Finest: Deborah Harvey – “When Stanley Spencer didn’t marry my grandmother”

Deborah Harvey Finest

Credit: David Goodman

When Stanley Spencer didn’t marry my grandmother

After Spencer’s ‘The Apple Gatherers’ (1913), and the
murals of Beaufort Hospital in Sandham Memorial Chapel

Stanley and my grandmother, Hilda,
both working in a Bristol hospital for Tommies
wounded in the First World War

all beds and crutches and scrubbing brushes
that one day Stanley will paint on the walls
of Sandham Chapel

and that Hilda might talk about for a while
if you can catch her on her own
one rainy Wednesday afternoon

years into the future.
When I discover this concurrence
my mind spins for a moment Stanley? Hilda?

Did my grandmother get to know him,
could Stanley Spencer in another dimension
have married her?

But Stanley’s Hilda is in the Land Army
and yet to meet
her future unworthy

while Hilda Drewett will wed her Jack
and raise eleven children with him
between the wars.

And besides, it’s a different hospital
and Hilda will soon be hoicked out
by a mother

who doesn’t trust her daughter
and will put a stop to her seeing soldiers
injured or not.

But don’t tell me something of her
hasn’t somehow made its way into the painting
Apple Gatherers

the girl at the front with armfuls of fruit
turning away from the artist’s gaze
with the harvest

she’ll smuggle in her apron
past the Matron and onto the ward
and rushing to hide behind a curtain

accidentally let them roll
all over the crimson linoleum floor
that Orderly Stanley’s scrubbed until it’s squeaky clean.

“‘When Stanley Spencer didn’t marry my grandmother’ is a time-slippery poem, set in two Bristol hospitals for wounded soldiers during the first world war: namely, Beaufort Hospital (now Glenside), where the painter and conscientious objector, Stanley Spencer, was posted as an orderly; and Southmead Hospital, where my teenaged grandmother, Hilda Drewett, worked as a volunteer. It’s full of things that happened, and also things that didn’t; what we’re supposed to call counter-factuals these days, apparently.

“When I first learnt about Spencer being posted at Beaufort Hospital, I didn’t know which hospital my grandmother had volunteered in, and so entertained the fantasy that they might have met. Hilda was a free-spirited woman, always up to mischief, and I imagined she and our most controversial artist of the early and mid-20th century would have had a bit of a laugh together on the wards. One of my numerous aunts was able to disabuse me of this notion by pointing out that Hilda volunteered in Southmead hospital, which made sense as it was within walking distance of where she was living at the time. The longing for them to have met remained, however, and it was a small leap to picture them married in an alternate reality, especially since Spencer had married a Hilda (the artist, Hilda Carline) in real life.

“This poem is from my forthcoming collection, Learning Finity, which will be published by Indigo Dreams later this year.”

Deborah Harvey’s poems have been widely published in journals and anthologies, broadcast on BBC Radio 4’s Poetry Please, and awarded several major prizes, most recently the 2018 Plough Prize Short Poem Competition. Her four poetry collections, The Shadow Factory (2019), Breadcrumbs (2016), Map Reading for Beginners (2014), and Communion (2011) are all published by Indigo Dreams, while her historical novel, Dart (2013), appeared under their Tamar Books imprint. Her fifth collection, Learning Finity, will be published in 2021.

Deborah is co-director of The Leaping Word poetry consultancy, which provides support and advice to page and performance poets, groups, organisations, schools, universities, promoters and anyone interested in any aspect of poetry.

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