Jeremy Clarke Jeremy Clarke

A very annoying guide to the Somme battlefields

Our visit was marred by his tuneless humming and lack of historical insight but a few beers put everything right

Tyneside Irish Brigade attack on La Boisselle, 1 July 1916 [Robert Hunt Library/Windmill Books/UIG/Getty Images]

We arranged to meet the second, more expensive, guide of our Somme battlefield visit at the Thiepval Memorial visitor centre car park. He arrived punctually. The foreign correspondent climbed in the back of his car and I got in the front.

As he drove us past Lutyens’ masterpiece, instead of genuflecting towards it, the guide launched tunelessly into a repetitive mumbled refrain while thumping an imaginary bass drum with an imaginary foot pedal. ‘What’s that you’re singing?’ I asked. ‘Oh, nothing really. I’m just enjoying myself,’ he said. ‘Go on,’ I said. ‘What’s the song?’ ‘It doesn’t matter,’ he replied tetchily.

After a brief respite, the tempo and indistinct vocal melody started up again. ‘The Old Rugged Cross?’ I asked. ‘No,’ he said. ‘It’s a song by the Band. A song that means a lot to me.’ ‘What’s it called?’ I asked. ‘It’s called the Weight,’ he said. I could sense the foreign correspondent, veteran of wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Sri Lanka and of Chechens one and two, radiating amused consternation from the back seat.

As we descended towards the Ancre river then rose again towards the tragic plain in front of La Boisselle, the guide enlarged on his love affair with music. As a young man he used to play in a three-piece combo. They played men’s clubs and student unions. A low-paid job, but enjoyable. ‘Then finally I realised you can’t live on a rock star fantasy for ever and I got a job.’ But he still kept his hand in, we were relieved to hear, recording songs in his eight-track home studio.

He drove us first to the Lochnagar mine crater, detonated under the German front line near La Boisselle on 1 July 1916 and now a fixture for visiting coach tours.

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