The Linhay on the Downs
THE LINHAY ON THE DOWNS
Being Number 12 of The Woburn Books
Published at London in 1929 by
Elkin Mathews & Marrot (Price 6s. net)
The dust jacket and cover design carry the initials ‘J.G.P. ‘28’ on the reverse; the endpapers echo the design.
This slim octavo volume has only 26 pages (of which the first two are ‘prelims’ anyway) and consists of two stories: ‘The Linhay on the Downs’ and ‘The Firing Gatherer’.
Both stories had appeared previously in literary journals: ‘Linhay’ in the Atlantic Monthly (October 1927) for which Putnam’s statement of payment shows HW received £22.16.8d for both ‘Linhay’ and ‘The Rabbit Agent’ together (so presumably about half that each) and The Fortnightly Review – Putnam’s account entry shows a payment of £7.10.9d made on 28 November 1927. ‘The Firing Gatherer’ was published in Time and Tide, for which Putnam’s statement shows payment of £2.7.3d made on 29 February 1928.
The only background information available in HW’s archive is from a letter from HW’s agent, Andrew Dakers. My surmise is that the publishers approached HW directly, and that he wrote his own instructions on it and forwarded that letter to Dakers to deal with. As you can see, HW was offered twenty-five guineas as his fee, ‘the highest they had paid to anyone’, but less than HW had asked for. I have no idea what HW’s sum scribbled at the bottom relates to.
It has proved equally difficult to find any detail to fill in the background from elsewhere, and so only the barest bones are available.
Charles Elkin Mathews (1851-1921) was an eminent publisher and bookseller. In the mid-1890s he worked in partnership with John Lane – who then went on to form the Bodley Head, and Mathews set up on his own. But as he died in November 1921 he was obviously not personally involved in the set of the eighteen Woburn Books – so presumably Marrot had taken over the firm, keeping the Mathews name. (Both Glasgow and Reading Universities Special Collections hold related material, the former on the printers, the latter on the publishers, and very kindly checked their indexes, but have no information pertaining to Woburn books.)
The printers were equally prestigious. Robert MacLehose & Co. Ltd existed from 1904 to 1982 and were prominent as the Glasgow University Press. Robert MacLehose died in 1907, but his brother James lived until 1943.
It will be noticed from the list of titles and authors on the Linhay on the Downs flyleaf that HW was in good company, and it would have been an honour to have been included in this very select little band of authors. HW had connections with several of the other authors in the set (for example, R. H. Mottram, David Garnett and Robert Graves). I note that currently (June 2013) a few full sets of The Woburn Books were being advertised on the Internet, with prices ranging from about £700 up to £1,750!
From these advertisements I gathered that the overall cover design was the same for each volume but that each title was given its own individual colour, making a very nice overall collection.
A linhay is a hut, a small barn, built out on the moors or marshes, as a place for shelter for man, animals and fodder. This story tells a simple adventure which occurs on a day’s walk, and the need to shelter from a sudden storm.
The story opens with a description of the linhay ‘half fallen into ruin’. It lies ‘on the high down above the sea, in the corner of the last rough grazing field’. The writer sets out with a companion to have a picnic at the linhay: they climb the road to Windwhistle Cross.
Windwhistle Cross was HW’s name for Ox’s Cross, and the road is the one that winds uphill from Georgeham – from Vale House where HW and his wife lived – and then west across the fields to where the linhay was perched overlooking the steep path down to the beach above Black Rock (more or less marking the boundary between Putsborough beach and Woolacombe Sands): HW’s habitual route on foot down to the beach. The two walkers are, of course, HW and his wife.
It was a cold and windy day, and the writer decides to light a fire using bits of broken board from the linhay. While eating their sandwiches they notice a rabbit rather oddly sheltering nearby. With its natural instinct it has sensed an approaching storm which outweighs its fear of humans.
The writer stands up and looks out across the sea to find ‘a grand and terrible sight’. The headland (Baggy Point) has disappeared while
a monstrous spectre had risen out of the vast sea and was moving to overthrow the land.
A waterspout has formed in a sudden storm, and soon the linhay is being battered by the violent wind and rain. Just before the full force of the storm breaks they notice a desperately thin fox struggling across the field with a rabbit gin attached to its leg. Rabbit and fox lie close to each other within the shelter of a huge stone. HW’s version of the lion and the lamb: two enemies at peace together – his constant wish throughout his life for there to be universal peace. Then the storm hits them: it goes bitterly cold and wet. It immediately takes the writer back to his time in the trenches.
In that background for me were days and nights in water and yellow clay sludge to the waist, with death above the leafless winter hedge shot stooping-high; days and nights without sleep, weeks and months without hope, without liberty . . . life more terrible than being in a gin . . . and I knew that if I sought release, and failed, or escaped from killing men I did not hate, nor had ever seen before, I would be caught and shot. . . . [and branded traitor to the total shock and shame of his mother]. Those memories of 1914, and later ones far, far worse, made a background in endurance for the human spirit that had suffered and survived them. . . .
The floor of the shippen was like the Salient in the winter of 1917, seen from a low-flying aeroplane. Hoof-holes, shapeless and trodden into one another, were filled with water to their broken edges.
Here is open, and very raw, expression of HW’s traumatic feelings and thoughts of the First World War. He had visited the battlefields for the second time in early June 1927 (the first time was on his honeymoon in May 1925). As this story was first printed in October 1927, it was almost certainly written in September – at a time when his thoughts had been stirred up and concentrated by that visit. But although it openly mentions the war this story does not end in death but in a humanitarian gesture and outcome.
The storm passes. The rabbit lollops off across the grass. The fox is in a very bad state: to approach it might be dangerous: best to kill it and put it out of its misery. But the fox is an allegoric wounded soldier, although ‘the enemy’: also, the writer thinks of his own comfortable life and baby at home. They run about to get warm, and then find a sack which they use to subdue the fox while they remove the gin from its leg and the writer uses his tie to bind up its wound.
On the next visit to the linhay they meet a trapper who tells them he had found a sprung trap with marks of a limping fox round it – and a bit of rag:
‘black stuff, with yaller stripes on ‘un. Aiy, like a wasp.’
The story ends with the perfect line: ‘I knew that regimental tie.’
The regimental tie of the Bedfordshire Regiment, in which HW had served as an officer, was black with orange stripes: their nickname was ‘The Wasps’.
The second story tells of an old woman gathering up driftwood from the beach in an old ‘ramshackle perambulator’ (an old pram): a daily task that took her as far as Black Rock, where she turned back. Her determined purpose was to keep her orphaned granddaughter warm. So protective was she of this virtual prisoner that the child waned away and died for want of fresh air and exercise.
The old grannie and her pram go rapidly downhill until inevitably she is found at Black Rock by some children, wandering and deranged. She is recovered by the village women but the old lady inevitably dies: her perambulator left to gradually sink out of sight on the sand near
where grew the flowers of the sea-rocket, beautiful and sturdy in their native sunshine.
Thus pointing up the moral of sunshine and fresh air! This story reverts to the theme of death but ends with an air of optimism. Again the form of this story is perfectly conceived: a masterpiece of its genre.
As Linhay first appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, it has also been reprinted in Atlantic Tales: Contributions to The Atlantic Monthly 1927-1947, compiled and edited by John Gregory with background essays by both Richard and Anne Williamson, published by the HWS, 2007; e-book, 2013. This volume contains many little nuggets of writing gold.
Wrap-around cover of The Linhay on the Downs: