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Shipdham

Shipdham lies approximately 3 miles south-west of East Dereham. The name derives from the Old English word for sheep - 'sceap' - hence 'homestead with a flock of sheep'. Shipdham is sometimes confused with Shipden - the drowned village off the North Norfolk coast near Cromer.

Shipdham was the first US heavy bomber base in Norfolk during World War II and was home to the famous B-24 Liberator bombers.

Shipdham Airfield

 

Hyam Plutzik

The American poet Hyam Plutzik was stationed at Shipdham c.1944-5 and became the Information and Education Officer for the 44th Bombardment Group of the USAAF. (Today the airfield has been turned into an industrial estate - but the derelict control tower and two of the original hangars still survive.)

Plutzik wrote two poems which were directly inspired by Shipdham - the first is On the Airfield at Shipdham which concerns a skylark that he saw above the runway and which he connects to the bombers:
 

There is the lark, you said. And for the first time
I saw, far up in the fast darkening air,
The small lonely singer beating its wings
Against the pull of the old and evil earth.

It is too late, I said, to praise its song ....

Praise instead (because they bring our deaths
And thus another cycle of this bird's praises)
The beasts with guts of metal groaning on the line
Or in the higher sky solemnly muttering.


© by the Estate of Hyam Plutzik. All rights reserved.


This poem was dedicated to R.H. Mottram, the Norwich-based novelist, best known for his Spanish Farm Trilogy (1927). Plutzik met Mottram after he invited him to give a lecture at the Shipdham air base. In fact, Plutzik records the event in a fascinating letter to his wife:
 

Dearest Tanya,

This evening Mr Mottram, well-known resident of the nearby city, came & lectured on our base, and I have just come back from taking him & his wife back to their home. Riding in the dark along the wet roads, with the forlorn landscape illuminated occasionally by the dimmed-out lights, I thought of you my wife, and I felt very lonely for you.

(Printed by permission of Rochester University archive.)


On the Sunday evening in question, Mottram and his wife were entertained in the officer's mess and after the lecture were driven back to 4, Poplar Drive - just off the Newmarket Road in Norwich.

The second poem inspired by Shipdham is Bomber Base which appeared in Plutzik's 1949 collection Aspects of Proteus. In this longer poem, the poet contemplates the bombers spread out on the airfield prior to take off but then shifts his attention to the surrounding East Anglian landscape where he notes the 'thatched farmhouse sleeps in the dark' or how the 'bomb trucks move down the deserted perimeter/ Where the cold North wind stifles all.'

Norfolk also features in his famous poem The Airman Who Flew Over Shakespeare' s England where 'pilgrims along the holy roads/To Walsingham' are mentioned. There is also a lesser known poem called The Old War which appeared in Apples of Shinar (1959) which was also set in the county. Plutzik's long dramatic poem Horatio, although not set in the Norfolk, was drafted during his time here. The poem wasn't published until 1961 - one year before Plutzik's premature death from cancer. Plutzik was only 50 years old when he died.

Plutzik, who was the son of Russian Jewish emigrants, returned to America after the Second World War and was appointed Professor of Poetry at Rochester University in New York. The university now houses a collection of his poetry and his letters.

Ted Hughes was a big fan of Plutzik's work and said: 'Plutzik's poems have haunted me for twenty-five years. His visions are authentic and piercing, and the song in them is strange - dense and harrowing, with unforgettable tones.'
 

Links:

More photographs of Shipdham Airfield

Hyam Plutzik Poetry

 

 

 

 

 

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