Robert Graves in uniform (image: the Robert Graves Estate)
Published: 15 December, 2016
IT’S bad enough to find you are thought of as dead when your pulse is ticking merrily away.
But it must be even more galling when next you read your own obituary in The Times.
Dead or alive? The great poet and novelist Robert Graves must have been in a state of shock for weeks after being badly wounded in the First World War.
Charles Mundye told me the story as he sat next to me at the launch on Friday evening of the first edition of all of Graves’ war poems, including poems never published before.
Lucia Graves, Ruth Fainlight and Jean Moorcroft Wilson at the launch
Mundye, who had clearly lovingly pored over the great man’s poems, told me that Graves was so badly wounded that he was classed as dead as he lay in the field hospital hours after a bloody trench engagement in the Battle of the Somme in 1916.
But no sooner had his Commanding Officer written to his family expressing condolences on the death of their brave son than, somehow, he came back from the dead, as it were, and the next day was moved to another hospital before being shipped back to England. While convalescing he suffered the second shock of reading his own obituary in The Times.
Mundye, a senior academic at Sheffield Hallam University, embarked on this splendidly printed tome two years ago after becoming president of the Robert Graves Society – he felt it was incumbent on him to fill in the gaps on Graves by editing a full collection of his poems.
Linton Kwesi Johnson and Selma James
Unlike Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, Graves was not an anti-war poet. “He saw the war as a necessary evil,” Mundye said.
But who can deny that his is an authentic voice from the trenches?
Nearly 10 years after the end of the war Graves wrote a bestseller, Goodbye to All That, perhaps to establish himself, and from then on never looked back.
His novels made his name famous – I, Claudius in particular!
After Mundye filled me in about Graves, he read some of his poems in the front room of the Mornington Crescent home of the publisher Cecil Woolf and his wife writer Jean Moorcroft Wilson now crowded with guests – including Lucia, Graves’ daughter from his second marriage.
What was it like to have such a world famous writer as a father? She looked a bit surprised.
I wonder how many times she has been asked that question? “He was so attentive as a father,” she said. “And he had such a sense of humour!!”
She related how one day a man and a woman were passing their home in Spain when the man spotted Graves and, not knowing who he was, asked whether the writer Graves lived there.
Editor Charles Mundye
Graves could have said who he was, of course, but, perhaps out of modesty or sense of fun, he simply answered: “Yes.”
Before leaving I turned to another seriously published poet, Ruth Fainlight, now in her late 70s, who was sitting on a settee next to me.
When I discovered she lived in Notting Hill I told her that at a church, half a mile away in Camden Town, an event was taking place that evening to remember the battles that took place between Afro-Caribbeans and the police in 1970, and a resultant Old Bailey trial where the black protesters were acquitted.
Her eyes lit up. She knew about those days and would have loved to gone with me but, pointing to her leg, said she wasn’t quite up to it.
So, I set out, caught a 134 bus, and a few minutes later entered the crowded hall of the United Reformed Church in Buck Street, in time to catch an impassioned speech by Selma James, widow of one of the great polemicists of the last century, Trinidadian CRL James.
She said CRL James’s classic Black Jacobins – a history of the first revolt by black slaves in Haiti in 1791 – had inspired the black community in their fight against the street racists in Notting Hill.
Among the crowded black and white audience there were women from the radical Crossroads organisation in Kentish Town, and many faces I had seen before in demonstrations and meetings where people gather to protest against the injustices of discrimination.
Linton Kwesi Johnson read some of his poems with that fine musical voice of his that gave wing to his words.
I was surprised that a collection raised an extraordinary £1,200. The audience had given with their hearts, considering how little most of them would have earned. It reminded me of a conversation with a Highgate church verger who told me that women with “arms dripping with jewellery” often gave so little to church collections while the poor gave their all.
• Robert Graves: War Poems. Edited by Charles Mundye, Seren, £19.99