I have written an additional explanatory introduction to this poem. It holds a very special place in my heart for what it gave to me in my youth:
The Chattri stands high on the South Downs north of Brighton, Sussex, UK. When I was a teenager I lived in the town of Brighton and could see the Chattri out of the window of my attic bedroom. For years I wondered what the ‘white thing amid all that green’ was.
One teenage angst-filled day, I ventured to discover what it was. It afforded me peace and privacy many times thereafter. The stories of those injured and maimed Indian heroes from WW1 who were given the rite of passing through fire there, are truly special. The Chatri was constructed as a memorial to them.
I returned to it early in 2006 and sadly came to the conclusion that those soldiers are beginning to join the ranks of the ‘forgotten ones’ as gradually less and less interest (and money) is given to their resting place. It could benefit from a few hundred pounds being spent to brighten it back up. (I returned later still, and it was in no better state of upkeep.)
But, smart or not, this very special place holds in safe keeping many of my memories … and secrets!
RETURN TO THE CHATTRI
Chalk peeks out of the rich soil. It is everywhere:
Beneath each step, between each foot.
Harsh and hard, soft and crumbly
all varieties, all shades of white.
I’m watching it pass beneath me
white replacing white out of russet brown
and between urchin tufts of untamed grass.
Grey pervades the sky; the clouds roll ominously
from out across the ash-grey sea.
A beam of sunlight pierces
the cloud over the lower valley
and an unearthly torch-beam breaks
through,illuminating just the farmhouse –
a chocolate-box picture has come to life.
It’s a bit like life this, isn’t it? I think to myself.
I’m almost dizzy with the blur of it,
and the bitter wind has wet my eyes,
stung my ears, stiffened my cheeks,
whipped my scarf across my face,
tossed and tussled my hair beyond reason,
and made the pockets of my jacket
welcome refuge for my hands.
‘It is further away than I thought, isn’t it?’
I stop: to see if there is any sign that the horizon
is, in fact, the horizon. But it is not;
there is still more calcite yet to come.
Still more of this dizzying spectacle.
I chastise myself for stopping even though I’m not out of breath
and could go on like this for hours.
Finally I am there! Way up on the Downs,
at this extraordinary temple to fallen soldiers.
It is forty years or more since my feet last walked here.
This place is lonely yet is full of secrets –
a safe place to release shadowy words
into open air, and spirits into fabulous flames.
I reach out and touch the white marble.
I think I am hoping for a miracle to happen.
Perhaps the spirit of soldier Singh
will welcome me back after all these years.
But all that happens is what I might have expected:
Safe within its bosom I can cry.
And I do.
This is still an extraordinary place.
© Allen Ansell 2008, 2021, 2022