We were reading the papers.
"Did you see the article about Vera Brittain and the fact that her brother, Edward, the one that was killed in TestamentofYouth, that he was gay," he said.
"No, I didn't,' I replied. "I loved that book. The most important thing I read in my twenties, I think."
"I want to find out more about him," he said.
"Vera Brittain's gay brother!"
"That's a good idea. I'd like to know more too."
"I don't know why," he said, "but I want to write a poem about him."
"It's the First World War, that's why," I said.
Here's the poem.
CAPTAIN EDWARD BRITTAIN: 16 JUNE 1918, NORTHERN ITALY, AT 22 YEARS OLD
Yes, I loved him, a dark-eyed Sherwood lad.
You always knew it would be one like him:
At nineteen a corporal, cap this side of mad.
Peace would have rated our chances slim
For love, but he was innocent of sad
Charades - his life was still a school day hymn -
And in the thud, bloody thud, rat-a-tat making
War, he'd hold me tenderly to stop me shaking.
And yes, I should have known my fortune's end
Was not enough to be a Sunday hero,
When Colonel Hudson's quick to apprehend:
'They censor letters from the front, you know.'
Twixt shame and death, death was my true friend,
No man's land a convenient road show
By which this inconvenient wretch's head
Was crowned with wire and painted honourable red.
Forgive me, Vera, for the brave young men
Whose love and love of war have brought you sorrow.
Forgive me for what can never be again,
But where I lie, we disregard tomorrow:
Snow falls in the vacancy, all ken
Of time lost. Lakes and rivers borrow
Blue from blue and sigh 'qui tacet consentire'.
Where Alpine roots twine, binding me to the soft clay,
Years back it was, you found me, kissed my name,
Stone and earth a meagre barricade;
And were it given me so to frame,
A sister's love might death for breath trade;
And 'never mind my dear' quench the shame
Eternity's allotted, so I, yet made,
Had never caught the saturnine schoolmaster's thread:
'If a man can't serve his country he's better dead.'
© Kevin Childs, 2015
"That's good," I said. "But it's not very gay. I thought it would be all full of anguish and anger. But I like it. It's all so... normal. You make it sound like it is far better to die anonymously like everyone else, than to be vilified as a gay boy. I'm glad he found love at the end. Was it love? Is your poem true? Did you make it up?"
"Maybe he found love," he said. "Who knows? Dating in the trenches seems a bit implausible: a bit of a hit and miss affair. But it appears he was stepping out with somebody from the ranks, yet he was an Officer. We know all this because Edward's letters home were read by a censor, and he'd written to one of his chums and appears to have told him about his passion for this chap. I'm not sure what was more shocking, the gay bit or the subversion of the class system. The bit in the poem about the colonel is true. When Vera published Testament of Youth he wrote to her a bit miffed about how he'd been portrayed and he let her know that Edward knew his homosexuality had been found out. Remarkably, it was the colonel who suggested that Edward put himself in the position to be killed rather than face the inevitable court martial. It turns out Vera knew Edward was that way inclined. There'd been trouble at school, don't you know, and obsessive friendships and all of that. I feel pretty sure Edward's homosexuality came as no surprise to Vera."
"How do you know all of this?" I asked.
"Vera has an official biographer. He discovered all of this, almost by chance. It turns out that the miffed colonel, wanting to put the record straight, so to speak, had written his own memoir, which was never published. Vera's biographer, Mark Bostridge, found out that Vera and the colonel had met and he decided to find out more about the colonel. He went through the telephone directory until he found his son, and his son had kept the unpublished memoir."
I went back and reread the poem. I know my boyfriend wrote it, but it is rather brilliant. It feels as if it was written in 1918, but it is also more than that. It tells a fundamentally important story. In Edwardian England, if you were gay, it was better to take the chance offered to die than to be exposed. It turns out that Siegfried Sassoon was able to become such a great, albeit troubled war hero, because he too sought the comfort of a bullet rather than face up to his identity. Those bullets kept missing him. Did Wilfred Owen go the route of Edward Brittain? It is extraordinary to think that so many of our heroes of the First World War were gay: Sassoon, Owen, Rupert Brooke, Lawrence of Arabia, Kitchener, and now Edward Brittain.
All those great gay heroes, yet what did their country really do for them? Those that opted to stand up to the justice system would be convicted. Despite being in the clutches of the first total war, the authorities still found time to prosecute at least 300 servicemen for being gay. And what does it all mean? If Edward really did allow himself to be killed, does that change TestamentofYouth? Does it somehow mean it is less authentic? Did he die because he was persecuted by the British or because he was a victim of a pointless war against the Germans and the Austrians? Vera's Testament is not in doubt. When she wrote it, and when it was published, she told it as she understood it to be. Maybe there's an argument that she should have revised it in the light of what she later learned, but that's a bit of a superhuman ask. In her other works she includes gay characters. In HonourableEstate a gay man storms across no man's land; he'd been found out. He dies a hero's death. No ignominy. There could be no glory for ponces. How hard it must have been for Vera to write that, making the other out of her beloved brother.