Atlantic Tales

 

 

ATLANTIC TALES

 

Contributions to The Atlantic Monthly, 19271947

 

 

atlantic tales     
First edition, HWS, 2007  
   

Introduction, by Richard Williamson

 

List of Contents

 

Extract

 

Critical reception

 

Book cover

 

 

Henry Williamson Society, 2007, hardback, xi, 240pp, coloured frontispiece by Mick Loates and 21 illustrations by C. F. Tunnicliffe; 250 copies

Edited by John Gregory

 

Limited edition, 2004, quarter-bound in green morocco with straw-coloured cloth boards, 25 numbered copies

 

E-book edition, 2013

 

 

 

The essays and stories collected in Atlantic Tales were published in the prestigious American literary journal Atlantic Monthly over the twenty-year period between 1927 and 1947. They are presented now for the first time in this last collection of Williamson’s writings to be published by The Henry Williamson Society. While some small errors have been corrected, the Atlantic’s American spelling and punctuation has been retained; although unfamiliar to the eye of the modern British reader, they add considerably to the transatlantic flavour and period atmosphere of the pieces. 

 

While these articles have also been published elsewhere, in bringing them together in Atlantic Tales we have an anthology of the very best of Henry Williamson's writing, with examples of the nature sketches on which his early reputation was founded; short stories – from the light-hearted 'Swagdagger Crosses a Field' to the moving 'A Crown of Life', perhaps his best short story; tales of his children growing up in North Devon; and accounts of his later experiences reclaiming a derelict farm in North Norfolk during the late 1930s and farming in the early years of the Second World War. Central to the collection is the story of 'Salar the Salmon', published over three issues of Atlantic Monthly in a condensed version of the bestselling novel, which successfully preserves the pulse and vitality of the original story. This was something of a coup for the Atlantic, for the first part predated by a month the publication of the book in Britain. The book was an immediate bestseller; and indeed the condensed version – skilfully done, and subsequently used twice by the Reader’s Digest – created much interest in its own right in the United States prior to the book’s publication there in June 1936.

  

There is an Introduction by his son Richard Williamson, while Anne Williamson provides an informative overview of Henry Williamson's association with the Atlantic Monthly in her afterword, 'Both Sides of the Water'.

 

Mick Loates painted the striking illustration of a leaping salmon especially for Atlantic Tales; it features on the dust wrapper and acts as the frontispiece.

 

 

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Introduction

 

Richard Williamson

 

 

These are stories good enough to be read many times, as one might listen to a Chopin nocturne or a Schubert song. They can become as dear to the listener. In your several moods from time to time they fill the same need for the familiar: the peace of understanding, the admiration for ability, the star point of brilliance which is found nowhere else. These are among the best of my father’s words. I grew up with them, for they tell of the lost time of my boyhood. But they tell a much wider story than the landscape I with my own eyes saw. Several more layers have been peeled back in the telling. This exposed world is new country that my childish eyes never saw. I am as startled now as I was when I first read them years ago, at the depth to which the author saw and the experiences he had to have to see so much. Some (perhaps most) have appeared elsewhere but, like Beethoven, Father was very canny at changing details to maintain his sales and there are several little nuances of difference in the versions here that give them a freshness worth exploring. Besides in their very collectiveness they take on a new meaning: these are The Atlantic Monthly tales – the tales the editors on the other side of the water chose for their readership. That alone gives them a special cachet – a piquancy of flavour.

 

I would like to share with you my thoughts about my own favourites: starting with ‘The Crow Starver’. Note first the clever device of placing innocence with anger in the first sentence. This intrigues us, for it is unexpected. He has our attention. He persuades us to continue, by entering the boy’s personality. Father absorbed half the raw material for his writing life as a boy. It remained fresh and was often re-used in the later novels. Then there is the persuasive cadence of the rhythm. The short sentences fall continually in almost equal lengths like pentameters in steep curves from left to right. It becomes mesmeric, like watching continual white plumes of a waterfall dropping. I could go on – but will give just one last example of the unexpected among the dozens here. ‘He made tea in an old marmalade pot.’ Subconsciously, one is expecting an old teapot – but that would be a forbidden cliché.

 

‘Strange Birds’ shows the proximity of Jefferies and it is quite pleasant to enjoy briefly the ambience of ancient sunlight. But ‘Night Music of Birds’ is the new voice that brought Tarka. This is almost interchangeable with those unearthly moments of rapture. Here again is the spirit of poetry with again almost its classical rhythms in the prose. It also shows the unhappy user of words longing to have the power of music which seems far more beguiling.

 

‘Linhay on the Downs’ is an adventure much loved by the readership. It is a fable, an allegory, a haunting memory of times past. Partly it is the writer’s look back in anguish to the mainspring of his energy – the battlefields: the suffering is borne by a rabbit but more especially a wounded fox. Here again is the familiar alter ego of the damaged psyche and the attempts to mend the wounds. We see this continually throughout the writer’s career. Death is often allowed in the stories – Tarka, Willie Maddison, Manfred, Chee-kai. Here we must remember that this is a fable, can be contrived, has all the artefacts of the romantic drama, and with as upstaged a plot as might be found in the genre, be it Schubert lieder or a Sherlock Holmes’ adventure. Accept this and you may enter an underworld brilliantly utilised by Goethe, Pope, Milton, and all religions. Perhaps this story of the fox is not entirely true. But perhaps it is. Little matter. Story-telling, whether from Ancient Egyptians, Shamans, Gospels or Sagas, is heavily embroidered. The human mind demands such medicine for its arousal, understanding, and quiescence. The story is certainly clearly a catharsis for the author.

 

Another theme that returns again and again in his career is the storm. As always, it is lovingly described. It appears finally in The Gale of the World, where another animal shares much the same majestic scenery, even as the Fool shares King Lear’s misery on the heath near Dover.

 

‘Muggy’ is akin to those stories sold to Fleet Street in the Twenties and onwards for the next forty years up to those in the Daily Express in the Sixties. It is pure reportage, with facts, for the reader’s curiosity. But what lifts it above all the later tales are the additions of dialogue and personal detail. These are casual and apparently effortless, but they are as telling as the daubed chairs in the Van Gogh paintings. Both would be too parochial and naïve if placed as if lifted from a tape recorder or a camera. The dialogue is stitched into those facts with the same skill to highlight as the brush is used to show shadows and moods and isolation that give the simple scenes inside the house at Arles that tragic drama.

 

This leads us to another display of story-telling at its best in ‘The Heller’. I love this story. Here again is the perfect understanding and word painting of the marsh; the tide moving, the thorn hedge, the frightened dog, all building onwards to an unknown drama. A useful device to capture attention is description of inconsequential detail we all record during dramas. The marshman’s book The History of the Jews is as unexpected a juxtaposition as it is possible to imagine, yet willy-nilly it somehow focuses us on him and fascinates with ambiguity. To remove the book would be to remove the brief jokes in a Beethoven piano sonata that scared the pants off contemporary critics. In this story the mind seizes on these trite details giving what psychiatrists call obsessional defence mechanism – which is to cling wildly to escape, or normality. It is that story-telling technique of minutiae that pulls us through Tarka (Tarka playing with an empty cocoa tin), or Richard Maddison in his youthful tennis togs feeling the distant tremors of the artillery barrage through the calm summer air of England.

 

‘Swagdagger’ is another apparently simple story. The idea seems to have come from an adventure Henry’s father-in-law Charles Hibbert recounted which happened to him. A family of stoats, travelling as they will in single file in rippling line astern, were so intent on getting safely across a field they climbed up the stationary figure, aware more of danger from the sky than of my tweed-clad grandfather.

 

‘Christmas’ is my father at his best as a man, as he always hoped to be and sometimes was. It was no real matter that sometimes he was not. He knew the faults in himself and a story is usually so much better than real life anyway. If it was not we would have no need for them. They give escape for both listener and teller. In this thumbnail sketch are all the ingredients for the social plum pudding: Yule log and reindeer, enough human contact in the bright eyes and fantasies of the children to stitch the thing together – almost as good as ‘The Crow Starver’.

 

‘Moonlight’ is an adventure we all know well: the moon haunts with a promise of escape. Is it dream, or reality? It is not an unhappy story of ‘unhappy me – see how I suffer and nobody cares’. It is everyone’s story, told with clever simile and reassurance that in fact all will be well if you learn not to fight yourself as well as all the rest of the world. The more we read into these stories we see how the writer is learning to cope with horrid reality, and the advice is free to us. Thoreau said: ‘The majority of people live lives of quiet desperation.’ As with horror movies, it is good to see that our lives are not alone. The Pathway was for a large and untethered generation almost a blueprint for survival. Father’s stories give the same camaraderie. In the Thirties there were few totems for lost generations in England and America as there are today with the present mass industry of pop and blog. Sins, guilt and despair are common to all and these Atlantic Monthly stories speak as well for modern culture as for the time they were written.

 

Similarly – the confession in ‘A Night on Salisbury Plain’ give a reassurance to our own incompetence. ‘Foolishly I had relied on my petrol gauge, knowing it to be faulty.’ Father recounted the story of Achilles to me when I was eight. Many readers have told me that his admission of weakness is one of the big attractions in his writing for them. The weakness leads cleverly on into the jaws of the story’s equation: sacrifice. Stonehenge was the ancient altar of sacrifice, a very convenient backdrop. Father was certainly well aware that Thomas Hardy had used the same scenery for his sacrifice of Tess. It all gives as cold a shudder as the thrill upon mention of the Great Grimpen Mire. The story is enlarged to the Great War; diminished to a mouse: a microcosm of the macrocosm. It has much of the sustained drama as learned from reading Conrad, especially his story Youth.

 

‘The Dear One’ is another adroit parable with all the ingredients for communication: small children, harassed parent, the complexities of reason and religion all released by a morsel of mischance.

 

‘A Crown of Life’ may make you weep – I did. Not just because of the true sadness and utter hopelessness of Clibbit’s weaknesses or because of the one true friend – Ship the dog – but also because the power of the writing that carries you into these dark corners. Father used to tell us the ancient story of a king’s faithful hound which guarded his children and killed a wolf which attacked them, only to be slain by the king who, on returning, wrongly translated blood and chaos as the doings of his faithful hound. Drama in Father’s story is unprovoked. It occurs quite naturally. The apparent simplicity is worthy of anything by Turgenev.

 

Henry explains how he feels about the act of writing in the essay on ‘Richard Jefferies’, much of which is a description of himself. It is a useful document. Jefferies, like many other writers, artists, and composers of the time, had tragic circumstances. It is interesting for me, having grown up with so many of the later Atlantic stories, either second hand from my brothers, or first hand in my own childhood of the last four stories, to see how Father tried really quite valiantly to overcome his own loneliness and neurosis by presenting to the world a happier and more balanced side of affairs.

 

It was quite often this rising of spirit that gives a heroic legacy of output that succeeding generations can admire. ‘The Snipe’s Nest’, for instance, describes a most terrible time on the Norfolk farm, which made all of us feel very unhappy. The Ayrshire cow (hardly a heifer as he describes since it had had a calf) was one of the most pitiful sights for me of that farm. It stood in the glow of a fine evening sun, its udder pristine and pink, except for that dull red hole. It was said to have been shot deliberately and we could feel gaunt horror at the presence of such a person who could do that. Father was distraught. But the story rises over the ashes and I remember the terrific relief on being shown the shiny magazine from America that had arrived that morning with my picture that Father proudly showed me. It was a lighted candle in a darkened room.

 

So shone these articles, these good deeds in a naughty world. They were always brave yet competent gestures against complacency, anger, stupidity and greed in the world around us. They were lifelines for our family too. They are beautiful examples of story-telling and we should treasure their existence, back from the brink of being lost for ever: grateful thanks to the Henry Williamson Society and in particular John Gregory.

 

 

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Contents:

 

English Idylls

The Linhay on the Downs

‘Muggy,’ the Rabbit Agent

The Heller

Swagdagger Crosses a Field

Christmas

Moonlight

A Night on Salisbury Plain

‘The Dear One’

Salar the Salmon

A Crown of Life

The Renewal of Self

My Best Hour of Fishing

East Wind

Richard Jefferies

Ravens in Devon

The Children of Shallowford

Tales of My Children

From a Norfolk Farm

The Snipe’s Nest

Clodhopper

Plowing the Home Hills

Hooly

 

Both Sides of the Water, Anne Williamson

 

 

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Extract:

 

Tales of my Children

 

 

I

 

As the children grew bigger, the valley became a happy place, although always part of it was in shadow. Ceaselessly the sun rolled over from hill to hill; his work was everlasting. From the gazeless orb of brilliance energy poured down: magnificent to the earth, but a mere dwarf-yellow star of diminishing magnitude in stellar space. It was burning out.

 

Likewise the human mind, concentrated on one line of thought, was diminishing in energy and light.

 

Always the river was flowing, by which we walked and watched, and played. Never shall I forget that bright clear water, into which I gazed from Humpy Bridge, pool side, and down from the branches of riverside trees.

 

One warm spring morning Windles and John watched the trout being turned into the river. How the fish leapt with joy at being free from the confining ice tanks! They were Scottish trout, from Loch Leven. They were greenish-blue, with black and yellow spots; whereas the native trout in the river were a golden-brown with black and red spots.

 

The first thing I noticed, as I stared through field glasses at the fish below, was that when the Loch Leven trout had been living a few weeks in the pool above Humpy Bridge their yellow spots turned red, and their bluish-green sides became tinged with golden brown as though they were turning into wild Devon trout. Windles and I used to stand on the bridge and look at them as they lay in the clear water below. The summer sun shining down through the water lit every stone and speck of gravel, every wave of fin and curl of tail, every spot, every crimson opening of a gill cover as the fish breathed. Each fish had its regular place; it lay on the gravel, always head to stream, watching the water before and beside it for food floating down. The biggest fish had the best place; the next biggest had the next best place.

 

The natural food of the trout were the flies which hatched out of the water – not buzzing flies of the kind which bite or sting or are a nuisance in the house, but beautiful, gauzy-winged creatures which lived only a brief while, laid their eggs on the water at evening, and then fell spent, to float away, their brief aerial life over. In time the eggs they dropped out of their long slender triforked tails, or whisks, hatched, and became tiny creatures crawling on the gravel, some building themselves homes of sand-speck and bits of leaf and twig, others hiding in the water mosses and feeding on the little vegetables which grow on the gravel. These vegetables were very small, and looked to our eyes, as we knelt by the riverbank, like a thin brown slime on the stones, but to the creatures they were what a pasture is to grazing cattle. After living about a year underwater, the creatures turn into nymphs, which swim up to the surface, break out of their cases, and arise, very tremulously, as winged flies of the stream. They are frail, delicate, fairy-like things, and live but a few hours. Often in summer we watched them dancing over the water as the sun was setting – they rose and fell as they dropped their eggs, dipping in the water and flying up again – until a ripple broke, and became a ring, and a trout had risen to take one.

 

I used to feel sad when I thought of these lovely, dreamlike creatures dying in the sunset of their one day of life, but after watching the river for a long time, and seeing how all life renewed itself, how the salmon returned from the sea and laid their eggs in the gravel, and died, and the little salmon hatched and fed on the nymphs, and went down to the sea, and returned again to the river of their ancestors, – spring, summer, autumn, winter, season after season like a wheel turning slowly round, the great stars of heaven wheeling in eternity, – it seemed to me, when I had watched this wheel of life turning, always the same complete turn every year, that all life and death made up the beauty of the river, which had flowed through the valley thousands of centuries before the children and I walked under the hills, holding hands and laughing and peering at the strange life of the river, the beautiful, limpid, shadow-dreaming Bray, the stream which would be flowing a thousand centuries after we were all forgotten.

 

Summer after summer we stood on Humpy Bridge and threw spoonfuls of food into the pool, and watched the trout coming down like torpedoes, each with its little bow-wave, and saw them slashing round with open mouths to take the food with heads upstream. Always they feed upstream, for the water has to be poured through the gills for a fish to breathe. Therefore a trout faces upstream, not only to watch for its natural food coming down, but for the flow of water to pass through its gills. How they leapt and splashed, under the showers of food! Big trout and little trout, samlet and even eels, all came to the daily banquet. The curious thing was that while this food – which was like broken-up dog-biscuit meal – made the wild brown trout look like the greenish Loch Leven fish, the natural fly-food in the river made the Loch Levens resemble the native brownies! How did that happen? Obviously the color of the spots came from the kind of food the trout ate. Indeed, some of the Loch Levens, which went on upstream and lived entirely wild, looked after a few months exactly like the golden-brown, scarlet-spotted natives! Only by their shape could we tell the difference.

 

Windles was five when our first tame trout were put into the pool. He used to lead Baby John by the hand across the Deer Park, following me, and Baby John used to stand by the stone coping and always, his eyes wide and solemn, point towards the Railway Viaduct a mile up the valley and lisp, ‘Sheed-er-shish? Dad-dad go sheed-er-shish?’ He was too small to look over into the river, and one day as we stood there he became very excited, and said, ‘Look, sheed-er-shish!’ and lo, his idea of feeding the fish was a goods train passing on the viaduct of the Great Western Railway.

 

The next year John was just big enough to look over the bridge when standing on a special stone placed there for him. The fish remained in the pool during the winter floods, when the water ran too heavy and fast for us to feed them. They became thin, but some fattened again when spring brought nymphs and flies and the showers of food from the familiar figures on the bridge. Sometimes a salmon lived with them awhile, aloof and solitary, never feeding, waiting for the autumn and the spawning season, when its eggs would be laid. I used to see Windles and John creeping over Humpy Bridge, heads down, slowly to peer over into the water below. A fourth pair of eyes was trying to look over when another spring came round – Baby Margaret, led there by John while Windles was at school. John used to grasp Baby Margaret round the middle, and struggle and strain to heave her up on to the stone so that she could see Daddy’s Tame Shishes. These trout were now three, four, and even five times as big as they were when we put them in the river. Always we missed one or two when a new spring came and we returned to feed them. New, smaller trout took their place – their children perhaps.

 

A heron speared the biggest fish one year, and we found it dying in the shallows. Perhaps otters took others. The little fingerlings of one year became the big ones two or three years later. Time flowed away as the water; it was always Now, always the same river, always the trout were there, waiting below for the showers of food during the summer.

 

Margaret was leading Baby Robert to the bridge to see the fish. Sometimes Rosemary came too; and then there were five small heads peering over as the spoonfuls were cast on the waters.

 

Afterwards the children would undress in the sunlight, and with shrill cries of joy and excitement would splash about at the edge of the stream, while I lay still in the shallow water, on the golden gravel of the ford, watching the clear cold water foaming over my body, watching it whirling the sand-specks and scooping the stones in little waterfalls and eddies along my length, feeling myself and the children part of the great stream of life, and deeply content for the gift of being alive in the world.

 

 

II

 

But, alas, house life was not so easy as when the sun shone down on us. I was supposed to be growing up; I was now Father, with a capital F. ‘Be quiet, babies! Silence, I say! Our Father’s thinking!’ hissed Windles, frowning terrifically upon them. The cottage, which had seemed so spacious when first we went there, was now too small. The sitting room and the day nursery led one into another through a door with upper panels of glass. Once when I was sitting by the hearth, wondering what to do with myself, I saw five faces peering at me through the glass, two small faces at one end, or rather eyes and foreheads above fingertips pressing there. They vanished! Father must not be disturbed.

 

But in the open air this strange uneasy difference sometimes fell away, and I was one of them, Arkernoo, a person who provided all kinds of unexpected excitement. Arkernoo was a name originally invented by Rosie, and copied by the other children. Perhaps Windles, and his friend called Sleeboy, son of Farmer Slee, Dolly Ridd, John, and Margy, Harriet Bowden, Rosie, Robbie, and others, would be playing in the Deer Park, and the car would appear with the trailer hitched on behind, to get wood from one of the dumps in the park. ‘Come on, get in, everyone!’ ‘Hurray, Arkernoo’s come! Now for some sporty behavior!’ cried Windles. ‘Coo, I bet we whizz!’ said John, pink-cheeked with quiet excitement. ‘Yes, us’ll whizz now, won’t us, Rosie?’ echoed Robert. ‘Yes, us’ll whizz now, won’t us, Robbie?’

 

Across the grass the trailer swayed with its laughing, shouting cargo, and coming to a smooth place, where no ant-hills were, would accelerate, and go round and round faster and faster until all were shrieking with laughter. Or the engine would be stopped and the children chased; or a football match organized, and the wood forgotten. Father, thank God, was forgotten; I was one of them; I had got back, for a while, to the land of enchantment, of unselfconsciousness, to the world of otters, deer, salmon, water, and moonshine – the only world in which perhaps there was consistency, form, integrity. Back again in the house, with letters, bills, typescripts, contracts, the ever-pressing need to turn feelings into words, this world too often faded, and the children were problems of noise, dirt, and even irritation — but never of resentment.

 

As they grew older, I saw how different the children were. John was the easiest-going. He was seldom put out, always adaptable. At seven years he was long-haired, soft-voiced, wide-eyed, ever ready to help anyone do anything. Solemnly he made cakes in the kitchen – real cakes, not mud pies or mere hardened lumps of dough – or laid the dinner table, helping with the washing up, writing his book of twenty-six chapters (About my Life, by Mr. J. Williamson), and tending his garden (about one square yard). He helped make the beds, he took Rosie and Robbie for walks, he knitted a pair of socks for Sleeboy’s baby brother, he held the net for me while I threw a fly upstream under the alders. Wouldn’t he rather go away and play with the other boys? It must be dull for him waiting about while a water-absorbed fisherman, with catlike intentness, moved so slowly upstream, casting a red gamecock-hackle fly foot by foot higher in the runs and eddies. Oh no, said John, he liked carrying the net; he liked looking in the grass and seeing ants and spiders and ‘other fings.’ He was quietly happy, enjoying whatsoever he was doing.

 

Windles was restless, impetuous, imaginative. He came home from school one day in the twilight carrying something carefully in his hands. ‘Look!’ he cried, with a kind of possessive triumph in his voice. He held out a shoddy bundle of feathers from which depended white legs with clenched claws and lolling head. It was a barn or white owl, dead. Its eyes were glazed and shrunken.

 

‘Did anyone shoot it?’

 

‘I don’t know. I found it just like that, in the Deer Park, lying on the grass,’ he replied, a little anxiously.

 

‘He wants to know if he can have it stuffed,’ said Lœtitia, gently, in my ear.

 

Taking it in the hand for examination, one noticed first of all its extreme lightness. Although the barn owl in flight looks twice, and, in some lights, thrice the size of a pigeon, its body is no larger than a pigeon’s. The pigeon is a fast-flying bird, with tight feathers; the white owl fans slowly over the mice runs in the grass and around the ricks and faggot piles. The pigeon’s flight quills are hard and narrow; the owl’s broad and soft, fringed with filaments of down which wave in the least breath of air.

 

They are the silencers of flight; an owl beating down the hedge at sunset is not heard even by mice. It has a mothlike softness, hovering and fanning with large dark eyes in a heart-shaped face peering down; the wings close and the softness becomes a powerful grip of talons. Mice are swallowed whole, after being killed with claw and beak. Later, bones and fur in a casting, or pellet, are ejected from the owl’s crop.

 

Now how had this owl died? It had not been shot; its wings were not broken; its breast was white, although draggled. But how light it was, held in the hand – a few ounces only, a feathered skeleton.

 

‘Look, Windles, at its legs. They’re broken.’

 

The legs were about two and a half inches long, covered with short hairs of incipient feathers like silver wire. One leg appeared to be broken in the thigh. It was withered. The foot of the other leg was maimed; one of the toes was missing. The wound was half healed. The bird had died of starvation, after struggling in and escaping from a rabbit gin.

 

Standing with my little boy in the lane, the owl between us, I gave him an imaginary picture of its life since it had escaped from the gin. At first, wild fright and freedom: crooked and tottery, perching on an oak branch; falling off; a rest spread-winged in the grass below. Pain, bewilderment, glancing about in the grass for an unknown enemy. An owl’s eyes were fixed; it could turn its head a whole circle on its neck. Hunger, and, after a painful take-off, to the air again. A mouse moving below; descent and grip upon the shadow; the mouse escaping. The owl falling over, and flapping upright on useless feet, bewildered.

 

A very hungry owl, it would seek its barn or hollow tree, there to stare in pain throughout daylight, its great ears, hid under feathers, hearing the movements of wood lice, shrews, even worms in the leaf mould below. At sunset it would climb out laboriously and fly along its regular evening ways.

 

It would catch no mice. Always it would fall over as it tried to grip them, and flap upright again, and stare about it. There were no beetles or moths in the grass of winter for it to catch. It would begin to feel cold, in spite of its feathers.

 

At night the flashes of the Dog Star above our valley seem to liquefy in the north wind pouring from the high ground of Exmoor. Perhaps that thin skirling cry we heard coming from the direction of the farmer’s haystack a night or two ago, when the constellations were so big and bright, was the death cry of this bird. We saw an owl flying strangely, do you remember, Winny? Wan and irresolute in the wind it passed, a white blur, drifting and swaying; we saw it from your bedroom window, do you remember? The starlight made Farmer Slee’s haystack and the hedge very clear. Perhaps the owl did not see the stars, for death is a darkening of the sight, the world fading away. On it flew, tumbling

blindly and crying, to fall in the grass, and sleep away from the cold and the pain, until you found it and brought it home, this poor little ghost of a bird. Ah no, boy, it isn’t fair to make you cry. Let’s all go for a walk on Santon Sands tomorrow! All of us! It’s Saturday; no school tomorrow, hurray! Shall we, Windles? John, Margy, how about a walk tomorrow?’

 

‘Shut up,’ says Windles. Then, ‘I don’t want the owl. John can have it.’

 

‘Coo, can I? Thanks, Windles.’

 

‘No, Windles ought to get it stuffed,’ I said. ‘It’s our family totem, the owl, and the eldest son shall have it to hang over his bed, with wings in flight. It will keep the rats out of your bed,’ I said to Windles.

 

‘Ha, ha, ha,’ replied Windles, with hollow laughter.

 

 

III

 

 

It was amusing to watch how ideas became fixed in their minds. That summer was a brilliant season, with much heat. One morning I took my two-ounce rod from its stand in the hall and went trouting in the river. The air was oppressive. Fishermen had told me that trout were most susceptible to atmospheric pressure; it sent them, dull, to the bottom of the river. I thought I would test this for myself.

 

Over Exmoor, thunder was rolling. I felt the pressure on my head, on all my body. The river shone with a white grayness that hurt the eyes. The green of pasture and oak leaves had an extraordinary stillness. The valley light was underwater light.

 

Nothing was happening in air or earth or water. Life was static, stagnant. The heat lifted in bourdons of sound that traveled leagues, and returned to meet new shocks from the skies.

 

I realized that I was part of the suspended life. I stood at the end of the run, at the edge of the fast water running into the pool.

 

My split-cane rod lay on the grass. The fly box was open in my hand. There was no energy to select another fly. Nor was there reason; nothing stirred.

 

For half an hour I had been moving upstream, throwing a hackled fly into all likely places. That was all.

 

Whiter and whiter the river had gleamed, as though it were oil moving there. The eyes were hurt by it. The sky was a vast slate quarry.

 

Even the horseflies, which during the past two days of subtropical heat had risen in thousands, were gone. Heavy-winged and burring, they had flown to rest on alder leaf and bramble.

 

I was wrong; there was movement somewhere. I heard a cry.

 

A quarter of a mile upriver two small white figures were running on the bank. The children were bathing under the slight summer waterfall. Rod in hand, I walked slowly upstream.

 

It was now greenly dark. Violet flashes ran down the clouds above the lower slopes of the moor. A pheasant grated wildly in the tenebrous spruce plantations on the hillside.

 

A young sheepdog appeared along the cart track through the park, fleeing silent and fast, pursued by something we could not see.

 

Margy, deep brown of leg and arm and pale of body, skipped about in and out of the shallow water with John, whose fair slight body was ripe barley hue. The boy picked up an old brass candlestick lying on the gravel and held it high, laughing gleefully at the idea of a candlestick in the water.

 

Suddenly that candlestick appeared to be alight; the air crackled; colossal noise fell grayly; the figures were blurred. Everywhere glassy toadstools grew on the river.

 

Cries of terror came from the children. They were getting wet in the rain!

 

Oh, oh, where were their clothes? Far away in the house! Not even a mackintosh between them! Oh, oh! Cries of despair and misery.

 

‘Quick, quick, Daddy! Can’t you see we are getting wet?’

 

‘But you’re wet already!’

 

‘Quick! Oh! Oh! It’s raining.’

 

No argument or exhortation consoled them. What was the difference between one wet and another? Weren’t the large raindrops quite warm, much warmer than the river?

 

No use. It was raining, they had no mackintoshes, they would be soaked. Margy sobbed. John gibbered with rage because I would not share their plaint, but laughed callously.

 

While John was crying, I threw off coat and trousers, and splashed into the river. It was a strange feeling, swimming with multitudinous pillars of water arising level with one’s eyes, millions of ice-flowers growing instantly and blossoming with white water-drops spilling. It was a delightful feeling, sheltering from the rain in the river. Come in, children, it’s fine fun!

 

‘Gitoom, you darned old vool, you!’ cried John. ‘Us be wet through to the skin, can’t you see?’ He and Margy ran home, weeping – because it hadn’t happened before.

 

 

January 1940

 

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Critical reception:

 

Atlantic Tales, perhaps the most handsomely produced of all the Society's publications, was favourably received. Nationally it was noticed by the book trade's magazine The Bookseller and reviewed in Trout and Salmon, while it created considerable interest in North Devon, with a two-page spread in the Western Morning News and a mention in Devon Life.

 

The Bookseller, 14 September 2007:

 

atlantic reviews1

 

Trout and Salmon (Richard Baker), December 2007:

 

atlantic reviews2

 

Devon Life, November 2007:

 

atlantic reviews3

 

Western Morning News (Colin Bradley), 6 October 2007 (the review is headed 'Colin Bradley enjoys a famous writer's contributions to a literary journal . . .'):

 

atlantic reviews4a

 

atlantic reviews4b

 

 

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Book cover:

 

The front of the e-book edition is the same as that for the book:

 

 

atlantic large

 

 

 

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