Waveney Girvan and The West Country Writers Association

 

 

Waveney Girvan and The West Country Writers' Association

(WCWA)

 

Anne Williamson

 

 

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The West Country Writers' Association was founded in 1951 by Waveney Girvan:

 

To foster by the interchange of ideas, the love of literature in the West Country.

 

Ian Waveney Girvan (1908‒1964) was technically a Scot, whose father was a military doctor, and so as he grew up he moved around according to his father's postings, one of which was at Bodmin in Cornwall, a place with which he fell in love; in adult life he considered himself an 'honorary Cornishman'.

 

Waveney Girvan was living in the Liverpool area in 1930 as he wrote to HW as 'Honorary Treasurer of the Liverpool First Editions Club' about HW's early books. As he obviously appreciated HW's writing and was not just a 'collector' (an abomination to HW!), HW responded in friendly manner and subsequently Girvan produced the Bibliography and Critical Survey of the Works of Henry Williamson (1931).

 

Then, when HW visited the USA for the second time in March 1934, his diary records that he came across Waveney Girvan 'selling champagne at the Biltmore hotel':

 

Saturday, 10 March: Party at Biltmore . . . dined in a drugstore. Afterwards with W. Girvan to a movie palace. He says million bottle deals with champagne and cognac almost concluded, & he will make £20,000 without having risked a penny of his own. Queer business: people talking to him all the 24 hours, all chaos, with 1% of contacts of any use. Home [HW was staying at the Brevoort Hotel] at 3 am, very white and lovely streets in the snow and coloured lights.

 

Monday, 12 March: . . . went to theatre 'As Thousands Cheer' with Girvan & afterwards to 'Hollywood' nightclub, Rudy Vallee & scores of extraordinarily beautiful girls. . . . I enjoyed myself with Girvan. To bed at 3 am . . .

 

HW then notes in his diary that WG saw him off 'on the Empress train to Washington and Augusta' (Georgia).

 

Another diary entry in November 1934 reveals (mysteriously!) that the two men then met in London at R. Humphries 'Screen Services Ltd.', 'about a film producing company discussed at Woolacoombe last August'. So it is evident that there was considerable contact between them at that time.

 

Waveney Girvan (he was always known by both names) was an accountant by profession, but was obviously an entrepreneur of varied accomplishments and talents. In 1935 he invented a device for strapping packing cases with narrow (about 1 cm) thin steel straps known as 'Security Steel Strapping'. He sold his patent to a Sheffield firm, and then worked for them in charge of production (possibly more as accountant?) until 1946, when the business disbanded. (Working in the steel industry was a reserved occupation in the Second World War.)

 

He then took a job as production manager with the publishers T. Werner Laurie, while at the same time running two personal publishing businesses, Carroll & Nicholson and Westaway Books. The latter was concerned solely with books on the West Country. Out of this arose The West Country Magazine.

 

In 1946 it was not permitted to start up a new magazine (war-time restrictions were still in place, particularly in regard to paper production and usage). Waveney Girvan got round this by buying up the already existing but virtually defunct West Country Magazine, then published from Dawlish (on the south coast of Devon, west of Exeter). Hugoe Matthews notes in his Henry Williamson: A Bibliography that the original magazine had published HW's story 'The gaping raven of Morte' in Spring 1938.

 

Waveney Girvan had discussed this venture with Malcolm Elwin, whom he had got to know through his Westaway Books publishing company, and it was Elwin who became editor of the resurrected magazine. Elwin was also a friend of HW – who sold his Norfolk Farm and returned to live in Devon in 1946, and at that time, his marriage being over, fell precipitously in love, with his usual anguish, with Elwin's step-daughter Susan Connely (who becomes 'Miranda' in The Gale of the World).

 

The first issue of the 'new' magazine appeared in the summer of 1946.

 

 

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Note that there are two items by HW listed in the Contents. The excellent, though somewhat macabre, 'Yellow Boots' had first been printed in The Old Stag (1926) and again in Devon Holiday (1935) – and later was to be collected yet again in Tales of Moorland and Estuary (1955). 'A Reverie of Exmoor' was an account of a walk taken on Exmoor in the company of Alfred Munnings while he was staying with the artist at his home in Withypool on Exmoor in 1938 (Sir Alfred Munnings, President of the Royal Academy, and a friend of HW: he appears as 'Riversmill' in the later volumes of A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight). HW transposes the date to 1940, but the evidence shows it actually took place in 1938. 'A Reverie of Exmoor' had also already been printed in The Adelphi (Vol. 21, No. 1, Oct‒Dec 1944), but under the title 'Withypool: June 1940' (the article was reprinted in HWSJ 35, 1999, pp 69-72). Over twenty years later HW also used the descriptions in the article in the final volume of the Chronicle, The Gale of the World.

 

Note too that the Contents include a short item by Sally Connely, who was the younger sister of Susan.

 

Apart from an editorial to introduce the 'new' magazine (as it claimed it to be by intent), Elwin contributed 'From a West Country Window', an interesting collection of anecdotes. He opens this with:

 

I owe this title to my friend Henry Williamson . . .

 

His notes point out that the 'Lake Poets' (Wordsworth, Coleridge and Southey) could equally be known as 'West country Poets' – and then he mentions the sojourn of Shelley in Lynmouth: 'Shelley's Cottage'. The paragraph immediately following this is about cricket in North Devon (Elwin was a great cricketer), and includes the phrase:

 

. . . the picturesque little ground in the Valley of Rocks.

 

Interestingly, both those subjects also have prominence in The Gale of the World (which opens in 1946, the year of the magazine’s launch). Food for thought?

 

Part 2 of HW's 'Yellow Boots' appeared in the second issue, published that autumn.

 

 

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In that second issue Elwin announces that he is giving up the editorship. In his second and last 'From a West Country Window' he devotes several paragraphs to responding tetchily to criticism, seemingly from one single reviewer, that his circle of contributors in the first issue constituted a 'coterie'. He finishes by telling readers that he is handing over to a new editor, J. C. Trewin (who continued in that position until the magazine folded, after 26 issues, in 1952).

 

By then The West Country Writers' Association had been formed. It had its genesis when the committee of The Bath Assembly: A Festival of the Arts suggested to Waveney Girvan in mid-1949 that their 1950 Assembly should include a 'Congress' of West Country Writers. This duly took place on 9 May 1950. From that a committee was formed, with Waveney Girvan as chairman, to organise a 'Congress' the following year for what was to be the 'West Country Writers' Association'. (There seems to have been some dissension among members in due course as to whether Bryan Little actually founded the group – but I think that Girvan has, by any criteria, the greatest claim.)

 

Members had to have a connection with the West Country, either by birth or residence, or as the author of a published book dealing with some aspect of the West Country: by definition, Cornwall, Devon, Somerset, Dorset, Wiltshire, Gloucestershire and Hampshire.

 

Lady Manders was vice-chairman, while Eden Phillpotts was elected as the first president and remained so until his death in 1960. There were 94 Founder Members, of which HW was one.

 

The Annual Congress (the word originally used by the Bath Assembly stuck) of the WCWA, usually held in May, was an occasion that HW obviously enjoyed greatly. It gave him a chance to meet up with his fellow writers (Charles Causley and Ronald Duncan among them) and to have some fun, although he did not always enjoy the talks.

 

When Eden Phillpotts died in 1960, HW was invited to become president.

 

When Waveney Girvan died in October 1964, aged only 56, HW wrote an 'open' letter to members of the association:

 

November, 1964

 

Dear Members of the West Country Writers' Association,

 

It falls upon me to tell you the grievous news that our chairman, IAN WAVENEY GIRVAN, is dead. This letter would have been written to you earlier – for Waveney, as he liked to be called – died on 22nd October, but I was away from my home for some weeks at that time, and no letters were forwarded . . . It therefore was a great shock when, on going to London, I found the Honorary Secretary's letter awaiting me there, just before Remembrance Sunday.

 

Ian and I were together when he decided to buy the WEST COUNTRY MAGAZINE, towards the end of the Hitlerian war. It was the day of the 'little magazine'. Denys Val Baker was one of the pioneers. No new periodicals were allowed at that time of dearth owing to paper and other shortages – Europe prostrate, the cousin nations bled white – but magazines which had been published previously were permitted revival. Ian and I met at the house above the woods of Lee Bay in North Devon, where Malcolm Elwin was then living, and talked about the revival. Elwin accepted the editorship.

 

It was evident that the magazine would soon need advertisements it if was to continue. Elwin had made it a literary magazine, and published a fine first number, with Powys and other good writers. Ian suggested the magazine should be of general interest, thus to get advertising from hotels in Cornwall and Devon etc. Elwin felt that he could not continue as editor, and Ian did the job himself [seemingly this is not totally accurate]. From this beginning came the West Country Writers' Association.

 

 [The letter continues with a rather rambling look around WG's career, and continuing in mid-sentence:]

 

. . . when feeling in need of a rest, went into hospital for observation, was operated on five days later, found to be fatally ill, and died in the early hours of Thursday, 22nd October, 1964.

 

Waveney was the mainspring of our West Country Writers' Association. He worked for us without rest, for his other job was most exacting. We all know the stress and strain of this age of anguish. Also, he had an outstanding interest in 'Flying Saucers', being editor of the 'Flying Saucer Review'. Every pioneers and artist is a dedicated man. The physical world is based on ideas, or an Idea: what Keats called the Imagination. The evolution of species reveals manifold use of the Imagination.

 

I met Waveney Girvan in the valley of the Bray in the early Thirties. He had proposed a visit to us at Shallowford, a thatched house beside that river, to ask me if he might publish a bibliography of my writings. I have a photograph of him sitting beside me on a timber-waggon in the shallows of another river, the Barle, by Dulverton. We had gone there to buy fish from the trout farm. [HW was stocking the River Bray for his own fishing and as research for his book Salar the Salmon.] We are hatless and sitting with my eldest son, then a small boy. The water ripples in the May sunshine, around the great wheels of the timber waggon. We are holding up pint pots of beer, toasting the photographer. It was a happy occasion. . . .

 

That is all I can think of for the moment. Perhaps there will be a better memorial. It is to be hoped that the West Country Writers' Association will go on, and that we will all rally to the annual meetings.

 

I have written to Mrs. Girvan, for myself, and on behalf of us all, to tell her and her family how we are thinking of her at this time, and of the dear man who lives with us in that source of all terrestrial life, the Imagination, by which mankind is sustained in spirit by the Creator.

 

I have the honour to be,

 

Your obedient servant,

 

Henry Williamson,

 

President of the

West Country Writers' Association.

 

(This text is copied from Anne Double, The First Fifty Years of The WCWA, published in 2001; this book contains an interesting selection of names of writers that are familiar within HW's own life.)

 

This is the photograph that HW referred to in his letter:

 

 

girvan photo

 

 

The new chairman was John Trewin, and at this time William Kean Seymour (who also featured in HW's life) became a vice-chairman. So, sadly, Girvan missed the May 1965 Congress held in Exeter, which coincided with the presentation of HW's 'Devon' manuscripts to the University of Exeter; accordingly the presentation was attended by a large contingent of WCWA members. Had Girvan lived to attend it, the occasion would have nicely rounded off his original contact with HW over the 1931 Bibliography and Critical Survey.

 

Soon after this HW announced his resignation as president. One suspects that he missed Girvan's presence and friendship in the WCWA; the post of secretary also changed at that time. HW demoted himself to vice-president, but continuing to attend and thoroughly enjoy the Annual Congress. The WCWA history (cited above) notes:

 

Henry did not bow out of WCWA completely though, . . . his infamous bread roll throwing and other colourful escapades a small price to pay for the loyalty and affection he always showed towards the Association.

 

(HW was renowned for throwing small pieces of bread roll 'secretly' at other diners during dinner to make a bit of fun. It is a tradition that his son Richard continues within the HW Society!)

 

The new president was the renowned playwright Christopher Fry, who happened to have, as he said, the sense to have been born in Bristol – and so qualified for membership! A vice-president at this time was L. P. Hartley, an author perhaps best remembered today for his books The Shrimp and the Anemone (1944) and The Go-between (1953).

 

Sadly, and rather suddenly, the West Country Writers Association folded in about 2012 or 2013. In April 2011 Anne Williamson had given, as Guest of Honour, a talk about HW to the Annual Congress in Plymouth in celebration of the society’s diamond anniversary, and had thought the WCWA to be a most thriving and interesting society. She was most touched to find that there were members present who had known HW and still held him in great affection.

 

 

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