Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: Gloucester

Ivor Gurney- Poet and Composer 1890 – 1937 Part Two

Ceylon Today published this article in the Mosaic section on Sunday May 25 2014.



Royal College of Music






In Part One, I described how Ivor Gurney, coming from a modest background in Gloucester, won a place in the Cathedral Choir in 1900. In 1911, he took up an open scholarship in composition at the Royal College of Music. His examiners were a formidable team of British composers: Sir Hubert Parry (best known for his setting of Blake’s Jerusalem); Sir Charles Stanford (an Irish composer and respected teacher long resident and influential in England; Dr Walford Davies and Dr Charles Wood.



marion scott

Marion Scott

At the RCM, Gurney met his lifelong friend and supporter, Marion Scott. She was thirteen years older than he was and had trained as a violinist at the RCM. She now edited the college magazine. She described her first sighting of him when he was wearing a thick Severn pilot’s coat. “But what struck me more was the look of latent force in him, the fine head with its profusion of light brown hair (not too well brushed!) … ‘This,’ I said to myself, ‘must be the new composition scholar from Gloucester whom they call Schubert’.”



He had a great deal of charm, good looks, talent and intelligence and made many friends.   He attended concerts, socialized, even became a member of the elite Beloved Vagabonds Club, which met at Holland Park to perform music.


Sir Charles Stanford was somewhat authoritarian, preferring order to chaos and found Gurney’s manuscripts tended to the chaotic. Herbert Howells recalled an occasion when Stanford made some swift alterations in pencil and said: “There, me boy! That puts it right”. Gurney responded, “Well, Sir Charles, I see you’ve jigged the whole show”, and was thrown out. Stanford turned to Howells, chuckled, and said, “You know, I love him more each time.” Stanford, in later years, declared that of all those he taught –Vaughan Williams, Ireland, and Bliss- Gurney was, potentially, “the biggest man of them all, but he was the least teachable.”




Musical Work



His earliest compositions date from 1904, but the first songs of any consequence are dated November 1907. In 1908, the distinguished classicist and poet, AE Housman (subject of Tom Stoppard’s play The Invention of Love – 1997) wrote to his publisher about giving permission for a Gurney setting of Housman’s poems. “Mr IB Gurney (who resides in Gloucester Cathedral along with St Peter and Almighty God) must not print the words of my poems in full on concert programmes (a course which I am sure his fellow lodgers would disapprove of) but he is quite welcome to set them to music, and to have them sung, and to print their titles on programmes when they are sung.” In 1913, he wrote settings of five Elizabethan lyrics – the “Elizas”. These can be heard on YouTube ( performed by countertenor Kangmin Justin Kim accompanied by Sachika Taniyama on piano.


Gurney started writing poetry in 1913. A collection called Severn and Somme was published in 1917. In 1919, another collection, War’s Embers was published. Those were the only two books of poetry published in his lifetime. JC Squire worked hard on his behalf and published individual poems frequently in his London Mercury.

JC Squire

JC Squire

Squire commented: “It will all come out one day, I suppose. But the best in the arts still has the old struggle”. His poems frequently appeared in anthologies and he heavy-hitters in the poetry world like Auden and Larkin praised him. Another poet, Edmund Blunden, brought out a selection of Gurney’s poems in 1954, which had little impact.




Leonard Clark edited another selection in 1973, which caused few ripples. Michael Hurd’s biography in 1978 stressed the quality of Gurney’s poetry and provided many examples.

In 1982, poet PJ Kavanagh published The Collected Poems of Ivor Gurney, which showed the full range of his achievement and encouraged further re-issues. In 1996, Everyman’s Poetry was published selection edited by George Walter of Sussex University. Walter points out in his introduction that Gurney cannot easily be categorised as a war poet, a “mad” poet or even a pastoral poet. “Ultimately his poems have less to do with their ostensible subjects than with his own awareness of them as spiritual revelations.” His subjectivity allows him to avoid vague generalizations about pastoral subjects.

Gurney is fascinated by the urban and the man-made. He writes about impermanence in the natural landscape and, in poems like “Time to Come”, writes about how the development of new housing in Gloucester affects the shape of the city and the landscape in which it sits.  Google Longford, the district in Gloucester where Gurney lived with his aunt and did farm work, and all you get is information about house prices and new developments in locations with neologisms for names, names that did not exist when I was a child walking those fields. My junior school used Plock Court at Longford as a sports ground. It was a miracle that we did not get tetanus because cow shit carpeted the field.



Longford Dawns


Of course not all watchers of the dawn

See Severn mists like forced-march mist withdrawn;

London has darkness changing into light

With just one quarter-hour of any weight.

Casual and common is the wonder grown –

Time’s a duty to lift light’s curtain up and down.

But here Time is caught up clear in Eternity,
And draws as breathless life as you or me.



More about Gurney’s war experience and war poems in Part Three.


Ivor Gurney- Poet and Composer 1890 – 1937 Part One

I have an article on the front page of Mosaic, the Arts section of Ceylon Today, May 18 2014.

Here is a version with a different selection of photographs.

I have been looking into the life of the composer and poet Ivor Gurney. My research has led me into a Joycean reconstruction of the Gloucester I knew as a child and adolescent.



This year, 2014,  marks the centenary of the start of the First World War. The BBC will be marking the centenary with four years of programmes covering the war. Among these programmes will be one presented by Tim Kendall, Professor of English at Exeter University, entitled The Poet who Loved the War: Ivor Gurney, 1914–1918. Hundreds of Gurney’s poems remain unpublished. Kendall, together with Gurney expert baritone Philip Lancaster, is preparing a three volume variorum edition of Gurney’s complete poetry, for Oxford University Press. Gurney does not fit easily into the category of “war poet”. I will limit myself here to saying that his work is not like that of Graves, Owen, Sassoon or Rosenberg. Readers who want a full critical analysis of the poetry should read the blogs of Kendall and Lancaster.

Gurney was also a composer who studied under Vaughan Williams at the Royal College of Music. Sadly, he descended into mental illness and died in hospital at the age of 47.




When I was a teenager in Gloucester in the early 1960s, it was de rigeur to have trousers eye-wateringly tight. As soon as one purchased a new pair, one would take them to a tailor to have them altered. I took mine to a Mr Gurney who lived in a tall house on Worcester Street almost opposite the home of Gloucester Rugby Football Club, Kingsholm.

In later years, I discovered the work of poet and composer, Ivor Gurney, who was born and brought up in Gloucester.
I now realise that my tailor was Ivor’s brother, Ronald.



herbert howells

 Herbert Howells
Ivor’s poems spoke strongly to me because they were about a landscape that I knew and loved. Gurney’s friend and fellow Gloucester composer, Herbert Howells, dedicated his Piano Quartet in A minor: ‘To the Hill at Chosen and Ivor Gurney who knows it’. I used to walk from my home to the top of Chosen Hill and look at the city of Gloucester somnolent in the sluggish summer valley below me or sit in a St Bartholomew’s Church.



It stands on a man-made mound 511 feet above sea-level, within the enclosing banks of an Iron Age Camp. The present church is Norman in foundation and Roger du Pont L’Eveque, Archbishop of York, is thought to have been the builder in about 1175 AD. The same church was often visited by Wendy Craig in the TV series Butterflies. Motorways and industrial parks obliterated my route to Chosen. Gurney wrote about impermanence in the natural landscape and in poems like “Time to Come” described how the development of new housing in Gloucester affected the shape of the city and the mind-set of its inhabitants.

Time to Come


They will walk there, the sons of our great grandsons and
Will know no reason for the old love of the land.
There will be no tiny bent-browed houses in the
Twilight to watch, nor small shops of multi-miscellany.
The respectable and red-brick will rule all,
With green-paint railings outside the front door wall;
And children will not play skip-games in the gutter,
Nor dust fly furious in hot valour of footer;
Queerness and untidiness will be smoothed out.




Gurney long ago mourned the loss of old Gloucestershire. What would he think now to see Gloucester homogenized into a standard provincial conurbation and his beloved Cotswolds blighted by the second homes of investment banksters and media whores who have priced local people out of the market?

Early Life
Ivor Gurney was born in Queens Street, Gloucester in 1890 and his family later moved to Barton Street (where our family doctor was based opposite the furniture shop of England cricketer Tom Goddard). In the early fifties of my childhood the area was populated by large numbers of West Indians, today there are many mosques and Bangladeshi restaurants.

Gurney came from a modest background. His father, David, came from a family of builders in Maisemore, but was himself in business as a tailor. Ivor Gurney’s biographer, Michael Hurd, like me a native of Gloucester (he attended Crypt School and I attended the rival Sir Thomas Rich’s Bluecoat School), expressed it thus: “By the standards of the time they could be considered to have gained a tenuous foothold on the ladder of comfort and middle-class respectability.” How many people these days have slipped and fallen on that kind of tenuous foothold?

Gurney’s elder sister, Winifred, painted an unflattering portrait of their mother, Florence, describing life with her as “something akin to a bed of stinging nettles”. Winifred claimed that Florence Gurney “did not seem to enjoy her children, and so far as I could see she did not win their love”. Gurney’s brother, Ronald, remembered a “terrible streak in mother — not mad but certainly bad with a touch of…evil about her” and called her “a menace”. The Gurney children favored their father, recalling him as “the more home-loving, affectionate parent” who “was not allowed to give us as much love as he had for us.”




Florence resented David’s Saturday afternoon visits to Kingsholm to watch Rugby football, but was more displeased when he changed his habits and went drinking at the Conservative Club instead.
Ivor’s friend Marion Scott liked his father, describing him as “gentle and slightly puzzled by life in general and his eldest son in particular”. Scott thought Ivor from his mother “inherited his strange power of placing ideas in unusual juxtapositions,” but with a great difference between mother and son. “With him it was genius, and with her it was almost foolishness.”

In 1896, Ivor started Sunday School (the Sunday School movement had been founded in Gloucester by Robert Raikes) at All Saints School on Barton Street, (All Saints Church was described by Michael Hurd as “one of Sir Gilbert Scott’s less ambitious flights”) where the Reverend Alfred Cheesman, immediately recognised his musical talent and put him in the choir. Cheesman also encouraged the boy’s interest in literature and local history by allowing him free use of his library.

Later he attended the National School, on London Road (I was a mixed infant at St Peter’s Catholic School on London Road). Gurney’s walk from home to school was not long but perhaps far for a small boy. He would have passed what is now the ugly 1960s bus station, but was then, I remember it as such, Gloucester cattle market, which was right in the centre of the city next to a ballroom. It gave off an awful stench on market days and was populated by red-faced men in muddy leather spats.

The Old City — Gloucester
Who says ‘Gloucester’ sees a tall
Fair fashioned shape of stone arise,
That changes with the changing skies
From joy to gloom funereal,
Then quick again to joy…





Cheesman encouraged Ivor to compete for a place in the Cathedral Choir, which he won in 1900. This also meant a place at King’s School, the school, founded by Henry VIII, attached to the Cathedral. Gurney’s musical education was also helped by his visits to two sisters, Emily and Margaret Hunt, who lived in Wellington Street, (not far from where, in later years, Fred and Rose West committed their murders) near the Gurney shop. Emily played the piano and Margaret the violin and they had been professional music teachers in South Africa before the Boer War.

On leaving the Gloucester Cathedral Choir in 1906, Gurney took lessons in harmony and counterpoint with a Dr Brewer and helped to pay the fees by working as an organist at several churches around Gloucestershire. Another of Brewer’s pupils at the time was the songwriter, actor and matinee idol, Ivor Novello (star of Hitchcock’s The Lodger, composer of “Keep the Home Fires Burning” and lover of Siegfried Sassoon). Gurney struck up a friendship with another of Brewer’s pupils, Herbert Howells, later a notable composer.

Gurney did not always manage to hold his jobs for long. Cheesman said, “I am afraid that he was rather wanting in tact, and gave offence by being rather outspoken – sometimes even to the Vicars’ wives!”


He was happier at the Mariners’ Chapel in Gloucester’s dockland. Although on a map, Gloucester looks to be a long way inland it has long been a thriving port because of the Sharpness Canal and drew the attention of the Luftwaffe in the Second World War. I have often been in that tiny Mariners’ Chapel and imagined Gurney playing the organ. Sometimes he stood in for Brewer and played the organ in Gloucester Cathedral.


In 1911, Gurney took up an open scholarship in composition at the Royal College of Music.

More about that next week.



The Colonial Project

A version of this article was published in Lakbima News.


In Lakbima News, Malinda Seneviratne took issue with Juliet Coombe about racism and imperialism. Malinda’s article set me thinking about the fate of individuals in an imperial situation and how distinctions between oppressors and oppressed are not always clear. It is a complex fate to be a human in an imperial context.

I was born in England but have chosen to be an Irish citizen and a Sri Lankan resident. How have I benefited from Empire? How has my family enjoyed the plunder? My English maternal grandfather and my Irish father both served in the British army when Britain had an Empire. Were they complicit in oppression and plunder?


My own family were from the servant class. My mother’s father, Sam King, was a groom at Berkeley Castle (centuries ago,  Edward II had been horribly slain with a red-hot poker at the Castle). Sam  later drove the pony and trap for a doctor on Clarence Street in Gloucester. There he met my grandmother who was a maid, a country girl come to the city for employment, for another doctor. Sam’s service for the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie provided the experience to serve King and country in a cavalry regiment in Palestine during the First World War and during the British Mandate.


I have a collection of postcards he sent home. Mostly he was pleading for tobacco. A few strange  photographs were among the postcards. One seems to show a number of Arabs hanging from a gibbet.

As a child I spent many hours in Sam’s company but he mostly sat silently chopping up his Mick McQuaid pipe tobacco or pottering about in his garden. Occasionally, he would say “Don’t despise your old granddad” but we never discussed what happened during his imperial service.


Imperial service  certainly did not make him rich. He lived in a modest council house, an island of respectability in a sea of delinquency and squalor. I was scared to walk down his street. His youngest daughter said that he had tried to slit his throat with a razor while drunk on rough cider during the Great Depression.


My father also served in the British army. He was born in County Cork in 1916, the year of the Easter Rising, when a group of poets and intellectuals made a blood sacrifice against British imperialism. He taught me much about “800 years of British oppression”. Cromwell’s 1649-53 campaign remains notorious in Irish popular memory as it was responsible for a huge death toll among the Irish population (40%?). The reason for this was the counter-guerrilla tactics used such as the wholesale burning of crops, forced population movement (ethnic cleansing) and killing of civilians. In addition, the whole post-war Cromwellian settlement of Ireland has been characterized as “genocidal”, in that it sought to remove Irish Catholics from the eastern part of the country. Malinda quotes Lasantha David as saying he needs to get over the colonials for stealing his loot and making his great great grandfather cut sugar cane”. As well as stealing Irish land the British also sent, after Cromwell’s depredations, Irishmen to the West Indies to work on the sugar plantations as slaves.

My father instilled in me a love of Ireland and taught me about Irish history and culture. Despite his pride in the country of his birth and his hatred of what the British Empire had done to it, he did not hesitate to volunteer for the British army when it was facing the Nazi threat. He felt grateful to England for giving him work and a wife.

Some might argue that it was a history of British oppression which forced this intelligent and witty man to leave school at 12 and work for a butcher and then to leave his family to make his way in a strange land. The England he found in the 1930s would certainly have seemed strange to an Irishman in his twenties brought up as a devout Catholic with decent moral values. Signs saying “No dogs, no blacks, no Irish” were not uncommon. He met my mother when he was a labourer helping to build the council house (number 9 Stanway Road, Coney Hill, not far from the lunatic asylum) that her family were to move into. He struggled to gain acceptance from her family. “He’s Irish. He won’t stick with you”, they warned.

My father  made light of his war service in the Pioneer Corps. That was not one of the glamorous regiments. It was the stuff of music-hall humour and was portrayed as a motley collection of ineffectual blokes dredged into the army by the war’s insatiable hunger for bodies, any bodies – clerks, light labourers, intellectuals and incapables, unfit to fight, but fit to prepare the way for or clean up after the proper soldiers. Their job was to tidy up the war.


Michael Young, in his influential book The Rise of the Meritocracy, (1958) took an unflattering view of the Pioneer Corps.  He claimed that the morale of these ‘hewers and drawers  … these dull-witted men’ was spectacularly increased ‘when the stupid were kept together… and they were no longer daunted by having superior people to compete with.’  In fairness to Young, it should be noted that his intent was satirical and his book was a prescient critique of how the cult of IQ measurement would create a dangerously smug ruling class and a profoundly demoralized lower class.

When I was a very small child my father took me to the gasworks where he was employed. I was terrified. It was like a Gustave Doré illustration for a sermon on hell, with huge roaring furnaces dwarfing the men stoking them, coughing in the fumes of coal and coke, stripped to the waist, straining with shovels, their bodies basted like meat.

There were men of all nations, the Irish, Poles and Ukrainians as black as the Jamaicans, men thrown up by the ebbing tide of war, stranded victims of dying empires and dictatorships. There was Jan the Pole who lost his home and his country, first to the Germans and then to the Russians, and walked across Europe to England, dodging the Nazis and the Red Army. Petrenko, the Ukrainian who hated the Russians so much he was proud to boast of being in the infamous Waffen SS. There was Henry, the Jamaican, whose ancestors had been torn from Africa and shipped as property to the Caribbean to make the fortunes of Bristol merchants.

The British oppressed and plundered close to home as well as globally. I struggle to accept that I gained much personally from the plundering oppression of the British Empire. True, I  was the recipient of free education and health care and was the first of my family to go to university.  Clement Attlee presided over the consolidation of the welfare state as well as the dismantling of the empire.

When I was born, the empire had entered its precipitous decline as a result of the effort of winning the war. Life was grey and grim in post-war Britain. In his book A World to Build, historian David Kynaston brilliantly evoked what life felt like then.

No supermarkets, no motorways, no teabags, no sliced bread, no frozen food, no flavoured crisps, no lager, no microwaves, no dishwashers, no Formica, no vinyl, no CDs, no computers, no mobiles, duvets, no Pill, no trainers, no hoodies, no Starbucks. Four Indian restaurants. Shops on every corner, pubs on every corner, cinemas in every street, red telephone boxes, Lyons Corner Houses, trams, trolley buses, steam trains. Woodbines, Craven ‘A’, Senior Service, smoke, smog, Vapex  inhalant. No launderettes, no automatic washing machines, wash every Monday, clothes boiled in a tub, scrubbed on the draining board, rinsed in the sink, put through a mangle hung out to dry. Central heating coke boilers, water geysers, the coal fire, the hearth, the home, chilblains common. Abortion illegal, homosexual relationships illegal, suicide illegal, capital punishment legal. White faces everywhere. Back-to-backs, narrow cobbled streets, Victorian terraces, no high-rises. Arterial roads, suburban semis, the march of the pylon. Austin Sevens, Ford Eights, no seat belts, and Triumph motorcycles with sidecars. A Bakelite wireless in the home, Housewives’ Choice or Workers’ Playtime or ITMA on the air, televisions almost unknown, no programmes to watch, the family eating together. ‘Milk of Magnesia’ Vick Vapour Rub, Friar’s Balsam, Fynnon Salts, Eno’s, Germolene. Suits and hats, dresses and hats, cloth Caps and mufflers, no leisurewear, no ‘teenagers’. Heavy Coins, heavy shoes, heavy suitcases, heavy tweed coats, heavy leather footballs, no unbearable lightness of being. Meat rationed, butter rationed, lard rationed, margarine rationed, sugar rationed, tea rationed, cheese rationed, am rationed, eggs rationed, sweets rationed, soap rationed, clothes rationed. Make do and mend.’

Food rationing continued until my eighth year. Some look back to the 50s with nostalgia, claiming that it was a gentler, more human time before the permissive society drove everyone demented. There may have been good things about that time but it would take a Dante to contrive a hell quite as awful as a dark wet Sunday afternoon in the outer suburbs of a provincial British town in the 1950s.

After the war, after the horrors they had witnessed, many men of my father’s generation opted for the quiet life, while the government tried to make a better job of making a land fit for heroes than had been done after the First World War. My parents were offered a home by the local council. It was a dilapidated Nissen hut that had seen much war service. In  the year of my birth, 40,000 people were living in a thousand disused service camps. My father, with characteristic stubbornness, refused it. He also stood his ground and refused a ‘prefab’. ‘Homes fit for heroes’ indeed! He continued to live with my mother’s family in the house that he had helped to build before the war.

In that house I was born.

The flamboyant Churchill jibed at Prime Minister Attlee’s dullness by saying. “An empty taxi pulled up and Mr Attlee got out”. But dullness was what the nation wanted. Dullness was good if it also meant security. The Attlee government provided monetary benefits for the poor, and health care free to all, regardless of circumstances. My parents lived through the austerity years and through to the “never had it so good” days of the MacMillan era. We baby-boomers came of age during those years of relative affluence.  We absorbed the optimism and creativity of the Beatles and the cynicism of the satirists. We were rebellious and arrogant, refusing to acknowledge that the fruits we were enjoying were paid for by the suffering of previous generations.

I did not come to Sri Lanka to make bucks. Some Sri Lankans did tell me I could have an easy life here but I find I am working harder than ever. That’s OK because I don’t have to commute to an office. I cringe when I see pink-faced Europeans throwing their considerable weight about. I become a little-pink-faced myself when I hear foreigners referring to “the locals”  and drooling about the quaintness of it all. I am eight hours away from Colombo’s fleshpots. I have little in the way of loot. I strive, on my modest resources, to help my local community through the local Buddhist temples. In my writing for a Sri Lankan audience I try to make a positive difference by sharing  helpful experience without arrogance. In my writing for a foreign audience I try to dispel misconceptions and to convey the subtle complexities of Sri Lankan reality. I hope that, now that I have chosen a former British colony as my permanent home, I do not come across as an imperialist plunderer.


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