Goodbye West Country
GOODBYE WEST COUNTRY
|First edition, Putnam, 1937|
First published Putnam, September 1937, price: 10s 6d
Illustrated with 31 photographs by HW as 30 tipped-in plate pages.
Little, Brown & Company (Boston USA), March 1938, price $3.00
Illustrated with 8 photographs only and with shortened text – Matthews (Henry Williamson: A Bibliography, 2004) states that the BBC passage about the Red Deer broadcast was removed as it was considered ‘of little interest to American readers’.
LOETITIA, ANN, ROBIN, WINDLES, JOHN,
MARGARET, ROBERT, ROSEMARY,
(HW’s wife, Ann Thomas, Robin Hibbert (Loetitia’s brother) and the children in age order – Rosemary being Ann’s daughter by HW.)
The jacket blurb gives a very good summing up of the book:
There is nothing to indicate why this book was published by Putnam. The last actual title they had published was Tarka the Otter (1927, and about 14 titles previously), which they were still reprinting up to 1949, along with the early nature story titles. The contract states:
A literary work at present entitled “Goodbye West Country” comprising a detailed journal from January to December of a last year in Devon and embracing all country aspects autobiographical reminiscent and actual . . .
to be delivered by 1 August next with photographic originals of not less than 24 illustrations connected with said work. The price was to be 7s 6d – with a royalty of 20% and the advance to be £250 payable in two parts, one on signature and the other on publication. The contract is undated, but HW’s diary notes on 23 March 1937: ‘From Putnam for new book £125’ – so it can be presumed that it was signed a few days earlier.
His diary for 5 April 1937 notes: ‘Working hard on Goodbye West Country.’
But on 9 April: ‘Work came almost to a stop. Have been working now for 6 weeks, about 10 hours a day – hard writing & rewriting. Dead beat.’
Soon after this he left for Norfolk for a few days to sort out various problems. One wonders how the book ever got finished. The strain is obvious.
May 16: ‘Tried to write in field at Ox’s Cross [but was too worried].’
HW and his brother-in-law Robin Hibbert were at the field to pack up (load the lorry, etcetera) ready to move various effects to Norfolk, where they were going to camp for the summer while preparing the farm for taking over. After a horrendously hectic (and argumentative) few days they finally left on Saturday, 22 May. They were then working solidly until 8 August, when HW returned to Devon to collect more gear to take to Norfolk. There are no details about the book whatsoever, but somehow, amongst all the chaos, hard work, and worry, he evidently finished it and dealt with the proofs.
So Goodbye West Country is HW’s valedictory farewell to the area he had lived in since 1921. He tells us that he felt he had written all he could on the area and needed a fresh scene; but the reason for leaving are far more complex than that. To understand, it is necessary to go back to the autumn of 1935.
HW had been exhausted with the intensity of writing Salar the Salmon and was very happy to accept the invitation of his friend John Heygate to visit him for a holiday in Berlin, all expenses paid, and including tickets for that year’s Nürnburg Rally. Heygate was then working in Berlin at the UFA film studio.
HW left for Germany on 5 September 1935 and was away about three weeks. As I have previously mentioned, there are no actual diary entries for 1935, but the visit is well covered in the pages of Goodbye West Country, as will be seen.
Immediately after Christmas 1935 HW went up to London, seeing his friend Richard de la Mare at Faber and delivering the material for the one-volume edition of The Flax of Dream. Dick invited him to spend the New Year with them at their family home at East Runton on the north Norfolk coast. It is obvious that HW was depressed and in some agitation, and here he poured out his problems to his hosts.
That they suggested the solution to his problems would be to become a farmer seems an extraordinarily extreme answer to his usual domestic problems and even to his feeling of staleness. I have come to the conclusion that he was actually very disturbed by his visit to Germany. Despite all his enthusiasm for what he had seen and heard, he could not have been unaware of the implications involved: that if things went wrong then there was a possibility of another war. (Indeed one or two passages in Goodbye West Country show this to be so.)
This interpretation makes de la Mare’s suggestion a great deal more understandable. To become a farmer in the face of the threat of war makes sense of the whole matter. HW would be helping his country as a true patriot in a vital industry, without being involved in any way in the war itself. Moreover, he would be protecting his family, particularly his young sons, farming being a reserved occupation.
The actual mechanics of buying ‘The Norfolk Farm’ will be dealt with in due course: here it is just necessary to mention it in order to put the raison d’être of Goodbye West Country into context. Having decided to buy the virtually derelict Old Hall Farm in Stiffkey on the north Norfolk coast, this current book is his valediction to the area he had lived in since the war – indeed, in his heart, since before the war, from that very first holiday visit in May 1914.
He tells us that he had decided that 1936 was to be a quiet and easy year. To some extent that was so, but he had much to deal with over the farm (the legal side was very complicated and convoluted), and there was a lot to learn about farming. He also had to earn money to keep the family, and so there is a certain amount of writing taking place. There is also the new occupation of writing and making broadcasts for the BBC. How these broadcasts relate to Goodbye West Country will emerge in the analysis here.
These broadcasts have been collected and reprinted in:
Further, a very comprehensive and interesting background to these broadcasts can be found in John Gregory's ‘Henry Williamson and the BBC’, HWSJ 29, March 1994, pp. 5-32, which is also included in the e-book edition of Spring Days in Devon.
There is a very battered file copy of Goodbye West Country in the Archive which has copious notes added by HW: some for revisions (many removing the rather blatant use of the real names of friends), some indicating what, in the future, he made use of elsewhere: for example, a large number are marked for use in A Clear Water Stream (1958) and for volumes 11 (The Power of the Dead, 1963) and 12 (The Phoenix Generation, 1965) of A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight. Some are just illuminating comments. I will refer to the more important of these within the book analysis, as they make an interesting insight into his writing process.
Goodbye West Country is marked as having been published in September 1937. However, I think there actually may have been a month’s delay. Reviews (and there are a large number of them) do not start to appear until November, while a letter from HW to Constant Huntington, his publisher at Putnam, on receipt of a copy of the book, is dated 1 November 1937 (see below).
HW’s diary records that he travelled back down to Devon on Sunday, 26 September 1937 in order to collect various items he needed for Norfolk: the house was empty (the family had moved to lodge with Annie Rawle, who lived nearby), though Gipsy was present. On Monday, 27 September he wrote:
Packed things & idled, feeling incoherent. Wrote an article in morning for Daily Express, Goodbye West Country.
(See ‘When you move house ghosts cry around’, Daily Express, 9 October 1937, reprinted in Chronicles of a Norfolk Famer: Contributions to the Daily Express 1937-39, ed. John Gregory, HWS, 2004, pp.25-7; e-book 2013.)
This article is a far superior valediction to that at the end of the book itself. It ends:
For more than a year I’ve been looking forward to this moment – going far away to a new life, a natural life, of easy body-working; after the strains of too intensive imaginative creation.
Now the moment has come; and the ghosts are crying all around me – the ghosts that live and die with a man’s memory.
Come on, cat, into your basket! Pack up pen and paper. Leave the key in the door for the new tenant. Goodbye, West Country!
The book starts off with an unusually large number of what are known as ‘Prelim’ pages, unnumbered and several blank. This obviously annoyed HW. He wrote a series of phrases across them (in brown ink) as follows – and they are detailed below as they appear on the separate pages:
Just look at (over)
[Half title] waste of (over)
[HW title list] bloody paper (over)
[Title page] -----------------> [long arrow]
[Biblio info] Here is
[Dedication page] more waste
[another half-title] Putnam’s like to pretend to
[blank verso] “Bumper quality”
The letter that HW wrote to Putnam (found inside a copy of Goodbye West Country by a HWS member who very kindly sent me a copy) shows his intense irritation:
The MS note is in handwriting of Constant Huntington:
Mrs West – Please see if anything can or should be done. C.H.
The jacket cover, bearing the portrait that HW so disliked, is signed 'K' in the bottom right corner; this is actually William Kermode, whose linocuts so vividly enhance The Patriot's Progress. That it was Kermode designed this cover appears not to have been previously appreciated.
By November 1937 HW had already left Shallowford and Devon, and was working flat out on the Norfolk Farm. He had indeed been to an auction on that day – and would have been extremely tired.
Goodbye West Country is ostensibly a diary of HW’s final year at Shallowford (his home on the Fortescue estate at Filleigh in North Devon) – indeed his final year in Devon – but it is actually an outpouring of thoughts and instances that cover his whole way of life. It is an extraordinarily honest book. The range of subjects is large and varied and gives us a fascinating and revealing still-life portrait of HW’s life and that of life in general as it was at that time. HW provided a total of 31 photographs to illuminate the work, and a selection of them will be reproduced here.
The book is arranged in twelve numbered sections (chapters) which correspond to the months of the year, with passages put under actual dates as if diary entries. No such diary exists. This is purely a literary device and a very effective one. In many ways the book is reminiscent of his earlier On Foot in Devon and Devon Holiday: it is a ramble through his life and the countryside.
As the book opens we learn HW is going on a journey. Literally, by train to Bristol, where he is to make a broadcast for the BBC; metaphorically he is surely telling us that he is taking us on a journey through his present life, and further, for by the end of the book the journey will be his taking leave of the West Country as he travels north-east to a new phase of his – and his family’s – life.
HW did not actually travel to Bristol on 1 January to make his first broadcast as the book suggests: that had already taken place on 16 December 1935 – and the next one, ‘Spring Days in Devon’, was on 21 March.
The entry for 2 January is a lyrical essay about salmon leaping; in the file copy HW has marked that: ‘used in Stream book, Feb. 1957’ (i.e. A Clear Water Stream, 1958).
The next entry tells us his feelings (stemming from his experience of the 1914 Christmas Truce) about the general ‘semi-fearful antagonism’ to the ‘new Germany’:
The new world, for me, was germinated from that fraternisation.
HW is asking for a sympathetic understanding of the German situation, very much with the idea that it is better to make friends of them than to push them into a corner where they will turn and fight. Many others held that sort of opinion at that time. We know with hindsight what a naïve and dangerous assumption that was, but it made sense to HW at that time.
The visit that he states was made on 5 January to a ‘Farm Mechanization Conference’ in Oxford was actually made on that date but a year later, in 1937. HW moved it to establish his reason for leaving Devon. He thoroughly enjoyed this event – staying in St John’s College and dining in Christ Church Great Hall – as a rare diary entry bears out.
We have a moving essay about the problems of writing Salar the Salmon, ‘so costly, so continuous an anguish’. His notes added later are even more revealing.
Another entry is devoted to the one-volume edition of The Flax of Dream (published in May 1936) and his thoughts about his proposed Foreword. He then tells us about his friend from his school days, Victor Yeates, who had died 15 December 1934, and his book Winged Victory. Then we learn of the death of King George V as announced on the wireless, while a few pages later he describes the funeral of the King. The file copy is marked: ‘pp. 37-44 embodied in Chapter 10 of ‘12’ April 1964’ (i.e. The Phoenix Generation).
There is a very interesting description of the thatch at Shallowford, and thatching in general, and including a photograph of this very charming cottage:
Then, in the middle of a piece on the merits of Great Farmers by J. A. Scott Watson (who had spoken at the Mechanisation Conference in Oxford), he diverts into the tale of John Knight, who had tried to tame Exmoor, with some very interesting details of the venture.
The last entry for February states:
Left Devon to-day in the Silver Eagle, to stay the night with Petre Mais at Shoreham-by-Sea and then on to Kent to help Ann with her novel – to be published pseudonymously.
Readers in 1937 must have found that somewhat cryptic! Peter Mais should by now be familiar; Ann Thomas’s book, a fictionalised version of their affaire, was Women Must Love, published under the name of ‘Julia Hart Lyon’ (Faber, 1937).
HW has marked the first few entries as being at ‘Tenterden’ (where Ann lived with her sister), then on 13 March he returns to Shallowford, marking the passage: ‘used in ‘12’, Jan 1964’.
The panes of glass in the windows of my writing room are old and discoloured. Some are curved, flawed with bubbles and twists in the glass, which distorts the trees outside. . . .
It is a very serene passage – but it winds up with the statement that Joseph Conrad was ‘a deeply unhappy’ man because he had the wrong wife. Oh dear! This is followed by a sad moral about linnets in a cage. Then a passage marked in MS ‘Instow’ – the little fishing village which HW frequently visited to see his friends, the Renshaw family. He listens to the night cries of wading birds, especially the curlew ‘crying farewell to the sea’, before leaving for their nesting hills of the moor: ‘Lovely eye-lashes of sound’.
On 22 March HW tells us that the entries for 13th and 14th were the basis of a talk for the BBC, which went out ‘last night’. And yes: ‘Spring Days in Devon’ was indeed broadcast on 21 March 1936 (and later used as the title of the HWS collection of broadcasts already mentioned). He drove to Bristol (accompanied by Ann Thomas) in his Silver Eagle Alvis Tourer, registration number DR 6084: the car he had bought second-hand in June 1931 for £335 (a previous owner had been the American Whitney Straight, millionaire racing driver and aviator, who joined the RAF on the outbreak of war, and became in due course chief executive of BOAC). He drove there ‘too fast’ and got back at midnight, 170 miles both ways – ‘point of honour not to put the hood up’ (indeed – whatever the weather!). The tales of crashes or near misses that he relates here cannot be verified; but they act as a prologue to a future event.
He describes a walk taken by ‘Ann, I, and little John’ along a deserted shore to get material for the next broadcast. They walk from ‘the vastly white and new’ Saunton Hotel and continue against a ‘rasping east wind’ along the shore of Saunton Sands to the ‘timber of a wooden ship embedded in the sands’, and on to the ‘blinker’ on its little red tower, until they come to the salmon boats with seine nets hauling in a catch.
The walk, slightly revised, was duly recorded for the BBC, broadcast as ‘East Wind’, 16 April 1936 (see Spring Days in Devon). The file copy has the MS marking: ‘Used unrevised Children of Shallowford’.
Then the last entry for March tells of the visit made ten years previously by himself and Robin Hibbert to Cranmere, to get information for a scene in Tarka the Otter, some of which is marked: ‘Used in no. 11 novel, 11/1/62’ (The Power of the Dead, where Phillip is writing ‘The Water Wanderer’).
The air is buoyant: the mood optimistic. He mentions here the death of Ann’s father, killed at Vimy Ridge nineteen years before (the writer and poet Edward Thomas, killed in action 9 April 1917), and adds a short article by Victor Yeates about his life when training as pilot at Croydon Aerodrome during the war. Supposed to be writing, instead he takes his rod and goes fishing.
Having caught a salmon, he returned to write his story and to catch the evening post deadline. The whole passage is marked in the file copy for A Clear Water Stream, and has an added MS note at end: ‘Yet I felt I had betrayed a friend, a kindred spirit: for I know what the hopes of the salmon had been.’
He then relates the story of his ‘Schoolboy’s Nature Diary’, an important record of his bird watching and egg collecting in 1913 and spring 1914, kept in school exercise books in two forms: one a tabulation of dates and items, the other as a prose essay. The latter was published in The Lone Swallows (revised edition, 1933). He tells here of his rivalry with fellow schoolmate, Bony Watson:
It seems only a short while ago – just behind a memory of sunlight – Bony and I writing our diaries, and passing them to one another by the chaps in the desks between. At times, with an almost piercing emotion, I seem to be striving to re-enter that lost world of 1913 – beyond the broken no man’s land of Time.
In the original exercise book he wrote, after the war was over:
HW was a soldier 2¼ months later; in France 5¼ months later
And Finish, Finish, Finish, the hope and illusion of youth
For ever, and for ever, and for ever.
The next entry tells the story of the actual crash HW had in the Silver Eagle returning late from a BBC Bristol broadcast. (That was the ‘East Wind’ essay already noted. ‘East Wind’ was also sold to the American magazine Atlantic Monthly: cheque £19 0s 2d, banked 29 August 1936; the story appeared in the issue for May 1937 – and later collected in Atlantic Tales: Contributions to The Atlantic Monthly, 1927–1947, HWS, 2007; e-book 2013). Ann Thomas was with him. She noted in the diary:
Crashed at 1 a.m. returning thence [i.e. from Bristol] at corner of Aller Hill – white owl across windscreen caused H. to mount bank, car turned on its side. Both uninjured.
HW notes that he was lucky: if the car had gone right over he would probably have been killed. (He makes no mention of his companion in Goodbye West Country.)
I watched the poor old Eagle towed away, twisted front wheels and bent axle up in the air. It will be repaired.
More ‘water’ stories follow, lampreys, elvers, with an MS note in the file copy: ‘Used in A Clear Stream, 1957’. Then he is abruptly catapulted back to 1914 and Plugstreet by the yowling of cats at night:
21 April: . . . the melancholy sound of a half-starved cat which, during November 1914, haunted the ruins of a burnt-out, shelled-out farmstead we called Hampshire Farm, in Plugstreet Wood. . . . There was a hen there too, in those early days. She used to walk, clucking, along the parapets of the dangerous Hampshire T trench near Le Gheer. Our chaps used to shoot rabbits, pheasants and even wild geese with their rifles; but they let the hen alone. So did the Germans. One Saxon told us . . . during the truce that they had similar feelings for that hen.
The entry for 23 April relates another outing by Ann and himself ‘to the Headland’ to gather broadcast material. This piece was actually broadcast on 3 April 1936 – the only difference being that its author is alone.
On 30 April there is a prose-ode in praise of worms:
Worms are much abused creatures . . . Like poets, they are the natural priest of the earth.
It is a lovely piece. (Thinking I might be grossly misusing the word ‘ode’ I looked it up: ‘rhymed, or rarely unrhymed, lyric of exalted style and enthusiastic tone, often in varied or irregular metre, usually between 50-200 lines in length.’ HW’s piece is 42 lines and about 380 words, and certainly meets the other parameters: I rest my case.) It was incorporated into the talk ‘Around Dartmoor’, broadcast on 25 May 1936 (see Spring Days in Devon).
Another walk to gather material for broadcasting. The author takes the Crossley (used while the Alvis was being repaired from the crash), ‘leaving it at the field’: he has driven to Ox’s Cross from Shallowford, and then walks over the fields to the down overlooking the sea. The sounds of ‘hundreds of larks’ singing add to the feeling of silence; soon nightjars will arrive and wild flowers will abound. A sprig of tiny milkwort reminds him of Richard Jefferies and The Story of My Heart:
It is enough to lie on the green sward in the shadow of green boughs, to listen to the songs of summer, to drink in the sunlight, the air, the flowers, the sky, the beauty of all. . . .
The piece was broadcast (slightly revised) as ‘The Deserted Shore’ 15 May 1936 (see Spring Days in Devon).
The 10 May entry opens by telling a story of his 1934 visit to America. The ‘Hal Smith’ mentioned here was his publisher, Harrison Smith of Harrison Smith and Haas, who published The Gold Falcon. HW compares the two springs, and the trout that come in on the Gulf Stream Current. This continues on to the 11 May entry, which was broadcast as ‘Our Gulf Stream Spring’ on 1 May 1936 (see Spring Days in Devon). HW’s file copy has several crossings out and MS additions, some passages noted as for vol. 11, some for vol. 12 (of A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight).
For the significance of the ‘Fireplay Pool’ read Salar the Salmon.
The entry for 13 May opens: ‘A year ago today T. E. Lawrence died.’ This is not totally accurate, because that was the day of the accident – TEL actually died on 19 May: but no doubt for HW in effect he died on that day. HW has written a piece ‘for a proposed book’ to be edited by TEL’s brother, Professor A. W. Lawrence (the book was T. E. Lawrence by his Friends, Cape 1937). (All HW’s writings about Lawrence will be addressed in a separate entry in due course.) HW states here that ‘young Lawrence’ (i.e. the professor), had pulled him up about an inaccuracy: his excuse is his work load and large family – and here places a photograph of that family hard at work in the Shallowford garden.
HW’s children: ‘Windles’ (Bill); ‘Pargie’ (Margaret) holding ‘Poppit’ (Richard);
‘Crab’ (John); ‘Robbie’ (Robert) and ‘Tisha’ (Loetitia, more usually called Gipsy)
The 25 May entry describes a trip to Dartmoor (broadcast ‘Around Dartmoor’ 25 May 1936, and collected in Spring Days in Devon; but which also incorporates the worm prose-ode from earlier). Although not named they end up at Lydford Gorge, the setting for HW’s book The Star-born (1933), from which he quotes a passage:
Thirteen years ago my bearded motor-cycling self . . . wrote in The Star-born a description of the place which I read again tonight. It’s all right.
(He actually wrote that book in 1922 – so that is correct.) The passage is another ‘prose-ode': this time in praise of green mosses.
The entry for 30 May is about fishing which becomes a thought about the war. Then changes tack to tell us about a Foyle’s Literary Luncheon that he had attended just before Whitsun. His diary notes this for 29 May: ‘to speak for 20 minutes’. Whitsunday was two days later. Foyle’s Literary Luncheons were very prestigious affairs run by Christina Foyle of the world-renowned Foyle’s Bookshop in Charing Cross Road. HW tells how the principal guest, Herr Ernst Toller (1893–1939; German left-wing playwright, poet and political activist), spoke about, or rather implied (to the murmured appreciation of the audience), the barbarity of catching fish – totally regardless of the fact that they had just eaten cold salmon with mayonnaise.
HW goes out to fish but in a tired and depressed mood. The file copy is marked in MS note in red pencil: ‘Used in chapter 7 of 12, 24 Feb. 1964.’; and another in blue pencil: ‘Not for A Clear Stream.’ A further card tab repeats this with the added note: ‘? use in 12, PM watching the Black Trout, 24 Feb 1964’.
For years the river had been me. I had known, sensed, lived in every stone, bubble, grain of sand. Yet that part of my life was ephemeral as the air-life of the spinners; frail, delicate, creatures living only on air during their brief winged life between the rise and setting of their one day’s sun.
There is a solitary salmon there which he had been watching for over two months. He now watches it play, with his usual detailed lyrical description.
I stood there a long time, watching that lonely salmon playing by itself --- . . . I watched until dusk, when it moved down into deeper water below. Then I came home, to write this.
Next there is a short discussion around the one-volume edition of The Flax of Dream (published May 1936), drawing attention to his own Foreword, stating the book has not sold and that many reviews were adverse. That is not actually true, as can be seen in the entry for the book. Once again HW is his own worst enemy.
The next two entries are equally downturned. In fact in the file copy he has crossed through the whole of page 164, and added in MS at the top: ‘I suppose I ought to have stuck to my 1921 idea, of never again entering the human world, but to live and be alone, for my writing only.’
But he revives with a piece about partridges in the Field, and then a reprise of salmon and water, marked ‘? A Stream’ but also on a card tag: ‘12 Ph. watching water.’
On 19 June we have a description of pre-broadcast activity, nerves, his need to hold a particular pencil stump ‘stolen’ from the children. Having built up the tense atmosphere he launches, eventually, into his subject: ‘I haven’t been very far for the material for this week’s talk.’ As far only as his garden, but where he has seen ‘quite a lot of things’: great tits feeding their young in an old metal pipe leaning against the hedge, and then a wren nesting in ‘the little thatched summer house’ (where tools were kept) and a swarm of bees: such minutiæ are lovingly and delicately described.
This was broadcast as ‘Diversion in a Garden’ on 12 June 1936 (see Spring Days in Devon). But HW has also marked this passage as ‘Garden article’ and several future passages are also marked thus. This refers to an essay entitled ‘Field Garden’, which was first printed in A Book of Gardens, ed. James Turner (Cassell, 1963). (The essay was reprinted in HWSJ 6, Oct. 82, pp. 36-43; well worth reading).
Of particular interest is HW’s reference in the middle of this essay to Swinburne (Algernon Charles Swinburne, 1837–1909, poet): ‘a little man about five feet high, with red hair and a shy manner, but whose verse was like that of a giant’. This from the man who makes Phillip Maddison dislike the continu ous quoting of poetry and praise of this poet by his friend Julian Warbeck (Frank Davis) in The Flax of Dream and the middle volumes of A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight! Here HW quotes a chorus from Swinburne’s poem ‘Atalanta’, likening it to the song of the wren. It opens with the very well-known line: ‘When the hounds of spring are on winter’s traces’. HW quotes this same poem (but a different verse and a very different context) in The Power of the Dead (vol. 11, A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight, 1963), fronting Part I: ‘A Drive to Perfection’. HW thought a great deal more of Swinburne’s work than he openly admitted!
(This constant cross-referencing of ideas and thoughts made by HW surely ties all his work into a single unit. The work is the man to such a high degree that none of it can be divided out. And I would suggest that this is possibly unique?)
This is followed by a long passage about the arrival of an unwanted visitor, all very tongue-in-cheek, in the middle of which he placed this photograph of Shallowford. The whole of this passage is crossed through in his file copy.
On Midsummer’s Day a honey bee falls exhausted onto his desk, giving rise to the thought:
Poetry is honey; but the making of it involves arduous and nervous strains of which the ordinary sipper of nectar is usually unaware.
The entry for 29 June opens with the flight of a peregrine and the poisoning of pigeons in order to kill this predator. It contains a magnificent description of a stoop (the fall of a peregrine from a great height):
The black arrowhead cut down at it; fell below it; swooped up vertically; fell again. The pigeon’s wings closed. It dropped; the barb fell onto it as though freed from the force of gravity. . . .
The essay in the file copy is marked with a card slip: ‘Pigeon Book’ – that is The Scandaroon, HW’s last book, published in 1972.
8 July: the author states that this extract had gone out over the air last week. It is the story of a walk on Midsummer Eve ‘on the down above the Atlantic, watching the flashes of the Lundy lighthouse and the horned moon sinking into the sea. . . .’ His thoughts roam as he stands and gazes out to sea. A nightjar – ‘mysterious bird’ – reels out its song: more thoughts arise and finally he remembers his first nightjar’s nest from June 1914 (on that first momentous holiday spent in Georgeham just before war broke out). He states that the eggs still exist, ‘but most of boyhood’s collection has gone in the years between’.
The piece was broadcast as ‘Country Mind and Town Mind’ on 29 June 1936 (see Spring Days in Devon) – a rather unworthy title!
Another fishing story follows, marked for ‘A Stream’, and is mainly about mayflies, thoughts of, and their transitory life, leading to philosophical musing.
Death and transfiguration – or transfiguration and death; which?. . .
My time was up too; I had, in my solitary way, but intermittently, stumbling after may-fly truth, been faithful to tree, river, fish, bird; now it was time to go. Farewell River Bray.
(The latter phrase is crossed through for revision – he is only half way through the year!)
This is accompanied by a photo of Wheel Pool and the viaduct crossing the Deer Park at Shallowford:
(At that time the viaduct carried the railway; it was so solidly built that today it carries the ‘new’ main road.)
July ends with HW swimming in the pool below the bridge, pretending to be an otter and looking for trout – a long and serene description. The whole passage is marked ‘Deer Park – used in Clear Stream’. The bridge is the familiar ‘Humpy Bridge’, and HW places a photograph of it here.
He describes how 'once John Heygate and I tried to net these trout, to put them in the river higher up'; the attempt was unsuccessful, but recorded for posterity by the photograph below:
The whole family (including Ann and daughter Rosemary) moved to HW’s field for the summer holiday. The ‘family’ lived in the very basic building at the top entrance known as the garage, and its upper storey (with its vertical ladder against the wall): HW lived at the opposite end of the Field in his Writing Hut. We are told this in the entry for 10 August: note HW’s MS revision:
The young man was Guy Priest, who rather latched on to HW. HW refers to him, and others like him, on the next page as ‘a staggart’ (the term for a young deer attendant on an older beast, rather as a knight would have a chevalier).
The first entry here, for 1 August, is a cheerful and lively piece describing HW’s life (as if alone) at the Field, and the birds and their various antics that he sees from the Hut. (It is marked on a card tab ‘Garden’: i.e. ‘Field Garden’ already noted – but it doesn’t actually seem to have been included there.)
The entry for 8 August (an added MS note states: ‘Me talking to the mike this night: for twelve guineas.’) is a long essay about Lorna Doone: ‘Lorna Doone was first published 67 years ago.’ HW’s ‘Data Diary’ notes: ‘Sat. 15 August: BRISTOL – Lorna Doone.’ (Broadcast as ‘Lorna Doone and the Doone Valley’ on 15 August 1936; printed in Pen and Plough: Further Broadcasts.) However there are considerable differences between the two versions. The GWC entry is more ‘domestic’ and forms only the second half of the broadcast, which has a long, more formal ‘introduction’.
11 August is a long piece about making hay at the Field, and is marked on card tab as: ‘Garden, START article’. (The ‘Field Garden’ article already referred to, see HWSJ 6, pp. 36-43.) It is very interesting to compare the two versions.
Then comes a happy description of swimming in company of his friend Petre Mais, staying at Woolacoombe.
(It was at this time that the actual deeds for the Norfolk Farm were signed. HW has added an MS note here, but this really belongs to his Norfolk Farm book.)
The short piece under 18 August starts with partridges then diverts to gulls, ending with ‘Swagdagger’, the white stoat which featured in earlier tales. (Marked ‘Used chapter 10 of 12, 20 March 1964.’) In the next entry, the tale of the partridges continues with a more detailed description, again ending with Swagdagger, chattering with rage at a near miss.
On 23 August we are told: ‘This afternoon we all went down to Vention Sands.’ He contrasts this with his earlier visits twenty years before, concluding with this rather superb sentence:
I did not regret the past solitude; yet it seemed curiously, serenely, to be watching me, from just beyond the present sunlight.
He states here that at 6 p.m. he saw ‘a silver shape moving slowly in from the west. The Hindenburg, from its Atlantic journey.’ Adding a little vignette of the man sitting on his rock taking his attitude from (as he has added in MS) ‘the penny picture paper where he had got them’. His rock because: ‘Twenty years ago, this very month, on sick leave, I cut my initials on that rock, with the date – August 1916.’ HW was indeed there in 1916, on convalescent leave, in company with his friend Terence Tetley.
HW adds that scene of seeing the German airship Hindenburg into The Phoenix Generation (A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight, vol. 12, 1965). However, HW, in company with his wife and eldest son, had left for Norfolk on 22 August. They were away for a week, and so could not have seen it. The sight of the Hindenburg must have been well reported in the local newspaper (and the national press), however; or perhaps Ann and the others witnessed this event.
Thus the following entry for 24 August also has a spurious date attached; but that does not matter at all. It describes a family picnic at the end of the ‘Branton’ seawall. HW reminds us that this is Barbellion country (whose landmark books he admired greatly), then launches into a lyrical description of peregrine falcons seen ‘playing’ with a flight of sand larks. The whole passage is marked ‘Pigeon Book’ (The Scandaroon, 1972).
A year ago today I sailed in the Bremen from Southampton, for Germany.
There follows a very detailed account (over 30 pages) of HW’s 1935 visit to Germany at the invitation of his friend John Heygate, then working for the UFA film studio in Berlin. HW was assigned from the start a ‘guide’ (or minder) called Chemitzer. HW tends to refer to him as ‘K’ (the German ‘ch’ is hard – ‘K’). K’s job was to escort HW, to guard and to guide, to make sure that he saw what officialdom wanted him to see, and heard what officialdom wanted him to hear. K was very good at his job. HW was fed the very convincing official line and, wanting to believe in the good of Germany and its leader, he was very impressed by everything: the new Autobahn roads, the cleanliness, the emphasis on agriculture, and the activities of the German Youth Movement. The visit included (free) tickets to that year’s Nürnburg Rally, no doubt a very exciting and impressive event.
The account is an interesting historical record of that time. This is not the place to discuss HW’s politics, which I have addressed at length elsewhere. But I would repeat here that all that HW did and thought stemmed from his horrific experience of the First World War and his total commitment that he would do everything he could to prevent any future war.
John Heygate driving HW in his beloved MG sports car
By total contrast – or is it? – the next entry, 6 September, describes the story of spiders and their webs: a story of love and patience on the part of the male; until the female’s poisonous ‘horns plunged into his tangled body and those teeth rasped away the life of the poor little aerial dreamer’. As I have stated in the opening section, HW may not have been as naïve as appearances suggest, and I find the placing of this piece significant.
There follows a memory of 1912, a tale of wandering in his childhood haunts and an adventure with a stoat which kills a rat which killed a ‘bottle-bird’ (long-tailed tit), and so its sixteen young starved to death; the stoat bit his finger when he tried to interfere. But his keeper friend, with the craft of years, catches the stoat and its young, and hangs them on his gibbet. (The passage is marked ‘Garden article’ but none of this detail actually appears in ‘Field Garden’.)
The entry for 13 September is headed as from the ‘Hotel France et Choiseul, Paris’ where he is with ‘Miss Louise’ – Mrs Louise Reese, with whom he had stayed on his visit to Georgia in the spring of 1934. HW attends a memorial procession to Henri Barbusse, whose book on his experiences in the war, Le Feu (1916; English translation 1917), had impressed him deeply, and whose left-wing views he had also followed until the end of the 1920s. He very subtly shows here his disillusion with left-wing politics. The passage is marked ‘Used in 12, 19 March 1964’ (The Phoenix Generation, 1965).
Neither of HW’s main 1936 diaries have any mention whatsoever of any such event. However, a tiny pocket diary titled ‘Andersons’ Fisherman’s Guide’ for 1936 contains a scattering of appointments and records for Thursday 10 September, giving the only proof of this venture:
Leave for London & Paris. Mrs. Reese, Hotel France et Choiseul, 239 Rue S. Honoré (Vendome).
Folk – Dunkerque £3.15/3 Filleigh £1/10/- [& outline journey times]
Sat. 12: Evening at Folies Bergere
Sun 13: Mrs Reese gave me 100fcs
Mon 14: Mrs Reese gave me £2 & enquired about cabled expense (£6)
The return date is not noted.
The entry for 25 September relates, after some preliminary skirmishing, HW’s meeting with Thomas Hardy soon after the publication of Tarka the Otter, an event which we know had great emotional significance for him. After considerable build-up of nervous tension: ‘A little man came into the room, dressed in a dark suit.’ HW signed the visitor’s book. (When the HWS had a meeting in Dorchester a few years ago we were shown that entry: it was a very poignant moment.)
This is followed with a lyrical passage on the departure of swallows: ‘It was the end of summer.’ The passage is marked for use in ‘12’. HW inserts here the following photograph: one begins to feel the force of his own imminent departure.
The first piece relates the making of his broadcast for 28 September, ‘Red Deer’. (This was a new series under the title of ‘Lives of English Animals’; The first, 'Red Deer' was broadcast 28 September 1936, see Spring Days in Devon.) He relates the background in his usual manner – but was possibly ill advised to set the various versions of his talk in tabulated columns, so taking up a large number of printed pages! HW gave this talk as if the events were happening and reported at that very moment. The talk/essay is indeed very visual and immediate. He was told afterwards by the BBC that a talk given in such a manner was very difficult to bring off, and not to do it again! (see John Gregory, ‘Henry Williamson and the BBC’, HWSJ 29, March 1994).
His diary records it thus:
This is followed by an essay of a ‘tomtit’ (blue-tit) nesting in a letterbox which tolerated being bombarded with letters each day. Then there is a long explanatory essay about his books: the little they had earned and the failure of them in America. Interesting but not technically the truth! HW’s books actually sold very well in America, but one has to take account of the American slump and attendant appalling dollar exchange rate. The problem was that HW (often paranoid that he was being cheated out of his royalties) managed to quarrel with all the various publishers concerned.
This develops into an explanation about his book The Gold Falcon (1933). This has interest for the HW reader, but does not fit very comfortably into the concept of ‘Goodbye West Country’. Some of the letter from John Macrae is real – but a lot isn’t! This is followed by a tale (or rather, diatribe) of the dud travel bag he bought for his first American visit. It is quite amusing to read, but HW’s knife-edged words show his deep-set annoyance.
He would appear to have been digging himself into a pit of depression and not able to get out of it. His file copy has a large amount of crossing out and rewriting of all these pages; while made later, the end result is hardly an improvement on the original printed version!
Then we come to an interesting passage that reveals one of HW’s ambitions. It starts under 15 October – but HW has inserted an MS note below the opening letter of that entry: 16 October (thus taking the date heading back to a more logical position):
For years I’ve wanted to make a talkie [crossed out, ‘film’ inserted] of the story of my otter, of the search for him, the writing of Tarka by candlelight. . . . The passionate search for truth . . .
The idea of [this film] is the theme of a war-disillusioned youth returning to a West country cottage to live as a hermit [MS: ‘having rejected all aspects of civilisation which has caused the war’. . . . A further MS addition states: ‘He is a misfit . . . almost a case of split-mind for he is war-obsessed.’ ] One night he loses the otter. Thereafter begins the search for it, the symbol of freedom and joy.
This film synopsis is to end with the love of a perfect female being: his search is over.
A difficult film to make, but it can, with suitable music, be a marvellous revelation of water, trees, clouds, animals, and the Spirit that breathes on the face of the waters.
This passage gives an insight as to what HW was trying to do when he finally came to write the script for the film of Tarka the Otter in the 1970s. That script, which included more or less everything he had written previously, was impossible. He was of course beyond the ability to write it then, and one tends to put it down to that, but here one can see exactly what he had in mind: more than filming just the book, the film was for him an allegory, as has become evident as we understand more about his life and writing.
Next we learn that George the cat has vanished, presumed dead. George 4, that is, who drank the milk out of the (Hibbert family) silver milk jug. He was, sadly, later found dead in a rabbit snare.
'He would sinuate to the silver milk-jug and drink it dry, leaping off again with a little
chirrup of thanks to me.'
Then a tale of the ‘young fan’: not named, he is the ‘staggart’ who witnessed the signature of the Norfolk Farm deeds, Guy Priest. HW has marked this passage ‘BORING FAN’, and the tale of his leech-like behaviour is only too true.
Within this entry HW tells of the death of his mother. To my disquiet I realise that in my biography I state that he does not mention this. There is no real-life diary entry, and here it is somewhat hidden out of place – and I’m afraid I missed it. She had actually died on 18 April 1936, six months previously. He says that he will add the scene into the novel that ‘I’ve been thinking about for years and flinching from the task’. The scene appears in The Phoenix Generation – the twelfth volume of A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight, where he places Phillip’s mother’s death on the same day as the burning of the Crystal Palace (30 November 1936), making a very dramatic and poignant moment for Richard Maddison. Here his thoughts show his inner worry about ever beginning the work:
If only I can write the simple, natural truth, it will be understood by everyone in the world. But can one write it?
After this spate of rather lugubrious writing he returns to a long descriptive passage about seeing a heron – stalking it as it stalked along a ditch. At the climax the heron turns and confronts him and he takes the photograph of his life: but he had left the lens hood on, and his ‘scoop’, his ‘marvellous photograph’, was only a black void! The passage is marked: ‘OLD NOG, used in A Stream’ (1958).
A long essay (12 pages) on otters: actually a BBC broadcast, ‘The Otter’, as the second in the ‘Lives of English Animals’ series, which went out on 28 October (see Spring Days in Devon). Noted in HW’s diary by Ann, the fee was £12/12/-; it was repeated on 2 November, fee £4/4/-. Added here in the book are two preliminary paragraphs which relate his earliest sightings of an otter: the first in 1912 when he stopped in Dedham when cycling to north Norfolk for the summer holiday (where the family camped and were caught in a flood). The second was in early 1917 in the war-ravaged river Ancre, and then his third otter (this is the broadcast part), which tells the story of his friend (lame from war injury) and the cubs left to die when their mother was shot by a farmer. This is the ‘Zoë’ essay of earlier years. The man was Captain Horton-Wickham.
This is probably the truest account of ‘his’ otter, which, as HW writes in that opening paragraph: ‘was to influence my whole life’. Even so, the later supposed searching for a toeless otter rather emanates from an imagination which strongly felt the symbolism of searching for something lost and never found (the Proustian element of HW’s work).
The entry for 11 November is a long and moving essay to commemorate the anniversary of the Armistice: ‘To the Unknown Soldier’. This was originally written in 1932 to be broadcast on Remembrance Day, but the BBC rejected it. It makes compulsive reading, and for anyone who wishes to know HW it should be compulsory reading. (Note the comment by Geoffrey West in the Critical Review section.) I used a page from it at the beginning of Henry Williamson and First World War (1998).
The whole essay can be found on the First World War page of this website, complete with a scanned photocopy of HW’s original manuscript.
There is a vignette on the Café Royal (London haunt of the Bohemian famous, where in the past HW had seen such great figures as the painter Augustus John), but which he no longer enjoys. At the end there is an added MS note: ‘There’s no sense of fun in the Café Royal.’ He goes down to Brighton instead, where he stayed with John Heygate, currently living there with his new wife, the actress Gwyneth Lloyd.
Then along the coast to be with Petre Mais at Shoreham-on-Sea, where they visit a man who uses real ‘thorn’ needles for his gramophone, especially obtained from ‘gnarled maytrees’ (hawthorns) in Cumberland near the Roman Wall, to broadcast music on the BBC.
The entry for 17 November is basically HW’s broadcast ‘The Badger: England’s oldest Inhabitant’, actually broadcast 15 February 1937 as ‘Lives of English Animals, 4’ (see Spring Days in Devon). It includes reminiscence of ‘The Mad Mullah’ met in earlier stories. Sadly the broadcast version just calls him ‘dear old dog – an old badger-digging terrier’: not quite the same effect! The version in the book is longer than the broadcast: it certainly gives more information about the children’s ‘nurse’, Annie Rawle, one-time housekeeper to Arthur Heinemann and breeder of the famous ‘Jack Russell’ terriers.
The ‘friend from Australia’ who features in the entry for 25 November is actually his brother-in-law Robin Hibbert, sent for to come back and help HW run the Norfolk Farm. Robin actually returned on 7 December – but no matter here.
1 December: HW’s birthday. He declares he is 40: in December 1936 he would have been 41! The essay here about making the raised banks up around the edges of his Field is marked for ‘Garden’ article – where it is incorporated, but totally different! This is followed by a short piece about the other Field resident, his barn owl.
A gale blows trees down (HW's photograph below shows the River Bray in full spate) and he buys some yew planks and posts from Earl Fortescue ‘(Forte, strong; scutum, shield)’ – his landlord – and watches them being sawn at the Weir Mills, just below Shallowford cottage. (Those yew planks got carted to Norfolk, and back again when HW returned after the Second World War. And there they stayed until after his death, when his youngest son took them over and made some bits of furniture out of them, selling the remainder.)
10 December: ‘The King abdicated, after all.’ And his diary records (a rare entry) ‘The King Edward VIII abdicated this day.’ The book tells us that the following day HW was due to make two broadcasts, one for Children’s Hour, the other, ‘The Stoat’, for ‘Lives of British animals, 3’ at 8 p.m. Due to the King’s abdication there was a muddle about the broadcasts. HW received a telegram saying the later broadcast was cancelled, but there was no information about the earlier one. After some panic phoning to no avail he went off to Bristol anyway, only to find all were cancelled: he managed to return in time to hear the King’s Broadcast. All is told in great detail.
In the middle of this tale he notes that he has been working hard ‘at a book’ for the past six weeks, working 10-12 hours daily (presumably this very book!). So this diary meanders on. He goes to London, where T. E. Lawrence and the film being made about him become uppermost in his thoughts, and his regret that he was, however indirectly, the cause of his hero’s death, shows.
And if I’d turned up at Cloud’s Hill in early May last year, without writing to ask if he’d be home, he might be alive still. For he left his job of masoning to send me a telegram, and crashed on the way back.
A few more itches get scratched and then it is Christmas Day, added in MS ‘In bed at Shallowford’. The entry tells of a journey home from London the previous day (Christmas Eve) in the Alvis (hood down of course!) in fog and ice, in flying coat, fur collar and helmet, but goggles were useless.
Never have I known such cold since the winter of 1914, when on listening patrol I lay still for two hours, whimpering and blubbering, 20 yards from the German wire, in an overcoat stiff as a board, my mitten’d hands, my puttee’d legs, and my rifle – all stuck to the ground by the frost.
The whole tone of the description of this journey is very reminiscent of another journey, fictional, in different circumstances and we are given the clue, although it is too vague unless one knows the background: towards the end of this epic journey the frozen writer realises he is outside the home of a friend, and in desperation rings the bell and is given the best welcome in the world.
Had he not made me the villain of one of his books? And had I not returned the compliment, in one of my books?
The friend is unnamed but HW’s added MS note here makes the situation clear:
How do you do, Commander Volstead-Wrink? Verily, I felt like the ghost of Manfred.
So that friend is Thomas Washington Metcalfe (known as ‘Mecca’) who appears in The Gold Falcon as Volstead-Wrink. The fictional Manfred, flying in similar weather, ditches in the Atlantic and drowns. An interesting subtle and clever interweaving: Manfred fled America, HW is about to flee Devon. He is killing off that part of his life.
The final entry is for 31 December:
Here the year and my book end together. Tonight the three elder children and I shared a bottle of champagne.
His thoughts muse on the wrongs he has been done over the years (totally crossed out in his revision markings – and it is a great pity they were ever printed), but then remembers the good times. Interestingly he dates his Devon sojourn as from 1914-1937:
Many memories, thoughts, hopes – all in ancient sunlight . . .
Go to Critical reception
The first edition, priced at 10s 6d, with the dust wrapper printed in black and brown, bearing the portrait by William Kermode (whose linocuts so vividly enhance The Patriot's Progress) that HW disliked so much – 'The head of the jacket cover figure is misproportionate to the top of the body, and the head bulges too much, also the eyes reproduce the dazed fatigue of an afternoon in Hoppe's studio in 1928, after a very fast drive of 210 miles, and no lunch and no tea' (letter to Constant Huntingdon of Putnams, 1 November 1937):
The cheap issue (priced at 5 shillings), printed in black and blue, and with an amended blurb:
The cover for Little Brown's American edition (March 1938); the illustration seems more redolent of fishing for brook trout in the American mid-west rather in the West Country! Note too the completely erroneous biographical details regarding both HW's army service (probably confusing him with Robert Graves, who did serve in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers; that confusion perhaps dates back to the anonymously published The Gold Falcon, when at one point Graves was mooted as the author) and his subsequent life 'in a tiny stone hut on the Devon Moors'! The imagination of the staff writer in Atlantic Monthly's marketing department (which must have provided the information, for that magazine makes the same errors) was clearly working overtime.