Life’s Reconditioning

In the spring of life
I explored the peaks,
The swelling hills and cols
Whose lower slopes are clothed
In mossy herbage.

Now with autumn in my bones
A sweeter empathy I feel
Among more gentle wolds and dells
Where soul and body intertwine
In mutual joy and ecstasy.

Harry Wells


Herr Bauer’s Holiday

Devil's Footprint

Herr Bauer’s Holiday is about two people who, by force of circumstance, were obliged to be far apart and to keep silent over decades in ignorance of each other’s continued existence.
However, good fortune brings them together in a way the relationship might be reborn.
It is a work of fiction sprinkled with some events in my life mentioned in the prologue below.

There is a town called Oisterwijk in Noord Brabant, a region of the Netherlands. It was occupied along with the rest of Holland in 1940 after the Germans bombed Rotterdam. The catholic convent, Catharinenberg, is still there in Poirterstraat and during the occupation it was used by the German army as a field dressing station and medical supplies depot. The Leather Factory was commandeered by the Germans from the Jewish owners, Adler and Oppenheimer, for use as the Wehrmacht Food Office, called by its acronym, WVA.
Stationstraat, Dorpstraat and Kerkstraat are streets in the centre of Oisterwijk. I remember Oisterwijk fairly well as I was seconded there for a couple of months during my days in the Royal Air Force in Germany.
The Frauenkirche, Our Lady’s Church, in Munich, is one of the largest catholic cathedrals in Bavaria. There is a legend that when the Frauenkirche was being built in the 14th century the devil made a contract with the master mason. He would not blight the church so long as there were no windows in it. He stood on one leg to watch the building take shape. The mason cheated the devil, hiding the windows by cleverly placing columns along the sight line from where the devil watched. When the devil found out about the deception he disappeared in a plume of flame leaving a burning footmark in the tile where he had stood. This can be seen today and is known as the Devil’s Footprint. I used the name of my Dutch friend, Albert de Groot, for the hotel but all other names of characters are imaginary.
Herr Bauer’s views on religion reflect my own.

Herr Bauer’s Holiday
Lorenz Bauer had always promised himself a holiday if his father should die. A more than modest inheritance in the old boy’s will was now enabling him to take it.

He alighted from the train at Station Oisterwijk in Brabant, Southern Holland and reminded himself that this was to be a holiday in pursuit of nostalgia not penitence. ‘Just history chasing’, he called it. It wasn’t as if he had a lot on his conscience about the war days anyway. He’d just been an ordinary soldier, a Wehrmacht corporal driver in the Transportkorps attached to the Wehrmacht Verpegungs Amt, the Headquarters of the Army Food Office in Oisterwijk.
‘I neither killed nor maimed’, he often told himself though sometimes he felt that he might be guilty of having abetted those who did because of his role in supplying and feeding them. But ‘befehle ist befehle’ was his watchword. ‘Orders is orders’, to use the common military colloquialism.

As he walked down Stationstraat towards Dorpstraat he knew he shouldn’t expect to be familiar with the town after all these years but he was surprised at the extent to which the town centre had changed. This would be the result of post war reconstruction made necessary by the allied air raids. However he found the Hotel Albert de Groote in Dorpstraat had resolutely withstood the bombs though not a change in ownership. There had been just a few superficial changes to the exterior and the place gave him its old feeling of physical and mental comfort living beside the sad knowledge that old Moshe, whose hotel it was, must surely have perished in the holocaust and his daughter Rachel with him.

The hotel lobby had that redolence so typical of hotels in Brabant, an ambient aroma of cigars and gin. The reception desk was unattended when he arrived. He thumped the brass bell for attention and within seconds the manager bustled in. ‘Ah, good morning, Herr Bauer. I’m sorry. You’ve caught us on a change of shift, the afternoon receptionist hasn’t got here yet’, he said. He examined Bauer’s passport very carefully, flicking through every page and thought ‘Here’s another Bosche soldier come to glory in his military misdeeds’.

‘I am Jan Deboik, the manager. Did you have a good journey?’ and without waiting for an answer he went on ‘Your room is number twelve on the first floor and here is your key. I hope you will be comfortable. Please let me know if you have any problems. Dinner is at seven’. Bauer thought Mynheer Deboik had been rather cool with him.

After a shower and a change of clothing Bauer went downstairs to speak to the manager. He noticed that the receptionist was now on duty in the shape of a young man whose appearance struck Lorenz forcibly. Tall, with blonde hair he looked the archetypal Aryan; a member, Bauer thought, a little ashamedly, of the Herrenvolk. But then, everybody knew that the Dutch were a superior racial type to the rest of Europe excepting only the Germans. Even the Reich hadn’t wished to alienate the Dutch too far. Some father must be very proud of such a son.

Brooding on his own childless state he thought of Ulle, unhappy Ulle, he used to call her, his protestant wife of two years. After his disgrace in Oisterwijk and his repatriation to Germany during the war Bauer met Ulle on the rebound after Rachel and contracted a marriage that made them mutually unhappy without there being any throwing of knives at each other. Their union started on the crest of a wave that receded leaving too many incompatibilities on the matrimonial shore.

Bauer, the good catholic even if a lapsed one, wanted children and thought he had a duty to be a father. Ulle said, ‘Times times are too uncertain to bring up a child.’ He didn’t blame her and he never saw her again after she went to live with her sister in Berlin. He didn’t blame himself either and the divorce gave him no problems. He cynically reminded himself that Catholics don’t mind divorce. It’s remarriage that brings the threat of burning and in any case he didn’t want to start any new liaisons.

Failing sight ran in the family; Bauer himself was at that time already beginning to show the early symptoms. His father’s blindness had been increasing. He had known that he would be fully occupied in looking after his old man as time went by. He would have no time to seek a new wife.

As Bauer sat in his hotel room reminiscing about the old days in Oisterwijk, he knew that he must go and see the old leather works, the huge building requisitioned by the Reich where he worked at his post with the army food office and where he had first seen Rachel Pereira, a Jewish woman who was called in when a translator was required. If an urgent translation was necessary he’d be detailed to collect her in his lorry. He had been surprised to note that she was fair and blue eyed and totally unlike the stereotypes of Jews portrayed in the Fatherland. ‘Jewess or not she was she was pretty’, he told himself.

Rachel had, of course, no reason to trust any German though this was before the real crackdown on Jews in Holland began. Bauer found her attractive and gradually wore down her withdrawn behaviour. He thought about her constantly, looked forward to seeing her and realised with a shock that he had become infatuated with her. He would invent trivial ways to call for her language abilities, her native Dutch and almost perfect German.

Lorenz Bauer knew he had to take great care, however. Orders were that troops were not to fraternise even with Dutch women and with Jews it was unthinkable. The trouble was, he thought, they make them so damn beautiful and he was young, single and away from home. His lorry was often seen around the town on official duties and drew no attention when he began to call at the Hotel on errands of a private nature.

She was, she told him, the daughter of the owner of the Hotel Albert de Groot in Dorpstraat. Like all civilians she and her father were finding the times hard because of food and other shortages imposed by the Germans. They felt they were lucky in still retaining the ownership of the hotel especially as they had heard that in Germany Jews were forbidden from any business activities.

In wartime Oisterwijk there had been, from the beginning of the occupation, a flourishing black market operation. Lorenz Bauer’s official job of transporting goods from the railway station to the convent and the Leather Works put him in a perfect position for wheeling and dealing with the civilian population.

Medicines and food were in short supply in Oisterwijk. Bauer was able to do a good deal of unauthorised fetching and carrying in this lucrative triangle. Mainly his role was one of doing favours, a quid pro quo between soldiers who then sold essentials to civilians for whatever they could offer in the form of jewellery and gold not excluding services of a more personal nature.
Even the CO was not averse to a sweetener from time to time. Lorenz found it easy to get a few essential supplies for Rachel and her father. After all it would do no harm for him to ingratiate himself with a woman he fancied. Rachel never asked for anything and the old man showed no acknowledgement of these gifts. He did something far better as far as Bauer was concerned. He turned a blind eye to a member of the Bosche canoodling with his daughter.

Bauer’s motives in seeking the company of Rachel were not at first laudable but as time went on he found himself falling in love with her. ‘Me’, he thought, ‘falling for a bloody Jewess’. It was shortly after he had fallen into this state of grace that became a truly reciprocal love, that Bauer met with his undoing. His black market activities were discovered by the military police though there was no mention of favours to the Pereiras in the charges made.

Hauled before the commandant Bauer found him very reasonable about it all. Of course he had to be. He’d received too many cases of champagne and other high class sweeteners through Bauer’s good offices to be anything else.

‘Well, Private Bauer!’ barked the commandant. Bauer thought it unwise to tell him that he was a corporal though he had guessed the commandant’s drift. ‘We live in difficult times subject to the stress of being here away from the homeland and family. So, I’m going to forgo the formality of a court martial’. Bauer thought, ‘Well, you would, wouldn’t you? The Commandant went on, ‘However, I have to show that justice seems to be done. I am sending you back to Germany for infantry training. Now get out of here and pack your kitbag.. The troop train leaves in twenty minutes. Make sure you’re on it’.

Bauer thought ‘Oh, God! The bloody infantry!’ Still, it was better than he’d expected. He been thinking he was likely to get an immediate despatch to the Russian front. Who knows, the war might be over before his footslogging course was completed. Well, it could be if he could swing the lead a bit while he was on it. What worried him far, far more was leaving behind his beloved mistress.

Back in war torn Munich Bauer was assailed by that weapon of the Catholic Church: the early implanted but ever glowing ember of guilt. This time it was about Rachel with whom there was no safe method of mutual contact. He went to the Frauenkirche where he made confession to Father Brandt.
‘We live in difficult times’ the father began. ‘Here we go again’ thought Bauer. The father continued, ‘My son, the temptations of the flesh are hard to overcome and concupiscence is the usual result for a young man. Here is your penance. You must put this woman out of your mind and you must block memory of her by saying ten Hail Marys every time you think about her. But remember, my son, she is only a Jew’.

After leaving the confessional Bauer stood in the church, one foot in the devil’s footprint, a foot in both camps so to speak, stunned by the Father’s last words. He just could not reconcile himself to them though he knew they were typical of the German catholic attitude towards Jews in Nazi Germany. Here was the beginning of his apostasy.

At the Hotel Albert de Groot Bauer left his room and made his way downstairs. The appearance of the young man in reception again drew his attention. ‘That’s a smart young fellow you have in reception’, said Bauer to the manager masking his interest as a throw-away remark. He looked at the youth thinking that to have had such a son would have been so good. Tall, strong and fair, such a Teutonic appearance. He was too good for that job.

‘Yes. He’s bright alright; I’ll be sorry to lose him. He won’t be able to do that job much longer though’, the manager told him. ‘Surely not a management problem?’ a surprised Bauer asked. ‘No, nothing like that. He’s losing his sight’ said the manager.

A thought that was not yet a thought, not yet formed into words, an almost unnoticeable oscillation of a memory cell, stirred in Bauer’s mind. He shrugged and pulled himself together, ‘What I wanted to ask you about was the old leather works and the convent in Poirterstraat’; he told the manager, ‘Are they still there?’ The manager replied, ‘Oh, see the lad in reception. He studies these old buildings’. Lorenz Bauer turned away towards the reception office and heard the manager call out ‘Lorenz!’ Bauer spun round in astonishment and faced the man.
In Germany people are very touchy on the use of first names. Only long-standing friends would do so and even then the more senior in status would have to make the proposal to refer to each other in this way. However, he saw immediately that the man was not addressing him but was looking at the reception desk. ‘Lorenz! There’s somebody here wants to ask about the old buildings’.

Bauer met him half way, ‘So, you know about the old places then’ he said. ‘Yes, I do’ said the boy in his stilted German. ‘You see when I am boy during the war Mother tell me how my father in the German army work in the Catharinenberg. Always she tells me she is still loving him very much after all these years and Mutti never married. He was kind man who loved her but I never am meeting him. You see my father is sent back to Germany and it is never possible to hear from him again. The war, you know’.

Bauer felt as if his head would burst, his heart beating fast like a drum. ‘Lorenz, please tell me your family name’, he said in a hoarse whisper, ‘Oh, it is not common now in Nederland. It is Jewish name and is Pereira’. Bauer was hit by realisation that he had come here to chase his past and his past had chased him and won the race.

He grabbed the back of a chair for support before almost falling into it. The last cog in the wheel had slipped into place. ‘Lorenz, I have many questions to ask you, many things to share with you and your mother’, he whispered in anguish. Father faced son and though this was no confessional box, no smell of old incense pervading a musty curtain, Lorenz Bauer prepared himself for his annunciation.

A Hood for Jezebel

Kestrel Hood

I flew a falcon many years ago.
She came to me, two months old, an eyas,
As yet untrained to glove or lure or line
To begin those golden years together.

And soon, one glorious night I waked her;
Sat her on the glove while she stared past me
Wary, gimlet-eyed, ‘You will not fool me’.
Red eyed, I prepared for a sleepless night.

Suddenly she bated and I gently
Lifted her to my gloved fist; she stared on.
A second bating left her upside down
Hanging by her jesses, a wily ruse.

Come dawn she slept, I closed my red eyes+
I had sat out a dance with the morning star
And waked a falcon, who would stay with me
For two years of sweet companionship.

Bating: When a hawk tries to fly off from the fist and you don’t want her to
Hawk bells: Attached to the hawk’s feet. These are best when cast in Lahore where the tin ore is impure. This gives a charactersitic tinkle, each bell being an octave less than the other.
The hood: to keep her calm when not flying or at her perch
Jesses: The leather restraining straps attached to the hawk’s feet
Line: The long twine attached to the legs during training flights
The lure:A piece of meat to encourage her to the fist after flying
Waking: In order to get the hawk to trust you, it is necessary for you to have her on your fist and sit all night without you going to sleep. Eventually, in the early morning and maybe after a few unsuccessful bates, she will close her eyes and sleep. Then she is yours for life.

Written in blank verse

Harry Wells

Comment and critiques welcome

Sanctuary for a Wren


I found a tree with a knotty hollow
Inside the dark there rested a wren
Standing still with staring eyes wide open
Her plumage lacking lustre
Like a needle felt bird in a craft show
At twenty dollars but delicately made
Waiting in the moss, waiting for a lull
In the icy wind, waiting for the chance
To forage for food for her very life’s sake
I put out a careful finger caressed
The down on her red breast and dun hued head
She fell back, tiny claws, legs stretched up, stiff
Like telegraph poles without wires.
One more to add to millions of lonely deaths

Harry Wells

Please feel free to comment or critique


The God Pan

There is a book I read regularly, possibly every year or so. I find myself, while sitting in an armchair before the fire on a winter evening, wanting to read the book yet again and to wallow in the warm mud of escapist nostalgia in a land of trees, river and hedgerow; to bury my snout in the dry leaves of memory in the bottom of a hollow tree.

The book is Kenneth Grahame’s ‘Wind in the Willows’ illustrated by Ernest H Shepard (1908). It is often referred to as a book for children and maybe it is but not solely if you read between the lines. Neither is it a book only about animals though it might seem so at a shallow reading. Rather it is a benevolent parody of human behaviour perhaps similar to Aesop’s Fables. A with the Ancient Greek theatre’s use of masks, the creation of caricatures gives the author the freedom to observe and comment through the lives of animals, on the frailties and virtues of people, without giving offence. It is beautifully, written with some patches of brilliance.

As the book opens it is so easy to identify with the characters starting with gentle Mole who is forcing himself to spring clean his home on a beautiful spring morning. Easier still to empathise when he feels ‘something up above imperiously calling him’ and says ‘Hang spring cleaning’ and dashes out without even waiting to put on his coat. Surely we have all done something similar and there’s the rub.

Later we meet benevolent Ratty, and Mr Toad, a pretentious and impulsive money- bags who is kind and generous to Mole and Ratty with whom he wishes to share his good way of life. The irascible but kindly Badger, on the other hand, has nothing but cynicism for Toad. All human life is there but there are some who are not so innocent, as you might suspect. The arch villains are the weasels, jealous and vindictive, who seize, occupy and trash Toad Hall until the friends, led by Badger, evict them after a short battle.

Mole, being hitherto a secretive and lone creature is wonderfully happy with his new friends but a short-lived disillusionment comes to him one day in the meeting with the old seafaring mouse who beguiles Mole with his tales of derring- do on the oceans of the wider world. Mole feels how very dull his life really has been. Is there any one of us here today who could not empathise with this state at some time or other in his life?

The most magical part of the book is yet to come and is so well written that I am going to copy the important sections because it would be impossible to convey their beauty by paraphrasing them. I only wish time enabled me to quote the whole chapter entitled The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. I am captivated even by the words of the title.

The prologue is that Otter’s pup has gone missing, night is coming on and he fears the pup might be lost over the weir. Ratty and Mole decide they simply cannot turn in and go to sleep without doing something. They get out the boat and Rat sculls with caution.

Quote: The line of the horizon was clear and hard against the sky and in one particular quarter it showed black against silvery climbing phosphorescence that grew and grew. At last, over the rim of the waiting earth the moon lifted with slow majesty till she swung clear of the horizon and rode of free of her moorings: end of quote.

They moored their boat on an island, fringed close with willow, alder and silver birch, a dream place where they heard, from afar, a faint and plaintive piping.
In their search they find themselves in a secluded glade and see a figure.

Quote: Trembling, Ratty raised his humble head, while nature, flushed with the fullness of incredible colour, seemed to hold her breath for the event. He looked in the very eyes of the Friend and Helper: saw the backward sweep of the curved horns gleaming in the growing daylight while the bearded mouth broke into a half-smile and the long supple hand still holding the pan pipe that had fallen away from the parted lips. End of quote.

A clear reference to Pan or Faunus, the ancient god of nature.
And here they found the pup nestled together between the sylvan god’s hooves.
I can’t help thinking that the experience on the island, mentioning the fullness of incredible colour, a lunar phosphorence and a transient hallucinatory figure , is similar to what I have read about the trances and psychedelic experiences of shamans and cave paintings.

My interest in Green man, prehistoric cave and rock art shows a leaning towards animism on my part though I am not a full and true believer. Another odd phrase – is not all belief true to itself?
Wikipedia is a very handy website but sometimes I think it is as much a fountain of opinion as of facts.

Nevertheless, it tells me that Animism, from the Latin animus, meaning soul or life, is the world view that non-human entities, animals, plants, inanimate objects or phenomena possess a spiritual essence. Essentially this is not a Christian viewpoint. Since Christianity came on the scene there has ever since been an ancient conflict between it and Animism.

The ancient controversy lingers on. In keeping with its record, Christianity still seeks to demonise anything that does not accord with its dogma.
Give us an example, you might say, a fact even, to support that statement.
I will do that. I have a small collection of various editions of Wind in the Willows. One of them published in the 1980’s omits the whole chapter about the mystical island episode and as a reason gives that it was un-Christian and therefore unsuitable for children. Now who motivated that I wonder? You can always ask your neighbour or find answers in the dry leaves of an inspiring fairy tale book.

As Einstein said “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.”

Harry Wells

Comments and critiques welcome

Spectre with a Hood

Millet's Spectre
Most days I see him, the spectre with a hood.
Head and rounded shoulders bent as he walks,
No, trudges, the country road I always use
On my frequent forays into the town.
Clad in faded camouflage he carries
In one hand a plastic supermarket bag
While his shoulders tote a flaccid rucksack.
He is looking neither forward nor sideways,
But always downwards, he is oblivious
To the white cow parsley in the verges,
To the late blackthorn and the May blossom
Emerging from which a startled blackbird,
Cackling her alarm call, darts across his face.
I wish he knew that the birds sing for him too.
Such strange behaviour, I say to my friends
Who reply ‘He’s off for his free methadone’,
Dismissive as if this answer explains all.
I wonder what lost chances lie in his wake,
What bitter wind blew dust into his eyes
Or what errant gene it was that engendered
This fellow human being’s path of sorrow.
It’s just a platitude for sure I know
When I say ‘there but for God’s grace I go’.

Harry Wells
Composed in Blank Verse, that is: lines of ten or eleven syllables ending with a rhyming couplet.

The Patchwork Quilter

Log Cabin
She sits by the window for the best light,
Surrounded by a pile of folded quilts
That waits as if for the princess and the pea.
Her mouth, a quiverful of pins, permits
A muttered mmm mmm mmm if you should have
The nerve to ask, ‘What’s for dinner tonight’?

On a side table is a confusion,
Though she would deny it, of remnants, patches,
Scraps of cloth that have absorbed the essence
Of those who wore or laid out on the bed
A petticoat or perhaps a bridal gown
From which she’ll set out, yet unstitched, a quilt.

In her head, run tumbling blocks, fat quarters,
Cathedral windows, log cabin, lone star,
English piecing, nine patch, bear’s paw, pinwheel.
Disparate bits and pieces, yet from these,
The needlewoman makes with cotton thread,
From old and new, a counterpane for a bed.

Harry Wells

Comments welcome

I wrote this poem in ‘blank verse’; that is to say in lines of ten or eleven sylables ending with a rhyming couplet.

Promissum haiku

Quodcumque facis
Ibi tecum adero
Ubicumque vadis

Harry Wells

I am not too happy with my last line here because it has six syllables where it should have only five. In writing haiku the syllable count can be difficult. In a Latin haiku it’s even harder.
Can anybody improve this line without altering its meaning?
Harry Wells

Comments welcome