A Breath of Country Air

 

 

A BREATH OF COUNTRY AIR

 

 

country air 1     
First edition, HWS, 1990  
   
country air 2  
First edition, HWS, 1991  
   
country air ebook  
E-book edition, HWS, 2013  
   

Part One:

 

Foreword, by Richard Williamson

 

Introduction, by John Gregory

 

List of Contents

 

Extract

 

 

Henry Williamson Society, 1990, paperback, x,102 pp, illus.; 450 copies

Edited by John Gregory

 

Limited edition, 1990; quarter-bound in brown morocco with light brown cloth boards, 50 numbered copies

 

 

Part Two:

 

Foreword, by Robert Williamson

 

Introduction, by John Gregory

 

List of Contents

 

Extract

 

 

Henry Williamson Society, 1991, paperback, x,128 pp, illus.; 450 copies

Edited by John Gregory

 

Limited edition, 1991; bound in quarter brown morocco with light brown cloth boards, 50 numbered copies

 

 

One-volume e-book edition, 2013

 

 

Critical reception

 

Book covers

 

 

 

Between 1937 and 1945 Henry Williamson farmed 243 acres of difficult land in North Norfolk, bringing a near-derelict farm to an A grade classification during the years of the Second World War. Throughout those years he was also writing newspaper articles, to help finance the farm. The essays contained in A Breath of Country Air – originally published in two volumes in 1990-91 for cost reasons, and later issued as a single-volume e-book – bring together Williamson’s weekly pieces in the London Evening Standard, written during 1944 and 1945. They are broadly concerned with day-to-day happenings on the farm, featuring particularly his two young sons Rikky and Robbie, together with other reflections on country life. Further pieces poignantly describe the end of Williamson’s farming dream, with the sale of the farm and auction of implements and the family’s move 60 miles south to Botesdale, in Suffolk.

 

There is an interesting story within a story contained in three consecutive articles – ‘Strawberries – and hay’ (10 July 1944), ‘Trout under the willow’ (17 July 1944), and ‘Nettlebed became a garden of flowers’ (24 July 1944). In these HW mentions an RAF pilot visiting the farm:

 

. . . an R.A.F. pilot had come to show me his recently acquired sports car, and he gave them a lift to the field. He had done nearly 2000 hours flying in this war, and he said the work of pulling hay about with an unfamiliar fork was more tiring than all the “ops” put together, but that was service understatement. ['Stawberries – and hay']

 

 

******

 

The sunflowers have swung perceptibly to the sun, now in the Western Hemisphere, when the low sports-car – 1934 model, bought with two years’ savings from 1400 hours’ flying – turns the corner and the worn tyres crackle on the gravel of our “yard.” The driver, his eyes fixed beyond us, says diffidently he hopes he isn’t intruding.

 

It is a genuine feeling, too; as genuine as our welcome; and the answer is a plate of strawberries and some cream skimmed off the bowl of milk in the larder.

 

His sensitivity is that of true civilisation, which if not based on good manners cannot endure in little or at large. Sensitivity is the secret of life too; sunflowers sensitive to the sun, trout and nymphs to the balance of air and water, ploughman to the good temper of the earth. All natural form is a matter of sensitivity, which is true only in freedom.

 

“You’re not working, then? I shan’t be a bore?” And only an hour or two since, while we were watching a trout under a willow tree shade, idly on the grassy verge of the stream, a thousand burning spots of light were rising, aimed to blast away his life.

 

We admire the new car, which obviously is his pride. It is 10 years old, the tonneau cover is faded and torn, but patched neatly at the tears. He wipes away a speck of dust from the bonnet, and stands back to watch our inspection. Can he drive us anywhere? Us by now is Windles, John, Robert and Rikky. Windles has changed from his Home Guard uniform, John has cycled 30 miles from school for the week-end, Robbie and Rikky – well, they have come from their “haymaking” on the lawn.

 

Packed in the car, windscreen flat, with bathing towels (a bit ragged, but good enough) and suits, we go towards the sea. We stop inside a gate, carefully fix the worn tonneau cover for appearance sake, and walk across meadows to the sea-wall and the marshes beyond. The tide is coming in.

 

On a clay cliff, above the main channel (the marsh is a maze of channels and guts) we undress, and then the fun begins. Rikky sees a “dilly-crab” moving just under the six-foot broken cliff; supposing it nips his toe? Why didn’t we bring the drag-net, for the plaice and bass now moving in to feed on ragworm and shrimp?

 

The pilot has dived in, to fall flat, and stand up, in 15 inches of water. In we all go, the little boys capering and squeaking, their eyes shining and mouths wide with joy. ['Trout under the willow’]

 

In the last of the three articles we learn that the pilot has been killed:

 

The blue upper air is humming, too. Far above, silver-glinting specks, the daylight bombers move almost imperceptibly. But though I would keep my thoughts on the sunflowers, on these green-massed sun-worshippers turning their yellow locks to the light and heat of the sky, my thoughts are moved by that remote thunder of the upper air.

 

To-night we were going bathing, when he came over, he who helped me hoe these very flowers when they were but six inches high. He used to look at them each time he arrived, and now they are come to their full beauty of life; and the low black car will never again turn the corner, nor the worn tyres crunch on the gravel.

 

Only six more “ops” to do, he said, and then he would be grounded, unless he got the “chop” – uttered casually and with a smile.

 

A bee’s life is a full life. It flies about a hundred times from the hive before its wing-tips fray, and its life-work of getting honey for the preservation of its hive is over. With what eagerness does it scramble over the brown, rich head of the sunflower and take the pollen.

 

They can know no regrets; they die, as it were, as they live, in the spirit of comradeship, and their immortality lies in the truth that their race lives on. They grow not old, as we that are left grow old.

 

In fact that RAF pilot survived the war. Flight Lieutenant George Mackie DFC was born in Cupar, Fife, in 1920 and trained at the Dundee College of Art before the war. He joined the RAF in 1940, eventually becoming a pilot in Bomber Command. By 1944, at the time HW was writing his Evening Standard articles, he was flying a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress with 214 Squadron. These Fortresses were fitted with radio and radar equipment designed to jam enemy transmissions and so help protect the nightly British bomber streams with which they flew. After the war he became an artist and illustrator of high repute, but it was as a book designer that he became celebrated, becoming the designer for Edinburgh University Press, which had, during his time with them, a reputation second to none as a publisher of beautifully produced books, using the traditional letterpress type. 

 

I met him in the course of my work as a bookseller in the early 1980s, when he was visiting a friend in Cambridge who was one of my colleagues. Discovering my interest in HW, he told me how devastated he felt when HW killed him off in one of his articles in the Evening Standard, feeling that it was an omen of the worst kind, which fortunately did not come to pass. He asked to be remembered to Richard Williamson, whom he had last seen as a young boy: and that is how their friendship was renewed. George Mackie died on 3 October 2020, aged 100. Both Richard and George wrote about their friendship, HW and the Norfolk Farm in 'Brief Encounter: George Mackie and friends' (HWSJ 32, 1996).

 

 

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A Breath of Country Air concludes with a 15-part serial, ‘Quest’ (originally published in Women’s Illustrated magazine in 1946) which records the period immediately after the move. Richard and Robert Williamson – Rikky and Robbie – have written the Forewords; Richard remembers these stories ‘as a video of my beautiful years, faithfully recorded . . . I can with the greatest clarity smell the new ploughed fields, hear the owls, and see the little grey Ferguson on those far away fields of the Norfolk farm’; while for Robert, after the move to Botesdale, ‘being away at school, the holidays were greatly enjoyed, and Henry has captured the mood of these holidays, now that the strain of the farm had gone’.

 

HW's many newspaper articles written during his farming years are collected chronologically as Chronicles of a Norfolk Farmer (1937–39), Heart of England (193941), Green Fields and Pavements (1941–44), and A Breath of Country Air (1944–45). Together these form a contemporary chronicle of life on the Norfolk farm throughout the wartime years – valuable today both as a social document and historical record.

 

John Gregory

 

 

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PART ONE:

 

Foreword

 

Richard Williamson

 

 

It is extraordinary for me to read these old stories of Henry’s, written in 1944-5. They are as a video of my beautiful years, faithfully recorded. Such is the skill of his recording that I can with the greatest clarity smell the new ploughed fields, hear the owls, and see the little grey Ferguson on those far away fields of the Norfolk farm. Many events I had apparently forgotten until this re-reading forty-six years later.

 

The reader was shielded from the irritable and querulous side of what were in fact very dark years, though many may have guessed that life was not as happy as the stories sometimes suggested. However, I like to think that for Henry these little adventures were the happiest of his hours in that period, as they were for Robert and me. Because we were, as he says, naive enough not to be affected by his temperament, neither had we a serious work role on the farm as had mother and the other children, we were able to enjoy a unique symbiosis. Henry entered again the magical world of the child through us and he showed us much more than we could see by ourselves.

 

Nowadays I feel much closer to him again, knowing more about how he felt. It is sometimes with sadness enough to make me weep, to read these pages. I remember the sledging expedition ‘White Streamline’ but only now have any idea how he worried that he might let me down by being unable to attend.

 

It is good to meet again old characters like the priest who ‘shot down’ the Doodle-bug on the marshes. Father Bruno Scott-James ended his days in Naples courageously rescuing orphans off the streets and sheltering them in his hostel. The R.A.F. pilot was George Mackie, a hero to us all as he flew his Flying Fortress at a hundred feet over the farm. He is now a retired publishers’ consultant and his other career as an artist flourishes. Recently Windles and I met him at his home in Stamford where he showed us his flying log book that included visits by bomber to the farm (though with no mention of one engine stopped to please us children!). The ‘silver glinting specks’ are a portent of The Phasian Bird to come 5 years later. And there was Micky the Virgil reader, Henry’s nephew Michael Busby who became a priest in Australia. The Alvis Silver Eagle has reappeared latterly on a Radio 4 broadcast on its 60th birthday celebrations. Eric the cat, ‘litter by litter,’ lived until 1952 when she was run over in Suffolk. I have read again of those wretched yew planks, too, which loaded up for the return journey to Devon ten years after they had arrived in Norfolk, never quite made it into the dream house but were sold back to the original owners.

 

The house in Botesdale, Suffolk, was sold in 1950 when Henry finally returned to Georgeham to begin A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight. The farm is now on its fourth owner since 1945. Lord Buxton has retained its original buildings (which are in use as habitation) and also the old field boundaries. The old meadows which Henry ploughed up have either reverted to grassland or been planted with osiers. The woods and many original trees are still there, and the marshes of the coast are one of my favourite places of all to revisit. Only the faintest remnants of wartime remain, the occasional rusted shell from the bofors range, a fragment or two of barbed wire. But the wild geese have returned after forty years’ absence.

 

Henry’s farming adventure has been well chronicled already in several books. This is probably the closest, within its scope, to reality, for the essays were dashed off at the last minute for the newspaper with little time for reflection and none for correction or adding, the two little boys waiting with their running plimsolls laced for the sprint up Stiffkey street to the post van at half past four in the afternoon.

 

 

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Introduction

 

John Gregory

 

 

A Breath of Country Air is the complete collection of articles, essays and stories written by Henry Williamson for The Evening Standard during 1944 and 1945. It is being published in two parts, this first volume containing those contributions which appeared in 1944.

 

The series began while Henry Williamson was in his seventh year of farming 235 acres at Stiffkey, on the North Norfolk coast. His exhausting struggle to bring the derelict farmland back to good heart was told in The Story of a Norfolk Farm (Faber, 1941). A Breath of Country Air forms a coda to that story, as by the end of 1945 the farm had been sold, dreams unrealised. In these pages the farm is an ever present backcloth to vividly sketched vignettes of the countryside, local characters, and his growing children – especially Rikky and Robbie.

 

After nearly fifty years it is difficult to recall the wider context in which the series was set: only undertones of war are detectable. Yet outside the microcosm of the farm the war was reaching its climax, as readers of The Evening Standard would have been only too well aware from the nightly headlines. At the beginning of 1944 round-the-clock bombing of Germany, now reaping the whirlwind indeed, was front page news, with the U.S.A.A.F. attacking targets such as Schweinfurt and Regensberg by day, and the R.A.F. mounting huge raids by night. In Italy the slow, mud-clogged progress of the Eighth Army had been halted at Cassino, while the Americans were in serious trouble at the Anzio beachhead.

 

Reading these newspapers today, not yellowing and fragile, but brightly white on microfilm in a darkened reading room at the British Library’s Newspaper Library in Colindale, their stories from the battle fronts, of mass air battles, ships mined or torpedoed, and always the casualties, bring the war suddenly very close, and have a shocking immediacy. Reeling through, glancing over every page as it moves across the screen, I come upon Henry Williamson’s first article in the issue for Monday, 14 February – St Valentine’s Day. The next day I read of the destruction by bombing of the fourteenth century Benedictine monastery built on the crest of Monte Cassino.

 

The year progressed. The war in the air and news from Italy were pushed firmly from the front pages in June of course, by the Allied landings in Normandy, a momentous endeavour referred to only obliquely by Henry in his piece the following week. Thereafter The Standard’s headlines followed the advance of the Allied armies across Europe: the hard-fought battles around Caen; the liberation of Paris in August; September, the airborne landings at Eindhoven, Nijmegen and, disastrously, Arnhem; the drive for the Rhine, reached in November; and at the end of the year, the Germans’ desperate counterattack through the Ardennes, popularly dubbed ‘The Battle of the Bulge.’

 

And throughout, every Monday, like a still small voice of sanity, Henry’s weekly feature, ‘A Breath of Country Air’ – which came to me, as it must have done to thousands of Londoners at the time, as precisely that.

 

 

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Contents:

 

So the farmers are making fortunes! Nettlebed became a garden of sunflowers
The land is coming into heart again Raspberries – with cream
This bird makes the farmer happy The culvert 
Can dogs think? Salmon in the burn
The pollard ash Non-stop harvest 
They take 10,000 mice in a year A day of rest on the farm 
Battle of Hilly Piece The moonlight over the pool 
Red drogues over the marshes The rain came to the farm 
A few yards of unofficial potatoes He was a tisky bird 
Secret exit of the otter A lone robin sang of hope
Death to the moles! Just one day on the farm 
The snipe’s nest Tea for two in a tree 
The elms are dying It looked like crazy farming 
The nightingale I used to think rabbit-traps cruel 
Bird of mystery The book man shot his biggest bird 
The snake bird We saw the spirit of the wood 
The raven and the jackdaw Dead river in green valley 
My very own pines I had to run from a stoat 
A young bird in the hand My tide-door worked! 
Hooly the owl in a clash of loyalties The redpoll bull 
A droning in the night The magic of a poor farmer’s boy 
Strawberries – and hay Lord of the skies 
Trout under the willow  

 

 

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Extract:

 

The snipe's nest

 

 

My London friends tell me that I, as a farmer, am a fortunate fellow, seeing life in terms of cows grazing in lush meadows, of green corn springing from arable fields, of the wind on the heath and the sun shining over the hill.

 

That is the background, certainly; but it is often no more real to the farmer than the backcloth of a stage-play is real to the players. The countryside is there, but the farmer seldom sees it plain or clear.

 

His grazing cows are to him, by necessity, milk-yields involving the filling-in of forms for the Milk Marketing Board. His seed-corn requires more forms; so do his fertilisers; and the yield of his harvest. His tractors require further forms for petrol; so does his car. His men are men-hours, each with its separate income-tax calculation.

 

The barbed-wire that keeps his cows from the cornfields means an extra form to be filled in; so does the wood to repair his gates; and coal for threshing.

 

Several sets of certificates are required for the purchase of new implements. Nothing moves in or on the land without many written words.

 

And how he dreads all those details, which are as verbal weeds choking his very life! Even a general in battle has his staffs; and certainly he is not worried by also being his own quartermaster-general. The farmer is all these things, and his battle, continuing day and night for all of his life, is visible only to himself.

 

Such thoughts were with me when I went to see a cow, my best young Ayrshire heifer, which had been shot accidentally by soldiers firing across our meadows. A pair of snipe were nesting somewhere on that meadow, which had a rushy depression which we cannot drain, as the river-bed is higher than the meadow just there.

 

As a small boy it was my ambition to find a snipe’s nest; I searched for years every spring, but was not successful. My boyhood, and the search, closed down in 1914, and though I tried to carry it on in 1919 where I left off, I found that the world of enchantment, in which wild birds were part of a marvellous and thrilling life, was gone, it seemed forever, from my life.

 

The Ayrshire heifer, such a gentle creature, so docile and shapely, reared by us from a little calf costing only 7s. in the market, and giving over four gallons of rich milk a day after her first calf, was thrown, and then given an anaesthetic on the meadow, before the probing for the bullet began.

 

It was a bad wound: a ricochet had spun into and through the milk bag.

 

That evening we supped with a grenade on the long refectory table, as a warning to the boys of something that should on no account be touched, should it be found. It remained there after supper, for the youngest boy had not appeared for the meal.

 

Afterwards, more work, more forms for the farmer to fill in, for a casualty heifer to be transported to where it would become beef quickly.

 

I had thought to take the evening off; but no, work was piling up, and must be done.

 

So I sat me down in the little barn converted into a studio, with its unread books and unused fishing rods, its hoes and scythes and paintpots, its little bags of seed and small oaken “bottles,” or barrels, for cider which we would make “one day,” when the piles and piles of forms had disappeared.

 

While I was sitting there, a shadow fell across the open doorway. A small boy came silently into the room. I looked at him as he came slowly towards me: at his large brown eyes and sun-burned face, the scratches on his knees and hands, the tears in his old jacket – a hand-me-down jacket from three older brothers and a sister.

 

One of his hands was closed, but not tightly. His eyes glowed with his thoughts. A strange, solitary little boy – quite different from the other children.

 

He came right up to my table, waiting to see, before speaking, if I were busy. For this little boy is, in his way, an artist; he draws with pencil and crayons on paper, and his concentration while he draws, sometimes for two hours and more at a table, is such that none of us dare to interrupt him while he is at work. He knows, from knowing himself, that it is not good to interrupt others at work.

 

He is not very old; indeed, only last year he told me that his status at the village school was “First-class Infant.”

 

“Dad,” he said, very slowly, and by that I knew he was most excited. “Are you busy?” I shook my head.

 

At this he drew a deep breath. “I know,” I said, “You have been under fire in the woods? You have found a bullet? You have seen the poor heifer being taken away, perhaps?”

 

“Yes, I did find a bullet,” he replied, “and I did see the poor heifer being taken away in the lorry, but it’s ever so much more than that, Dad.”

 

I waited while looking at the keen little face of my youngest child: this strange little solitary creature who wandered off alone, for hours, filling his wide and luminous eyes with the mysterious wild life all about him.

 

“Look, Dad,” he said, “I have found a snipe’s nest!”

 

He held out a brown, mottled egg in his hand. Outside I heard a cuckoo calling, and the swallows twittering as they dived through the woodshed door to the rafters where they nested every year.

 

Were they the same birds, year after year, crossing the Libyan desert to return to the place where they were born? Or their children, perhaps? Other birds were singing too; chiffchaff and willow wren, skylark and blackbird.

 

The green valley was filled with birdsong. I heard them all suddenly – I saw the faithful English spring – as I looked into the face of the little boy.

 

May 1, 1944

 

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PART TWO:

 

Foreword

 

Robert Williamson

 

 

The two sets of articles contained in the second part of A Breath of Country Air were written at a time of great stress, both in the world, and in Henry’s life. The Second World War had ended in the summer of 1945, and Henry’s farming venture closed at Michaelmas of same year. It is hard to imagine a greater traumatic time for anyone, especially that of a sensitive artist, and yet as the last year on the farm unfolds there is only the very slightest hint of the tiredness and bitterness brought about by frustration that Henry undoubtedly felt. Instead we are treated to reflections and memories of the West Country, humour and an amused view of himself as shown in “Running in the rain” and “So we spared that tree.” There is the voice of the visionary in “Revolution on Britain’s farms,” a voice much more in keeping with the ideas and views of today than 1945, and there is the closeness and empathy he felt for his youngest son. With Rikky he could once again delight in the natural world, and through his wanderings on the farm, remake the discoveries that he himself had made as a small boy in the woods around his home in Kent. These two were much together in the last year on the farm, as the elder children were away at various schools, and it was the beginning of the break-up of the family.

 

But perhaps the most poignant of all the articles are those concerning the sale of the farm. My mother has said of that time that Henry was looking for a way out, and was glad when she told him that she could no longer go on. Here was the chance for him to go back to “What I wanted to do more than anything else in the world – write.” How fortunate for us that he was able to do that for the rest of his long life.

 

Through the “Quest” serial I have been able to re-enter the family history. My Uncle and his growing family stayed with us at Botesdale, and an RAF family helped to fill the rambling old house. Being away at school, the holidays were greatly enjoyed, and Henry has captured the mood of these holidays, now that the strain of the farm had gone.

 

Henry was writing full time, but also spent time in the West Country and London. The faithful Silver Eagle Alvis had been given away to a friend, and Henry bought a 1936 Aston Martin for these journeys. In a nearby village a similar car was being prepared for the Belgian 12 hour race, and Henry got to know the owner/ driver Jock Horsfall. Rikky and I once spent a terrifying afternoon being driven round a disused airfield in this car, as Jock tuned it up for the race. There were visits to nearby Snetterton racing circuit, where the Aston Martin Owners Club held race meetings. Henry enjoyed these and once got in by airily declaring to the official on the gate – “I’m driving” as he piloted the family Ford 8 through.

 

Henry’s Aston Martin gave him both great pleasure and trouble. He spent much money on keeping it going, and always blamed the previous owner of selling him a dud. In all fairness, the previous owner, whom I met years later, still maintains that Henry swindled him over the sale. Thus each has gone down in the other’s family folklore as the archetypal car villain – caveat emptor!

 

During the five years at Bank House, Henry wrote or re-wrote various books, including The Phasian Bird. Notes for chapters 23 were written during a performance of Bach’s Mass in B Minor, given in the chapel at Blundell’s School. Both Rikky and I were in the choir, and Henry filled his programme and those of his neighbours with his impressions. After the performance, he congratulated the music master Jimmy Hall, and told him of the inspiration he had found in the music. He showed him the notes he had made with the comment “The true artist is always working – I can never stop.”

 

We moved from Bank House in 1950, and Henry went back to the West Country to prepare for the great task of the Chronicle. The period of his ‘Quest’ was ended.

 

But for us, the enjoyment of those times is just beginning, and I invite you to enter the final year of Henry’s farming venture with gentleness, so as to savour to the full that which has been created for us by “the true artist.”

 

 

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Introduction

 

John Gregory

 

 

Part two of A Breath of Country Air concludes the series of articles which were published in The Evening Standard with those written in 1945. As before, they appeared on the Monday features page, and are one of the few items in which mention of the war is minimal. No doubt this was the brief given to Henry Williamson, so that city readers could escape to the bucolic charms of farm life (there were few indications in the delightful prose that the writer was waging his own grim battle).

 

Nightly the headlines, and much of the rest of The Evening Standard, were shouting in the boldest of type the advance of the Allied armies in the battle for the Rhineland, marked each day by the towns captured: Cleve on 13 February, followed by Goch, Udem, Xanten. Forgotten names now, but every one the scene of bitter street fighting. February 14, and the public were first made aware of the bombing of Dresden and consequent firestorm. By March the collapse of Germany was accelerating, while a month later the war in Europe was nearing its close. There was an increasing optimistic speculation in The Standard over a post-war Britain, and perhaps it was not just a coincidence that Henry’s piece of 23 April was given the title “Everything looks brighter now.”

 

His contributions were held over during the ensuing three weeks, for events imposed their own demands on strictly rationed newspaper space. On 30 April Berlin fell to the Russians, and Hitler killed himself; a further fortnight and Germany had unconditionally surrendered, and a Britain exhausted by war was celebrating VE Day.

 

Britain’s exhaustion was mirrored by Henry’s own, and at the end of May he seems to have returned to North Devon for a break of several weeks. A General Election was held on 5 July, the result a foregone conclusion; the Beaverbrook-owned Standard confidently predicting a Conservative majority of 100. It took three weeks to gather votes from Britain’s forces overseas, and Labour’s sensational landslide victory was not announced until 26 July. One suspects that Henry was too worn out and preoccupied with his own problems to care: in “What shall I do about harvest?” (24 July) he reaches a nadir, in which his tiredness, and perhaps a first recognition of defeat, are allowed rare expression. His despair would have deepened a few days later, for the ‘malevolent glint’ of the first atomic bomb devastated Hiroshima on 6 August.

 

In October Old Hall Farm was sold, its implements auctioned, and the Williamson family moved sixty miles south to Botesdale. That this was a fresh beginning for Henry is evident from the second part of this book, “Quest.” Fifteen linked pieces, they appeared in Woman's Illustrated and Eve’s Own between February and October 1946. The evocatively named magazine, which matured over the years into today’s Woman, announced the series to its readers as ‘Henry Williamson’s story of his “Quest” for happiness and security.’ Henry, typically, preferred ‘harmony and truth.’ He was given a full page, and each article was illustrated with sketches. The extra space meant that Henry could develop his themes more fully than he had been able to in The Standard.

 

Without the worry of the farm, his writing has a new serenity, and in these engaging pieces he tells most sensitively of the family’s reunification, and their first year at Bank House. They form a satisfying and enjoyable postscript to the now ended story of a Norfolk farm.

 

 

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Contents:

 

Reflections of an otter  A robin perched on my toe 
The glitter on the water has gone  This sparrow sings and fights 
Seascape  In a village that changed 
Owls in the thatch The robin that stayed up late 
White streamline  What shall I do about harvest? 
Footprints tell the tale  Knives and weeds 
Just grew!   Fishing with a bamboo pole 
Glimpse of spring  A miracle on the beach 
Patience and rhythm  An hour on the cliff
Spring is a little early  I have sold my Norfolk farm 
Pecking and prising  A butterfly over the sea 
Running in the rain  Buying a house in three minutes 
The spirit of wild places  Auction on the farm 
So we spare that tree  Moving from a Norfolk farm 
Wingbeats on the water  Not such a common cat 
A wall beside the sea  The lake of silver laughter  
Everything looks brighter now  Music of the plough 
Revolution on Britain’s farms   
The bird voice that is fading  QUEST 
So I left them alone       I–XV

 

 

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Extract:

 

White Streamline

 

 

Snow lies on the hills, and the trunks of trees have a narrow verticle stripe of frozen sleet facing the blizzard from the north-west. The woods are gaunt under a rime-ringed sun; the white fields are dotted with the wandering tracks of hares and rabbits.

 

Last week the stubble by the Hanger Wood was chequered by black heaps of dung, set out regularly in straight lines from hedge to hedge; well-rotted dung, pleasing to the farmer’s eyes. Now they are white like the rest of the field.

 

What a day that was, the day of the blizzard. Coming home in my car the engine seemed to be seizing. On a level road it was slowing up; I had to change into second gear, while the petrol indicator showed that the tank was nearly empty.

 

I stopped to look at the dipstick, fearing lack of oil. And opening the door I found that my mouth was almost blown open by the blast which was threshing the thorn-hedges and whipping the telegraph lines.

 

Hastily I got back into the car, while many icy jets of air explored my body, and all vision through the windscreen was excluded by sleet. Through a side window I saw the white, multi-snaking winds pouring over the earth. I watched a straw-stack moving across a field.

 

Through the glass I watched straw after straw leaving its place in the stack, pale yellow straws riding away in the wind. One followed another, swifter and swifter, until the entire stack seemed to be in disintegration. Ten acres of oat straw, possibly ten tons, value £ 40, when I passed that way two hours previously; and now, after ten minutes, a tall and distant hedge of straw gleamed golden in the light of the sudden low-shining sun. And across 300 yards of frozen furrows the yellow straw was spread.

 

I went slowly through a world modulated by a streamline and flowing white design. Every stone, every swede in a field of roots, every dead thistle and stick – all things which had lain on or out of the earth – was shaped as though for a journey into space. Everywhere the wind, as it weakened from hurricane to gale-force, as it subsided to the cold shocks of a half-gale and thence to a steady breeze, settling to a gentle flowing of air before yielding the earth to silence, had left the snow in white streamline behind all ground objects.

 

Broken and neglected things subduing the spirit before (all men dream of fairer aspects) – broken abandoned cart, rusty plough, fallen gate-post, dinted petrol cans abandoned by soldiers – were modulated by the white and flowing shadows of the snows. The flowing masses of the snow streamed from the fields and in places filled the road from hedge to hedge.

 

Dare I try to get through those drifts? As I walked forward to explore, I noticed in one place the curious corrugated effects of the snow, and was startled to hear coughing coming as it were out of the earth. An entire ewe flock was buried under the lee of the hedge.

 

I knew the danger to the ewes of suffocation in that massed heat. I decided to risk continuing along the road. It was easier than I had thought, and along the road I met the shepherd, with sacks tied round his legs, and, after telling him, I went on my journey.

 

What a sight when I got to the meadows of my farm, lying below the road and the river. The distant sea, piled up by the wind against the tidal sluice-doors, had stopped the flow of the river, which now was within a few inches of lipping over its banks. But the wind had stopped in time, and even as I peered the water began to move downstream.

 

I thought of thorn-logs blazing in the open hearth, of a deep leather armchair, slippered feet, and a mug of tea. The last of our sugar-beet had gone to the factory: no need to think about that. For the moment the farmer’s mind was clear.

 

But stay! Had I not promised to take young Rikky, the only child now left at home (the eldest boy, as farm steward, is no longer a child), sledging on the hills?

 

With a vision of the small boy waiting disconsolately with the sledge, I went on home, and putting away the car (about a cupful of petrol left in the tank) I went indoors. There were the thorn brands flaming on the hearth, my leather chair before them, my slippers beside the bellows, the kettle steaming on the iron crook, the teapot on the table.

 

The afternoon was already darkening: what about poor Rikky? Then looking across the valley to the white hills I saw in the dusk a small black shape descending fast, watched it hit the well-known bump and turn over, and two dark figures – one small and one big brother – picked themselves up and with laughing cries ran down the hill to the sledge at the bottom.

 

January 29, 1945

 

 

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Critical reception:

 

Henry Williamson Society Journal (Dr J. Wheatley Blench), September 1990 (review of Part One):

 

John Gregory is to be congratulated for assembling this most recent collection of fugitive articles by Williamson, this time from the Evening Standard, 14 February–18 December 1944. It will be followed in due course by Part Two, continuing the articles which appeared in the newspaper in 1945.

 

As John says in his Introduction, these pieces form a pendant to The Story of a Norfolk Farm. The material in a few of them was worked into Lucifer before Sunrise, but most will be new to the reader, and all have the extraordinary vividness and attractiveness which is the hallmark of Henry's writing. As Richard points out in his admirable Foreword, these articles were written at a dark period of Henry's life, but they are not sombre; on the contrary they have much joyous magic in them. This is partly because many of them recount delightful episodes which Henry shared with his youngest sons, Rikkie and Robbie. He did indeed, as Richard says, relive something of his own childhood with them. However he was also the wise and kindly father, delighting in the children's pleasures and showing them things they would have missed. The reader will be deeply moved by the portrayal of the relationship between Henry and Richard; respect and love on both sides, exactly the sort of relationship between father and son that Henry believed was necessary for the happiness not just of individuals, but of the nation as a whole. I am not surprised that reading these articles moved Richard towards tears; I found my own eyes moistening at the piercing beauty of the end of 'The Snipe's Nest' (p. 27), and I am sure that everyone reading it will feel the same.

 

Most of the articles deal with life on the Norfolk farm, but some have a Devon setting. It is the humanity of them which is their most striking feature, but as one would expect, the passages of natural description and the portrayal of the activities of birds and animals have Henry's characteristic clarity and insights. Apart from the family and the farm workers we meet the RAF pilot who is a welcome visitor (identified by Richard as George Mackie, happily flourishing as an artist) and the eccentric priest who fired his shot-gun at a Doodlebug. In 'The Magic of a Poor Farmer's Boy' Henry pays fine tribute to Richard Jefferies and his influence upon him, recalling the joy of his first reading of Walks in the Wheatfields, but seeing the continuing value and relevance of Jefferies's writings; a view which we can still share.

 

The book is beatifully printed and produced; to buy a copy is an absolute must for Williamson enthusiasts.

 

 

Henry Williamson Society Journal (Dr J. Wheatley Blench), March 1992 (review of Part Two; first published in the Durham University Journal, Vol. LXXIII, July 1991, reprinted here with some deletions):

 

. . . The first part of this collection completes the reprint of Williamson's articles which appeared in The Evening Standard in 1944 and 1945, with those published in 1945 (1 January – 4 December), whilst the second comprises fifteen linked pieces, with the general title of Quest, which first appeared in Woman's Illustrated and Eve's Own between February and October 1946.

 

The Evening Standard articles, as in the case of those reprinted in Part 1 of A Breath of Country Air, are short, beautifully crafted vignettes of life and nature on Williamson's Norfolk farm and to a lesser extent in Devon. The reader who knows Williamson's A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight will see that some pieces were woven into the fabric of Lucifer before Sunrise, the penultimate novel in the series. However as in Part 1, these articles are very well worth reading in and for themselves. Some of the most notable deal with the healing power which nature can have upon the tired and depressed human spirit. This is a Wordsworthian theme, and Williamson's pieces on this topic illustrate magnificently Wordsworth's profoundly true observation in Tintern Abbey:

 

. . . that Nature never did betray

The heart that loved her . . . (II. 122–30)

 

As a young man, recovering from the traumas of the First World War he delighted in the owls which lived above the ceiling in his Devon cottage:

 

The white owl symbolised for me the peace and beauty of the countryside, the spirit of the wild, of starlight, the sunsets of the Atlantic, the soft murmur of the stream arising in the quiet village night, and the eternal truths of nature. (p. 8)

 

With these benign companions, whose lives he felt that he shared, and who became his totem, he began his writing career having 'found freedom'. Many years later, during the Second World War, he tells how, to escape from the stresses of farm and family, he would go to the Home Hills to enjoy the fine views and receive solace (pp. 16–18). On a different occasion he is strengthened by the feeling of 'the heat of the sun being absorbed by the plants of the wheat' (p. 28), and observing lapwings arising from the fields he reflects:

 

We love the lapwing; in their voices are the very spirit of wild places, of freedom from the cares of civilisation. The lapwing's cries are the voices of the elements, of water, and air and the truth of the sunshine. (ibid.)

 

Then again, he cannot bring himself to cut down an old twisted blackthorn, useless to the farmer; it has become a friend, and its yearly putting forth of delicate white blossoms brings home to him that beyond the pain necessarily suffered by humanity if it is to learn wisdom lies 'the simple virtue of the elements of clear and simple living' (p. 31). Going to Devon for a much-needed holiday towards the end of the war, he is revivified by the grand scenery at Baggy Point, and confirmed in his grasp of the truth that

 

. . . however sophisticated or disillusioned a man may think himself to be, he is, and always will be, an elemental creature: made out of the elements, maintained and restored by the elements. (p. 64)

 

As always in Williamson's writing, there is in these articles not just fine observation, but also deep feeling and sometimes prophetic thought. He regrets the diminishing number of corncrakes owing to changes in their environment (pp. 41–2) and realizes clearly the dangers of 'factory farming' in a percipient article more likely to be appreciated now than when it was originally written. 'Revolution on Britain's Farms' (pp. 38–40). He feels sorrow at leaving his Norfolk farm, but recognizes that all is not lost; now he has an opportunity to return to his writing full-time, and therefore at the auction of his stock he will 'not feel too keenly' that he is a failure (p. 65). Although as Robert Williamson points out in his Foreword, these articles were written at a time of great stress both in his father's life, and in the world in general, the predominant tone is positive and hopeful, and the reader is likely to feel considerably strengthened by them.

 

The Quest pieces form a continuous whole and are longer in themselves than the Evening Standard articles. They tell the story of the break up of the family at the end of the Second World War when Williamson's wife Loetitia left the farm with the younger children feeling the she could no longer carry on; Williamson's purchase of Bank House Botesdale; his visit to Loetitia and the children in Yorkshire; the re-uniting of the family at Botesdale and the new happiness which all experience there. This narrative is conducted with great sensitiveness and delicacy, and the reader becomes deeply involved in it. Not only does he rejoice in the healing of the breach, but also he romps in spirit with Williamson and the children as they enjoy their games in their fascinating new home. Furthermore, he shares something of the elation of the creative writer newly established in his large, light writing room at the top of the house.

 

There is much more however in Quest than a well-told and engrossing narrative. The 'quest' of the title is not in fact one for 'happiness and security' as the editor of Woman's Illustrated puts it, rather it is, in Wiilliamson's own words one for 'harmony or truth' (p. 119). Williamson's description of his mental and spiritual development and the importance of nature to him is something from which we ourselves can derive much wisdom (pp. 93–5, 101). He writes well about good and bad relationships between parents and children; a major theme throughout his work (pp. 100, 117–19, 122–5). He is surely correct to stress the need for sympathy and understanding rather than the use of repression. Furthermore, he gives us an example of the right relationship which should obtain between a father and his children, but also more particularly in his rendering of his relationship with Rikky, his youngest son which whom he shared not only a deep affection, but also a genuine affinity of spirit (pp. 96–7, 119–22). Perhaps even more remarkable is the tribute which he pays to Windles, his eldest son, who he had hoped would succeed him on the farm, but with whom he quarrelled. After the collapse of the farming venture he saw where he went wrong in his treatment of Windles. He took him away from school far too young and worked him too hard and unremittingly on the farm throughout the war. However he recognizes:

 

. . . my boy was a good boy; he stuck to the job of ploughing seven days a week without pay – for the bank account was overdrawn and to keep down the overdraft we regarded the farm as a family unit . . . (p. 103)

 

In Quest we see Williamson attain 'clarity', one of his key words, meaning self-knowledge and insight into the lives of others. Also we rejoice in the hope which he feels for the future, and thus he teaches us by example how important it is in life to be resilient and never to give up. I am certain that Quest can be read and re-read many times, not only for pleasure but also for profit.

 

 

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Book covers:

 

country air1 large

 

 

country air2 large

 

 

The photograph on the cover of the e-book edition shows HW on the Norfolk farm in 1937, with  Home Meadows and the Entries wood in the background. Note his Zeiss monocular. In The Sun in the Sands he explains how he obtained this:

 

Today I walked alone round the headland, watching the gulls, and much happiness was there through my eyes. A raven sat on a scaur of rock and watched me, and I watched him though the zeiss glass that I took from a dugout somewhere near Bullecourt, nearly four years ago.

 

 

country air ebook large

 

 

 

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