The National Service Board – and A.E. Housman

In 1940 Percy Withers recalled occasions when, during the previous war, he had told A.E. Housman about his work at the National Service Board:

He was greatly interested too in the technicalities of the work, the material it exploited, the revelations it brought to light, the ugliness, the momentary relief, the sordidness, the enduring pity. I could speak with both experience and conviction. We were putting through sixty recruits a day, many of them past middle life, more of them prematurely old – many ill-nourished, deformed in limb, toothless, defective in hearing or in vision – men who had rarely been beyond a neighbouring village, or to the county town for an annual festa: few or none too decrepit, too debilitated or too forlorn to escape the narrowed mesh of the latest Government netting. It was in all the most degrading task I was ever set to do, I told him, but I was not sure that he acquiesced.

This is from A Buried Life: Personal Recollections of A.E. Housman. The book is very enjoyable, though with its share of unconscious humour, as Withers tries to be a Boswell to a literary idol who all too often often refuses to communicate. the book is written with affection, though, and gives a good idea of how Housman appeared to his contemporaries.

I bought the book for a fiver at the excellent Scarthin Books in Cromford, while I was on holiday. This shop sells both new and secondhand books, and is just about everything a bookshop ought to be. As well as being a vegetarian café.

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