Writing about FW Murnau’s silent film Sunrise in my previous post, I mentioned a poem called ‘Silent Cinema’ that I had come across.  It was by Arthur Tessimond (1902-1962), a poet about whom his current publisher, Bloodaxe Books admits on their website ‘almost all trace … has disappeared.’

Tessimond has joined the ranks of the lesser-known poets. A poet who certainly deserves our attention – who in his own lifetime was hugely popular – but who now is perhaps only known to a few. I want to briefly explore how that might have come about.
When I found his poem on silent film, I also noticed this poem, ‘The British’, which – although much has changed for the better in the the national character in recent decades – still, I believe, captures something essential about us British (though I think maybe he should have titled the poem, The English). Particularly in these days, hearing the kind of sentiments expressed in the EU referendum debate by those who would be overjoyed if we vote to leave the European Union, I think there still those among us ‘living in shells and moving crablike; reticent, awkward, deeply suspicious; watching the world from a corner of half-closed eyelids.’

We are a people living in shells and moving
Crablike; reticent, awkward, deeply suspicious;
Watching the world from a corner of half-closed eyelids,
Afraid lest someone show that he hates or loves us,
Afraid lest someone weep in the railway train.

We are coiled and clenched like a foetus clad in armour.
We hold our hearts for fear they fly like eagles.
We grasp our tongues for fear they cry like trumpets.
We listen to our own footsteps. We look both ways
Before we cross the silent empty road.

We are a people easily made uneasy,
Especially wary of praise, of passion, of scarlet
Cloaks, of gesturing hands, of the smiling stranger
In the alien hat who talks to all or the other
In the unfamiliar coat who talks to none.

We are afraid of too-cold thought or too-hot
Blood, of the opening of long-shut shafts or cupboards,
Of light in caves, of X-rays, probes, unclothing
Of emotion, intolerable revelation
Of lust in the light, of love in the palm of the hand.

We are afraid of, one day on a sunny morning,
Meeting ourselves or another without the usual
Outer sheath, the comfortable conversation,
And saying all, all, all we did not mean to,
All, all, all we did not know we meant.

Chris Killip, Youth on a Wall, Jarrow, Tyneside; 1976
Chris Killip, Youth on a Wall, Jarrow, Tyneside; 1976


6 thoughts on “The British: ‘a people living in shells, reticent, awkward, deeply suspicious’

  1. thanks for reintroducing me A S J Tessimond … I used two of his poems (First Meeting & Meeting) in a memoir I wrote for my family in 2011. “My Back Pages” covered my exciting life from 1942 to 1998 when I came back from living in Russia. My Swami once said that our lives would be even more strange than we could ever possibly imagine – and he is right ! Now I writing “My Front Pages” & just bringing my narrative up to date & then some … as Sammy Davis Junior used to say/sing ! I am so glad that I stumbled across your site, & that I will not be too much accused of plagiarism … take care & go well, thanks, Paul

  2. I admire the way in which this poem is written. It captures some of the restraint, ethnocentrism and xenophobia of The British. However, being a proud Brit, I find the overall picture of “our race” negative.

  3. Excellent post! That poem resonates with me, and it´s view of the British, or, as you write, the English. That being said, I need not look far from my home here in Bavaria to see the self same xenophobia here. Europe is where we live – the concept of leaving it, is, for me, is as bizarre as if we wished to leave the world. I will repost this on Facebook.

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