Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Sunday in Saint Germain

All day it has rained, and I have been stuck in my hotel room in Saint Germain-en-Laye. Saint Germain is west of Paris, nearly an hour by Metro and RER from the Gare du Nord. Here Louis XIV and his predecessors held court before Versailles was built; and here James II, the last Stuart King of England, lived out his exile and died in 1701; Queen Victoria came to pay her respects at his tomb in the parish church, and I wonder if young Claude Debussy came out to watch her, for he was born here in 1862. I wanted to walk one more time in the Château’s grounds, for I expect this will be the last Sunday I shall ever spend in Saint Germain; but now, thanks to the rain, I’ve missed my chance.

For the past ten years I have spent a week here each June, based at the Lycée International de Saint Germain-en-Laye.  As ‘Monsieur L’Inspecteur de Cambridge’, I have overseen the Language and Literature exams of students from all over France who take the British version of the Option International du Baccalauréat (the OIB, definitely not to be confused with the IB). It’s a job I have greatly enjoyed, especially because it has given me the chance to work with teachers, Anglophone and Francophone, British and American as well as French, who are all committed to an unusual educational project that is bicultural as well as bilingual.

The OIB has brought me to France four or five times every year, and taken me right across the country: from Strasbourg to Rouen, to Lyon, Grenoble and Aix-en-Provence. And of course to Paris itself: to the Ministry of Education, to the rather grim Maison des Examens in Arceuil; to schools, to the American University and, only last week, to the Institut d’études avancées. Twice a year I have helped to run conferences for teachers: two days each autumn in Sèvres, at the Centre international d’études pédagogique (CIEP) and two days each spring, I have come to St Germain, and run training days for teachers at the Château d’Hennemont. This building has some history: though it’s a 19th century folly on a scale that renders the word ‘folly’ simply inadequate, it was the Paris headquarters of (successively) the Gestapo and Eisenhower’s SHAFE.

In such settings, my lectures and workshops on teaching literature (poetry particularly) have doubtless seemed tame enough, but I have found my role as Cambridge Inspector absorbing and rewarding. I have made many friends through the OIB and am stepping down now only because I believe you should never outstay your welcome; and, anyway, if you haven’t made your mark in ten years you’re never going to. Still, I would have liked to explore Saint Germain one last time – but all day it has rained.

‘All day It Has Rained’ is the title of a poem by Alun Lewis, a Welsh poet remembered today, if at all, for the poems he wrote during the Second World War (he died in Burma in 1944):

All day it has rained, and we on the edge of the moors

Have sprawled in our bell-tents, moody and dull as boors,

Groundsheets and blankets spread on the muddy ground

And from the first grey wakening we have found

No refuge from the skirmishing fine rain ….

It’s not so much the unheroic couplets as the sprawling lines and unpredictable stresses that count here. It is almost as though the poet – a soldier in training, under canvas, wet and listless  – is writing up his diary: ‘I saw a fox’, he notes, ‘And wrote about it in a scribbled letter home.’ For the squaddies, the boredom and discomfort of their present existence makes both their past life (‘real’ life, if you like) and the actual war seem equally trivial, equally distant: ‘We talked of girls,’ Lewis records, ‘and dropping bombs on Rome’. His poem is a succession of ‘ands’ – one damned thing after another, in no particular order – as he contemplates a day in which nothing happens, jotting down thoughts as they come to him

                                    … the quiet dead, and the loud celebrities
                        Exhorting us to slaughter, and the herded refugees …

He, too, out on the moors, is herded like sheep – like lambs to slaughter, in a certain sense.  Here, the ambiguity of ‘to slaughter’ reminds me of Edmund Blunden’s poem ‘Can you Remember?’ …

… where we went and whence we came
To be killed, or kill.

But Alun Lewis is thinking of a different poet and of another country. He recalls a day when he himself, accompanied by a ‘shaggy patient dog’, went walking in the footsteps of his hero, Edward Thomas. It was a private pilgrimage …

To the Shoulder o' Mutton where Edward Thomas brooded long

On death and beauty till a bullet stopped his song.  

It doesn’t matter that actually Thomas was killed by the blast of a shell; it may not matter that it would later be Lewis himself whose song was stopped by a bullet, in Burma. What counts is the aftershock to the reader when this apparently random collection of rainy-day memories comes to an abrupt end with the death of a poet.  War does cause abrupt ends. But it’s a reminder, too, that Thomas’s ‘song’, his poetry, did not end, being read and valued today more highly than ever. Alun Lewis has played his part in ensuring this is so: back in the 1940s, Edward Thomas was neither widely read nor known. W.H. Auden was right to declare (in ‘In Memory of W.B. Yeats’) that ‘poetry makes nothing happen’. But he was right, too, that  ‘it survives’: good poetry matters for what it is, not for what it does. Verse that sets out to make things happen is propaganda, not poetry.

I should have liked, very much, to share ‘All Day It Has Rained’ with my friends in the OIB; but, as with my farewell visit to the Château of Saint Germain-en-Laye, the moment has passed.

Adrian Barlow

[illustrations: The Château of St Germain-en-Laye (not on a rainy day!); spiral staircase in the Château d’Hennemont. Photos © the author.

I have occasionally written about my discussions of poetry with colleagues in the OIB:


  1. As a former Scout I well remember bell tents but it was a week in a ridge tent on the Isle of Man that I had my experience of listless boredom when the rain prevented us from doing any scouting activities. I don’t remember how we managed to cook as everything had to be done over a camp fire. For the rain it raineth everyday. I was far from listless and bored, however, during your ten year tenure as Cambridge Inspector as you gave us more and more challenges to rise to as well as ever more interesting and challenging texts to teach. I also have memories of shared meals and wine that always formed an integral part of the OIB teaching experience. Conviviality is a key word, alongside community, a notion that you encouraged very much. I have walked in the gardens of the Château in St Germain (actually I was pushing my niece in her pram) on a sunny Sunday, yet I didn’t have that cultural knowledge of the place that you have and I shall never have it but then you are someone who is more than willing to share. So, come rain come shine there’ll always be that important Adrian Barlow heritage for us to carry on with and to build on.
    A great while ago the world begun,
    With hey, ho, the wind and the rain.
    But that's all one, our play is done,
    And we'll strive to please you every day.

  2. "I should have liked, very much, to share ‘All Day It Has Rained’ with my friends in the OIB; but, as with my farewell visit to the Château of Saint Germain-en-Laye, the moment has passed."
    Among the newer members of the OIB community, I have only known it under Adrian's auspices. I was 'good at English' at school and 'loved books' so teaching literature was going to be easy. I never really 'got' poetry in school, as my copious doodles in Soundings illustrate. Then came the OIB meetings – in St Germain or Sèvres. What a surprise to discover how wonderful it is to teach poetry and how receptive our students are. How much they teach us. How the poetry they encounter enriches their lives. On the last day of the Baccalaureate one of my 18 year old students was cheerfully telling another that on reading one of the comparative poems in the Literature exam she thought "I'll read that someday at my father's funeral'. This is what Adrian’s love of poetry has brought.
    Adrian distills poetry into every moment he spends with us. His passion about it gives sense to what we do in the OIB. So in our teaching - and with this blog appearing in our mailbox –he will continue to share poetry and a poetic vision of the ordinary with us.
    And as for ‘All Day It Has Rained’, it looks like you just have. The moment will never pass.

  3. Adrian – A lovely blog, and – as such – no surprise to your readers! I hope though that you will not mind my concentrating on Auden’s’ lines, “poetry makes nothing happen.” This is one of those vague fears that have hovered about my mind for decades. But, like many such, I think it is based on a false perspective – or weak cognitive assent, if you like. Who, after all, ever said that it was the purpose of poetry – its raison d’être – to “change the world”? No one! (insofar at least as I know.)

    I have worried in the past that poetry was written by the few, and read only by the statistically barely discernible. In other words, poetry has been preserve of those lucky enough to both understand and appreciate it. Or, to describe it in another way, poetry has provided inspiration, consolation, and unflinching reality for certain people who might be described as initiates. However, that last word jars, and it simply does not represent the broad democratic audience that poetry reaches. Still, for the majority of mankind poetry is a closed book. Further, the majority do not read at all (and some do not even read newspapers).

    So is poetry only for the sensitive: those born with a ‘missing layer of skin’ – those who have seen thought the hollow centre of consumerism, and have faced the appalling things that human beings do to each other, to the animal kingdom, and to the environment? I think that the answer is, “Yes”. Pride here is anathema, but gratitude and humility are certainly not. And yet the world is not short of diplomats, politicians, journalists, civil servants, etc. who do read poetry – and the influence of this activity is immeasurable . . . In a sense this comparable to George Herbert’ lines:

    More servants wait on man
    Than he’ll take notice of.

    1. "Dull would he be of soul who could pass by a sight so touching in its majesty"?