Friday, February 28, 2014

Edward Thomas Fellowship Birthday Walk -2nd March

The ETF  always has a day of walking around the Steep area  on the nearest Sunday to Edward's birthday, 3rd March. We meet at the car park, Bedales School at 10am. Anyone can come - it is not restricted to members and you will be very welcome. You need proper walking clothing. The morning walk is four and a half  miles, the afternoon walk less.  It is too late to book lunch but there are two pubs and a packed lunch can be brought of course.

The Fellowship holds its AGM at the end of the day. There are tremendous activities organised for the whole of the years of the First World War, matching as far as possible the pattern of Edward Thomas's involvement.  See the  website

I am going to be reading two poems, 'A Tale' and 'The Path'. Here they are : I used both of them in my novel and am very fond of both - they reflect the happier  side of Edward and Helen's Steep days.

A Tale                
THERE once the walls
Of the ruined cottage stood.
The periwinkle crawls
With flowers in its hair into the wood.
In flowerless hours
Never will the bank fail,
With everlasting flowers
On fragments of blue plates, to tell the tale.

The Path

RUNNING along a bank, a parapet
That saves from the precipitous wood below
The level road, there is a path. It serves
Children for looking down the long smooth steep,
Between the legs of beech and yew, to where
A fallen tree checks the sight: while men and women
Content themselves with the road and what they see
Over the bank, and what the children tell.
The path, winding like silver, trickles on,
Bordered and even invaded by thinnest moss
That tries to cover roots and crumbling chalk
With gold, olive, and emerald, but in vain.
The children wear it. They have flattened the bank
On top, and silvered it between the moss
With the current of their feet, year after year.
But the road is houseless, and leads not to school.
To see a child is rare there, and the eye
Has but the road, the wood that overhangs
And underyawns it, and the path that looks
As if it led on to some legendary
Or fancied place where men have wished to go
And stay; till, sudden, it ends where the wood ends.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Settings, High Beech, Epping Forest and Loughton

The Thomases left Steep, but Steep has never forgotten the Thomases. Edward's name is on the war memorial there, not here.

The old nurseryman' s cottage at High Beech (now Beach) was Edward's home very briefly:from November 1916 to early January 1915.  And for most of that he was away in  Army Camp at Romford and later Trowbridge. Helen stayed on only a very short time after his death.
They moved for several reasons: to be nearer to London, for family and Merfyn's apprenticeship, and also because of some disappointment with Steep.
A third reason - being closer for Edward to come on leave - had no meaning given the decision he was about to make, of volunteering to go abroad. Possibly Edward thought it would be better for Helen to be nearer London, her sister and Eleanor, should the worst happen

The cottage where they lived is no longer there, but this is the area, on the western side of Epping Forest, Paul's Nursery Road, High Beech.

An extract from 'Helen's'
Half a kiss, half a tear.

'In October we moved to High Beech, a part of Epping Forest – Edward found the house for us. He had been there briefly on a training camp and liked the open commons and miles of ancient forest. It was convenient for London, for Walthamstow where Merfyn was working, and we heard that quite a colony of artists and writers was beginning to live in the area.

Ours was the abandoned cottage of a nurseryman who was away at the front, so we had good well-tilled soil, and a hen-run, important because of the shortages – I managed to buy some Leghorn pullets. In late September, with the beech leaves turning russet and the sun still slanting warmly through the trees it looked quite hospitable. Silver birches, always a favourite of mine, swayed delicately together at the end of the garden. Edward and I put up wire-netting to protect the vegetables against rabbits.

He took Bronwen and Baba walking in the forest, showing them the strange old trees once pollarded for firewood and grown into curious shapes. They found secret ponds, places where we might go to catch a glimpse of fallow deer coming to drink. Bronnie, who was such an expert on wild flowers, would have to learn about mushrooms and toadstools. Edward showed the girls how to leave a trail of white pebbles as they went, like Hansel and Gretel, so that they would not be lost.

This was somewhere perhaps for us to make a new start after the war, close to many of our friends and to London, but still as rural as we could wish. Merfyn could bicycle to his work; he was earning fifteen shillings a week so we were better off in that way. Bronnie would have to go a cheaper school in Loughton, the Girls’ High School, though for a time she’d stay on with my sister Mary and her cousin Margaret.

Edward was on his Officer training in Wiltshire – so near to Steep! It was a long slow train journey for him to come to us. I longed for him to be with us, there on the edge of the forest. We were like woodcutters in a fairy tale, our only neighbours deer and badgers. Myfanwy would have no playmates and before long I would have to find her a school. I was doing my best, making the most of things.

But by November, with the dark coming early, I felt differently about the house and the Forest. The lovely canopy of summer and autumn had turned to nothing but a brown muddy mulch underfoot. It rained and rained, the house was cold and the dreadful little paraffin stove instead of a proper range was a great nuisance.

Still Edward liked the little house, the deer, the starlight, lamplight on the trees by the window. He liked the way darkness rushed in when the lamp was turned out. He would walk into the deepest, darkest part of the forest and come home very late. No white pebbles for him. This was habitual with him. It seemed as though he chose to lose himself whenever he found a forest that would serve. But I was afraid of what he was thinking while he walked alone so long.'
Loughton station features in my novel as the end, essentially, of the Thomas's life as a complete family, and the location of Eleanor Farjeon's last sighting of Edward.
Loughton has had three stations and I can't find a picture of the second, the one they would have used. The first was built in 1856, replaced only nine years later. Then in 1940 that was demolished and replaced by a rather striking building, now Grade II Listed.

In  Loughton too  is the Lopping Hall, built to compensate the inhabitants for losing their ancient rights to cut firewood when the Forest was taken over by the Forestry Commission.

                                                                        Pollarded trees grown old.     

The Poem: The Dark Forest
Thomas was wary of using 'a too obvious metaphor' and 'entirely conscious symbolism' and had some anxiety about the poem.  Edna Longley comments that 'one context may be the increasing 'multitudes' of war dead.
She prints a discarded last stanza from the second draft, which I have added after the asterisk. What do we make of it, I wonder - comments most welcome.

Dark is the forest and deep, and overhead
Hang stars like seeds of light
In vain, though not since they were sown was bred

Anything more bright.

And evermore mighty multitudes ride
About, nor enter in;
Of the other multitudes that dwell inside
Never yet was one seen.

The forest foxglove is purple, the marguerite
Outside is gold and white,
Nor can those that pluck either blossom greet
The others, day or night.
Not even beloved and lover or child and mother,
One from within, one from
Without the forest could recognise each other,
Since they have changed their home.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Robert Macfarlane enjoyed 'A Conscious Englishman.' StreetBooks has his permission to quote him has his agreement to quote him:
'Margaret Keeping's inhabitation of Edward, Robert, Helen and their world is tender and subtle...a lovely novel.'  I'm very pleased and proud.

                                                         *    *   *

Settings: Edna Clarke-Hall's house near Upminster.

A- Hare Hall                       B- Great House, Hall Lane.
While Edward was at Hare Hall Camp near Gidea Park, East of Romford, he was three and a half miles from Edna Clark-Hall, an hour's walk at most for him. I'm sure he would have avoided the road, even then, and gone through parkland and fields.
The relationship between Edward and Edna was always something I felt very tentative about: having first heard of it, then  learned a little more from Alison Thomas's work, I based everything else on the poems, his and hers.  Matthew Hollis had access to Edna's diary, so long after I had written my novel I was able to see that I hadn't been far out in my speculations - but the account in A Conscious Englishman is fiction, more speculative than anything else in the novel.

It was clear that Edward enjoyed her company - and what a welcome change from the bare barracks hut  her house must have been!

Great House

From A.C.E:
He looked up at the tall chimneys of the fine eighteenth century house, its many sash windows set in mellowed brick walls. William, Edna’s husband, was a very successful barrister. He could imagine Edna in such a house, enjoying its venerable romance. Would he be welcome, he wondered.

He tugged the iron pull and heard the bell deep inside the house, then footsteps coming to the door. He knew suddenly how eager he was to see Edna again and to watch her surprise, and, he hoped, pleasure at seeing him. But Edna was in London that day, the servant who answered the door told him.

After a moment they recognised each other. She remembered Edward from the old days.

‘The mistress has two boys now, Mr Thomas – Justin and Denis. How is your little boy?’

‘Not so little. He’s fifteen and staying away from all this’ – he gestured at his uniform – ‘in America at the moment. But I have daughters too, one just thirteen, the other only five. Well, I’ll look forward to meeting Mr and Mrs Clarke-Hall soon. My apologies to them for arriving with no notice.’
Edna Clark Hall and her beautiful house.
No wonder Edward was drawn  to visit when he could.
Characteristically, Helen wrote to her after Edward's death that she was glad he had been able to have that respite from the spartan uncongenial camp.
There are several poems written at the right  time that I believe refer to Edna. The most obvious one is Celandine. The central stanza is framed by stanzas that emphasise, for me, Thomas knowledge of himself - Edna is a fantasy, almost.

by Edward Thomas

Thinking of her had saddened me at first,
Until I saw the sun on the celandines lie
Redoubled, and she stood up like a flame,
A living thing, not what before I nursed,
The shadow I was growing to love almost,
The phantom, not the creature with bright eye
That I had thought never to see, once lost.

She found the celandines of February
Always before us all. Her nature and name
Were like those flowers, and now immediately
For a short swift eternity back she came,
Beautiful, happy, simply as when she wore
Her brightest bloom among the winter hues
Of all the world; and I was happy too,
Seeing the blossoms and the maiden who
Had seen them with me Februarys before,
Bending to them as in and out she trod
And laughed, with locks sweeping the mossy sod.

But this was a dream; the flowers were not true,
Until I stooped to pluck from the grass there
One of five petals and I smelt the juice
Which made me sigh, remembering she was no more,
Gone like a never perfectly recalled air.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014


Settings:A Soldier-Poet: Edward Thomas enlists and trains.

Artists' Rifles HQ, 17 Duke Street, Euston: The recruiting office was in Albemarle Street.
An extract:
'He travelled up to London by train and walked fast to Albemarle Street, hunting for a brass nameplate – ‘The Artists’ Rifles.’ A printed poster was pinned to a sandwich board on the pavement, announcing ‘Recruiting Office.’ The regimental symbol printed at the head showed Mars and Minerva intertwined. He looked up at the sky for a moment, then turned, breathed deeply and walked through the open door.

He was attested fit by the Medical Officer the following day. He had passed the first test that he’d set himself.'    (A Conscious Englishman.)                                             *
On the day he 'passed the doctor' he completed the important poem below, For These. Edward describes it as 'a prayer'.
He had agonised for months about whether he should follow Robert Frost to America or enlist or at least 'do something' for his country threatened and injured by war.

'All I can tell is, it seemed to me that either I had never loved England, or I had loved it foolishly, aesthetically. Something, I thought, had to be done before I could look composedly again at English landscape, at the elms and poplars about the houses, at the purple-headed wood-betony with two pairs of leaves on a stiff stem, who stood sentinel among the grasses or bracken by hedge-side or woods-edge. at he stood sentinel for I did not know, any more than what I had to do.’   E.T.

His journey through the cities of the Midlands and  the North, collecting the thoughts expressed by ordinary people during the early months of war, led to him speculating about why a man volunteered:
'On his last day he saw some recruits, lean pale young men in their dark clothes and caps, with occasionally the tanned face of a farm worker among them. Why had they enlisted – because of the posters, urging them to fight for King and country? Under pressure from employers? From girl-friends? Or to follow their friends?

He had a sense that a man joined up for inexplicable reasons, making a leap beyond rational thought. Then afterwards he would explain himself to his parents and friends in the old conventional terms about fighting for king and country – but surely that was simply too poetical and too self-conscious to be real? (A.C.E)'

 So many reasons why Edward Thomas took that first step toward his death at the Battle of Arras. Some would add an episode of cowardice/ common-sense witnessed by Robert Frost in confrontation with a game-keeper.

After initial training on Hampstead Heath where his map-reading skills were recognised he was sent first to High Beech, Epping Forest, training camp. No doubt he spent some  leisure time here in the  King's Oak.

Then he was sent to Hare Hall Camp, near Romford , Essex, where he was to stay for a year and a half.

From Liverpool Street station the train took him east through gentle, orderly countryside to Romford and on to Gidea Park halt. November trees were black and bare against the horizon.

Hare Hall camp was built in the grounds of a Georgian mansion. Tall elms and horse-chestnuts at the entrance, instead of the barren wire he expected, declared its past as a country estate. There were guard boxes certainly, but a pretty eighteenth-century lodge too. Planted all over the gracious parkland between some great oaks were new white bell tents. A line of wooden barrack huts stood at the centre of the camp.


'His first impression of a great house and park soon faded as he was drawn into the changed life of Hare Hall. Exercises, parades, routines, the new way of passing time. Much of his life was spent in lecture huts, the canteen, the reading room and the mess. Hut Number 3, a sound wooden hut sleeping twenty-five men, was home. The park became a site for compass exercises, and the great Georgian house was the remote home of the most senior officers, of whom he was in awe.' (A.C.E)

The Poem: For These
Edna Longley sees irony in the poem. I wouldn't want to quarrel with Edna Longley, goodness knows, but I think I'd call it realism.

For These
An acre of land between the shore and the hills,
Upon a ledge that shows my kingdoms three,
The lovely visible earth and sky and sea
Where what the curlew needs not, the farmer tills:

A house that shall love me as I love it,
Well-hedged, and honoured by a few ash trees
That linnets, greenfinches, and goldfinches
Shall often visit and make love in and flit:

A garden I need never go beyond,
Broken but neat, whose sunflowers every one
Are fit to be the sign of the Rising Sun:
A spring, a brook's bend, or at least a pond:

For these I ask not, but, neither too late
Nor yet too early, for what men call content,
And also that something may be sent
To be contented with, I ask of Fate.

A Conscious Englishman

7th February, Publication Day: It began with a friendly message from Frank hoping I'd enjoy the day, 'just one step on a long journey.' Then a reminder to read and sign  the contract and to meet shortly to plan a launch party. He writes in his blog, justthoughtsandstuff, about Thomas and about publishing the novel.

I thank him and StreetBooks very warmly for so much help, guidance and efficiency.
The novel is available in the States now, via Amazon. I am very curious to know how my portrayal of Robert and Elinor will be received.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The Robert Frost Society

It is the centenary , of course, of Frost's first success,  in Britain not America, with the publication here of  A Boy's Will and North of Boston.  Edward Thomas's review had much to do with that success. In the novel I imagine their conversation:

                                                                                     *        *        *
Edward crossed the fields to call on Robert. He had something for him – proof copies of his three reviews of North of Boston, each intended for different journals.

‘Do you want to see them now?’ he asked. ‘Or take them away and read them overnight?’

‘You’re joking, aren’t you? For God’s sake, now, right now. Ed, put me out of my misery.’

‘All right – look, let’s go to the oak tree in our field and sit in the shade, then you can read them. And I’ll smoke my pipe patiently and be quiet.’

They shifted their backs into comfort against the ridged bark and Edward handed Robert the typewritten pages, explaining which was for each journal. Robert was pale and sweating as he read. His hand, holding the pages, was shaking. But his colour soon came back and he started to grin.

‘“A calm eagerness of emotion”¾ Yes.’ He read on, sometimes shaking his head as if he could hardly believe what he was reading. Once he frowned for a moment. Then he sped on through. When he’d finished he stayed silent and when Edward looked at him he saw that his eyes were full of tears.

‘Thank you, my dear friend. That’ll do. That’ll about do. You understand. You don’t think simplicity is born of simple-mindedness!’

‘Well, you see I haven’t stinted my praise. These poems are revolutionary, Robert. As I said, they remind me of Wordsworth’s experiment with the Lyrical Ballads, but with a difference.’

‘I’d expect it to be to my disadvantage knowing how you feel about Wordsworth and his set.’

‘No, it’s not a question of advantage or otherwise. It’s that you show more of other people’s feelings than Wordsworth did and less of your own. And you know the lives you’re writing about, rather as Dorothy Wordsworth did. Where Wordsworth contemplated people, you sympathize with them.’

‘I guess. I truly appreciate what you’ve written about Death of the Hired Man and Home Burial – ‘masterpieces of deep and mysterious tenderness.’

‘I hoped you like that phrase – because I believe it to be true.’

Robert flushed and seemed near to tears again. Edward suggested they walk over to the stile that led to Dymock lane; they were more used to walking as they talked. Clouds of pink dust flew up from the baked red ground and they created a flutter of butterflies from the cornflowers.

‘Such a pleasure for me to have something of quality to review, Robert. I can’t tell you how much of the rubbishy poetry that’s printed comes to me. Review copies just bury us at home; I have to give them to the school for paper-chases or to make kite-tails. Or if we’re desperate enough I go to stay with friends and ‘accidentally’ leave a whole suitcase-full of them behind.’

‘I do recall when we met in London last year you were trying to sell some off.’

‘Very likely. Heaven knows, we’re well into this new century – we need new poetry, but good poetry, not rubbish. We need a poet with a voice of his own, but not an egotistical voice. That’s what I like in yours.’

Edward’s long legs carried him fast as he talked; he paused to lean on the style while Robert, shorter and four years older, caught him up. When he did, Robert started reading his reviews again. 

‘You know Ed, truly I need to get home and show these to Elinor – she’s been worrying herself crazy. It matters so much, you know, how I’m recognised here – that’s what counts in the States. They don’t give a damn for you till you’ve been published in England. And I’ve come to realise how much your opinion counts. So again, Ed, thank you.’
                                                             *                     *                     *
Here is news from the Robert Frost Review, mostly for those of you in the States but of interest to all enthusiasts of Frost - and I'm increasingly one of those.
Hello all,

The Robert Frost Society now has a listserv to help connect and enrich discussion among Frost scholars and enthusiasts. You can sign up at:
Also, in addition to liking our Facebook page, you can now follow us on Twitter.
In other news, the panel at the 2014 American Literature Association Conference (May 22-25) organized by the Frost Society is titled "Poetry and Popular Science" features the following papers:

1. "The Botanical Mystery of Frost's Purple-Fringed," Robert B. Hass, Edinboro University

2.  "Acquainted with the Night: Backyard Astronomy in the Poetry of Robert Frost," Virginia Smith, United States Naval Academy

3. "Staying Alive: The Actuarial Robert Frost," Mark Richardson, Doshisha University
Lastly, a call for papers for The Robert Frost Review:

The Robert Frost Review is planning a special issue to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the publication of both A Boy’s Will (1913) and North of Boston (1914). The Review welcomes all articles on any aspect of either book, their poems, history, or reception. Please send electronic copies of manuscripts no longer than 5,000 words in MLA style to for consideration.

The Robert Frost Review
The Robert Frost Society

Department of English
University of Southern Mississippi
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