It’s not often you stumble upon a piece of writing by a key member of Tolkien’s school circle, the T.C.B.S. Today I am pleased as Punch to be able to present such a piece by G.B. Smith, to mark his 127th birthday.
Our memory of Smith is burdened with poignancy. He survived the entire five-month Battle of the Somme only to be hit by shrapnel from an exploding shell days after it the battle had finished and miles from the trenches. The wound was so light that he walked to the casualty clearing station. Three days later he was dead from an infection, gas gangrene.
His would seem just another of the innumerable futile deaths in that futile war but for the fact that it gave retrospective force to a letter he had sent Tolkien months earlier, telling him: ‘May God bless you, my dear John Ronald, and may you say the things I have tried to say long after I am not there to say them, if such be my lot.’ He was thinking of Tolkien’s invented mythology, of which Smith declared himself ‘a wild and wholehearted admirer’ – the first Middle-earth fan.
Smith certainly had a capacity for deep seriousness – seen all through A Spring Harvest, the volume of verse that Tolkien co-edited for publication in 1918.
But he was also a gifted humorist, parodist and joker – as the only identifiable photograph of him demonstrates. It shows him as the Ass in the 1913 school production of Aristophanes’ The Frogs (and a mildly embarrassing tale hangs thereto, which I will save for another blog post).
These lighter, brighter aspects of Smith meant much to his friends. It feels good and right to remember them. So it pleases me immensely to share this anonymous skit, published around the time of his 18th birthday in October 1912.
It is very funny, and that’s all I have to say on the matter. Well, nearly all.
I spotted the article when browsing the Chronicle, the newspaper produced by schoolboys at King Edward’s School in Birmingham. In fact I certainly saw it when reading through issues of the Chronicle for my research for Tolkien and the Great War about 20 years ago. But the piece is anonymous, and I did not linger long enough to see the evidence that it is by Smith.
There are two bits of evidence, one objective, the other subjective.
First, the piece, titled ‘Träumerei’ (‘Dream’, ‘Daydream‘ or ‘Reverie’), expresses the anxieties of the Secretary of the school’s Debating Society. It is in the October 1912 Chronicle, and the editorial that opens this issue tells us (p.62): ‘The Library and the Debating Society are this year in the hands of Barrowclough, the Debating Society in those of Smith. Both these societies have exceptionally brilliant programmes for this session, but the attendances at their meetings have, so far, been scarcely satisfactory, though we hope to see an improvement in this respect as time goes on.’ (Sidney Barrowclough was another T.C.B.S. member at this time, and so was the writer of the editorial, Ralph Stuart Payton.)
Second, the subjective evidence. In ‘Träumerei’ Smith imagines meeting several great figures of the past and seeking their advice. The first speaks the kind of language the young Tolkien also delighted in: an English stripped of Norman French influences. The last is George Bernard Shaw, leading debater of the era; as I note in Tolkien and the Great War (p.7), it tickled Smith that they shared the same initials. And another of the figures is Samuel Johnson, whose birthplace Smith visited with fellow TCBSite Robert Quilter Gilson on the last weekend the core four members ever met (September 1915). Here Smith displays his knack for 18th-century literary stylings. After another trip with Smith, to Bath, Gilson recalled that the pair had conversed mostly ‘in Johnsonian and Gibbonian periods. G.B. Smith composes excellent Gibbon.’ And excellent Johnson too, it seems.
So without further ado except to thank the Governors of the Schools of King Edward VI in Birmingham for permission to reproduce this piece, here is ‘Träumerei’ by G.B. Smith.