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)


The River Brent in north east London was the inspiration for one of Britain’s best loved poets.

Sir John Betjeman visited the area on the long walks that inspired much of his verse and immortalised the river in poems such as Middlesex.

The Poet Laureate was best known for playful light-hearted poems like Miss Joan Hunter Dunn.

But admirers and critics of his verse were sharply divided over its worth.

Detractors dismissed him as a ‘minor poet who scribbles verse’ while his supporters, including the formidable Philip Larkin, thought Betjeman one of the country’s greatest talents.

He was seen as an establishment figure. His unashamedly royalist connections – he was the Queen Mother’s favourite poet – and dewy eyed reminiscences of a privileged  upbringing putting him at odds with the ‘angry young generation of the 1940s and 50s.

Academics accused him of dumbing down poetry for the masses and claimed his compositions showed ‘no more skill than the men who wrote jingles on Christmas cards.’

But it did little to sway public affection for Betjeman.

The publication of his Collected Poems in 1968 was an immediate bestseller and subsequent editions sold more than one million copies.

It was a remarkable achievement for a boy who C.S Lewis described in his youth as a ‘pretentious playboy’ and whose first efforts at verse were ridiculed by his school master.

Betjeman won an enduring place in the nation’s heart and went on to become the country’s Poet Laureate.

Much was written about the humour of his work but he was also a passionate opponent of what he called the ‘planster’s vision’ and relentless destruction of historical buildings and countryside.

He regularly appeared in letters’ columns of national newspapers waging a war of words against developers and submitted 70 letters to The Times during a campaign to save Waterloo Bridge from destruction.

The paper remarked on his death in 1984 that his ‘enthusiasm made him perhaps the most influential conservationist of his time.’

It is comforting to know that many of the buildings he championed, such as the Criterion Theatre and the churches of St Saviour, Aberdeen Park and St Mary-le-Strand have since been restored to their former glory.

The River Brent fared less well. Much of the river was corseted in concrete as a flood prevention measure in the 1950s or driven underground by the suburban growth of London.

Betjeman would have been sad to know that ‘the gentle Brent wandering Wembley wards at will’ met such a fate


Always we hope someone else has the answer. Some other place will always be better, some other time it will all turn out well. This is it. No-one else has the answer. No other place will be better and it has already turned out. At the centre of your being you have the answer; you know who you are and you know what you want.



The new era is already here:
Here the new time begins anew.
The new era happens every day,
Every day is a new world,
A new calendar.
All great moments, all great eras,
Are just every moment
And every day writ large.
Thousands of years of loving, failing, killing,
Creating, surprising, oppressing,
And thinking ought now to start
To bear fruit, to deliver their rich harvest.

Will you be at the harvest,
Among the gatherers of new fruits?
Then you must begin today to remake
Your mental and spiritual world,
And join the warriors and celebrants
Of freedom, realisers of great dreams.

You can’t remake the world
Without remaking yourself.
Each new era begins within.
It is an inward event,
With unsuspected possibilities
For inner liberation.
We could use it to turn on
Our inward lights.
We could use it to use even the dark
And negative things positively.
We could use the new era
To clean our eyes,
To see the world differently,
To see ourselves more clearly.
Only free people can make a free world.
Infect the world with your light.
Help fulfill the golden prophecies.
Press forward the human genius.
Our future is greater than our past.

Ben Okri


Starting here, what do you want to remember?
How sunlight creeps along a shining floor?
What scent of old wood hovers, what softened
sound from outside fills the air?

Will you ever bring a better gift for the world
than the breathing respect that you carry
wherever you go right now?  Are you waiting
for time to show you some better thoughts?

When you turn around, starting here, lift this
new glimpse that you found; carry into evening
all that you want from this day.  This interval you spent
reading or hearing this, keep it for life —

What can anyone give you greater than now,
starting here, right in this room, when you turn around?

William Stafford


Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Dylan Thomas, poet


Your children are not your children.

They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.

They come through you but not from you,

And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts.

For they have their own thoughts.

You may house their bodies but not their souls,

For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.

You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.

For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.

The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.

Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;

For even as he loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.

Khalil Gibran, poet


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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