The return of our occasional Poem of the Month feature provides the pleasing opportunity to feature one of Tina MacNaughton’s finest poems, ‘Just Seventeen’. It also allows us to take up an important aspect of the city’s history – its long connections with the Royal Navy and with the losses of war. This blog has been somewhat delayed by Covid and work and readers will hopefully forgive me for continuing to label this an April Poem of the Month despite its publication date: April marks the 82nd anniversary of a significant event in the poet’s family history.

The poet

Tina MacNaughton was born and brought up in Portsmouth, a city that means a great deal to her. She now divides her time between Crowthorne, Berkshire, where she works as an acupuncturist, and her seaside flat in Southsea, where she walks, goes to the beach, and writes poetry. She belongs to the Portsmouth Writer’s Hub as well as Words Out Loud, which is based in Chichester. Her frank poems about menopause and women’s issues have resonated with many readers. A fine collection of Tina’s poetry On the Shoulders of Lions was published by The Choir Press in July 2021 and ‘Just Seventeen’ is featured there. 

We are proud that Tina graces the Portsmouth Literary Map, and grateful that her various contributions to the Writing Literary Portsmouth blog make her a vibrant part of our literary community.

The poem: a personal connection 

‘Just Seventeen’ centres on Tina’s long-standing connections to Southsea Common Memorial. This was a regular stop on her family walks in childhood, but it became particularly resonant and poignant because it commemorates a great uncle lost in action at a very tender age. As Tina relates:

I learnt that my Nan’s younger brother, Sidney Rex, was commemorated on one of the great Portsmouth war memorials, but no one in the family was sure where, so I resolved to find him. I found him on Southsea Common and, thanks to Google, I discovered that he had served and died on the famous Glow Worm, a destroyer which was lost during WW2. He was just seventeen.

Tina MacNaughton, In Conversation

HMS Glowworm

HMS Glowworm was commissioned in the mid-1930s, and from 1936 to 1937 she was on duty in Spanish waters during the Spanish Civil War, as part of British efforts to impose an arms blockade on all combatants. After this time as part of the Royal Navy’s Mediterranean Fleet, WWII saw her transferred closer to home, its duty to ensure safe passage for ships transiting into British waters. 

By March 1940, she became part of the Home Fleet and took part in the Norwegian Campaign. It was during this period, on 8 April 1940, that she came across German destroyers transportingOperation Weserübung troops destined to invade Norway. The Admiral Hipper, called in by the German destroyers, severely damaged Glowworm. but the British ship continued to engage, attempting to torpedo the German ship, before ramming it in the chaos of a close engagement. Its bow destroyed, Glowworm sank soon after its boilers exploded (at 10.24). The Hipper, badly damaged yet afloat, immediately sought to rescue as many survivors as possible, but 109 men, including Sidney Rex, died. 

Lieutenant Commander Gerard Broadmead Roope, who drowned when unable to cling to a rope while being rescued by the German ship, was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross, making him the first to receive a VC during WWII. Around 30 crew members survived. One can only imagine the horrors taking place during and after the engagement in the freezing waters of the North Sea. The final resting place of the Glowworm is roughly 70 nautical miles north-east of Froya Island, Norway (64º27’N, 06º28’E).

The poem: STOPping time

Deeply moving in its central subject matter, the poem gains yet greater emotional impact through its simplicity – both in the cold, stark economy of its language, and by its inventive allusion to the telegram forms used to communicate the deaths of serving soldiers to relatives during wartime. Its two stanzas admirably evoke events without involving themselves in battle details. The first is a numb, understated rendition complete with telegraphic ‘STOP’s, while the second brings to the fore the personal and family meaning of this tragic event, as well as its impacts. 

One may often find it difficult to engage with the sheer numbers of deaths incurred during major conflicts, but the focus on an individual life – and, in this case, on a story that would not otherwise see the light of day – brings home the reality of war with redoubled force. Our most recent blog turned to ongoing events in Ukraine, and our next, by Dr Christine Berberich, will review Graham Hurley’s Kyiv, a novel also steeped in the horrors of WWII, so there is another layer of significance to our decision to choose this particular poem at this particular moment. It is quoted here with the kind permission of the poet:

 

Just seventeen

Sidney Rex STOP just another name STOP amongst thousands STOP set in cold black stone STOP          Southsea Common Memorial, Portsmouth STOP signed up just seventeen STOP stepped aboard          proudly STOP Glow Worm STOP “first class stoker, sir” STOP torpedoed STOP by German                        submarine STOP missing in action STOP Sidney Rex STOP presumed dead STOP


        never a trace

of Sidney Rex

heartbroken mother

died

eighteen months later

leaving eight more sons

and a daughter,

Violet Doris,

my nan

just seventeen also

STOP

Readers will, I am sure, appreciate the power of this short verse, and there is little more to say that could add to its impact. As Tina related to me:

'Just seventeen' is my tribute to my Great Uncle and to all those who sacrificed their lives for democracy and freedom.

Tina MacNaughton, In Conversation

Do get in touch with me (mark.frost@port.ac.uk) if you have any reflections on this Poem of the Month or the issues it raises.