Facing the Spectres of the Mind

 

 

Other essays and reviews by Fr Brocard Sewell:

 

Henry Williamson (1961)

 

The Power of the Dead (review, 1963)

 

Some Thoughts on The Flax of Dream (1965)

 

Some Memories of H.W. (1980)

 

For further information about Fr Brocard Sewell, The Aylesford Review and Henry Williamson, see Anne Williamson's consideration of In the Woods (St Albert's Press, 1960).

 

 

Facing the Spectres of the Mind

 

Henry Williamson's A Test to Destruction

 

 

Fr Brocard Sewell, O. Carm.

 

 

In 1929, after revisiting the battlefields of Flanders where he had fought during the years 1914 to1918, Henry Williamson wrote a book called The Wet Flanders Plain. In the personal 'Apologia' with which he prefaced that book he spoke of the feelings of the ex-soldiers with regard to those who had betrayed them, both before the war and after, with high-sounding talk of patriotism and heroism. He spoke also of the poisoning of the minds of the next generation: the children who were already, in the cinemas, frantically cheering the 'British heroes' and booing the 'German cowards'. 'The children, I know,' the writer said, 'are but the distorting mirrors of a grown-up mental attitude; but surely, after the bitter agony and waste of the lost generation of Europe, it is time that people should know what they do.' The author strove to tear the Truth out of the past, so that men should see plainly. In this endeavour he wrote his tetralogy The Flax of Dream, dedicated, in the one-volume edition of 1936, to 'All who fought for freedom in the World War, and are still fighting'.

 

The Flax of Dream was not a 'war book'. It aimed to lay bare the underlying causes of the European conflict, which the author saw as stemming from generations of wrong thinking and wrong living, the divided continent reflecting Europe's divided nations and divided families, and the cloven psyches of its sons and daughters. The battles of 1914–18, through which the book's hero, Willie Maddison, had lived, were not described. The author stood too near to those devastating experiences; not for a long time to come would he be able to 'face the spectres of the mind' and lay them.

 

The Flax was 'a subjective or romantic treatment of the theme of redemption'; almost from the start it was Williamson's intention to complement the story of Willie Maddison, the country boy, with the story of his London cousin Phillip, to be written on the classic or objective pattern.

 

But it was not until 1951 that the first of these London novels – to comprise, in their entirety, A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight, appeared. The Dark Lantern, set in a world of late Victorian London suburbia and merchant materialism, decribes the courtship of Richard Maddison, employee in the Moon Fire Office, Haybundle Street, and Hetty, the enchanting younger daughter of Thomas Turney, partner in the firm of Mallard, Carter and Turney, printers and manufacturing stationers of Sparhawk Street, High Holborn. At the end of the book Richard's and Hetty's little boy Phillip is born, and it is his story that we follow in the succeeding volumes. Donkey Boy and Young Phillip Maddison describe Phillip's childhood and schooldays; with How Dear Is Life we reach the last summer of the old world, and the coming war. A Fox Under My Cloak, The Golden Virgin, and Love and the Loveless record Phillip's life as a soldier – at Loos, the Somme, and Passchendaele – and the wartime life of his parents and sisters in the London-Kentish suburb of Wakenham.

 

The story of Phillip Maddison's escapades (he had first gone to France in 1914, when under seventeen years old), his fears, and his quest for courage and wholeness is now continued in A Test to Destruction (Macdonald, 18s.), a novel of the Fifth Army in France during 1918, and of the first year of peace. The author's powers of recreative and interpretive memory, of poetic insight and vivid story-telling, are as strong as in the earlier volumes, but here reach to an even tenser pitch. The war-scenes are magnificently done; old soldiers of World War II will recognise their truth, even before they are corroborated, as they will be, by those who, like Henry Williamson, were there. With the opening paragraphs of clear taut prose the reader's attention is engaged; he cannot choose but hear:

 

In the winter of 1917–18 the Great War for Civilization – as it was generally accepted among the elderly and non-combatant of the Christian nations still engaged: Great Britain, France, Belgium, Italy, Germany, Austria and the United States of America – was about to enter its penultimate phase on the Western Front.

 

This battlefield, upon which there had been continuous fighting for three and a half years, could be seen at night from aircraft as a great livid wound stretching from the North Sea, or German Ocean, to the Alps: a wound never ceasing to weep from wan dusk to gangrenous dawn, from sunrise to sunset of Europe in division. . . . This is a story of the last year of the Great War, and of the year following the first silence upon the battlefield.

 

These war scenes of 1918 are the record of a terrific period of action in retreat, under the final desperate effort of the German armies, before the tide turned. Among the main characters there stand out Phillip's old friend 'Spectre' West, now a General, and the amazing 'Mad Major', Bill Kidd, a fantastic compound of phoney and true hero – who is finally encountered, after the war, as commissionaire of a Leicester Square cinema, 'dressed as an Arab sheik, sunburn paste, sword and all, but wearing his own extravagant moustaches'. Skilfully portrayed are the commanders in the field – two of them amply vindicated from the slurs and slanders of Lloyd George and the Whitehall politicians – Field-Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, General Sir Hubert Gough, and General Monash. 'The finest General in the War was an Australian Jew called Monash', Phillip tells his father, who secretly thinks that Phillip's faults of character derive from the supposed Jewish blood of the Turneys.

 

With the Armistice comes the climax – Phillip's real Test to Destruction. (The phrase is Winston Churchill's.) Lieutenant Phillip Maddison (acting Lieutenant-Colonel and D.S.O.), now aged twenty-two, is still encumbered with the guilt-feelings of a thwarted childhood, aggravated by the belief (erroneous) that he is indirectly responsible for the death by drowning of his great friend 'Spectre' West when their returning hospital ship was mined. The initial period of peace is the harder to bear in that since the war all comradeship is gone, and the fighting seems to have been in vain. So the real test is spiritual. Covering up for a drunken escapade of his old 'amigo-enemy' Tom Ching (discharged with a pension as a result of faked shell-shock), Phillip is arrested on a charge of arson and sentenced to imprisonment. After this fall he gets up again, seeing with clearer eyes . . . 'The train went under the bridge, and he turned back, feeling a sense of power with which to face the future, because now he understood what had not always been clear in the past. No man could be destroyed once he had discovered poetry, the spirit of life.'

 

From The Dark Lantern to A Test to Destruction a dominant figure is that of Thomas Turney, the coarse, hot-tempered old man of business, a tyrant in his household, descendant of a long line of yeoman farmers dating back to the Wars of the Roses. In The Dark Lantern we first meet Thomas Turney in a chapter entitled 'A Walk Through the City', as memorable and evocative as the London Bridge and City passages in Eliot's The Waste Land. In this episode we see old Turney at his worst, betrayed by his own inner feelings of insecurity into cruel and vindictive treatment of the poor fellow who had asked to carry his bag. But in Donkey Boy, at a party at Grandpa's, we see the true Thomas Turney, who reads to the family gathering (Richard, Hetty, Phillip, Hughie his favourite son – doomed, for all his quips and ragging – the divine Theodora, sister to Richard, and the Cakebread in-laws and cousins) from his beloved Shakespeare the speech of King Harry on St Crispin's Day.

 

Tom Turney laid down the book, and relit the other candle at the flame of its fellow. 'Well, my children,' he said, 'that is William Shakespeare. And it is true to-day as it was in the time of which he wrote.' . . . Richard was thinking, not of the scene Mr Turney had read, but of the hypocrisy of the old man: that he could not, being what he was, possibly understand the passage. He was bogus, a sentimentalist, enjoying the sound of his own voice, and extracting the feelings of Shakespeare as though they were his own. Even so, he could not spoil the beauty of the phrases, which were a revelation. . . .

 

Years later, towards the end of 1918, Thomas Turney is sitting in his two-hundred-year-old yew-wood chair, with ghosts walking in his mind – Hughie is dead (is Phillip his grandson to become a second Hughie?), his estranged son Charley's boy Tommy dead, Gerry Cakebread dead, Dorrie dead of Spanish 'flu . . .

 

Thomas Turney did not want to read. He was gone beyond it, he thought with a dead feeling. Until his illness, in the eightieth year of his age, life had been sustained in part by the companionship of books. For more than two decades he had seen himself as a sinner, and lived much in remorse; yet he had found comfort in the reassurance that he was as other men, as revealed in the pages of Dickens, Hardy, Fielding, Carlyle, and the Brontës: but his chief prop had been Shakespeare. More fortunate that Lear! Wolsey! Richard the Third! Aye, and Richard the Second. He knew that broken king's lament by heart. . . .

 

He sat by his fireside, on the mid-September afternoon, in a wooden chair which looked too frail to carry him. The arms and legs, and the back shaped like a bullock's shoe, set with arrow-thin spokes, were slender. The chair weighed only a few pounds, but it was strong; except for the seat, which was of elm, the framework was of yew – straight-grained and cleft, not turned – and the design of the frame was such that the pressures or weights that each part bore were carried, by tension, to the four legs and so to the ground. Thomas Turney used to say that the chair was built like a cathedral, which owed its strength to stresses and strains defying the force of gravity. All life could be illustrated from that chair, he would say: the fundamental forces of life in eternal opposition could be used by men for happiness and goodness, or for wretchedness and evil. They were there; and each man was free to choose how he used them in his own life. . . .

 

He stirred on the chair; spoke sharply of himself to himself as Hugh rose in his mind: instantaneously changing from grey-haired cripple groaning into death with tertiary syphilis to disdainful dark-haired undergraduate, to nervous half-laughing, half-frightened child glimpsed in ancient sunlight. Hughie, Hughie, he groaned . . . had he but shown more understanding, more sympathy, particularly to the children's mother! Too late, too late! . . .

 

'God, who knoweth the hearts of all men,' he muttered; and wiped his eyes with his red silk handkerchief. Then, blowing his nose, he felt more cheerful, and went to the sideboard for the schnapps bottle. . . . The fiery spirit warming his belly he reflected upon the scarce-believable fact that he had, very swiftly and in some unaccountable way, entered upon his ninth decade. He must live for the moment always – no corroding regrets. Why, bless his soul, he felt younger and clearer in spirit already!

 

Before his death, which is not long delayed, Thomas Turney launches his now-civilian grandson into the world of journalism, his personal introduction to the paper-manufacturer and former Lord Mayor Sir Timothy Vanlayitt Sterneau obtaining a post for Phillip at the offices of Lord Castleton's newspaper in Foundry Square.

 

There we leave Phillip Maddison for the moment, his test to destruction endured and passed. Yet it is now, in a sense, that the real test begins for him. The war had been, as it were, a ready-made system into which he could fit, however arduous its ordeals. Now, all's to do again. Phillip has found himself; but what will he become?

 

In his diary, à propos of the novel that he is writing, Phillip Maddison says: 'It is detail which makes a book last, true detail'. By that token this book, A Test to Destruction, and the Chronicle of which it is part, will endure. In these novels of Henry Williamson's we have history as it ought to be written: 'a real history of our times; a work also of poetry and imagination, and therefore a work of true philosophy'.

 

 

 

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(First published in The Aylesford Review, Vol. IV, No. 1, Winter 1960–61. © 2000 Estate of Brocard Sewell. It is reprinted here by kind permission of the British Province of the Carmelite Order.)

 

 

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Other essays and reviews by Fr Brocard Sewell:

 

Henry Williamson (1961)

 

The Power of the Dead (review, 1963)

 

Some Thoughts on The Flax of Dream (1965)

 

Some Memories of H.W. (1980)

 

For further information about Fr Brocard Sewell, The Aylesford Review and Henry Williamson, see Anne Williamson's consideration of In the Woods (St Albert's Press, 1960).

 

 

 

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