A Life of Austerity
By Peter Hartley
My grandfather was always old. The more
I think of him the more I call to mind
He seldom left his kitchen. We would find
Him sitting in an upright chair, the door
Pine-panelled, high ceiled, lino on the floor,
And he would sit there all day long behind
A newspaper. The place for me defined
Him like the horrors of the First World War.
You see it spoke of his austerity.
He dwelled, like all the old in reverie,
A lifetime in his prime. Sometimes he went
To sleep, his nightmares we could only guess.
Sometimes again we saw an immanent
Serenity, a twilight peacefulness.
One hundred years ago the returning soldiers from World War I helped spread the Spanish Flu epidemic, the last great pandemic, to all corners of the earth. Peter Hartley’s memories of his grandfather in sonnet form are touching testimonials to the his grandfather’s humanity. The difference between that virus pandemic and COVID-19, is the Spanish flu killed young adults equally as well as old.
When reading about the Spanish flu pandemic in the past, I had a sense of isolation from it, an arms length detachment. No matter how many health experts sounded the alarm that it could and likely would happen again, it felt like something that was in the past, despite SARS, Ebola, etc. Our experience of relative safety because of public health strategy and modern vaccination technology for generations was ignorant bliss. Despite the paranoid rantings of anti-vaxers we have lived the past 50 years in undreamed of respite from childhood diseases in human history, and unfortunately taken it for granted. There is certainly reason for optimism heading into next year that things will get better, but I also have a sense of realism in what 2021 will bring before this is brought under control with effective vaccines.
How will this pandemic experience shape poet’s writing in the future? I could retreat into my kitchen for a couple of years to write and read if I didn’t have a job I had to attend. I would need a wood stove in my kitchen for winters and a kennel for the dog in another room on those occasions I want peace and quiet, all things for me to consider putting on my checklist of what to do if this continues beyond 2021. What will our grandchildren write about us one day, sitting in our chairs reading, looking off into the distance?
A Biscuit Tin
by Peter Hartley
Put in a biscuit tin behind a door
Beside the hearth among old dog-eared snaps,
Of long-forgotten kith and kin perhaps,
His father on a bicycle we saw
Who died in nineteen ten, four years before
All hell broke loose. Amid the other scraps
We found inside their careless little wraps
Were all his letters home from the Great War
One hundred years ago, and all forlorn
His honourable discharge creased and torn.
Could he still hear the pounding of the guns
Resounding to a barrage from the Huns?
For if by chance upon the Somme one day
We saw it in his eyes he didn’t say.