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Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

Where can we live but days?

steepholm steepholm
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"A Magical Hat"
This is my father's bush hat, which he wore in the Burmese jungle during the War.

Bush hat

I'll come back to the hat, but you may be scratching your heads a little, for the last time we met my father he was firewatching during the Blitz, having just left his studies at the Quaker residential college, Woodbrooke, due to lack of funds. How did this paid-up Conscientious Objector find himself in the Army?

The truth is, I'm not entirely sure. It wasn't an immediate thing: I believe he didn't sign up until 1942, around the time of El Alamein, and as far as I was able to gather (I didn't press him on the point) it was largely because he felt life was passing him by, sitting on his hands in Kingston-on-Thames. But I hope and assume there was slightly more to it than that. Joining up also meant an end to his lifelong vegetarianism. His introduction to meat was liver, served for breakfast in an Army canteen. It was not an auspicious start to the relationship, but he was never a veggie again.

After a few weeks of basic training he found himself deployed to a posting in England, while one of his best friends had to his horror been posted to Burma. My father went to see the officer in charge, arguing that it would be better if they could swap places, since his friend had a wife and small child while he was unattached. Besides, he added, he'd always wanted to visit the sub-continent. "This is the British Army, not Cook's Tours," replied the officer with some asperity; but he switched the postings.

Again, I have only fragments of his time in Burma: he didn't talk much about it. He was in the Intelligence Corps (thanks to his facility with languages) working on decoding Japanese signals, I believe. He owned a goat, and used to dance with it, holding its little cloven feet in his hands and staring dreamily into its satanic eyes. The only other souvenir I remember from the War itself - apart from the hat - was a Japanese (or perhaps Chinese) dagger with an ivory scabbard and elaborate carvings of men in robes with droopy sleeves, which as a child I thought he might have stripped from the body of an enemy combatant, though it was quite possibly in fact a paperknife. I haven't seen it for years.

But his bush-hat he was careful to preserve, and recently I found a story, written by him in 1946 and carefully typed in violet ink (or ink that has faded to violet in the intervening decades), which may or may not shed some biographical significance on this fact.

A Magical Hat

Bush-hats! After an all-night soak in a canvas bucket their tough felt could be moulded to express the temperament and personality of any wearer. Indeed, it seemed to Donald that the hat itself often took control of the man beneath it. He – a humble warrior in the Burma campaign – had opportunities enough to observe both men and hats, and in particular those of his three companions, Goodlady, Murphy and De Witt.

When worn by Goodlady, who had worked in a bank, the felt seemed of a softer, finer quality, like the product of some reputable tailor; the round curves were at one with his plump figure, and seemed to accord with the slightly pompous voice. In the course of his evening constitutionals over the dry paddy-field, he had the air of a gentleman inspecting an estate. His hat was encircled by a piece of sober black leather, neatly braided. The effect was distinguished, as indeed Goodlady intended it to be.

Murphy’s hat, on the other hand, was completely unadorned, and in the process of decay had assumed a mottled colour. It was as nondescript as its wearer, and with a past as mysterious. Murphy agreed with his hat and his natural habits gave him no difficulty in living up to it. He gloried in his continual two-day stubble and could be observed at most hours in a prone position, chewing straw or exchanging pleasantries with those near him. A social person and not inclined to hurry in the business of life.

De Witt, a youth addicted to Shelley, with large eyes and cheeks rather gaunt, had not many friends and was moody and sensitive. From the basic felt he had created a hat of somewhat Tyrolean appearance, girt about with white cord and a tassel which, in moments of excitement, swung by his ear like an abandoned bell-rope. He wore the hat constantly, possibly through fear of exposing his premature baldness.

A bush-hat, reflected Donald, seemed to make or break a person socially in the jungle. In its wider significance it represented, furthermore, the only claim of his small company to be in the war. The unit had been placed almost casually between front and rear, sharing neither the hardships of forward troops nor the comfort of an H.Q. at Base. It endured boredom and isolation without glory.

“And I suppose that’s just about what I am,” he mused, adjusting his hat before the scratched metal mirror on the tent-pole, “Somebody in between – a fair average. Or, at least, that’s so until I put this on, and then I seem to be quite a different sort of person.” The sinuous brim, the shadow beneath it – surely they combined to give his face an austere, rather bold look? The overall impression might be described as rakish! He wondered how Alice would be impressed upon receiving the group photo...

That photo – quite an event – had been staged before a large mango tree in the more merciful rays of the evening sun. Bush-hats and hairy chests were much in evidence. Goodlady, arms folded, seemed to dominate the rest. De Witt, holding himself apart and with leg slightly bent, stood at the group’s edge, gazing diagonally into the distance. Murphy, who, with his easy ways and lack of self-consciousness, had become a popular person with the local children, was down on one knee in front, with an arm round the shoulders of his latest adoption, a small Burmese boy nick-named “Tojo”. It was generally agreed that such a tableau would make a powerful impression on people at home. What would Alice say when she saw Donald taking his place in such company – a real jungle-man? Would a photo indeed have an effect greater than other things he had sent her – stray notes of Japanese occupation-money, petals from outlandish flowers, and all those dull much-revised letters of his? Alice was a pen-pal, a friend of his sister’s. Possibly she wrote to other men in the same way, just to cheer them up. He had never seen her...

It became apparent in the following days that the photo had heralded a new phase in their correspondence. Alice wrote more frequently and her letters were full of tender enquiries concerning his safety and health. Donald was uneasy at first. Had the photo been more dramatic and suggestive of war’s danger than the routine life of the camp justified? He wondered, but said nothing; this solicitude filled him with a sense of well-being, and he responded to it as a starved flower to the sun.

The newly found happiness persisted even into the monsoon season and was heightened one evening by the arrival of a parcel. When it landed at his feet, he had been composing a letter, impeded in the task by a variety of flying insects all seeking to alight upon his perspiring neck. He looked up and heard the departing mail orderly saying, “It’s for you, stupid; some blokes have all the jam!” But it was unlikely to be jam, thought Donald, drawing the hurricane lamp nearer, and it was too heavy for cigarettes. When opened, the parcel revealed an abundance of tissue paper, upon which lay a note from Alice: “They tell me the nights are bitter.” Beneath this reposed, neatly folded, a thick pullover, developing at the neck into a kind of Balaclava helmet. It was an astonishing apparition. Mercifully, in common with most things sent from home, it was viewed with sympathy. Goodlady said “jolly fine wool” and added a remark about the Home Guard. There were further appreciative comments upon the amount of work involved in the making of it, but nobody offered to try it on.

Later that night, as Donald spread the garment over the mosquito-net, to catch water dripping from the tent roof, he realised how superior in absorbent qualities it would be to the layers of ancient newspaper hitherto employed for the purpose. “Yes,” he murmured, as he lay looking up into the steamy darkness, “it’s protecting me as well. What a kind and unselfish girl she must be to have thought of such a thing!” He turned over contentedly onto the sour-smelling blanket.

The thought of Alice’s love helped Donald through more than this one night, and continued for further months. It was, however, unable to save him from dysentery and malaria, and he was finally sent home to England and a temperate climate. He landed, gasping in the cold air, bush-hat crammed defiantly over his brow. It had by now a battered and well-worn appearance – a real veteran’s hat. He was proud of it, and had it not been for his mother’s earnest protests, would have worn it at the wedding.

* * *

One evening, two years later, he sat opposite his wife by the fireside, watching her needles weave a framework of delicate pink wool. His newspaper was exhausted and he felt in need of a chat. How could he distract her attention from knitting, and yet lead the conversation into a field that justified so bold an interruption? His eye fell upon the group-photo, which stood above his pipe-rack, on the mantel shelf ... photo ... knitting ... that Balaclava! – no, better not mention that! He became amused and indulgent at the thought, and considered his wife with affection...

“Alice, we started out in a strange way, didn’t we – not seeing each other for so long, and yet ending up together. I wonder how you felt about it, and just when you found you could no longer resist me?” (This in what he considered a light bantering manner, and hoping almost desperately for a compliment.)

The needles continued to thrash for a moment or two longer, and then slowed up.

“Well dear, it’s quite true, I don’t think I did fall for you in the normal way; in fact... I really believe it began with that photo...”

Alice paused, and looked pensively at the mat. Donald held his breath. Then he had been right: the photo had been responsible in some way...

She continued: ... “you looked so lonely and... well, it’s that hat of yours – your face seemed quite crushed underneath it – peaky, and somehow pathetic...” She observed his set look and added kindly: “Of course, that went for the whole lot of you, but from then on you seemed to become my own special responsibility.”

Before following her to bed that evening, Donald paused for a moment and contemplated the photo. It had worn badly. He seemed to be staring into a yellow pool from whose depths a row of faces returned his gaze bleakly. Beyond these heads the trees and foliage were contorted and blurred, as if influenced by unseen currents of water. A branch had merged completely with Goodlady’s hat and appeared to sprout from it. Goodlady continued his fixed and paternal smile, unaware of shadow and time. De Witt, more remote than ever, seemed just an unhappy boy. Murphy – only Murphy seemed real, and what had become of him? Wandering further in that sad voyage of illumination, Donald’s eye fell upon his own figure, smaller than the others. He then knew that Alice had been right – more than right.

“But they were good fellows, the whole bunch,” he reflected, climbing the stair, “and that hat... well, maybe it wasn’t all I thought it at the time, but it was a memorable hat, and it certainly did something to my own life.”

Isn't it good? I had no idea.

Next to the story was a slip from Chamber's Journal, dated 4th January 1947, accepting it for publication for two guineas. He even preserved a second slip, dated 28th March, asking him to revise and return the proofs. Most touchingly to me, it was addressed to "T. Crawford Butler": he'd decided to use his middle name for literary purposes. There's no copy of the journal itself, unfortunately.

At no point during my childhood or indeed later did my father mention this story (as far as I remember), or show any interest in writing fiction, although he wrote poetry throughout his life.

I do wish he'd kept it up.

Isn't it good? I had no idea.

That's wonderful. Thank you for saving and sharing it!

Surely you can get it from some library? I'll check Harvard when I renew my card.

Very neat to see the hat itself.

Edited at 2012-04-15 02:08 pm (UTC)

Thank you so much! It's great to see even a snippet view. Good job he kept those slips from the journal, or I'd have had no idea that it ever got further than his bottom drawer, let alone under that by-line.

I can probably get it from the British Library, though I don't know when I'll next get the chance; but if you can do it without too much trouble I'd certainly love to see the whole thing.

Wow, that was very good. Oh, what a shame he didn't keep it up.

Not just a delightful story, but a fascinating piece of social history.

Really a lovely bit of writing -- thanks so much for sharing it!

I told another friend this morning that the ephemera of life is a footprint of the soul, and I think this is a fine example of that.

the ephemera of life is a footprint of the soul

Nicely put.