Immortal Corn

 

 

‘IMMORTAL CORN’

 

(synopses for a proposed film on farming)

 

 

 

As explained in the entry for A Solitary War, in the spring of 1940 HW received a letter asking him to write a synopsis for a film about farming. Apparently his friend John Rayner, who was the Features Editor of the Daily Express, had suggested HW's name to a film consortium. HW was at that time writing his book The Story of a Norfolk Farm, published in January 1941; the actual writing of that book began in December 1939, with the main part being written during the winter months of 1940, while the 'Epigraph' was written during his brief incarceration in Wells police station over the weekend of 15/16 June 1940.

 

In that 'Epigraph' HW states:

 

During that period [i.e. 'the two years (so far) of my occupation of Old Castle Farm' – and in addition to farm and other work] I wrote 400,000 words; and a synopsis and part of a scenario of a film play, based on the idea of my own experiences, called Immortal Corn, which a British producer (if any there be) may one day care to make.

 

Thereby hangs a tale. However, by making that statement in print HW was quite clearly laying claim to his own material, for he felt very strongly that it had been stolen from him and could (probably would) be used by others.

But let us return to the beginning of this sorry tale.

At the end of February 1940 HW noted that he had received a letter asking him to make a film, and his diary records on 19 March 1940 (having met the film people in London):

 

P. Soskin wants to make a film with farming as background. And I am exhausted. He asked me to send Mss of Norfolk Farm.

 

However, in the first week of April HW stayed with Ann Thomas (his long-term secretary and mistress) at her home in Chippenham, where he got on with the task of writing a synopsis for the proposed film.

 

Monday, 1 April: I went to Bedford on way to stay with A.T. to write synopsis of farm film.

 

And further:

 

Wrote scenario synopsis – good stuff. Ann says yes. If I get the job I asked A.T. to help me at £5 a week. She is only one I can work with.

 

On 6 April he visited his friend the film actor Robert Donat (famous for his portrayal of the teacher Mr Chips in Goodbye, Mr Chips, for which he won an Oscar), and recorded: 'Read him my synopsis of IMMORTAL CORN. He thought it very good.'

 

(Soskin was aware of HW's connection with Donat and indeed was proposing that Donat should star in the film – but as he was under contract to a major film company at the time, this could never have been a serious option.)

 

From seeing Donat, HW returned to Bedford, and on 8 April all the family returned to Stiffkey.

 

His brilliant title 'IMMORTAL CORN' is taken from an essay in Centuries of Meditations by Thomas Traherne (1636-1674 – though the book was not printed until 1908). HW had first used this phrase as the title of an article for the Evening Standard on 26 April 1939 (reprinted in Heart of England, ed. John Gregory, HWS, 2003; e-book 2013). In these items and elsewhere HW always slightly misquotes the words, as the original phrase was 'The corn was orient and immortal wheat' (‘orient’ is used here in its archaic sense of ‘rising’). But he makes it clear how highly he valued this work, calling it the 'finest passage in English prose'.

 

The general background for this film project is given in the entry for A Solitary War, where it is a major feature of that story, becoming for Phillip (and HW in real life) an irritating time-wasting setback – indeed, a fairly major disaster, especially as he was desperate for the amount of money offered as a fee for the work (a total of £1,500: £1000 for the synopsis to be paid over several months with a further £500 when the film went ahead) to save himself and the 'Norfolk Farm' from bankruptcy. When he realised this money would not be forthcoming, HW sold his debentures in his maternal grandfather's stationery firm raising £750; but was still around £400 in debt (the equivalent of around £24,000 today).

 

The purpose of this separate page on the 'Immortal Corn' film project is to show HW's actual ideas for, and the various processes he went through in preparing, the synopsis. It is not possible here to analyse or explain the whole process, but rather to give some idea of what was involved, and to note the various documents in his archive, which illustrate the process.

 

First, there is a large quarto-size envelope with typed notes on both sides, which was presumably intended for Mr Soskin. The material referred to in the opening sentence was not inside the envelope and indeed must have always been separate (the envelope had not ever been actually used), but evidently they were articles that HW had previously written and published. HW does note somewhere that, apart from never handing over any money for the considerable work he had done, Soskin never returned either these articles or his scenario. (These 'farm' articles have all been reprinted and published by the HWS, details can be found in the entry for The Story of a Norfolk Farm, Appendix B.) This interesting and valuable document sets out HW's initial thoughts and provides us with insight into his mind and writing process. Note that here he refers to Traherne's work as 'the most famous passage in English prose wherein he says . . . “the wheat was orient and immortal corn”. . .'

 

 

corn 1

 

corn 1a

 

 

HW's archive also contains a large foolscap folder marked:

 

The Man who Went Outside

PART FOUR

IMMORTAL CORN

 

Each line is in a different colour and there are some additional notes that HW made in 1956 about which pages had been sent for typing, some to Mrs Tippett (his main typist) and some to another lady. 'The Man who Went Outside' was a working title that HW used more than once for material connected with the Norfolk Farm period. The 'Part Four' referred to was not actually in that folder – it is almost certainly part of the material that went eventually into the appropriate Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight novels, hence the notes regarding typing. This folder actually contains items to do with the proposed film: a selection of small files of typed material, each clipped together with rusty paper-clips (now removed) and each only consisting of a few pages of ideas – variations on a theme. It is not clear in what order they should actually be, so the order here (after much juggling around) is purely according to my own view of what appears logical. I have also grouped associated material together to make things easier for future research students.

 

The ideas that they encompass are not perhaps what one might expect, for they are not literally based on HW's own experience of the Norfolk Farm; they have a far wider remit, as the following extracts will reveal, bringing in an historical aspect that goes back to the 1890s in most versions, but also bringing in the Chartists and even Napoleon at one point. The basic theme and purpose was to show the plight of, and problems facing, agriculture over the ensuing years.

 

This subject was one that was central to HW's ethos and has been shown to occupy and underpin his thinking and writing from the very first book he wrote; it was to become a central theme of the Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight novels (at this point still in the future, although they had occupied his mind from the very beginning). The ideas incorporated into this 'Immortal Corn' material are therefore of great import to our understanding of the 'how and why' of HW's thinking and attitudes.

 

The basic theme shows two opposing views: 'agriculture', the backbone of England (represented in most versions by Squire Wycherley and family) versus 'industrialisation' and cheap food imports (represented by Frederick Fenton, later 'Sir', and his family). That conflict underpins the story-line, which also encapsulates a love story.

 

A summary of the material follows – the links will take you to further information and scanned extracts:

 

File A:

 

A carbon copy typescript in two parts: pages 1-5, followed by pages 4-12, headed:

 

Rough Synopsis of IMMORTAL CORN

based on Henry Williamson's

STORY OF A NORFOLK FARM

 

but marked along the side in coloured pencil: 'FIRST rough draft – Superceded'.

 

 

File B (i):

 

Carbon copy only of 14 pages (unfinished), headed:

 

IMMORTAL CORN

A rough synopsis of Town versus Country Drama freely based

on Henry Williamson's STORY OF A NORFOLK FARM

 

This opens very differently as can be seen from the first pages – and the main protagonist is now named Squire Wycherley:

 

 

File B (ii):

 

This second part consists of a top copy and carbon as from pages 4-12 of the above, renumbered 1-9, with an MS heading in red in by HW stating:

 

Authentic speeches made by Squire Wycherley, copied from Records … Made in 1888

 

(I have not tracked down where these were copied from or who made them.)

 

 

File C:

 

Seven pages typescript headed:

 

IMMORTAL CORN

by

Henry Williamson

 

 

File D:

 

A typescript of 26 quarto pages with a carbon copy, headed:

 

IMMORTAL CORN

A rough synopsis of Town versus Country Drama

freely based on Henry Williamson's

STORY OF A NORFOLK FARM

 

(A phrase on p. 7 indicates this version is not part of the original 1940 script material, as it mentions 'Norfolk Farm, pub. Jan 1941'. Note that the sojourn abroad is here 'Australia'.)

 

 

File E:

 

This version consists of 5 quarto typescript pages: and although it is still a variation on HW's overall theme, it is very different in approach.

 

 

File F:

 

One page, headed at top 'Second page', but also typed on reverse: this is part of a report to a lawyer recording the details of the debacle surrounding the whole episode, showing that HW had considered the arrangements made with P. Soskin and payment discussed as legal and binding, and wants to get this redressed.

 

 

File G:

 

A small file of letters all pinned together, which show that HW then tried to place the film elsewhere. (There are no letters extant pertaining to the original arrangement in the archive. As HW evidently (as in File F) contacted a lawyer over the perceived problem, all such correspondence and papers were probably passed on as evidence.)

 

 

File H:

 

Typescript and 2 carbon copies, 10 quarto pages, with an additional MS page:

 

Germinal ideas for Scenes & Shots of

IMMORTAL CORN

made by H.W. on the Norfolk Farm

1940-41,and left uncompleted.

 

This typescript is more grounded in the actual farming world (and the dialogue accents would seem Devonian derived!). It is headed:

 

IMMORTAL CORN

Germinal ideas for Scenes

 

 

File I:

 

A typescript, 6 quarto pages (c.2000 words) outlining his envisaged plot. As this really encapsulates the overall essence of HW's theme it is reproduced in full.

 

 

File J:

 

Also in this file are carbon copy pages numbered 56 to 61 only of a typed version of an autobiographical farm story, describing the harvest of 1939, and which contains some interesting passages which illuminate HW's thinking.

 

 

 

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File A:

 

A carbon copy typescript in two parts: pages 1-5, followed by pages 4-12, headed:

 

Rough Synopsis of IMMORTAL CORN

based on Henry Williamson's

STORY OF A NORFOLK FARM

 

but marked along the side in coloured pencil: 'FIRST rough draft – Superceded'.

 

The first part opens in 1898:

 

Farming was in a terrible condition, due to the cheap imported food which everywhere undercut the home market.

 

The main character here is John Godfrey, the Squire – a 'John Bull Englishman' who represents the land and its values. His opposite is Frederick Fenton, industrialist and would-be MP for the 'Progressive Free Trade Party'. ('Free Trade' here meaning cheap imported food undercutting English agriculture.)

 

 

corn 2 fileA p1

 

 

John Godfrey learns that his oldest son, a soldier in China, has been killed in the Boxer Rising (1900), leaving his fourteen-year-old son as heir – and the hero of this script. (HW also mentions the Boxer Rising elsewhere, but I have failed to discover the raison d'être.) This lad meets the young daughter of Fenton: they like each other but the family barrier of 'sworn enemies' keeps them apart.

 

At a Corn Hall political meeting Fenton makes a speech about industrialisation and free trade, counteracted most vehemently by Squire Godfrey. A riot ensues and the Squire gets hit on the head by a bottle. He dies from this injury, telling his young son never to forsake the land.

 

The new young squire, supported by his friend the bailiff William Strong, struggles to keep the estate going in an agricultural depression. He has to sell off farm after farm – all bought up by the now 'Sir' Frederick Fenton, whose daughter marries a 'lordling', leaving our hero bereft.

 

The Great War breaks out and John Godfrey enlists in the County Regiment as a private, being later promoted on the field for bravery. After the war: 'Land Fit For Heroes’; slump; the family Manor House has to be sold off – again to Fenton. All John Godfrey has left is the Hill Farm. He marries (as second best) the gentle daughter of the Rectory, and they struggle on against all the problems of cheap imports (eggs, mutton, beef, bacon, wheat). They have a son: at the same time a Fenton granddaughter is born. Contrast of their very different life-styles was to be made evident.

 

The second part reprises the above, but set out in a different way with much more detail, and includes the famous farmers’ march to London (1938 – this is recorded in The Story of a Norfolk Farm).

 

John Godfrey addresses meetings of the 'All-for-England' party (in slums, South Wales, and other areas), calling for the return of agricultural values to restore the country's prosperity. Meanwhile, rumour of war is circulating. Stones are thrown at him and he falls unconscious.

 

Then a 'montage' of urgent war preparation over BBC announcement; Godfrey in delirium; scenes of WWI – Lloyd George wants land made fit for farmers. Fenton visits and asks for friendship and offers help to restore the prosperity of the land when war is over.

 

Young John Fenton now marries the Fenton granddaughter (the heiress) and so he inherits back the land that had ancestrally belonged to his own family.

 

Ending:

 

Music, the old oaks in the park, and the Union Jack fluttering from the Church Tower,

fade in to God Save the King.

 

 

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File B (i):

 

Carbon copy only of 14 pages (unfinished), headed:

 

IMMORTAL CORN

A rough synopsis of Town versus Country Drama freely based

on Henry Williamson's STORY OF A NORFOLK FARM

 

This opens very differently as can be seen from the first pages – and the main protagonist is now named Squire Wycherley:

 

 

corn 3a fileB p1

 

corn 3a fileB p2

 

 

File B (ii):

 

This second part consists of a top copy and carbon as from pages 4-12 of the above, renumbered 1-9, with an MS heading in red in by HW stating:

 

Authentic speeches made by "Squire Wycherley", copied from Records … Made in 1888

 

(I have not tracked down where these were copied from or who made them.)

 

 

corn 4a Authentic speeches p1

 

 

After these speeches Squire Wycherley hears of death of his son in China. There is unrest at the end of the speech and he is hit on the head by a bottle, from which injury he dies.

 

The carbon copy has some passages of the speeches marked to be deleted.

 

 

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File C:

 

Seven pages typescript headed:

 

IMMORTAL CORN

by

Henry Williamson

 

 

corn 5a fileC p1

 

 

Then the scene moves to 1848, and the Chartist Movement (a British working-class movement for political reform, founded June 1836, drawing up a People's Charter, which was rejected by Parliament, and rejected again in 1848, whereupon the movement collapsed).

 

Fifty years later Fenton returns, a rich man, to Limburne. The Squire, John Wycherley, a 'John Bull Englishman' . . . Now the story includes elements of File A (as above): his eldest son is killed in China. The young son/heir has a friend, William Strong.

 

But some elements are different: there is mention of Lloyd George's drive against landlordism; a 'montage' to show rise of Germany's rival trade; shooting is let to (now) 'Sir' Frederick Fenton, MP.

 

This then moves into the Great War and selling of farms, bought up by Fenton. The Manor House is already sold and used as a hospital in 1916 – to which the wounded Captain Wycherley returns: to be nursed by Fenton's beautiful daughter. But a 'lordling' is also there and her parents favour him; and so inevitably she marries the lordling.

 

 

corn 5b fileC p7

 

 

That is the end of this synopsis.

 

 

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File D:

 

A typescript of 26 quarto pages with a carbon copy, headed:

 

IMMORTAL CORN

A rough synopsis of Town versus Country Drama

freely based on Henry Williamson's

STORY OF A NORFOLK FARM

 

(A phrase on p. 7 indicates this version is not part of the original 1940 synopsis material, as it mentions 'Norfolk Farm, pub. Jan 1941'. Note that the sojourn abroad is here 'Australia'.)

 

The first three pages follow:

 

 

corn 6a fileD p1

 

corn 6b fileD p2

 

corn 6c fileD p3

 

 

This then continues in similar vein to the previous versions, with Squire Wycherley senior, agricultural depression and Frederick Fenton, industrialist, etcetera. Young Wycherley is here educated at Winchester, and is wounded in the First World War.

 

On page 7 of this version HW has interpolated:

 

(The author of Immortal Corn farmed the Hill Farm in the years of depression, and knows all the details of the struggle.) . . .

 

Appended hereafter are some rough notes & scenes which will indicate the material of the drama & its solution.

 

The reader's indulgence is asked for any repetitions and overlappings which occur, as the writer at the moment is busy in this spring of 1948 [obviously an error – presumably 1941 is meant] getting his land ready for corn and roots.

 

The following pages were put together during the writing of The Story of a Norfolk Farm which was published in January 1941 and has sold 50,000 copies and is still in great demand. Crude and disjoined as they are, they may indicate the possibilities of the drama and give an idea of the knowledge of the present writer.

 

The 'following pages' referred to, apart from p. 8, revert more or less to the original scenario; hence there is some repetition, as mentioned above.

 

 

corn 7a fileD p8

 

 

The following page is numbered 9-14: then numbering continues normally to page 26. But, as this is longer than previous versions, there is a great deal more detail. It ends with the death scene of Fenton, when he hands over the Trusteeship of his estates to young Wycherley, now married to his granddaughter. Finally,

 

we see the air of life in the corn, the waving wheat, and the elms of the hedgerows, the orient and immortal corn waving into the Union Jack and God Save the King.

 

There are extra copies of pages 13, 14, and 17 which have MS corrections and additions: also page 16:

 

 

corn 7b fileD p16

 

 

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File E:

 

This version consists of 5 quarto typescript pages: and although it is still a variation on HW's overall theme, it is very different in approach.

 

 

corn 9a fileE p1

 

corn 9b fileE p2

 

corn 9c fileE p3

 

corn 9d fileE p4

 

corn 9e fileE p5

 

 

 

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File F:

 

One page, headed at top 'Second page', but also typed on reverse: this is part of a report to a lawyer recording the details of the debacle surrounding the whole episode, showing that HW had considered the arrangements made with P. Soskin and payment discussed as legal and binding, and wants to get this redressed.

 

 

corn 10a fileF second page

 

corn 10b fileF reverse 2nd page

 

 

 

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File G:

 

A small file of letters all pinned together, which show that HW then tried to place the film elsewhere. There are no letters extant pertaining to the original arrangement in the archive. As HW evidently (from the letter above) contacted a lawyer over the perceived problem, all such correspondence and papers were probably passed on as evidence.

 

i) A copy of a letter dated 7 May 1940 from the Director of Films Division of the Ministry of Information offering help for “Wind In the Corn”. This is strange, as Soskin had stated that the Government body had withdrawn funding – which may have been part of his subterfuge.

 

ii) A carbon copy of letter dated 29 June 1940 from HW to Paul Holt, of the Daily Express, explaining the whole problem and asking for help.

 

 

corn 11a fileG letter Paul Holt

 

corn 11b fileG letter Paul Holt2

 

corn 11c fileG letter Paul Holt3

 

 

iii) A letter from G. Aird Whyte, dated 26 May 1941, who, having read and enjoyed The Story of a Norfolk Farm, would like to see the synopsis for the film play “Immortal Corn” (as mentioned in the Epigraph of the book) and wonders if HW envisages a full-length film or only 'three or four reels'.

 

iv) A letter arising from a contact with Mr. G. Goddard Watts, dated 2 May 1941, who had written an agricultural pamphlet that HW had commented on, and who had contacts with 'The Ministry of Information film people'.

 

v) A second letter from (presumably) Mr Goddard Watts' secretary dated 16 May 1941 shows a problem:

 

‘Mr. Goddard Watts has been rather disorganised as a result of a direct hit on his office at 90 Ebury Street on Saturday night . . .’ (and giving his home address for immediate use).

 

vi) A letter dated 15 September 1941 from Goddard Watts, now at 110 St. Martin's Lane, WC2, giving a contact to Donald McCullough of the Ministry of Agriculture.

 

vii) A charming letter from said Donald McCullough:

 

I have read so many tributes paid to your abilities by so many people that I hope that I shall soon have the pleasure of meeting you.

 

This exchange with Donald McCullough brought forth a further version of the 'Immortal Corn' synopsis as shown by HW's TSS and MS notes in the following File H.

 

 

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File H:

 

 

Typescript and 2 carbon copies, 10 quarto pages, with an additional MS page:

 

 

corn 12 fileH ms cover page

 

 

This typescript is more grounded in the actual farming world (and the dialogue accents would seem Devonian derived!):

 

 

corn 13a fileH ts p1

 

corn 13b fileH ts p2

 

corn 13c fileH ts p3

 

corn 13d fileH ts p4

 

corn 13e fileH ts p5

 

corn 13f fileH ts p6

 

corn 13g fileH ts p7

 

corn 13h fileH ts p8

 

corn 13i fileH ts p9

 

corn 13j fileH ts p10

 

 

There is a separate corrected p. 11, probably from an earlier source as it has been pinned through with an old-fashioned paper-clip at some point, of material incorporated into the above typescript.

 

 

corn 14 fileH extra note

 

 

There is then a second letter from Donald McCullough, dated 21 October 1941, equally cordial, asking for a short statement ('not more than 1000 words') that he can show the 'film magnates'. HW's diary notes on 23 October 1941:

 

I heard from W. Donald H. McCullough of the Ministry of Agriculture, about my film Immortal Corn.

 

HW complied two days later with the following (File I):

 

 

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File I:

 

A typescript, 6 quarto pages (c.2000 words) outlining his envisaged plot. As this really encapsulates the overall essence of HW's theme it is reproduced in full.

 

 

corn 15a fileI ts p1

 

corn 15b fileI ts p2

 

corn 15c fileI ts p3

 

corn 15d fileI ts p4

 

corn 15e fileI ts p5

 

corn 15f fileI ts p6

 

 

But on 13 November 1941 HW noted:

 

In London, saw Donald McCullough at Ministry of Agriculture about my proposed film Immortal Corn. “First class. Box office draw. But financial advisers are against it as it may damage British Case”

 

And that seems to be the end of the project.

 

HW had taken the train to London the previous day (12 November) and on following day, 14 November, he continued on down to Braunton, where Ann Thomas was temporarily living in his Hut in the Field at Ox's Cross. He recorded that he was writing 'A Norfolk Farm in War-time' (see entry for A Solitary War). He returned to Norfolk on Monday, 1 December:

 

Birthday – I am 46. A nice tea & all the children to greet me, a tidy & nice house, a warm fire & good electric light – the house looks like home. Ida is very kind to work so happily for me.

 

However the next day:

 

Reaction. Felt farm too much for me. Feeling ill.

 

 

*************************

 

 

File J:

 

Also in this file are carbon copy pages numbered 56 to 61 only of a typed version of an autobiographical farm story, describing the harvest of 1939, and which contains some interesting passages which illuminate HW's thinking.

 

 

corn 16a fileJ ts p56

 

corn 16b fileJ ts p57

 

corn 16c fileJ ts p58

 

corn 16d fileJ ts p59

 

corn 16e fileJ ts p60

 

corn 16f fileJ ts p61

 

 

 

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There is of course a great deal of further information within selective pages of the 3-volume MS notebooks entitled 'A Norfolk Farm in Wartime', the envisaged sequel to The Story of a Norfolk Farm, which was incorporated into A Solitary War, and is dealt with in that entry.

 

 

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As is obvious from the above, the film never was made, of course. But perhaps it is possible to suggest that the eventual superb BBC film The Vanishing Hedgerows, made in 1971/2 and first shown on 20 August 1972, produced and directed by David Cobham – set basically on the 'Norfolk Farm, and acclaimed today as the first film on nature conservation made by the BBC – had its genesis in this 1940s 'Immortal Corn' material – or at least perhaps, as far as HW was concerned, made up for the original disaster.

 

The possibility of a revival of The Vanishing Hedgerows is currently being explored.

 

 

 

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