I have gathered a posie of other men’s flowers
and nothing but the thread that
binds them is my own.
I have held this book, Other Men’s Flowers, close to me for 50 years. In different places and at different times it has been an interest, a companion, a comfort, an inspiration, and a saviour. It was the first volume that came to mind when I let the memory wander through the decades: Cambridge, Sudan, Libya, Saudi Arabia, global travel, UK executive life, career and performance counselling, volunteering and more. I am in love with the book.
You might know it already. In 1941, in the darkest days of the Second World War, in the few months between staving off the German assault on the Middle East and then turning to meet the challenge of Japan, Field-Marshal Earl Wavell listed his favourite poems for a ‘family conversation’, a small pleasantry to take their minds off those threatening times. Family members reminded him of others that he knew. Two years later, when he was Viceroy of India, the anthology was published. An instant success.
In my last few weeks at Cambridge, knowing that the next few years would see me somewhat isolated in Africa, I bought the book. Why? No idea, and the memory doesn’t help. What is certain is that in 1969 I had no special interest in poetry; I knew little; and I can’t remember wanting to know more. Also, I don’t remember anyone suggesting it.
Perhaps it was the start of that sense of ‘future nostalgia’, the awareness that a golden period of life was coming to an end, that what was to come would be very alien and very different, and that perhaps something that could remind me of the western world, and particularly of the British world (all I knew at the time) would be valuable. It turned out to be invaluable.
My edition of Other Men’s Flowers runs to over 400 pages. Astonishingly, Lord Wavell states that he knew and could recite every single poem. He came from that generation whose schooling taught and encouraged a love of literature and poetry. He also had a very good memory, as he states in his Preface. And he started early: as a small boy he learned Macauley’s ‘Horatius’ and then: “Admiring aunts used to give me threepence for reciting it from beginning to end. A wiser uncle gave me sixpence for a promise to do nothing of the kind”.
So Wavell grew to be a romantic warrior, ruler of India, humorously pulling rank in the depths of war: “My Aides-de-Camp have to listen politely when I quote verse to them – that is a privilege of a Commander-in-Chief”. What did he quote? He was a man of his time though often preferring earlier works: the favourites were Browning, Kipling, Chesterton, Masefield, Keats, Shelley, Macaulay, Scott, but others feature also, including verses by persons unknown.
In the book the poems are arranged in themes: Music, Mystery and Magic ; Good Fighting ; Love And All That ; The Call Of The Wild ; Conversation Pieces ; The Lighter Side ; Hymns of Hate ; Ragbag ; Last Post. Now think about this: what part of our lives, our experiences, our triumphs and disasters, would not fit under those headings? Most of mine have, and still do. Over the years I’ve used the book often, with little attempt to memorise any of it but knowing where to look for favourites and answers. A few short ones have stayed in the memory however, and the rhythm of many others.
In the Sudan I shared some of the simpler ones with my local teacher colleagues and the students. The students were learning English language and literature but no poetry, so for them it was an added dimension to the language and culture.
In Libya, in the Sahara, the oilmen wouldn’t have been interested so Other Men’s Flowers was my private comfort. In Saudi Arabia there were times when stress levels were high and I needed to remind myself of the monumental pressures borne by others such as Wavell, and of the humanity that still shone through them.
These last 30 years in the UK, coping or not coping with national and international responsibilities, it’s been a pleasure and a release to delve into the anthology for words of support and strength and for echoes of fellow-travellers through the ups and downs of life. Right now, with my condition, I find solace.
Wavell’s anecdotes add much to the enjoyment. He sets contexts, much as I am doing now. He tells short stories. He adds tiny poems from friends. If anyone reads the book for the first time do please read the Prefaces, and in the right order: Wavell’s preface to the first edition, then his preface to the revised edition, and then his son’s introduction to the memorial edition.
So where are we now, we proud, sophisticated westerners, in these so-called progressive, industrially successful, commercially and scientifically advanced times, having achieved so much? A reminder from Other Men’s Flowers:
CALIPH: Ah, if there shall ever arise a nation whose people have forgotten poetry or whose poets have forgotten the people, though they send their ships around Taprobane and their armies across the hills of Hindustan, though their city be greater than Babylon of old, and though they mine a league into earth or mount to the stars on wings – what of them?
HASSAN: They will be a dark patch upon the world.