The Billy Goats Gruff

A ‘Verse a Day’ fairy tale told in who knows how many parts.

Do you remember the Billy Goats Gruff, and that fearsome Troll lurking under the bridge they wanted to cross? One by one they tried, each asking the Troll to spare them with the promise that a bigger, fatter prize was following behind. Perhaps, today, those three brothers might appear something like goateed gangsters, or horned Peaky Blinders, and I hear them speaking in gruff Yorkshire accents as they discuss their search for grass that is greener and thistles that are tastier. This new version of the fairy tale has something to say about both billies and bullies…

(Illustrations by Christa Hook, copyright © 2020)

Billy Goats Gruff fairy tale 1

1
In a valley of green, back in Fairy Tale days,
Gangs of billy goats fought over which land to graze,
There were billy goats tough, there were billy goats rough,
But no goats were as bad as the Billy Goats Gruff.

2
These three billy goat brothers ate thistles and thorns,
And they butted their rivals with curly, sharp horns,
Growing fat in a field by a fast waterfall,
Where the thistles grew thickest and richest of all…

3
But one dark autumn evening, the Gruffs felt a chill,
Looking over the valley from high on their hill.
‘All our kingdom’s grown muddy!’ one growled with a shiver.
‘The grass looks much greener beyond the Great River.’

Billy Goat Gruff Fairy Tale 3

4
‘My brothers! It’s time for us Gruffs to expand!
We must cross that Great River and grab our new land.
But there’s only one bridge, under which lives a Troll,
And she’ll drown any strangers who won’t pay her toll.’

5
‘Let me cross over first!’ bleated Tiny Goat Gruff,
Who was youngest and smallest, but made of tough stuff.
He was wide as a wolf, with a beard of blood red,
And a hat with a crow’s feather perched on his head.

6
Tiny rolled out a motorbike, polished and black,
Started up the loud engine and climbed on its back.
And then, dipping his horns, gave his brothers a poke,
Before roaring away in a great cloud of smoke.

Billy Goat Gruff Fairy Tale 6

7
Tiny stopped at the crossing and stroked his red beard.
On the bridge, in the moonlight, a figure appeared.
She was really quite small, dressed in rags and old shoes,
And her bald head was covered with goat’s-head tattoos.

8
‘Your whole business,’ said Tiny, ‘is one we’ve admired.
But Gruff Brothers Inc. think it’s time you retired.
I’m taking your bridge, cos that grass looks much greener.’
He tried to look mean… but the Troll looked much meaner.

Billy Goats Gruff Fairy Tale 8

9
‘My dear Tiny Gruff,’ sighed the Troll, ‘Can you float?
Do you fly? Can you swim? Did you bring your own boat?
This stone bridge is my castle. This river’s my moat.
And we’re stronger by far than some hillbilly goat!’

10
‘Take a look,’ she went on, ‘at my inky-blue head,
Each tattoo shows the face of a goat that lies dead.
They all drowned in this river, one hundred all gone,
If you fight me, I’ll make you one hundred and one!’

Billy Goat Gruff Fairy Tale 10

11
Tiny’s hair stood on end, his legs started to shake,
And he bleated: ‘I think there has been some mistake.
I’m not worth all this bother, I’m just skin and bone.
Please await my big brother and leave me alone!’

12
‘I will let you cross over my bridge,’ hissed the Troll,
‘If you leave me your bike and your suit as my toll!’
So, poor Tiny was stripped of his bike, suit and pride,
Before galloping off to the opposite side.

BillyGoat12

13
‘It is time I set forth,’ bleated Curly Goat Gruff,
Who was older than Tiny and smelled very rough.
He was big as a bear, with a beard full of curls,
And his horns wore a bowler hat covered in pearls.

14
Curly entered the barn through a large, sliding door,
And from inside the building there rose a great roar,
Before Curly drove out in a black limousine,
And cruised off down the hill in the groaning machine.

Billy Goats Gruff Fairy Tale 14

15
Parking close by the bridge, Curly stepped from his car
And called out: ‘Brother Tiny, point out where you are!’
But instead saw a Troll, who was bald as a coot
And was dressed in what looked like his brother’s best suit.

16
‘I have followed,’ said Curly, ‘this river’s direction,
To sell you some shares in Gruff Brothers Protection.
We’re taking your bridge, now then where is my brother?’
‘He’s gone…’ trilled the Troll. ‘He ran off to his mother!’

Billy Goats Gruff Fairy Tale 16

17
‘My dear Curly Gruff,’ sighed the Troll, ‘Can you float?
Do you fly? Can you swim? Did you bring your own boat?
This stone bridge is my castle. This river’s my moat.
And we’re stronger by far than some hillbilly goat!’

18
‘Take a look,’ she went on, ‘at my inky-blue head.
Each tattoo shows the face of a goat that lies dead.
I have drowned me one hundred and one just like you,
If you fight me, I’ll make you one hundred and two!’

Billy Goats Gruff Fairy Tale 18

19
Curly’s knees started knocking, his face turned quite pasty,
‘Hold on now!’ he bleated, ‘No need to be hasty!
I’m sorry to see that my offer offends,
Please await my big brother, and let us be friends!’

20
‘Oh, you grizzling, grovelling, grotty goat Gruff,’
Said the Troll, ‘Did you not think that I’d call your bluff?
Leave the keys to your car, and your pearl-covered hat,
Then please cross, and cross quick, ’cos you smell like a rat!’

Billy Goats Gruff Fairy Tale 20

21
Meanwhile, high in the valley sat Biggy Goat Gruff,
Who was thinking: ‘I’ve waited up here long enough.’
He was huge as a horse, with a beard of jet black
And a mane of grey hair down his billy goat back.

22
Biggy pulled on a greatcoat of scarlet and gold,
And he growled, ‘I’ll make sure that troll never grows old!’
Then he hauled back the sheets from a rusty green lorry,
Jumped in, turned the keys, and drove off in a hurry.

Billy Goats Gruff Fairy Tale 22

23
On reaching the bridge, Biggy searched for the others,
But try as he might found no sign of his brothers.
And there in the moonlight a little Troll sat,
Wearing Tiny’s best jacket and Curly’s best hat.

24
‘I have come,’ Biggy rapped, ‘for your bridge and your river.
This message my brothers were meant to deliver.
I’ll butt you, and beat you, and bite you in half.’
But to Biggy’s amazement, he heard the Troll laugh.

BillyGoats24

25
‘Oh, my dear Biggy Gruff!’ sighed the Troll, ‘Can you float?
Do you fly? Can you swim? Did you bring your own boat?
This stone bridge is my castle. This river’s my moat.
And we’re stronger by far than some hillbilly goat!’

26
‘But I see by your size, and the gold of your cuff,
You’re the greatest by far of the Billy Goats Gruff,
So, I’ll give you my bridge, and I’ll bow down my head,
If you’ll just let me keep one small stone for my bed.’

Billy Goats Gruff Fairy Tale 26

27
‘Be my guest!’ Biggy roared, growing careless with pride,
‘But beware, as my truck is both heavy and wide!’
So, the Troll gently slid out a stone marked with moss,
Before stepping aside to wave Biggy across.

28
Roaring over the crossing, the truck gave a moan,
As the bridge’s loose stones groaned a terrible groan,
And the Troll wore a grin as her bridge tumbled down,
Dropping Biggy Goat Gruff in the river to drown.

Billy Goats Gruff Fairy Tale 28

29
Never knowing their big brother’s fate in this matter,
The two younger Gruff boys grew fatter and fatter.
They grazed their new grass with such monstrous greed,
That they gobbled up every last thistle and weed.

30
‘Little brother,’ said Curly, ‘Our luck has turned bloody!
Once more, it would seem, all our land has grown muddy,
While over the river, there’s green grass and flowers,
We’ll have to return to reclaim what is ours!’

Billy Goats Gruff Fairy Tale 30

31
They galloped to where the Troll’s bridge had once been,
But as hard as they hunted, no bridge could be seen,
Just a pile of stones, stacked up neatly enough,
With a sign that read: ‘Here lies poor Biggy Goat Gruff.’

32
On the opposite bank, where a garden had grown,
Stood a little, grey cottage of moss-covered stone.
On the drive, in a limousine, there the Troll sat
In a greatcoat of scarlet and pearl-covered hat.

Billy Goats Gruff Fairy Tale 30

33
‘I’m much bigger than last time we met!’ Tiny hissed,
Throwing pebbles and shaking his billy goat fist.
‘All that grass would be ours if we’d thought to remain!’
Grumbled Curly, ‘Now help us cross over again!’

34
‘My dear Billy Goats Gruff,’ called the Troll, ‘Can you float?
Do you fly? Can you swim? Did you bring your own boat?
Your big brother has left you no bridge, just a moat,
Now I’ll never be crossed by some hillbilly goat!’

Billy Goats Gruff Fairy Tale 34

35
The next morning, with needle and ink of deep blue,
Her friend Fox gave the Troll one more goat’s-head tattoo.
‘Did you really drown one hundred goats?’ old Fox said.
‘Golly, no!’ laughed the Troll, ‘Only Biggy lies dead.’

Billy Goats Gruff Fairy tale 36

36
‘Like the pearls on my hat and the stripes on my cuffs,
There are all sorts of ways to beat bullies and Gruffs.
You don’t need to be bigger and badder by far,
But it helps if the bullies all think that you are…’

37
They both sat back and laughed as they heard the Gruffs quarrel,
And Fox said: ‘Your tale has at least one more moral.
You’ll never be happy, and always act meaner,
When grasping and grabbing for grass that is greener.’

Billy Goats Gruff Fairy Tale 38

THE END!

 

Text Copyright © Jason Hook 2020 
Illustrations Copyright © Christa Hook 2020

 

 

 

Turning the World Upside Down

On Valentine’s Day, I’ve treated myself by spending a little time and showing some love for my unpublished children’s book, Isabella Mawtle’s Immortal Vanishing Cream. This excerpt is from the chapter where Pip and Molly Mawtle, trapped in their Great-aunt Isabella’s bewitched house, tumble through a revolving floor, and find their world turned upside down in every conceivable way.

I hope you don’t mind me sharing…

“As the Cursery Rhyme whirled about her ears, Molly’s end of the see-saw soared too high. Molly see-ed up and Pip saw-ed down, and the floor revolved until it stood on end – and then tipped completely over. Their world turned upside-down and Pip and Molly were sent somersaulting into the darkness as, high above them, a fading violin voice whirled…

‘I’ve looked inside your hearts
To see the whats you whish to do!
You’ve dreamed all night, now hold on tight,
We’ll make them all come true…’

Faster they fell, the air rushing cold over their cuckoo-cropped scalps. Down and…

d

o

w

n…

 

faster…

 

fasterfasterfaster…

 

f

a

s

t

e

r

.

.

.

until, at last, a blood-red floor rushed up to meet them. They gritted their teeth. They clenched their fists. Remembering suddenly the wish they had made never to grow old, they thought for the first time of just what that wish might really mean, what double meanings it might hold, and how careful you should be when you whisper the words of your wishes in a witch’s house. And for the first time in their young lives they felt a vague sense that life might not last for ever. They held their breaths and waited a witch’s tick for the coming true of that careless wish: for the thud of young bone on stone, the thump of young skull on floorboards, the thwack, the crack

…the squish!

Pip and Molly hit the floor without thud, thump or thwack. They landed not on hard as rock, but on soft as jelly; not egg on concrete, but rubber ball on space hopper.

They felt themselves sink gently into the softest, the bounciest, the most trampolinest of floors…

‘Balloons!’ Molly cried.

‘Balloons!’ laughed Pip.

And they remembered how in the back of a black carriage an age or so ago they had wished for a house with floors of balloons and ceilings of feathers, so that they might bounce up into the air and then fly back down again.

The first of these they did now, for what goes down must come up. With a squeal, the floor of balloons sank beneath their weight, and then sprang up and launched them into the air. They trampolined towards where they had fallen from, as if the cogs of the morning had been put into reverse. And as they flew back up through the darkness, Pip and Molly peered up towards where they knew a wooden floor to be – a floor that was now a ceiling, and a ceiling, since they were falling upwards, that was also now a floor! Never had their world felt more turned upon its head.

They had wished for balloons and they had got balloons. Now they wished even harder for feathers. And the darkness above sang out to them in a choir of honey-toned hoots. It sounded like an orchestra of bassoons blowing one huge ‘HOOT!’ above them, around them, inside them. They vibrated like reeds in the two ‘Os’ of that hoot, as if they had been sucked into the wind-pipes of a church organ. And as they flew towards the floor that was now a ceiling, the ceiling that was now a floor, they waited for the sharp rap of wood. Instead, they felt the soft wrap of feathers. They flew up into down – beautiful, feathery down – which caught them as softly as a woollen mitten catching two dandelion seeds.

For a moment, Pip and Molly were suspended there, side by side, sensing in the darkness the soft outlines of giant feathers. In silence, they hung there, happy to be neither falling nor rising, glad just to be still there and still.”

Copyright © Jason Hook, 2020 

Wendy and the Wallpaper Cat: the show

IMG_0862When Grandpa Walter opened the door,
he was wearing a green suit that looked
just like his garden. ‘Welcome to my world
of wonderful wallpapers!’ said Walter.
‘I wonder which room will be your favourite…’

When I wrote Wendy and the Wallpaper Cat for V&A Publishing a few years ago, my idea was that a picture book about a magical house in which the wallpapers come alive might in turn bring fresh life to the wallpapers in the V&A collection by inviting young visitors to the museum to look at the patterns and pictures not just with their eyes but with their imaginations. Grandpa Walter was named after Walter Crane, whose wallpaper designs form the backdrops in the book, and the artist Ilaria Demonti breathed life into the characters of Walter, his sleepless grand-daughter Wendy, and the fiddle-playing Wallpaper Cat with her fabulous illustrations.

We published the book, we celebrated, and that might well have been that. But if cats have nine lives, then it seems wallpaper cats have at least two. Last week, I had the thrill of watching Lisa O’Hanlon and Dan Willis perform Wendy and the Wallpaper Cat at the V&A theatre to row upon row of young, wide-eyed, shrieking spectators. Now the wallpapers, and the book itself, really did come to life. Butterflies flitted over Walter’s wallpaper garden; rose petals tumbled from the sky; sea-shells carried the sound of the ocean to a hundred eager ears; a giant orange was bounced from hand to hand; and, wonder of wonderful wonders, children gasped at nothing more, nothing less, than projections of Victorian wallpapers as Wendy dashed from room to room.

When the electric-blue Wallpaper Cat leapt from the walls to play enchanted fiddle music, not just Wendy but all the children in the audience ran through the midnight garden and danced. And so the Wallpaper Cat lives on, summoned from the wall to play for any child struggling to get to sleep.

Many thanks to Lisa and Dan for their wonderful work, to Ilaria, and to everyone at the V&A including Astrid, Harriet and Tom.

“Wendy looked up at the roses on the walls.
When she reached up to touch them,
a red petal fluttered down.”

IMG_0848

“And when at last she caught up with the cat,
he played his fiddle and they danced together
the whole night long.”

IMG_0853

Copyright © Jason Hook 2019

Blood Moon

blood_moon_with_howling_wolf_by_hunters_m00n

The moon is rising full and round, a deep red-setter red,
The brighter that it shines, the more these voices fill my head.
I want to run and chase a ball, to boldly sniff your arse,
To urinate on lamp-posts and to defecate on grass.
I’ve torn off all my clothes but still I just can’t seem to sleep,
I long to ride into the countryside and worry sheep.
I ate a poodle late last night, my bark’s less than my bite,
Lock up your doors, chain up my paws, the Blood Moon’s up tonight.

The moon is rising full and round, with bloody lipstick lips,
I want to go out riding in my bicycle eclipse.
The beast in me is breaking free, the bat came out of hell,
I want to dress in leather and throw pussy down the well.
My booty call’s a duty call, do not pick up the phone,
I’m sniffing round a graveyard trying to find this dog a bone.
Lycanthropy, misanthropy, Lon Chaney’s out of sight,
Bring out your dead, and turn your head, the Blood Moon’s up tonight.

The moon is rising full and round, a scary clown’s balloon,
It lures me to the sewers of my friends’ impending doom.
I thought I was a vegan, but there must be some mistake,
I’m raving at this craving for a rare and bloody steak.
My claws are out, I’ve grown a snout, I want to see you bleed,
I’ve drunk a trunk of claret and I’ve turned all Ollie Reed.
Foie-gras and steak tartare, please pass the claret to the right,
The menu’s fresh with human flesh, the Blood Moon’s up tonight.

The moon is rising full and round, a bloodspot, bloodshot eye,
I feel a strange compulsion to start howling at the sky.
A glass of water terrifies, I’ll take a Bloody Mary,
I’ve always been hirsute but now I’m Wolverinely hairy.
My fingernails need filing and I’ve started having fits,
I’m running out of razors and my toothbrush is in bits.
This lunacy is killing me, my shirt is much too tight,
Let’s fire that silver bullet, there’s a Blood Moon up tonight.

 

Vintage-Wolf-Image-GraphicsFairy

—Copyright © Jason Hook 2018

 

 

The Butterfly’s Ball

It was a weekend of butterflies. Taking part in the Big Butterfly Count (just two large whites and two meadow browns in Brighton’s parched Queens Park), brilliantly promoted by Sir David Attenborough, was both a joyful nudge to take fifteen minutes to stop and stare at nature, and a more salutary reminder that the wonders of our planet are fast disappearing before our eyes.

I remember the abundance of dazzling peacocks and red admirals we used to see as children in our back garden, along with the flocks of sparrows, swarms of bees, and bristling, bustling evening hedgehogs. Just imagine our countryside without such wonders. Just imagine if that is the shameful legacy of our generation. Perhaps if enough of us imagine that reality, and recognise its prevention as the cause of our age, we will find a way to step back from the sickening precipice of everyday extinctions.

By coincidence, a friend reminded me of the old poem The Butterfly’s Ball, which illuminated my childhood in rainbow colours as bright as the butterflies themselves. Very likely that is where the seeds of my Dream Weaver poem were first sown. Perhaps it’s time for another version (one by Alan Aldridge and William Plomer won the Whitbread in 1973) to mark the ticking of the clock and raise the hope that some Watchman is waiting for us. Such rhymes are vital in capturing the imagination of the next generation, which is why it is so uplifting to see the wonderful The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris enjoying such success. I hope these original verses by William Roscoe might offer an alternative way to celebrate the importance of the Big Butterfly Count, and present a different sort of invitation to a Butterfly’s Ball that is fast approaching midnight…

“Come take up your Hats, and away let us hasteillo5-f
To the Butterfly’s Ball, and the Grasshopper’s Feast.
The Trumpeter, Gad-fly, has summon’d the Crew,
And the Revels are now only waiting for you.

So said little Robert, and pacing along,

His merry Companions came forth in a Throng.
And on the smooth Grass, by the side of a Wood,
Beneath a broad Oak that for Ages had stood,
Saw the Children of Earth, and the Tenants of Air,
For an Evening’s Amusement together repair.

And there came the Beetle, so blind and so black,
Who carried the Emmet, his Friend, on his Back.
And there was the Gnat and the Dragon-fly too,
With all their Relations, Green, Orange, and Blue.

And there came the Moth, with his Plumage of Down,
And the Hornet in Jacket of Yellow and Brown;
Who with him the Wasp, his Companion, did bring,
But they promis’d, that Evening, to lay by their Sting.

And the sly little Dormouse crept out of his Hole,
And brought to the Feast his blind Brother, the Mole.illo3-f
And the Snail, with his Horns peeping out of his Shell,
Came from a great Distance, the Length of an Ell.

A Mushroom their Table, and on it was laid
A Water-dock Leaf, which a Table-cloth made.
The Viands were various, to each of their Taste,
And the Bee brought her Honey to crown the Repast.

Then close on his Haunches, so solemn and wise,
The Frog from a Corner, look’d up to the Skies.
And the Squirrel well pleas’d such Diversions to see,

Mounted high over Head, and look’d down from a Tree.

Then out came the Spider, with Finger so fine,
To shew his Dexterity on the tight Line.
From one Branch to another, his Cobwebs he slung,
Then quick as an Arrow he darted along,
But just in the Middle,—Oh! shocking to tell,

From his Rope, in an Instant, poor Harlequin fell.
Yet he touch’d not the Ground, but with Talons outspread,
Hung suspended in Air, at the End of a Thread.

Then the Grasshopper came with a Jerk and a Spring,
Very long was his Leg, though but short was his Wing;
He took but three Leaps, and was soon out of Sight,
Then chirp’d his own Praises the rest of the Night.illo5-f

With Step so majestic the Snail did advance,

And promis’d the Gazers a Minuet to dance.
But they all laugh’d so loud that he pull’d in his Head,
And went in his own little Chamber to Bed.
Then, as Evening gave Way to the Shadows of Night,
Their Watchman, the Glow-worm, came out with a Light.

Then Home let us hasten, while yet we can see,
For no Watchman is waiting for you and for me,
So said little Robert, and pacing along,
His merry Companions returned in a Throng.”

—Based on the text from the Project Gutenberg Ebook

 

Sweet and toffee, trough and snout…

You never forget the moment you first hear a witch sing a Cursery Rhyme. Not in a letter or from faraway. But up close. In the flesh. So you can smell her liquorice breath as she weaves her spell and tells you all the things she’s going to do to you, and all smuggled into your ears disguised in the old rags of a familiar verse…

“Beneath the causeway, they glimpsed again those strange orphan shadows that had chased them from the awfulage and which had played hide-and-seek among snow and pine trees during their carriage ride. Dark and plump as carp, they drifted now beneath the surface of the blood-red River Mold, diving or drowning among the weed, it was hard to tell which. And as those shadows swam by, Isabella began to sing. Her voice sounded both like the high note of a violin and the low rasp of the bow being scraped across it, and the burbling, bubbling voices of children rose from those diving, drowning shadows to join in the chorus. At the same moment, the handle of the music box around Molly’s neck began to turn, as it played along to the tune of Isabella’s song…

‘Two blind mice! Two blind mice!baba1ef7747dbede4146594decc5d391--arthur-rackham-halloween-decorations
See how they run! See how they run!
Cut out their hearts with a carving knife,
To see all the wishes they wish for life.
Hang up their hats on a thorny tree,
To let all the thoughts in their heads go free.
Cut off their tails for the cooking pot,
Tie them all up in a witch’s knot.

Sweet and toffee, trough and snout,
See a tooth and pull it out.
Conker, marble, snout and trough,
See a finger, chop it off!

Feed them cheese to make them dream,
Catch their nightmares when they scream.
Tease their ribs with prods and tickles,
Turn their giggles into pickles.
Call them names to make them cry,
Prick the teardrops from their eye.
Made from nephews, brewed from nieces,
Auntie’s little bits and pieces.

Sweet and toffee, trough and snout,
See a tooth and pull it out.
Conker, marble, snout and trough,
See a finger, chop it off!

Boil it in a jammy jar…
Melt it to a sticky tar…
Mix it to an oily ointment…
By a witch’s royal appointment!
Wear it where the wish-bones chime,
Cast it to a Cursery Rhyme.
Spell it right, her name’s a portal:
Isabella, Izzy Mawtle!
Two blind mice! Two blind…

…NICE!’ Isabella whooped.”

 

From Isabella Mawtle’s Immortal Vanishing Cream, © Copyright Jason Hook 2018
Illustration by Arthur Rackham

 

1914 & Other Poems

Old books make perfect time capsules. The turning of their pages can transport you back to the moment they were written, printed, bought or given.

In a charity shop this week, I happened upon an edition of 1914 & Other Poems by Rupert Brooke. The book looks plain enough, its dark board cover blank but for a sepia label on the spine displaying title, author and publisher, Sidgwick & Jackson. It contains an ethereal portrait of its writer, and was printed in June 1915. The date carries you back to a world still in the first convulsions of the First World War – amid which, life carried on, and someone stepped into an English bookshop and made a purchase: an old pencil note on the title page records the sale: ‘2/6 nett, 15.6.15’.

IMG_4317

Two months previously, on 11 March 1915, the Times Literary Supplement had published two of Brooke’s five war sonnets, ‘IV: The Dead’ and ‘V: The Soldier’. Written late in 1914, the sonnets capture the tragic idealism and patriotism of a nation yet to confront the full horrors of the conflict. On Easter Sunday 1915, ‘The Soldier’ was the reading at St Paul’s Cathedral, resonating with the poet’s most famous line: ‘If I should die, think only this of me: / That there’s some corner of a foreign field / That is for ever England.’

Three weeks later, on 23 April 1915, Rupert Brooke, at the age of 27, was dead. Sailing for Gallipoli with the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve, he suffered blood poisoning from an insect bite, and was buried in an olive grove on the Greek island of Skyros. The poet was mourned throughout England and 1914 & Other Poems was published the following month. My copy was the second of eleven impressions made that year alone.

The book holds an additional secret. Whoever bought it that June day was buying it as a gift, and the half-title page bears a small inscription: ‘F.M.T from EEP, June 1915, p.24’. I step into the time machine and, as another hand once did a century before, turn to the instructed page. I find the most beautiful verse, the perfect poem to offer as a certain kind of gift: ‘The Great Lover’.

Immediately, I long to know the identities behind the inscription. Was EEP a soldier himself, presenting his lover a book before he went away to fight. Did he nurse the same noble ideals as the poet? Was his life cut as tragically short? Or was he, instead, F.M.T., carrying his lover’s gift in an army coat pocket as he stood knee-deep in mud in the trenches and thought of home?

I would love to think those initials could somehow be decoded, what time travel that would be! In the meantime, we are left with the poem, printed two months after the ‘drowsy Death’ of its poet, and kept safe in the small, plain, dark-boarded covers that have travelled who knows where. Somehow, it has survived its journey, and now passes on the words that were once a lover’s dedication. They are, heartbreakingly, a love song to such simple pleasures as it is easy to imagine a homesick soldier reciting in a foreign field: a celebration of life at a time of dying. And I feel humbled a century later to hold them in my hands. Something remains. He loved.

THE GREAT LOVER
by Rupert Brooke

I have been so great a lover: filled my days
So proudly with the splendour of Love’s praise,
The pain, the calm, and the astonishment,
Desire illimitable, and still content,
And all dear names men use, to cheat despair,
For the perplexed and viewless streams that bear
Our hearts at random down the dark of life.
Now, ere the unthinking silence on that strife
Steals down, I would cheat drowsy Death so far,
My night shall be remembered for a star
That outshone all the suns of all men’s days.
Shall I not crown them with immortal praise
Whom I have loved, who have given me, dared with me
High secrets, and in darkness knelt to see
The inenarrable godhead of delight?
Love is a flame;—we have beaconed the world’s night.
A city:—and we have built it, these and I.
An emperor:—we have taught the world to die.
So, for their sakes I loved, ere I go hence,
And the high cause of Love’s magnificence,
And to keep loyalties young, I’ll write those names
Golden for ever, eagles, crying flames,
And set them as a banner, that men may know,
To dare the generations, burn, and blow
Out on the wind of Time, shining and streaming….
These I have loved:
White plates and cups, clean-gleaming,
Ringed with blue lines; and feathery, faery dust;
Wet roofs, beneath the lamp-light; the strong crust
Of friendly bread; and many-tasting food;
Rainbows; and the blue bitter smoke of wood;
And radiant raindrops couching in cool flowers;
And flowers themselves, that sway through sunny hours,
Dreaming of moths that drink them under the moon;
Then, the cool kindliness of sheets, that soon
Smooth away trouble; and the rough male kiss
Of blankets; grainy wood; live hair that is
Shining and free; blue-massing clouds; the keen
Unpassioned beauty of a great machine;
The benison of hot water; furs to touch;
The good smell of old clothes; and other such—
The comfortable smell of friendly fingers,
Hair’s fragrance, and the musty reek that lingers
About dead leaves and last year’s ferns….
Dear names,
And thousand others throng to me! Royal flames;
Sweet water’s dimpling laugh from tap or spring;
Holes in the ground; and voices that do sing:
Voices in laughter, too; and body’s pain,
Soon turned to peace; and the deep-panting train;
Firm sands; the little dulling edge of foam
That browns and dwindles as the wave goes home;
And washen stones, gay for an hour; the cold
Graveness of iron; moist black earthen mould;
Sleep; and high places; footprints in the dew;
And oaks; and brown horse-chestnuts, glossy-new;
And new-peeled sticks; and shining pools on grass;—
All these have been my loves. And these shall pass.
Whatever passes not, in the great hour,
Nor all my passion, all my prayers, have power
To hold them with me through the gate of Death.
They’ll play deserter, turn with the traitor breath,
Break the high bond we made, and sell Love’s trust
And sacramented covenant to the dust.
—Oh, never a doubt but, somewhere, I shall wake,
And give what’s left of love again, and make
New friends, now strangers….
But the best I’ve known,
Stays here, and changes, breaks, grows old, is blown
About the winds of the world, and fades from brains
Of living men, and dies.
Nothing remains.

O dear my loves, O faithless, once again
This one last gift I give: that after men
Shall know, and later lovers, far-removed
Praise you, “All these were lovely”; say, “He loved.”

Copyright © Jason Hook 2018