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Henry Williamson began broadcasting for the BBC at the end of 1935, and was soon broadcasting on a regular basis, curtailed only by the Second World War; thereafter his broadcasts were relatively few. The scripts of a number of his talks were printed in The Listener the week after the broadcast. All surviving scripts were collected by the HWS and published in two volumes as Spring Days in Devon, and other broadcasts (1992; e-book 2013) and Pen and Plough: Further Broadcasts (1993; e-book 2014).


The history of the relationship between writer and broadcaster is explored in depth in John Gregory's 'Henry Williamson and the BBC' (HWSJ 29, March 1994).


Of all the broadcasts, only three were reviews; HW also gave a talk on Lorna Doone which, while not a review as such, is included here. These have been transcribed from the scripts used in the broadcasts, which are held in the BBC Written Archives Centre. The books covered are:



ALLEN, Jerry: The Sea Years of Joseph Conrad (Methuen, 1967)

BAYNES, John: Morale (Cassell, 1957)

BLACKMORE, R. D.: Lorna Doone (Sampson, Low & Marston, 1869)

LAWRENCE, M. R. (editor): The Home Letters of T. E. Lawrence and His Brothers, (Basil Blackwell, 1954)




15 August 1936


Broadcast on the West of England Home Service, in the series Books and Backgrounds.


Lorna Doone and the Doone Valley


Why is Lorna Doone so popular, and why did R. D. Blackmore, the author, never have anything resembling the success of that novel? He wrote about a score of books, and about half his novels were done after the outstanding success of his romantic tale of love and adventure among the robber Doones of Exmoor. He knew how to write too. That novel Lorna Doone was not a mere fluke, a transcription of events which had happened to the hero, John Ridd, alias Richard Blackmore. As you know, it is written in the first person throughout, the ‘I’ of the story being John Ridd the yeoman, who tells the story of his life when he is an old man. The events take place when he is a young man, beginning with his return from Blundell’s School in Tiverton after his father has been slain by the Doones. Little Jan Ridd meets some of the Doones in the mist and twilight as he rides his pony from Porlock to Plover’s Barrows Farm which is not far from Lynmouth. He sees, if you remember, a little maid being flung across the saddle bow of one of the robbers. Apparently this is the small girl he has seen in the coach near Dulverton a few hours before.


The Doones are offsprung from a noble family the head of which has got into trouble, and had his estates confiscated. One of the co-heirs of the estate, Sir Ensor Doone, has migrated from the north of England to the wild and little-known south-west, and settled in a valley of Exmoor. The Doone valley, as it comes to be known, is near the farm where John Ridd lives. The Doone men are tall and strong and numerous. They are outlaws. They pillage and rob; they carry off country girls, who become the mothers of other Doones. When John Ridd’s chronicle begins, the word Doone is one to inspire terror in the minds of children, and hatred and fear in the hearts of men living in the valleys lying under the rugged, treeless heights of the moor. The time of the chronicle is about two hundred and fifty years ago, in the seventeenth century: the age of flintlocks and boggy tracks called roads, chains of beacons kindled on hilltops to warn England of invasion or other great national danger, of robbery and violence, and of labouring men hanged – quite rightly, says John Ridd – for stealing and killing a sheep. It is the same age as that recorded in the Diaries of Samuel Pepys. Some people, by the way, pronounce this name as Peeps, others call it Pepps; but the head of the family, the present Earl of Cottenham, calls it Peppis. Why this variation in the pronunciation of a name? I have an idea it arose among brothers, bearing the same name, who wished to avoid confusion. There is a family in Croyde village, in North Devon, called Kift. There were, when I was a youth, three brothers of that name; and to avoid confusion, of letters arriving at the wrong house, for example, one spelt his name Kifft, another Kiftt, while the third remained Kift, or it may be, Kyft. Likewise Peppis may have become Peeps or Pepps for the same reason.


Well, back to our muttons, or the age when a man was hanged for stealing a sheep, and a small child was hanged for stealing anything valued at half-a-crown or over. That age is recorded realistically by Samuel Pepys, while Blackmore writes of it romantically. To continue the story of Lorna Doone, young John Ridd grows up in hatred of the Doones. He teaches himself to make bullets, and to shoot straight with his father’s musket. One day he will avenge his father’s death. He is a very strong boy. One day in early spring he sets out with a pronged spear, to get loaches and minnows in the river which runs through the farm. Loaches are small fish which cling to the gravelly bed of the river, and which are good to eat when pickled – John Ridd tells us. But from his description of some of the minnows, which he says are occasionally five inches long, with ‘scarlet fingers on them’, I fancy he must have been thinking of the scarlet-spotted salmon-parr, which have blue-black finger marks on them. It was still being argued among fishermen, when Blackmore wrote the book in the 1860s, whether these little fish were baby salmon or not. Well, young John Ridd went down the Lyn, which was Badgeworthy water, at the end of the Doone valley. He wanted a bagful of loaches badly, to please his mother, who was still grieving over the death of her husband.


John was a persistent boy, and in spite of the intense cold of the water and his wet clothes, he went on up the Badgeworthy brook and came at last to a big black pool which had been carved out by a cascade or water-slide falling more than a hundred feet down a pale smooth rock. He started to climb up the slide, which was at the bottom of a kind of gorge, dark with trees, a fearsome place. At the top of the slide he was exhausted, and just managed to crawl out of the water. Then he met a young maid whose beauty made an instant and lasting impression on him. When he asked her her name she replied, with shame, that it was Lorna Doone. Soon afterwards some of the robbers came down to fetch her, and although he feels angry and wants to fight them, Lorna begs him to hide. He goes down the water-slide again, realising he had found the secret way up into the stronghold of the robber colony.


That shame that Lorna felt because her name was Doone is, perhaps, a slight flaw in the book. A child usually accepts its environment as normal, and Lorna’s grandfather, Sir Ensor Doone, is a cultured old gentleman, although he is head of the outlaws. It is a small point, however, and Blackmore, who was an astute observer, possibly would have replied that what Jan Ridd took for shame was really a childish confusion, because Lorna felt the same feeling for the boy, as he felt for the maid.


John Ridd grows up to be the strongest man in his parish and the country around it. He becomes a champion wrestler. Lorna grows into a beautiful young woman. Her old grandfather, Sir Ensor, knowing of her attachment to the young farmer whose fame of strength is known to the Doones, and feeling that he has not long to live, sends for John and forbids him to see her again. John is respectful but firm and wins the old man’s blessing. But meanwhile there is Carver Doone, Lorna’s cousin, who wants to marry her, knowing (as neither John nor the reader yet know) that she is co-heir to the marquisate of Lorne. When Jan Ridd hears that Carver Doone is becoming persistent, he determines to take Lorna away from the Doones’ stronghold, and bring her to his mother and sisters at Plover’s Barrows Farm. The country is white with a deep snowfall, and a terrible hard winter which freezes even the swift running streams. John Ridd, rescuing his sheep from snowdrifts, easily carries one under each arm. He makes a sledge, stealthily enters the Doones’ stronghold, and takes Lorna away. Lorna lives at the farm and is admired and loved by all. When the great frost is over, the countryside at last rouses itself against the Doones and plans are made to assault their stronghold. Soldiers come with artillery, and the place is captured and burnt. Jan and Lorna are to be married in the little church at Oare on the side of the hill. Carver Doone by this time is wandering about the moor. Just before John and Lorna are made man and wife, Carver shoots through a little window and Lorna falls with the blood staining her wedding gown. Thinking she is dead, John Ridd leaps on his horse and goes after Carver. Knowing that Carver is armed, he wrenches a bough off an oak tree as he passes, for use as a cudgel. At last he comes upon Carver who fires at him and breaks one of his ribs. In a terrible cold rage John advances. First he picks up the little son of Carver and puts him aside to pick bluebells. Then he comes back to Carver meaning to kill him. He is chivalrous and offers Carver the first grip as he would an opponent, in wrestling. But in his exaltation of love and rage and death he had underestimated his opponent’s strength, and when Carver put his arms round him and tried to crush his ribs into his heart, he felt his rib crack, and it was if his life were being squeezed out of him. He gripped the bicep muscle of Carver’s left arm with his right hand and tore the muscle out, in his words, ‘as a string comes out of an orange’. He throws Carver who falls into a slough – the Wizard’s Slough it is called – and Carver sinks down to his death. For years afterwards, whenever Jan Ridd passes the oak tree and sees the splintered end of the branch he had torn off, he marvels at the frenzy which had possessed him on the day that Lorna was shot.


Lorna did not die; she was nursed back to health, and the idyllic love of Sir John Ridd and his lady wife continued for the rest of their lives. He was knighted, you may remember, when he went up to London to see the king after destroying the robber band.


Such is the bare outline of the story, which is full of characters and incidents as a Christmas pudding is full of rich good things. It was published in 1869, and since then it has probably sold five million copies. I doubt if there is a farmhouse on Exmoor or in any of the valleys lying below which has not its copy. There are three things which are read more or less regularly in the large outlying district of the moor – the Bible, the News of the World, and Lorna Doone. Do not think that the News of the World is included ironically in the trilogy. The Bible supplies the spiritual needs, the newspaper supplies the human interest, and Lorna Doone supplies the summer flow of visitors with their need for cream and eggs and other farm produce.


But all of the five million copies are not to be found on Exmoor. Why did the book sell so extensively, and why has it continued to sell, nearly seventy years after its publication? Why has Lorna Doone kept on? The answer is, because people have wanted to read it, and they have wanted to read it because it is a very good story, and because so much of its detail is of the authentic countryside.


The author was born in Berkshire, and after being educated at Tiverton and Oxford, spent most of his life as a market gardener at Teddington. Market gardening was his chief job in life; and writing novels and verse was his relaxation. His grandfather was a parson at Oare, preaching in the little church where Jan Ridd was married, and where Lorna was shot by Carver. Going to visit his grandfather from Tiverton when a boy, about 1840, what a thrilling adventure! There was no railway. All travelling was on horseback, by coach, or by jingle. A jingle is a small two-wheeled vehicle like a trap or governess cart. Lightly made and built, it’s for narrow sunken lanes, and drawn by the small but sturdy Exmoor ponies. To travel from Tiverton to Oare would take all of a long day, perhaps more than a day. The small boy would hear tales from his grandfather of violence and feats of strength and of wrestling – not the catch-as-catch-can Cornish wrestling which he was later to describe, a genteel pastime compared to the real thing, which consisted of grasping your opponent by hair or ear or nose or shoulder, and trying to kick him off his feet, hacking at his shin-bones with boots specially shod with a sharpened iron toe-cap. That would have been too brutal for a romance. But the stories of robbers and highwaymen would fire the imagination of the little boy. He would magnify them and shiver to himself in bed at night as he heard the rain beating on the window.


Thus the seed was sown for the book, to lie in the half-memory of Blackmore until the time came for him to turn it into a novel. He used the feeling that the child had on hearing the marvellous and thrilling stories from his grandfather, and it is this feeling which gives the book its authentic life. It appeals to the faculty of make-believe, or imagination, which is in all human beings when they are young, and which so often, alas, diminishes or withers entirely when we are what is called grown-up. Blackmore himself, having expended the store of childish excitement and wonder, tried to imitate it, or recapture its essence in other books; but no skill in building a story, or power of observation and characterisation can replace that childish essence once it has been used. And Blackmore used it all in Lorna Doone. It is a very subtle thing, this feeling: and I am inclined to think that the reader is more aware of it than the author himself, it is something which flows from the sub-consciousness of the author, despite his clever brain or skill – in a word, it is feeling.


What would Blackmore see if he came back to Oare today? If he came back any fine day of July, August or September, of any year, and could read the thoughts of any of the several hundred people walking in the Doone Valley, he would probably say to himself that could he have anticipated such interest, he would have written a much better book. That is what most authors feel when they have written a successful book. Blackmore would say that the water-slide a hundred feet long was in the book and not to be sought in any actual country. He would say that the farmhouse was imaginary, too. He would say that there were Doones, of course there were Doones, were they not all in his book? He would walk into Oare church, as I did the other day, and see a pile of visitors’ books, and perhaps he would count the number of those who had visited this year, 9,307 for the first seven months only, and space for thousands of others in the book. He would have gone down to Malmsmead and see that a farm which was not mentioned in his book calls itself Lorna Doone Farm. He would have been pleased with the notice on the painted notice-board, which read






That homely wording might have caused him to make a joke about rode and Ridd. He would have seen a gentleman sitting on a chair by a gate, issuing threepenny tickets to walk along the path beside the river, he would have seen a small wire enclosure, and young animals within it spending most of their time scratching, and labelled ‘Lorna Doone Puppies, £1 each’. And enquiring, perhaps, as I did, about this new breed, he would have learnt it was the good old Devon mixture of cattle dog and collie. And feeling hungry, perhaps, he would have gone into the farmhouse and been pleased, as I was, by iron fire-dogs beautifully polished, on the hearth, and in a barn beyond a real Devon tea. Indeed he, who was conscious of good fare, would have said to himself that whatever his story may have done, it had at least provided the best tea in the West Country, even better than the meals described in Lorna Doone. He, like every other holiday pilgrim, would have been offered a choice of many kinds of stewed fruit, including the native whortleberry, unlimited cream and bread and butter, many kinds of jam, and all in unlimited quantities for the sum of eighteen pence. And seeing the happy faces around him and the place kept clean of litter, even newspapers put down under the nests of martins up in the eaves, he would, I think, not regret the writing of Lorna Doone.



24 August 1954


Broadcast on the West of England Home Service, in the series Book Review. HW also reviewed this book in John o’ London’s Weekly (2 July 1954), and The European (November 1954), all very different in content.


The Home Letters of T. E. Lawrence and His Brothers

edited by M. R. Lawrence (Basil Blackwell, 1954, 3 guineas)


Some men are born with the ‘enlarged and numerous senses’ which William Blake, in his brief and marvellous poem The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, declared to be the basis of the mind of the true poet, or genius. Note the word ‘born’: the poet or genius is born, not made. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t need to work. Once he has discovered and determined himself, he works more intensely than most men, along that single track. That single track often leads into new regions, usually beyond a wilderness. The poet is a lonely man, dedicated to his particular work. By poet I do not mean only a versifier, or singer. Henry Royce was a poet, dedicated to perfecting his petrol engines. The Silver Ghost chassis in 1906 was the first result of his genius: and a ruined digestion, from concentrated work all day and often through the night. Einstein is a genius of pure mathematics; Chatterton, the marvellous boy of Bristol, was a genius of words; so was Keats. As for Beethoven, Mozart, Shakespeare . . . you will have your own names as stars in your mind.


Nearly all who knew and had wit saw the genius in T. E. Lawrence. He had his detractors, of course. In conversation once, he told me that he was a chameleon; that is, hypersensitive to other people. He reflected them to themselves. He was as a mirror, which sometimes was temporarily shattered, when the image confronting him was particularly stupid or insensitive. We all know such people. We say we can’t get on with them; we aren’t ourselves with them. We are uneasy in their presence.


Is this our own uneasiness, or theirs: a heterodyne of two wavelengths?


Now, in these letters just published, we can see what sort of youth was the legendary T. E. Lawrence. He was one of five brothers, one older than himself. They lived with mother and father in Oxford. Of the five sons, three are now dead; two of the younger ones killed very soon in the First World War, and Ned, or T. E. Lawrence, dying after a motor-cycle accident in 1935. That leaves the eldest, Bob, who edited this book of letters, and the youngest, Arnie; the mother is still alive, at the age of 92. For many years she was a missionary in China, together with her eldest son.


What a wonderful family of sons to have! I use the present tense, and not the past: for their personality survives in the letters, at least in the sense that Beethoven survives, and Keats. The three dead sons were exhibitioners at Oxford University. What fun they had, cycling in France during vacations, ‘standing and staring’ and writing home what they had seen and experienced, living frugally as scholars do whose appetites are for the wonder of the world about them. Listen to this, written when T.E. was barely twenty, when first he approached the sea of the Greek fables that filled his mind with radiance.


From Le Puy I rode up for 10 miles more, (oh dear, ’twas hot!) consoling myself with the idea that my sufferings were beyond the conception of antiquity, since they were a combination (in a similar climate) of those of Sisyphus who pushed a great weight up hill, of Tantalus who couldn’t get anything to drink, or any fruit, and of Theseus who was doomed ever to remain sitting. I got up to the top at last, and then a rush down 4,000 feet to the Rhône. Twas down a valley, the road carved out of the side of the precipice, and most gloriously exciting . . . I slept that night at Crussol, a fine 12th century castle on a 500 feet precipice over the Rhône. Next day via Valence to Avignon, glorious with its town walls and papal palace, and passed thence through Tarascon to Beaucaire, which I saluted for the sake of Nicolette, into Arles. From Arles I rode to Les Baux, a queer little ruined and dying town upon a lonely ‘olive sandalled’ mountain. Here I had a most delightful surprise. I was looking from the edge of a precipice far over the plain, watching the green changing into brown, and the brown into a grey line far away over the horizon, when suddenly the sun leapt from behind a cloud, and a sort of silver shiver passed over the grey: then I understood, and instinctively burst out with a cry of Thalassa, Thalassa! that echoed down the valley and startled an eagle from the opposite hill. . . . I descended . . . and bathed in the sea, the great sea, the greatest in the world: you can imagine my feelings: the day was warm, a light wind, and sunny: the sea had not our long rolling breakers, but short dancing ripples. I hope I’ll ‘hear the sea breathe o’er my dying brain its last monotony’, on such a day as this, and also at the time of setting sun . . . I felt that at last I had reached the way to the South, and all the glorious East; Greece, Carthage, Egypt, Tyre, Syria, Italy, Spain, Sicily, Crete . . . they were all there, and all within reach . . . Oh I must get down here, – farther out – again! Really this getting to the sea has almost overturned my mental balance: I would accept a passage to Greece tomorrow . . .


Well, he did go, farther out, as the letters show. He reached Syria, in the next few years, and when the war came, his prestige already was great among certain Arabs. And there, in the deserts, during the campaigns, his energy and passion and delight burned out, as the finest engines or machinery burn out or break in what engineers call a test to destruction, driving them too hard and too long, until the metal grows tired, and crystallises: yielding the ghost of its strength that was acquired in fire, and the blows of its forging. After the war, when it was all over, he wanted to be ordinary iron again, no more to be steel of high tensile strength that had fractured in too great a stress . . . and so he changed his name, and joined the RAF as an aircraftman, hoping to be ‘plumb normal, like the ordinary fellows’. In other words, he wanted the lost innocence of youth, the carefree days, the pristine joy in simple things. He foresaw, as we can read in this book, that great position carries with it great penalties, long before his uniqueness and ability brought him to the dreaded notoriety of ‘Lawrence of Arabia’.


Tell Mother (he writes in 1917) they asked for that twopenny thing she likes, but fortunately didn’t get it. All these letters and things are so many nuisances afterwards, and I’ll never wear or use any of them. My address is simple T.E.L., no titles please.


‘The twopenny thing’ was the Victoria Cross; he was given the C.B. instead. He explained later, when he had been made a Companion of the Distinguished Service Order:


These sorts of things are only nuisances to a person with £ 250 a year, and the intention of not having more, and the less they are used the better. I’m sending back all private letters so addressed.


His life after the war was in part that of mental agony. The hateful legend pursued him; so did newspaper reporters. People would not leave him alone, to live his own life. They insisted on him being what they thought he ought to be, according to their own ideas.


I knew him when he was stationed at Plymouth, at Cattewater which later was renamed Mountbatten. He seemed to shine; all innocence, wisdom, and most gentle intelligence. He understood people, and was most kind and modest. To me, his junior, he seemed so very young. But what is the deficiency of age but the loss of being young through the burdens of responsibility? He was like Faust in reverse; he was condemned to be young. The gods of Hellenic mythology were watching him; and on that morning of May, 1935, on his motorcycle crossing Bovington Heath near his cottage, Clouds Hill, they saw their chance. He did not attempt to pass the two boys on bicycles, in the lane; he threw himself and his machine off the road before he could reach them, and so possibly, hurt them. It was his great defect, or great virtue, to consider the feelings of others before his own.


Perhaps that is why the legend grew in the first place; the legend that he dreaded, and tried in vain to outlive. For all those who knew T. E. Lawrence recognised in him that rare thing, the soul of honour.




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28 March 1967


Broadcast on the Home Service in the series The World of Books.


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by John Baynes

(Cassell, 1967, 42 shillings)


Some young littérateurs of the up and coming generation are haunted by the Great War. Their histrionic counterparts can be seen in certain places in London, dolled-up in discarded uniforms. Major John Baynes is a serving soldier. His father commanded the Second Battalion of the Scottish Rifles, whose history – military and sociological – he now attempts to set forth comprehensively. His theme is courage. It’s a good book, a work of much research and scholarship. Major Baynes has read and quotes survivors of the Great War – writers such as Edmund Blunden, Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon, Rupert Brooke, whose sonnet If I Should Die he judges in these words: ‘a little too gushing for modern taste perhaps?’ When I read that, I felt like shouting ‘No, damn you, no!’ Rupert Brooke expressed the feelings of the educated volunteers of all classes who rushed to the colours in a blaze of idealism in 1914:


If I should die, think only this of me:

    That there’s some corner of a foreign field

That is for ever England. There shall be

    In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;

A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,

    Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,

A body of England’s, breathing English air,

    Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.


Perhaps Major Baynes had in mind when he wrote, a little nervously perhaps, that it might be considered gushing for modern taste, perhaps he was remembering a boyish remark made by what he called ‘an old friend at a regimental dinner early in 1966’. Baynes had told him he was writing a book, and the old friend replied ‘I bet it’s a bloody awful book’. Well, let me tell that friend, if he’s listening – which I doubt – that it’s a bloody good book!


Back to soldiering. We follow the Battalion going up to the battle of Neuve Chapelle after the dreary winter of 1914, in mud, flooded trenches, and often frost which stiffened wet greatcoats as hard as boards. I ought to say here that I know that flat border country, between Flanders and northern France, for I served as a private soldier during the Battle of Ypres some months before the first battle of the Second Scottish Rifles, and I recognise it all as authentic. The regimental pride, which kept many soldiers going, despite appalling upbringing, most of them in slums, and pre-war starvation and often dereliction. The Battalion lost, during four frightful days in rain, mud and superior machine-gun fire from the Germans, while penetrating half a mile into the enemy position, nearly 700 men. Yet, says the author, the Battalion didn’t lose its morale. When made up to strength later it was as good as before. Its officers were superb, and how they came to be as they were, and the other ranks, is the main part of the book. Men are shocked in battle, survivors carry with them a dark fear of what A. P. Herbert in his novel of Gallipoli called ‘a secret battle’. But in the Great War this wasn’t always allowed for. It took a book called The Anatomy of Courage, by a Battalion Medical Officer of the Royal Fusiliers, also in the line somewhere at that time, a doctor now known as Lord Moran, to reveal that courage is expendable, and when it is gone, swiftly in some soldiers, slowly in others, it’s gone, and the soldier is burnt out. Wilfred Owen, the greatest poet of that war, has told of this also, in his immortal verse.


I wish I had more time to praise this book. I see eyes watching me as I sit here in the BBC studio, but I’ll chance my arm by quoting a young American writer, Scott Fitzgerald, who isn’t mentioned in the book. The hero in this novel, Tender is the Night, is probably based on himself. He’s standing above the Ancre river, below the Somme battlefield, a few years after the war ended. Now please listen carefully, for it is a definitive, and to an old soldier of any war, a most moving passage:


It took the British a month to walk to that little stream, the whole empire walking very slowly, dying in front and pushing forward behind. And another empire walked very slowly backwards a few inches a day, leaving the dead like a million bloody rugs . . . This war took religion and years of plenty and tremendous sureties and exact relation that existed between the classes . . . You had to remember Christmas, and postcards of the Crown Prince and his fiancée, and little cafés at Valence, and beer gardens in Unter den Linden, and weddings at the mairie, and going to the Derby, and your grandfather’s whiskers . . . Why, this was a love battle – there was a century of middle-class love spent here. This was the last love battle . . . All my beautiful lovely safe world blew itself up here, with a great gust of high explosive love.




In the archive are these two letters on headed BBC paper:


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HW made a number of notes in his desk diary regarding the broadcast:


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While on the page opposite the entry for Wednesday 22 he added:


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Also in the archive are some manuscript notes about the book (the first two pages of three are shown below), and a 4-page typescript (a carbon copy, on thin paper) draft for HW's talk:


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The third page of the MS above reads: 'as any soldier in the history of the world.'



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23 May 1967


Broadcast on the Home Service, in the series The World of Books. The programme was introduced by Kenneth Allsop.


The Sea Years of Joseph Conrad

by Jerry Allen

(Methuen, 1967, 63 shillings)


Conrad was one of my gods in 1919 when I left the Army and discovered an entirely new world of the spirit in his books. The other authors and he became almost my only companions. I knew many of their pages by heart, one in particular from Youth, a narrative told by an old master deep-water seaman whose first ship, carrying coal in the Indian Ocean, caught fire. The crew had to abandon her, and lying off at night in small boats, they watched the last of her. I felt it must have happened to Joseph Conrad himself, on his first voyage. He was then, in the words of Edward Garnett, quoted by Miss Allen, ‘a young man, of brilliant charm and gay cleanliness, and extraordinary soft warmth in his large brown eyes. His courtesy was part of his being, bred in the bone.’ And Garnett wrote later, ‘When he wished to surrender himself to anybody he did it singleheartedly, in irresistable fashion.’ Now for Conrad’s romantic sympathy, of a dying ship, a little world soon to vanish:


She burned furiously, mournful and imposing like a funeral pyre kindled in the night surrounded by the sea, watched over by the stars, a magnificent death that comes like a grace, like a gift, like a reward to that old ship, at the end of her laborious days . . . At daybreak she was only a charred shell, floating still under a cloud of smoke . . . and suddenly she went down head first, in a great hiss of steam.


There was a man with ‘the enlarged and numerous senses of the poet’, as William Blake, living a century before, described the equipment of the artist.


And how the true artist works, dedicated to his vision. I remember Edward Garnett telling me, forty years ago on the summer sands of North Devon, that Conrad’s letters to him were ‘cries of pain’. Miss Allen quotes in her book a passage from a personal record, wherein Conrad writes of the creation of his masterpiece, Nostromo:


All I know is that, for twenty months, neglecting the common joys of life that fall to the common lot of the humblest on this earth, I had, like the prophet of old, ‘wrestled with the Lord’ for my creation . . . It is difficult to characterise otherwise the intimacy and the strain of a creative effort in which mind and will and conscience are engaged to the full, hour after hour, day after day, away from the world, and to the exclusion of all that makes life really lovable and gentle – something for which a material parallel can only be found in the everlasting sombre stress of the westward winter passage round Cape Horn . . . There were pages of manuscript on the table and under the table, a batch of typed copy on a chair, single leaves that fluttered away in distant corners; there are living pages there, pages scored and wounded, dead pages that would be burned at the end of the day – the litter of a cruel battlefield of a long, long, and desperate fray. Long! I suppose I went to bed sometimes and got up the same number of times, but I felt, somehow, as grimy as a Costaguana leper after a day’s fighting in the streets, rumpled all over and dishevelled down to my very heels.


And as with all authentic artists, Conrad has been dealt with by those who follow on after a battle, in order to tidy all things up. Among them Miss Jerry Allen, an American lady, is surely in the first flight of research-biographers – to give an example of her industry, to discover the origins of Lord Jim, who he was in real life, took six years: from 1954, when a letter in the Times Literary Supplement revealed an episode behind Lord Jim involved the British ship Jeddah carrying pilgrims on their journey to Mecca. That letter started a long research in Courts of Inquiry records, papers in the British Museum, the Public Records Office, counting houses on the quays of Aden; and it went on and on for six years, to end at the India Office library, where the relevant documents had lain undisturbed for nearly eighty years. Triumph! Lord Jim was based on Mr Williams!


Research was resumed in Singapore. Alas, many of the newspaper files, together with the library, had been destroyed during the Japanese invasion. Finally it was unearthed that a Mr Williams had been employed in a ship-chandlers’ firm for 28 years. Could he have been the ex-first officer of the Jeddah? Finding work after he’d lost his ticket? The hound had picked up the scent again – the hunt was on, into a land of tall piles of old newspapers, each with its Obituary page. Here the quarry was run to a standstill: Augustine Podmore Williams, who died in 1916, had once been chief officer in (not ‘on’, as Miss Allen writes) the Jeddah!


Then there are in this book other sources of Conrad’s books, including that of the most romantic novel The Arrow of Gold, which reveals its autobiographical nature. I was much moved as a young man by the climax of this novel: it influenced the end of my own novel The Dream of Fair Women. Yes, I think this book by Miss Allen, a professional job by an experienced broadcaster, foreign correspondent and editor, is one to keep, to read into again and again, to reveal oneself in the presence of deep sensibility and great-mindedness.






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