Every year, in the run-up to Christmas, the Times Literary Supplement has a weekly feature on its back page entitled Perambulatory Christmas Books. NB, the TLS’s columnist, goes ‘touring the capital’s second-hand bookshops, in search of a neglected work by an established author, for about £5’. This week he has visited Any Amount of Books in the Charing Cross Road, still (just about) the first place to look in London for second-hand bookshops.
NB reminds us, in today’s TLS, that it was at the same shop, five years ago, 'that we found in the outdoor barrow Edmund Blunden’s The Face of England (1932), priced £1, and read the opening paragraph. No one could write like that now, we thought; the tune has been lost. We asked ourselves why, and with that the good ship Perambulation was launched.'
I’m delighted to see Blunden is still being acknowledged in this way. He himself had been an assistant editor for the TLS during the Second World War and he is a writer who must not be allowed to slip out of view. His style is indeed distinctive: wry, observant, with a hint of Charles Lamb. Here he is talking (his written voice is usually a talking voice) about Japanese food:
It is in Japan that certain tastes and savours are understood which may scarcely receive proper attention elsewhere. The sea is the giver of these, and the thanks of the present author are hereby offered to the Pacific Ocean for such generosity — as also, to the Japanese enthusiasts who have so long known how to appreciate it. The various sea-weed dishes are good; and when the baker of sembei uses a sea-weed for part of that biscuit, he does very well indeed. Our small daughters have noticed that!
I forget if I encountered the sea-urchin when I was in the country last, — I think not; against this little creature I have no grudge at all, and “may his tribe increase.” But I find him highly enjoyable when he is converted into a light paste, and accompanied with a little rice. (A Wanderer in Japan, 1950, pp. 107-8)
“May his tribe increase” is a nod in the direction of James Leigh Hunt’s once-famous poem ‘Abou ben Adhem’. Blunden was a scholar particularly at home with the Romantic essayists: he edited their work, and wrote biographies of both Leigh Hunt and Lamb. After praising raw fish, in the same essay on Japanese Food, as ‘a masterpiece of the menu’, Blunden admits, with characteristic self-deprecation, that ‘It needs an essayist like Elia, who has tried his skill in the absorption and eulogy of Roast Pig, to come and describe the blessings of o-sashimi.’
It’s worth trying to imagine how English readers might have reacted to Blunden’s enthusiasm for sea-weed and raw fish, in the still-rationed years after the Second World War. No sushi bars or soy sauce in those days: a Lyons Corner House or Kardomah Café was as close as most people got to ‘going out for a meal’, and the only sauce on the tables there came in sticky red or brown bottles. More outrageously still, what was Blunden doing in Japan, of all places, so soon after the end of the war? And why had he taken his wife and young children with him?
Blunden knew the country well: in the 1920s he had been Professor of English at Tokyo University and had won a remarkable reputation for his willingness to tour Japan and lecture on English literature, offering Japanese students of this period an almost unique window onto western culture. And it was while there that he wrote was to become his most important and enduring work, Undertones of War, published in 1928.
So, after the Second World War, he was invited to return to Japan, this time as Cultural Adviser to the United Kingdom Liaison Commission. This was meant to be a one-year appointment, but his presence in Japan was so influential in helping to re-build bridges that he was asked to stay on, with his family, for a second year. It was during this time that he wrote the essays and poems which make up A Wanderer in Japan, though the title was misleading: he did anything but wander. Based in Tokyo but travelling to universities, cities and towns all over the country, in two years he delivered over 600 lectures. So great was the esteem in which he was held that many of the universities where he came to speak erected tablets to commemorate his visit. These can still be seen.
Blunden was not quite eighteen when the Great War broke out. He fought in it, in France and Belgium, for three years. He spent longer at the Front than any of the other war poets. His war poems, his memoir of the war, and perhaps particularly his poems reflecting on the war and its enduring aftermath make him one of the most important voices of the war. It’s not surprising that Paul Fussell devoted a whole chapter to Blunden in his seminal book, The Great War and Modern Memory (1975).
The centenary of the start of the Great War approaches fast, and I hope Blunden’s writing will find new readers as a result. He believed – and in his work in Japan and the Far East proved – that literature can make a difference to people's lives in ways most politicians could not even dream of. He hated war, but war taught him nothing is more destructive than hatred. In fact, with Abou ben Adhem (“may his tribe increase”) Blunden might well have said to the recording angel:
“I pray thee then,
Write me as one that loves his fellow men.”
[photo: the commemorative plaque outside Edmund Blunden's home in Long Melford, Suffolk.
To visit the Edmund Blunden website, click here.