Virginia Barton

Wartime dance of friendship to the RAF’s orchestra

 

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Catholic Herald, 13 September 1991

 

One of the nicest things about writing this column is the friends I make. Pen pals actually, since I rarely meet my correspondents.

Even after several years I find it startling and heartwarming that readers should go to all the bother of writing a letter, finding a stamp, trogging out to the post box. Bookery Nook, where I wear another hat, exists through correspondence. It grew out of an exchange of letters. (Quick plug for the Nook’s limerick competition, promoted to celebrate its first birthday: it was announced in last week’s Herald, and I hope you will all compete for the princely prize of a £5 book token.)

 

Letters

The Chronicle, on the other hand, prompts longer, more reflective letters. One that I absolutely have to share with you (with the writer’s permission of course) comes from a Wigan reader. He sent it after reading about Mapledurham House in the August Chron.

The-Royal-Air-Force-Squadronaires-In-The-Mood-2010-APEMy correspondent (we will call him “Tim”) was reminded of a stolen day he spent at Mapledurham nearly 50 years ago. In 1942 he was working at an ordnance factory near Reading. The local council arranged an open day at the country house as part of its “Holidays at Home” scheme.

On this glorious sunny Saturday the RAF Orchestra gave an outdoor concert; Tim even recalls the programme: Mozart, Mendelssohn and Weber. The audience arrived by river (as now the scenic approach to Mapledurham) in a barge, rowed by sea scouts.

After the concert, and tea in a marquee, there was less serious music to dance to, played by the famous RAF Squadronaires. One can appreciate how precious such an interlude must have been at the height of the war – no wonder Tim has vivid memories.

Yes, he did have a dancing partner that evening; no, they didn’t get married. Like Tim, “Mabel” (who worked as a typist at Burghfield) already had a romantic attachment. But they became friends and together explored beautiful Berkshire on subsequent walks.

Where is Mabel now I wonder? So does Tim.

 

Just good friends

They were just good friends. Just – there’s more to that adverb where friendship is concerned. Good friends are irreplaceable and the older one gets the more one values them.

I lost a very good one a few weeks ago. Now the little circle of chums is diminished by one, a gap I can ill-afford at my age.

We get lazy about making new friends; there’s too much preliminary hassle – the “getting to know you” period. An old friend is tolerant of one’s less attractive’ characteristics and habits, indeed loves one despite them.

My friend died suddenly, in an accident. But death is no respecter of time or season and often, unlike other rites of passage, comes unannounced. At such a time one falls back on hackneyed words and phrases, there seems little new to say. But as one searches for words of comfort, the familiar sentences assume a new sincerity and depth of meaning.

Nowhere more so than in the requiem mass and funeral service. The very familiarity is a source of comfort. The impact of the liturgy may be lessened, or greatly enhanced by the bearing of the priest.

 

Ad-lib mass

Is it my imagination, or it there nowadays a tendency for priests to ad-lib during mass? As if their congregations were too dimwitted to follow proceedings or so bored they have to be distracted with frequent interruptions? I find this trend, if trend it be, both tiresome and patronising.

At the requiem for my friend it was noticeable that, on the contrary, the priest never deviated from the text, that we were all well able to follow, and allowed time and space in which the mourners might mourn. Even the most garrulous priest would have been lost for words by the tiny bird that flew into the sanctuary, fluttered and hovered, then departed in the wake of the coffin.

 

Eastern promise

On the same day that my friend died, seven Lithuanian border guards were killed. Barely six weeks later the world has recognised Lithuania’s re-entry into the community of free nations.

The Baltic States have waited long and patiently to reclaim their independence, and the joy of it is not likely to wear off in a hurry.

Perhaps one doesn’t appreciate anything truly until one is deprived of it. No-one expressed this thought more powerfully than Adam Mickiewicz (to the Lithuanians: Adomas Mickevicius) in the opening lines of Pan Tadeusz:

O Lithuania, my country, thou
Art like good health; I never knew till now
How precious, till I lost thee …

The biography of Adam Mickiewicz, who did not live to see his native land in freedom, is a classic example of the history of that part of the world – in a nutshell. The great poet was born in 1798, in what is now Belorussia but was then part of the Polono-Lithuanian Commonwealth, rudely partitioned, and under the heel of the Tsar.

A student at Vilnius, he was sentenced to internal exile for his radical politics and then permitted to live abroad. He spent the last years of his life in Paris where he wrote Pan Tadeusz.

 

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