Stumberleap

 

 

STUMBERLEAP, and OTHER DEVON WRITINGS

 

Contributions to the Daily Express, 19151935

 

 

stumberleap    
First edition, HWS, 2005  

Introduction, by John Gregory

 

List of Contents

 

Extracts

 

Critical reception

 

Book cover

 

 

Henry Williamson Society, 2005, paperback, x,170pp, illus.; 200 copies

Edited by John Gregory

 

Limited edition, 2004, quarter-bound in grey morocco with purple cloth boards, 25 numbered copies

 

E-book edition, revised 2014

 

 

Introduction

 

 

In 1914 Henry Williamson was a callow, sensitive eighteen-year-old, who had joined the Sun Fire Insurance Office in the City of London straight from school. At the beginning of the year he had joined the London Rifle Brigade as a Territorial, as much for the £ 4 grant and the annual summer camp as from any patriotic motive. That May, as his annual holiday, he joined his Aunt Mary Leopoldina, who had rented a cottage in Georgeham, a village in the remote north of Devon. The young Henry was captivated by the village and the idyllic area around it, and when it was time to leave he visited ‘my near and familiar sands and headland and to all I said Goodbye, I shall return, speaking to tree, cliff, raven, stonechat, and the sky as though they were human like myself ’ (‘The Last Summer’, Sunday Times Magazine, 2 August 1964).

 

War against Germany was declared on 4 August 1914. Two months later Henry, mobilised as a private in the London Rifle Brigade, landed in France with the 1st Battalion. On Christmas Day the Battalion was in the frontline trenches at Ploegsteert Wood, and took part in the Christmas truce, when Germans and British fraternised in celebration. The next day Henry wrote an excited account of it to his mother, and his father sent the letter to the Daily Express; he was not the only proud parent to do so. On Monday, 4 January 1915, the Express ran the story of the Christmas truce, and included an edited extract from the letter. The complete article is reprinted here for the very first time; it is significant, in that it marks the unwitting opening of what would be an association of over 55 years, for Henry’s last contribution to the Express appeared on 27 March 1971.

 

Henry returned to Georgeham when on leave in August 1916, with his friend Terence Tetley; and again after the war, though not yet demobilised, in August 1919, when he was accompanied by Mabs Baker, whom he had met while stationed in Folkestone. It was probably for this holiday – a romantic tryst with a married lady – that Henry rented Skirr Cottage, for in The Sun in the Sands (set in the early 1920s, though not published until 1945) he writes of 1921: ‘Suddenly I remembered the cottage in Devon, which I had rented, on impulse, two years previously, for five pounds a year.’

 

Henry had determined to be a writer during the war, and during 1920 was working on his first novel, The Beautiful Years (published in 1921). He had also to earn a living, and for a few months worked as a journalist on the Weekly Dispatch. He was not cut out for the job, however, while he also found living at home with his parents and sisters stifling and claustrophobic. In early 1921 he began contributing a series of short articles, under the heading of ‘In the country’, to the Daily Express, and it was while he was writing these that matters came to a head in his home life, and he remembered, ‘Of course, the Devon cottage! It had never occurred to me that I had a home of my own. My own home!’ (The Sun in the Sands). And ‘In the country’ for 19 March 1921 reflects his move down to Skirr Cottage: ‘This west country by the sea is swept by great rushings of salt wind coming from the booming Atlantic; the fields are a rich brown, and no wheat has yet risen from the earth.’ Henry had found his spiritual home.

 

In Georgeham he continued to work on his novel; and to provide an income he wrote nature essays and sketches of village life for the Daily Express, and short stories that were placed by his agent Andrew Dakers with magazines and journals. This present book contains all these Express essays and sketches from the early 1920s, and through them we can trace his development as a writer: while early ones show the clear influence of Richard Jefferies, Henry begins to find his own voice and style, and to produce confident, superbly crafted vignettes such as ‘A Devonshire donkey’ and ‘Char-ley’. They would later find places in his published works, particularly The Lone Swallows (1921) and The Village Book (1930).

 

The Great War, and his experiences in it, never left Henry – although he had been unwounded he was certainly mentally scarred – and this collection contains some of his finest writing on the subject. The series ‘And this was Ypres’ resulted from a visit with his brother-in-law to the Salient in June 1927. These moving and poignant articles, which appeared in the Express between 20–23 July 1927, were timed to coincide with the opening of the new and impressive Menin Gate memorial on 24 July. Henry would use them in his first book about the war, The Wet Flanders Plain (1929); the book was prefaced by an ‘Apologia pro vita mea’, which was first published as an Express article entitled ‘I believe in the men who died’ (17 September 1928). This is a powerful piece of imaginative writing, which struck a chord with the newspaper’s readers – some of their responses are reproduced here. The second series of articles, ‘The last 100 days’, was, unusually, never used by Williamson subsequently. It takes the form of nine dispatches, appearing exactly 10 years to the day after the events described, and cover the momentous final Allied push in 1918, and the collapse of the German army, a remarkably skilful feat of arms which seems seldom remembered today.

 

Between 1930 and 1935 the Daily Express published three of Henry’s classic short stories: ‘Stumberleap’, from The Old Stag (1926), which it called ‘the finest animal story ever written’, ‘Whatever has happened?’ and ‘The heller’. The last two would remain uncollected in book form until Tales of Moorland and Estuary was published in 1953. ‘Whatever has happened?’ appears there as ‘Where the bright waters meet’, and is one of Henry’s most unusual stories.

 

I have included the original illustrations used by the Daily and Sunday Express, even when the same stock photograph of the author is repeated; and it is curious to note that the 1921 photograph of Henry with his incipient beard is used as late as 1927. (He was proud of this, and in The Sun in the Sands writes of ‘stroking my soft beard, the dark brown hairs of which were turning fair with the bleaching of the May sun’.) Curious too, that while two more recent photographs are used in 1928, in 1930 the newspaper reverts to twice using another photograph from 1921!

 

I have also taken the opportunity to include some photographs of Georgeham, which date from Edwardian days to 1968. These show that the the centre of the village has scarcely changed in a hundred years and more; Skirr Cottage today is still as Henry Williamson knew it, externally at least. Although he lived there for only a little over four years, Skirr – so-called by Henry because of the noise made by the barn owls which nested in its roof – will always be associated with him through his writings. On 6 May 1925 Henry married Loetitia Hibbert, and they moved from Skirr shortly thereafter to nearby Vale House. The growing Williamson family lived in Georgeham for a further four years, before moving to Shallowford, twenty or so miles away, in the autumn of 1929. By this time, however, Henry had bought a field, Windwhistle Cross, otherwise Ox’s Cross or Oxford Cross, at the top of the hill on the road out of the village, where he built his writing hut, and thoughout his long life he would return here. He died in August 1977, and was buried in the churchyard at Georgeham, close by Skirr Cottage.

 

My thanks must go to Anne Williamson, who has provided a number of photographs from the Henry Williamson Literary Archive; Tony Evans, for his loan of photographs of Georgeham from the R. L. Knight Collection, and information about the village; Dr Mike Maloney for his research at the British Newspaper Library; and Express Newspapers for their permission to reprint the articles and illustrations from the Daily and Sunday Express, and to reproduce a copy of the back page of the Express from the issue for 24 July 1927.

 

The present book completes the Society’s collections of Henry Williamson’s many contributions to the Daily Express. Previously published are Chronicles of a Norfolk Farmer (2004), covering the years 1937 to 1939, and Days of Wonder (1987), which covers the years 1966 to 1971.

 

 

A note to the revised e-book edition:

 

I originally researched these Express articles in the late 1960s. I had written to Henry asking him about these [with some other queries] and he replied by postcard dated 22 May 1969: ‘I think the D.E. (small) articles began in 1921. There were some few S. Express articles about 1922–3. 'Comic' ones in D.E. by “John Dandelion”.’ My researches failed to uncover any by ‘John Dandelion’, and they became an unsolved mystery. Then in March 2014 it was pointed out to me that the Express had now digitised its archive; that it was freely accessible online; and that a simple search under ‘John Dandelion’ had resulted in four hits – articles published between January and March 1928. My thanks must go to Phil Pearson, who gave me this information. The e-book edition of Stumberleap and other Devon writings has now therefore been revised to include the four ‘John Dandelion’ articles, and represents Henry’s complete contributions to the Express newspapers between 1915 and 1935.

 

John Gregory

August 2014

 

 

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Contents:

 

The unofficial truce        A night symphony
In the country 1   And this was Ypres 1
In the country 2   And this was Ypres 2
In the country 3   And this was Ypres 3
In the country 4   And this was Ypres 4
In the country 5   A Devonshire donkey
In the country 6          Char-ley
In the country 7   The simple life, by 'John Dandelion' (in e-book only)
In the country 8   More simple life, by 'John Dandelion' (in e-book only)
In the country 9   My neighbour’s baby, by 'John Dandelion' (in e-book only)
A terrified passenger   My uninvited visitors, by 'John Dandelion' (in e-book only)
Sport among the rubbish heaps   A seaside episode
Honeymoon flight of the nightjars   A bird-blasted wood
Kingdom of the thirsty   Fourteen years after
Bird mystics   The last 100 days 1
Death at 150 miles an hour   The last 100 days 2: With the 4th Army
Samaritans   The last 100 days 3: Tanks in action
Winged prophets   The last 100 days 4: 'So why fight on?'
Proserpine returns   The last 100 days 5: Breaking through . . .
Brock   The last 100 days 6: We break through the Line
Buzzards   The last 100 days 7: Towards the armistice
A house of no morals   The last 100 days 8: Sick of the war . . .
‘Scarecrow Cottage’   The last 100 days 9: There is talk of peace . . .
The woman of Scarecrow Cottage   Windwhistle Cross
The day’s round at Scarecrow Cottage   I believe in the men who died
Reynard run ‘stiff ’   Stumberleap
The tale of a cad   What I am teaching my children about God
Elegy   Home
Salmon fishers   Whatever has happened?
My owl-ghosts   The heller
The tame cuckoo    

 

 

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Extracts:

 

Kingdom of the thirsty

 

 

Throughout the long glaring days pitiful cries quiver in the heat; the sheep are dying of thirst. Even some of the hill-springs are now mere trickles.

 

This north coast of Devon is mocked by the vision of the bluest of seas, calm and shining under the summer sun. The fields stretching down to the sands are parched and brown, the grasses mere ghosts, dry and sapless. Even the sea breeze has little of refreshment in its motion; it is merely heated air.

 

Many of the sheep are dead. Jackdaws, gulls, carrion crows, and rooks are feasting on the bloated carcasses which remain; the shimmering hum of flies innumerable gives to our English midsummer a tropical semblance. Nor are there any swallows to decimate these pests. I have seen about four pairs this year – the first pair, which arrived on the last day of March, were taken by the peregrine falcons. Swifts and martins are not scarce, but they keep to the inland villages.

 

The prolonged drought seems to have brought to life several rare butterflies, but even the interest that one may find in these is small. Even the blue sky and the blue sea produce an intolerable weariness. Wherever I go there sound those pitiful cries of the sheep; there is the slippery grass, and the glare of the sun on the sward. The wheat is yellow in the flag, dried and rustling; the poppies are sickly, though usually the fiercer the sun the more sultry their bloom.

 

A brook runs through sandhills on the other side of Baggy Headland, and at one place the red cattle stand in cool water to their dewlaps, gazing tranquilly about them. Here is the great meeting place of the birds, and at any time of the day, from dawn to sunset, its pebbly shallow is thronged with finches, pipits, doves, warblers, and cuckoos. How the goldfinches love the water! With sweet reedy twitterings a flock will come from orchard haunts and bathe in the running water, the yellow-barred wings a-flutter and crimson faces dipped again and again. Copper finches (linnets) will follow, with perhaps those minute travellers the Golden Crowned Knight (as the country folk so beautifully term the golden-crested wren).

 

Other creatures know of this avian meeting place. The weasel comes, and a great sombre pair of ravens; and the sparrowhawk dashes sometimes in the midst, seizing one of the bathers. To me this is a place of pilgrimage, where all things come down to the life-giving waters. Even here, however, there is heard in the heated air those sad cries from the hills.

 

A little girl showed me some verses she had written on the drought yesterday. For a child of eleven they were remarkable. Here is the concluding verse:–

 

God of Pity, I beseech Thee,

   Send us rain in a healing shower,

For the fields I see around me

   Death and Ruin hold in power.

 

But from the west comes no cloud; only the fiery sun burns in a pitiless sky.

 

 

Friday, 1 July 1921

 

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Elegy

 

 

My cottage is old, very old, and the walls are two feet thick. I live my quiet life in their shelter. Once I had birds and animals to dwell with me, but they have gone out into the wide world. The otter is dead, the magpies are dead, my petrel hawks soar on the hourless wind of the downs.

 

Crow and seagull, owl and kitten, all are gone from me. The owl used to call in the churchyard elms at dusk; but they have cut the trees, and his hollow notes are heard no more. It is quiet in the old sixteenth-century cottage when the night is like a bird overshadowing its young. It was then that Nor used to come out of his hole.

 

Nor had long ears and bright black eyes; he was a field-mouse whose home was in one of the galleries that are tunnelled in the walls. From the corner he looked at me, waiting for a piece of bread, his nightly alms. He was never afraid. He took it in his paws, nibbling, his small, bright, jet eyes fixed on mine.

 

He was nimble, clean, and affectionate. He loved me to scratch the base of his ears with a match-stick. His hearing was delicate, his sense of smell acute, and under the browny coat a tiny heart beat out the rhythmic bubble of life – just like you and me.

 

I closed the cottage when I went away for several months. I forgot about Nor. But I remembered him on my return, because I found him in a jar on the larder shelf. The jar was of glass, and dusty grains of rice lay on the bottom. Nor had jumped in and eaten; but he could not climb out again. So he remained during the months in the glass jar. He did not eat very much. In fact, he left quite a lot. He had died of thirst. Had he tried for hours to leap out of his waterless prison?

 

His little corse was as light and flat as a brown beech leaf; he must have been dead a long time. The furry coat was shrunken over the ribs and the backbone; no longer were the eyes black and beady and bright. A spider had spun a web across the mouth of the jar, a shroud for the rested mite that had been my friend.

 

 

Sunday Express

22 April 1923

 

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Fourteen years after

 

 

No flowers grow here, here in the great German graveyard near Arras, except an occasional stray of the old battlefield – charlock, poppy, bindweed. A vast, bare, terrible sight! Black, black, black crosses, nearly a hundred thousand of them, rising still and gaunt out of the white chalk.

 

In an adjoining field the high, seed-laden grasses sway about a concrete machine-gun shelter, burst open, with its iron bars rusty and clawing heaven. Larks sing up in the sunshine. The black crosses sweep over the horizon, black as a wilderness of charred thistles.

 

Even the light of the open day is sinister here. I must go away. Down the straight road I hasten, passing the Maison Blanche, where for two francs you may see, down in the cold chalk caves hollowed under the road, the advanced headquarters of the Canadian Corps which stormed the Vimy Ridge yonder. The dark smudges of candle-flames, the initials and maple-leaf badges in indelible pencil, might have been made yesterday. All drowned far under Time!

 

So I came to La Targette, where the English and French cemeteries lie next to each other. How a spirit of loving-kindness hovers over the English cemetery! Flowers which I see in English gardens grow here – columbines, pansies, campanulas.

 

A book is to be found in the green box on the post, for the signatures and remarks of visitors. Many Scots, Canadians, and English folk have written their thoughts of the cemetery; the phrase ‘nice and beautiful’ recurs often. The simple stones, each carved with a badge and a name, are clean, and the lawns around them weeded and mown.

 

Beyond a hawthorn hedge is the French cemetery. White crosses, wide-spaced; this place also is tended, and flowers grow here. Gardeners are kneeling at work. Each cross bears the tricolour – blue, red, and white paint. The spirits of the slain may breathe here; rather, the spirit of the living finds a wider, easier place for its hopes down here. Up there, in the Labyrinthe . . .

 

I walk on, turning through Neuville St Vaast, and beyond, where the terrain is left as it was during the war, for a memorial. Many French died here in the early days; many more French than Germans; but all suffered to the very core of their beings, in that they were cold and sleepless and wanted to be home again.

 

I know. I was a soldier of the line.

 

The grass covers the old trenches and the small concrete shelters. Willows, those trees of the wilderness, wave on the ancient parapets, thrice the height of the howitzers their parent-withies may have helped to camouflage. Reeds spring out of the old shell-holes stagnating with a brown scum, whence arises the ghastly croak of many frogs.

 

I pass heaps of rusty iron shards piled by the cart-track, with barbed wire, pressed like bales of satanic hay, and come to a place where there is no grass, no young and happy trees, no old trenches, but only an uneven hollow in the stripped and naked earth. Men are working slowly in the enormous and rugged pit.

 

They have long hair, ragged clothes, and slanting eyes, with the listless, uncaring attitudes of prisoners. A man, apparently a foreman, is standing moodily on a hummock above them. I greet him in my feeble French. He spreads his hands, as though dumb.

 

I examine a ten-foot pile of rusty shells, the duds of a great and tragic offensive, and pick one up. The foreman gives a hoarse cry and violently waves an arm. I am among Russian labourers, of whose poorly paid existence in these places of desolation and old terror I have been told. I move away from the dangerous pile, which will be exploded when it is larger.

 

Further on, past La Folie Farm, or its buried ruins, I find, by the headland of a cornfield, a single cross of poplar, made of a living stick pushed into the ground. The sere cross piece is bound by a withy. Below is a leg-bone, a rib, a skull. A ploughman has done this act for some unknown German soldier left, perhaps, in the final retreat. Now the stick is a little tree, with many grey-green rustling leaves. The wilderness had blossomed here.

 

If only all had been as wide-minded as the ploughman in his field! Then the German people might have been given the ground where their dead lie as a perpetual gift, equal with that ground given for the English dead. It might have cost as much as one submarine: the heart of the people would have been moved.

 

I sit in the long grass, and wonder, could it have been done? A gesture that might have meant, for the moment, personal loss for its maker; a gesture that had its precedent nearly two thousand years ago. A letter to the German people, saying that the French land was broken and many of the people had suffered (as all suffer in wars) and were still suffering grievously; and that the German people must help to restore the dwelling places to make the land fair as before. Such a letter would have been within the experience of all to feel and to understand, and it might have given another direction to the history of Europe.

 

 

Wednesday, 8 August 1928

 

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Critical reception:

 

Henry Williamson Society Journal (David Macfarlane), September 2006:

 

The latest HWS publication compiled by John Gregory from Henry Williamson's journalism over a period of fourteen years encompasses the full and diverse range of subjects closest to the author's heart: the observation of nature and wildlife, war and its long shadow. As John Gregory explains in a measured introduction, 'The present book completes the Society's collections of Henry Williamson's many contributions to the Daily Express.' This includes its sister paper the Sunday Express, and the articles reprinted date from January 1915 to October 1935. Those who already own Chronicles of a Norfolk Farmer (2004) and Days of Wonder (1987) will need no further persuasion to add this beautifully produced volume to their collection.

 

The earliest pieces on the book date from Henry's return to the West Country after the war and his first experiences as a cub reporter in London in 1921. They are short but the mood is exuberant, expressing simple joy at his release from his former existence and return to his beloved Georgeham. The observation of nature is acute and there are echoes of his mentor, Richard Jefferies. It is not long however before the master storyteller in Henry prevails; an early example is 'A Terrified Passenger' on a railway journey, whose identity is revealed only in the last sentence.

 

A more expansive and subtle work in this genre is 'The Heller', placed as the last item in the book. The relative published dates in the newspaper of the two stories, March 1921 and October 1935, reflect the greater maturity of the author, and the denouement when it comes does so with more shattering force and emotional depth. A story I particularly liked, 'Elegy', demonstrates Henry's sensibility to small forms of animal life, recording the life and sad death of a field-mouse; from simple observation comes a touching story.

 

The most extended item in the book first appeared in Henry's collection, The Old Stag (1926) and was reprinted in the Daily Express over several days in March 1930, under the heading "The Finest Animal Story Ever Written". This is 'Stumberleap' and it is good to have this great story accessible now to new readers. At the October 2004 meeting of the Society members made an excursion to Heddon Mouth, a place of wild beauty that must have suggested to Henry the fate of Stumberleap, and probably pre-figured that of Tarka, too.

 

As with many of those who served in the Great War, survived, yet lived thereafter in the shadow of memories of terror and loss, Henry had the compulsion to re-live his experiences. These surface in a number of newspaper articles, some solicited, others arising out of a given moment of introspection. They are invariably written from the heart and with an intensity felt no less today than when they first appeared in print. The most searing of these articles entitled 'I Believe in the Men Who Died' appeared in the Daily Express of 17 September 1928, almost ten years after the cessation of hostilities. Henry's writing here is deeply felt and the essay a powerful indictment of war. It clearly struck a chord with readers then, since some letters to the paper in response are reprinted by John Gregory. Elsewhere, Henry writes of his return with his brother-in-law to the battlefields of the Salient in 1927, material that was incorporated into his books of reminiscences The Wet Flanders Plain (1929).

 

There will be found nowhere else among Henry's writings, however, a series of articles commissioned by the Express entitled 'The Last 100 Days'. These were to run concurrently with the events that had taken place ten years previously, from August to the final report filed on 4 November 1928, 'There is talk of peace . . .'. Henry writes here in the present tense in short, urgent sentences, as though reporting direct from the Front. We re-live the drama of those tense days, how the German armies after their initial massive gains are forced back by the British and their allies and finally overthrown. But there is no triumphalism here, only a sense of universal exhaustion. The last 'report' concludes:

 

'The war is over' says the Austrian soldier, slipping out of the heavy equipment he has been cursing for the last four years. He fought while his friends were fighting; but no-one can fight an avalanche.

 

This is evocative and descriptive writing about war that anticipates that of the Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight, still twenty years in the future.

 

There is much more from Henry Williamson's pen in this book that will absorb, entertain and instruct. Throughout the text is enlivened by contemporaneous photographs and illustrations and by a series of photographs of old Georgeham, loaned bby Tony Evans from the R. L. Knight Collection. This is a delightful and treasurable book. We are indebted to John Gregory for this addition to his long list of publications for the Society.

 

 

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Book cover:

 

The rather startling pink cover  was designed to be an echo of the original American edition of The Old Stag (Dutton, 1927), though it proved impossible to match the precise shades.  The front of the e-book edition is the same. The image of the stag was that used by the Daily Express to illustrate 'Stumberleap'.

 

 

stumberleap large

 

 

The image on the cover of the 1927 American edition was used to illustrate the limited edition sheet of Stumberleap:

 

 

stumberleap us

 

 

 

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