Some Memories of H.W.

 

 

Other essays and reviews by Fr Brocard Sewell:

 

Facing the Spectres of the Mind (review, 1960)

 

Henry Williamson (1961)

 

The Power of the Dead (review, 1963)

 

Some Thoughts on The Flax of Dream (1965)

 

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).

 

 

Some Memories of H.W.

 

 

Fr Brocard Sewell, O. Carm.

 

 

In September 1957 the editor of The Aylesford Review, a literary and theological quarterly published by the Carmelite Order, invited Henry Williamson to contribute to a forthcoming issue of the magazine which was to contain articles on Williamson and his writings. In his reply, dated 15 September, he said: 'I think I could do an article as you wish: on the theme, which underlies my writing now, that God is love is honour is duty and self-sacrifice: and lovelessness is the lack of those invisible and spiritual motivations of life. In my new novel I hoped people would see that war, massed lovelessness, was of less importance to the individual than the search for that which man must have if he is not to perish.' In the late autumn the Henry Williamson number of The Aylesford Review appeared,1 with articles by William Gore Allen, Malcolm Elwin, and John Middleton Murray, together with Williamson's 'Some Notes on The Flax of Dream and A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight'. At that time the Review was being printed at St Albert's Press, the private press of the Carmelite Fathers at Aylesford; but in 1959 the press was moved to Llandeilo, in Camarthenshire, where the Order then had a house of studies. That summer Henry paid a short visit to the Carmelites at Llandeilo, and while he was staying there he read to them one evening his lecture on Some Nature Writers and Civilization,2 which earlier in the year he had given, as the Wedmore Memorial Lecture, to the Royal Society of Literature. The audience on that occasion had been deeply moved by the speaker's concluding words. I find them no less moving today as I read them in the quiet of my friar's cell, and recall the lecturer's gentle voice. They seem to express the essence of Henry's faith in the possibility of a better life for men and women after the horrors and sufferings of two world wars.

 

I write these words after our North Devon Festival week, and particularly a night spent among boys and girls listening to and living joyfully in the rhythms of Humphrey Lyttleton's band in the Queen's Hall at Barnstaple. There was a shimmer of life in the hall; hundreds of happy faces below the platform, eagerly watching, happily listening, gently swaying; and there was tenderness, too, among the young people, as pony-tailed heads were gently stroked within protecting arms of teen-age boys. I thought of linnets among the gorse in bloom upon the Sussex Downs, almost dreamily uttering their gentle notes in the south wind; I thought, too, that one of the alternative titles of Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover was Tenderness. And it seemed to me with my own memories of such poverty seen among less fortunate people in my boyhood and early youth – of young children with almost old faces prematurely set to misery – the faces which Jefferies had seen in the slums of Swindon – it seemed to me that now the age of so-called 'idleness', or leisure to relax, was a possibility: and that possibility was in part due to two wars after which, despite all, the slums had begun to die. And that the 'near-madness' of the fully articulate of one age can sometimes be sanity and clear-sightedness to the next.

 

But we must not condemn those who do not perceive so quickly as the visionaries, for it is only a question of time; and in the words of Jefferies, 'Now is eternity; now is the immortal life.'

 

Williamson became a generous contributor to The Aylesford Review, for which he wrote articles and book reviews, always refusing payment. A number of letters from him appeared in the magazine's correspondence columns. Some of these contributions were signed simply with the initials H.W.; one book review, a full length article, appeared over the pseudonym 'Green Jacket'.3 The reason for the pseudonym will be clear to anyone who reads the article. The Aylesford Review's circulation never exceeded five hundred copies, and was usually below that figure. By 1960 it was in financial difficulties because of a heavy increase in printing costs. To help it, Henry generously offered to allow St Albert's Press to print and publish in a limited edition a chapter from his unpublished autobiographical writings. The result was a small book, In the Woods, which was issued in an edition of one thousand numbered copies, of which fifty were printed on special paper and signed by the author. All profits from the book's sale went to The Aylesford Review, the author forgoing royalties. This was typical of Henry's generosity. (The episode recorded in In the Woods will be found treated in fictionalized form in his novel Lucifer before Sunrise.)

 

In 1961 the magazine was again being published from Aylesford. Henry then became a frequent visitor to the priory, where he met a number of the younger Aylesford Review writers and artists, who often spent weekends at the priory guesthouse. Henry fitted into this group like a kind of elder brother. It included Frances Horovitz, actress and poet; Jane Percival, a painter from the Royal College of Art; Nicola Wood, an RCA-trained textiles designer; Michael Hastings, playwright and novelist; Michael Horovitz, poet and translator; Oswald Jones, photographer; and Penelope Shuttle, who had just published her first novel, An Excusable Vengeance. A Little later Henry introduced to the group Ann Quin, whose first novel, Berg, had been causing something of a sensation. Henry had recognized her talent, though it was quite alien to his own. In a letter of May 1964 he says: 'Berg I regard as an innocent allegory or moral tale sprung from an impulse similar to that which impelled Hardy's phrase, "If way to the better there be, it exacts a full look at the worst." . . . At the end of this morality play, decorated by the familiar and nowadays fairly innocent four-letter words (as indeed used now and again in private living), it all begins over again: the characters are as they were. Grace had not yet come . . . Superficially, Berg is a sordid story. But it more than repays study. Beneath the "illusion" of its reality one perceives a talent of rarity and grace.'

 

These weekends among his friends at Aylesford were happy times for Henry. In July 1963 he sent this message, on a postcard from Cefalù, in Sicily:

 

I did enjoy my visit to Aylesford last Sunday, among the friends.

 

Here, too, a holy building is being restored,4 part of the modern European Renaissance. Building, building, everywhere, from Palermo to the Costa Brava. The Aylesford Review is part of that renaissance – the widening of life can only widen, & clarify, the essential Truth, which is conveyed by poetic images, symbols, and creative work. Lux fiat.

 

Many thanks,

 

Henry

 

Soon after Henry's death a writer in the correspondence columns of a Sunday newspaper said that Henry was jealous of younger writers, and never helped them; and that he never acknowledged the help that he received himself when a young and struggling writer. This writer showed little knowledge either of Henry Williamson or his writings. Henry was not without human faults and failings; he could be touchy; sometimes over quite imaginary, or certainly unintended, slights. A number of his friendships ended sadly because of this over-sensitivity. But to the young he was invariably helpful and encouraging, often in very practical ways. If he saw talent, he was quick to advance it. In the late 1940s, when he was editing The Adelphi, which he had taken over from Middleton Murry, he published work by a number of unknown, or as yet little known, writers: among them Charles Causley, James Farrar, and Ruth Tomalin. In 1960 he helped to find a publisher for the war letters of Lance Corporal Robson,5 who was killed in North Africa in 1945. In his introduction to this book he said that he believed that Letters from a Soldier would take its place among the very best of the hundreds of war books that he had on his shelves. He was no less generous to his own contemporaries, and never tired of affirming the excellence of two novels of the first world war: Wilfrid Ewart's Way of Revelation and Victor Yeates's Winged Victory. In Williamson's autobiographical writings there are many grateful references to the men who helped and encouraged him when he was young: Edward Garnett, Arnold Bennett, John Galsworthy, J. D. Beresford, Beverley Baxter – who published his early nature articles in the Daily Express – and Constant Huntington (of Putnam's).

 

In June 1964 The Aylesford Review held a literary conference at Spode House, the Dominican retreat house and conference centre in the grounds of Hawkesyard Priory, in Staffordshire. About fifty people came, and Henry spoke on Richard Jefferies and W. H. Hudson. Other speakers were Colin Wilson, Laura Del Rivo (a young writer who had just published an elegantly written first novel, The Furnished Room), and Alan Neame, a fellow-contributor with Henry to The European,6 who spoke on problems of biblical translation. This was a very successful weekend, not least from a social point of view. In a postscript to a letter written on June 20 Henry said: 'I loved Spode visit. It was a jolly fine party, the best literary one I've ever attended.' This was the first of a series of such Whitsuntide meetings at Spode House, and Henry came to a number of them.

 

In May 1965 he presented to the University of Exeter a large selection of the manuscripts of his books and other writings. The question of the ultimate destination of these manuscripts had been worrying him for some time. They were of considerable value, and could have been sold for a very large sum to the Humanities Research Centre at Austin, Texas, or to some other American university foundation. In the end he decided to give them to Exeter University, so as to keep them in the country where they had been written, which was the setting for many of his tales and novels. The presentation took place on the afternoon of Friday May 14 in the lecture hall of the university's Washington Singer Laboratories. At the beginning, a slightly incongruous note, which Henry seemed to enjoy, was struck by the late arrival of the Vice--Chancellor, who said, after apologising for the delay, that as a man of science he was not well versed in literary matters, and did not know a great deal about Henry Williamson. There followed three twenty-minute talks on Henry Williamson and his work,7 and then came the formal presentation of the manuscripts, and their acceptance by the Vice-Chancellor on behalf of the University. After the presentation the guests attended a sherry party given by the Vice-Chancellor in honour of the occasion. It was a crowded affair, for in addition to Henry's family and friends, and members of the University, there was present a large contingent of members of the West Country Writers' Association, who were in Exeter for their annual reunion. Originally Henry had expected about 150 people, but in the event there were nearer three hundred. In the evening he gave a dinner party at the Royal Clarence Hotel for his family, friends, and some senior members of the University, in all about sixty people.

 

At Whitsun 1968 Henry attended a conference on 'The Restoration' at Spode House. A lecture by Mr Donald Bruce on Thomas Shadwell, the 'Orange Laureate', was followed by a reading of Shadwell's comedy The Sullen Lovers. Henry had been offered any part that he might care to take. Modestly, he chose the minor role of A Country Gentleman ('A Grave ill-bred Coxcombe, that never speaks without a Proverb').

 

1969 was the year of the publication of The Gale of the World, the fifteenth and last novel in Henry's Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight, and it had been decided that this event should be celebrated at Spode House in some appropriate way. On the last evening of the conference, which had heard papers on the life and work of Pope Felix V, Frederick William Rolfe, Father Ignatius of Llanthony, and Eric Gill, Mr Dennis McWilliams spoke on 'The Works of Henry Williamson', after which there followed a short recorded talk on Williamson by one of his former secretaries, Kerstin Hegarty, who was unable to be present herself. Mr Trevor Hold then read his poem 'Ancient Sunlight'.

 

ANCIENT SUNLIGHT

for Henry Williamson

 

(NOTE: the hay which was used to build up the funeral effigy of Henry VII after his death in 1509 was analysed a few years ago and found to contain, besides straw, the dried remains of common vetch, hairy tare, lesser knapweed, selfheal, broad-leaved dock, buttercup, cow parsnip and three types of grass.)

 

Through the glass of Time, discoloured with

The dust of centuries, the sun still shines,

Preserved within this dead king's effigy.

It's fire has gone: it is no longer bright

But parchment-ochre, cracked with age,

Yet it illuminates, like specks in its shaft,

Fields as beautiful with their flowers and grasses

Thrusting upwards to the ancient sunlight

In all the eagerness of that year's spring,

As those in which I walk today.

 

Finally, at about 10 p.m., Henry was presented with a cake bearing fifteen lighted candles, and his health was drunk with acclamation.

 

Lecturing in front of Henry Williamson could be an ordeal. He was not good at concealing boredom, and sometimes he could not resist the temptation to enliven the proceedings for those sitting near him – he rarely sat near the front – with humorous sotto voce comments. Or, pen in hand, he would compose ribald verses, with farcical illustrations, which made it very difficult for those sitting near him to contain their amusement. He had a kind of friendly mocking humour that was peculiarly his own. In 1966 The Aylesford Review published a special Aubrey Beardsley number, to coincide with the Aubrey Beardsley Exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum. There were two articles on the exhibition, one on Beardsley and the Savoy magazine, and one on 'The 1890s and after in France'. There were several illustrations, from drawings by Aubrey Beardsley. Henry sent this comment, on a postcard dated 14 October:

 

An excellent number, the Autumn Review. Aubrey Beardsley by Robert Booth most interesting and 'full of meat'. And dear Jane Percival's Notes on the Exhibition follows, to complement it. What a love that girl is. And a new writer, hitherto unknown to me, 'Brock' Sewell, the well-known badger-digger (an actor, I'm told, the original 'Man in Black' at Tinsley's Old Music Hall in 1889, father of Marie Lloyd), is a good new art critic. The drawings by Osgood J. Jones are really wonderful pastiche, exactly reproducing the period of the decadent nineties. But we want to know more about the Savoy Hotel. Mr. McClellan's article takes away the taste nicely.

 

The last conference that Henry attended at Spode House was in May 1970. He always enjoyed these occasions, and his presence was looked forward to and much appreciated. On the Sunday afternoon he would usually take three or four friends with him and drive over to Cannock Chase for an hour or two's walk. His companions on these excursions benefited from his keen observation and minute knowledge of the countryside and all its plants, birds, insects, and animals. After three years' absence, he had hoped to come again in 1974, for the celebration of G. K. Chesterton's centenary, and in 1975, to speak on Francis Thompson. But when the time came, he was unable to be there. He had always seemed to be immune from the restrictions of age, but quite suddenly they caught up with him. Long journeys by road or rail were no longer possible; they had become too tiring. As early as 1972 he seems to have sensed that his life was drawing to a close. In a letter written in May of that year he said:

 

. . . I think of Belloc – and of Chesterton – with both of whom I had an acquaintance, in the grand days of my youth – being recognised, and accepted, is a serious and delightful and aweful thing in youth. Can this they praise, be me? Verily, the consort of God's genes in a man can make him feel small, and humble . . . and aware of the truth of Creation – indeed, one would dare to say, of the Creator—. It is the eve of June, and I sit here in a summer eve of yellow, and muse; because the evening is quiet, light. And I feel I must write to you . . . Those lovely times at Aylesford – and at Spode – and there was magic there – a glimpse of the Magic – and then we must go, and enter a penumbral shade, if not a little darkness: for once again, after the immortal moments, we are but creatures leaving behind us a memory of the soul of a gathering of men and women made gentle under the kindly eyes of those who had seen God . . .

 

Enough of me. Sincerely I grieve, in the twilit room, for absent and lost friends, some in death's dateless night – the Pragger-Wagger has just passed over, HRH the Prince of Wales.8  He was such a dear boy, and man. I heard from a connexion of mine, Sir Frank Colyer, who was a jaw specialist, and attended George V. This is my only connexion with Royalty; but not the only connexion with Loyalty . . .

 

Loyalty was one of Henry's most conspicuous virtues. It is eminently a soldier's virtue, and Henry was an old soldier. Loyalty is always to be admired, even if is felt to be misplaced. Those who voted to deny Henry Williamson the academic recognition that should have been his ought to have remembered that. In a letter of September 1974 Henry said: 'I know my own peers – Masefield O.M. who said to me "You have written more classics than any man alive." Galsworthy O.M. concurred.' The man who had been honoured with such praise was not much disturbed by the impercipience of Academe.

 

Henry was often depressed, but usually the source of depression was near-exhaustion. Perfectionist that he was, the writing of each new book was a kind of agonizing battle, that often had to be fought through several times. Tarka the Otter was rewritten no less than seventeen times. The Gale of the World, his last major book, was almost completely rewritten after it had reached the galley-proof stage. And after that, the first three hundred printed and bound copies were pulped, so as to allow of further corrections and revisions. Henry was fortunate indeed in the publishers, Macdonald and Co. Ltd, who backed the Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight when other firms had not the courage. He would often speak with admiring affection of Eric Harvey, the managing director of Purnell's, Macdonald's controlling company: 'A grand chap, a superb organiser of that £15 million group starting with £50 sergeant's gratuity (his father) at Taunton in 1919.'

 

His constant journeys to and from Bristol and London, for BBC radio and television programmes and other affairs, family problems, worries over the filming of Tarka, and numerous other demands on his time and energies, added to Henry's growing fatigue. At home, the hard work that he put in at the Field, keeping everything tidy, and tending his vegetable garden and small orchard, kept him fit; but the ever-pressing burden of his correspondence and his business affairs, on top of the strain of constant writing and rewriting, was another matter. In a letter of March 1969 he wrote: 'So here one is back at paper paper paper – letters, letters . . . I am overworked and have 2000 letters unanswered . . .9 The Chronicle is finished, It has left one empty and ALONE. And devastated. I am 73 and weary.' These moods would pass; and he was always happy among friends.

 

Henry was sustained in his life's work, against all failures, disappointments, mistakes, and misunderstandings, by his faith: faith that one day men would live peaceably together, 'under the fostering hand of the Creator', seeing clearly, in Richard Jefferies's 'ancient sunlight', that all are God's children and must live together in harmony. His novels were written to help us to see how wrong thought distorts the whole of human life, and sets us at variance with each other. Change thought and you change the world. Christ saw all things clearly, and we must learn from him to do the same. Henry's belief was more intuitive than dogmatic. He was not a great churchgoer. But he had a deep attachment to and respect for his own church, the Church of England. This can be seen in some of his Devon tales, and in his early novel The Pathway, in which the hero, the ex-officer Willie Maddison, gives vent to blistering denunciations of the hypocrisy of church-people, but is on good terms with the vicar, Mr Garside, who is sympathetically portrayed.

 

An intriguing figure in A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight is Father Aloysius, an ex-Army chaplain who belongs to an order of 'Laurentian' friars, of whch he appears to be the only member. He is an admirable man, and seems to be modelled in part on a chaplain (possibly more than one chaplain) who Henry had encountered in the first war. Could he have met in the trenches Father Benedict Williamson, who had refounded the extinct male branch of the Brigittine Order, but remained himself the only member since he never succeeded in keeping any of the novices who came to him? In an essay on 'Reality in War Literature'10 Henry praises 'Happy Days' in France and Flanders, the war memoirs of Benedict Williamson, whom he describes as 'a popular and beloved padre'. This sounds rather as if these two Williamsons, who as far as I know were not related to each other, had met.

 

In a long article which he contributed to The Aylesford Review in 196911 Mr Georger D. Painter said that 'The basic truth of the Church has rarely been expressed more beautifully, or more acceptably to those who remain outside the Church, than by the words of Father Aloysius, in The Golden Virgin, to Lieutenant Maddison discovered wounded on the Somme: "The Virgin and the Child is not a symbol of what should be, but of what is, Phillip".' In a letter of May 1959 Henry said that he intended to ask the BBC if he could give a radio talk on 'Father Aloysius'; but nothing seems to have come of this.

 

Williamson had many Catholic friends. Probably the closest of them was the historian and satirist Dominic Bevan Wyndham Lewis. Another was J. B. Morton, Wyndham Lewis's sucessor as 'Beachcomber' in the Daily Express. Henry's admiration for the poet Francis Thompson is well known. As a young man, in the early 1920s, Henry paid some visits to the Meynell family, at Greatham, in Sussex; he was proud to have known Wilfrid Meynell, who 'discovered' Francis Thompson when he was a down-and-out on the Thames Embankment, and was the first to publish his poems. In A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight Phillip Maddison's mother, Hetty, uses Catholic prayers in moments of stress, and has a devotion to the Blessed Virgin. She is not a Roman Catholic, but has learned these things at her convent school in Belgium. Some of Henry's letters of 1968, written at the time of the 'Humanae Vitae' crisis in the Roman Church, contain references to the Pope (Paul VI) which show a marked respect for his person and office, and an understanding of the difficulties of his position. In the monastic ambience of the Carmelite and Dominican priories at Aylesford and Hawkesyard Henry was always at home.

 

Henry Williamson is buried at Ham St George (Georgeham) in a grave close to the hedge a few yards to the west of the church tower. In his books of tales Life in a Devon Village he has described the consecration of the new burial ground in Georgeham, an event which ended the five-year-old controversy recorded in Tales of a Devon Village. This new cemetery was consecrated by the then Bishop of Crediton. I would like to end these memories of Henry Williamson by quoting from his account of the Bishop's address, as the words seem to express so well his own simple belief.

 

The Bishop, who bore the name of Trefusis, was preparing to speak.

 

'We are come together with one heart and soul to dedicate this ground to God: for we are giving it to God this day. You are called to present to God what has been provided after many difficulties and trials. There are always difficulties in this mortal world, my children: nevertheless, while you are here on earth you must always remember that you have duties to perform to your neighbours. No man can live for himself only, and be a happy man; for man is so made that he attains serenity and strength by working with and for others.'

 

The Bishop spoke in a throaty voice, for he was very old; but there was sweetness in his face and gestures. His words fell slowly in the wan sunlight among the trees.

 

'I, who am old, and soon to die, have seen the graves of those I have buried pass away in time, forgotten or lost, until nothing is left but grass, and a lessening mound. Such is God's intention for all living things: to be, to bloom, to mingle in earth and air, in the hope and faith of resurrection in radience beyond the hills of our mortal mornings gray. All of us have the journey down into darkness, even as the lonely hero of all, the Man among men, our blessed Jesus, whom we call the Christ.'

 

So the wise and gentle words ceased, and the white head was bowed in prayer; and in the moment of silence following, while our thoughts prayed for us, we were glad that we had listened.

 

 

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NOTES

 

 1. The Aylesford Review, vol. ii, no. 2, Winter 1957–'58. 
 2. Printed in Essays by Divers Hands (Proceedings of the Royal Society of Literature), vol. xxx, 1960.
 3. 'Lucifer or Eosphoros', in The Aylesford Review, vol. ix, no. 1, Autumn 1967.
 4. In 1963 the restoration of the medieval buildings at Aylesford Priory was still in progress.
 5. Letters from a Soldier by Walter Robson, with an introduction by Henry Williamson: Faber and Faber, 1960.
 6. The European, a review of politics, literature, and the arts, edited by Diana Mosley.
 7. The talks were given by Ted Hughes, E. W. Martin, and Brocard Sewell.
 8. The Prince of Wales: later HM King Edward VIII.
 9. It seemed to Williamson like two thousand letters (about the same number that he received every year); but the actual number was much less.
10. In The Linhay on the Downs: Faber and Faber, 1934.
11. George D. Painter, 'The Two Maddisons' (review of Love and the Loveless by Henry Williamson), in The Aylesford Review, vol. ii, no. 6, Spring 1959.

 

 

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(First published in Henry Williamson: The Man, The Writings: A Symposium (edited by Fr Brocard Sewell, Tabb House, Padstow, 1980). © 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:

 

Facing the Spectres of the Mind (review, 1960)

 

Henry Williamson (1961)

 

The Power of the Dead (review, 1963)

 

Some Thoughts on The Flax of Dream (1965)

 

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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