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Edward and Ada Goonewardene had 12 children, but only seven of them grew into adults. And two of those died young, George Theodore Moonemalle Goonewardene at the age of 23 in 1918, and his younger brother Hugh seven years later. When his father died, he had insisted on following the coffin to the grave, even though he had flu. This had then turned into pneumonia, and he had died two weeks later.

I have always felt affection for Hugh, but not only because of this quixotic devotion. My grandmother, who had been four years younger than him, always spoke of him as the nicest of her brothers. Her eldest brother, young Edward, or Sonny as he was called, was a rebellious character who fell out with his father and was reported to have kept a Burgher mistress. The next brother, George, was supposed to have seduced several local damsels. It was rumoured that visitors to Kurunegala who were treated as confidantes were shown the offspring of some of these liaisons. Leo, the only other child apart from my grandmother to marry, was probably too near her in age for her to rely on him much when they were young, though in old age they seemed keenly devoted to each other.

I see her then as depending much on Hugh in the period just after George died, and the house that had been a haven of activity suddenly went still. She married in the following year, perhaps escaping from a difficult situation, with two unmarried older sisters both by then in their thirties. But she would return to the Old Place for her confinements, and I assume that then too Hugh was a tower of affection, if not exactly strength.

He does not look at all robust in the few photographs that remain, more Moonemalle than Goonewardene, the tallest of the children and slim. Many years after I had almost forgotten him, I came across a diary that suggested he was very keen on nice clothes, for it is full of entries about shirts and shoes. There is nothing much else, but that in itself is significant, since the year was 1918, when his more boisterous brother died, George who was just a year or two older than him.

The entries for those days are bare beyond belief. ‘Brother George died today’ was the entry for October 17th. That was just before the armistice, and I think too of the English poets who died at that time, Wilfred Owen just a few days later, just before fighting ceased. But all that seemed to pass Hugh by, and there are no expressions of emotion.

One wondered then whether it was a sense of duty alone that had made him accompany his father’s funeral, not the strong sentiment I had imagined before. I suppose I will never know the answer, but then, more recently, along with the picture of his grandfather, John Marcellus Moonemalle, I came across a little book, dated 1st March 1918, in which he had copied down several poems.

The first, of which the author he notes is unknown, suggests an intense romanticism –

If you but knew

(1)

If you but knew

How all my days seemed filled with dreams of you,

How sometimes in the silent night

Your eyes thrill through me with their tender light,

How oft I hear your voice

when others speak

How you mid other forms I seek

Oh, love more real than though

such dreams were true

If you but knew

(2)

Could you but guess

How you alone make all my happiness,

How I am more than willing for your sake

To stand alone, give all and nothing take;

Nor chafe to think you bound

bound while I am free,

Quite free, till death, to

love you evidently

Could you but guess.

(3)

Could you but learn

How when you doubt my truth I sadly yearn,

To tell you all, to stand for one brief space,

Unfettered soul to soul, as face to face,

To crown you king, my king,

Till life shall end,

My lover and likewise my truest friend,

Would you love me, dearest,

As fondly in return

Could you but learn.

That was copied into the book on October 24th 1917, and many more followed at intervals, including in May 1918 Rupert Brooke’s ‘If I should die, think only this of me’. Hugh noted next to his name that he had died the month before, so I was obviously wrong to think him oblivious to what was going on in the wider world.

At the end of 1917 was the poem I found strangest, entitled Life’s Epitome

(1)

I wander amidst the city crowds,

That daily throng the mart;

I wander amidst the banyan trees,

But Vernon haunts my heart.

(2)

I come to school to do my work,

From him I sit apart;

Though Horace stares upon my face,

Yet Vernon haunts my heart.

(3)

At Algebra I try to work,

At a+b I start;

I try to work at Geometry,

Still Vernon haunts my heart

(4)

Let Algebra and Geometry,

And Horace too depart;

And hap what may, but only let

My Vernon haunt my heart

(6)

O god! Bear witness to my call,

May Vernon do his part

I render him myself, my all,

For he still haunts my heart.

It reads like a school boy verse, though Hugh was by then 21. That he wrote it himself is suggested by the fact that the next poem is described as ‘ORIGINAL’.

ADIEU

(1)

Fare thee well my dearest treasure,

Come I now to bid adieu;

Alas! ‘tis yet my only pleasure,

Whatever befall that God abide you

(2)

Time was I spent along with thee,

Time was I loved thee well;

But yet no time shall alter me,

From love no man can tell.

(3)

If joy or sorrow e’er abide,

Forget me not, tho’ far away;

For thou shall in my heart reside,

Fix’d firmly with love’s iron stay.

(4)

Remember, though now out of sight,

My thoughts are ever thine;

And shed thou still a kindly light

Upon the path that’s mine

(5)

Singled now in loneliness,

I now do hope some day;

That only Love and Loveliness,

Should drive all gloom away.

(6)

Farewell once more to thee dear Love,

Tho’ absent be yet kind;

Let thoughts, and words and deeds now prove,

Our mutual soul and mind.

ORIGINAL

After that there was nothing for a couple of months, but the first poem he entered in 1918 is entitled ‘A Bachelor’s Lament’

They’re stepping off, the friends I knew,

They’re going one by one:

They’re taking wives to tame their lives,

Their jovial days are done:

I can’t get one old crony now,

To join me in a spree:

They’re all grown grave domestic men,

They look askance on me.

 

I hate to see them sobered down –

The merry boys and true;

I hate to hear them sneering now,

at pictures fancy drew;

I care not for their married cheer,

their puddings and their soups,

and middle-aged relations round

In formidable groups.

 

And though their wife perchance may have

A comely sort of face;

And at the table’s upper end,

Conduct herself with grace –

I hate the prim reserve that reigns,

The caution and the shake,

I hate to see my friend grow vain,

Of furniture and plate.

 

How strange! They go to bed at ten,

And rise at half-past nine;

And seldom do they now exceed,

A pint or so of wine;

They play at whist for sixpences

They very rarely dance,

They never read a word of rhyme,

Nor open a romance.

 

They talk indeed of politics,

Of taxes and of crops,

And very quietly with their wives,

They go about to shops

They got quite skilled in groceries,

And learned in butcher meat,

And know exactly what they pay

For everything they eat

 

And then they all have children too,

To squall through thick and thin;

And seem quite proud to multiply,

Small images of sin.

And yet you may depend upon’t

Ere half their days are told,

Their sons are taller than themselves

And they are counted old.

 

Alas! Alas! for years gone by,

And for the friends I’ve lost;

When no warm feeling of the heart,

Was chilled by early frost.

If these be Hymen’s vaunted joys,

I’ll have him shun my door;

Unless he’ll quench his torch and live,

Henceforth a bachelor.

I have no idea how many of these poems are original, and indeed whether any are his. I cannot tell whether the emotions described are genuine, romantic, sexual or simply conventional. But the idea of my elegant great-uncle nursing a secret passion for someone called Vernon, sublimating his feelings in concern for shirts and socks, adds another dimension to the story of Old Place, and what we would refer to, half mocking, half admiring, as Moonemalle blood.

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