowadays, his poetry rarely appears but the Londoner’s words continue to echo the futility of war more than 90 years after his death.

Who Made the Law? (extract)

Who spake the word that blood should splash in the lanes?

Who gave it forth that gardens should be boneyards?

Who spread the hills with flesh, and blood and brains?
Who made the law?

Who made the Law that death should stalk the village?

Who spake the word to kill among the sheaves?

Who gave it forth that death should lurk in the hedgerows?

Who flung the dead among the fallen leaves
Who made the law?

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