"We must love one another or die."
The poet W.H. Auden has been a source of comfort for many years. I discovered him at school, wrote my dissertation about him at University, and have returned to his works, poetry and prose, ever since. He angered many in the English establishment when he and then boyfriend Christopher Isherwood moved to New York shortly before the beginning of the Second World War, but there are worse sins. (Some say the muted British response to his centeniary this year harks back to his exile in New York).
In 1937, just before they volunteered in the Spanish Civil War, Auden and Isherwood took lodgings on the front at Dover with Alice Slaughter, where they wrote On the Frontier, the last of their joint plays. As drama the piece is not great, though in its subject, tyrant-industrialists creating wars to keep up the profits, seems very modern. Auden was very interested in frontiers and borders, and few still are more potent than the White Cliffs.
I’m standing on them now in the grounds of Dover Castle looking out to sea. A few hundred meters below me in the Charlton cemetery are the graves of my grandparents, William and Doris, my mother, Kathleen, and my younger brother, Jonathan, who died in 1964. In the old town itself I saw one of my first films, Help, with the Beatles; later in the park just by the Shakespeare Tea-shop I almost negotiated a first kiss with a girl named Mary Jane who aged 14 and wearing hot pants got engaged to a Prefect from a Grammar School in Folkestone.
At Kathleen’s funeral I read a version of Auden’s Dover, written here during his stay with Isherwood seventy years ago, two years before Britain went to war, and three years before the relentless three-month aerial dogfight above this town known as the “Battle of Britain”. (On September 11th 1940 over a hundred fighters, British and German, were downed in a single day). Please read it.
At the reception after the funeral a great uncle, an old childhood hero of mine as he had played rugby league for Castleford, up north, found me in the kitchen and told me he’d enjoyed the poem I had written. It was very accurate about modern Dover now, he said.
Chance, strange allusions, found things, love: these are the true ten Power-point plans to life, whatever INSEAD tells us. I lived in New York through 2001. Within a few days of September 11th a poem was buzzing around the web, being sent by email; posted on blogs; speaking to many. It was one of Auden’s most famous pieces, timeless suddenly – as Dover had been for me - and with a chilling imperative: “We must love one another or die.”