Book reviews: Eastern Daily Press

 

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EASTERN DAILY PRESS

 

 

Henry Williamson farmed 235 acres at Old Hall Farm, Stiffkey, on the North Norfolk coast, between 1937 and 1945. The land and farm buildings were derelict when he took over, and his writing helped to subsidise the considerable expense involved in improving both. He wrote articles for several papers on a regular basis, and during the years of the Second World War this was chiefly the Eastern Daily Press. His first article, 'The Seed Goes In' was published by the newspaper on 12 March 1941. In April 1943 HW began writing a weekly column of around 1,000 words, 'Thoughts from a Country Window', under the nom de plume of 'Jacob Tonson'. From June 1943 he reverted to his own name, with the column renamed 'Green Fields and Pavements'. The last of these appeared on 10 April 1944, after which HW began contributing to the London Evening Standard (noting that they paid very much better than the EDP). All the EDP articles have been collected and published by the HW Society as Green Fields and Pavements (1995; e-book 2013).

 

In some of his articles, which mainly relate incidents on and around his farm, HW also took the opportunity to both mention books that appealed to him and undertake short reviews of those sent to him by publishers. These articles are reprinted below in their entirety, in date order.

 

The books are:

 

 

BEACH THOMAS, Sir William: The Way of a Countryman (Michael Joseph, 1944)

DUNCAN, Ronald: Journal of a Husbandman (Faber, 1944)

FAULKNER, Edward H.: Plowman's Folly (University of Oklahoma Press, 1943)

FISHWICK, V. C.: Good Farming (English Universities Press, 1944)

HAGGARD, Stephen: Nya (Faber, 1938)

HORNBY, Clifford: Rural Amateur (Collins, 1943)

KNIGHT, Esmond: Seeking the Bubble (Hutchinson, 1943)

LOCKLEY, R. M.: Inland Farm (Witherby, 1943)

MCGUFFIE, Duncan: Cabbages and Committees (Faber, 1944)

MOOREHEAD, Alan: The End in Africa (Hamish Hamilton, 1943)

RIDER HAGGARD, Lilias and Henry Williamson: Norfolk Life (Faber, 1943)

SEAGO, Edward: Peace in War (Collins, 1943)

SMITH, David: No Rain in Those Clouds (Dent, 1943)

STREET, A. G.: Hitler's Whistle (Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1943)

 

 


 

7 June 1943

 

The Falcon's Flight

 

I have been reading lately the autobiography of a young actor who fought in the action of Prince of Wales and Hood against Bismarck and Prinz Eugen.* Some readers may recall Emlyn Williams' sensitive and telling broadcast after the nine o'clock news a year or so ago about his friend Esmond Knight, how at Denham studios one day Knight was looking at birds in the sky during the interval of the making of a film about Drake; and how, after the film was made, Esmond Knight said he wanted to join the Navy; and how he saw the Hood go up in a stupendous sheet of light, and then all was darkness and he was lying in hospital in Iceland, where the nights were long with the midnight sun; but his own travail was longer, for he was blind.

 

Esmond Knight has now written, or dictated his life story, which is published by Hutchinson.** It tells of his boyhood in Kent, his school days at Westminster School, his early struggles to succeed as an actor, first at the Old Vic, and then in the West End, his marriage, his experiences in UFA films at Neubabelsberg studios in the pinewoods outside Berlin, his training and flying of falcons with his uncle, Captain C. R. W. Knight, the well-known lecturer and photographer and owner of 'Mr. Ramshaw', the eagle, on Salisbury Plain; then the war and the thrilling, aweful, heart-bumping moments preceding the action in which Hood blew up, and very soon afterwards his consciousness flashed out.

 

It is a brave little book, written with a light touch, and it interested me particularly because I once met the author, although he will not probably remember the evening, about ten years ago, when we talked behind the scenes of Percy Robinson's play, To What Red Hell, in which he was then acting. I was looking for an actor to play the part of a war-torn poet, and I remember both Esmond Knight and Robert Peiseley, two young actors, telling me that Stephen Haggard was the very man for the character. I never met Haggard, although many times was on the point of doing so; and now this sensitive actor and poet is dead, of pneumonia in North Africa. It seems almost like a personal loss, for I feel I knew him, despite the fact that we had never met. Stephen Haggard wrote a book about a young girl that I thought very good, called Nya, one of those books that one can read again and again, and always with fresh interest. It is probably out of print, but I hope the publishers (Faber & Faber) will reprint it as soon as possible. It is worthy of their Faber Library.

 

I was talking the other day with another acquaintance of Esmond Knight, who is mentioned in his autobiography. There was an argument over a meal of crayfish and hock they once had in a Berlin restaurant, about the speed of a peregrine falcon's flight. Knight declared that he had timed the level flight of a peregrine, on Salisbury Plain, by the aid of the speedometer of his car, which could not exceed fifty miles an hour; and he had kept up with the falcon (a tame one). The other man had written a book in which he had stated that the speed in level flight of the wild falcon sometimes exceeded a hundred miles an hour. There is a difference of course, between the power and flight of a semi-tame bird, taken as a fledgeling or eyas from its nesting rock on some steep cliff, and kept in a stable or mews, and that of a wild and mature bird. Indeed, it might be that there is only the slightest basis for comparison. On that occasion, according to Esmond Knight, the conversation was ended by the other man declaring dogmatically that speedometers were 'notoriously inaccurate', after which nothing more was said; but I would like to have been present at the talk, for the speed of these birds has often intrigued me.

 

It is, of course, hard to decide at what speeds birds as a species will fly, for they vary as do men and animals; but I have seen a peregrine falcon, hanging a thousand feet above the Needles, fall suddenly with startling speed, and in a moment appear to be on the point of dashing into the sea; then zooming up as though shot from a great catapult and with a sharp sweep round and with no perceptible flicker of wings, 'wait on' at its pitch a thousand feet above the waves again. In a few seconds it has 'stooped' at a pipit or some small bird struggling against an offshore wind, missed the tiny object, and hurled itself up once more as though it had power to reverse the force of gravity. I have watched the bird turn and glide, apparently level, at an incredible pace, dip down and fall like a piece of dark slate, turn in a steep curve and, without pause or wing-beat, shoot away in level flight for a quarter of a mile in a few seconds, and all that without the least apparent effort. It might have been made of lead, for the sheer directness of its shift.

 

As for the grand stoop of a strong falcon, this is something to be seen, but hardly to be believed! Once, in Cornwall, I watched one slipping down the sky at a slight falling angle, and through glasses I saw it increase its glide or stoop until in less than half a minute (it seemed) it had gone out of sight over the mainland, which was three miles distant. There were woods beyond, where wild pigeons lived, and I could visualise it falling on one, I could feel the shock of the strike knocking off the pigeon's head. This is no exaggeration; twice I have seen a partridge, flying downwind at speed, hit by the swifter dark barb, its head spinning off in a scatter of feathers, the body hitting the ground with a thud, and, as it bounced slightly, to be caught in a dark flick of impact and be borne away.

 

Compared with the slow and hesitant flight of a falcon, recently hooded and immewed, and thrown off from a gauntleted wrist at a slinking rook on Salisbury Plain, this description of a wild bird's flight must seem exaggerated; but it would be interesting to learn what others, who have seen the thrilling flight of a stooping falcon, have thought about its speed in flight. Such a sight must be rare indeed today, for not many of these noble birds are left at their immemorial eyries on the great cliffs of England. The peregrine falcon takes pigeons, and pigeons nowadays bring messages from wrecked aircraft, so the order has gone forth for its destruction.

 

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[* This action took place in the early hours of 24 May 1941, in Denmark Strait, midway between Iceland and Greenland. HMS Hood, a battle cruiser completed in 1920, was hit by a salvo probably fired by the Bismarck, and blew up with a huge explosion between the after funnel and the mainmast. She sank within three or four minutes, and there were only three survivors. The Bismarck was not to last much longer: after being crippled by a strike from Swordfish flying from the Ark Royal, the pocket battleship was sunk by the British fleet on the morning of 27 May.

 

** HW does not even mention the title of Knight's book, which was Seeking the Bubble, published in 1943. Esmond Knight (1906–1987) partially regained his sight – 'rather like looking through clouds', he called it – and was acting again within two years. Although his sight progressively deteriorated he contrived to appear in a great variety of plays, helped both by his unwavering enthusiasm and his strong memory; he would spend hours learning every corner and distance of the sets on the stage, so that he could move as freely as if he had no handicap. His many films included Henry VRichard III, The Red Shoes, and . . . Sink the Bismarck.]

 

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The main thrust of HW's review – the speed of peregrines in flight – is given a fresh perspective when one reads the last paragraph on page 99 and the first on page 100 of Knight's book: HW is here continuing his argument!

 

 

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Written on the flyleaf of this copy is:

 

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28 June 1943

 

[The cutting below was found in HW's copy of the book.]

 

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Ted Seago gave HW an inscribed copy:

 

 

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19 July 1943

 

[This article was under the byline of HW's nom de plume of 'Jacob Tonson'. Doubtless he felt that he could hardly review under his own name a book which he himself had edited. The operation referred to below was an appendectomy.]

 

Of Men and Books

 

Visiting Henry Williamson in Cromer hospital (where he is now progressing satisfactorily after an operation) I learned the good news that Faber & Faber are shortly publishing Miss Lilias Rider Haggard's Norfolk Life. Many readers of 'The Countrywoman's' Monday articles will be glad to learn that a selection of them is being printed in book form under this title. Henry Williamson is the editor, for Miss Haggard found that, with the coming of the war, her numerous duties were soon multiplied. I looked into a page-proof set which lay on the table beside Williamson's bed, which he said, had just been returned by A. J. Munnings, the artist, now living at Withypool, in Somerset – a few miles away from the moorland home of Williamson in Devon. Munnings was enthusiastic, declaring that the book was first class. It takes much patience and tenacity to chronicle the details and little happenings of everyday life; their record often seems exasperatingly trivial to the writer; but seen in retrospect, how the authenticity of such 'small beer' brings life to the page! Perhaps the most outstanding example of patient, everyday writing is to be found in Pepys' Diaries – now among the most interesting in the world.

 

More literary news – Adrian Bell, author of the fascinating farming autobiography beginning with Corduroy, has bought some semi-derelict Suffolk land, which the W.A.C. [War Agricultural Committee] had actually taken over a week before Adrian Bell bought the land. So the success of Bell's latest book – Apple Acre – has resulted in the author acquiring the title to 'Eighty-seven Acres of England'. As Bell wrote to his friend Williamson:

 

I took on everything lock, stock and barrel, and am gradually weeding out. It is a task which takes all my time, as you can imagine, but it will, I think, be worth it. It appeals to me to turn 87 acres of England into what 87 acres of England ought to be. . . . When I took over the farm there were only three acres of corn of any kind, and most of the land was still unplowed (late spring), so I shan't have a bumper harvest this year. The top layer of soil had grown so thin through progressive shallow plowing for many years, that there was hardly any live soil left. Now acres of yellow foot-deep fallows lie baking in the July sun.

 

Well, Adrian Bell has a job before him, beginning at a time when labour and implements are almost unobtainable. What the 'lock, stock and barrel' of a 'C' farm were like we can only imagine.

 

 

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6 September 1943

 

A Farmer's Trials

 

The weather over the Straits of Dover has been such that half our barley had been lying in shock for some weeks. It was great fun for all of us – including the veterans – to pick up sodden sheaves and reset them, while the water turned us into maritime scarecrows. The original plan was to thresh off the stock, but the tackle could not come quite so early as that. One of our problems was the lack of anyone who could thatch; another was the stack-building, for we had no experienced stacker. Fifty-seven acres of barley and ten of wheat is about a day's work for modern industrialised farming with a team of self-propelled combine harvesters; but even with lorry, tractor-drawn tumbril and horse-drawn cart we found it impossible to get up even 10 acres a day. Nevertheless, our stack-builder, with only a season's experience of half a dozen stacks behind him, did better than I hoped. None of the stacks fell down; and only one bulged slightly. Clotted up, or covered with bitumen paper and net, they await the threshing tackle – and, we hope, calm weather over Dover and its environs.

 

Stack-building takes many years' experience to perfect. The other day, having to go a journey to buy some red-poll calves, I rejoiced to see, on the right of the road after passing the Woodrow Inn, a score or so of corn stacks which must be as good as any built and thatched in England. They are oval stacks of Lincolnshire pattern, I am told, and big, holding two hundred coombes, perhaps more. They were built better than many a jerry-house of the rent-purchase type; the visible butt-ends have been shaved symmetrically with a scythe. The straw at the eaves is straighter than many a cottage roof-ridge. I thought in passing that those stacks should be photographed and prints sent to TheTimes as an example of British farm-craft at its best. All the crops on that stretch of land, as I have seen during half a dozen years passing that way by car, are properly grown. On one of the fields in 1938 heaps of chalk were set out; today, after ewes folded on rye-grass and clover until late April, and the land plowed in May, and sugar-beet drilled afterwards, the small plants weeks behind other fields, that field has large and healthy beet, deep green in colour, while many of the others, a few miles on, are yellowing and starved looking.

 

Harvesting on our farm hasn't always been like the oil-paintings this season. The artist with the big curved pipe got his idyllic picture in time. He didn't stop to help with the shocking. The hens have enjoyed the harvest better than anyone else. Put on the stubbles that were cleared and cultivated, they got in with a wild cockerel of the woods, who promptly led them to an easier life among the sheaves. Meanwhile, the hen-leader, an Italian cock, looking splendid with his bersaglieri feathers, had got tired, and was to be seen musing about alone, once in the company of a hen pheasant. The hens apparently welcomed the change of political regime. Regimentation in fold units appears to be 'out' for the time being. Freedom of range and nest-eggs tucked away in the wood is the fashion.

 

The democratic idea is spreading to other inhabitants of the farm. Freedom is in the air. The enslaved cats have left the barns and taken to the woods. There were eighteen of them, nearly all kittens, at one time, in the various buildings. They followed the children about and found rabbit nicer than black rat. The black rats are increasing on the farm. Where do they come from? The Old English decadent black rat, once near-exterminated by the Nordic grey rat, is coming back. Are they, too, affected by the ideological war among their two-legged superiors? Perhaps the County W.A.C. [War Agricultural Committee] can tell us if they are on our side or not; for we do not, of course, wish to discourage any ally in the fight for civilisation. Is there a Free Rat Army somewhere?

 

Yesterday there were apples on the trees; today they are gone, and the owner did not pick them. Who did? Perhaps the Nordic rats have a scorched earth policy as they retreat. Or were the thieves of the species Homo Rapiens? Despite the artist with the curved pipe, our harassed thoughts turn to combine harvesting for next season. A small farm can afford only a small machine; can any reader give experience of the small model of the International or Allis-Chalmers harvester? We plan to plow up more old grass this autumn, and if the tide-flaps at the outfalls of the meadow-dykes (or rather the tidal intakes) are a success, the meadows, or some of them, hitherto water-slain for half the year, will go under the plow also. A combine seems to be the solution, provided one can arrange for timely drying of grain. All the combines of neighbouring farms seem to be the bigger models. Any information will be gratefully received.

 

For half an hour or so every night during the past week, before turning out the light, I have been reading a book called (ironically for us in the Straits of Dover) No Rain in Those Clouds, 'an account of John Smith's life and farming from 1862 to the present day' (Dent, 10s. 6d.). It's the real stuff, and a welcome change from so many farming books written by mere amateurs like myself. The country is Essex, near Chelmsford, and the author, John Smith's son, reminds me, in his style, of Richard Jefferies' early books, The Amateur Poacher and Round About a Great Estate.

 

At the bottom of the passage a door on the right led down some stone steps to the cellar. It was always beautifully cool, and kept the beer and butter in wonderful condition. In my grandfather's time there were two casks that held eight hogsheads and two casks that held five. When my father was young he was put inside the casks to lime-wash them before they were filled with beer. Before father was put in they tried the air with a candle; if the candle continued to burn brightly it was: 'All right, boy; in with you, and mind you scrape 'em well first!' Sometimes in winter when the pond rose from the rains, the cellar flooded suddenly, and people who went down without a light for a quick pint at supper-time got their feet wet.

 

A good little book, which will find a permanent place on my shelf. It is time that the real farmers began to write farming books; the refugees from the brain-gangs have had their say, and day. The only criticism I have to make of this book is, Why do the publishers impress on the last page the sentence 'COMPLIMENTARY COPY NOT FOR SALE'? With great respect I suggest to the publishers that metal perforating block should be sent forthwith to salvage.

 


 

1 November 1943

 

Plowman's Folly

 

When Stephenson invented the 'Rocket'; when Louis Pasteur proved that anthrax was a germ in sheep which killed them; when the motor car was invented; when the Wright brothers flew in a heavier-than-air machine; when wireless became a popular possibility and the gramophone interests opposed it as likely to ruin their business; when  . . . but one could go on indefinitely. All these and other new ideas were greeted as ridiculous, impracticable, ruinous, etc. Why, even in my small sphere, I've been told that mites are 'nature' to horses (therefore it's no good trying to 'get rid of 'em'), that cows make messes on concrete house floors (therefore there's no sense in hosing the floor down, although water was laid on for that purpose), and lots of other won't work stuff. In a phrase, the bunk has come my way, to be debunked after a certain amount of controversy, which usually ended in someone doing a bunk from my uncomplacent self.

 

Not all 'theory' is right, of course. Not all is practicable. Not all 'theory' comes out of intense and prolonged practice. When it does, we get a Rolls-Royce engine; a Mitchell Spitfire; a Ferguson hydraulic tractor; radium; prontosil; and the new strains of leafy grasses developed by Sir George Stapleton. And we get a revolutionary American who has written a book called Plowman's Folly [Oklahoma University Press, 1943; published in the UK as Ploughman's Folly, Michael Joseph, 1945], in which he sets out to prove that the whole principle of plowing has been injurious to the human race.

 

Plowing in America has caused millions of acres of top-soil to be eroded by rains into rivers as silt, which in turn caused flooding and devastation in tens of thousands of square miles of the valley-lands. But that is only an indirect evil, declares revolutionary Mr. Faulkner; adding that the devastating effect of plowing is to destroy the cohesion of the earth-particles, thereby permitting loss of moisture, and a consequent crippled root-system of plants.

 

He has grown amazing crops without the use of the plow. He leaves the 'muck' on the surface. For the plow, he substitutes the disc harrow. On one field he grew rye, disked it in when green, leaving the 'trash' on top to rot and feed the surface roots of the succeeding crop, which, despite all the critics, was a bumper one. Setting out tomatoes, he rammed the earth hard where the plants were going, laid the roots on the rammed spot, covered them with soil, and left them. They outstripped plants set out in the ordinary way in both growth and yield.

 

The discs make a mulch of the 'green trash' and press it an inch or two into the earth; and that is the seed-bed ready, and the food of the crop to be. He has apparently succeeded as brilliantly as Mr. Hosier, of Wiltshire, who first in England had the idea of folding cows on rape and turnips, taking the milking machine to them in the fold, leaving them out every day of the year to muck the land. In this way tuberculosis has disappeared and poor downland grows 14 sacks of wheat an acre.

 

Of course Mr. Faulkner's idea of soil consolidation is not new. Our forefathers knew that wheat often grew better plants on headlands which had been 'jammed'. Also sheep on roots consolidated the soil, and afterwards a 'fleet' plowing of five inches, no more, was the rule for barley. Sometimes I think that the old-style farmers knew more than do modern farmers, for all their sacks of factory-made artificial dope called plant 'food'. Our forefathers knew the value of marl, of well-rotted muckheaps, of mud pulled from the dykes and set out with reeds and other litter in great heaps to heat and decompose and to come out into the tumbrils 'like black butter'. (Our forefathers, of course, were not blighted by the effects of international usury of the past fifty years.)

 

I have always wondered why the most successful crops grown in my six years on the farm have been grown on unplowed land. The first was of oats. We had a coomb or so in the drill left over, it was late on Sunday afternoon, getting chilly, and I was fed up and wanted to go home. What to do with them? They were mercury-dusted and no good for feed. Coming down by the wood I passed about an acre of cold old sticky land, on which vetches and winter oats had failed. Come on, I said, let's get rid of the oats on this. The soil was like putty, the shoe-coulters drew straight lines on it, about half an inch deep. Well, I said, let the birds take it, and if they get sick it's their lookout. Even as we left two cock pheasants walked out of the Fox Covert and began to pick up the oats.

 

No harrowing in, no rolling, just left like that. In August the oat-sheaves were a deep golden brown, very heavy in the head, a pleasing oily-glossy feel about them, very 'corny', over twenty sacks to the acre. The oats 'properly' drilled were not half as good.

 

The second astonishing crop arose out of land which was, I was told, a waste of time to cultivate. 'Nobody has grown a crop off there yet, you don't mind me telling you, do you? Don't let me interfere, but I've known this land many years, and no one has yet done anything with it.' I, however, am obstinate, and my idea was to loosen some of the accumulated leaf-mould in the woods with the hydraulic plow, and cart it on the slopes of the 'unkind old land'. This we did, meaning to plow it in; but it was late and already time to get on with spring drilling. Only when all the other fields were done did we come back to the heaps of leaf-mould and scatter them lightly (scarcely more than black pepper on a plate of food) on the four acres. It was a dry spring, and I knew that to plow then would be to turn up the yellowy soil dry as broken bits of dog-biscuit. Also, I didn't want the humus buried. I had the notion that to cultivate shallowly, hardly stirring the crust, to leave about an inch of loose soil on top, and then to drill oats and broadcast peas, was our only hope on this late April afternoon. Result, no thistles and a heavy yield of golden-brown oats and some useful peas.

 

There was a whitish chalky scald-patch at one end of the four acres, where rabbits sported, and where the barley of previous years had grown no higher than eleven inches, diminutive and sparse mouse-ear stuff. I left a few square yards of this scald land as it was; and spread mould on the rest of it. Where no blackish 'pepper' of mould fell the oats were dwarfed; but alongside them, with roots absorbing the black specks of 'compost', grew thick oat-stalks five feet high.

 

Disc harrowing would have done even better that cultivating with duck-footed times; less moisture would have been lost.

 

Some farmers, in the pre-eminent arable county of Norfolk, cultivate the plowed frost-tilth in the early spring, roll immediately, and follow the roll with the drill. Later, the heavy rib-roll goes over the springing corn, consolidating the land yet again, thus enabling the delicate fibrous rootlets of the corn to absorb the subsoil moisture drawn up by capillary attraction. Even so, I wonder to myself how many plows – evolved from the old apple-tree mould-board – will be in use in England in twenty years' time, now that the Victorian accumulations of gold, from the pickings of the rest of the world, are gone; now that we are a debtor-nation, and must live largely off our own soil, or die.

 


 

15 November 1943

 

[This is a continuation of the previous week's article, not relevant here]

 

The Writer's Trade

II

 

The pages of writing sent to me for my opinion still lie on my desk. What can one say to the various amateur writers, and not hurt the pride of their various self-conceptions? Everyone has a picture of himself in his mind. Often it is a shock to find out what other people really think about ourselves. We judge ourselves often by our intentions, and by our better intentions, at that. Do we deceive ourselves? It is easier to deceive ouselves than to deceive other people.

 

Thus some one has sent me a description of a holiday, and asks my opinion on his essay or article. Obviously he thinks that he has conveyed the goodness of a recent holiday in words written on paper, for he sends them to me, for my opinion. In case I am in doubt, he encloses with the essay a letter from the editor of a well-known quarterly which deals with country matters. That editor has been, I can see, politely evasive. Owing to a lack of space due to war restrictions, he regrets, etc.

 

A fortnight later we arrived at a station somewhere in East Anglia, not nearly a thousand miles from a considerable town and not a hundred miles from the county border. Fields were aripening for harvest, birds (and planes) aflying, the sun shining, flowers blooming – and plenty of people being killed (in Russia at all events), as we made our voyage of discovery and finally arrived at our destination, and thereupon entered unknowingly the latter part of the 16th or 17th century, or was it the 15th? – we have not yet decided – but perhaps Mr Wells' Time Machine can tell us.

 

Well, the editor certainly lacks space to print the above 100 words. Now, if our would-be writer regards his MSS as something to be cabled abroad, each word costing 5s., and he has only £6 to spend, and in 24 words he must convey the facts obscured in the above passage, then he would begin to understand the first problem of writing; which is to convey a factual picture to a stranger in the fewest, simplest words. The self-conception, the private writing which is self-enjoyed but unreadable by anyone else not of the intimate circle (and do they care?), has to be broken and cast away before any start at writing is made. Self-conception; not conceit, for the word 'conceit' has been debased, and is now a word of depreciation.

 

If one tries to make a truthful criticism of amateur writers, nearly always their pride is hurt. Writing, of course, is a trade or an art; proficiency only comes from endless pains and tenacity to learn, unlearn, discard, tear up, rewrite, recast, tear up, cross out, alter, begin again, scrap once more, to persevere through much self-dismay and feelings of hopelessness. It is like singing, or piano-playing, or designing aircraft, or surgery. I know a pianist who spends hours every day practising on a dummy piano, in silence, to keep his fingers supple. Or like being a film-star, a job which entails endless patience and power to endure innumerable rehearsals and retakes, hours of hanging about under staring lights and everything seeming hollow and empty. If you can project your inner self against all that nihilism, endure your emotion or spirit being wasted and yet summon all of yourself to do it over and over again, if you can do what you are told by the director and do it many times, and yet more times, and never reveal your weariness, then you may in time become that reliable actor called a star. The greater the glamour of the finished acting the greater the loss of vitality to the actor. What is left over for his private life often isn't worth having. So, with writing. You can't take a fine crop out of a field without the field's fertility losing by measure of the crop taken.

 

It is a problem for professional writers how to deal with the enthusiastic 'efforts' of amateur writers. The amateur's writing is still part of his personal emotions; and how can one criticise another's feelings?

 

Amateurs sometimes say: 'My writing is as good as So-and-So's, much better indeed, but I can't get it printed.' (One gentleman in the R.A.F. wrote that to me the other day.) But the amateur does not consider that So-and-So has, through years of professional work, made a name for himself. So-and-So's name has already made friends with many people, who know him through that name's work, and greet him as a sure friend, even if he has not much to say. But a stranger who has not much to say . . . how do you react to him? You don't know him, and you honestly don't care anything about him. How can you, not knowing him? But a stranger who comes in and attracts you immediately by his interesting manner, who makes you feel at home in your own home, and you want him to stay longer and look for his next visit . . . well, he is like the new writer editors are always hoping to find.

 

In writers we know and like, for their personality, we forgive much that is immediately observed as a fault in an unknown writer. Thus Mr. A. G. Street, in his new book Hitler's Whistle (Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1943) (which is what an old man called the air raid warning in his locality) uses clichés like 'the countryside has been a veritable hive of industry' to describe the corn harvest of August, 1939; but we are tolerant of this, for we already know him by his broadcasts, his articles, and his books. Arthur Street is a personality: he can sneeze all through a broadcast, he can jumble up his words, he can even say, 'I'm a bit tired at the moment, mind if I have a snooze for a couple of minutes?' and we would wait by the loudspeaker, only too willing that our friend, whose West Country voice we know so well, should have a rest. If the Prime Minister, in a talk, were to growl sotto voce, 'Bring me another cigar,' or, 'Have you got a match?' we would feel honoured to share that detail of his intimate life. But when someone we don't know tells us that when recently he took a holiday not a thousand miles from an unknown somewhere and not a hundred from an undefined border, he unknowingly entered the latter part of the 16th, or was it 17th century (no decision made) and perhaps an established author's fictional device might tell us, we honestly don't want to know whether it eventually turned out to be an Eskimo's igloo.

 

A. G. Street's book is made up of articles from farming and other journals. He calls it a diary, but it is not a real diary. It is a collection of weekly articles, broadcasts and other journalism covering three years of war. A diary would be very different; but I doubt if Street keeps one, apart from a technical farm diary. The style is the man; and here is the real Arthur Street, in this collection, the articulate, normally clever and observant English farmer, humorous and wise by experience. He is a 'safe' man; we trust him. He is neither a great stylist nor a great farmer; but there is only one like him in England, and that is himself. Read the book and you know the man. He has worked very hard, much harder than he knows; and in his autobiography, Wessex Wins, he was inclined to deprecate his literary labours. But those who know the cost of writing, recognise this for the modestly of understatement. Writing is a whole-energy job; so is farming. Doing the two together is rather like trying to take two crops at the same time from the same field, year after year. When I saw him last, a week or two back, he was going away for a long rest to Wales, having to leave his Wiltshire farm and his literary work for awhile. A bare fallow, in fact, to restore fertility. Our best wishes to the author of Farmer's Glory, one of the best works of this century.

 


 

17 and 24 January 1944

 

Literary Diversion

I

 

Just as the actor sometimes goes to see a play, to watch other actors at work, so occasionally an author reads a book. Does this sound extraordinary? It is no more extraordinary than a village rag, bone and scrap metal man stopping to glance at the dumps, if any, of his professional rival.

 

Literary critics are sometimes accused of not reading the books sent to them for review. Of course they don't always read them all through. Why should they? Does the bullock-grader under the Food Minister have to eat all of a bullock in order to find out if it is likely to be a nice young fat beast, or merely a poor old cow sent in after sixty or seventy years' service in the dark and unwashed milk shed of some village technician?

 

Before me lie four new books. Three of them, which I will deal with here, were bought by myself at the bookshop. The fourth was sent by the publishers, as it contains a few pages written by myself. Here are the titles, publishers, prices:

 

The End in Africa, by Alan Moorehead (Hamilton, 10/6).

Inland Farm, by R. M. Lockley (Witherby, 10/-).

Rural Amateur, by Clifford Hornby (Collins, 8/6).

Countryside Mood, by Adrian Bell, H. J. Massingham, J. Wentworth Day, Frances Pitt, S. L. Bensusan, Lord Mottistone, etc. (Blandford Press, 10/6).

 

The book I enjoyed reading all through was Moorehead's The End in Africa. His story is balanced, vivid, authentic, and any combatant member of the B.N.A.F., or its rival the Afrika Corps, in hospital or internment camp, who could read English and was not too badly hurt, would be able to finish it. This is a compliment to Alan Moorehead's energy, ability, and lack of propaganda-mentality, otherwise prejudice. He always tries to write down the facts; his own opinions are not obtruded. Read this extract from Chapter 16, laconically called 'Longstop':

 

The officer himself was very tired. He had been in the line for a week, and during the previous night some of his men had fallen on the ground and just cried. They cried because they had no strength any more, not even the strength to stand up. They had continued without sleep for two days under the compulsion of their brains and beyond the point where the body will normally function. But now, when their minds would not work any more, they discovered that the strength had already gone out of their bodies and that, in fact, they had no control of anything any more, not even of tears. The tears came quite involuntarily and without any sense of relief because the body was incapable of feeling anything any more, and what became of the body was now of no consequence. And so they had lain about the hill for an hour or two in a stupor. The cold and the dew bit into them through the night and brought them back to consciousness.

 

Obviously, Mr. Moorehead has read his Hemingway; the above passage is derivative from the style of the author of For Whom the Bell Tolls. Mr. Moorehead was not in the attack on Longstop Hill (which was not so bad as an attack on the Somme or so terrible as Passchendaele, because neither the mud nor the wet nor the frustrated immobility of Passchendaele has yet been equalled in this war) and his rendering of the soldier's reaction is as near as a non-combatant may get to the nervous reality of direct assault, counter-attack and prolonged shock-stimulation. Until the war is over, and some young sensitive ex-soldier turns poet or author, the war correspondent's interpretation will have to serve. When he reports what he has experienced, Mr. Moorehead wins our full approval. (Of course, he cannot, during a war, describe all human details.)

 

A profusion of things lay about all the way up the trench – empty cigarette packets, both British and German, water-bottles and hand grenades, half-used boxes of cartridges, German steel helmets, bits of note paper, discarded packs and torn pieces of clothing . . . There were several old London papers lying about. One, the Daily Mirror, had its last page turned upward and its thick headline read: '"No more wars after this," says Eden.'

 

Seeing me look at it the soldier on the end of the trench said bitterly, 'They said the last war was going to end all wars. I reckon this war is supposed to start them all again.' The others in the trench laughed shortly and one or two of them made some retort. The men had greeted us with interest, but without enthusiasm. When they read the war correspondents' badges on our shoulders they were full of questions and derisive comments . . . They were hostile, bitter and contemptuous. Every second word was an adjective I have not quoted here, and they repeated it ad nauseam. They felt they were a minority that was being ordered to die (a third of them had been killed or wounded during the night) so that a civilian majority could sit back at home and enjoy life . . . The real degrading nature of war is not understood by the public at home, and it can never be understood by anyone who has not spent months in the trenches or in the air or at sea. More than half the Army do not know what it is, because they have not been in the trenches. Only a tiny proportion, one-fifth of the race perhaps, know what it is, and it is an experience that sets them apart from other people.

 

There we have the essence of the truth in the last line: that the sensitive, otherwise intelligent, survivors of the four million British casualties of World War I were unable to put over to the unregenerate and unawakened majority at home. Wherefore World War II; and World War III, unless the young and battle-purged soldiers make the peace.

 

 

II

 

After The End in Africa I took up Mr. R. M. Lockley's story of how he tried to work a forsaken Welsh farm of poor land by the sea. He starts, as many others have started, with such appalling handicaps; everything must be right, work all day and half the night, urging others to feel and do likewise (which they don't feel and don't do) and coming to realise (until experience dissolves this initial view) that apathy and red tape are the greatest obstacles to getting on with it.

 

The old rook, white-faced with much corn and wireworm grubbing, waitingout of gunshot for the corn-drill to move off the field, caws derisively to all pioneers, 'Yer'll larn, yer'll larn!'

 

In Mr. Lockley's ménage there is someone who looks like being a meat-for-manners man, a real 'old sweat', called the Baron. Whenever the Baron enters the story the reader is glad. He has done everything everywhere, it appears, and now on the staff of Inland Farm he is odd-job and handyman, not forgetting the ferrets. Of these attractive little creatures he managed, with the help of their parents, to breed thirty-four; and what is more, he sold all of them for fifteen shillings each. The Baron was apparently well satisfied; but the farmer, lord of all, writes:

 

They consumed about £1 of rabbits each week and were definitely not a business proposition. I encouraged the Baron to sell off his families of ferrets as soon as they were grown enough . . . He pocketed the money as his perquisite, and I swallowed the loss gladly.

 

Reading that chapter on Christmas Day, while my farm could go to Halifax for all I cared, I got a good laugh out of that. The operative word, as 'Beachcomber' would say, is 'gladly'. Mr. Lockley apparently did a lot of things in the glad manner. He and Mr. Leo Walmsley, the Yorkshire author of Three Fevers, who went to stay with him on the old farm with wife and large family, and helped him with much good advice of how to use tools, etc., particularly in the building of a hen-house, of which a photograph of Work in Progress is stuck in the book. The author of Three Fevers moved on, and perhaps one day we shall have another book from him, The Fourth Fever, telling us his experiences inside that hen-house, with an essay on the right way to hold a hammer. [Three Fevers was published by Cape in 1932. In 1935 it became the first film made by J. Arthur Rank, released as Turn of the Tide.]

 

Some of Mr. Lockley's 'fans' make the journey to see him, to tell him how much they like his books, and to bask in the rural scene, etc.

 

Those who could not jump on the tractor or stand on the footboard of the combine drill with me were left standing in the yard, admiring, wondering, or cursing.

 

Farmers, rarely out of trouble themselves, like to read about other farmers' muddles (it makes them feel not so bad themselves) and so this book was especially readable at Christmas.

 

Rocks lie sometimes four inches under the soil of the fields of Inland Farm; and Mr. Lockley had, apparently, lots of fun plowing with a W.A.C. tractor. How very agriculturally English was that scene on the base of a Welsh shale-stone promontory!

 

Battered and neglected by a dozen contractors, it had been left at the nearest depot in despair by the last user. Many nuts, bolts, nipples and fittings were missing. The gear lever had lost its retaining spring and nob, and it was only by a conjuring trick learnt from bitter experience that we eventually achieved the correct position of the gears.

 

The air conductor pipe was loose and vacillated so much that when it came to rest on the mudguard we lashed it there, as the safest place for it. When at last we got the engine started the exhaust pipe fell off. These were minor difficulties which did not dishearten me so much as the absence of greasing nipples. These had been stolen, making it impossible for me to service adequately the steering mechanism, with the result that this was stiff and almost dangerous. Also, as soon as we got on the road, the big near-side driving wheel showed every sign of coming off.

 

In fact it was in fairly sound condition; for at least it would move! The Baron put it in order, with Mr. Lockley's help (or was it the other way round?). And when it went away it was okay; but the next borrower could do nothing with Dora, as they had affectionately come to know the dear old machine. He could not get her out of gear. However, it was not all like that. There was one occasion when the neighbours gathered to inspect Mr. Lockley's work and, he tells us, to praise his courage with three hearty cheers. When he first started they came to help him, too, with plow-teams and plows, and their wives came to help Mrs. Lockley get the house in order.

 

After the purgative realities of North Africa and the 'hard graft' of West Wales, one turns to the quiet and candle-lit undertones of the Rural Amateur. Mr. Clifford Hornby tells us quietly, almost subduedly, of the realities of life of a town-bred boy who always loved the country, and wild birds in particular, but whose way of livelihood kept him generally to bricks-and-mortar, otherwise urban existence. The narrative begins with his tame Spanish mice at school, which escape, overrun the prefects' room and are trapped by them, while he dares not claim them, but grieves alone.

 

Mr. Hornby, who left school in the 'twenties, was a cameraman for films, and before World War II he travelled about the earth, using 'stock' to get material for back-projection shots of films. He made friends with Captain Knight, the falconer and lecturer, and spent many happy hours with him and his nephew, Esmond Knight, the actor. They flew their tame hawks at rooks on Salisbury Plain, and sought eyesses at Lundy and elsewhere. The eyesses are the young peregrine falcons, which are taken as fledgelings from their ancestral eyries, usually on a ledge down some precipitous headland by the sea. Brought up in a 'mews' the powers of flight of the peregrines are small and weak compared with the wild strong birds. Mr. Hornby describes a flight at a crow, which ended soon in both falcon and crow gaping exhaustingly on the grass. Esmond Knight once declared that the speed in flight of the tame peregrine is not more than 50 m.p.h.; the wild bird is capable of 'stooping' at nearly 200 m.p.h. in its native airs.

 

 

reviews moorehead1

 

reviews moorehead2

 


 

6 March 1944

 

Journal of a Husbandman

 

A pleasingly austere little book arrived from the borders of Devon and Cornwall to the threshold of the farmhouse the other morning. I thought to myself, Oh, another farming book, another amateur trying to reclaim derelict land. There have been many such books. For the past two months I had been writing hard myself, and wasn't in the mood to look at another man's mistakes and struggles. But when I opened the book the print at once held my attention. The author was trying to buy a small farm in North Cornwall, 'consisting of four rectangular marshes, which culminated in a swamp,' from a horse dealer, called The Fox, alternatively The Grin. The author wondered if it had ever been a farm.

 

An occasional gate post reinforced my optimism. Obviously something had been kept there since the dinosaurs. And my companion said: 'I mind the time when my father kept eight cows here, and that meadow turned out a master rick of hay.'

 

'Then why did you let it go like this?' I asked. The Fox stopped. He grinned, not out of embarrassment. He just grinned.

 

'But surely,' I continued, 'even if this place couldn't pay you to run as a farm again, if you had kept it cut and the hedges steeped you would have been able to let it, or to sell it to me at a higher price?'

 

'How was I to know you'd come along?' he answered.

 

The author told The Fox that he could not, after all, buy the farm, as he had only £525. The Fox seemed surprised; and at once sold him the forty acres for £525.

 

The new farmer had to cut his way to the farmhouse with a billhook.

 

The windows had fallen in, the doors had fallen out. Slates had slid into gutterings, gutterings swayed in the wind. Pigs had been kept in the living-room and, as though it were an advantage, the owner pointed out that a concrete trough had been made on the living-room floor. With his stick he pointed at it through a foot of dung.

 

As might be guessed, it was wanted, that farm, for an experiment in community living. The community assembled, bit by bit. One of the amusing characters arrived, in the form of Leonard Stanelly, the Communist. Here is his arrival:

 

He is very much much a Londoner, wears hat and gloves and carries a portable typewriter. And amongst his luggage was the Communist's portable dogma: the works of Lenin, Mr. and Mrs. Sydney Webb, Strachey, and the poems of various fashionable sentimentalists of the proletariat. Stanelly himself has no strking features or characteristics. As far as I can gather, his parents own a large number of automatic cigarette slot machines, and Stanelly has previously been occupied in looking after these things. I am anxious to know the precise reason why he has come here. He seems equally anxious to know what I 'stand for'.

 

They hack their way into the fields and buy a cow. Before it dies of red-fever Leonard is told to drive it home. He arrives at the farm five hours late, having lost the cow, temper and spectacles. Leonard has the job of milking the cow next day.

 

At nine o'clock he was still in bed. The cow should have been milked at eight. John (a pacifist) called up to him, 'Comrade Leonard, the Communist revolution has arrived.' Snores. At nine-thirty he called up again, 'Comrade Leonard, the counter-revolution has arrived.' More snores. He milked the cow, and called up – 'Comrade Leonard, the status quo has been re-established.'

 

Others, driven by their ideals towards a new life, arrive. Some never wash. They object to plastering walls, feeding the horse (the cart-shafts had broken soon after it was taken away from an auction) and also the cow. They sit by the driftwood fire and talk. One of them giggled.

 

I suppose I am regarded as a school master. Unless we can get on a better base than this, it would be better to abandon it and let owls move in again and rats rent.

 

The author concludes that they are a lot of intellectual nitwits. They cut bracken on the steep field. The cutter drags the horses down the hill. They also crop the land.

 

We are laboriously planting potatoes, one making the hole with a crowbar, the other dropping the seed in. We have no other implement.

 

The farmer wonders if it will pay. At any rate, he does not pay any wages. They are to share profits. At one time he says he would be content just to get his seed back, meanwhile having seen the land in cultivation. They have a mason, deaf from the last war. When the present war breaks out, Mr. Tyle remarks: 'All is not what it would appear to seem.' The Tyles live in an old lorry which had been partly cemented up to comply with local building requirements. At length the removal of this Ancient Monument is threatened. Mrs. Tyle wanders away with half a dozen children, leaving others behind, but returns later. Meanwhile Mr. Tyle offers to build a cattle shippon, with loft, for nothing.

 

During harvest a spare part broke on the farm lorry. Telephone calls followed.

 

A spare half-shaft was eventually located at a car dump, graveyard for automobiles. A gypsy-like ferret of a man has filled a field with these hideous rusting wrecks; some lurching into ditches with their radiators off and their tyres down, others sprawling about spewing their engines out in a riotous automobile brawl. The gypsy led us through his fantastic collection to an old grandmother of an omnibus without any wheels on and a chimney stuck through the roof. He went through some papers and announced that I could either pay 7s. 6d. for a secondhand Sunbeam shaft or £2 for a whole Sunbeam of the same era as the one we already own. This was luck. And there the car was, a citadel for broody hens, complete with all fittings and an electric cigar lighter.

 

The whole book is penetrating, witty, and at times savagely truthful. Mr. Duncan has apparently made good, for he started before the beginning of the war, and he is still on the farm; though most of the community has departed, in various states of disillusion, otherwise lack of will to work. The book is the best of its kind I have read since the classic Chronicles of a Clay Farm [Taipa: Chronicles of a Clay Farm, by Chandos Wray Hoskins, 1852] and Adrian Bell's Corduroy [1930], and I now go about recommending it to my friends as a cure for their own dejection when they feel they are 'in a muddle'. It is published by Messrs. Faber, costs 8s. 6d., is called Journal of a Husbandman, by Ronald Duncan.

 


 

 10 April 1944

 

Country Life

 

Three books have come to me for review, the first by a professional writer, the second by a professional teacher. the third by a professional shirt-maker who taught himself to make a living out of market gardening and wrote a book about it called Spring Onions [Duncan McGuffie, Faber, 1942]. Nowadays writers are farmers, farmers are writers, and professors have to mend their own shirts; a glorious mix-up, as they say. If farming is in the blood, phosphate is certainly in the printer's ink nowadays. Here is Mr. McGuffie:

 

For the grass fields I got hold of a mixture of bone meal, sulphate of ammonia, superphosphate, and a very little potash, all made up into a mixture which I applied at the rate of six hundredweight to the acre. As well as this I found some stale farmyard manure in the buildings which we cleared out and put on King's Field.

 

Sometimes there is a break from the details of cropping, and we get the low-down of a Brains Trust at Coventry, when that city's Dig for Victory Week was in progress, and also an inside view of a shirt factory; and from these experiences, a Future Policy of Feeding the People, with this conclusion:

 

It is clear for all to see that the more food we can produce in this country the less food we shall have to import, and therefore the more shipping space will be available for armaments and men of the fighting forces.

 

Mr. A. G. Street, writing his Farmer's Glory all those years ago, has a lot to answer for. Though this is but an indirect reflexion on Mr. McGuffie, whose straightforward account of his successful market gardening ventures may be acceptable to a public not yet saturated with matter-of-fact accounts of such ventures based on guaranteed prices.

 

Good Farming is an excellent little book, one of the best of its kind that I have seen. Here are most of the facts, all in plain basic English, about Farm Machinery, Stock, Crops, Management, Does Farming Pay?, etc., with illustrations. I hesitate over the list of implements, and their cost, for a 500-acre dairy farm. One item particularly arrested my reading. One ring roller (three sections) £17 10s. The author says this is the 1939 price, and 50 per cent to 100 per cent increase is suggested for present prices. I have just bought one for £52, which is 300 per cent increase. And how they work 420 acres of arable on one rubber-tyred tractor, and a smaller row-crop tractor, is beyond my comprehension or experience.

 

At 3s. this little book is bumper value, and one wonders where the publishers got the paper? There are said to be two hundred new publishing firms since the war, unhampered by paper rationing which is the privilege of the older, pre-war publishing trade. When I opened this book and saw the quality of paper and binding, and the price of 3s., I thought I must have been asleep for ten years, during which time the war had ended and publishers were no longer praying not to have a best-seller on their lists. While the going is good, this 3s. book should sell like  . . . modern books about farming.

 

My first introduction to the writing of Sir William Beach Thomas was when I saw an infantry company commander stamping on The Daily Mail after reading an account of an attack he had shared in, an account which told of the larks singing through the barrage at dawn. As second-in-command of that company, I had remained at the transport lines, in reserve, and I had watched the barrage from the comparative safety of three miles back. It is true the larks were singing through the colossal flickering and earth-shaking reverberation of the guns; one heard them as the barrage slacked off, preparatory to moving forward (though they were soon 'back on the first objective'). The company commander, with a hundred and fifty casualties in the company, was in no mood a few days later to read of larks singing; nor had he heard them, where 'shell-storms spouted reddest spate.' Hence the rage with which the war correspondent's account was greeted. In those days there was a mental division between the 'civvies' and the soldiers which the bombing of cities in this war has done a little, but only a little, to close.

 

Sir William tells us his life story. He was bred in a Sussex rectory, spent part of his boyhood in the Fens, gained a scholarship from Shrewsbury to Oxford, where he gained a running blue, became for a while a schoolmaster before going into journalism. He became one of the chief writers of Lord Northcliffe's paper. It was in the office of The Daily Mail that I met him in 1920, during my own brief career as a Fleet Street reporter.

 

As a 'star' journalist, Sir William went to Australia, to Canada, to various countries in Europe, and these journeys, with England and the English scene predominating, form the base of the autobiography. Like W. H. Hudson, our author wanders and digresses, wandering from subject to subject as thought and memory come to his mind. His book is the essence of a life, rather than the life itself. One gathers he has led a full and happy life. Writing is often a compensation for the opposite of a full and happy life. Does a child sit or walk alone, its head full of fantasies, if it can play vigorously with other children? The born writer is the lonely, odd individual, who makes his or her own world, believes in it passionately, and so creates passionate belief in it, among others of a similar nature. Emily Brontë and Richard Jefferies are such born writers; they died before they could build themselves a house or a farm with the proceeds of their books. One of the best things in The Way of a Countryman is the chapter describing the building of a cottage, and the specification for the builder is a joy to read. The amazing thing to me (after a slight experience of building) is that the builder appears to have carried out the instructions of the architect. 'All joinery is to be knotted and primed before leaving the joiner's shop.' 'All framing is to be put together with well-fitting mortices and tenon joins wedged up solid.' Delightful reading, for one whose new windows, put in six years ago by local artistry, are already dropping to bits.

 

The Way of a Countryman, by Sir William Beach Thomas (Michael Joseph, 10s. 6d.).

Good Farming, by V. C. Fishwick (English Universities Press, 3s.).

Cabbages and Committees, by Duncan McGuffie (Faber, 7s. 6d net).

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

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