A SOLITARY WAR             


(Vol. 13, A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight)



solitary 66 front   
First edition, Macdonald, 1966  

The background


The book


‘Immortal Corn’, a proposed film, 1940


Critical reception


Book covers





First published Macdonald, September 1966 (25/-)

(Matthews, Henry Williamson: A Bibliography, states 7,500 copies printed.)


Panther, paperback, 1969


Macdonald, reprint, 1985


Sutton Publishing, paperback, 1999


Currently available at Faber Finds




Epigraph, on title page:


‘Do not go outside, go back into thyself, in the inner man lives the truth.’

St. Augustine





Oswald and Diana Mosley



The title page quotation might seem a little odd in this context but it is from an extremely profound source and needs to be taken into consideration by serious students of HW's overall work and purpose. St Augustine of Hippo (AD 354-430) was a Roman philosopher and theologian, and is considered by both Catholic and Protestant followers as one of the greatest Christian thinkers of all time. Some background will indicate for researchers how this fits into HW's own thinking processes.


Augustine was born in Africa, the eldest son of St Monica, but educated in Rome and eventually became Bishop of Hippo. As a young man he became a member of the then important (and perhaps rebellious) Manichee sect, who followed Plato and were concerned with the concept 'good and evil' (one of HW's main concerns within A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight). Manicheans particularly esteemed the writings of St Paul – and we know that HW quoted from St Paul's writings on more than one occasion.


Eventually Augustine realised this sect was not the answer and he converted to Christian thought. De vera religione (c.390), from which this quotation is taken, was written at the time of his baptism and is a statement of his argument on the difference between neo-Platonism and Christianity. It is thought to have been a treatise to persuade his friend Romanianus, to whom it is dedicated, to also convert.


There are many statements within this inspiring treatise which have resonance with HW's own way of life and thought, especially as recorded in his early 1920s 'Richard Jefferies' Journal'. The treatise contains a great deal about the benefits of nature, and mentions details such as swallows and nightingales (and the source of their life-force) – and he quotes the phrase 'Be still and know that I am God', which HW also quotes, and which is similar in concept to the quotation used here. There is a great deal about 'truth', and again we know this was something which greatly concerned HW (however subjective his ideas might have been, he was sincere in his approach to the concept).


It is interesting that HW knew this work. It would seem that he is doing more than just quoting from it at random and, as always, he would expect his reader to understand the hidden implications. It is of particular interest that he uses it here, at a time of great trouble in the world, and within his own mind, as he struggled to come to terms with all the external problems on the farm and in his own life – as he frequently said: a microcosm of the macrocosm. It is similar to the more well-known 'to thine own self be true and thou canst not then be false to any man'.


The discerning reader will find this Augustinian concept interwoven into the content of A Solitary War.






HW had felt quite strongly that he had let Oswald Mosley down by allowing material to be deleted from The Story of a Norfolk Farm, and so many years later is making up for that by dedicating this volume to them. By this time (1966) it was realised and recognised by many objective thinkers that Oswald Mosley’s incarceration in prison without trial was in fact unfair and technically illegal – although such situations were covered by Defence Regulation 18b – and that in many ways Mosley had merely been ahead of his time, although a hothead in his methods. He was certainly no longer considered a political force or threat in any way. Indeed, Mosley’s autobiography, My Life, published two years after A Solitary War in 1968, was serialised in The Times and much publicised (although in its later obituary of Mosley, The Times commented that this ‘revived many old passions and a spirited correspondence ensued’; there were many who could never understand, or forgive, or forget).






The background:


There are two totally separate phases involved in the writing of A Solitary War:


i) the work that was involved in preparing (that is, rewriting) the book for publication between 1964 and 1966.


ii) the original manuscript written (in various coloured inks – red, brown, green, blue) in three inch-thick quarto hard-cover notebooks, begun in October 1941 and given the title 'A Norfolk Farmer in War-time', the date at the end of the third volume being 24 March 1943. A typescript was made from this manuscript. Two heavily corrected versions of the typescript, now with the title 'Wit's Misery', were returned from Faber in February 1946, together with a letter from a secretary stating:

Mr. de la Mare [Richard] has the complete typist's copy, and no other copy exists.


This shows that HW had obviously made a point querying – and insisting on – this.


These early versions, together with the material accrued at the later actual writing of A Solitary War, (held at Exeter University) encompass a quite extraordinarily detailed picture of HW's thinking and writing process, and are surely a most valuable research tool. As this is work for specialists, I do not intend to make any detailed comparison between these various texts here. It is enough to note here that they exist. The material also provides, of course (along with other meticulously detailed records of work done, wages of the men, etcetera) a valuable insight into the workings of a farm during the period of the Second World War – which was one of HW's main preoccupations in keeping such detailed records.


The work on A Solitary War itself began in early 1964. In his personal life HW was recovering from the immediate shock of Christine's remove and his semi-affaire with Kerstin Hegarty was on the wane; but on 13 February 1964 he met the very intense and temperamental writer Ann Quin, and from then on became involved in that turbulent relationship.


In January 1964 he was still writing 'No. 12' (The Phoenix Generation). Then on 21 May he records:


I wrote in the hut, revising chapters 3 and 4 of No. 13 – the original Norfolk autobiography novelised, recast etc, during the first years of the nineteen fifties [When first planning the Chronicle series.] I wondered if this would 'wash' – details have changed . . . the early chapters are good. . . .


The next day he drove to Bath for the annual conference of the West Country Writers Association, of which he was President.


26 May: . . . I've been revising No. 13 and am on Chapter 8 “Freddy Imagines £9,000”

[This is chapter 9 in the published book.]


28 May: Revised 13 all day.


29 May: I wrote on & on, no. 13, The Man Who Went Outside, which I have now tentatively named Sisyphus & Co.[Note these changes of title name – there will be more!]


30 May: [Having written 'several letters to Ann Quin'] And wrote more of No. 13 & didn't go to the field.


1 June: I finished 803 pp. of No. 13 this afternoon. This afternoon went to the field. Raked some old grass cuttings. Must also write a Flanders essay tomorrow, the fifth and last one.


Later that month he flew to Oslo for a PEN conference, returning on 27 June. On 30 June Ann Quin left for Greece for an extended period. As she left HW told her that he thought he had caught syphilis from her, upon which she practically had hysterics with fury (understandably). HW continued on down to stay with us in Chichester in a great state of disquiet, but recovered after a while. (He did not, of course, have any venereal disease, and obtained a doctor's certificate stating this.) On his return to Devon he worked in revising no. 12. On 11 July he recorded working on No. 13 – and on 13 July 'Read some of No. 14 to Christine.' He then worked on No. 14, Lucifer before Sunrise, fairly solidly for the following month.


On 9 August he spoke at the Memorial Service of the British Legion’s fiftieth anniversary of August 1914, where he read Apologia pro Vita Mea (from The Wet Flanders Plain) , together with poems by Wilfred Owen and Julian Grenfell.


On 4 August, however, he had met Sue Gibson, and so began yet another troubled relationship.


On 11 August he was working on the last part of No. 12 – while on the 15th it was Lucifer before Sunrise; then on the 17th, back to No. 12, which occupied him until 19 September.


On 5 October his diary records: 'I am trying to formulate the final novel (15) from all this emotional rush, spill, & longing.' That is an interesting remark: he needed to be in a high state of emotional turmoil in order to release himself into his writing. (And of course, Ann Quin becomes the second phase of his extremely neurotic character 'Laura Wissilcraft'. It is obvious to me though that there is also some Sue Gibson in the mix of this character as well.)


He now settles down to No. 13, this present volume, recording on 5 December: 'Handed over chapters 1–5 of 13 to Susan Gibson for her typing.' However, this arrangement created more problems than it solved, including material that was apparently lost in the post – but which in fact had never been posted back to him. (HW gave this girl considerable amounts of money for work she was supposed to do – though some was done – and considerable sums to help her with her supposedly sick mother, together with help with rent that she apparently could not afford to pay. After a great deal of complicated prevarication she finally confessed, on 18 February 1966, that she was a lesbian, with a live-in partner, and had been deceiving him from the start.)


On 23 January 1965 he noted:


I went to Cornwall to Elizabeth Tippett to ask her if she will undertake typing of No. 13 since I feel my arrangement with Susan Gibson was in fact a disaster.


From the beginning of this year there are many entries concerning the organisation of the presentation of his 'Devon' manuscripts to Exeter University: mainly his personal guest lists for dinners, and booking hotel rooms etc. He was also involved with making a film with Patrick Garland for the BBC – and was having his head sculpted by Anthony Gray. There are no entries in his main diary, and only short entries in a 'Desk Diary'. There is no mention of this book until Friday, 21 May:


To Elizabeth Tippett's (now Mrs. Cummins) Cornwall to take No. 14 MSS-TSS (Lucifer) & collect No. 13 – Hare and Tortoise – in top, carbon & MSS copies. [Note yet another title for No. 13.]


Then nothing about the book until 8 November:


Patrick Garland arrived for a week's work together: but he omitted to tell me this: I imagined one day only: so he will depart tomorrow when I must revise 170,000 words of No. 13 – The Man Who Went Outside. [And another title!]


10 November: [on visiting Christine at Stuckeridge –] got a new & better title for No. 13 – A SOLITARY WAR


At the beginning of 1966 he met first Jacqueline Gallard, aged 16, and then her sister Madeleine, 20: and has a new focus for his emotional needs at the same time that he now hears the truth from Sue Gibson. On 11 March he noted that he had sent off the revised blurb for No. 13 to Foster White, a director at Macdonald.


Proofs of the book were supposed to have arrived in mid-May but were delayed: Jacqui Gallard and her sister made a visit especially to help with reading them. Also staying then was Oswald (‘Ossie’) Jones, the man who took such excellent photographs of HW. As the proofs did not come they all rushed around having a good time, walking etc. – and HW recorded that he got rather tired! They left on 31 May: proofs arrived the next day!


2 June 1966: Christine came over to the field and read proofs. A quiet, queer happy time. Lovely weather. We read galleys, she in field orchard & I in hut or on grass near hut. The two owlets [which he had noted earlier] now are in the spinney, chirricking for food.


Christine left the next day but HW noted on 6 June that he went on


correcting the galleys of Solitary War 11 AM – 7.30 PM in field.


And the following day:


Posted to Macdonald one set of galleys & the TSS-MSS copy.


There is then a page of notes for articles on the Somme that he was then writing.


On the last day of August his whole life was completely disrupted once again, with the news that Christine had suffered a total breakdown and was missing. He rushed over to look for her, and was much involved subsequently. Christine was hospitalised, where she was given electric shock treatment. She returned home on 5 October. John Fursdon, the man for whom she had left HW, and with whom she was in love, kept a decidedly low profile during this period. But soon after this HW and Christine arranged to get divorced.


Apart from his entries about Christine, the only other entries at this time are for the birth of our daughter, Bryony Georgina, on 9 September 1966, and on 11 September:


S. Sassoon's 80th birthday BBC. 10.10 pm. HW takes part.

There is no mention of the publication of A Solitary War, which, by the dates of the subsequent reviews, was towards the end of September.






The book:


This book is packed with personal details and social and historical incidents of a turbulent period. It needs to be read with care and attention in order to understand what HW is really saying, as it is easy to fall into the trap of misreading his political statements (a trap that one or two reviewers fell into as can be seen in that section), and so misunderstanding and misrepresenting his intention. A careful reading reveals his increasing disquiet and horrified realisation of the perfidy of Hitler's actions: a man he refers to within this novel as 'two men': a man he thought was capable of great good (the bringer of light – the Morning Star'); but a man who succumbs to evil and so becomes the fallen angel (Lucifer – the Prince of Darkness – Satan).


The story and its background are complicated, and considerable detail is necessary to explain this important era. HW now begins to weave into his story the material that was originally to have been the sequel to The Story of a Norfolk Farm.


Here it is enough to record that HW had intended to publish this original text immediately after the war but was advised not to (which is odd, as there is really very little political content, and especially considering what a success The Story of a Norfolk Farm had been). Mainly this was because he was already planning the Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight series, and everyone involved advised him to start at the beginning – leaving the farm material to come into its proper place in the sequence, which is indeed what happened (see my opening statement for the series).





As this volume opens Phillip Maddison gathers his family together to hear the Prime Minister's (Neville Chamberlain) declaration of war against Germany on the radio in his cottage. While waiting, he informs them that Billy will not be going back to school but instead will work on the farm and drive the 'Dicker' ('Dicker' being the Norfolk word for donkey – the Ferguson tractor was grey and known as 'the little grey dicker'). In the novel Billy is 14 old – in real life Bill (Windles) was still only 13½.


This decision may seem to the reader harsh and even cruel, but in fairness to HW it must be stated here that that the headmaster of Windle's school had written, and also said, that the lad would not get any benefit from further education: he was not interested in academic learning (as with HW himself at that age!). My understanding is that Bill failed the Common Entrance exam. HW then felt the lad would be better off on the farm, learning the skills that would enable him to take over the farm in due course: and, with war declared, on reaching the call-up age, he would also be safe in a reserved occupation.


We learn that Peter, 12, is at a choir school (John was at Westminster Choir School in London). We also learn later that Rosamund's school is owned by Mrs Richard Cheffe: 'The school-house had been expertly made out of the stables, the house was in beautiful surroundings.' Diary evidence would suggest that this lady was a Dawnay – and so related to Lady Downe (whose family name was Dawnay), the fictional Lady Sunne and Lady Breckland.


As they listen to the fateful radio broadcast the point is very clearly made that the exhausted Chamberlain 'hates war and did his best to prevent it'.  After the broadcast Phillip decides to take the children for a swim at 'Gibraltar' (known by the Williamson family as Gibraltar Point – it is found by following the River Stiffkey to where it meets the high tide mark on the marsh), but he hurries away as soon as they get there, leaving Billy in charge. Phillip cannot enjoy himself on the day that another, second war is declared. HW's diary entry for Sunday, 3 September 1939 simply records:


Today at 11 am Gt. Britain declared war on Germany.


Phillip's concern is for the farm, and he walks round it alone. His plan was to dress his arable fields with chalk from his own quarry, but we have here a résumé of the farm's progress. On this walk he finds sheep badly attacked by maggots, then a dead hen and also a rat – the kinds of thing that he has been on about for months: no-one follows his instructions. He feels depressed, a failure.


Threaded in here is the first of several references to the fact that sly Horatio Bugg, who runs the petrol pump and is a scrap merchant, spreads the story that Phillip is running a German spy-ring from the farm. ('Goitre' Gidney did indeed spread such rumours about HW.)


Lucy deals with the practicalities of war: black-out curtains, ration books, identity cards, gas masks, and registering with the grocer and butcher.


Phillip blasts the chalk quarry and they load up the chalk and cart it up to the arable fields. The men now include, as well as Matt the stockman (Jimmy Sutton) and his son Luke (Bob Sutton), a young man with red hair, young 17-year-old Steve (Norman Jordan). Four pages from HW's farm diary illustrate the details of this arduous work.



solitary diary 11 13 sept39


solitary diary 14 17 sept39


solitary diary 18 20 sept39


solitary diary 21 24 sept39



Note that it includes mention of the death of the old horse, Gilbert, 'in harness'. Similar entries are recorded over the next two weeks.


Ten days later the four men now working on the farm, using lorry and two horse-drawn rubber-tyred tumbrils, had tipped about one hundred and sixty tons of chalk in roughly a thousand heaps over the Nightcraft [Fourteen-acre Field].


This sketch map, drawn by Peter Lewis, usefully identifies the farm's fields by their actual and fictional names:



solitary fieldmap



After the chalk, muck spreading, and then ploughing: always fighting time, lifting sugar-beet, but also needing to sow wheat. The men liken 'the Boss' to the hare – he likens Luke to the tortoise. Billy and he alternate jobs, but weather is getting colder. There is also a problem with the farmhouse chimney, which smokes. Peter returns to his choir school (in real life John was moved out to Sevenoaks in Kent for safety), and Rosamund sent to board at Weasenham (a village seven miles south-west of Fakenham).


An army major turns up unannounced to requisition the land that Phillip is ploughing. Phillip objects strongly: he hasn't received a requisition order. The army officer leaves, but Phillip dreads the thought of soldiers on the farm, knowing from his own past experience what mess will ensue; but also remembering his and his fellow officers' attitude about this in their war.


They are late sowing the wheat due to wet weather setting in, and it does not thrive. Luke insists that this is because the Boss had made him work on a Sunday! The army does arrive: Phillip's new roads are ruined, rubbish is thrown around, a new field gate gets smashed: but the Commandant of the camp refuses compensation. Phillip is overworked, depressed about the war and all its implications, and very irritable. Everything goes wrong, including the fireplaces.


We now learn that Lucy's brother Tim (Robin Hibbert) has returned from Australia and is working in Gaultford (Bedford), and it is arranged that Lucy and the younger children should go and live with him. (To recap: Loetitia's brother Robin had in real life returned from Australia in 1936 and had helped HW prepare the farm for his tenancy prior to the official occupancy, until leaving at the end of November 1937 – called 'Tim' here, he is also 'Sam' of The Story of a Norfolk Farm. Loetitia and the two younger children did indeed go and live with him in Bedford as in the novel, returning in April 1940.)


A letter arrives from Teddy Pinnegar, with whom Phillip had served in the First World War, writing that he has read Phillip's articles about setting up a 'community farm', and offering to sell his engineering business to come and help on the farm with his friend Mrs 'Yipps' Carfax (in real life Freddy Tranter and Mrs Hurt – whom HW tended to refer to as 'the Tranters').


It is arranged that they will come and run the farm while Lucy and the children move to Gaultford. Lucy says goodbye to her 'step-son' Billy – a subtle reminder of the situation (fictional only). Phillip discusses his fears and worries with Lady Penelope Carnoy (the Hon. Mrs Muriel North), showing how his mind is dominated by the First World War.


‘The survivors of the Great War are dead, like the captain and crew of Wagner's Flying Dutchman. My life ever since the Armistice has felt unreal.’


A business-like arrangement is made with Pinnegar and Yipps over the share of household costs etcetera (never kept), and they immediately cadge some petrol (a sign of things to come). They also arrive two days earlier than expected, catching Lucy out before she has cleaned up, together with an enormous amount of sporting gear – further ill-omen for Phillip. (All this was just as in real life!)


The family, with fewer problems than usual, leave for Gaultford on 2 November, stopping off to see Rosamund at the school run by Mrs Cheffe at Weasenham (by deduction this was Weasenham Hall), where the two young boys are thrilled to see their sister. (Richard can remember very clearly his brother Robert rolling around on the floor in excitement, but without knowing the location or occasion!)


After a long and gloomy journey ('enlivened' by Phillip's thoughts about the war and the plight of agriculture), their arrival in Gaultford reminds him of those war-time comrades he had known when stationed there. Tim welcomes them into a comfortable house filled with Pa's furniture from the family home (which had been safely put into store by Phillip).


He [Phillip] was homeless, and had been ever since Hallowe'en on the Messine Ridge twenty-five years before. [i.e. 1914] . . . The sense of being completely outside time had been strong almost from infancy. . . .


He was not by nature a man of action, he was a contemplator of action. . . . He was not a farmer, but a writer.


(And so here we have an encapsulation of the thought behind the title page quotation.)


While in Gaultford, Phillip revisits childhood haunts from those early holidays spent with his cousin Percy Pickering (Charles Boon, killed in action on 16 November 1916, aged 21). He walks to Brogborough Spinney, but finds it is now a brickworks. The description here is rather surreal but is of an exact landscape (see Anne Williamson, 'Kith & Kin – or 'Kissing cousins'', HWSJ 51, September 2015, pp. 33-56).


In real life, HW only stayed at '2, The Glade' for one day, then travelled on to stay with Ann Thomas in Wiltshire; although he must have driven past those childhood haunts and seen the new brickworks. He called back at Bedford on his return, travelling on to Norfolk on 9 November.



Part Two: 'SISYPHUS & CO.'


Part Two is headed with a two-line quotation from a poem by Edith Sitwell (1887-1964), 'Metamorphosis', Five Variations on a Theme (1933):


The polar night's huge boulder hath rolled

This my heart, my Sisyphus, in the abyss.


(Sisyphus was the Greek King of Corinth: for various offences against the Gods he was condemned in the underworld to eternally roll a boulder to the top of a hill, where it immediately rolled back down and he had to start again.)


The continuation of the verse conveys rather better, I think, what HW wanted to convey:


Do the Dead know the nights wherein we grope

From our terrible abyss of hope

To soft despair? The nights when creeping Fear

Crumples our hearts, knowing when age will appear,

Our sun, our love, will leave us more alone

Than the black mouldering rags about the bone?


This exactly encapsulates HW's mood of despair and his sleepless nightmares: the everlasting and constantly recurring problems of the farm exacerbated by his emotional turmoils.


Phillip arrives back at the farmhouse to find it transformed by Pinnegar and Yipps, but he is very uneasy. They are doing things against his precise instructions, including shooting pheasants. Yipps Carfax provides good meals, but Phillip worries incessantly about the cost and waste – and how little his family have to manage on. But he gets on with the farm work and begins writing a book. (This is of course The Story of a Norfolk Farm.) At the end of the initial month's trial of these two 'managers' he tries to get them to make a decision, but they prevaricate.


Phillip goes to London to see John Chetwood, editor of the Daily Crusader (John Rayner of the Daily Express) about articles. Chetwood recommends a young man who wants to work on the farm, Nugent ffondent-Jones – an 'improver', that is, still training. Chetwood invites Phillip to dinner to meet his fiancée along with Melissa Watt-Wilby (note the sound of this: 'What will be'!). Phillip foolishly wears his ISP badge and attracts unwonted attention from three young thugs. They hurriedly move on to another club, where there is on the wall a painting by Melissa depicting her earlier swim with Phillip in the phosphorescent waves of North Norfolk (see The Phoenix Generation):


A nymph and a man above a sea-bed, hair streaming in the tide-drift, heads close together as they swam naked among shells and thong-weed. Fish moving past without fear.


Melissa says she had painted it for him and now gives it to him.



phoenix barlow1



This swim, as related in The Phoenix Generation entry, did not actually involve 'Melissa' (Margot Renshaw) but a cousin of Loetitia called Rosemary Barlow, who rather threw herself at HW. He avoided the situation (to her scorn), as she was married to a serving officer. The 'painting' is in reality a small sketch measuring 6½ x 4½' inches.


Phillip now gives Melissa a lift back to Norfolk as she wants to see Runnymeade (we are not told why!), but she stays the night with Phillip – to the titivation of Pinnegar and Yipps! Yipps makes good use of this episode to her own advantage in due course. This incident did not occur in real life quite as in the novel here. HW actually returned from Bedford with a land-girl (no reason given for this), who, equally oddly, did the next day go on to Mordaunt Goodliffe (the fictional Runnymeade) 'as his guest at Brancaster cottage' (HW's diary), returning to London the next day – HW paying her fare, as does Phillip for Melissa in the novel. Quite an odd incident, but HW cleverly weaves it into his tale.


Nugent ffondent-Jones arrives. (The original autobiographical MS states only: 'a youth nicknamed “Pinwheel”’ who had come as a pupil on the farm and who was being paid 30/- a week as an 'improver' – seemingly straight from agricultural college.) He is a good worker. But to Phillip's dismay A. B. Cabton and wife also turn up (a reminder: Cabton is H. A. Manhood, a writer). Manhood and his wife Rene did indeed arrive, uninvited, at the farm on 19 October 1938. Afterwards HW typed a 4-page note recounting their visit, heading it 'Memoranda', and writing in the left margin: 'Note for Autobiography Drawer'. On the reverse of one of the quarto sheets he has noted down a detail that clearly (and understandably) irritated him: 'Manhood's habit of cleaning fingernails before you, with the blade of a clasp-knife.' Phillip puts the Cabtons up, to their annoyance, in the caravan stored in the Corn Barn. Phillip has a shoot arranged for the next day: Cabton expects to join in, but Phillip says all is arranged and he cannot, so Cabton goes off in a huff.


The shooting guests are Lord Abeline (Melissa's father – in real life Sir Stephen Renshaw) and two friends, two Royal Fusilier officers, and Charles Box (Cyril Case, a neighbouring farmer – he features in the Picture Post article on a shoot on the farm in 1943: see John Gregory, 'Journalism: the public face of the Norfolk Farm, Part II', HWSJ 40, September 2004, pp 22-36). The shoot goes well despite Phillip's pessimism. He reads from his grandfather's journal while they wait for the rain to stop (no such item exists in real life – the MS notebooks state that he read from a book he had written about salmon – the effect of a spate on the life of a river!). We are given a great description of the shoot, and Yipps prepares a good lunch, although Phillip is constantly seeing 'farm' problems.


HW records two shoots at this time:


9 October 1939: 33 pheasants, 300 shots fired! Bad. Two officers Royal Fusiliers from the Camp.


8 December 1939: 52 pheasant, 2 woodcock, 2 teal, 3 snipe, 5 pigeon, 4 hares.


To Phillip's relief the Cabtons do not appear, but Luke reports they have been secretly shooting, and at sitting birds at that (sin of sins in shooting circles). As they leave after a day or two, Phillip challenges them and they become extremely unpleasant, Upset, Phillip becomes suicidal, but overcomes this and gets on with writing the farm book.


Phillip and Pinnegar happily listen to Parsifal by firelight. Pinnegar outlines a scheme for having pupils on the farm at £300 each. He says Penelope's farmhouse will be available as she is leaving, because she cannot bear the 'war' disturbances (military shooting, and other inconveniences). He goes off for his usual visit to the pub, leaving Phillip to the mercy of a tête-à-tête with an unhappy Yipps, who tries to seduce him into seducing her!


Then ‘Pinwheel’ asks Phillip if he can have a cottage as he wants to get married. His chosen bride is apparently (and rather improbably!) Melissa Watt-Wilby, whom he has met only once at that dinner in London. So Phillip moves into the unfinished and cold River View Cottage so that 'Pinwheel' (as Luke has nicknamed him) could have his cottage (South Cottage – the third of the 'Bugg' cottages); but Melissa turns down the proposal anyway. (This scenario is not based on real life – and does not appear in the original MS.)


Phillip is writing articles for the Daily Crusader (as HW was for the Daily Express). This brings forth a letter from Desmond Neville, his friend from early days who has returned from Africa and wants to see him. (HW's friend Terence Tetley from boyhood and early manhood – see early Chronicle volumes). He also gets a letter from Laura Wissilcraft, the extremely neurotic female whom he previously met as he travelled up to Norfolk prior to buying the farm (see The Phoenix Generation entry). We learn she has been writing regularly (once a month 'as the moon was waxing full'!). He has been trying to encourage her writing aspirations (as did HW Elsie Alderton, the original of Laura).


Desmond Neville arrives: Phillip thinks he has not changed a bit in his physical appearance, but, very quickly, also realises that neither has he changed mentally. Desmond's reaction:


I saw a skull-like grin through the steam, and heard a voice I did not recognise.


Desmond tells a tale of woe: everything is against him, his wife has left him, and he has no money. Listening to this long tirade, Phillip begins to feel that he and all the world are dead and in purgatory.


None of them knew they were dead. The black-out was that of the nether world. They were all in purgatory, unaware of their deaths, struggling to get through to the living world through the veil of demonic possession. Hitler was Faustus, trying to bring a millennia of youth to the dying Western world.


Faust, and particularly for HW Goethe's Faust, having sold his soul to the Devil in return for earthly ecstasy, and despite a life maintained by the Devil, basically strove towards good, and in the end is given a place in heaven, through the pure love of a woman.


HW is making an important statement here – thrown in, hidden, among this conversation with his friend from the past. It is part of his Hitler/Lucifer (the fallen angel) concept, and the polarity of good and evil that is innate in humanity (as recognised by Plato, and indeed a basic tenet of the Christian religion). It does of course also hark back to the thoughts expressed in the title-page quotation by St Augustine. It is, too, a fairly open statement that HW recognises that Hitler was not what he thought he was, but had, in effect, sold his soul to the Devil. (For further background to this complicated thread, see Anne Williamson, 'A Dual Heritage', HWSJ 42, September 2006, pp 5-37.)


In the novel Phillip wonders whether to take Desmond on as a partner, and takes him to meet Lady Penelope Carnoy, who is rather cold in manner: Yipps has spun Penelope her story, and caught her in her web. Back at the farm Desmond dictates a letter for Phillip to send to his girl, Mildred, inviting her to become a half-share partner (without discussing this with Phillip first), and then borrows money for the first class fare back to London – and is never heard of again!


HW noted in his diary on 29 January 1940:


Before Christmas Terence Tetley (Jack Temperley, of a sort, in my Flax [at this point he is not yet Desmond Neville of the Chronicle, for HW had not started to write those volumes] turned up from Africa. I didn't like him. He borrowed £2 on leaving & omitted to pay a poor cottage woman for his washing – 1/10d


He then notes Tetley’s many past borrowings which had never been paid back (even after he had received a considerable inheritance). It is difficult to work out exactly when this visit actually took place. HW was away from 16–22 December, and on Christmas Day he had lunch alone in the Townshend Arms as he couldn't bear to be with the 'Tranters'. So it has to be early December.


Laura Wissilcraft now arrives, having cycled up from Suffolk (Eye), in a very neurotic hysterical state. Penelope happens to be there visiting Yipps, who invites her back to dinner – an uncomfortable occasion. La Wissilcraft refuses any food. Penelope lectures Phillip on his behaviour. Eventually La Wissilcraft is taken to Crabbe for the night, and in due course the next morning, after more of the same, she is persuaded to cycle back home. (Although Elsie Alderton did visit the farm and behaved in a very hysterical fashion, it was not at this actual time. HW is setting the scene here to follow the everlasting grind of the 'Sisyphus' theme: everything he does is 'uphill'.)


Phillip continues to write: life continues as before, the farm being run by the men. Phillip reads from Richard Jefferies’ Hodge and his Masters as example of good writing: the scene is Hodge at the workhouse. (HW produced two revised editions of Hodge: the first in 1937, and again in 1946 as A Classic of English Farming – see the entry on Richard Jefferies.)


The threshing tackle arrives, and we read: 'the threshing of the limited 1939 harvest was over in three days'. HW's diary records this as occurring from Monday, 27 November to Thursday, 30 November.


Collecting his daughter from the school at Weasenhall (which she is leaving as he cannot afford even the subsidised fees), Phillip takes Billy and Rosamund to Norwich to the Corn Hall to sell his harvest seeds and we get an excellent description of proceedings there. He was very late arriving (as HW was!), due to returning to drain the tractor radiator knowing it would not get done otherwise; and then had to rush to get to the bank to leave the farm deeds and his business debentures (Drake, Driver & Leaver shares, the firm of his mother's father – the 'Turneys' of the Chronicle novels) as surety against bankruptcy. At the Corn Market Billy is detailed not to let his father sell for under 38/- a coombe – but, with some amusement, to no avail!


His diary notes this as Saturday, 16 December 1939:


I sold 116 coombe of barley in Norwich market today to Clarke of Attleborough for 35/6 a coombe.


They continue to Bedford, buying chocolate (still available at this early stage of the war), rolls and apples, and eating them as they travelled. But the letter announcing their intended arrival has gone astray and they are not expected. After several days Phillip and Billy return to the farm. (In real life HW continued on to stay with Ann Thomas near Chippenham, where he worked on The Story of a Norfolk Farm, returning on 23 December.) En route home, Phillip stops off at the butchers at Great Wordingham (Great Walsingham, 4 miles south of Stiffkey) to learn that his 46 turkeys had been very thin and starved. Teddy Pinnegar had failed to look after them as agreed.


Back at the farm, which Phillip and Billy enter with some trepidation, they find all is prepared for a (very) festive (and obviously extremely expensive) Christmas. A letter from 'Pinwheel' says he will not be returning after the Christmas break, mainly because there are too many people living off the farm (i.e., sponging on Phillip).


Previously I had never found anything in HW's diary or personal papers to suggest the real name of this young man. However I have just (November 2015) found by chance an airmail letter dated 10 July 1943 from '12 Adv. Base, 26th Indian Division Flotilla' from someone 'who worked on your farm during 1939 as a pupil', mentioning 'no more bogus partners I hope'. The letter is signed 'A. C. ffennell-Smith, Lieut.'. So the mystery is solved. Note HW's usual play on the fictional name of Nugent ffondant-Jones!



solitary pinwheel1


solitary pinwheel2 



Both Matt and Luke are aware of the financial situation, but Phillip reassures them. On Christmas Day Phillip cannot face the festivities and eats alone at the Hero. HW’s diary entry is:


Couldn't stand the depression within & had lunch alone at the Townshend Arms. Can't bear Tranter or Mrs. Hurt . . . [who sarcastically calls him] 'Little ray of sunshine'


Afterwards Phillip walks on the marshes thinking of his parents – and also wondering if he is being watched. Later Teddy brings him a plate of food and they talk nostalgically about 'their' war.


Captain Runnymeade (Captain Goodliffe) phones to invite them over for a Boxing Day party and reluctantly he agrees. They see the wildfowlers setting out. Major Christianson-Cradock (Major Hammond) had rather craftily formed a Wildfowling Club. We are told he is a man 'inclined to truculence' or in Luke's words, 'a bully', and that (a hint of Macbeth!) that Phillip will be 'involved with him within a few months'.


Runnymeade is his usual moody self and we find that (the alcoholic) Rippinghall is now back working for his old master as 'house-parlourman', serving over-generous drinks. Runnymeade, stirring things up as usual, mentions Birkin. Yipps says that she has heard he was thrown out of a window while at Sandhurst, and that is how he had broken his leg. Phillip retaliates, telling how he had actually broken it flying against the enemy in November 1914.


(That is not quite accurate either, but HW obviously made a slight error of assumption: although in the Royal Flying Corps in November 1914, Mosley was an 'observer': at that point the role of RFC was not actually an offensive one, but reconnaissance. He broke his leg in an air-crash while further training at Shoreham in May 1915; although not properly healed he returned to duty for the Battle of Loos, where the injury was exacerbated due to his refusal, although in great pain, to leave his post, subsequently leaving him with a permanent limp.)


Stefania Rozwitz comes in, and Runnymeade stirs things up even further with remarks about Hitler and the war. Teddy gets dragged in, while Stefania shows 'artistic' sympathy to Phillip. Runnymeade now questions Phillip closely about his war service, stating that Major Christianson-Cradock had said Phillip never served in the First World War. Pinnegar now stoutly comes to Phillip's defence and reveals the true facts. They transfer to Colonel Baden-Poynder's (coal magnate, 3 sons in uniform) for drinks where Phillip makes rather a fool of himself. (HW's diary reveals the colonel as 'Cory-Wright', ex-Birmingham business man, a 'nice chap but . . . only idea is business'.)


On New Year's Day Phillip sorts out the turkey problem with the poulterer. Being underweight due to starvation the total payment for them is much less than he expected. His argument is in vain. HW’s diary entry for 4 January relates the whole sorry story. (His diary entry on 5 September that year notes that 'Chapman died recently, the butcher with whom I had a slight but unfortunate contact over turkeys. My fault, I trusted to others.') Phillip now asks Pinnegar yet again for the household accounts to be presented. They are of course far in excess of any normal budget: Pinnegar is embarrassedly apologetic, but defends Yipps as correct. Phillip also has to pay for the damage to Yipps’ car because they had not drained it against the severe freezing temperatures (as did HW).


Pinnegar and Yipps now depart abruptly, emptying the Farmhouse Cottage of all traces of food and warmth. They remove themselves to the hospitality of Lady Penelope Carnoy, who now turns against Phillip. (HW's diary notes: 'Mrs. North refuses to see me any more . . . she has taken the Tranters into her care.')


HW treats the character of Pinnegar (Frank, or Freddy, Tranter, who had served in the First World War with HW) with some sympathy, showing him to be kindly and sound whenever alone with Phillip – but ruled by Yipps Carfax (Mrs Hurt) who is the real bugbear. This is borne out by a letter from Frank Tranter, dated 20 November 1942 as from 'The Ministry of Supply', in which he states he wishes he hadn't turned down HW's offer of a partnership, but that he was ruled by his feelings for 'Eve'; now that relationship is finally terminated. Tranter writes: 'All those years of my life which was obsessed by feelings of loyalty and devotion have been wasted for I'm afraid she has gone never to return. What a hopeless mess of life one can make on account of a woman. What a dismal failure have I made of my own.' That is all rather sad.


Phillip ponders the current situation, especially his puzzlement over Penelope's insistence about Richard Jefferies and 'syphilis' – had he written 'phthisis' (consumption)? – then he suddenly realises the word had been 'Sisyphus', so descriptive of his own life. Getting up in his relief he finds it is snowing.





The first chapter opens with Phillip and Billy:


It was a strange life they were now leading. He and Billy were existing in an unreal world: silence of forsaken farmhouse, pallor of snow-light behind latticed panes: a wider silence of village street deep in snow, he and Billy going together three times a day to their meals in Mrs. Hammett's cottage.


. . . All sound seemed frozen with the air.


HW pasted newspaper cuttings about this very severe weather into his farm diary. The news of it was published some time after the event, due to war-time restrictions about reporting the weather and any other information which could be helpful to the enemy: they actually refer to the period over Christmas and the New Year of 1940.


solitary weather1


solitary weather2



These details are all integrated into the story, but first we read the amusing details about the bull, 'Beast', and his various shortcomings – of legs and masculine duty (overcome with cunning ingenuity!).


Billy goes down with flu at the beginning of February. HW ends it after a month with a joke about the thermometer being broken all the time, and so giving a false reading. But his diary shows his very real concern for his son, and his own struggle to cope with everything. It was a difficult period. Windles finally got up on 4 March: HW's diary records:


Windles is better, & up. We still eat at the Suttons [the fictional Mrs Hammett – HW had taken Windles his food in bed]. I think if she hadn't taken us in we would both have died. I am tired out & without hope.


There is an interesting description of shooting pigeons for the pot. Phillip takes them to Mrs Hammett, who is not very keen on them! This scene had originally been written as an article, as the MS book reveals. (The article was 'No Pity for Pigeons', published in the Evening Standard on 1 February 1940, and collected in Heart of England (HWS, 2003; e-book 2013.)



solitary pigeon1


solitary pigeon2



On 29 February HW had recorded: 'Someone wants me to make a film.'


In the book Phillip receives a letter from Arrowsmith Publishing asking him to write a script for a film about British farming. This could solve Phillip’s financial problems, but he is a little dubious about what is involved (as was HW) and what the outcome would be. This project appears to have been instigated by John Chetwood (John Rayner of the Daily Express) who knew 'Arrowsmith'. This becomes a major feature both of the story and real life and eventually an unmitigated disaster.


The novel follows real life, with Phillip taking Billy to Bedford on 6 March to stay with his mother, to convalesce from his bout of flu The novel tells of his difficulty in getting the Alvis to start (not recorded in HW’s diary!). From there Phillip (as HW) went on to London by train to see Arrowsmith and the film producer 'Mr Poluski' (a Mr Soskin). HW then went on to stay with Ann Thomas now living in Bright's Cottage, Christian Malford,  just north-east of Chippenham.


Ann says she loves me dearly, and I am so happy again.


How desperately the man needed reassurance.


HW further recorded:


P. Soskin wants to make a film with farming as background. And I am exhausted. He asked me to send MSS of Norfolk Farm. [HW was then writing The Story of a Norfolk Farm.]

Phillip is to meet Poluski again in five weeks’ time. Returning to the farm, Phillip learns that Penelope Carnoy has returned home and discovered the true nature of Pinnegar and Yipps, who have stolen her petrol and food. (HW records in his diary that he doubts Mrs North will ever admit her error of judgement of the couple – and consequently nor of himself.) Melissa, now a nurse at St George's Hospital in London, is staying with Penelope and meets Phillip in the street. They arrange to meet when he visits London the next day.


Phillip returns to London via Gaultford and Lucy, who tells him that Melissa is the right one for him. (This time in real life Windles, aged 14 on 18 February, was left with Bob Sutton and Norman Jordan to plough Fourteen Acres, Fox Covert and Twenty-one Acres.)


On arrival for his appointment with Poluski, Phillip is told the producer is away filming – the telegram sent informing him of this has missed him – but that he is enthusiastic about the book. (HW's diary records his disquiet about all of this.)


To fill in the time before meeting Melissa, Phillip contacts his sister Elizabeth (Kathy) and takes her to lunch, although predictably it was not a great success. He walks on the Embankment, thinking of the poet Francis Thompson, who had lived there in homeless penury until rescued by the Meynells. At the time that HW was writing A Solitary War, in 1965, he had become President of the Francis Thompson Society, and wrote two important essays – see forthcoming entry on Thompson. Phillip also wanders down Wine Vaults Lane, the scene of his first job in the Moon Insurance Office (Sun Insurance).


There is no evidence that HW met up with either Margot Renshaw or his sister at this time – he is in fact weaving in threads of the tapestry of his novel, to keep these characters in the frame, as both become more important in due course.


He meets up with Melissa, telling her he is going down to Malandine to write the synopsis of the farm film. Melissa offers to join him. So Phillip drives down to Malandine (based on Milton Sands on the south Devon coast, the scene of Phillip’s first marriage to Barley). As he travels, so he finds an extraordinary scene: the landscape has suffered a calamity.


As far as the eye could see telegraph poles along the road were lying snapped and splintered. Loops of wire were like monstrous glassy gossamers upon the hedges. Great oaks in the fields stood gaunt bereft of all limbs. Torn off boughs lay around their bases. Other trees had collapsed upon their own branches. Cattle byres were flattened. Mile upon mile revealed the effects of some mysterious pressure upon all things that were once standing upon the earth.


And over the next few paragraphs, in equally dramatic almost biblical prose (a resonance again of St Paul's Epistle – sheep are described as 'tinkling cymbals'), HW continues to describe and explain the effects of the ice-storm. It is a very powerful piece of descriptive writing.


At Malandine Phillip finds his 'Gartenfeste' (Writing Hut) has been broken into and fouled – with swastikas and the word 'Traitor' scrawled on the walls. He sets to clear it all up, and then goes for a dip in the sea to cleanse himself literally and metaphorically. Melissa never arrives, so he gets on with his writing work. He later learns she has been ordered overseas. He makes himself stay calm and packs to return to Gaultford.


This episode is entirely fictional: all the Malandine scenes are a very clever fictional device. At this point, 1 April 1940, HW actually went again to stay with Ann Thomas for a week, where he felt happy and got on with the task of writing the film synopsis.


At Gaultford, Tim informs Phillip he will now be training as an inspector of aircraft in Bristol, but that the family are welcome to stay on in the house – which they do for a while. In real life HW's diary records that he and his wife and the two younger children returned to the farm on 8 April.


The story now returns to farm work: winter work within the High Barn preparing fodder for the cattle and pigs, all rather labour intensive but 'needs must'. There are yet more problems with the out-dated methods of work that the men obstinately persist in following.


Prevarication over any appointment arranged with Poluski prevails, but eventually Arrowsmsith sends a telegram to arrange a meeting and to bring the synopsis. Phillip contacts Donald Cannock, the film star (Robert Donat, of Goodbye, Mr Chips fame, who had attended the famous farmhouse party) and goes to stay with him at his home in the Chilterns. Donald offers the services of his agent, Harry Bacon (Harry Ham). HW had been to see Donat on 5 April, while still at Ann's: '& read him my synopsis of IMMORTAL CORN. He thought it very good.' HW's appointment with Soskin is noted on 15 April. In A Solitary War the timing of this has all been put back a few weeks, to before Easter, which that year was Sunday, 24 March. Learning of the contact with Cannock, Poluski wants him to star in his film, which would have been an impossibility: Cannock/Donat was under contract to a major film company.


The brilliant title 'Immortal Corn' is taken from Thomas Traherne (1636-1674), Centuries of Meditations (not actually published until 1908), and HW had first used the phrase as the title for an article for the Evening Standard on 26 January 1939. (HW slightly misquotes this, as Traherne’s phrase is 'the corn was orient and the immortal wheat'. The article is reprinted in Heart of England, HWS, 2003; e-book 2013. HW refers to Traherne's words as 'the finest passage in English prose'.)


When Phillip does eventually meet with Poluski he is offered £1,500 for his synopsis. (In real life £1,000 for the synopsis over several months, with a further £500 if film went ahead.) Phillip is overwhelmed, but keeps calm and goes round to see Cannock’s agent Harry Bacon. It is arranged that Bacon will draw up a contract. However, Poluski's language and demeanour show him to be suavely slippery. Despite some misgivings Phillip celebrates with a spending spree: £175.10.4d for farmhouse items (mainly carpets and rugs) at the Army and Navy Stores!


Back at the farm Luke refuses to work on Easter Sunday, so Phillip does the ploughing. (HW's diary spells ‘plough’ as the medieval 'plow', as he did in The Story of a Norfolk Farm; evidently the 1966 typesetter thought such spelling too archaic!)


Phillip returns to London for another meeting with Poluski; it is suspiciously delayed, but eventually they meet in Harry Bacon's office. The upshot is that Poluski admits the film cannot go ahead: the Ministry of Information has apparently refused the financial backing on which he was relying.


HW's diary reveals he returned to London for this meeting on 26 April, where he met up with Ann Thomas, though she was once again 'prevaricating'. On 1 May he noted: 'something seems wrong with the film.' He and Ann went down to Shoreham to stay with his friend Petre Mais; then on 7 May he wrote: 'Find that Soskin is a liar and isn't going to produce the film, and is trying to dodge all payment for work done.' This left HW with a problem: he had been relying on the proposed fee to solve his financial problems. To fill this financial hole he now sold his debentures in Drake, Driver, & Leaver, the firm in which his maternal grandfather, Thomas Turney, had been a partner: the 'Mallard, Carter & Turney' of the earlier volumes of the Chronicle. A later diary entry shows they made £750.


(For further details about 'Immortal Corn' refer to the Appendix.)


Phillip now continues to work on the cottages and mulls over his film plot, which had rather strayed from a strict farm scenario. Then, with work on the cottages more or less finished, he writes to Lucy to suggest she returns. (As noted – in real life the family had actually returned on 8 April.)





Part Four opens with Phillip, having finished distempering (the method of decorating before emulsion paint was invented!) the cottage walls and feeling suddenly ebullient, finishes up by painting on the outside wall 'the sign of Birkin's party of Imperial Socialism', a lightning flash within a circle, and at the bottom on the back wall 'BIRKIN FOR PEACE'. (Mosley's pre-war slogan had been 'Mosley for Peace'.) The villagers gather to witness this untoward event, and he is accosted by a young soldier who tells him to remove it. He refuses but later, realising he has been foolish he decides to remove it – only to find that someone had gone over it with tar, rendering it virtually permanent.


(This event happened in real life more or less as related here in the book, though HW does not record it in his diary. The tarring over was done at night by HW's bugbear 'Goitre' Gidney, so thoroughly that it remained visible until very recently, so well over 60 years!)


Phillip now sets off to collect his family and bring them back to the farm. The return isn't as successful, or as cheerful, as he had envisaged, having laid out his new purchases of rugs in various rooms:


Lucy looked pale, her eyes were dark. Obviously she felt bad on coming back to such a place . . .


HW's diary, however, tells a different story – his entry on Monday 8 April states:


We returned to Stiffkey . . . Gipsy looking very fresh after her rest.


In the novel HW is setting the scene to fulfil his fictional purpose.


The farm work continues among falsely optimistic news of the progress of the war. But on 10 May, as Phillip walks past the church, the vicar calls out to him:


‘The Germans attacked Holland this morning with a million men.’


Phillip shows his distress, horror, disbelief – and despair. He walks up to the Great Bustard field:


He stood by the hedge, feeling the summer to be unreal all about him. . . . seeing in his mind only the spouting of shells, hearing the metallic stutter of machine guns. This chalky ground, this loam, the same soil as above the Somme—


That which HW dreaded most of all had come to pass. His world, the vision he had held in his mind of a peaceful and united Europe, had fallen apart.


Phillip sees a hare, and this becomes an allegory for all that is happening. The personality of the hare, a very potent symbol, is likened, with rather muddled thinking, to that of Hitler, D. H. Lawrence, Hitler's parents (the photograph to which Phillip refers to is not an actual one; HW had seen it in a book), his own parents, Uncle Hilary, and of course, himself. Basically, he is pondering the division that occurs in the artistic man of genius when he tries to be a man of action. Phillip is trying to analyse himself and the situation, but:


Like a hunted hare his own mind ran round in circles, often ending where it began.


The following chapter opens with an extract from Phillip's diary: this is almost word for word as in HW's actual diary.



solitary diary 10 may40


solitary diary 13 may40



These sombre passages reveal Phillip's (and HW's) thoughts and attitudes: his shock and despair at the seriousness of the situation. They also form part of the socio-historical record revealed throughout A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight. There is no journalistic, headline-type hyperbole here: just the stark thoughts of a man in despair at the thought of war.


Phillip writes a letter to Chettwood suggesting an article, but then throws it in a drawer to join others (a frequent habit in real life – it relieved HW's mental pressure). I doubt few readers would have understood the rather obscure reference to 'Tannenberg' in 1966 unless First World War experts, and almost certainly not in the twenty-first century. This is the Battle of Tannenberg, on the Russian/East Prussian Front at the end of August 1914, led by the German generals Hindenburg and Ludendorff, in which 30,000 Russian soldiers were killed in 28 days of turmoil: it was said by General Ironside to have been the greatest defeat suffered by any of the combatants during that war. (That might be open to question.) Tannenberg had been the site of a battle five centuries before, in which the Teutonic Knights (among them a Hindenburg) had been massacred by a vast army of Slavs and Lithuanians (see Martin Gilbert, First World War, 1994) so it was a place of great significance to the Germans.


The letter is somewhat muddled, indicative of Phillip/HW's emotional thought processes. But it does contain a very important sentence:


I have never been pro-Hitler in the sense of being anti-British.


In other words he is not a traitor.


The war with Germany should never have been . . .


It is the dread of war that drove HW.


In real life the thoughts expressed in this letter were actually expressed over a lunch with John Rayner and Tom Driberg ('William Hickey' of the Daily Express from 1933-1943, and HW's 'Mr. Pepys'), as shown in HW’s diary entry for 28 May 1940. HW was convinced that once Hitler had conquered France, now inevitably within days, he would offer peace to England. If this was accepted, then England would remain intact; otherwise it would be destroyed. An article by himself, he proposed, would explain this and enlighten all. Oswald Mosley had been arrested on 23 May and so was effectively silenced: HW felt he now had to be the mouthpiece for peace. It was the fear of war that was terrifying him. He knew what war meant. However: 'They seemed impressed but dubious.' And so in the novel the 'letter' is never sent;  HW’s article proposal was aborted.


HW had actually gone to London for two urgent reasons:


First, to collect John from the choir school, which had moved out of London to Sevenoaks for safety: not the wisest of places to have chosen, as HW realised. (John then went to the well-known Norfolk grammar school, Paston's.)


Second, to visit Ham (Ronald Donat's agent, who had drawn up the film contract) about 'suing Soskin for non-payment for film work'. Ham oddly prevaricates. (In A Solitary War, HW establishes very subtly that Bacon and Poluski are pally, and they play golf together: that in fact they are hand-in-glove.) HW was now resigned, but extremely bitter, about this dead end – and perfidy. He felt that the material had been stolen from him, as indeed it probably had.


In the novel this urgent London visit is turned into the rather inexplicable mad dash to see 'Wallington Christie', editor of The New Horizon and (as a conscientious objector) manager of a community farm in south Suffolk; and we read of his background. This is of course John Middleton Murry, editor of The Adelphi and future author of Community Farm (1952). HW did not actually visit Murry at this point. June 1942 seems to be the first time they actually met – although HW had first read Murry's 'Lost Legions' essay in 1924. (For the background to their friendship see Anne Williamson, 'Millennium Revelations', HWSJ 35, September 1999, pp. 38-66.) HW is here introducing his character and concept, laying down a marker for the future. One has to admire the complicated interweaving that must have constantly been in HW's mind over and above the actual writing. We discover that Phillip is not terribly impressed either with the community farm, or its conscientious-objector occupants.


HW returned to Stiffkey the following day, 29 May, and, as he then notes in his diary that he and Ann Thomas were 'dock-pulling and spudding' (a tool which removes roots), he had obviously brought her back with him from London. As usual he finds that all the routines that he insists on are not being adhered to, neither in the house nor on the farm.


The story now tells of the meeting of the Local Defence Volunteers at the Village Recreation Hut. Phillip attends. (This was actually on 23 May in real life.)


He went with inner reluctance; his heart and soul were away, among ghosts passing below the Golden Virgin of Albert. Ancre Valley, Loos and Hindenburg Line, Langemarck and Poelcapelle. The wailing of Strombos gas-horns at night and the lily-white flares rising over the watery morass: all the agony, the waste, and the wisdom from those nights and days. . . .


That is a very moving, piercingly poignant picture: HW is laying his heart – his soul – absolutely bare. I cannot see how anyone could ever misunderstand his motives if they read his work with the care and attention it deserves. He knows these horrific scenes from the previous war. His whole being is in turmoil. His diary records the progress of the German advance through France day by day, as these examples show:


24 May: Germans are in Calais. Vimy Ridge taken. This brings back memories of April 1917. It is very sad: if only the Germans were treated with magnanimity in 1918 [by the reviled Versailles Treaty].


31 May: Most of the BEF rescued at Dunkirk by hundreds of little English boats. Bravo! I wished I had been there with little Pinta Major, sailing across. Looks as though our fighter planes have got Fritz taped.


The Local Defence Volunteers meeting is chaired by Major Christianson-Cradock, now Commander of the Military Camp, a man with whom Phillip has always felt uneasy from the first time of meeting, before he even moved into the farm. (This is the objectionable Major Hammond.) The Major's speech ends:


‘Certain undesirable elements are not wanted. . . .’


Phillip rises to the bait, stating that the party he belongs to is first and foremost patriotic. He is shouted and booed down. The canteen manager of the military camp, well primed, denounces:


‘I protest against this man in our midst who has repeatedly blasphemed against God, King, Country, and our poor dear lads in France.’


Phillip protests that this is a damned lie: Major Cradock shouts loudly:


‘I don't care if it's a damned lie or not, I believe it.’


Such was the man in real life, as in fiction. This whole sorry charade is recorded word for word in HW's diary for 23 May, where he added: ‘So that was that.’


The novel continues with diary entries for 25 May and after: these are roughly the same as those in HW's actual diary, except that in real life he does not immediately record the letter from 'Lady Birkin': that is learnt in the entry for 29 June:


Lady Mosley was arrested today. She wrote to me a week ago & asked what to do about Action. I advised to let it die.


Phillip’s fictional diary entry for 9 June relates how after lunch with Lady Breckland, he and Lucy went on to see Runnymeade at Brancaster, where Stefania Rozwitz was also present; although previously friendly, she now hisses at him: 'Traitor! Liar! Imposter! Spy!', and leaves the room. They stay to dinner and go home in the dark, getting stopped by a barricade and asked for their identity cards. (Everyone at that time had to carry their identity card with them at all times and produce it on demand. The older generation finds modern arguments against such ‘infringements of civil liberties’ amusing!) The next morning Phillip discovers that the Alvis had been daubed with swastikas in white paint. Phillip is horrified to think what might have ensued if these had been spotted.


This bizarre incident is basically true. But unlike in the novel sequence (in which Phillip had met Stefania Rozwitz, a leading ballerina who had danced with Nijinski, in the 1930s on the south coast at Runnymeade's castle home, and she had always been friendly towards him and indeed subtly taken his part against Runnymeade), in real life it seems that this was the first time he had met the lady: in HW’s diary she is nameless and obviously a stranger:


Later went to see Capt. Goodliffe at Brancaster. He had a Polish woman friend staying with him. She greeted me with the charming address . . . [as above in the novel] . . . I found in the morning that she had spent her solitude in painting white swastikas over the old Silver Eagle. Fortunately for us, the armed patrols last night on the road didn't spot it, else some jittery chawbacon might have shot both dead.


That, of course, makes more sense, for we do not have any real reason why Stefania should have so suddenly turned against Phillip.


In the novel HW covers this contradiction by means of Runnymeade's interrogation of Phillip to show they have all decided he is rather a cad. That is almost certainly a fictional device. HW's diary shows that the next day HW wrote to Goodliffe saying that he would not make an official complaint:


lest I embarrass him: but adding it wasn't my ambition to be shot in the back by my own countryman, so I'd give him a miss until the present international misunderstanding had blown over.


Phillip’s diary entries end with that of 12 June: Phillip cutting the hay on Bustard finds sooty smuts falling on him. HW's real diary records with restrained poignance:



solitary diary 12 june40



His diary does not record the information about 'Lady Birkin's arrest', but no doubt this was from that day's Daily Express.


The next chapter – rather wonderfully and punningly titled 'Jugged Hare' – describes Phillip's arrest under Defence Regulation 18B; 'jugged hare' being a traditional culinary term for hare stewed in its own blood: while HW knows he has a 'hare mind', while to be put in prison is to be 'put in jug'.


This happened on the afternoon of 14 June 1940. Once in his cell at the local police station (having been allowed to take some necessities – wash things and, more importantly, writing materials), Phillip’s thought is: that if 'Goughie' (General Gough of the Fifth Army in the First World War, whose symbol was a 'red mud-balled fox') 'could remain calm under all that fell upon him, so could he . . .' But his mind sees scenes of the First World War merging with those of the current one: 'Vimy Ridge with its new dead.’ To calm himself he quotes (from Psalm 46, verse 9 – which HW has used previously elsewhere):


Be still and know that I am God.


This Psalm opens: ‘God is our hope and strength: a very present help in trouble.’ The actual verse quoted begins: 'He maketh wars to cease in all the world.'


But Phillip’s thoughts still churn as he reads lurid reports of supposed widespread treachery in the newspaper he is kindly given. Another police officer (on war reserve) is friendly:


Where had he seen that face before? Ah, the man who had taken his sugar-beet last winter . . . the owner-driver of a small lorry.


The reader has been introduced, quite anonymously, to Bert Close – who will appear again in the next novel, Lucifer before Sunrise.


He is brought a tray of tea, bread and butter, jam and cake, by courtesy of the police sergeant's wife. Phillip is touched by these acts of kindness. More importantly here, they show that the sensible local people did not believe that he was in any way a traitor. Reading between the lines (as the saying goes), or beneath the immediate scenario, it is obvious that they know and understand the situation – and are aware that he will not be charged.


Phillip (and HW) is allowed his writing things 'to write an epigraph to a book he had written about farming'. (This is the Epigraph to The Story of a Norfolk Farm, where he states that he wrote it in the police cell at Wells.)


Meanwhile the officers have searched the farm premises and removed some items, mainly guns and ammunition, for which he has licences, and gunpowder (for blasting chalk), for which he doesn't! He is questioned about the latter, and his membership of, and association with, the 'Imperial Socialist Party'. At the end his interrogator says he doesn't think there will be anything to worry about, and that he understands Phillip's idealism. But back in his cell Phillip's thoughts churn again, trying to persuade himself that Hitler would never invade.


Lucy arrives for a visit: he is allowed to go into the yard to talk to her in privacy and more comfort. This is further evidence of the kindly attitude of the police. (In actual fact this visit was made by both his wife and Ann Thomas together – and no doubt it was Ann who was actually organising everything.)


HW's diary for Friday, 14 June records:


Today at 2.45 p.m. four plain clothed detectives, armed, came to the house & arrested me under the Defence Act, Section 18B. They took me to Wells prison [i.e., the police station!] while others searched the cottages, the granary, & all my boxes. I was locked in a little white-washed cell. I spent a curious afternoon in the cell, while the police walked past with my guns, ammunition etc. [enumerated as in the novel]. In the evening Gipsy & Ann came & cheered me up. We sat in the yard behind.


Saturday, 15 June: The police at Wells were very kind. I wrote the farm story, sitting on my narrow wood-plank bed. . . . I alternated in mood from misery to optimism.


On the Monday morning Phillip (as HW) was taken in some apprehension in a car to an unknown destination – which turned out to be Norwich police station, to see the Chief Constable of Norfolk (HW's diary reveals his name as Captain von Neck). The Chief Constable was politely friendly, pointing out that he had had to act on the allegations made, but nothing had been found to substantiate these, and that Phillip/HW is to be released – but to be careful as his name is mud locally. (The people behind this quite scurrilously unsubstantiated accusation were Major Hammond and, obviously at Hammond's bidding, 'Goitre' Gidney – the fictional Horatio Bugg.)


Lucy is surprised by Phillip's sudden reappearance at the farm. He immediately dashes down to the blacksmith – a good honest man – to ask about machinery he has left for repair, but really to let it be known that:


‘The Chief Constable has examined my case, and set me free.’


He is seen by Horatio Bugg, who slides off out of sight (doubtless guiltily disconcerted!).


Back at the farm Lucy tells him she has had a letter from Felicity to say that her father Brother Laurence has been killed helping the wounded at Dunkirk. (The imaginary) Brother Laurence has not appeared in this volume, but his name has been mentioned a few times. HW had created quite a complication by introducing this character, and this was a useful and symbolic way to kill him off: as Felicity's father, he was in effect (as Felicity is Ann Thomas) an embodiment of Edward Thomas – killed in action on the opening day of the Battle of Arras in 1917. (As revealed above, Ann herself was actually at the farm at that time.)


The last chapter is titled 'Morning Star' – for an important reason that emerges at the end.


Phillip stands in the farmhouse doorway with his youngest son Jonny (Richard) watching the swallows, and reminds us that he had been named 'phil-lip' after their alarm call; and he thinks about the old man who had lived there before them.


This tiny cameo scene is deliberately reminiscent of that very early Chronicle volume when Phillip walks home from school past the grave of the old man who had recommended he be fed donkey milk. And it is also reminiscent of the early eponymous story in The Lone Swallows. HW is using his writing craft to take us very subtly back to an earlier and happier time: a yearning for time past and lost – a yearning for something unattainable.


The lone cockbird roosted always beside the remaining hen . . . the solitary swallow sang sometimes . . .


‘He had become a poet,’ said Phillip, ‘Loneliness had made him dream.’


Phillip thinks that his youngest son is like his cousin Willie (and therefore like himself, for Willie and Phillip are manifestations of the same person).


Then sitting at their meal, Phillip pontificates about Germany and Hitler. In fact HW is using this to explain the situation and his attitude. It is an important passage and needs to be read with care. It ends:


‘Then the man who was two men, the true man and also the self-built man, suddenly lost his head, and started the war. Hitler betrayed his true self – . . .


‘Now for us Hitler weather means a daily, hourly dread of invasion. Oh, God, what a tragedy.’


HW is showing that he now understands the betrayal of his belief in an ideal that did not exist.


The following Sunday the Rector preaches that those who had been spreading rumours about someone the police had cleared were only helping the enemy by creating 'Alarm and Despondency'. (We have to presume that the Rector did indeed speak on HW's behalf: a good Christian act – but one which would have meant nothing to the perpetrators of the calumny they had committed.) That this was indeed so is seen immediately: Phillip joins the ARP (Air Raid Precautions) as a warden, but is very quickly rejected (as was HW). Meanwhile farm work continues.


There is a rumpus because a faint light has been seen by an ARP warden in Phillip's cottage: it is Peter (John) reading in bed, although Phillip has made it clear that they are not to do so. Phillip, of course, is accused of signalling to the enemy. But he calls their bluff, and later helps the ARP put out incendiary bombs.


In the closing passage Phillip climbs to the crest of the Home Hills and looks at the stars – but:


No longer was the summer night-sky a tranquil space in which a man's mind might find rest. Not only were German bombers and reconnaissance aircraft now passing over a blackened England, but the air was filled with voices, hundreds of voices in scores of languages, each urging its aspect of truth . . . The cool air of night . . . was vibrating with a myriad voices.


There is a distinct effect of Babel – and its evil connotation – here. One of these evil voices is that of Lord Haw-Haw, broadcasting propaganda from Germany. This was William Joyce, whom Mosley had sacked from the BUF as a rabid anti-Semite, and who in Germany called himself 'Fröhlich', or ‘Froehlich’ – 'joyful' (what a misnomer!) – hence HW's 'Frolich' as his nom-de-plume in The Phoenix Generation. Joyce was executed as a traitor after the war.


Phillip ponders what he will do, or rather, what will happen to him, if invasion does occur. He wants to do his duty and hopes to be accepted – but doubts it. And so HW ends with a ringing paragraph. A paragraph of hope and despair: for Phillip/HW has realised, and has had to come to terms with, the fact that Hitler, once as he had thought Lucifer the bringer of light (i.e., the Morning Star), has sinned and fallen and become Lucifer, the prince of darkness. Lucifer was the chief Angel who sinned (rebelled against God), and so was expelled from Heaven, to be known as Satan (the Devil) and to preside over the tormented souls of Hell. It is HW's statement of acceptance that Hitler was, in the end, an evil man.


It was cold on the Hill, it was lonely. Soon a new day would dawn. He stood up. The morning star was rising in the east, to lead up the sun to shine upon the earth.


In the light of the sun was truth; the sun saw no shadows. In broad sunlight the morning star was dimmed, shorn of its beams; its radiance, beautiful and inspiring in the darkness, was lost.


The morning star was Lucifer, the light-bringer of mythology; Lucifer the fallen angel, Lucifer the prince of darkness.





Index to A Solitary War


Between 2000 and 2002 Peter Lewis, a longstanding and dedicated member of The Henry Williamson Society, researched and prepared indices of the individual books in the Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight series (the first three volumes being indexed together). Originally typed by hand, copies were given only to a select few. His index to A Solitary War is reproduced here in non-searchable PDF format, with his kind permission. It forms a valuable and, indeed, unique resource. The synopsis (with Peter Lewis's delightfully idiosyncratic asides) is not included, as essentially it repeats information already given in the consideration above.






Click on link to go to Critical reception.







Book covers:



The striking dust wrapper design for the first edition (unattributed, but almost certainly by James Broome Lynne as he had designed the previous volumes in the series and was Macdonald's art director) has been misunderstood by some, and criticised as promoting fascism. It is in fact purely a visual statement contrasting the two countries at war through their respective flags. Macdonald, a mainstream publishing company, would never have envisaged nor countenanced anything else. As HW's title suggests, he was waging his own 'solitary war' against the problems in his own life on the farm: which he always felt was a microcosm of the macrocosm of the Second World War.



solitary 66 cover


solitary 66 back



Other editions:



solitary 1969 front             solitary 1969 back
Panther, paperback, 1969; and back cover





solitary 85             solitary 99
Macdonald, hardback, 1985   Sutton, paperback, 1999






Back to 'A Life's Work'          Back to 'The Phoenix Generation'          Forward to 'Lucifer before Sunrise'