Thursday, June 2, 2016

In Pursuit of Spring - The Grave of Winter.
Ernest Hazelhurst (original IPS illustration)

The final Chapter of  In Pursuit does what it ought: it contains elements of the whole before bringing the book to a satisfying end with a surprising image. It is in fact a reprise: he had arrived at Kilve, his destination, the night before the chapter opens, but is having a look further afield before turning for a train station and home.
Kilve Beach

There is a long diversion, similar to the early one on clay pipes, on the subject of waterproofs. Or rather not-waterproofs. We have certainly an advantage over Thomas as we do have garments that are both waterproof, light, easy to walk in and don't tear - something he thought would never be possible.
And a shorter one about local biscuits especially Half-Moon biscuits.

Birds - A thrush, starlings and 'The end of rain as I hoped, was sung away by missel-thrushes in the roadside oaks, by a chain of larks' songs which much have reached all over England.' Seagulls, rooks.           

Remarkable individuals - road-menders: 'the corduroys of one were stained so thoroughly by the red mud of the Quantocks, and shaped so excellently by wear to his tall spare figure, that they seemed to be one with the man.'
                                        the 'two old men sat in the small settle at the fireside talking of the cold weather, for so they deemed it. Bent, grinning old men they were, using rustic, deliberate grave speech.'

Flowers     -'tall arum, nettle, and celandine, and one plant of honesty from the last cottage garden.'


At the same time he is travelling, looking west.
Crowcombe Court: 'the sun was bright.' Now a wedding venue as are very many of the properties on his route.

 'I turned off for West Bagborough, setting my face toward the wooded flank of Bagborough Hill.'

 It was at the inn there he met the two old men. Then on to Cothelstone.

'I saw through the trees the gray mass of Cothelstone Manor-house beside its lake, and twelve miles off in the same direction the Wellington obelisk on the Black Down Hills. A stone seat on the other side of the trees commands both the manor house beneath and the distant obelisk. The seat is in an arched-over recess in the thickness of a square wall of masonry, six or seven feet in height and breadth. A coeval old hawthorn, spare and solitary, sticks out from the base of the wall. The whole is surmounted by a classic stone statue of an emasculated man larger than human, nude except for some drapery falling behind, long-haired, with left arm uplifted, and under its feet a dog; and it looks straight over at the obelisk. I do not know if the statue and the obelisk are connected, nor, if so, whether the statue represents the Iron Duke, his king, or a classic deity; the mutilation is against the last possibility. Had the obelisk not been so plainly opposite, I should have taken the figure for some sort of a god, the ponderous, rustic-classic fancy of a former early nineteenth-century owner of Cothelstone Manor. The statue and masonry, darkened and bitten by weather, in that high, remote, commanding place, has in any case long outgrown the original conception and intention, and become a classi-rustical, romantic what-you-please, waiting for its poet or prose poet. '
Cothelstone Hill

'a dome of green and ruddy grasses in the south-east, sprinkled with thorn trees and capped by the blunt tower of a beacon. The primrose roots hard by me had each sufficient flowers to make a child's handful..
          Turning to the left again, when the signpost declared it seven and three-quarters miles to Bridgewater, I found myself on a glorious sunlit road without hedge, bank, or fence on either side, proceeding through fern, gorse, and ash trees scattered over mossy slopes.'
The final pages are too evocative, too expressive of the spirit of the whole, to cut. The bluebells, dropped by the side of the road, the rainbow, the distant views to Wales  and the close -'The million gorse petals were like flames sown by the sun.'
The Grave of Winter.
Here they are as Thomas would have proof-read them in 1913, his saddest, most desperate year. What courage and strength he had.

Marc Thompson - two paintings.

Monday, May 23, 2016

In Pursuit of Spring 4, Three Wessex Poets.

Blackmore Vale, Dorset

I had intended to skip this section, a diversion into literary criticism from the journey westwards. But as so often with Edward Thomas, there was more to enjoy and to think about than I had expected.

The three poets chapter moves naturally from the very obscure to the famous - from one Stephen Duck(qui?) to William Barnes, who I've heard of, to Thomas Hardy.

Stephen Duck - well you could have knocked me down with a feather - I found that he features on my favourite pod-cast source, the English Lit Dept, University of Oxford podcasts, Great Writers Inspire Series! (Yes I 'm a Eng Lit junkie) . So you can hear a short lecture about him right now should you wish, but I'll focus on what Thomas had to say.

Stephen Duck(1705 - 1756)
'Briefly, in 1730, the most talked about poet in England was an agricultural labourer. The story of Stephen Duck is a remarkable one, as the title page of the unauthorised collection of his verse, Poems on Several Subjects, explains. He was 'lately a poor Thresher in a Barn in the County of Wilts, at the Wages of Four Shillings and Six Pence per Week' until his poems
"were publickly read by The Right Honourable the Earl of Macclesfield, in the Drawing-Room at Windsor Castle, on Friday the 11th of September, 1730, to her Majesty. Who was thereupon most graciously pleased to take the Author into her Royal Protection, by allowing him a Salary of Thirty Pounds per Annum, and a small House at Richmond in Surrey, to live in, for the better Support of Himself and Family."'

I remembered that Thomas had written appreciatively, in 'A Literary Pilgrim in England', about John Clare, much better known, for me, as a farm-worker-poet, 'goose-tending at seven, threshing and following the plough before he was in his teens.'
Duck was born almost a century earlier and was perhaps unfortunately constrained by the then current 'Pastoral' tradition to write about nymphs and shepherds with fancy names rather than what he might have written using his own experience. Sometimes he could, as in his description of threshing, so that Thomas says,
'Somethings he did write that were true and were unlikely to have been written by anyone else. If he could have thrown Cuddy and Chloe on to the mixen and kept to the slighted homely style...Instead of merely writing as if he had been to Oxford, he might have reached men's ears.'

Then there is William Barnes, always called the Dorset dialect poet - I recall he has a statue in Dorchester.
I knew this one - but in another guise entirely - the rather lovely Linden Lea.

William Barnes

My Orcha’d in Linden Lea.
'Ithin the woodlands, flow’ry gleäded,
By the woak tree’s mossy moot,
The sheenèn grass-bleädes, timber-sheäded,
Now do quiver under voot;
An’ birds do whissle over head,
An’ water’s bubblèn in its bed,
An’ there vor me the apple tree
Do lean down low in Linden Lea.
When leaves that leätely wer a-springèn
Now do feäde ’ithin the copse,
An’ païnted birds do hush their zingèn
Up upon the timber’s tops;
An’ brown-leav’d fruit’s a-turnèn red,
In cloudless zunsheen, over head,
Wi’ fruit vor me, the apple tree
Do leän down low in Linden Lea.
Let other vo’k meäke money vaster
In the aïr o’ dark-room’d towns,
I don’t dread a peevish meäster;
Though noo man do heed my frowns,
I be free to goo abrode,
Or teäke ageän my hwomeward road
To where, vor me, the apple tree
Do leän down low in Linden Lea.

The 'standardised' version has  music by Ralph Vaughan-Williams. You can hear it on YouTube.

I have been hunting for something else - the words of a 70's sea-side postcard which my children used to recite in as comic a 'Darset' accent as they could - I bet they still remember it - it began

'Ave 'e bin on Darset cliff-tops
Looked on lovely coves(?) below?'

 and had an old chap, neckerchief and straw in mouth  - what stereotyping went on then.    I've always assumed it was William Barnes but it isn't. There was a wonderful archaic picture of an old boy- but who ever has the rights to it won't let it appear anywhere.
...Ere's greetens vrom Darzet

Ave 'ee bin on Darzet cliff tops
Looked on luvly coves below
Watched tha zhips from other waters
Buzy goin' to an' fro

Rugged beaches, caves an' inlets
Girt arched rock ov Durdle Door
Meakes 'ee think ov many a zmuggler
Luggin' loot up on tha zhore

Nowadaays tiz lobster-catchin'
'Do 'ee vancy oone vor tea?
Anywaay I guess that Darzet's
Jist the pleace vor' ee ta zee.

Edward Thomas comments that Barnes was in fact a schoolteacher, then a clergyman and a pillar of the community - none-the-less he thinks Barnes was right to use the dialect and that the poems have a validity of their own.
another version

Then there's  Thomas Hardy                          
Hardy's birthplace & my own old 'Literary Pilgrim' book

What immediately struck me was the date Thomas was writing, Spring 1913.

The poems of Hardy's that he was considering couldn't include what most people regard as Hardy's best, the 'Emma poems' of 1912 - 13, poems of grief and remorse following the death of his wife whom he 'd come to neglect and despise. I assume that Edward never saw them, published as they were in Moments of Vision, 1917. I think he would have understood only too well.

Young Emma

His comments on the poems he has - the Dynasts and the satires, chiefly, relate to what he calls an 'obsession' with the' blindness of Fate, the carelessness of Nature and the insignificance of Man, crawling in multitudes like caterpillars, twitched by the Immanent Will hither and thither .' He deplores this emphasis in Hardy.

This made me think immediately of a poem of Thomas's - it appears in my novel:

'He thought of his sonnet written a year before, February Afternoon, where ploughing still continued in spite of war. It was true even here: a few elderly men were still ploughing in the fields nearby, following the ancient boundaries. Man and the plough and the gulls and starlings that followed them had existed for a thousand years and would for another thousand, while wars were fought and an indifferent, stone-deaf, stone-blind God looked down on it all. '

But now, perhaps because of what he knew of war, Thomas seems to be taking the same position.


February Afternoon

MEN heard this roar of parleying starlings, saw,
A thousand years ago even as now,
Black rooks with white gulls following the plough
So that the first are last until a caw
Commands that last are first again,--a law
Which was of old when one, like me, dreamed how
A thousand years might dust lie on his brow
Yet thus would birds do between hedge and shaw.
Time swims before me, making as a day
A thousand years, while the broad ploughland oak
Roars mill-like and men strike and bear the stroke
Of war as ever, audacious or resigned,
And God still sits aloft in the array
That we have wrought him, stone-deaf and stone-blind.

And Hardy's, The Voice or Woman much missed

Woman much missed, how you call to me, call to me,
Saying that now you are not as you were
When you had changed from the one who was all to me,
But as at first, when our day was fair.

Can it be you that I hear? Let me view you, then,
Standing as when I drew near to the town
Where you would wait for me: yes, as I knew you then,
Even to the original air-blue gown!

Or is it only the breeze, in its listlessness
Travelling across the wet mead to me here,
You being ever dissolved to wan wistlessness,
Heard no more again far or near?

Thus I; faltering forward,
Leaves around me falling,
Wind oozing thin through the thorn from norward,
And the woman calling.


Publishing Matters - a surprise sent on to me by Frank Egerton. 

'Guardian Books, 5th April 2013:Reader reviews roundup

A biographical novel about the poet Edward Thomas
Edward Thomas
Bardly behaved? … Edward Thomas. Photograph: EO Hoppe/Corbis
Hello and welcome back to our reader reviews roundup, which returns after a two-week easter break. Though the books desk might have been slacking, our reader reviewers have not.

One of the liveliest conversations has been inspired by a novel about the poet Edward Thomas. It was published in February by the Oxfordshire-based "micro-publisher" Streetbooks, whose founder Frank Egerton says: "My interest is in artisan publishing: which involves high quality, regional fiction, marketed locally in person and globally via the Internet. An analogy I like is that of the micro-brewery: a combination of tradition, passion and the opportunities offered by new technology."

Frank of

A Conscious Englishman is by former teacher and probation officer Margaret Keeping, and either she has some very conscientious literary friends or her publisher's micro-brewery policy is producing some pretty heady results in the Edward Thomas fan club.
First to review it was ISWilton, who wrote:
What I love most about this book is the voice of his wife Helen. Much of the book is told from her viewpoint and we understand the pain of being married to a struggling, and sometimes, difficult artist.
Next came Georgeed, who felt Keeping conveyed Thomas's love of the English countryside particularly well.
evmason wrote the clincher over Easter weekend:
Her gift is to create in prose the landscapes and moods which Thomas captured in his poems. In showing us the genesis of 'The Manor Farm', 'Old Man', 'In Memoriam (Easter 1915)', she sends us straight back to the poetry, and for a writer who loves Thomas's work, what finer service could she render?
Definitely worth checking out then.'

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

In Surrey - In Pursuit of Spring

Spring 2013  when I took these pictures was late and cold.

I heard a cuckoo today. What a different spring this year than 2013. I remember the day I took these Surrey photos - it was freezing!

By one of those strange coincidences I had to visit on Wednesday the area of Thomas's first, London to Guildford, stretch - somewhere I've never been before.

We didn't have much time, but were able to visit first SHALFORD
The Common

'Crossing the little railway from the mills, I came
in sight of the Hog's Back, by which I must go
to Farnham. That even, straight ridge pointing
westward, and commanding the country far away
on either side, must have had a road along it since
man went upright, and must continue to have one
so long as it is a pleasure to move and to use the
eyes together. It is a road fit for the herald Mer-
cury and the other gods, because it is as much in
heaven as on earth. The road I was on, creeping
humbly and crookedly to avoid both the steepness
of the hills and the wetness of the valley, was by
comparison a mole run. Between me and the
Hog's Back flowed the Wey, and as the Tilling-
bourne approached it the valley spread out and
flattened into Shalford's long, wet common. My
road crossed the common, a rest for gypsies and
their ponies. Shalford village also is on the flat,
chiefly on the right hand side of the road, nearer
the hill, and away from the river, so that its out-
look over the levels gives it a resemblance to a
seaside village. Instead of the sea it had formerly
a fair ground of a hundred and forty acres. Its inn
is the " Queen Victoria " charmless name. ' IPS. (Still there)

Cold grey day in Shalford.

The North Downs

The North Downs , or the Surrey Hills, are more wooded and attractive than I would have imagined. Proportional to its size, Surrey is the most wooded county in England.
'The Downs were beginning to
give me some shelter, and I went on under them,
glad of the easier riding. The Tillingbourne here
was running closer under the Downs, and the river
level met the hillside more sharply than before.
The road bent above the meadows and showed them
flat to the very foot of a steep, brown slope covered
with beeches. The sky lightened lightened too
much : St. Martha's tower, almost reaching up into
the hurrying white rack, was dark on its dark hill.
So I came to Albury, which has the streamlet be-
tween it and the Downs, unlike Abinger Hammer,
Gomshall, and Shere. The ground, used for vege-
tables and plum trees, fell steeply down to the
water, beyond which it rose again as steeply in a
narrow field bounded horizontally by a yet steeper
strip of hazel coppice ; beyond this again the rise
was continued in a broader field extending to the
edge of the main hillside beech wood. Albury is
one of those villages possessing a neglected old
church and a brand-new one. In this case the
new is a decent enough one of alternating flint
and stone, built among trees on a gradual rise.
But the old one is too much like a shameless un-
buried corpse.

Twice I crossed the Tillingbourne, and came to
where it broadened into a pond. This water on
either side of the road was bordered by plumed
sedges and clubbed bulrushes. At the far side,
under the wooded Downside crowned by St. Martha's,
was a pale, shelterless mill of a ghostly bareness.
The aspens were breaking into yellow-green leaves
round about, especially one prone aspen on the left
where a drain was belching furious, tawny water into
the stream, and shaking the spears of the bulrushes.

As I went on towards Chilworth, gorse was blos-
soming on the banks of the road. Behind the
blossom rose up the masses of hillside wood, now
scarcely interrupted save by a few interspaces of
lawn-like grass.' IPS.   St Martha's Church, Albury.
Albury sits in the south side at the foot  of the Downs. I liked this farm and the fisheries on the Albury Estate.:

But it was so bitterly cold that it was a pleasure to drive up the Downs to Newlands Corner and its Visitors' Centre.
And to take some more chilly-looking pictures:
'At first, [the Downs}
  were thoroughly tamed,
their smoothness made park-like, their trees mostly
fir. Beyond, their sides, of an almost uniform
gentle steepness, but advancing and receding,
hollowed and cleft, were adorned by unceasingly
various combinations of beech wood, of scattered
yew and thorn, of bare ploughland or young corn,
and of naked chalk.' IPS.
The warden told us that the weather was having a deleterious effect on the wildlife - migrating birds not arriving, 'not knowing where they are.'  We are complaining about the weather - inconvenient for us - but serious for the mammals and birds. An article in the Observer comments:
"Britain's continued freezing weather is threatening ever greater numbers of wild animals, birds and insects across the country, experts have warned. The current cold spell – one of the longest on record – is particularly affecting creatures that are already struggling to survive the loss of their habitats and changes in climate.
Examples include the hedgehog, which has already suffered a devastating loss of numbers over the past three decades and is now badly affected by the cold weather. In addition, threatened reptiles such as the grass snake and slowworm require sunny, warm conditions when they emerge from hibernation. Such a prospect is still remote, say meteorologists.
For hedgehogs, the prolonged cold weather has had a particularly severe impact. "Many animals that went into hibernation in November or December last year are still sleeping," said Fay Vass, chief executive of the Hedgehog Preservation Society. "The weather is not yet warm enough to wake them. Usually they would be up and about by now."
The problem was that the longer a hedgehog remained asleep, the weaker it got and the less energy an animal had to restore itself to wakefulness, added Vass. "It depends just how healthy and well-fed an animal was when it went into hibernation. But in general, the longer the cold weather lasts, the greater the number of animals that will not wake up at all."
Experts stress that the public can help. The RSPB has urged householders to keep bird feeders regularly topped up with high-energy, high-fat food and to keep water dishes filled. Similarly, the Hedgehog Preservation Society recommends leaving plentiful water supplies and also food, either meaty cat or dog meals or specialist hedgehog food."

Another article specifically mentions the chiff-chaff's lateness this year.

The drive from here into London, our destination, probably traced some of Thomas's route - near Epsom, and in through Wandsworth, but apart from the ever-flowering gorse, not really recognisable.

Poems:  Shelley: Winter

It was a winter such as when birds die
In the deep forests; and the fishes lie
Stiffened in the translucent ice, which makes
Even the mud and slime of the warm lakes
A wrinkled clod as hard as brick; and when,
Among their children, comfortable men
Gather about great fires, and yet feel cold:
Alas, then, for the homeless beggar old!      

Another bird poem, in which Edward Thomas positively relishes winter.

Bird's Nests

The summer nests uncovered by autumn wind,
Some torn, others dislodged, all dark,
Everyone sees them: low or high in tree,
Or hedge, or single bush, they hang like a mark.

Since there's no need of eyes to see them with
I cannot help a little shame
That I missed most, even at eye's level, till
The leaves blew off and made the seeing no game.

'Tis a light pang. I like to see the nests
Still in their places, now first known,
At home and by far roads. Boys knew them not,
Whatever jays and squirrels may have done.

And most I like the winter nests deep-hid
That leaves and berries fell into:
Once a dormouse dined there on hazel-nuts,
And grass and goose-grass seeds found soil and grew.
                                                                 * * *

 REVIEWS of A Conscious Englishman.

'Guardian Books, 5th April 2013:Reader reviews roundup

A biographical novel about the poet Edward Thomas 
Edward Thomas
Bardly behaved? … Edward Thomas. Photograph: EO Hoppe/Corbis
Hello and welcome back to our reader reviews roundup, which returns after a two-week easter break. Though the books desk might have been slacking, our reader reviewers have not.

One of the liveliest conversations has been inspired by a novel about the poet Edward Thomas. It was published in February by the Oxfordshire-based "micro-publisher" Streetbooks, whose founder Frank Egerton says: "My interest is in artisan publishing: which involves high quality, regional fiction, marketed locally in person and globally via the Internet. An analogy I like is that of the micro-brewery: a combination of tradition, passion and the opportunities offered by new technology."
A Conscious Englishman is by former teacher and probation officer Margaret Keeping, and either she has some very conscientious literary friends or her publisher's micro-brewery policy is producing some pretty heady results in the Edward Thomas fan club.
First to review it was ISWilton, who wrote:
What I love most about this book is the voice of his wife Helen. Much of the book is told from her viewpoint and we understand the pain of being married to a struggling, and sometimes, difficult artist.
Next came Georgeed, who felt Keeping conveyed Thomas's love of the English countryside particularly well.
evmason wrote the clincher over Easter weekend:
Her gift is to create in prose the landscapes and moods which Thomas captured in his poems. In showing us the genesis of 'The Manor Farm', 'Old Man', 'In Memoriam (Easter 1915)', she sends us straight back to the poetry, and for a writer who loves Thomas's work, what finer service could she render?
Definitely worth checking out then.' 

 I'm glad to say that people I do know personally have all, without exception, also said how much they enjoyed it. Some knew a great deal about Edward Thomas, others very little.

This is the full evmason review:
Timely, Shapely.
2014 sees the 100th anniversary of the First World War; attention will be paid to the writers who remind us. Already the London stage has hosted a play about Edward Thomas, and this Easter the BBC begins readings from his book 'The Pursuit of Spring'. Margaret Keeping's 'A Conscious Englishman' is timely.
Her research is impeccable and she is scrupulous in indicating when she is quoting directly from letters, diaries, poems; where she must imagine, she convinces. Biography can be shapeless, but here the problem is solved by structuring the book around Thomas's search for an answer to the tormenting question - how should he respond to war? This sharp focus excises undigested lumps of research, much to this reader's pleasure. (It could be argued that the relationship with Edna Clarke-Hall is a diversion, but you have only to track her photograph on the internet to understand her allure.)
Helen Thomas has written devotedly of her marriage, and although to a later generation it may lack attraction, Margaret Keeping is wise and generous enough to understand that where both parties have needs which are being met, third-party censoriousness is inappropriate. Her Helen is allowed to speak, and her voice is an engaging one.
Above all, Thomas is a poet of those spots of time - in Margaret Keeping's words, those "moment[s] out of time that could contain something everlasting, a rapturous moment, always remembered." Her gift is to create in prose the landscapes and moods which Thomas captured in his poems. In showing us the genesis of 'The Manor Farm', 'Old Man', 'In Memoriam (Easter 1915)', she sends us straight back to the poetry, and for a writer who loves Thomas's work, what finer service could she render?

Another surprise review on Amazon - I hadn't been checking:

A good read, 24 Mar 2013

This review is from: A Conscious Englishman (Paperback)
'This excellent book about the important but often overlooked Anglo-Welsh poet Edward Thomas, can be delightful. We experience the blossom of spring, the smell of apples and perry pears, him pushing his children on the swing in the orchard above the wide Gloucestershire fields. And there are some touching, not to mention passionate, moments with his wife Helen.
Margaret Keeping writes very skilfully, achieving some most economical character studies - 'Edward complained I treated everyone as if they were my children and they did not like that. It was nonsense, I was interested in people and hoped they would like me.' One can just see this bustling, fussing albeit well-meaning person driving everyone mad. But one can also see what an anchor she was to Thomas.
The book is an account of their relationship and the relationship with other literary greats of the day, particularly Robert Frost. It is also, of course, the story of Thomas's heart searching and indecision as he clambered to brief fame as a poet, and as such it deftly portrays selfishness, depression and anger.
Most of the narrative is in the third person, but some sections are given to Helen, which is effective in contrasting the down to earth practical point of view of a mother with that of an artist prepared to give up so much for his art. It points up both aspects and increases the feeling of reality in the story.
I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in poetry, particularly turn of the century poets, English/Welsh rural life, or just a good read. '


Thursday, March 24, 2016

In Pursuit of Spring 3.

Further West, and birds.

The Lark Ascending, kind permission of Keith Tilley, Painting on the Edge blog.

So many birds in 'In Pursuit of spring' as in Thomas's poetry.

They represent  a form of language, a clear true language, and freedom. I remember Robert MacFarlane suggesting that, in contrast to, or balance with, the 'staying put' of trees, birds represent the drive to 'move on'. This was a constant tension for Thomas:  to leave home and then to long to be there again.
The movement is of course  especially true of the spring and summer visitors. It is these birds that receive special attention in 'In Pursuit...'

Still in London, rooks and blackbirds dominate. I associate Thomas with blackbirds - he mentions them often and as a Londoner they would have been very familiar in gardens, even more so than now.
British Trust for Ornithology.

The first birds he encounters are Londoners and prisoners - a parrot who 'sings sweet street songs of twenty years before', and the finches and linnets in cages, in a dismal shop. 'Battered ones a shilling, a neater one at eighteenpence.' Poor goldfinches bloodied from flinging themselves at the bars. The odd Other Man buys a finch, in a paper bag, and releases it. Is this Other Man really Thomas himself? I think he may be.

Here are four extracts from the novel in which both birds and trees feature and perhaps balance each other. There were many more.

He looked around. A trickle from a smaller stream entered Preston Brook. White chickens pecked among the roots of an ash tree; they squeezed through the hedge from a farmhouse he could just see through the elms. The hedge was blackthorn skilfully laid, the clean scars of the labourer’s hook still visible.  He listened. The only sounds were of the stream, the birds and the trees – their own pure and individual languages, never straining for effect, never false. He thought about the many languages, man’s one among many. Was it possible that a man’s words could have that kind of truthfulness?


He went for a walk in the misty stillness of evening. Something in the birds’ songs, the single spirit of their singing together, and the calm after London, was like a welcome. He had a sense that he and the birds of Steep were one, that his needs and pleasures were at one with theirs and that he was home. A labourer walked with a slow heavy tread and turned into the thatched wood-shed beside his white cottage. Soon afterward a rhythmic sound of sawing from the man’s shed and the birds had fallen silent. He was home, among country people and thrushes and chaffinches and the oaks and elms that were their homes.


He worked on new verses – a poem on beauty he began in January, another on sedge warblers, and one about a cuckoo. Birds had enormous significance, a kind of holy importance for him. He felt that their place in nature was always as it should be, not like man’s place, so often destructive, or false, or discontented, and that they were users of a language too as he was.


He kept a notebook-cum-diary of course, making observations about the surprises of spring, this spring that manifested itself even under fire. The birds especially seemed determined to sing, to mate, to soar in the sky, in spite of it all. For him and for many of the men, the countrymen among them, they were signs of hope and reminders of home. So too was the emerging landscape, the rounded chalk hills with small clumps of trees on their tops. It was as if he could take a sudden turn into a secret path and find himself in Steep.

In Pursuit of Spring: As he moves from suburbs into the country there are more birds - blackbirds of course, thrushes, jackdaws at Guildford castle, rooks everywhere - and so many larks. To me larks are relatively rare - I know where they can be found reliably, especially on Dorset hills near the sea, but  have to make a special effort to go to see and hear them.

Edward Thomas listens for the chiff-chaff call as a marker that spring is here, and remembers an early arrival when he was nineteen - no doubt recorded in 'The Woodland Life.'  After Bentley in Hampshire, in the park of a large house:
', and at eleven o'clock, I first heard the chiff-chaff saying, "Chiff-chaff, chiff-chaff, chiff-chaff, chiff!"
My guide says:'Their song is heard from early March; birdwatchers listen eagerly for it as a sign of spring.'

As he travels over Salisbury Plain he hears and sees 'pewits' (peewits, lapwings) over a river : they 'wheeled over it with creaking wings and protests against the existence of man.'
Linnets twittered, thrushes sang and larks 'rose and fell unceasingly over Dean Hill.' Then near West Grimstead :
'A thrush and and several larks were singing and through their songs I heard a thin voice that I had not heard for six months, very faint yet unmistakeable, though I could not at first see the bird - a sand-martin. On such a morning one sand-martin seems enough to make a summer, and here were six, flitting in narrow circles like butterflies with birds' voices.'

British Trust for Ornithology- lapwing



The most numerous things on Salisbury plain  'next to the dead' - 'sheep, rooks, pewits and larks. Today they mingle their voices, but the lark is the most constant.'


                For a change  Gerard Manley Hopkins' The Sea and the Skylark
ON ear and ear two noises too old to end
Trench—right, the tide that ramps against the shore;
With a flood or a fall, low lull-off or all roar,
Frequenting there while moon shall wear and wend.
Left hand, off land, I hear the lark ascend, 5
His rash-fresh re-winded new-skeinèd score
In crisps of curl off wild winch whirl, and pour
And pelt music, till none ’s to spill nor spend.
How these two shame this shallow and frail town!
How ring right out our sordid turbid time, 10
Being pure! We, life’s pride and cared-for crown,
Have lost that cheer and charm of earth’s past prime:
Our make and making break, are breaking, down
To man’s last dust, drain fast towards man’s first slime.
 A marvellous account of the bird and its song (- the last line perhaps too strong, but for depression he could outdo even Edward Thomas.)

For Thomas's poem, there are several to choose from:The Thrush, The Cuckoo, The Owl, The Unknown Bird(rare for Thomas not to be able to identify), Sedge-Warblers, and Two Pewits.

Friday, March 18, 2016

In Pursuit of  Spring, 2.

Chapter III    Guildford to Dunbridge, and a riff on clay pipes.

On the Hog's Back he sees gypsies:

'I liked the look of the gypsies camping... If they were not there in fact, they would have to be invented. They are at home there. See them at nightfall, with their caravans drawn up facing the wind, and the men by the half-door at the back smoking, while the hobbled horses are grazing and the children playing near.'

(I owned a 'vardo' like this for some years but moved to a terraced house so it went to a good home.)
On to Farnham for breakfast, and to see:
'A small inn labelled "Cobbett's Birthplace" in letters as big as are usually given to the name of a brewer.'.
No longer:
'The Jolly Farmer burnt down completely in the 1980's - with the post box outside all that remained. We celebrate its resilience by hanging it from one of our rebuilt walls! '.   Hhhhmn.

He travelled on westward to Willey Mill on the Wey, the Surrey/Hampshire border.

He had ridden  into Hampshire  where hops were grown then:'Many were the buildings related to hops, whose mellow brick work seemed to have been stained by a hundred harvests.'

In a remarkable passage Thomas describes a hunt, emphasising the scarlet riders and ending:
'Backwards and forwards galloped the riders before the right crossing of the railway was taken. The fox died in obscurity two miles away.'    I read restrained dislike,into that 'Backwards and forwards...'

After this the chapter diverts from topology into:-

 local surnames,
  a tale of two sisters , Martha and Mary, with the characteristics implied by those names,

and then into clay pipes. Edward Thomas always carried his 'clay' a simple workman's pipe, and he riffs at great length on their different shapes, thickness, thinness and suitability.

found in our roof.

 Surely he is laughing at himself  in his pages of discourse on these pipes, good and bad. He follows them with bemusement at the Other Man's obsession with weather vanes and 'stupor' from having to listen to Thomas.
He describes the perfect pipe:

'This perfect clay pipe came from a shop at Oxford. Everywhere else I have looked in vain for them. I have never seen any one else smoking them who had not got them from me.
Tastes differ, but in this matter I cannot believe that anyone capable of distinguishing one clay from another would deny this one's excellence.
The Other Man cared nothing for the matter. He awoke from the stupor to which he had been reduced by listening, and asked,-
"Did you see that weather-vane at Albury in the shape of a pheasant? or the fox-shape one by the ford at Butts green? ......'

The Oxford tobacconist on the High Street still exists:

Poem - Digging, the first poem written after Edward Thomas enlisted. He sweeps through aeons of time.


What matter makes my spade for tears or mirth,
Letting down two clay pipes into the earth?
The one I smoked, the other a soldier
Of Blenheim, Ramillies, and Malplaquet
Perhaps. The dead man's immortality
Lies represented lightly with my own,
A yard or two nearer the living air
Than bones of ancients who, amazed to see
Almighty God erect the mastodon,
Once laughed, or wept, in this same  light of day.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

In Pursuit of Spring

(Aries, Gemini and Taurus for the spring season.)

The new Little Toller edition with photographs renews interest in 'In Pursuit Of Spring.'

 Edward Thomas's bicycle journey from London to the Somerset coast was the basis  for In Pursuit of Spring,( first published in 1914 by Thomas Nelson). It is a rewarding mixture  of idiosyncratic, personal responses to his journey.  
In Pursuit of Spring is my favourite prose work of Thomas's, as it is nearer to the writing he wanted to do, shows a great deal of himself and was the work that Frost identified as showing that his friend could and should write poetry.
End-page of my original edition
He  begins with a chapter about the preceding weeks, leading up to Good Friday 1913 on what was also, like ours now, a March Easter. He has a good deal to say about the weather and clearly it was much more variable than  March  2013 with its almost unremitting cold.
In many of his prose works he begins with a leaving of London. Thomas's relationship with London is complex. As a small boy he was drawn to the areas most resembling true country, especially Wandsworth Common.
The Long Pond.
Wandsworth Common, towards Bolingbroke Grove.
 It is those areas whose loss he regrets when they have been tidied up or built on - in one case made into a football pitch. He regrets the disappearance of the gypsies who would settle, set up a small fair on holidays (beginning on Good Friday) and perhaps stay on or move elsewhere.
But Thomas needed London for work and friendships. He visited editors, stayed with his parents, lunched with Eleanor  Farjeon and others, worked for Harold Monro's Poetry Bookshop as a reviewer and of course met Robert Frost there at one of his regular literary gatherings.
In the second chapter, passing through London suburbs towards Epsom,  I noticed most things that are gone - elms, quite prolific and important, often with rookeries. And hot-cross buns on Good Friday only. My daughter just remembers the baker delivering them to the small hamlet where we lived then - mid seventies - but we can't really remember when that changed.
The first day and first chapter travels from Wandsworth to Guildford.
Saxon/Norman Aldbury 'neglected old church ....too much like a shameless unburied corpse.' Maybe he didn't like the 19th cupola that replaced a spire.
Now listed, restored , preserved and protected from all sides.
The Hog's Back near Guildford
Here is an extract from my novel:  Frost has been urging Edward to write poetry and use 'In Pursuit...' to demonstrate that his friend was a poet in the making:

'Robert read out sections concerning the Other Man who reappeared time and again during Edward’s journey from London to the Quantocks. Certainly there was something uncanny, an uneasiness, about the contingency, re-occurring over and over, which might make a poem. Robert’s own poetry, his ‘books of people’, could have accommodated such a character. But had Robert seen further, seen what the Other Man was?

No, Robert was turning on. He read a passage where Edward had almost despaired of finding a bed for the night on Easter day.

‘Listen:  “I found a bed and a place to sit and eat in, and to listen to the rain breaking over gutters and splashing on to stones, and pipes swallowing rain to the best of their ability, and signboards creaking in the wind; and to reflect on the imperfections of  inns and life¾

You see?’

Edward smiled – weather was a prevailing theme for him, like a descant accompanying his life. He remembered the rest of the chapter – his long discourse on clay pipes and the Other Man’s obsession with weather vanes. Unlikely that Robert would find much in them. No, he moved on, commenting on the passage on George Herbert at Bemington.

When he came to the chapter on Somerset he fell silent. Edward could hear the water murmuring below them under the bridge again.

‘What are you reading?’ Edward asked after a time.

‘I guess it’s everywhere, the poetry – just listen.’ He read in his leisurely way, breaking the lines as though he were reading blank verse.

‘I went out into the village at about half-past nine in the dark, quiet evening. A few stars penetrated the soft sky; a few lights shone on earth, from a distant farm seen through a gap in the cottages. Single and in groups, separated by gardens and bits of orchard, the cottages were vaguely discernible; here and there a yellow window square gave out a feeling of home, tranquillity, security. Nearly all were silent. Ordinary speech was not to be heard, but from one house came the sounds of a harmonium being played and a voice singing a hymn, both faintly. A dog barked far off. After an interval a gate fell-to lightly. Nobody was on the road.”

‘And again – these images …see:  The pollard willows fringing the green, which in the sunlight resemble mops, were now very much like a procession of men, strange primeval beings, pausing to meditate in the darkness.”

That’s great. The music and the drama in it, working together. And the way it ends:  I felt that I could walk on thus, sipping the evening silence and solitude, endlessly.” '
No more from the novel in subsequent  IPS blogs - just Edward Thomas.