Charlie Cochrane


We met first day at school.

Play time he knocked me down, so I knocked him down.

Both got the cane.

Best buttys ever since, through thick and thin.

Scrumping apples, knocking on doors and running off, climbing the wall to see the match for free, always together.

Because where Billy went I ‘ad to follow.


Shared our first cigarette, both of us puking up afterwards, back of the chapel.

‘ad our first working day at the same factory, the same time.

Our first pint at the Working Men’s. Together.

Our first kisses, with those awful Probyn sisters, down the Tanky Woods.

Whatever Billy did, I tagged along, and he didn’t mind.


We signed up, pals in the Pals’ Regiment, me hoping I wouldn’t get rejected if he was accepted.

Trained together, trying to outdo each other at drill, or spit and polish.

Stood in the same holding trench at Mametz, me behind him, the only one who could see behind his jokes and his games and spot the fear.

Said to him, “I’m here, Billy, it’ll be alright,” meaning, “I love you, butty, as a man loves a maid,” only I couldn’t have told him.


Woke up in hospital, half my leg shot away.

Couldn’t find out if Billy ‘ad gone where I couldn’t follow yet.

Next morning, he’s there at the bedside, arm and head bandaged up.

“I was wondering where you’d got to, you silly sod,” he said, meaning, “I love you Harry, but I can’t say it here.”

Only I didn’t find out that was what he meant until later, after; “Seeing as we’re two cripples, the sort a maid would never look at, just as well we’ve got each other isn’t it?” and, “Neither of us could look after ourselves so we’d best look after each other.”




I came across a book in a second hand shop and picked it up simply because I rather liked the title and the plain cover. It proved to be a collection of chapters from the longer work “A Student in Arms” – combining observations on a soldier’s life during WWI with reflections upon faith and religion.  Hankey’s an interesting person, whose words are very much of his time. And some of his musings are distinctly slashy.

The first chapter describes an officer, Ronald Hardy, in glowing terms that verge on hero worship. The bit about Hardy’s smile, “It was something worth living for and worth working for”, reminds me of The Charioteer, where Laurie remembers Ralph Lanyon at school, and how boys competed fiercely and tacitly to earn one of his smiles.

Then there’s the chapter “Some who were lost and found”, which is full of stuff reflecting a wonderfully open heart towards some of the soldiers he met. “If they did fly in the face of the conventions, well, we sometimes felt that the conventions deserved it.” One line intrigues me. He’s talking about the men and their relationships with women. “They had their code, and though God forbid that it should ever be ours, it did somehow seem to be a natural set off to the somewhat sordidly prudent morality of the marriage market.”

I really can’t work out what Hankey means by that little dig at marriage, apart from the obvious implication that he didn’t himself want to be married. For whatever reason. You see, it’s really hard at times to understand the words of the past when the only filter we have is our modern ears and eyes.

I read a lot of literature written either side of 1900, and while people haven’t changed, society and conventions have. In the days of “Three Men in a Boat”, men staying in a hotel would have shared a bed if need be with no implications other than necessity. And lines like, “I never saw two men do more with one-and-twopence worth of butter in my whole life than they did.” could be written in complete innocence of any double entendre. (They accidentally smeared it all over the stuff they were packing, in case you’re wondering.)

Writers would use the word “love” in a wider context, too. Ronnie Poulton Palmer was a stunning pre-WWI rugby player, the sort of three-quarter who could slice through defences like a knife through butter. His last words are said to be, “I shall never play at Twickenham again” although that’s likely to be apocryphal as it seems he was shot and died instantaneously. I can, however, imagine a player saying just that sort of thing ironically.

Poulton seems to have inspired a great deal of affection from his friends and extracts from letters such as this from Keith Rae to Poulton are very evocative: “I believe very firmly that there will be a Bright beyond after this war…My Love to you and God bless you, always your affectionate friend, Keith Rae.” Army Chaplain Dick Dugdale wrote home after Poulton’s death to say “You know I loved him {Poulton} more than anyone else,” and “Each passing year means one year less to wait for Ronald”. *

Deep friendships? The sort of love that dare not speak its name? The sort of love which couldn’t speak its name because it didn’t understand that it was more than friendship?

Wilfred Owen, in one of the few surviving bits of correspondence between himself and Siegfried Sassoon certainly seems to have gone beyond friendship.

“Know that since mid-September, when you still regarded me as a tiresome little knocker on your door, I held you as Keats + Christ + Elijah + my Colonel + my father-confessor + Amenophis IV in profile.
What’s that mathematically? In effect it is this: that I love you, dispassionately, so much, so very much, dear Fellow, that the blasting little smile you wear on reading this can’t hurt me in the least.” **

Poor Wilfred, so much in awe of Sassoon and unlikely ever to have that love requited in the way he seemed to want. At least with some of Owen’s extant poetry the homo-erotic elements are obvious. No slash goggles needed when reading “Page Eglantine”, “Who is the God of Canongate”, the unfinished “Lines to a Beauty seen in Limehouse” or “I am the Ghost of Shadwell stair”. (The last one apparently is a play on words between ghost and infantryman, with a suggestion that Owen himself is the ghost who visits a male prostitute.)

Of course, you could probably get away with more in the veiled language of poetry or the private language of letters than you could in plain prose.

* The Greater Game – Sporting icons who fell in the Great War

**Wilfred Owen a new biography

war graves







It comes as a shock to many people (it did to me) that AA Milne wrote a murder mystery. Just the one, published in 1922, but it was enough to earn him admission to the inner sanctum of crime writers.
Is “The Red House Mystery” a good book? I’d say it’s fair enough, and very much in the style of its time, which is fine if you appreciate the Golden Age of crime. It certainly has many of the classic elements – the country house, the house party, the locked room, the wastrel brother who reappears from abroad and, of course, the amateur sleuth, with his slightly dim sidekick. If the denouement draws on a plot line which is peppered throughout those Golden Age mysteries, it’s none the worse for that.
Of course, it’s a whole other discussion about whether the detective’s sidekick only really exists to fulfil the main purpose of allowing the sleuth to show off his or her genius and give fulsome explanations regarding his or her thought processes. In the case of Red House’s Bill, he appears to be at the dimmer end of the bell curve of intelligence and certainly hero worships his friend Tony, the man who solves the case.
Tony’s a really interesting character, a man of independent means, who takes on various jobs just for fun. He’d have been well served by further crimes to solve with his sidekick. I could envisage a whole series of cases in which our two heroes pop up at house parties and the like, solving crimes, causing chaos and generally having a whale of a time. Alas, those books were never written.
Somebody even suggested that Bill reminded him of Piglet, but Tony and Bill makes me think of Raffles and Bunny, not least because of the “slash”. I usually say if you’re not sure what slash is, get your mother to explain when you get home. This time I’ll give a definition, straight from Wikipedia. “Slash fiction is a genre of fan fiction that focuses on interpersonal attraction and sexual relationships between fictional characters of the same sex.”
Milne himself objected to love stories getting in the way of the detection, so he takes Bill’s love interest “offscreen” pretty rapidly, then – ironically – proceeds to give us an almost love story between his two leading men. If you picked up this book without knowing the author or context, you might think you were reading a romantic mystery, with a gay bloke (Tony) who pursues, and then is all over, another man.
From the moment Tony serves Bill, first in a shop and then in a restaurant, “Something about [him], his youth and freshness, perhaps, attracted Tony”. He arranges a proper introduction to Bill and they quickly become “intimate”. Yes, that word clearly didn’t mean quite the same in 1922! As the story proper gets going, Bill is flattered, delighted and proud to be liked (and needed in the cause of investigation) by Tony, who soon after tells Bill he’s wonderful for describing someone so well, at which Bill is happily embarrassed.
Should I mention how often Anthony takes Bill’s arm when they’re walking? I know that this practice was not uncommon between men in the early twentieth century, and nobody batted an eyelid, but they seem to be at it all the time. Then there’s the hand holding; Tony tells Bill he’s the most perfect “Watson” before taking Bill’s hand in both of his to say, “There is nothing that you and I could not accomplish together…” (That’s the sort of thing he says a lot.) Bill responds by calling him a silly old ass, and Anthony replies with “That’s what you always say when I’m being serious” which is very similar to a tense, flirtatious interchange between Laurie and Andrew in Mary Renault’s “The Charioteer”.
They even end up sharing a bed, although strictly in the way the characters share a bed in “Three Men in a Boat”. That’s another element which is hard to interpret innocently with modern eyes, although those of us who were brought up on “Morecambe and Wise” know that Eric and Ernie weren’t “at it” when the lights went off.
So what the heck was going on in “The Red House Mystery”? It’s terribly easy for us to look back at books written so long ago with our “slash goggles” firmly in place and see things which the author didn’t intend. Perhaps we see things which aren’t there at all. You only have to look at the volume of Holmes and Watson romances that have sprung up to find people interpreting old stories in a very present-day fashion. But gay men did exist in the 1920s (or at any point in history) and gay or lesbian characters can be found, thinly veiled, in classic books such as “A Murder is Announced”.
Maybe Milne was just being observational in his writing, basing Tony on somebody he had known, weaving in elements of conversations he had heard, as so many of us do. I have little doubt that he had no intention of giving us that romantic storyline, but he did so, nonetheless.

This is Tom’s mother from Promises Made Under Fire. Very different kettle of fish from Mrs. S.

Mother met me at the station, full of smiles and news. Father’s back playing up, her head much better, thank you, scandal about the neighbour’s son, who’d somehow mysteriously moved to Ireland.

“And your friend Ben—he asked me to apologise for his not being here to meet you but the silly boy’s gone and got mumps.” She slipped her arm in mine. “So he’s strictly persona non grata.”

She didn’t need to add why—any of my platoon could have told you the risk to a man’s wedding tackle. What the hell had I done to get such a run of luck?

“Have you any plans? Apart from rattling around at home?” Mother squeezed my arm, her hand seeming so tiny against my uniform coat. I patted it.

“I’ve a commission to fulfil. No, don’t worry.” I patted her hand again. “It’s not the army. You remember Foden?”

Of course she did, the way she paled at the mention of the name and gripped my arm tighter. She’d have remembered my tears, too. I hailed a cab and carried on. “He left a letter asking me to make some visits on his behalf. Least I can do.”

“You always were a good lad,” Mother said as we bundled into the cab and gave the driver our address.

Good lad I might be, but I wasn’t looking forward to doing this particular duty. “He wanted me to visit his mother,” I said, looking out of the window, unseeing. “Do you think I should write to her and make an initial introduction, rather than just turn up on her doorstep?”

“It would depend on her character. If it were to bring her distress rather than comfort, she might prefer one dose of it.”

Only one dose of discomfort for me, too; I’d forgotten how wise Mother was. “I have no idea. She’s a cook, up in London.”

“A cook?” A brief look—surprise tinged with quickly hidden disdain—crossed her face.

“It will have hurt her as much to lose her son as it would the lady of the household.” The anger I felt shocked me.

“I’m sorry. You’re quite right. You’ve always said that bullets don’t make any social distinctions.” She suddenly produced a mischievous smile. “And since the ‘to do’ with the lad next door, even Father says you can’t tell how brave someone is from the school he went to. He’s very proud of you, you know.”

From Lessons in Discovery. Orlando has lost his memory following an accident and can’t remember what Jonty’s Mama is like. He has a shock coming.

“Jonathan! Orlando!”

A voice that seemed to have been designed to penetrate concrete at two hundred yards rang through the college court. It was Sunday morning and the broomstick had obviously landed successfully. Its arrival had been anticipated by the two fellows so they were lurking around to greet the pilot.

“Mother,” Jonty whispered to his companion, before saying in a tone as hearty as hers, “Mama! You’re looking ridiculously well. What has the doctor been giving you to make you look so young?” He was scooped up into his mother’s arms and had the breath squeezed out of him.

“Looking thin again, dear.” Mrs. Stewart always seemed to think that her son was on the brink of starvation, even though he was more muscular and well set up now than he had been this last year. “Dr. Coppersmith, you look positively emaciated.” She grabbed Orlando and squashed any answer out of him, too.

Orlando was stunned. His own mother had never shown any such physical affection for him and the perfume-soaked, genial embraces of this ample lady were a complete shock. He knew he’d met her before although he had no recollection of the events and he’d no time now for reflection, with Mrs. Stewart thrusting an arm through those of both her son and his thin and starving friend and insisting that they go immediately to the Blue Boar for a jolly good feed.

She was most sympathetic over lunch, a meal taken in a quiet room away from the noisy masses so that the recovering invalid shouldn’t be overwhelmed. She’d asked, with great concern, about Orlando’s condition, gently talking him through the times he’d been her guest, the pleasure it had given her to receive him. “Because it has always been a delight to us whenever Jonathan has brought you home. I think of you rather like a son now, which of course must seem very odd today when you no doubt regard me as a stranger. But one day you’ll remember everything, dear, and then it will be like old times.” She beamed.

Orlando thought how much Mrs. Stewart resembled Jonty and how lovely she must have been at the same age. A sudden, small voice in his head informed him that his friend was beautiful now and when he looked at Jonty he realised it was quite true, which was another terrible shock. He had never really considered before whether anyone was eye-catching and he’d now done it for two people within a minute.

They finished their meal with a wealth more gossip and made their way back to Jonty’s set for a cup of tea to refresh them and to give Orlando a chance to collect his thoughts.

Mrs. Stewart insisted that there was nowhere better to take a cup than in front of one’s own fire. She was now ensconced on Jonty’s sofa and her thoughts ran to old acquaintances.

“So you met old George le Tissier on Jersey. I wonder if he remembers me?”

“I don’t think that anyone would ever forget you, Mama.”

“Especially true in this case. Not my most shining moment, Jonathan, I positively disgraced myself.” Mrs. Stewart blushed, something that seemed out of character.

“Whatever did you do?” Their interest was piqued, their appetite whetted at the thought of what revelation might come from this lady’s lips. Jonty in particular was intrigued at the thought of his mother disgracing herself in any way.

“It was a grand ball. A very big occasion, all the handsomest young men were going to be there, including George who was a subaltern at the time. Not that I had eyes for any of them except your father—that’s why I was so excited. Richard Stewart was going to be present and we’d arranged in advance to have several dances together. Got out my best bib and tucker and set off. Within a quarter of an hour of arriving there, a young man I’d taken a waltz with, I can’t remember his name, the ill-favoured surly thing.” She glanced surreptitiously at the often surly thing on her left but he was looking remarkably sweet and kind today. “Anyway, he drew me off into a corner, said he’d never loved anyone the way he adored me, proposed a marriage within three months and when I refused to take up his offer, threatened to kill himself. I spent twenty-five minutes trying to talk him out of it. Meant that I missed my first dance with your father, so I was rather miffed. When I tracked Richard down to apologise he hooted with laughter. He said he knew the chap and that he’d done the same thing numerous times—the suicide threat was all a big bluff of course. I was livid. Your father had to hold my hand and try to get me to calm down. I was all for going and tweaking the chap’s ear, but I suppose the hand-holding made it all worthwhile.”

“It always does.” Jonty smirked slightly and there was a suggestion of a blush on Orlando’s cheeks. How odd, Jonty reflected, wondering if the embarrassment was due to subconscious memories.

Mrs. Stewart sailed on undaunted. “Then blow me down if three dances later a similar thing didn’t happen, though I remember the chap’s name this time. Samuel Parker, and he was a toe-rag. We were walking through the portrait gallery at the back of the house en route to get an ice when he plighted his troth. I gave him the old ‘thank you but no thank you’ and he pulled me behind the arras—I can see you sniggering, Jonty and it doesn’t become you—and started to take the grossest liberties. All he got was a black eye—it was a real shiner, I was rather proud of myself—and he departed. Then I had to go and find Richard again and explain why I’d been late for our next dance. Had the suspicion that he thought your dear mama was a bit of a flibbertigibbet, but he held my hand once more and called me his ‘dear little peach’. I can see you smirking again, Jonty, and if it happens a third time I will have no hesitation in taking you across my knee and spanking you. Anyway, I was furious, furious beyond all measure. So when poor George le Tissier came up all beaming with excitement and asked for my hand, I forgot myself entirely. It was pent-up anger, and I am not proud of myself. Now, are you ever going to make me that cup of tea or will you watch your poor mother sit here, wasting away parched and drained?”

“Mother, I won’t even put the kettle on until you tell me what you did that was so bad.”

“Laid him out, dear. One great big punch and goodnight sweetheart. Now that ends that trifling matter and you need to address the greater one of my desiccated throat.”

When Mrs. Stewart was watered sufficiently to be able to attempt the return journey, Summerbee, the porter, found a cab (she wasn’t inclined to fly the broom). With many a kiss, hug and wave she was sent on her way.

Here’s the old warhorse herself, Mrs. Stewart, in surprisingly mellow mood, expressing her Mothering Sunday wishes for her son, Jonty.

To Jonty, aged 4

I wish you joy, my golden child, laughter and happiness and length of days.
I wish you sunshine, in skies as blue as your eyes. Snow to play in, wind to fly kites, mud and grass and cold salt sea.
I wish you someone at your side to share them all.

To Jonty, aged 14

I wish you strength to fight whatever ails you, my boy who once laughed so readily.
I wish you courage to share it; with someone, if not with us.
I wish you the return of your smile.

To Jonty, aged 24

I wish you a sense of direction, my lad, a new beginning.
I wish you a companion to share the journey, a hand at your elbow and a smile at your side.
I wish you someone for whom you are the whole world, but who’d never make you aware of the fact.

To Jonty, aged 34

What do I have left to wish you?
I wish you health and length of days, of course, a warm hearth and a table set with food.
But you have all that any man could desire, in the person who sits in the chair beside yours.

Various historical (and maybe hysterical) mothers from Macaronis authors’ books will be dropping in tomorrow, some in the form of excerpts from gay romances and some in new material. They are a law unto themselves so why not drop in and see what’s going on?

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