Friday, July 26, 2013

I am back from France at last but with a wild allotment and long to-do list I'll continue to re-run these settings. This one is very unseasonal!

 Leaving High Beech; Edward Thomas and Robert Frost on Snow.

copyright Keith Talbot

                                                            Out in The Dark.

I am citing from 'First Known When Lost', the  remarkable blog of Stephen Peltz,  a retired attorney in the States, quite the most erudite, encyclopaedic  man you could imagine. His illustrations, too, are marvels of imaginative thinking and seeking.

"Out In The Dark Over The Snow": Edward Thomas And Robert Frost

Robert Frost's "Desert Places" and "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" put me in mind of a poem by Edward Thomas. Thomas's poem in turn reminds me of the affinity between Thomas and Frost. For both of them, the darkness (of a forest or of night or of interstellar space) is frightening as well as alluring: "The woods are lovely, dark and deep" (Frost); "Dark is the forest and deep, and overhead/Hang stars like seeds of light/In vain" (Thomas); "They cannot scare me with their empty spaces/Between stars" (Frost). (And consider also Frost's "Acquainted with the Night" and "An Old Man's Winter Night".)"

Thomas wrote the first draft of the following poem on Christmas Eve of 1916 while he was on leave with his family at High Beech in Essex.

Out in the Dark

Out in the dark over the snow
The fallow fawns invisible go
With the fallow doe;
And the winds blow
Fast as the stars are slow.

Stealthily the dark haunts round
And, when a lamp goes, without sound
At a swifter bound
Than the swiftest hound,
Arrives, and all else is drowned;

And star and I and wind and deer
Are in the dark together, -- near,
Yet far, -- and fear
Drums on my ear
In that sage company drear.

How weak and little is the light,
All the universe of sight,
Love and delight,
Before the might,
If you love it not, of night.

I can't print out Frost's 'Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening', but much better than that, you can hear him read it - just put the title, his name +Youtube and there it will be.

A Conscious Englishman
Here are two extracts from 'Helen's' voice in the novel:

'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.'
'The day passed happily. As soon as tea was over I went out and lit the coloured candles on the Christmas tree, then Edward carried it in from where Merfyn had hidden it in the woodshed. Myfanwy was entranced. She’d never seen a Christmas tree before.
After tea we sat near the fire, eating nuts and talking or reading our new books. Then Edward took Baba on his knee and sang Welsh songs and some rousing army ones.
It was just before her bedtime that I watched the two of them, Baba on a chair by the window, looking out at the snow and Edward behind her looking out too. They were hoping to see deer.
‘Shall we see any? Are they out there?’ she asked. I remember that she wondered if they were cold and frightened, out in the dark, not like her, safe in the cosy sitting room, with the lamp lit and her father’s hand on her shoulder. That was when I wept.'
I wrote the last because Edward, sending the poem to Eleanor Farjeon, commented, 'It is really Baba who speaks, not I. Something she felt put me on to it.' Myfanwy had been nervous of going into the sitting room to watch for deer because it was dark but was able to when her father stood with her. It was almost the last time she would have his protection.
(For a very weird experience, you may or may not like this: 'poetry reincarnations' on Youtube, animated 'readings by' Edward Thomas, Eleanor Farjeon and no doubt countless others - Shakespeare, Wordsworth perhaps? No, but there is Machiavelli, Jane Austen, Gerard Manley Hopkins and Emily Dickinson. Some do have the real soundtrack of the author's voice.
 I quite like the Eleanor one though I know the voice is wrong, too low. But 'Edward' reading Adlestrop and The Gallows - just too bizarre, though I suspect the voice is probably close. Comments?)

Monday, July 22, 2013



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.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

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.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

A not-Edward Thomas post - except that nature is the main protagonist. As I'm still in the Minervois, France and after a week in Provence, Thomas is less in my thoughts than usual. But the enthusiasm for walking has carried me through some long treks in very hot weather indeed.

I want to mention a marvellous camping site - not a 'site' in the usual sense but a spectacularly pretty farm with locations for tents or small camper-vans dotted around it, none in sight of another. Like wild camping but with WC's and hot showers after a moderate walk uphill. And a beautiful infinity pool with the mountains rising above it.

It belongs to a Dutch couple and most campers or gite-renters were Dutch, but not all. The farm, La Boucoule, is near Montbrun-les-Bains, on the Vaucluse/Drome border, on the northern slopes of Mont Ventoux. Their web-site,, doesn't really do them justice - it was paradise! Great for young families - teens might get a bit grumpy.

Here are some more Provencal pictures, all from the Mont Ventoux area. I have never seen so many cyclists: how admirable they are! Several years ago we drove up Mont Ventoux and I recall very well the disapproving, even contemptuous , looks of the cyclists!  It was in the days when I was trying to be a poet and I did write about it:

We take the  twenty- mile notorious run

lazy by car, winding through oaks and beeches,

gentle and comely in dappled sunlight

passing the earnest panting cyclists,

with all their sweating  superiority.


Suddenly no trees - a startling desert of

white boulders formed from sea-salt

heralds the summit. Dark crests of mountains

range to the Alps, blue - silver, dipping and rippling

like waves seen at eyelevel swimming a choppy sea.


The cyclists arrive, greeting only those 

who undertook their altitude ordeal .

Petrarch climbed here with his brother,

Mistral wrote verses and Tommy Simpson died.

To be there was to share the extraordinary,


but the relentless sunlit stony glare

shows me my motorist’s second-rateness,

not being one of those, grey-haired

beneath their sharp bright helmets,

who are defying time.       

Leaving La Boucoule by tractor.


Thursday, July 4, 2013




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.