How I’ve helped to craft a Dickensian dystopia

An unexpected delight of the past year has been editing Kid: A History of the Future by Sebastian De Souza, better known as an actor in The Great, Normal People, The Borgias and Skins. The job went a long way beyond the usual copy-edit and was an absolute joy. Sebastian made some kind comments in his acknowledgements, which I share here.

‘Gargantuan thanks must go to John Garth who took that bowl of literary scrambled eggs and – as editor, brainstormer, and occasional co-writer – turned it into the three-course meal that you have just devoured. Without John’s wisdom and intelligence, his tireless work with me on the plot and his almost extraterrestrial attention to detail, it is unlikely that we would have published this book and, even if we had, it would have been a completely different story and nowhere near as good a read.’

Kid: A History of the Future is a novel set in London of 2078, a city left derelict and almost deserted thanks to climate catastrophe, pandemics, terrorism, and other factors. Chief among these is the lure of an easier, safer life in purpose-built homes where people can effectively live online in a massive virtual-reality universe called Perspecta. The megacorps behind Perspecta has become the dominating force on the planet, with only a tiny minority of dissidents determined to struggle on in the infinitely more challenging offline world – the real world.

As an author, Sebastian wears his heart on his sleeve; and this is a book with a passionate message about a real peril.

The life of these dissident Offliners in Soho is wonderfully evoked, and Sebastian has really hit the nail on the head by describing his book as a ‘Dickensian dystopia’. It’s also laden with nostalgia for the post-war era up to about now – the era the Offliners call the Golden Dusk, when people moved freely and made great music and had great fun together. All this was conceived before Covid 19 and turned out to be amazingly prescient of the pandemic year.

Upping the ante marvellously, he imagines what it would be like if someone from this future could send a message to us now. Protagonist Joshua ‘Kid’ Jones, a 17-year-old simmering with verve and angst, discovers he can communicate with the past – with 2021. There he makes contact with a 16-year-old schoolgirl, Isabel Parry, a tremendous brew of physics nerd and Kardashian fan who is equally troubled in her own way. A lot of fun is had with how each assumes the other is some kind of hoaxer … and when they get over that, things get even more interesting.

The book is marketed for a Young Adult audience, but really it’s for anyone who enjoys a vivid, exciting, intriguing page-turner set in the now and near future. I’ve been dipping into it again recently to put together the teasers and recaps for the audio series (currently being podcast every Sunday). I’m constantly pinching myself to realise I’ve been part of a story that’s so funny and touching and thrilling.

Sebastian is far too modest about his own work. In fact his dialogue is perfectly pitched and his eye is keen for scenery; he has a tremendous fluency for bringing these to life in engaging characters and vivid settings; and he has a gift for plot and scenario that beautifully mix the ordinary with the extraordinary. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he has a cinematic talent.

I’ve done what a good editor should, which is to make the book speak as clearly as possible. It was also fun working out some of the mechanics: synchronising different timelines, imagining a scifi method for communication between decades, compiling a glossary and character list, and sketching the maps to be redrawn by a professional artist.

Beyond all that, I ended up brainstorming problems with Sebastian, helping him to come up with creative solutions, and even making my own contributions to the writing.

That was the ultimate thrill. My own past attempts at fiction have foundered very quickly from a lack of sustainable plot and characters – or perhaps just because I haven’t had enough patience and self-belief. But with Kid, Sebastian had already come up with all of that. I discovered I could take his characters and situations and run with them – and thoroughly enjoy every minute of it. There were some intense discussions about particular ideas of mine, one or two of which ended up on the cutting room floor, but mostly (I’m delighted to say) Sebastian was enthusiastic. I think the end result is seamless – and I’m looking forward to helping on the sequel.

Meanwhile Kid: A History of the Future is available from your source of choice. Do give it a spin. You won’t regret it.

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The Worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien: The Places that Inspired Middle-earth

‘Magnificent. The commentary is great, really thoroughly researched; the pictures are stunning’ — Tom Shippey, author of The Road to Middle-earth and J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century

From world-renowned Tolkien expert John Garth comes the authoritative exploration of the real-world locations behind the legendarium, and the wider inspirations behind Middle-earth’s incomparably rich landscapes, realms, towers, and more.

Packed with insights and gorgeous images, including many artworks by Tolkien.

◼︎ Read an excerpt at LitHub.

◼︎ Unboxing video by John Garth with chapter-by-chapter comments.

◼︎ John Garth talks about The Worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien with the Prancing Pony Podcast, the Marion E. Wade Center for the study of Tolkien and others, AbeBooks’ Behind the Bookshelves podcast, and the German Tolkien Society (in English apart from the brief introduction).

◼︎ Available now or soon in English (UK and US), French, Russian, Czech, Spanish, Italian, Finnish, Hungarian, German, Chinese and Japanese (see below for links).

What readers and critics say

◼︎ ‘A fascinating, gorgeously illustrated and thought-provoking examination of the landscapes, cities and architecture that inspired Tolkien during his lifelong creation of Middle-earth. Garth, a journalist as well as a Tolkien scholar, proves an exceptional guide to Middle-earth … Masterful book.’ — Elizabeth Hand, Washington Post.

◼︎ ‘Magnificent. The commentary is great, really thoroughly researched; the pictures are stunning.’ — Tom Shippey, author of The Road to Middle-earth and J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century

◼︎ ‘John Garth is the leading Tolkien critic of the present generation as T.A. Shippey is in his. Garth … fills this new book with beautiful, opulent maps and photographs that animate the lush atmosphere of Tolkien’s real and conjured worlds and yield great visual pleasure. At the same time Garth provides deep access to Tolkien’s craft.’— Nicholas Birns, American Library Association’s Choice magazine.

◼︎ ‘If you love Tolkien’s work and want to know more about where it came from, this book is for you. And if you know anyone else who is, and does, their next birthday or Christmas present is sorted.’ — Mortal Engines author Philip Reeve.

◼︎ ‘From tree-woven lands to waterworlds, if you like Tolkien, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings then you need this book on your shelves. A beautiful tome, crammed with fantastic images & research beyond excellence … Landscape history meets literature.’ — Mary-Ann Ochota, broadcaster and authoer of Secret Britain: Unearthing Our Mysterious Past

◼︎ Masterful study … Each page illuminates with insights and dazzles with details.’ — Mike Foster, Mythlore.

◼︎ ‘This wonderful book is a collectable must … a scholarly work of art.’ — Weekend Sport.

◼︎ ‘Really is a fine achievement, wonderfully well supported by the gallery of illustrations and notes … There’s scarcely a page margin that I haven’t pencil marked, and I’ll certainly be revisiting the book. I’ve ended by learning a great deal and thoroughly enjoying myself.’ — Norse Myths author Kevin Crossley-Holland.

First published in 2020

UK: Frances Lincoln, 9 June
◼ Buy at Amazon, Blackwells, Hive

US: Princeton University Press, 9 June
◼ Buy at Amazon, Barnes & Noble

France: Hachette Heroes, 25 November
Les Mondes de Tolkien: Les lieux qui on inspiré la Tierre du Milieu

Translated by Xavier Hanart
︎ Buy at FNAC, Decitre, Amazon

Russia: AST, 27 November
Миры Дж. Р. Р. Толкина. Реальный мир легендарного Средиземья

Translated by Constantin Pirozhkov
︎ Buy at Book24

Published in 2021

Spain: Minotauro, 3 February
Los Mundos de J.R.R. Tolkien: Los Lugares que Inspiraron al Escritor
Translated by Martin Simonson
◼︎ Buy at PopularLibros, Amazon, Fnac

Germany: WBG, 4 February
Die Erfindung von Mittelerde: Was Tolkien zu Mordor, Bruchtal und Hobbingen inspirierte
Translated by Andreas Schiffmann
◼︎ Buy at KulturKaufhaus, Amazon

Czech Republic: Argo, 5 February
Světy J.R.R. Tolkiena: Místa, Která Inspirovala Středozem
Translated by Vít Penkala
◼︎ Buy at Kosmas, Martinus

Italy: Mondadori, 16 February
I Mondi di J.R.R. Tolkien: I luoghi che hanno inspirato la Terra di Mezzo
Translated by Stefanno Giorgianni
◼︎ Buy at IBS, Amazon, Libraccio

Finland: WSOY, 26 February
J.R.R. Tolkienin Maailmat: Näin syntyi Keski-Maa
Translated by Jaakko Kankaanpaa
◼︎ Buy at Adlibris, Akateeminen, Suomalainen

Hungary: Corvina, 26 February
Tolkien Világai: Középfölde Helyszíneinek Ihletői
Translated by Németh Anikó
◼︎ Buy at Libri

China: YoYoYo iDearBook, September (provisional date)
Translated by Joy Teng and Ecthelion

Japan: Hyoronsha, autumn 2021

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Ursula Le Guin, the language of Earthsea, and Tolkien

A tribute embedded in A Wizard of Earthsea?  

I used this question to introduce a social media post yesterday. Is should have waited until today, because this turns out to be the anniversary of Ursula Le Guin’s passing, a fact that I had overlooked. So now I seize the day in order to enlarge and refine my observation here, where it can more easily be found.

What happens if you want to translate the name of Ursula Le Guin’s world, Earthsea, into the Old Speech (or True Speech), the language of magic there? Let’s see…

Ursula Le Guin’s map of Earthsea, a primary piece of world-building by name-making

The word for ‘sea’ is easy. The Master Namer of the wizard isle of Roke tells it to our hero Ged: ‘We call the foam on waves sukien: that word is made from two words of the Old Speech, suk, feather, and inien, the sea. Feather of the sea is foam.’

‘Earth’ is a little trickier, but there’s a telling comment by the Master Hand, teaching Ged the lesser arts of Changing:

‘This is a rock; tolk in the True Speech,’ he said, looking mildly up at Ged now. ‘A bit of the stone of which Roke Isle is made, a little bit of the dry land on which men live.’

So the stuff of the earth is called tolk and the sea is called inien. Put them together. Elide the middle syllable as is done to produce sukien. What do you get?


This is just a guess, a hypothesis. But it’s rather pleasing, no?

What would it imply? Simply a tip of the hat from one world-builder to a predecessor? Rather more than that, I think. Le Guin (born 1929) once thanked her lucky stars that she hadn’t encountered Tolkien’s work when, as a child, she began writing her own stories, because if she had, ‘that achievement might have overwhelmed me’.[1] Instead she was able to begin forging her own path before it crossed his.

Ursula Le Guin

Nonetheless she paid her dues: ‘To create what Tolkien calls “a secondary universe” is to make a new world. A world where no voice has ever spoken before; where the act of speech is the act of creation. The only voice that speaks there is the creator’s voice. And every word counts.’[2]

The fact that I unwittingly tweeted this on the eve of the anniversary of Le Guin’s death serves as a reminder that coincidences happen. But it’s not as if I’m cherry-picking from a vast vocabulary. If I were, it would make coincidence much likelier.

Actually there’s very little of the Old or True Speech in the Earthsea sequence. As Le Guin said, ‘No use trying to make a lexicon of Hardic [the daily language of the archipelago] or of the True Speech; there’s not enough in the books. It’s not like Tolkien, who in one sense wrote The Lord of the Rings to give his invented languages somebody to speak them.’[3]

In Always Coming Home (1985), Le Guin refers to language invention as ‘what an illustrious predecessor referred to as the Secret Vice’.[4] She meant Tolkien, whose essay ‘A Secret Vice’ had recently been posthumously in The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays (1983).

All this should dispel any thought that Le Guin was casual (not the same thing as playful) about language invention. And her comments make clear she knew Tolkien was the master of that craft.

Tolkien in the 1930s

What better way to pay tribute than by inscribing it in the language – and in the language rules – of her invented world? Kris Swank gives it a modern spin by calling it an Easter egg. But what better way than to do it privately, secretly, like speaking a spell to the air?

The two conversations I’ve cited contain almost the only examples of Old Speech in A Wizard of Earthsea (1968). And yet they provide the bare essentials for construing that people in Earthsea would call Earthsea Tolkien.

Every word counts.

Tolk is mentioned repeatedly in the Earthsea books. It is the first word of the Old Speech mentioned in the stories; it is the first taught by Ged to Tenar in the second book, The Tombs of Atuan (1972; my favourite); and it is the first taught by Tenar to her adoptive daughter in the fourth book, Tehanu (1990). The thought that tolk resembled the name Tolkien struck me a long time ago (and I now hear that it has struck quite a few readers). But I construed nothing further from it. I did not see that it could directly point to Tolkien as a major part of the bedrock of inspiration for Earthsea.

In a foreword to Earthsea, Le Guin tops her list of inspirational dragons with ‘Smaug, magnificently’. Of The Lord of the Rings, she wrote, ‘I have no idea how many times I have read it myself. I reread a great deal, but have lost count only with Dickens, Tolstoy, and Tolkien.’[5]

Tolkien references go back to one of Le Guin’s first Earthsea stories, ‘The Rule of Names’, published in Fantastic magazine in 1964 before the books were conceived. There the dragon Yevaud is first introduced, like Frodo at Bree, as Mr Underhill.

The archipelago certainly includes other playful bits of nomenclature. ‘Three small islands,’ Le Guin said in the same account of the origins of Earthsea, ‘are named for my children, their baby-names; one gets a little jobial and irresponsible, given the freedom to create a world out of nothing.’[6]

There’s also the interesting question of whether Le Guin, in naming the westernmost isle of Earthsea Selidor, knew Tolkien’s observation that ‘most English-speaking people … will admit that cellar door is “beautiful”, especially if dissociated from its sense (and from its spelling).’ But as Nelson Goering has reminded me, that idea is peculiarly widespread in writing about phonaesthetics, and certainly predates Tolkien’s comment.

Of course, I can’t be certain that I’ve hit the bullseye with Tolkien = ‘Earthsea’, even though most reactions on Twitter and Facebook have been positive, with a few people enthusiastically declaring themselves convinced. (Nice to have my friend Michael Ward onside, whose book Planet Narnia advances an even more audacious hypothesis about C.S. Lewis’s hidden intentions!)

Don Standing reminds me that Le Guin’s world has a legend of the Creation of Éa, and Tolkien’s legendarium begins with the Creation of Eä. Barring the slight possibility that Le Guin heard the name in some unpublished letter from Tolkien, or heard it on the grapevine (the world of 1960s fantasy fandom was small but intense), this must be coincidence. Tolkien coined for his universe in 1951, but the name didn’t appear until 1977 with the posthumous publication of The Silmarillion. Le Guin’s Éa, an island not a universe, was coined in between.

Tolkien scholar Luke Shelton sounds the only real note of caution about Tolkien as the Earthsea name for ‘Earthsea’: ‘I like the idea behind this theory, and I so wish it to be true! Unfortunately, I don’t think it would hold up with Le Guin’s rules for language. If tolk is “rock”, then there is certainly a different word for earth. Just as each part of the ocean has its own true name.’

Yes, Ged is warned you can’t use inien ‘sea’ to command the whole sea because each bit of sea also has its own true name. As the Master Namer tells him in A Wizard of Earthsea, ‘So if some Mage-Seamaster were mad enough to try to lay a spell of storm or calm over all the ocean, his spell must say not only that word inien, but the name of every stretch and bit and part of the sea through all the Archipelago and all the Outer Reaches and beyond to where names cease.’

Nonetheless, inien still means ‘sea’, even if it can’t be used magically to command the sea as a whole.

Meanwhile, tolk is used for various specific rocks on Gont and Roke, but it seems reasonable to interpret the Master Hand as saying that it also means ‘the dry land on which men live’.

Actually, I believe have made one error in my original assertion. When the Master Namer derives sukien from suk and inien, he is illustrating to how the words of the Old Speech ‘lie hidden and changed among our Hardic words’. Hardic is the chief daily language of the archipelago, descended from but distinct from the Old Speech of creation and magic. Sukien is Hardic, and probably Le Guin meant the elision from suk+inien as an example of how the Old Speech is changed in Hardic. By that logic, Tolkien could be ‘Earthsea’ in Hardic, but probably not in the Old Speech.

I can’t claim any special insight into the workings of Le Guin’s mind. But I did once construe the unpublished birthdate of Colin Whisterfield in Alan Garner’s Boneland – and Garner told me I’d got it right.

If only I’d thought of Tolkien as Hardic for Earthsea by 2004! That’s when a mutual friend, the Tolkien scholar Marjorie Burns, kindly passed a copy of my book Tolkien and the Great War to Le Guin. I’d definitely have asked her if I was right.

I can imagine two responses: You found me out! Or How neat. I wish I’d actually thought of that!

[NOTE: I’ve made a couple of edits the morning after publishing this – adding dates for some publications, reference to Éa and , and mention of Michael Ward and Planet Narnia. I’ve also corrected my assertion, from memory, that the tolk and sukien passages contain the only samples of Old Speech in A Wizard of Earthsea (there are also a couple of untranslated charms, the untranslated ‘true names’ of characters, and the word kest ‘minnow’.)]

UPDATE, 25 January 2021. Julian Bradfield has pointed out to me that the tolkien observation has been made at least twice before, once in a 2015 blog post by Keith Miller about a talk given by Le Guin; and once in an online encyclopedia entry no later than 2005 (though this one just posits tolkien as a viable Earthsea word ‘presumably meaning “rock of the sea”’). Julian suspects the idea was in circulation before that too. I find a couple of further references, one on the TV Tropes website (no date) and one in a 2020 comment on a blog post by Sean Guynes. All this makes me even more intrigued to know whether Ursula Le Guin herself formulated the idea or heard of it and responded to it. I am grateful to Keith Miller for clarifying his blog post by stating in an email to me today, ‘Ursula didn’t mention it in the talk my wife and I attended.’

[1] ‘A Citizen of Mondath’ (1973), in Dreams Must Explain Themselves: The Selected Non-fiction of Ursula K. Le Guin (London: Gollancz, 2018).

[2] ‘From Elfland to Poughkeepsie’ (1973), in Dreams Must Explain Themselves.

[3] ‘Dreams Must Explain Themselves’ (1973). Thanks to Kris Swank for drawing my attention to this essay.

[4] Thanks go to Krzysztof Grzesik for pointing this out to me.

[5] ‘The Staring Eye (1974), in The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction (rev. ed. London: Women’s Press, 1989) 149.

[6] ‘Dreams Must Explain Themselves’.

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‘He lets us walk the road as JRRT walked it’: Neil Gaiman’s tribute to Christopher Tolkien

Christopher Tolkien by Charles Noad
Christopher Tolkien at the 1992 Tolkien Centenary Conference in Oxford (Photo: Charles Noad / Tolkien Society)

Today Christopher Tolkien, who died in January after a short illness, would have been 96. He is sorely missed, though it is a delight and consolation to know that at least one further volume of J.R.R. Tolkien’s writings, sanctioned by Christopher, will be published next summer: The Nature of Middle-earth, edited by Carl F. Hostetter.

When I wrote Christopher Tolkien’s obituary for the Guardian newspaper, I spoke to several people who had known him or worked closely with him – long, passionate conversations which helped to guide me in my writing even though there was only space to quote very selectively from them.

I also asked Neil Gaiman – a man who needs no introduction – for his comments. This is because in the foreword to The War of the Ring, volume 8 of The History of Middle-earth, Christopher Tolkien thanks him for identifying a reference made by J.R.R.T. From this, it was clear that Neil has been one of the most dedicated readers of Christopher’s extraordinary and meticulous study of the writings of his father, J.R.R. Tolkien. Again, I could use very little of this in the Guardian, but Neil has kindly given me permission to publish the comment in full.

Neil Gaiman
Neil Gaiman: ‘It feels like Christopher Tolkien lets us in to his father’s mind’ (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

‘It was in the days before email and the internet. I was a young writer — 27 when The Return of the Shadow came out, and I devoured it. And noticed Christopher Tolkien stating that he had no idea why his father mentioned “The Rhyme for Porringer” when talking about the scansion of ‘Eärendil was a Mariner’.

‘I happened to know. (It was relatively obscure, in those pre-google days, but I’d learned it from a James Branch Cabell short story.) So I wrote to Tolkien c/o the publisher, telling him the poem and its history,  and thought no more of it. He wrote a kind letter back, very happy to have the mystery cleared up. And two years later I opened my copy of The War of the Ring and was thrilled and surprised to find myself thanked in there.

‘Articulating why I find the History of Middle Earth interesting is difficult. I wonder what I would have thought if I’d read it as a boy, when reading and rereading The Lord of the Rings was the best thing in the world. I read it as an author, and I loved it as an author, because it feels like Christopher lets us in to his father’s mind: lets us walk the road as JRRT walked it, all the false starts and dead ends, all the changes of mind and the unstoppable relentless work that went on, that would give us LOTR. It’s like being allowed to see a small part of the underneath of the iceberg, or the roots of the tree.

‘Making that process palatable is difficult, making it interesting borders on the impossible, but Christopher managed it, and in doing it illuminates why Lord of the Rings felt so powerful. It’s the layers beneath, that it was built upon, that make it strong.’

My thanks go to Neil Gaiman for permission to reproduce these words.

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Tolkien’s last friend in Oxford when the world went to war

Colin Cullis and JRR Tolkien

Colin Cullis and J.R.R. Tolkien at Exeter College, Oxford, in 1912 (courtesy of L.L.H. Thompson, R.F. Thompson and H.D.L. Thompson)



‘Not a single man I know is up except Cullis,’ Tolkien lamented at the start of his final year as an Oxford student. It was 1914, war had just broken out, and their friends had left in droves to enlist in the army.

Cullis died one hundred years ago this month – not a victim of war, but as young as many who were. Outside my own books, nothing new has been written about him since Humphrey Carpenter published the snippet above in his 1977 biography of Tolkien. He is not one of the T.C.B.S. – the ‘immortal four’ who play a central role in my Tolkien and the Great War. Yet Cullis was a good friend to Tolkien, and he was one of the few people on hand in that final Oxford year when the Middle-earth legendarium first began taking shape in poetry and Elvish lexicons. A little more about Cullis may be found in my short book Tolkien at Exeter College (including some of the photographs and ephemera mentioned here), but it seems a timely moment to round up, and reflect upon, some of the other material I have gathered about him.

Colin Cullis in childhood

Colin Cullis was born on 28 March 1892 in Streatham, south London, the youngest of eight children (though he lost two siblings before he turned three). His mother Mary was approaching 40.

His father Thomas, secretary of the Surrey Guild commercial dock company, was ambitious for his sons and sent all three to the nearby public (i.e. fee-paying) school. Dulwich College also produced P.G. Wodehouse, inventor of Jeeves and Wooster; C.S. Forester of the swashbuckling Horatio Hornblower novels; and – just before Colin’s arrival – Raymond Chandler, creator of hard-boiled detective Philip Marlowe. Here from 1905, Colin excelled in French and, in his final year, edited The Alleynian, the school magazine. He was also a talented photographer, commended for ‘artistic feeling’ in one prize-giving and almost sweeping the board in another. Photographs of Colin himself show him as a golden boy.

In December 1910 he took the Oxford University entrance examination and was accepted by Exeter College to read Classics. The college ratified his £80 scholarship on the same day as Tolkien’s £60 open classical exhibition. Both young men appear in the college’s October 1911 photograph of the new intake.

Cullis, apparently more diligent in Classics than Tolkien, borrowed enthusiastically from the college library – tragedies by Aeschylus and Euripides, comedies by Aristophanes, poetry by Hesiod and Lucretius, oratory by Demosthenes and Cicero, philosophy by Plato, and history by Plutarch. His latter-day borrowings included The World of Homer by Andrew Lang, whose fairy books had fed the imaginations of their generation (including Tolkien); and Cults of the Greek States by Lewis Farnell. This last was a canny choice – Farnell was their classics tutor.

Mural of William Morris, Walthamstow, London

Mural of William Morris, Walthamstow, London

Cullis shared Tolkien’s enthusiasm for William Morris, the towering Victorian artist, poet, author, social polemicist and medieval revivalist. This was the place to follow in Morris’s footsteps – literally. Six decades earlier, Morris had been an Exeter College undergraduate himself. Here he had met Edward Burne-Jones and forged a friendship that laid the foundations of both Pre-Raphaelitism and the Arts and Crafts Movement.

From the library, Cullis borrowed books about Morris and by him. There was his poetry debut, The Defence of Guenevere; his translation of Virgil’s Aeneid and (in 1914) his verse epic The Story of Sigurd the Volsung. Arthuriana, the Aeneid and the Volsunga Saga had already made their mark on Tolkien’s imagination. Cullis took out Morris’s translation of the Odyssey of Homer in 1915 – just when his room-mate Tolkien was attempting to reimagine the lost Germanic legend of Eärendel, an Odysseus of the northern oceans.

Tolkien’s desire to recover the lost past chimed with an antiquarian streak in the Cullis family. John Brailsford, Colin’s nephew by a younger sister, would become Keeper of the Department of Prehistoric and Romano-British Antiquities at the British Museum. More extraordinary was Colin’s elder sister, who had studied at Somerville College, Oxford. Born Mildred Augusta in 1883, in 1915 she underwent baptism as Mary Ældrin Cullis. She appears to have called herself Ældrin – apparently a name concocted to sound Anglo-Saxon. I have seen an undated photograph that shows her grasping a spear and dressed as an Amazonian warrior.

Cullis also shared Tolkien’s taste for clubbable conversation – or perhaps exceeded it. Cullis followed him as president of the Apolausticks, an Exeter College club with a literary focus, founded by Tolkien early in 1912. Cullis also became secretary of the college’s Dialectical Society for philosophical debate, president of the Essay Club, and editor of the college’s Stapeldon Magazine.

Like Tolkien, in autumn 1912 he joined the newly revitalised Exeter College Essay Club. The following term, he delivered a paper on John Masefield, the future Poet Laureate, already famous for ‘Sea-Fever’:

I must down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.

Colin Cullis as a young man

Colin Cullis as a young man

As Mark Atherton has said, Masefield’s poem calls to mind ‘To the Sea! To the Sea! The white gulls are crying’ in The Lord of the Rings. When Tolkien gave a paper on the Catholic poet Francis Thompson, Cullis admitted he found Thompson’s religious imagery ‘rather overpowering at times’ and preferred ‘the simple poems of childhood’. Tolkien disagreed – to him, the simple poems and the complex ones were like complementary instruments in a great orchestra. It is probably the revival of the Essay Club that led to the demise of the literary-minded Apolausticks. In 1914, Cullis and Tolkien replaced that with a new club, the Chequers, with a more down-to-earth focus on convivial dinners.

Then there was the Stapeldon, the college debating society. Tolkien supported the equally conservative Cullis on motions that ‘This House deplores the signs of degeneracy in the present age’ and ‘The cheap “Cinema” is an engine of social corruption’.‡ Oxford’s first cinema, the Electric Theatre, had opened in 1910 and by the time of this debate (1914) it had acquired five more.

Yet Cullis found this ‘engine of social corruption’ a handy reference point when describing Tolkien’s writing. As Stapeldon secretary in December 1913, Tolkien had written a parodic account of the meeting that elected him president. At the next meeting, Cullis as new secretary read it out – the first public outing for Tolkien’s epic prose – and recorded that ‘the memory and imagination of the House [was] stirred by the cinematographically vivid minutes of the last meeting’.‡

When Cullis took over as Stapeldon president the following term, he was in for an unusually busy time – in June, the college marked its 600th anniversary. It must have been a relief to reach the sexcentenary dinner on 6 June 1914, when his only duties were to act as a steward and to give the formal reply when Tolkien toasted ‘the College Societies’. His and Tolkien’s signatures are on souvenir menus – among those of many who would not live much longer.

Exeter College by Simon Q via Flickr

Exeter College looking towards the dining hall (by Simon Q via Flickr)

For Cullis (as for the world at large) the froth of activity in June 1914 disguised a tragic malaise.

Like Tolkien, he had managed only a 2nd class in Honour Moderations, the mid-course exams in 1913. While Tolkien switched to the English course and found his academic groove, Cullis continued to read Classics. But as he was embarking upon deep study of Greek and Roman history and philosophy, he began to suffer from heart trouble.

When he failed his Divinity Mods – passages for translation from the Greek New Testament – in June 1913 and December 1914, the college blamed ill health. Cullis was excused from the university’s Officer Training Corps. On doctor’s orders, Cullis was excused from living within college for his final year.

So in October 1914, with war now raging, he took rooms with Tolkien at 59 St John Street, a terraced house round the corner from the Ashmolean Museum. In Oxford slang, they called it ‘the Johnner’. Presumably private lodgings were expected to be quieter and calmer, though one wonders if that is how it turned out. When Tolkien said that not a single man was ‘up’ except Cullis, he cannot have been counting friends outside Exeter. Until the end of the year, his T.C.B.S. friend Geoffrey Bache Smith hung on at Corpus Christi College, and Tolkien found others to socialise with too. For him, at least, life at the Johnner was ‘a delicious joy’ compared with college-bound existence.

Central Oxford, 1911

Central Oxford, 1911, with St John Street top left and Exeter College lower centre (Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland)


Cullis spent much of the last term away from Oxford, severely ill, and managed only a 3rd class in his final exams in June 1915. Tolkien dashed into the army, but Cullis failed the medical on repeated attempts. That he could not discharge his duty to his country (as three of his siblings did) was ‘to his never-ceasing regret’, in his mother’s words.† His eldest brother Henry took a furlough from the Indian Civil Service, enlisted with the Rifle Brigade, and was killed in action at Armentières, Northern France, in December 1915. Geoffrey, two years older than Colin, served as a captain in the Royal Engineers and then, until 1921, as a Railway Transport Officer in the Balkans. In 1916–17, Ældrin drove field ambulances in Salonika for the Girton and Newnham Hospital Unit, helping Serbian soldiers laid low by malaria and other sicknesses. (Awarded an MBE in 1920, she then vanishes from the record, apart from her arrival in New York in 1940 on the Scythia and her death as a retired tutor in 1968 in Kent, England.)

Colin found work in London as a temporary clerk, in the Foreign Office from March 1915 and in the Department of Foreign Trade from 1916. He showed keen interest and was offered a permanent job, but instead took a staff position at the Federation of British Industries at Crown Office Row, Inner Temple. He cannot have had an easy war. As a man of fighting age who was not doing his military duty, he would have been judged a shirker and coward. And there was his health. He would probably have been better off living with his parents, who had moved to salubrious Boscombe in Bournemouth on the South Coast.

The war ended in November 1918. Tolkien was officially demobilised on 16 July 1919. On Friday 18 July, central London streets began to fill with people securing their places for the huge victory parade the next day. ‘In Trafalgar-square, the Mall, and on the bridges,’ reported The Times, ‘there was not a position offering any possibility of a view … that was not taken by daybreak.’

Memoir of Colin Cullis by Mary Cullis

Part of a brief memoir of Colin Cullis, written for his mother Mary for Dulwich College

Cullis, who had been living just six minutes’ walk from Trafalgar Square at 15 Henrietta Street, Covent Garden, did not live to see the grand parade. On 4 July, he had left work ‘complaining only of a slight indisposition which he attributed to the old heart trouble’.† It was influenza. By 12 July, he had developed septic pneumonia. Even as his nation began this gathering to celebrate survival, Colin Cullis died at Henrietta Street, aged 27.

Family tradition held that Colin died of Spanish flu, his nephew’s widow Mary Brailsford told me in her old age. It is a natural assumption. In a tremendous recent history of the epidemic, Pale Rider, Laura Spinney calls it ‘the greatest tidal wave of death since the Black Death, perhaps in the whole of human history’, and estimates that in the two years from March 1918 it killed 50 million, possibly even twice that number.

But the ‘tidal wave’ circumnavigated the globe in three waves, and in the northern hemisphere the third is generally considered to have been over by May – two months before Cullis’s death. Laura has kindly given me her verdict: the July date means he is unlikely to have been a Spanish flu victim. Still, it is not cut and dried. ‘A pandemic doesn’t end abruptly,’ says Laura. ‘The pandemic strain just gradually mutates into a more benign form, so asking if he was a victim of the pandemic strain per se or a milder “daughter” strain is a little bit like asking how long is a piece of string. A strain closely resembling the Spanish flu one is still likely to have been his downfall.’


Sources: (courtesy of Pat Reynolds); Mark Atherton, There and Back Again: J.R.R. Tolkien and the Origins of The Hobbit (London: I.B. Tauris, 2012); Brailsford family (photographs of Colin Cullis); *Humphrey Carpenter, J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography; †Mary Cullis, handwritten obituary, and other papers from Dulwich College archives (with thanks to Calista Lucy); Colin Cullis’s death certificate; ‡Exeter College archives (with thanks to Penny Baker); London Gazette; E.S. McLaren, A History of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1919); Laura Spinney, Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World (London: Jonathan Cape, 2017); Stapeldon Magazine (Exeter College); Times Digital Archive.

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The perils of enchantment: Tolkien’s Lay of Aotrou and Itroun

The encounter between mortal man and immortal enchantress is always fateful in Tolkien’s Middle-earth. In The Lord of the Rings, for instance, Boromir fears the Elf-queen Galadriel and ignores her wisdom, then dies for his sins.

Tolkien: The Lay of Aotrou and ItrounThe Lay of Aotrou and Itroun, first written in 1930 and previously only published in 1945 in The Welsh Review, is entirely detached from Middle-earth.

But in this 506-line poem, running to the most unhobbity topics of sex, infertility and adultery, Tolkien furnishes just the kind of story that would have fuelled Boromir’s fear.

A man and woman find themselves still childless as the years grow long. In desperation, he obtains a love-potion from a corrigan, a kind of witch or water-fairy, and in this way a daughter and son, and bliss, are attained. But the price he must eventually pay proves dreadful, and his wife, barely comprehending, is drawn into the same doom.

Nothing could be further from the tale of Beren and Lúthien, the mortal-immortal love story at the heart of The Silmarillion, Tolkien’s Middle-earth mythology.

In that 1917 story, love overleaps racial barriers and overthrows prison walls. In the later Aotrou and Itroun, however, we taste the stern piety of the Christian medieval mind, which censured all contact with the fay-folk – remnants as they were of pre-Christian mythology.

That piety chimed with Tolkien’s strict Catholic views on marriage and, I suspect, his distrust of the new science that promised to overcome the failings of nature with eugenics and in vitro technology. Biologist J. B. S. Haldane and literary giant H. G. Wells were blithely predicting a scientifically modified future for humankind; Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World was just two years away.

A direct adaptation of old traditions, Aotrou and Itroun falls into the same non-Middle-earth category as Tolkien’s Finnish-based Story of Kullervo, his Germanic Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún and his British The Fall of Arthur.

The stories that inspired Tolkien in this instance came from Brittany, a little piece of mainland Europe where native Britons fled from the encroaching Anglo-Saxons.

The names Aotrou and Itroun simply mean “lord” and “lady” in Breton. But the poem helps us see how the Elves in Tolkien’s more famous works draw from Celtic wellsprings as well as the Old English ones we tend to think inspired him more.

The corrigan, whom Tolkien borrowed from Breton folklore, grants Aotrou’s wish, then seals his doom. But she leads us all the way to Galadriel herself, as editor Verlyn Flieger points out. Both the corrigan and the Elf-queen of Lothlórien are ageless enchantresses with long golden hair, a fountain, and a magical phial.

The moonlight falling clear and cold
her long hair lit; through comb of gold
she drew each lock, and down it fell
like the fountain falling in the dell.

But in the imagery of this poem there are foreshadowings, too, of the other memorable female Frodo encounters on his journey to Mordor – Shelob:

A witch there was, who webs could weave
to snare the heart and wits to reave,
who span dark spells with spider-craft…

Aotrou and Itroun was written in the era of Ezra Pound, W. H. Auden and modernism. Tolkien’s poem feels nearer to John Masefield (“I must go down to the sea again, to the lonely sea and the sky”), who was then poet laureate.

In fact, Pound and Auden each reworked Old English and Norse literature, too. Tolkien, setting out to ‘rekindle an old light’ rather than to ‘make it new’ (Pound’s misleading mantra), has a surer hand. His strategy here is not innovation but distillation.

The haunting Aotrou and Itroun joins a stream of posthumous publications, which now outnumber by more than three to one the books Tolkien saw published in his lifetime. (Christopher Tolkien, who edited almost all the other volumes, has been awarded a Bodley Medal for his work.)

Sceptics dismiss all this as barrel-scraping, but Tolkien left a wine cellar as well stocked as the Elvenking’s in The Hobbit. This latest barrel contains neither dwarf nor hobbit, but is worth broaching for its pale and chilly vintage.

The titular poem occupies just one sixth of this short book. There are also two earlier poems about the corrigan, the original 1930 ‘Aotrou and Itroun’, some beautiful facsimile pages in Tolkien’s hand, and a succinct set of notes.

But the brevity is apt. The cover, a 1914 painting by Tolkien of the Cornish coast, well suits the opening scene of ‘stony shores and stony caves’, from which it is a short step to the forested otherworld threshold.

The language, as we expect from him, is as time-worn as a runic engraving yet clear as a bell. The almost emblematic imagery – ash lance, black horse, green boughs – leaves the imagination free and untrammelled. Here in ancient Brittany, the natural year is a round of blessedness and bitterness. The holy and the unholy imbue everything. It is a world captured in stained glass.

  • The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun by J. R. R. Tolkien, edited by Verlyn Flieger. HarperCollins, 125 pages; £8.99 paperback, £16.99 hardback. This review first appeared in the Daily Telegraph on 16 November 2016. I present it here, slightly edited, to mark the paperback publication of The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun.
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Interlude with eels and whalebones

A whale's skeleton on the Atlantic ocean floor, picked clean four months after its death (BBC).

A whale’s skeleton on the Atlantic ocean floor, picked clean four months after its death (BBC).

A change is as good as a rest, they say. So here’s a poem.

I wrote it about 20 years ago, inspired by some personal crisis now half-forgotten, and by an old Chambers Cyclopaedia I’d picked up cheap in a charity shop. The science was probably out of date even when I wrote it. But I am inspired to haul it up from the depths after watching the BBC’s Blue Planet 2, which today (accompanied by the voice of David Attenborough) plunged into the ocean deeps. Among other, more beautiful scenes the programme featured a whale carcass drifting down to be feasted upon by idiot fish. Jaw-dropping, literally.

In the Abyss

Beneath light, where pressure smothers motion
and leaden miles of inspissating liquid
tower upon the backs of lice, the ocean
drops its dead among the pennatulids,

clamp-jawed eels, crinoidea, polyp masses,
huge octopods and prawns upon audacious
stilts, antennae reaching through molasses
like worms in the gut, blank, voracious.

After its pilgrimage around the world
(if it escapes the whaling fleet) the whale
rots to mulch here, its nerves in leagues uncoiled
for idiot fish to feast upon its deshabille.

This sliver between receding sky
and the deep, this urgent silvery brim
floats on its dying generations’ lye
below the nine-day plummet of the Seraphim,

morass and slough of half the globe.
All things slip down, disintegrate and scatter,
but in monastic silence monsters probe
preposterous on unseen legs the slew of matter.

© John Garth, 2017. No reproduction without permission.

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Tolkien the opera composer

Peter Gilliver

Peter Gilliver

A guest post by Peter Gilliver

No, not that Tolkien – though he was in fact a fairly close relative. I was intrigued to discover that Frederick Tolkien (1848–1939), first cousin once removed of JRRT, was a composer, with at least three operas to his name … and that one of those operas was premiered in Leeds during the time that JRRT was living and working there. I’d like to think that the name Tolkien was sufficiently unusual that someone seeing it on a poster in 1922 would have drawn the performance to the attention of his namesake in Leeds University’s English department. I have no evidence that this actually happened; but I thought I would write up the small collection of pieces of information that I’ve been able to accumulate about Frederick Tolkien, for the mild interest of fellow Tolkienians – and in case anyone can add to them.

Frederick Tolkien was born in Rugby in 1848, the son of Septimus Tolkien, who was the brother of JRRT’s paternal grandfather John Benjamin Tolkien. He married Margaret Fleming; the marriage produced at least two children; and he died at Eastbourne in 1939. By profession he was an industrial chemist, with at least one patent (for a kind of artificial rubber) to his name; but he also tried his hand at composing music. His output includes choral and orchestral music as well as opera. The compositions I know of are as follows:

  1. A substantial setting of the Te Deum in 1886 for solo voices, choir, and orchestra, written in honour of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee the following year.
  2. Another setting of the Te Deum written for the Diamond Jubilee a decade later.
  3. A three-act opera, Adela (1895).
  4. A one-act opera For Love (1898).
  5. A three-act opera Lola Descartes (1912).
  6. An orchestral tone poem Antony and Cleopatra (1915).

Of these compositions, the only ones which I know (or think I can be fairly sure) to have been performed are the operas Adela and Lola Descartes. The first of these was apparently premiered in Wigan in 1897; the second was staged at the Theatre Royal in Leeds, by the O’Mara Opera Company, on 20 November 1922. It also seems reasonably likely that the orchestral tone poem was the one billed as ‘Cleopatra (Tolkien)’ in a notice about an upcoming concert by the Dulwich Philharmonic Society which appeared in the Musical Times of 1 November 1923.

The Musical Opinion reviews Tolkien’s second Te Deum in September 1897

The Musical Opinion reviews Tolkien’s second Te Deum in September 1897

The publication of his 1886 Te Deum was noticed in several contemporary musical periodicals—in which newly published music was often reviewed irrespective of whether a performance had taken place (or was expected to do so)—and also in the general press. The Graphic of 24 July 1886 described it as ‘a thoroughly musicianly composition, much above the average of pièces de circonstance in general’. The Musical World of 22 May 1886 was rather less favourable, commenting acidly on the piece’s ‘uncertainty of tonality’ and its ‘plentiful crop of consecutive fifths’ (such things being regarded as the mark of an amateur); the reviewer suggested that, while familiar with Handel’s choral writing, the composer had not produced a very satisfactory imitation of his style, in which the ‘chromatic treatment … would have made the illustrious composer’s hair stand on end underneath his wig’.

The Musical Times of 1 August 1886 was not quite so harsh, but the efforts to find something to praise in the work are if anything more damning: ‘The composer has wasted his time and labour. His ideas of tonality are of the vaguest, and his part-writing shows a lamentable ignorance of the capacity of the human voice … although it is impossible to speak of Mr. Tolkien’s Te Deum as a musicianly achievement, it bears unmistakable traces of natural talent. Here and there impressive and beautiful phrases may be discovered, like oases in a desert, and encourage us to hope that with careful study the composer may produce something worthy of a hearing.’

The reception accorded Adela on its publication seems to have been a little more favourable. The Daily News (11 February 1896) described it as ‘a very good specimen’ of English opera, and praised ‘some very pretty songs and duets’ and ‘well written and effective’ choruses; the Stage (22 April 1897) observed that ‘the greater part of the music is, without doubt, excellent, but the libretto [written by Tolkien himself] is feeble and commonplace’. The Musical Standard (23 November 1895) commented more guardedly: ‘The music appears to have fair merit, yet it would be better to hear it performed before speaking definitely.’

In fact the opportunity to hear it performed came soon enough: the premiere took place on 14 April 1897, given by Neilson’s Opera Company. I don’t know how it was received in the local press, but the review in the London Era of 24 April 1897 called it ‘entertaining and meritorious’, singling out Marie Elster for her ‘charming’ performance in the title role, and Somers Grime as ‘excellent’ in the role of her lover Ricardo. (A brief recent assessment of the opera is given by Paul Rodmell in his Opera in the British Isles 1875–1918 (Routledge 2013): ‘Tolkien’s score is ambitious, and its structure influenced by Wagner and late Verdi.… The work lacks direction. Although securely tonal, there are some interesting harmonic devices but also some inept modulations.’ Rodmell comments that ‘virtually nothing is known’ of Tolkien himself.)

The one notice of Frederick Tolkien’s second setting of the Te Deum that I’ve been able to find – in Musical Opinion of September 1897 – suggests that his compositional technique has improved since the first: ‘the present [setting] seems to us to bear evidence of somewhat exceptional power.… It would, we think, be difficult to find finer modern examples of jubilant sacred utterance than the choruses, “Thou art the King of Glory, O Christ,” “Day by day,” and the final chorus.’ The work is ‘well worthy of figuring in the program of a musical festival, and eminently fitted to employ the resources at hand on such an occasion’.

Tantalizingly, however, I have not yet been able to find any contemporary reviews of the Leeds performance of the opera Lola Descartes in 1922. Perhaps someone with access to the Leeds papers can find something? (Rodmell’s 2013 study cited above merely mentions the Leeds premiere, without comment on the music or the performance.)

One might suppose the title character of Lola Descartes to be the wife of a famous French philosopher – leading one to imagine, as John Garth did when I first mentioned the opera, that it really ought to be part of a surreal trilogy with companion works called Desdemona Kant and Kitty Wittgenstein. Alas, Lola is instead an innkeeper’s daughter who falls in love with a king. From such characters are opera plots more usually constructed … more’s the pity.

Finally: as I was putting the finishing touches to this article, I discovered a tweet from British music enthusiast Mark Henegar, dating from 2015, to the effect that he had just finished ‘re-typesetting Frederick Tolkien’s tone poem “Antony and Cleopatra”’. Whether that brings a 21st-century performance of music by JRRT’s obscure cousin closer to reality, who knows?

Peter Gilliver is a senior lexicographer and Associate Editor at the Oxford English Dictionary. I recently interviewed him about magnum opus The Making of the Oxford English Dictionary. I’ve previously reviewed The Ring of Words: Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary, which he co-wrote with Jeremy Marshall and Edmund Weiner

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Win over £1,000/$1,000 worth of Tolkien books and help Oxford University preserve First World War history

I’ve donated five signed copies of Tolkien and the Great War to help raise money for this appeal. There are some substantially more valuable prizes too. It is only thanks to the personal letters and photographs preserved by various Great War veterans, by families and by museums that I was able to bring to life the experiences of Tolkien and his friends in the training camps and trenches of the war. If you can donate, please do. Whether you can or can’t, perhaps you will share this announcement:—

Oxford University is currently crowd-funding a project to run a mass-digitization initiative of publicly-held material from the First World War and as is well known the experiences JRR Tolkien underwent in 1916 in the Battle of the Somme had a profound effect on him and his writing. To assist with our major crowd-funding appeal we have been generously supported by Tolkien scholars and publishers, allowing us to present a prize draw opportunity to win three major publications amounting to over £1,000. Our sincerest thanks go to John Garth, Wiley/Blackwells, and Routledge for their help.

To enter the prize draw go to:

If you sponsor us by pledging £1 or more (or equivalent) you will be entered into a draw to win one of five copies signed by John Garth of his Tolkien and the Great War (pbk, HarperCollins, 2011 – RRP: £9.99; $12.00; €11.99).

If you sponsor us by pledging £5 or more (or equivalent) you will also be entered into a draw to win one of three copies of A Companion to JRR Tolkien (hbk, Wiley/Blackwells, 2014) signed by the editor (RRP: £125; $140; €150).

Finally, if you sponsor us by pledging £10 or more (or equivalent) you will also be entered into a draw to a full set set of JRR Tolkien: Critical Assessments of Major Writers (4 volumes, hbk, Routledge, 2017) signed by the editor (RRP: £900; $1,180; €930)

In addition to these chances of winning, you will also be helping to save and preserve important objects from the First World War which are in danger of being lost on a daily basis.

Please donate at:

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Gardening the corner of a foreign field

As the Commonwealth War Graves Commission marks its centenary, I recall a 2014 visit to Flanders and northern France when I spoke to the gardeners who keep the cemeteries pristine.

Inside the Menin Gate

With its postcards of poppies and memorials, its hotels and restaurants, its chocolateries and its 1914–18 bookshops, Ypres is proof that war is good for business. The Menin Gate stands uneasily on the edge of it all, its stone and its lawns immaculately maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Here, the Last Post can provide a moment of reflection – so long as you ignore the iPads raised to film it.

If the missing whom it commemorates could rise again, would they (in the words of Siegfried Sassoon) ‘deride this sepulchre of crime’? Or would they feel the Menin Gate’s austere dignity is better than the triumphal monuments of previous wars – better than no memorial at all?

The manicured war cemeteries beg the same questions. The war writer Edmund Blunden felt such peaceful landscapes in France and Flanders ‘would have appeared sheer fantasy’ to the trench soldier. So who is all this meticulous planting and maintenance for?

Tyne Cot Cemetery, near Zonnebeke, on the former Ypres Salient

The Commission’s gardeners take different views. Asked whether the dead care, Mark Heaysman, 54, says: ‘I think they do. In a way you’re giving them a service.’

Retired colleague Billy Jones, 65, is practical. ‘It’s for the families, the living. They can come here and look at the grave; it’s a beautiful setting. Can you imagine if you come, the headstone’s dirty, the grass is up to your kneecap and there’s no plants there, only weeds?’

The cemeteries would surely have consoled those who lost loved ones in the Great War. Seeking out the Somme grave of Robert Quilter Gilson (friend to JRR Tolkien in his ‘TCBS’ fellowship) his sweetheart Estelle King wrote to the Gilson family in 1919 about the small battlefield cemetery of wooden crosses she found:

‘They are going to put up marble stones, for which I am sorry but I expect it is best.

‘There will then be 18 inches for flowers and the grave will be covered with grass. I am asking to have a rose tree put, because I think it may last, and there is a young Englishman here who has said he will see to it. I think it will not make it conspicuous. It is just what I like. So quiet in a little less desolate part of this poor torn country.’

She also noted: ‘One or two graves were dressed up and somehow I resented it. Or no – felt it a pity.’ She was expressing an egalitarian view which was quickly becoming a matter of policy, and one today’s gardeners back to the hilt.

Previously, wealthier families would have had their own dead brought home for burial, leaving the rest dotted among overseas civilian plots going to seed. But the Commission has treated all graves with equal honour, regardless of rank. The focus falls on the man, lying where he died alongside those who died beside him.

The same principle of equal treatment applies on national, religious and cultural differences. Though much of the planting is in the style of an English country garden, this is not ‘some corner of a foreign field that is forever England’, in Rupert Brooke’s famous words: it is British and Commonwealth, and maple may be planted where significant numbers of Canadians are buried, or hebe for the ANZACs.

At Bedford House Cemetery near Ypres, I am shown a line of headstones with Arabic or Hindi inscriptions, commemorating men from India. At Faubourg d’Amiens Cemetery in France, small white stones have been placed on one headstone by Jewish custom. Until the time comes to spray against lichen and algae, these will stay unless they are discolouring the headstone.

In all the cemeteries, a general sequence of plant types repeats every fourth headstone. It includes eyecatching ‘spot plants’ such as roses. Low ‘splash plants’ such as phlox and campanula protect from mud spatters but do not obscure the inscriptions. Seasonal plantings ensure colour most of the year. Despite their symbolism, poppies – which propagate wildly – are not included.

Gardeners discourage DIY plantings. ‘If somebody puts in a plant, we’ll try and leave that plant as long as possible,’ says Billy Jones. ‘But some people will come and try and plant an oak tree in front of an headstone – we do have to remove that!’

The equality of care may be the key to why the cemeteries draw reverence from military families and pacifists alike. ‘Still the British clip and mow and prune as assiduously as if the cemeteries were the palace gardens themselves,’ architect Paul Shepheard has written. ‘If you have ever wondered how it is possible to commemorate the dead without glorifying the war, they have discovered it.’

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission, set up early in the war by a Red Cross unit commander and given a royal charter in 1917, now maintains 23,000 cemeteries or memorials across 153 countries. They include Brookwood in Surrey, where men who died of wounds in London hospitals would be sent on the midnight train so the public would not see. The latest is at Fromelles (Pheasant Wood) in France, built for 250 British and Australian dead whose remains were only discovered in 2009. In all, 1.7million servicemen and women from both world wars are interred in its cemeteries or commemorated on its monuments.

When I point out that their job does not seem especially cheery, the gardeners laugh. ‘Well, are we miserable?’ says Billy Jones. Does he ever try to visualise what it was like for the soldiers? ‘Yes, when it’s raining very hard.’ But it is a joke with a serious undertone. ‘What they talked about was mud – standing on duckboards because if you stepped off them you’d drown in the mud.’

At Berks Extension Cemetery near Messines, site of a colossal battle in 1917, gardener Hugh Stewart recalls arriving from Dunbar at 22, half a lifetime ago: ‘There were 11,000 dead in the first cemetery where I worked, and some of them were a lot younger than me – 15 or 16 years old. It was moving, and I was quite shocked. You get used to it.’

The men six feet beneath might have understood. High standards and esprit de corps are the key for gardeners, as for many soldiers. Doug Sainsbury, 54, started his career gardening Wirral recreation grounds, and would sometimes be seconded to clean up civilian cemeteries. ‘That’s the last thing I’d want to do,’ he says.

‘But this is a high horticultural standard, very efficiently and professionally maintained. I’m part of 900 gardeners on the War Graves Commission worldwide. Nobody else in the world has a gardening crew like that these days. Is there anything depressing about this site? At the end of the day you look over the gate and you think, “Wow! It was worth coming.”’

Tyne Cot near Ypres takes the breath away. Within a horseshoe perimeter wall inscribed with the names of men with no known grave, the white gravestones extend seemingly forever. There are 12,000, including more than 8,300 marking bodies never identified. This, the Commission’s biggest single cemetery, is an iconic site.

In fact, that is its official designation, determining the amount of attention it must get. A team works all year round to keep the grass mown, borders edged, flowers flourishing. Pascal Wostyn, the Belgian in charge, has to factor in interruptions from regular ceremonies, from the bigger centenary events, and from filming, as well as from new interments. The gardeners – the real public relations face of the Commission – also field regular questions about the six VCs buried here.

For the Great War centenary, the number of ‘iconic sites’ is growing – even while the number of gardeners is falling. Doug Sainsbury is uneasy about this official ranking of cemeteries. ‘It’s a bit strange for me because all my career has been spent on giving everybody the same treatment.’

Of the sites we visit, Gourock Trench Cemetery near Arras is most likely to suffer. The small walled plot in the middle of an industrial area has 44 graves. Somehow the mobile team of gardeners responsible for this and other sites will have to keep up standards while time and funds are diverted towards the big iconic ones.

American and German policies on burial avoided such problems: both would remove their dead from battlefield sites to gather them in big, concentrated cemeteries. But this stretches or severs the link with the battlesite – such a powerful trigger for deep reflection by visitors to the Commonwealth graves.


For bikers, it’s motorcycle marques. For the gardeners of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, it’s lawnmowers. The brand names John Deere, Husqvarna, Honda and Walker trip off their tongues. Likewise the various chemical treatments against insect and lichen. They compare the rose species with even deeper passion: Super Trouper, Rotilia, Trumpeter, Fellowship.

At Bedford House Cemetery, recently retired Billy Jones shows off the system which uses largely natural processes to create compost for all the Belgian sites and incidentally feeds a small on-site lake teeming with fish and other life. ‘For the frogs this is like the Hilton Hotel,’ he says.

The gardeners face perennial challenges. The Belgian rain and the clay soil are the same combination that put a curse on Passchendaele. The biggest cemeteries, Tyne Cot and Lijssenthoek, are located precisely where the soil is wettest – a telling sign of the fatal role played by the mud in the First World War. The gardeners’ work can be impossible when the borders flood.

At least here bones do not tend to emerge from the ground, which they sometimes do in sandier coastal areas. ‘Mostly soldiers are buried deep – in blankets tied with wire, though the Canadians and Americans had coffin burials,’ says Billy Jones.

Alarmingly, live munitions are still found on the old battlefields – and therefore also in the cemeteries, especially during periodic re-levellings of the ground. At Bedford House the composter had a close encounter, as Billy recalls. ‘He’s got a machine that actually shreds the soil – hammers it. What came flying out? A hand grenade.’ At least if the British Mills bomb had exploded, its fragments would not have penetrated the machine’s thick metal.

A shell might have been a different matter. ‘If you see the head still on a shell, run in the opposite direction,’ says Billy, an ex-Army man. He tells how two construction workers were killed and two more injured in Ypres when a First World War shell exploded in March. Rumour has it they had been hammering at it to salvage the brass. Mercifully for the other workers – and for the neighbours – it was not mustard gas.

Billy tells of one tourist who found a battlefield shell, put it in his suitcase and went to carry it onto the Eurostar, where it was caught in the X-ray. It was still primed. ‘A lot of civilian people think, “It’s a shell, it’s old, it won’t explode,’ he says. ‘But even a hundred years later, they will go off.’

No gardeners have been injured by explosives. Infrequently, there have been falls from the backs of van and fingers caught in mole traps, but the Commission seems responsive.

One recurrent challenge for gardeners used to be that the Commission would transfer them to another site, perhaps in another country, with just six weeks’ notice. It was like being in the military, except the Commission provided no housing and little help with reorientation.

Derek Richardson, who arrived from Dublin with his wife, spent three years in Belgium, eleven in France, then nine in Germany, and has now been back in Belgium for three years. He says: ‘Sometimes you’re quite happy where you are. If it’s a change of country, it’s a big change – language, culture, education for your children, et cetera.’ Billy Jones puts in: ‘I think we had a higher divorce rate than the Army.’ Now only those who apply are relocated.

Under the current drive for efficiency, the big issue for the gardeners is stress. Innovations such as mulching – where the mowers leave the cut grass lying rather than taking it away – may not save the time promised by managers. Meanwhile staff numbers are being allowed to fall, with no one replacing gardeners who leave, and no extra hands in emergencies anymore. When I see a mower in action, I am astonished: he could qualify for Le Mans.

Visitors rarely see mowing in progress, and the cemeteries seem to be kept pristine by magic. The illusion is down to the sheer scale of the job. One mobile team of 12 (previously 14) may have to maintain more than 60 sites, and speed is essential. ‘It’s carefully calculated,’ says Doug Sainsbury. ‘We go there for a purpose, we complete it and then we move on to the next site.’

The original workforce included many demobbed soldiers who saw a purpose in honouring their fallen comrades, and most were British. Sons would follow them into the profession.

But now Britons are a dwindling minority. When they leave they are replaced by locals recruited straight from school, factory or dole. ‘Gardening in Belgium tends to be low-rated,’ says Mark.

Bedford Park Cemetery

A bigger issue is raised by Chris Kaufman, former Unite national secretary for agricultural workers. ‘The gardeners are not just horticulturalists – they are social workers, because people come to the cemeteries and they are suddenly hit by the enormity of it all. They come to find their old relations and they suddenly find they were 17 years old when they were killed.’

It’s a down-to-earth variation on a theme voiced by Rudyard Kipling – the man who advised the Commission on its headstone inscriptions – in a story called ‘The Gardener’, in which the man seen tending the graves at the end is clearly meant to be understood as Christ. The gardeners have always stood for far more than the practical sum of their work.

As Chris Kaufman points out, even while the numbers of British gardeners fall, visits from Britain to the cemeteries are increasing, thanks to the Channel Tunnel, programmes like Who Do You Think You Are? and the war centenary.

Will the work and workforce be reduced and the cemeteries run down after 2018? That is an anxiety. But the gardeners are confident the Commission’s work will go on, even though the most recent figures put the annual cost above £55million – more than three quarters of it from the British Treasury.

As Mark Heaysman says, ‘Which government is going to turn round and say, “We’re not going to look after the war dead anymore”?’


All photographs © John Garth. Lines from a letter from Estelle King are reproduced with permission of Julia Margretts. This is an edited version of an article written for Unite the Union, and is also reproduced by permission.

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