Friday, October 24, 2008

Why writing is in my blood

Willow's 'Fourth of fourth' meme unexpectedly turfed up two pictures of my late grandfather Edward Grimson Colgan who, as far as I am aware, was the first person in my family to feel the urge to put pen to paper. I can't be sure of this of course; while we have managed to trace the Colgans back several hundred years, scant personal writings remain. But Edward - Ted to everyone who knew him - left behind a number of notebooks full of his poetry. Plus, I have my memories of the man. I owe him much.

Ted in 1937
He would have been the first to admit that he was no Byron or Eliot. In fact, he often compared himself to the infamous William Topaz McGonagall (see here). But his poems had a gentle naivete to them and I remember reading them when I was younger. His war poems are by far the best and when he read them to us, we would listen while toying with pieces of shrapnel he'd kept as memento mori. Invariably there would be some gory story attached to each piece ('Oh, and that piece went straight through the bosun's neck!') but how true any of them were is a matter of some debate.* Grandad's war poems chart his Naval career pretty much from start to end. Here's an example. It's undated but was probably written around 1943:
The Little Ships (Tally Ho!)

There’s a deathly still on the ship tonight
As we steam along in the waning light
The watch below are fast asleep
The watch on deck their vigil keep

And as we step on Twelve Patrol
Echoes are seen on the radar scroll
“Action stations!” There is a flash
As star shells leave the gun with a crash

Lighting up the battle scene
Germany E boats abaft the beam
“Starboard thirty!” the captain yells
The battle to our MTB’s fell

Crashing past at thirty knots
“Tally ho!” as we raise our hats
Through the darkness guns display
Tracers, only death to convey
Just as quick as it began
The raiders scatter like grains of sand
On the news next day it was read again
Enemy forces scattered in the shipping lane.

1943, Boston, Mass.

Apart from his war poems, Grandad also wrote passionately about Cornwall, particularly his beloved home town of Looe. He bemoaned the constant denuding of the countryside for house building and business premises. He also felt great sorrow for the fishermen of the town. Looe was once a thriving port and many of the fishermen he knew were relatives or close friends and many had seen service at sea in the Navy during wartime. By the end of the war, the fishing industry was already in decline. Within 20 years it was almost non-existent. Here's a typical Ted Colgan lament for Looe :

Came Disillusionment

Motoring down to lovely Looe
Mindful there to find
A peaceful and enchanting scene
A picture in my mind

As I approached along the road
Through miles and miles of greenery
A sight that I shall ne’er forget
A massacre of scenery.

There before me stark and bare
The height of desecration
Those lovely woods once proud and tall
Lay ‘round in degradation

There across the river bank
Also very still
Stumps and trees from a woodman’s axe
It was a sight to chill

A hunter's hut so forlorn
Tho' long since been buried
Now bared for all the world to see
Where once the hunter tarried

O! nature cruel more often kind
Lets swards grow profusely
Hide from me this ugly scene
That man scarred so loosely
Motoring on with heavy heart
Until I reach the town
And there the view across the bay
I quickly lost my frown

It's perhaps no real surprise that my late father grew up with a love of poetry, art and writing of all kinds. He too became a champion of all things Cornish, often published in magazines and newspapers. And he, in turn, passed the baton on to me.

The last photo I ever took of Grandad in 1996 aged 85, a few months before he died

Ted Colgan survived the war despite the sinking of one of his ships in a Norwegian fjord. He trod water for nearly an hour in freezing conditions and suffered with his health for many years as the result. He took part in the D-Day landings, saw many of his closest friends killed and outlived his wife Marjorie and all of his sons, my father included. But throughout his long and eventful life he never stopped writing.

I fully intend to do the same.

So far so good.

*I have one piece of shrapnel that Grandad would always insist was embedded in the side of my infant father's pram during the blitz on the dockyards at Plymouth (where he was stationed at the time). Extraordinarily, this most outrageous of stories turned out to be true. My dad's pram was hit by shrapnel during an air-raid and, in fear for her life, my Nan sought shelter in an underground cellar. The building later collapsed and she and others who'd had the same idea found themselves trapped for several hours. My father, who at this time was just a few months old, was not yet christened so my Nan, believing that they were possibly going to die and discovering that one of her fellow shelterers was a priest, asked that an impromptu baptism took place underground. The other people in the shelter became my dad's godparents. Isn't that an amazing story? And completely true.


willow said...

Wow! How fortunate the little meme inspired this wonderful tribute to your grandfather. The photos and poems are a treasure. I especially like the second piece. You are doing a worthy job with the baton passed along to you. He would be so proud.

Stevyn Colgan said...

Willow - And thanks for inspiring it. I did also remember you saying some months back that I should post some of the poems. Better late than never. x

Protege said...

It is important to hold onto memories of the past, as they remind us of who we are.
As my parents emigrated when I was a child, they had to leave most of their memorabilia behind and I often miss to have something, like old photographs to look at and to remind me of my roots.
Very nice post Stevyn, brilliant poetry as well.

Stevyn Colgan said...

Protege - That is a shame for you. I am lucky to have an almost complete record of my family history - at least back to the 1700s. We can go back further but the links are sometimes broken or guessed-at due to a lack of written evidence.

Ted would have enjoyed your kind words as, like most writers, he devoured praise and got great satisfaction from people enjoying his work. He had a number of poems published towards the end of his life. And he never stopped writing; his poems cover everything from decimalisation of currency to Sir Francis Chichester's single-handedly sailing around the world to the Moon landings.

Poetry has eluded me although I do write song lyrics and the occasional comic poem. I just don't share that particular Muse, sadly.

Debby said...

I think that it's just wonderful that your family saves it's history. Does your family still contribute to the history, making it an ever growing record? Just curious how that worked. It is great that you have this history at your fingertips. Riveting stories from bleak times.

Stevyn Colgan said...

Hi Debby - Yes we still do, sort of. My father spent over ten years researching the family tree and he passed that research on to my brother Simon who maintains it and continues the research. He also has gathered in the medals and historical documents associated with my grandparents as they passed on. I, meanwhile, have stockpiled and preserved the various personal effects like diaries, letters and photographs. And as I have kept fairly detailed diaries and notebooks (and blogs), in time my contribution to the family history will be passed on. The only question is to whom? mY kids are all great kids but they're also young, in their twenties, and have no interest in geneology at this time. So we'll see.

Debby said...

Just make sure you live 30+ years. They'll eventually outgrow their twenties and who knows what they'll become interested in. Maybe even their own roots.

Stevyn Colgan said...

Debby - Kids will be kids. To them being 40 is near the end of life!

Katie said...

thank you for sharing this! I see where some of your talent came. and what an interesting life your grandfather led. great poems!

Stevyn Colgan said...

Katie - I enjoyed telling the stories. Just be thankful I spared you some of his dodgier poems.