Friday, 11 November 2016

Quiller-Couch and the Prisoner of War

Wilfrid Parsons and my father had been good friends at Theological College in the 1930s, and both began their careers as curates in South London. Wilfrid became an Army Chaplain as soon as the Second World War broke out, and after brief training sailed to France with the British Expeditionary Force in 1940.  Some time between 28th May and 3rd June he was captured, along with the remnants of his unit, during the retreat to Dunkirk. He spent nearly five years as a Prisoner of War in various camps in Germany and Poland, even though as a non-combattant padre he should have been repatriated at once under the terms of the Geneva Convention.

He was my godfather. I never knew him well, but I can picture him on a visit to our home. He spent most of the time sitting alone on a deck chair in the middle of our large Rectory lawn, smoking his pipe. ‘I can hardly imagine,’ (he’d written to my father in October 1941), ‘what it is like to sit in an easy chair, and as for walking out of the front garden without an attendant I shall be quite lost! The greatest godsend will be to be alone for five minutes. But it will come.’  It did, but it took almost the rest of the war.

He was sent first to Kriegsgefangenenlager Oflag VIIC, in Bavaria, and it was from there he sent the first message my father received from him, a card, dated 10th December 1940, thanking him for a letter sent via the Red Cross. Thus began an unpredictable correspondence, hampered by letters and parcels frequently going astray. Twelve of his letters (including one Christmas card) to my father survive. I have them now; I doubt if there were any more.

After a year in Oflag VIIC, Wilfrid was transferred to a huge camp in Poland, Stalag XX A/3, where he was one of the padres officially approved by the camp’s Kommandant . Recently I was astonished to find a photograph on the internet of Wilfrid conducting the funeral of a British prisoner, under the watchful eye of a German guard. He was glad to be busy, but it was reading that helped to keep up his spirits. Writing on 22nd October 1941 to my father, who had just got married and was setting up home for the first time with my mother, Wilfrid said,

I do wish I could look in for a cup of coffee this morning, and have a look at your new home and talk about bookcases and pictures. I can imagine how nice you and Doreen have made everything. These things seem a long way off - at the moment our bookcases are converted milk-boxes and as for an easy chair – well, I suppose they do exist somewhere. But there are plenty of good books, thanks to kind friends and the Red Cross.

I always associate my godfather with books. He used to send me 7/6d book tokens every Christmas, and when he retired and downsized, he bequeathed to me a revolving bookcase of his that, once, I’d enjoyed spinning round – until I whizzed it so fast that all the books fell out. While a POW, he would sometimes ask my father to send him particular titles. Sometimes too he’d mention what he had just read. ‘Ah me!’ he wrote in February 1942, ‘My youth passes by, and the affairs of the world come to me as distant sounds of some dreamland. (Excuse the last sentence; I have recently finished reading Fowler’s King’s English.)

By the end of 1944, Wilfrid had heard he was to be repatriated at last, but no date had been given. He wrote to my father again:

The reading ticks over … I received a batch of Plato, Euripides and Thucydides which I should like to bring back, but I have got most enjoyment since being a POW out of Quiller-Couch’s lectures on ‘Reading’ and ‘Writing’ and other subjects in English Literature. Well, here’s to beating this letter home to you!

The books by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (Q) my godfather admired were collections of lectures given at Cambridge between 1913 and 1918. In them Q had a lot to say about war. When war had been declared in August 1914, he had sat on recruiting committees back in his native Cornwall. Yet he was scathing from the start about ‘well-intentioned superior persons who, with no prospect of dying for their country, are calling on others to make that sacrifice.’ He had no illusions about what was happening. His first lecture in The Art of Reading, delivered on 5th October 1914, attacked politicians who were already ‘perverted by hate’ and eager only ‘to invent what will be commercially serviceable in besting your neighbour, or in gassing him, or in slaughtering him neatly and wholesale.’

Horrified by the way, as he saw it, that such ‘practical science’ was sidelining the humanities, Q spent the war lecturing his audiences on the importance of European literature, from Homer to Thomas Hardy, and how it not only made life endurable during ‘the blank and devastated days of this war’ but would be indispensible in helping to bind Europe together once the war was over. I understand now why my godfather - Uncle Wilfrid as I still think of him – valued Q so highly, and why he marked in pencil this prescient passage from ‘On the Use of Masterpieces’, a lecture delivered just as the Armistice approached, on 6th November, 1918:

This War will leave us bound to Europe as we have never been: and, whether we like it or not, no less inextricably bound to foe than to friend. Therefore, I say, it has become important, and in a far higher degree than it ever was before the War, that our countrymen grow up with a sense of what I may call the soul of Europe. And nowhere but in literature (which is ‘memorable speech’) … can they find this sense.

Adrian Barlow
11 November 2016

[illustrations: (i) Rev. Wilfrid Parsons, CF (Chaplain to the Forces), conducting the funeral of a Prisoner of War at Stalag XX A/3. (ii) Wilfrid’s first message to my father, after becoming a POW.

I have written before about the importance of Q:


  1. Readable and touching and apt and reflective and considered and memorable as ever - thank you, Adrian.

    I have those two Q books somewhere in the old Guild Books editions. I think they're available online now.

    Did you see that TV play about Q and Leavis twenty-five years ago?

    I thought it was pretty silly but I'm happy to be proved wrong.

    Here's to the soul of Europe! I've just been exchanging messages with our Romanian friends and writing about my Viennese forebears and listening to the Ravel Trio...

    1. Many thanks, Tom. I did indeed see the play and I remember being impressed by Sara Kestelman as Queenie Leavis and by Leo McKern as Q. Quiller-Couch has been largely written out of the story of Cambridge English, and I think his rehabilitation is long overdue.

  2. Not, I take it, Rev. Wilfrid Parson, S.J., one-time editor of America magazine and librarian at Georgetown University

    1. No indeed. My godfather was an evangelically inclined Anglican, and married.

      Thank you for your comment. Adian

  3. Interesting to read what 'Q' said about Europe, vis a vis Brexit!