The Fleming Collection

The Poetry Society has worked with the Fleming Collection to commission a poem inspired by their painting 'The Eve of the Battle of the Somme’ by Sir Herbert James Gunn and mark the centenary of the start of the First World War.

The painting is a poignant and deeply moving picture of young soldiers at rest and play before a battle that would claim the lives of thousands of men. Sir Herbert was a Scottish painter, and as the gallery holds a Scottish collection, Scottish poet John Glenday was the perfect choice to write the piece.


The Big Push

after Sir Herbert James Gunn ‘The Eve of the Battle of the Somme’

Would you believe it, there’s a bloke out there singing
When You Come to the End of a Perfect Day’.
His audience, a sixty-pounder crew, stand round bleeding
from the ears. The Boche are all but finished, apparently -

I heard they’re packing old clock parts into trench mortars
now, for want of iron scrap. Some wag quips that next time he’s
sentry and hears the plop of a minnenwerfer tumbling over,
he’ll not blow the alarm, he’ll shout: ‘Time, gentlemen, please…

We laugh and for one heartbeat forget to be afraid. Bravery
and cowardice are just two workings of the same fear
moving us in different ways. The 8th East Surreys
have been given footballs to kick and follow at Zero Hour;

it’s to persuade them from the trenches lest their nerve fail
as they advance on Montaubon. I’ve watched men
hitch up their collars and trudge forward as if shrapnel
and lead were no worse than a shower of winter rain.

This afternoon a few of us went swimming in the mill dam
behind Camp. Just for a while to have no weight, to go drifting
clear of thought and world, was utter bliss. A skylark climbed
high over the torn fields on its impossible thread of song:

like an unbodied joy.” I don’t know why, but it reminded
me of the day we took over from the French along the Somme;
it was so tranquil, so picturesque, the German trenchworks crowded
with swathes of tiny, brilliant flowers none of us could name.

I believe if the dead come back at all they’ll come back green
to grow from the broken earth and drink the gathered water
and all the things they suffered will mean no more to them
than the setting-in of the ordinary dark, or a change of weather.

John Glenday


The Fleming Collection

The Fleming Collection, widely regarded as the finest collection of Scottish art in private hands, is the only dedicated gallery granting public access to Scottish art all year round. The collection comprises over 750 oils and watercolours from 1770 to the present day including works by Raeburn, Ramsay, Wilkie and two iconic paintings of the Highland Clearances: The Last of the Clan by Thomas Faed and Lochaber No More by John Watson Nicol. Particularly noted for its major paintings by the Scottish Colourists, the collection also holds paintings by the Glasgow Boys as well as seminal works by Anne Redpath and her contemporaries.


John Glenday

John Glenday is an awardwinning Scottish poet based in Drumnadrochit in the Highlands. The history of the First World War has been a subject of ongoing fascination for Glenday; his 2013 poem ‘The Lost Boy’ for example, tells the true story of his Uncle Alexander, who was in the ‘D’ Battery 307th Brigade, Royal Field Artillery and died in the Battle of the Sambre on November 4th 1918, the same battle as Wilfred Owen. Alongside his career as a poet, Glenday has worked as an addictions counsellor and psychiatric nurse and his poems are characterised by an understated integrity and humanity. With his Scottish heritage, his interest in the conflict, and – most especially – the sheer quality of his writing, John Glenday was the obvious choice for a commission to celebrate Herbert Gunn.