Thursday, October 31, 2013



A Hundred and Ten Years ago -  1903

 Edward Thomas's  'Oxford' was published: it saved the family from the 'gutter and bankruptcy.'

It was his first major commissioned work and came at a time when they were desperate for money after two years of living mainly from reviewing and single articles.

 Words or pictures first?  My copy, a rather expensive birthday present, privileged the John Fulleylove paintings above the text., and Edward Thomas was commissioned to accompany them.

Mine is the 'ordinary' edition, priced twenty shillings, and there was a limited Deluxe Edition, each copy numbered and signed by the artist, price two guineas.
There are sixty full-page illustrations, of which eleven are reproduced in Lucy Newlyn's 2005 reprint,Signal Books. (I have used her introduction  for most of the information in this blog.)
Lucy writes that Fulleylove was an establishment Victorian painter, his trademark being historically important buildings painted with everyday, homely touches,'with a skilful choice of the unexpected as well as the typical aspects.' Hence a cat in a quad, people on bikes, figures coming round the corners of building.
 As Edward Thomas was also  drawn to the unpretentious and everday, the two works suited each other, though they are entirely independant.
Over  a hundred years later the very peopled pictures look very Edwardian and dated to my eyes. So many chaps in black gowns, a rarer sight these days, and how different  from the French painters of the time, at least those we value most.
 I prefer the views of Oxford without people - Magdalen tower for example,(actually that is quite Impressionistic), the view from South Hinksey and the little churchyard of St Peter in the East.
I'm rather nervous of scanning the paintings but have tried  a few.
Saint Peter in the East
'It is sweet to enter that peacefullest and homeliest of churchyards, St Peter's in the East, overlooked by St Edmund Hall and Queen's College and the old city wall. There is a peace which only the thrush and blackbird break-'
The Text of 'Oxford'.

‘At sunset or dawn the city's place in the world, as a beautiful thing, is clearest. Few cities look other than sad at these hours; many, unless hid in their own smoke, look cheap. Oxford becomes part of the magic of sunset and dawn- is, as it were, gathered into the bosom of the power that is abroad. ‘

Oxford' is a strange book, peopled with semi-fictitious characters, half amalgamations of people he knew, half imaginary, and many reflecting himself as a visitor or undergraduate.. It is not everyone's cup of tea, although there is a good deal of humour in it.

It’s a  city with human influence of streets and architecture, the natural world everywhere intermingled with the buildings and the way the city 'steals out into the fields.'  That is as important to him as well as the culture of books and librairies.

He seems to have enjoyed looking back, but the book is not a personal account at all. Oxford gave him time to read and learn and make some friends, but his was not a typical student life because of the separate, secret life he had with Helen throughout.
If you are interested in Oxford it's worth buying Lucy Newlyn's book.
The poem? One of his best melancholy, looking-back poems. The lost one may be Edna.
Gone, gone again
Gone, gone again,
May, June, July,
And August gone,
Again gone by,

Not memorable
Save that I saw them go,
As past the empty quays
The rivers flow.

And now again,
In the harvest rain,
The Blenheim oranges
Fall grubby from the trees,

As when I was young—
And when the lost one was here—
And when the war began
To turn young men to dung.

Look at the old house,
Outmoded, dignified,
Dark and untenanted,
With grass growing instead

Of the footsteps of life,
The friendliness, the strife;
In its beds have lain
Youth, love, age, and pain:

I am something like that;
Only I am not dead,
Still breathing and interested
In the house that is not dark:—

I am something like that:
Not one pane to reflect the sun,
For the schoolboys to throw at—
They have broken every one.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Seamus Heaney- another response to  his favourite Edward Thomas poem.


A new poem, possibly his last, by Seamus Heaney, was published in the Guardian last Saturday. Like On The Lagan Road, it was a response to his favourite Thomas poem, As the Team's Head Brass.

Guardian October 26th 2013

Below is an extract from Branchlines. modern poets responses to Edward Thomas, edited by Lucy Newlyn and Guy Cuthbertson. I hope Guy and Lucy will be happy with my citing it.

Seamus Heaney introduces 'As The Team's Headbrass' with this passage, showing his characteristic
'every-dayness', erudition, wide-ranging sphere of reference and generosity.

Edward Thomas on the Lagans Road
He's not in view but I can hear a step
On the grass-crowned road, the whip of daisy heads
On the toes of boots.
                                    Behind the hedge
Eamon Murphy and Teresa Brennan -
Fully clothed, strong-arming each other -
Have sensed him and gone quiet. I keep on watching
As they rise and go.
                              And now the road is empty.
Nothing but air and light between their love-nest
And the bracken hillside where I lie alone.
Utter evening, as it was in the beginning,
Until the remembered come and go of lovers
Brings on his long-legged self on the Lagans Road -
Edward Thomas in his khaki tunic
Like one of the Evans brothers out of Leitrim,
Demobbed, 'not much changed', sandy moustached and freckled
From being, they said, with Monty in the desert.

 The next work in 'District and Circle' is a prose piece 'The Lagans Road'.
'The Lagan's Road ran for about three quarters of a mile across an area of wetlands. It was one of those narrow country roads with weeds in the middle, grass verges and high hedges on either side, and all around it marsh and rushes and little shrubs and birch trees. For a minute or two every day, therefore you were in the wilderness...'
It  must have known the road he knew first and earliest, as he describes going along it on his first day at school, minded by a neighbour's daughter, and hearing the shouts of children from half- a mile away.

The river Lagan is a tidal river west of Belfast.

As the Team's Head- Brass

As the team's head-brass flashed out on the turn
The lovers disappeared into the wood.
I sat among the boughs of the fallen elm
That strewed the angle of the fallow, and
Watched the plough narrowing a yellow square
Of charlock. Every time the horses turned
Instead of treading me down, the ploughman leaned
Upon the handles to say or ask a word,
About the weather, next about the war.
Scraping the share he faced towards the wood,
And screwed along the furrow till the brass flashed
Once more.

The blizzard felled the elm whose crest
I sat in, by a woodpecker's round hole,
The ploughman said. 'When will they take it away? '
'When the war's over.' So the talk began –
One minute and an interval of ten,
A minute more and the same interval.
'Have you been out? ' 'No.' 'And don't want to, perhaps? '
'If I could only come back again, I should.
I could spare an arm, I shouldn't want to lose
A leg. If I should lose my head, why, so,
I should want nothing more...Have many gone
From here? ' 'Yes.' 'Many lost? ' 'Yes, a good few.
Only two teams work on the farm this year.
One of my mates is dead. The second day
In France they killed him. It was back in March,
The very night of the blizzard, too. Now if
He had stayed here we should have moved the tree.'
'And I should not have sat here. Everything
Would have been different. For it would have been
Another world.' 'Ay, and a better, though
If we could see all all might seem good.' Then
The lovers came out of the wood again:
The horses started and for the last time
I watched the clods crumble and topple over
After the ploughshare and the stumbling team.

Here's an extract from my novel:

Granted a day’s leave in May, too brief to travel to Steep and being disinclined to visit his parents, he planned a day-long walk into the countryside west of the camp. Once he was out of the suburbs he began to feel his old self coming back to him – his Walking Tom self, as his friends called him, striding along, looking, thinking, and solitary again. He needed it, solitude after company. Then he could enjoy company again.

He had no plan, so he followed his favourite method, taking a series of left turns  every few miles, so that he would be likely to find himself having walked a circle and discovered some  lovely, unknown and unexpected sights on the way.

By noon he was hungry and looking for somewhere to sit and eat his lunch. He might find an inn later in the day for a drink.

A stile led out of a wood to a field being ploughed. In the corner near the stile was a fallen elm tree, its branches invading the field. He sat comfortably on the trunk and looked back at the wood – on the path he had just taken were a couple who were clearly lovers. They suddenly left the track and went into the dense undergrowth. He turned away and watched the team of horses and ploughman making the remaining square of charlock shrink with each round they made. The bright brasses decorating the horses’ heads flashed as they turned into the sun at the corner and began to approach him. For one moment he imagined them treading him down.

At each round the ploughman paused briefly and spoke to Edward. It was a strange conversation – a minute’s stop, then the ten minutes it took for the team and the ploughman to come round again. First they talked about the day’s weather, then about the blizzard that had brought down the tree where he sat.

‘When will they carry it away?’ Edward asked.

‘When the war’s over.’ The war had taken a good many men from the district and a good many of them were lost.

 ‘One of my mates is dead. The second day in France they killed him. It was early in March, the blizzard night. Now if he’d stayed here we should’ve cleared this tree.’

‘Well, it would have been a different world. Everything would have been different.’

‘Ay, and a better world,’ the ploughman answered, ‘although if we could know everything it might be for the best.’

Then the man asked, seeing Edward’s uniform, if he had himself been out. He shook his head.

 ‘Nor d’you want to, I suppose?’

 The conversation between them felt suddenly constrained. Then Edward answered lightly, ‘I could cope with losing an arm, but not a leg, and if I lost my head, well, I shouldn’t want for anything.’

 The ploughing was almost finished and the ploughman bade him good-bye. Edward watched as the ploughshare twisted and clods fell inwards behind, the sliced earth shining down the deep furrow. 

Later, over a pint of mild at a crossroad’s inn, he began some notes. He had a sense of something vanishing, that he and those horses and the ploughman were not destined to stay peacefully in these English fields. Only the lovers, in one form or another, would endure. Troubled, he stopped writing for a time, his fingers tracing the line of a deep grain in the table where his notebook lay.


That same March blizzard brought down all the seven elm trees in the garden at the Gallows that had troubled Robert so much. The Abercrombies weren’t there, in Gloucestershire, any more. Lascelles was supervising a munitions factory in the north by then.

Friday, October 18, 2013

The importance of pubs.

My publisher, Frank Egerton of StreetBooks, has a blog,  justthoughtsandstuff: it reflects both his work - novelist, tutor and librarian, but equally his experiences of country life and the seasons. In a recent post he wrote movingly about the death of the landlord of his local in the West Oxfordshire village where he lives.

It rang a chord for me and I remembered this poem by Michael Longley, who along with Edna Longley the Thomas expert par non, is Joint chair of the Edward Thomas Fellowship.

From Michael Longley's lovely volume, A Hundred Doors.
How it would have suited Edward Thomas to have that death Longley imagined! At least I think so, as he was a connoisseur of pubs and inns and they were an important refuge and resource for him. Here are a few I've written about before.

A very  important pub - or inn as Thomas would have called it - is the  Pub-with-no-name at Froxfield, a comfortable walk from Steep: it is the subject of  his first known poem, Up in the Wind.(3rd December 1914).
The Pub with no name - the inn sign frame remains blank. ( Its name is The White Horse)

In November 1914  he drafted a piece in his exercise book about the inn and the 'wild girl' who worked there, "a daughter of the house, fresh from a long absence in service in London, a bright  active wildish slattern with a cockney accent and her hair half down."  He begins:

"Tall beeches overhang the inn, dwarfing and half hiding it, for it lies back a field’s breadth from the by road. The field is divided from the road by a hedge and only a path from one corner and a cart track from the other which meet under the beeches connect the inn with the road. But for a signboard or rather the post and empty iron frame of a signboard close to the road behind the hedge a traveller could not guess at an inn. The low dirty white building looks like a farmhouse, with a lean-to, a rick and a shed of black boarding at one side . . . "

As Edna Longley writes, "Up in the Wind is Thomas's closest approximation to the Robert Frost "eclogue" in which rural speakers tell or act out their story." Her annotation to the poem adds so much to the reading of it.

Another inn that appears in the novel is at the village of Hawkley, a walk away down the 'other' side of the hill, through Oakshott with the watercress stream. This is part of the Hanger's Way walk (beech hangers are wooded slopes.)This extract concerns the imminent move of Edward from Steep - really the beginning of the end:

After a morning’s work he decided that instead of going back to Yew Tree he would go to the inn at Hawkley; it was hardly a greater distance, but in the other direction. From Old Litten Lane he followed the north-side hanger, passing the great excavations of badgers whose destruction someone had overlooked. Tiny chips of white snail shell glinted in the russet-brown earth.

Beyond the cropped flinty sheep-fields lay the lushness of Oakshott stream valley.

Its green bowl was surrounded by high hills, with Cheesecombe Farm lying comfortably at the base. Watercress grew all along the stream and under the plank bridge. It hadn’t been gathered this year. He thought that the old man, who he always thought of as Jack Noman, must be dead; ‘Jack’ had last appeared with watercress on a lovely May day more than two years before. Edward reached down and dipping his hand into a cluster of the streaming leaves, he snapped off some stalks, bringing them up to his face. The water cooled him and the tang of the cress filled him with memories.

Crossing Oakshott Rill

With bread, cheese, cress and ale he sat facing the sun outside Hawkley Inn. He was suddenly sad. At the cottage he had only been fretful at the disruption and nuisance of moving, but now, after this walk, he felt what Steep and Hampshire meant to him and what it was to leave. It was a landscape which had often made his life bearable, had helped him to find something of himself, just by walking, feeling the earth under his feet or his whole body when he lay down to rest. He had come near to wanting to root there, to do no more roaming.

The climb back up to Wheatham Hill from the valley bottom was strenuous, a steep path through the woods. Down its centre was a cleft, a miniature canyon of creamy chalk where rain formed a stream-bed in wet weather. Once at the top, he went a little lower down the Shoulder of Mutton to where the trees were thinner and he could see over six English counties at a glance. His eyes followed the long white road away towards the downs and the distant estuaries of the south coast.

He sensed that there was some knowledge that he was not quite allowing himself; that this was more, perhaps, than leaving Steep. Was it because of what they meant to him, those counties – his Hampshire, and Wiltshire, Berkshire and the rest, that he must leave them? He believed that for him, now, all roads must lead to France.

His view from the hill was blurred with tears. The thought of parting from everything he knew brought for a moment a sense of dread. It was this loss, rather than what he was going towards, that he felt and feared.

He had after all, found a home, and it was at Steep.


The third pub brings us back to Steep, or at least its outer borders, almost in the village of Sheet. It is the lovely little Harrow Inn - a tiny bar which is surely much as it was in 1915 when I have Robert visiting Edward just before he leaves with his family and Merfyn Thomas for America.
The Harrow, Steep.
From my 'Helen' memoir :
 'Robert did come to Steep after all. The Frost family had all had such a busy time, hurrying down to London to see certain officials, one concerning Merfyn, but Robert was kind: he sent a telegram and arrived from the station almost at the same time. Edwy was so pleased. With Robert’s help he could reach the old Harrow Inn. He was so keen that Robert should see it – its tiny room no bigger than our living room and Mr Coffin the landlord with his droll ways. So Edwy sat on his Humber and half scooted with his good ankle for the mile past the church, with Robert pushing on the saddle, both of them laughing like children. They stayed there most of the day until it was time for the train.

 It was all arranged – Merfyn and I would come to Dymock by train on the fifteenth, meet them there, then take a train to Liverpool. And then I would have to come home without my son.

Edwy and Robert stood at our gate in the twilight, still talking. They stopped for a moment to marvel at our blackbird, still singing his heart out. Then they embraced and Robert was gone. The talk was all of how soon Edward would be following them to America. He limped back into the cottage with his eyes shining. I turned away so that he would not see my face and be angry with me for spoiling his mood.'


From 'Up in the Wind:'

Two roads cross, and not a house in sight
Except " The White Horse " in this clump of beeches.
It hides from either road, a field's breadth back ;
And it's the trees you see, and not the house,
Both near and far, when the clump's the highest thing
And homely, too, upon a far horizon
To one that knows there is an inn within.

" 'Twould have been different," the wild girl shrieked, " suppose
That widow had married another blacksmith and
Kept on the business. This parlour was the smithy.
If she had done, there might never have been an inn ;
And I, in that case, might never have been born.
Years ago, when this was all a wood
And the smith had charcoal-burners for company,
A man from a beech-country in the shires
Came with an engine and a little boy
(To feed the engine) to cut up timber here.
It all happened years ago. The smith
Had died, his widow had set up an alehouse —
I could wring the old thing's neck for thinking of it.
Well, I suppose they fell in love, the widow
And my great-uncle that sawed up the timber :
Leastways they married. The little boy stayed on.
He was my father." She thought she'd scrub again —
" I draw the ale and he grows fat," she muttered —
But only studied the hollows in the bricks
And chose among her thoughts in stirring silence.
The clock ticked, and the big saucepan lid
Heaved as the cabbage bubbled, and the girl
Questioned the fire and spoke : " My father, he
Took to the land. A mile of it is worth
A guinea ; for by the time all trees
Except these few about the house were gone :
That's all that's left of the forest unless you count
The bottoms of the charcoal-burners' fires —
We ploughed one up at times. Did you ever see
Our signboard ? " No. The post and empty frame
I knew. Without them I should not have guessed
The low grey house and its one stack under trees
Was a public house and not a hermitage.
" But can that empty frame be any use ?
Now I should like to see a good white horse
Swing there, a really beautiful white horse,
Galloping one side, being painted on the other."
" But would you like to hear it swing all night
And all day ? All I ever had to thank
The wind for was for blowing the sign down.
Time after time it blew down and I could sleep.
At last they fixed it, and it took a thief
To move it, and we've never had another :
It's lying at the bottom of the pond.
But no one's moved the wood from off the hill
There at the back, although it makes a noise
When the wind blows ; as if a train were running
The other side, a train that never stops
Or ends. And the linen crackles on the line
Like a wood fire rising." " But if you had the sign
You might draw company. What about Kennington ? "
She bent down to her scrubbing with " Not me :
Not back to Kennington. Here I was born,
And I've a notion on these windy nights
Here I shall die. Perhaps I want to die here.
I reckon I shall stay. But I do wish
The road was nearer and the wind farther off.
Or once now and then quite still, though when I die
I'd have it blowing that I might go with it
Somewhere distant, where there are trees no more
And I could wake and not know where I was
Nor even wonder if they would roar again.
Look at those calves."

Between the open door
And the trees two calves were wading in the pond,
Grazing the water here and there and thinking,
Sipping and thinking, both happily, neither long.
The water wrinkled, but they sipped and thought,
As careless of the wind as it of us.
" Look at those calves. Hark at the trees again."

Friday, October 11, 2013

Edward and Helen- What they ate on holiday - and at war.

Unusual stark simple front page.

Newfoundland headline

My novel begins with Robert Frost taking action having heard of the declaration of war on 4th August, 1914 . He walked from Little Iddens in Leddington to Ledbury to stock up on provisions, buying boxes of a shredded-wheat cereal, tins of sweet biscuits and some soap. These were to be delivered by carter; when they arrived he stacked them up in the sitting room.

c Friends of the Dymock Poets.
The war troubled the Frost family, understandably - first it made his work less viable as war subjects pre-occupied the population, and secondly as ships became threatened, the Atlantic crossing, should they decide to go home, was dangerous.

But that August, the Thomases on holiday at Oldfields farm were more conscious of the enormous bounty of food in the villages, a prosperous farming and fruit -growing area.

When they picnicked with the Frosts Helen took advantage of  it:

'I’d prepared the picnic food carefully. Produce seemed plentiful as ever, but I noticed that prices were beginning to rise. I heard the Chandlers wondering whether they would have to increase our board and lodgings fee from three guineas a week. It was true we ate a great deal, especially Merfyn, at that growing stage.

In a sense we were also the Frosts’ guests as we spent most evenings with them at Little Iddens, with the children munching their way through the wartime supply of sugary biscuits, so I felt we owed them this picnic lunch. And I enjoyed the work. Big fresh loaves, lettuces, tomatoes and a deep chicken and ham pie. And for dessert, yellow-skinned apples, which Edward loved for their scent as much as their flavour, and a big bowl of purple plums. Mary Chandler said they were not up to market standard but they were perfectly ripe, with that deep gold dew beginning to ooze sweetly in the little blemishes that condemned them.

But the Frosts were carrying lemonade and a tin of the wretched biscuits, although I’d said I would see to the food. The orderly lunch I’d planned was not to turn into one of the Frosts’ haphazard free-for-alls. I wanted to show Robert and Eleanor, especially Eleanor, how it could be done. '

Earlier in 1914 Edward had visited his Welsh cousin and friend John Jenkins who used the bardic name Gwili, after his local river near Ammandford, Carmarthenshire.

River Amman
Gwili had been living there for some years, and  Edward came to Ammanford on his much-looked-forward-to visit with Merfyn and Bronwen. Special preparations were to be made at the lodgings, brown bread was to be got in, and it was to be baked in slices very hard in the oven. There were to be some bananas and dates if possible, and the tail piece of the letter asked for very fat bacon, the fattest in the land.

Helen had found the huge filling meals she had been expected to eat when visiting the Welsh relations too much for her in earlier years - it looks as though the Thomases were quite particular about what their children should eat.

Food supply& shortages

Before the First World War, over 75% of the butter, cheese, eggs and bacon consumed in the UK came from overseas, from the 'Empire'. The outbreak of war brought an urgent need to cut down on imports to save foreign currency, and to reallocate shipping to the war effort. Food shortages became a serious issue.

As soon as war was declared in 1914, Sainsbury’s posted notices in the windows of all its branches stating that regular customers would be kept supplied and warning against hoarding. Despite this appeal, queues began to form as worried customers stocked up on basic foodstuffs. {Robert Frost's rush to Ledbury for cereals, soap and biscuits was typical.} Panic buying quickly pushed up the prices of imported food, particularly sugar and butter. Regulations were put in place: managers were instructed not to sell more than 2lbs of sugar to anyone.

Some ‘home-produced’ food could still be obtained at reasonable prices. With the rising price of imported butter, margarine became an important product during these war years.
Even if goods were available, the requisitioning of delivery horses by the army affected distribution to branches like Sainsbury's. Home delivery of bread, milk, meat and the 'weekly order', the norm for many households, was affected or stopped and customers were asked to carry smaller parcels home for themselves. They were also encouraged to settle their accounts promptly.  
(From Imperial war museum.)
Rationing was not introduced until 1918 - that was considered a mistake, rectified in the Second World war. The result was that food shortages after the war were even worse and rationing lasted until 1921.
As the war progressed the food shortages were manifesting themselves for the Thomases. In the short time they lived at High Beech in Epping Frost Helen kept Leghorn chickens for eggs, and Edward had netted the garden against rabbits. But cooking was a problem as there was no proper stove: Helen cooked porridge and fried bacon on an open fire.

Meanwhile, in France

At the start of the war, British soldiers at the front were allowed 10oz of meat and 8oz of vegetables per day, a luxury compared to what would be provided in the years to come. Parcels from home loaded with chocolate, tins of sardines, and sweet biscuits would be a welcome but irregular source of extra nourishment. For day-to-day meals, soldiers’ options were limited.

The size of the British Army and the efficiency of the German submarine blockade grew in tandem, with doubly bad results for the state of British Army rations. By 1916, the meat ration was down to 6oz a day, and later, meat was only provided once every nine days. Things were getting worse, and Tommies were beginning to fend for themselves. There are reports of vegetable patches being established in reserve trenches, and of men going hunting and fishing while not in the front-line, both to pass the time and to supplement their meagre rations.

The winter of 1916 saw a major shortage of flour. It was replaced by dried, ground-up turnips which produced unappetising, diarrhoea-inducing bread. At this time, the staple food of the British soldier was pea-soup with horse-meat chunks. The hard-working kitchen teams were having to source local vegetables as best they could, and when that was not an option, weeds, nettles, and leaves would be used to whip up soups and stews.

Each battalion was assigned two industrial-sized vats for food preparation. The problem was that every type of meal was readied within these containers, and so, over time, everything started to taste the same. As a result, pea-and-horse flavoured tea was something the soldiers had to get used to.
Canister being filled for soldier to take hot soup to the trenches.

Food transportation was also an issue. By the time it reached the front, bread and biscuits had turned stale and other produce had gone off. In order to combat this, soldiers crumbled the hard food that arrived and added potatoes, sultanas, and onions to soften the mixture up. This concoction would then be boiled in a sandbag and eaten as a sandy, stale soup.

Soldiers and kitchen staff were forced to carry soups and stews through the communication trenches in cooking pans, petrol cans, and jars. Upon arrival at the front-line, the food would be cold or spilled. In an effort to rectify this, field kitchens were relocated further forward, but they were never able to get close enough to provide hot food for the men. Some were lucky enough to obtain small camping stoves from town shops, but with fuel in such high demand, this was never much of an advantage, and the stoves also had to be carried.

One widely-used and equally widely-disliked ration was the canned soup, Maconochie. A thin, watery broth containing sliced turnips and carrots, Maconochie was tolerated by famished soldiers, and detested by all. One soldier summed up the army’s attitude towards the stuff by saying, ‘Warmed in the tin, Machonochie was edible; cold it was a man-killer.’

Of course, to allow the Germans to get wind of this desperate food situation would never do. The British Army had to be portrayed as a content, well-fed, determined body whose morale was unwavering. An army announcement that British soldiers were being given two hot meals a day, however, caused widespread outrage among soldiers. The army subsequently received over 200,000 angry letters demanding that the dire truth be made known.

Making ­­good, fresh Maconochie
Normally prepared in a dug-out or reserve trench, in a modern kitchen Maconochie stew should not be difficult to make.
340g beef (or one can of corned beef)
140g waxy potatoes
30g onions
30g carrots
30g beans, cooked (white beans such as haricot)
60ml beef stock or water
15ml flour
15ml fat (lard or rendered beef fat)
Salt to taste
1. If using fresh beef, cut into ½ inch to 1 inch pieces.
2. Thinly slice potatoes, onions, and carrots.
3. Steam or boil the beef, potatoes, carrots, and onions until tender.
4. Heat the fat in a pan.
5. Add cooked potatoes, carrots, onions, beans, and beef over medium heat.
6. Make a batter of the beef stock or water with flour.
7. Add batter to the stew.
8. Cook until thickened.
9. Salt to taste.
                                  c.Military History Monthly

Extracts from A Conscious Englishman:

 He wrote to his brother Julian, 'I've suffered far more than this in other early springs.' The physical discomforts are not so different from us cycling in icy rain, he reminded Julian.

They washed and shaved in a canvas wash-stand, warming the water on an open fire first. In a scrap of mirror he could see that his face was really gaunt. The Maconochie rations, tinned stew and bully beef, were not generous. Those, and tea and jam, were their meals. If it weren’t for the food parcels that came quite regularly from Helen, Eleanor and his mother, he would go hungry.
 Shells fell all around his billet, and he saw many dead and wounded. Death would come for him one
day, he thought, whether from appendicitis, old age or a bullet. Even so, he felt that he would enjoy this whole experience more if only he could be sure to survive it. He wanted to survive, to go on living having faced death. It would be a different life, he thought, and he in some ways a different man. To Robert he wrote that he could not think of being home again, but he dared not think of never being there

Sunday, October 6, 2013

A weekend in Wales, Thomas on Shelley.

During a 'last of the year' camping weekend we stayed in Radnorshire and visited a place I hadn't heard of - the Elan Valley. The valley had been flooded and dammed since the mid - nineteenth century. I was surprised to find a statue of Shelley at the Visitors ' Centre. He stayed with a cousin in the valley while he was young and pursuing Harriet his first wife.

When I looked up  Shelley in Thomas's 'A Literary Pilgrim' I found he did of course know about this.
He was an admirer of Shelley, especially perhaps when he was  young, and in the novel I used a phrase in a letter he wrote to Edna Clarke-Hall when he was twenty-one. That letter is unpublished and I was given permission by the Berg Collection, New York Public Library, to quote from it. Sixteen years after the letter was written, he and Edna are looking at it together:
But let me read this elegant epistle. ‘The approach of our next pilgrimage to Thames Ditton.’ Rather pretentious–that was my style then, I suppose.’

‘Read on.’

'My wife has indeed become one of your admirers tho I will swear I have not done you justice in my descriptions, and she would relish a visit from you as much as the return of the swallows.’

‘Mmmh. I never did visit.’

‘No – but that was because of the dreadful flat, as it says. It is a trifle exaggerated –this ‘misty hollow, this dismal street.’   Good Lord! I suppose after Oxford and Lincoln quad it was outrageously grim. Helen, though, was quite content – she had Merfyn. But it was almost too much for me.’

‘It sounds as though it were. And then you go on with these trees that never existed.’

‘What a lot of nonsense I wrote– 'living in the shade of imaginary poplars indeed.’

‘I wonder what you meant.’

‘Oh I know well enough – I was disheartened, frightened even. I lived in a kind of mystic rural fantasy at that time, desperately wanting to make a living writing and to live in the country – it was what I needed.’

‘Edward, why do you think you wrote to me then?’

‘Well - because - I suppose once I’d left Oxford and not seeing Edmund who'd introduced us, I was afraid it would be all too easy to lose touch with you. And those visits to you – they were a kind of lifeline thrown to me among my troubles. And I needed one to be thrown to Atheldene Road – I really did.’

He read on, smiling.

‘Oh look at this. "Of course I live – if living it may be called– by my writing, ‘literature’ we call it in Fleet St - a litter of pigs – he made an awful litter."  Ha ha – an attempt at humour.’

‘I thought it was quite amusing', Edna said. ‘And then you lecture me about keeping up my Shelley, but you needn’t have worried – I loved Shelley and I still do.’

‘Good. Oh back to the poverty line – bone soup.'

‘I felt for Helen when I read that. Were you really so poor?’

‘We certainly were.’

‘Read the rest. It’s the part I like best.’

"I am selfish enough to wish I could ask you to come and see" – it’s crossed out – "see my wife and me."

‘You wrote “See me” first, look.’

‘True. This description of the flat – why did I think you would be interested?’

‘Read it out. I love it – I can picture it exactly.’

He began to read as though it were a salesroom catalogue.


"1) a study with walls of French grey, ‘softer than sleep’

(2) some copies of pictures by Leonardo, Andrea del Canto, Rossetti and Burne Jones, and a dear old photo of Tintern that was the last thing I looked at when I  went to bed at 6  and lived in short frocks.

(3) between 900 & 1000 books

(4) a green armchair from Wm. Morris, 2 or 3 others, all so comfortable that in them I can laugh at poverty even on an empty stomach

 (5) a drinking cup (an unconventional ‘christening’ cup for our baby, Philip Merfyn) inscribed with mottoes by all my friends

(6) a blazing fire (7) me."

His voice changed as he read the last lines.


"Will you write to me?

Ever sincerely yours

Edward Thomas. "


Yes, I remember it all. What I was feeling as I wrote – I had to laugh at myself, make myself amusing to you. It did me good to write that letter, as if I were watching from outside, and could laugh at my predicament. Yet showing you that I did need to see you still. I was absolutely longing for my friends.’

‘And you did visit me for a time. Then you stopped.’

‘I know.’
                                                                      *    *   *

(Most annoyingly I haven't actually cited the Shelley line and being conscientious I haven't retained it anywhere as I was told not to. I wonder whether Edward had hopes of improving Edna's poetry, if she had already begun trying to write at that time. The phrase, 'Don't give up the day job' inevitably comes to mind! I might post about them soon.)
From Literary Pilgrim in England(sic) he describes Shelley, aged 18, being in Wales but so agitated by love and romantic composition that he could not appreciate the scenery sufficiently.  He'd been expelled from Oxford for atheism and lost his fiancée for the same reason- but he was in love with another anyway:

'In July and August 1810 he was in Radnorshire, at his cousin Thomas Grove's house, Cwm Elann near Rhyader. ... Wales he found 'excessively grand', the scenery 'highly romantic'  but he did not much regard the woods, the cloudy mountains, the waterfalls.... He wrote that he was  'not wholly uninfluenced by their magic' in his lonely walks, but he longed for a thunderstorm.'

However, the Powys digital history project gives a slightly warmer picture -

The future poet, who was yet to produce any notable literary work, then went to London, where he met another Harriet, Harriet Westbrook, the daCwm Elan Houseughter of an inn-keeper. In July 1811, when Shelley was almost 19, he was invited by his uncle to stay at Cwm Elan. He chose to walk to mid-Wales all the way from the family estate in Sussex.
Whilst in Wales he was greatly impressed by the wild and romantic surroundings, as shown in his surviving letters of the time:
"Rocks piled on each other to tremendous heights, rivers formed into cataracts by their projections, and valleys clothed with woods, present an  appearance of enchantment."
"This country is highly romantic; here are rocks of uncommon height and picturesque waterfalls. I am more astonished at the grandeur of the scenery than I expected."
"...I am not wholly uninfluenced by its magic on my lonely walks." 

Shelley married Harriet after eloping and they sought to live in a manor house at Nantgwllt, also in the Elan Valley, and also like the cousin's house, now under water. It re-emerged when waters were low in the '30's and again in 1947, only a heap of rubble.
Pictures from Radnorshire Museum , Llandridnod Wells.


Tuesday, October 1, 2013

By request, reissuing this 'foodie' post.

Before the war and in early war-time.

I'm afraid this may be lowering the tone - or am I simply following the current 'foodie' obsession? Either way, I have realised how much food features in my novel and how much more space I could have given it, using the sources I had.
Helen's 'Under Storm's Wing' has a great deal of cooking  in it - mostly 'teas', and Edward is always meeting people in London restaurants. I knew that Edward frequently followed a vegetarian regime, advised by doctors, and sometimes he was told to abstain from alcohol, which I suspect he would have found harder as he liked an inn and his ale.
Once Edward left Oxford and he and Helen were living together in  a first-floor flat  or 'half-house' (Atheldene Road) they had no money and he wrote to Edna Clarke-Hall that they lived on 'bone soup'.

Atheldene road house(theirs has gone.)

Helen wrote, 'We lived on bread and cheese and tea. I remember having only ninepence one Saturday to buy provisions for the weekend.'
 Slowly through selling his reviews and articles their position improved and they moved to Rose Acre Cottage, Kent, where Helen enjoyed using the bread oven to make bread:
'putting the loaves in the clean hot bricks, and seeing them begin to rise before I had time to shut the iron door.'

Once at Steep they grew vegetables in the gardens of all three of their cottages there - broad and runner beans, carrots, potatoes, lettuce, peas.

 Helen spent a good deal of energy in entertaining Edward's friends. She was, she writes, shy about meeting new people and probably her confidence was boosted by knowing that they would enjoy her hospitality. Myfanwy writes:

'Often Eleanor  would walk over to Steep with her brothers and their friends. One summer day Mother was expecting them all. After spending a hot summer day in the kitchen baking bread, scones, gingerbread and rock cakes, she laid tea in the cool sitting room.....freshly baked goods covered with clean tea-towels, a saucer of Mrs Dennet's  deep yellow butter sprigged with parsley, a jar of home -made damson jam and another of the Lupton's honey.' 

Rock cakes were often on Helen's menu and remembered fondly. Here is an early  twentieth-century recipe:

Half-pound flour                                      Two ounces currants
Three ounces butter                                  Half-ounce candied peel
   Four ounces sugar                                 One teaspoon baking powder
                                                                Pinch ginger or spice
                                                                One egg, a little milk
Sieve the flour, rub in the butter; add all dry ingredients and fruit and mix thoroughly. Beat the egg with a little milk. Add it to the flour , and mix to a stiff dough. Place in rough heaps on a baking tray, and bake in a hot oven for about fifteen minutes.

My sense is  that Edward was much more ascetic than Helen. Here he writes to Eleanor before their Broads house-boat holiday:
'There's one rule for Merfyn I should like to keep-  that he shall have his last meal at tea-time and never a meal just before bed, & this tea need include nothing extraordinarily solid-  just bread and butter and salad or fruit or anything cold and handy or nothing if need be.'
My experience of thirteen and a half year old boys suggests that 'nothing' would not be a popular idea!


Eating Out in London

St Martin's Lane, London.

Edward paid very regular visits to London and Eleanor Farjeon writes of three restaurants he frequented : the Cottage Tea Rooms in the Strand, St George's restaurant and cafe, St Martin's Lane where the literary set met for lunch, and Shearns vegetarian restaurant.
You can search Images for the Cottage Tearooms in 1910 in a very busy Strand.
 Shearns, Tottenham Court Road, was a radical health food shop and vegetarian restaurant.
I was excited to find this restaurant review for the St Martin's Lane cafe - it's from 1899 but I imagine not much changed fourteen years later:

'I opened the leaded glass door of the St. George’s and found myself in a long room with plenty of palms and a general look of being cared for, with a counter and many long white-clothed tables, with seats for about half a dozen at each. There were little black-dressed waitresses flitting about, and at the tables a fair sprinkling of men, neither obtrusively smart nor obtrusively shabby, who were dining, and who nearly all kept their hats on. I drifted down to the end of the room and sat at a table and told the waitress in rather a feeble way that I should like the best vegetarian dinner that the house could give me. The waitress suggested that I had better go upstairs to the table-d’hôte room, and I gathered up my goods and chattels and went like a lamb.

The room on the first floor was a nice bright little room, with white overmantels to the fire­places, with one corner turned into a bamboo arbour, with painted tambourines and little mandolines and pictures, and an oaken clock on the light-papered walls, with red-shaded candles on the tables set for four or six. Two pretty girls in black, one with a white flower, one with a red, were in charge, and another girl peered out from a little railed desk by the door. In the back­ground was a glimpse of a kitchen, behind a glass screen where some one was whistling “Sister Mary Jane’s Top Note,” and the two little waitresses were constantly hurrying to this screen with a “Hurry up with that pigeon’s egg,” or a “Be quick, now, with those flageolets.” My table was beautifully
clean, with a little bunch of flowers on it, with a portentously large decanter and an array of glasses.

The waitress with the red flower put down a little bill of fare before me, and I learned that my dinner was to be—

Mulligatawny soup or Carrot soup.
Flageolets with cream and spinach.
Fried duck’s egg and green peas.
Lent pie or Stewed fruit.
Mixed salad.
Some olives in a small plate were put down before me, and through force of habit I took up the black-covered wine list on the table. The first items were orange wine, rich raisin wine, ginger wine, black currant wine, red currant wine, raspberry wine, elderberry wine. I put it down with a sigh, and ordered a bottle of ginger- beer. Then while I munched at an olive I looked round at my fellow-guests. There was a sister of mercy in her black and white, with her gold cross showing against her sombre garment; there was a tall, thin gentleman who would not have done for any advertisement of anybody’s fattening food; there was a young lady in a straw hat with a many-coloured ribbon to it, who was so absorbed in an illustrated paper that she was neglecting her dinner ; there were two other ladies enjoying their stewed fruit immensely ; and there were two other gentlemen of the type I had seen below, but who were not wearing their hats.
The carrot soup, which was the soup I chose, was quite hot and was satisfying. The spinach was not up to club form and the flageolets topping it did not look inviting, but I made an attack on it and got half through, not because I wanted to eat it, but because I did not want to hurt the waitress’s feelings. The duck’s egg was well fried, and I enjoyed it, though the peas were a trifle hard. Then I fell into disgrace with the waitress, for I would have neither Lent pie nor stewed fruit, pleading that I never ate sweets.Lent Pie

 “What, not stewed fruit?’ said the little girl with the red rose; and I knew that in her opinion I had missed the crown of the feast. A little bowl of lettuce and cucumber, with a bottle of salad dressing, was put in front of me, and I mixed my own salad. Then I ate a slice of Gruyère cheese, and finished with some almonds and raisins that were grouped on a platter round an orange. It being, as the sign- board had told me, a noted coffee-house, I ordered a small cup of the liquid, and said “Black,” in reply to the waitress’s question.
It was capital coffee undoubtedly, and, having finished it, I asked for my bill. The waitress pulled out a little morocco-covered memorandum book, and presented me with this :— Ginger­beer, 2d.; coffee, 2d.; dinner, 1s. 6d.; total, 1s. 10d. I paid at the desk, and went forth feeling rather empty.'
Lt –Col. Newnham-Davies
I'm sure Edward would have had the stewed fruit especially if it included  prunes.

  Next - eating on holiday and at war.
No poem seems appropriate - Blenheim Oranges? The Cherry Trees? Swedes? No. Not really.