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Norwich writer tells of war poet’s love story

RupertBrooke450The long-lost story of a love affair of the famous ‘war poet’ Rupert Brooke, who had a great regard for Norfolk – and who tragically died at the age of 27 during World War I –  is now being written by a Norwich artist and author. Mike Wiltshire reports.

“The Second I saw You” is the provisional title of the new book, by Lorna Beckett whose book is based in part upon more than 100 love letters between Rupert Brooke and Phyllis Gardner, a gifted painter and the daughter of the eminent archaeologist, Ernest Gardner.
Phyllis’s early education was at a private school in East Anglia. Later, as a striking red-haired art student in London, Phyllis, then 21,   by chance first encountered Brooke, as she and her mother, Mary, were taking tea in the refreshment rooms at King’s Cross Station in November, 1911. 
Seven months later, the star-struck Phyllis encouraged her mother to invite the handsome Edwardian poet, then 24, to a lunch party in London – and so the young couple’s fiery friendship began.
The letters between Rupert and Phyllis, revealing the volatile affair, were locked away for 50 years in the British Library because of the sensitivity of the material.  Brooke also had many well-known friends.
Phyllis never married and died aged 48 in February 1939 of breast cancer.  Her 90-page memoir of the affair with Brooke was also among the sealed letters.
Generations of people around the world have heard the poignant words of the Brooke, the first of the war poets to die in the terrible conflict. 
His patriotic sonnet, ‘The Soldier’ was read from the pulpit of St Paul’s Cathedral in April, 1915. It opened with the famous lines:

If I should die, think only this of me;
That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England.

Brooke, the son of a Christian housemaster at Rugby School, was on holiday at the village of Cley-next-the-sea, on the North Norfolk coast on the very day that war was declared in August, 1914.   He had been invited to the Norfolk holiday home by Frances Cornford -  the painter and poet,  granddaughter  of the British naturalist Charles Darwin - and her husband Francis, also a poet and classics scholar.

Norwich-born Lorna, who is also an artist, admits she was “hooked” on the life story of Rupert Brooke since the age of 11.   Rupert Brooke loved the Norfolk Broads, says Lorna, who is not only a writer herself but also a freelance artist, and the chairman of the Norwich-based Rupert Brooke Society, which continues to attract worldwide interest, especially as this year is the centenary of the start of the Great War.
LornaBeckettThomas430Lorna, (pictured right with her young son, Thomas), is also the founder-chairman of the Friends of Thorpe Woodlands.
While on holiday in Norfolk, Brooke heard the grim news that war was declared with Germany.  He did not speak to his holiday hosts at Cley all day until Frances Cornford asked him: “But Rupert, you won't have to fight?” to which he replied gravely, “We shall all have to fight.”
A complex and passionate man, Rupert Brooke was among Britain’s most pre-eminent war poets and was praised along with such famous poets as Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen who was a committed Christian.
Owen won the Military Cross but was killed in action in the last week of the war in 1918.
Historians have noted the role that religious faith, traditional Christian values, ‘the justice of the conflict’ and intense patriotism played in Britain’s  response  to the Great War – supposedly, “the war to end all wars” in which as many as 17 million people  died.  Pope Benedict XV at the time called the horrific war “the suicide of Europe.”

Rupert Brookes’ popular pre-war poem, written while visiting Berlin in 1912, was the ‘The Old Vicarage, Grantchester,’ where he once lived.  The patriotic poem ends with the classic lines:

Stands the Church clock at ten to three?
And is there honey still for tea?

Frances Cornford, described the golden-haired Brooke as “a young Apollo.”   Among his many famous friends was Winston Churchill, as well the novelist E M Forster, the Irish poet W B Yeats, the writer Virginia Woolf and the poet Frances Cornford.  He also knew Hugh Dalton, the economist and politician.
Less than a year after that Norfolk holiday, Brookes was commissioned as a sub-lieutenant in the Navy, although his first wish was to be a war correspondent. 
Later, on a sea journey to Gallipoli, he was weakened by sunstroke and then fell ill with blood poisoning caused by an insect bite. Despite treatment on a hospital ship off the Greek island of Skyros, he died on St George’s Day on April 23, 1915 - and was buried there in an olive grove.
Several days later, Winston Churchill wrote in The Times that Rupert Brooke “was all that one would wish England’s noblest sons to be in the days when no sacrifice but the most precious is acceptable.”
In July, 1915, Phyllis Gardner was commissioned to paint a special panel in the Parish Room of a beautiful Norwich church, St Clement, Colgate, which dates back to Saxon times.
This year marks the start of the Great War in which an estimated 10 million military personnel and seven million civilians were killed, making it one of the deadliest conflicts of human history.  Around 20 million people were wounded.
For more on the Rupert Brook Society, based in Norwich, see the website www.rupertbrooke.com

Pictured top is war poet Rupert Brooke.

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