Friday, 11 November 2016

Quiller-Couch and the Prisoner of War


Wilfrid Parsons and my father had been good friends at Theological College in the 1930s, and both began their careers as curates in South London. Wilfrid became an Army Chaplain as soon as the Second World War broke out, and after brief training sailed to France with the British Expeditionary Force in 1940.  Some time between 28th May and 3rd June he was captured, along with the remnants of his unit, during the retreat to Dunkirk. He spent nearly five years as a Prisoner of War in various camps in Germany and Poland, even though as a non-combattant padre he should have been repatriated at once under the terms of the Geneva Convention.

He was my godfather. I never knew him well, but I can picture him on a visit to our home. He spent most of the time sitting alone on a deck chair in the middle of our large Rectory lawn, smoking his pipe. ‘I can hardly imagine,’ (he’d written to my father in October 1941), ‘what it is like to sit in an easy chair, and as for walking out of the front garden without an attendant I shall be quite lost! The greatest godsend will be to be alone for five minutes. But it will come.’  It did, but it took almost the rest of the war.

He was sent first to Kriegsgefangenenlager Oflag VIIC, in Bavaria, and it was from there he sent the first message my father received from him, a card, dated 10th December 1940, thanking him for a letter sent via the Red Cross. Thus began an unpredictable correspondence, hampered by letters and parcels frequently going astray. Twelve of his letters (including one Christmas card) to my father survive. I have them now; I doubt if there were any more.


After a year in Oflag VIIC, Wilfrid was transferred to a huge camp in Poland, Stalag XX A/3, where he was one of the padres officially approved by the camp’s Kommandant . Recently I was astonished to find a photograph on the internet of Wilfrid conducting the funeral of a British prisoner, under the watchful eye of a German guard. He was glad to be busy, but it was reading that helped to keep up his spirits. Writing on 22nd October 1941 to my father, who had just got married and was setting up home for the first time with my mother, Wilfrid said,

I do wish I could look in for a cup of coffee this morning, and have a look at your new home and talk about bookcases and pictures. I can imagine how nice you and Doreen have made everything. These things seem a long way off - at the moment our bookcases are converted milk-boxes and as for an easy chair – well, I suppose they do exist somewhere. But there are plenty of good books, thanks to kind friends and the Red Cross.

I always associate my godfather with books. He used to send me 7/6d book tokens every Christmas, and when he retired and downsized, he bequeathed to me a revolving bookcase of his that, once, I’d enjoyed spinning round – until I whizzed it so fast that all the books fell out. While a POW, he would sometimes ask my father to send him particular titles. Sometimes too he’d mention what he had just read. ‘Ah me!’ he wrote in February 1942, ‘My youth passes by, and the affairs of the world come to me as distant sounds of some dreamland. (Excuse the last sentence; I have recently finished reading Fowler’s King’s English.)

By the end of 1944, Wilfrid had heard he was to be repatriated at last, but no date had been given. He wrote to my father again:

The reading ticks over … I received a batch of Plato, Euripides and Thucydides which I should like to bring back, but I have got most enjoyment since being a POW out of Quiller-Couch’s lectures on ‘Reading’ and ‘Writing’ and other subjects in English Literature. Well, here’s to beating this letter home to you!

The books by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (Q) my godfather admired were collections of lectures given at Cambridge between 1913 and 1918. In them Q had a lot to say about war. When war had been declared in August 1914, he had sat on recruiting committees back in his native Cornwall. Yet he was scathing from the start about ‘well-intentioned superior persons who, with no prospect of dying for their country, are calling on others to make that sacrifice.’ He had no illusions about what was happening. His first lecture in The Art of Reading, delivered on 5th October 1914, attacked politicians who were already ‘perverted by hate’ and eager only ‘to invent what will be commercially serviceable in besting your neighbour, or in gassing him, or in slaughtering him neatly and wholesale.’

Horrified by the way, as he saw it, that such ‘practical science’ was sidelining the humanities, Q spent the war lecturing his audiences on the importance of European literature, from Homer to Thomas Hardy, and how it not only made life endurable during ‘the blank and devastated days of this war’ but would be indispensible in helping to bind Europe together once the war was over. I understand now why my godfather - Uncle Wilfrid as I still think of him – valued Q so highly, and why he marked in pencil this prescient passage from ‘On the Use of Masterpieces’, a lecture delivered just as the Armistice approached, on 6th November, 1918:

This War will leave us bound to Europe as we have never been: and, whether we like it or not, no less inextricably bound to foe than to friend. Therefore, I say, it has become important, and in a far higher degree than it ever was before the War, that our countrymen grow up with a sense of what I may call the soul of Europe. And nowhere but in literature (which is ‘memorable speech’) … can they find this sense.


Adrian Barlow
11 November 2016

[illustrations: (i) Rev. Wilfrid Parsons, CF (Chaplain to the Forces), conducting the funeral of a Prisoner of War at Stalag XX A/3. (ii) Wilfrid’s first message to my father, after becoming a POW.

I have written before about the importance of Q:

Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Anthony Trollope’s own goals

I first read Trollope’s Barchester Towers nearly fifty years ago, on the island of Ithaca, while travelling with a friend during a long vac. We had rented a little room overlooking the sunny harbour at Vathi, the port to which Odysseus at last returned. The room had an en-suite of a sort: you walked out onto a flat rooftop to find a privy and a shower consisting of a head-height tap from which dangled a tin can with holes punched in its bottom. The water was cold but, in the Ionian heat, welcome.

Anthony Trollope (1815-1882) may have been the first novelist to write about a shower. When Alice Vavasour, heroine of Can You Forgive Her? (1864), arrives to stay with her aunt in Cheltenham, she is hardly through the front door before Lady Macleod starts berating her for having broken off her recent engagement. Her aunt certainly does not intend to forgive her, and Alice struggles to defend herself, after which Trollope’s narrator comments:

Perhaps it was better for them both that the attack and defence should thus be made suddenly, at their first meeting. It is better to pull the string at once when you are in the shower bath, and not to stand shivering, thinking of the inevitable which you can only postpone for a few minutes.

I came across this interesting analogy while preparing a talk on ‘Past and Present in the world of Trollope’ to give to the Woodstock Literature Society last weekend.  It is always a pleasure to come back to Trollope; but when I mentioned this lecture to an old friend, he replied , ‘Why has Trollope never quite made the A-list of required reading?’ It’s a question to ponder. I raised it with my audience on Saturday, suggesting that Barchester Towers was possibly the finest comic novel of the 19th century, and that two at least of Trollope’s books, The Last Chronicle of Barset and The Way We Live Now, deserve a place in anyone’s Top Ten list of Victorian fiction.

Trollope himself is often held responsible for his failure to keep a secure foothold in the Premier League. In his posthumously published Autobiography (1883) he had spelt out – much too bluntly for some – the economics of being a novelist, publishing the exact sums he had earned in royalties and fees for every one of his forty seven novels. Then, in describing his working methods, he had startled readers by dismissing that idea that great writing requires great inspiration (preferably to be found by a starving author shivering in a garret); Trollope was unapologetic about sticking to a strict regime:

I have allotted myself so many pages a week. The average number has been about 40. It has been placed as low as 20, and has risen to 112. And as a page is an ambiguous term, my page has been made to contain 250 words; and as words, if not watched, will have a tendency to straggle, I have had every word counted as I went.

Confessing he had been warned ‘such appliances are beneath the notice of a man of genius’, he cheerfully admitted he’d never thought of himself as a genius, but was sure that, even if he were, he would have subjected himself to what he called ‘these trammels’ because  ‘A small daily task, if it be really daily, will beat the labours of a spasmodic Hercules. It is the tortoise which always catches the hare.’ (Echoes of Samuel Smiles?)


Trollope is sometimes too hard on himself, and no doubt some critics (such as F.R. Leavis) and some of his fellow authors (Henry James, for instance) have been too ready to take him at his own estimation; but his analysis of what makes for a successful novelist is worth our attention. Describing how he came to write The Warden, the first of the Barchester novels and the first book of his to receive much recognition, Trollope explains how he wanted to expose – or at least to describe – two contrasting evils. The first of these was ‘the possession by the Church of certain funds and endowments which had been intended for charitable purposes, but which had been allowed to become incomes for idle church dignitaries.’ In the novel a young radical, John Bold, exposes the scandal of a clergyman, Mr Harding, who lives comfortably as the Warden of Hiram’s Hospital, an almshouse for twelve old men: shouldn’t these bedesmen have been receiving the accumulated benefits of the original endowment, instead of the Warden?

The second evil against which Trollope inveighs is by contrast the ‘undeserved severity of the newspapers towards the recipients of such incomes, who could hardly be considered to be the chief sinners in the matter.’ In the novel the Times, disguised as The Thunderer, launches a campaign so scathing against Mr Harding – one of life’s innocents, a man devoted to God and his daughter, to music and to the old men of Hiram’s Hospital – that he resigns, to the despair of his daughter (who is, inconveniently, in love with John Bold) and of the Cathedral clergy, who regard him as a weak-willed traitor to the Church of England for allowing its privileges thus to be undermined.

Trollope wanted to see, and sympathize, with both sides of the argument. However, he concedes:

I was altogether wrong in supposing that the two things could be combined. Any writer in advocating a cause must do so after the fashion of an advocate, – or his writing will be ineffective. He should take up one side and cling to that, and then he may be powerful. There should be no scruples of conscience. Such scruples make a man impotent for such work.

But here I think Trollope is wrong. The genius of The Warden, and what makes it compulsively and provocatively readable, is that it does have ‘scruples of conscience’ about both sides; this is what sets Trollope apart, for example, from the Dickens of Hard Times or Nicholas Nickleby – Dickens, the novelist whom he lampoons in The Warden as Mr. Popular Sentiment. Trollope was almost incapable of seeing only one side: when he stood for Parliament in 1868 he described himself as a Conservative Liberal, and was roundly jeered by both parties.

In speaking last week at Woodstock, I referred to Trollope’s own account of The Vicar of Bullhampton, a novel in which he does place all his sympathy behind a single character: Carry Brattle, the miller’s daughter, whom he politely calls a ‘castaway’ but others do not scruple to call a prostitute. This novel, Trollope declares, ‘was written chiefly with the object of exciting not only pity but also sympathy for a fallen woman, and of raising a feeling of forgiveness for such in the minds of other women.’ He felt so strongly about this that he reprinted the novel’s Preface in his Autobiography; but his own final verdict on The Vicar of Bullhampton was as absurd as it was unsparing, and, alas, did all that was needed to keep this fine novel, and Trollope himself, off the A-list:

As regards all the Brattles, the story is, I think, well told. The characters are true, and the scenes at the mill are in keeping with human nature. For the rest of the book I have little to say. It is not very bad, and it certainly is not very good. As I have myself forgotten what the heroine does and says – except that she tumbles into a ditch – I cannot expect anyone else should remember her. But I have forgotten nothing that was done or said by any of the Brattles.


Adrian Barlow

Sunday, 5 June 2016

As the Hay Festival ends

The Hay Festival comes to an end today. This is the first year I have been since 1996, when I heard Sebastian Faulks discussing his latest novel Birdsong. I have been for two days this time, and have greatly enjoyed the atmosphere, the talks and discussions (some of them superb, others decidedly quirky); I like the relaxed feel of the Festival, and the scope for whole families to come and immerse themselves in a place where (of all places in Britain) books count.  Yes, it has been good to be back in Hay, good to be surrounded by bookshops, to see the swifts above Hay Castle and the late sun on the Black Mountains.

Taking in this view while waiting for the bus back to Hereford, I remembered that, ten years even before my first visit to the Festival, I had once been for a memorable walk along the Olchon Valley, the other side of Hay Bluff. I wrote about this walk at the time, and only the other day turned up the typescript. I don’t think it ever appeared in print, so here it is now. If I had been blogging in those days, it might have been an early and rather self-conscious post to my blog – but (hard to believe) the World Wide Web had not been invented then.

A Short Walk in the Olchon Valley (1986)
At 10pm the night before the great Olchon Valley parish walk, I was stuck in a traffic jam trying to get out of London. The rain was dreadful – real Wye Valley weather in the West end – and my only consolation as I sat wondering what time I should be home was that the Black Mountains hike next day was bound to be cancelled.  I should have known better.

At 2pm the following afternoon I was shouldering my rucksack and setting off from Red Darren car park (in truth little more than an improvised lay-by) in pursuit of some thirty friends, most of whom had already done a full morning’s walk from the tail of the Cat’s Back down to Longtown – aptly named – and up the mountain lane that climbs the NW side of the valley. The weather was ideal, dry and not too windy. I only got my feet wet once, and that was when fording the Olchon Brook, a very respectable stream that flows into the Monnow just north of Pandy. We were to follow the Olchon almost to its source behind Hay Bluff, climbing up an old track (sunken in places) that led to the top of the pass and then over and down into Powys.

It must have been along this same track that Vavasour Powell, the celebrated Puritan preacher, came on his visits to the dissenting congregation who had made the Olchon Valley famous as a centre for the Baptist cause as early as 1650. These Baptists practised immersion in the Olchon Brook, and the names of their first ministers, Thomas Watkins and Thomas Parry (Llanigon) are still honoured in the district. The ‘gentle flock of Olchon’ as they were known, met openly at first in each other’s houses, holding services in Welsh and English; after 1660, however, they were harassed and had to meet secretly before persecution drove them out of the valley altogether and westwards into Wales. Wherever they went (and some finally settled as far west as Rhydwilym in Dyfed) they spread the Baptist cause that had been nurtured in the barns and cottages of the Olchon Valley – the same neat buildings we could see from the ridge of the Black Hill.

Some people hold that walking should be a solitary activity, and jib at the thought of being part of a crowd on a mountain. I have a certain sympathy with this view, but the fact is we weren’t a crowd: we soon spread out, and one of the pleasantest things about such walks is the ebb and flow of conversation as you catch up the person in front, fall back to wait for someone behind, or simply measure your pace alone. Thus, in the course of the afternoon, I spoke with a hospital physician about geriatric care, and negotiated with a small boy who wanted to carry home in his anorak pocket the remains of a sheep’s skeleton; I discussed the changing shape of boiled sweets in Britain and the diversity of Welsh devotional poetry, swapped stories about the perils of automatic doors on tube trains; argued over the correct name of the hill behind Ludlow that we could see – just – in the distance (Clee Hill, The Clees, Brown Clee; which was it? We never agreed) and startled a late lark in the heather.

The varieties of clothing and gear worn by those walking was always a good topic of conversation. The joining instructions had advised, with mandarin understatement, that ‘something rather waterproof is indicated’. In the event, green wellies, dubbined boots and ladies’ tennis shoes all made it to the top and down again, although the owner of the tennis shoes had to be given portage over a ford by two members of the PCC.  A man who rather resembled Clegg from Last of the Summer Wine or the whipper-in of a Northumbrian beagling pack was kind enough to compliment me on my turn-out; he did not fail, however, to remark the trouble I’d had preventing my thick walking stockings from falling down – an embarrassment I hadn’t experienced since early days at school. If only I’d remembered my headmaster’s advice: “Never go out without your garters, boy!”

We were off the Cat’s Back, that narrow ridge leading down from the Black Hill’s summit, by 5.30pm, and home an hour later. It had been a perfect walk, the ideal antidote to London traffic jams and all other hazards of the way we live (most of us) now. The youngest member of the party was four; the oldest – well, much older than that, anyway.

And why did we do it? I suppose you could say because the vicar asked us to, because the church windows needed money spent on them again; but we did it also for the company, for the change and for the pleasure of discovering a very beautiful valley few people ever explore. We went for the exercise, we went for the view, we went for the supper afterwards. All in all, you could say we went for the sheer heaven of it.

                                                               *     *     *
I have reprinted this piece in memory of two people who had a great influence on me and who, though they belonged to different generations and different traditions (one Welsh Baptist, the other Church in Wales), liked and admired each other: the Rev. Tomos Richards and Canon James Coutts. Each of them contributed, in different ways, to the writing of ‘A Short Walk in the Olchon Valley’.

Adrian Barlow

[Illustration: The Olchon Valley, looking toward Hay Bluff; © Copyright Jerry Fryman and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Saturday, 4 June 2016

Edward Wilson: pipe smoking and Polar exploration


To The Wilson, Cheltenham’s Art Gallery and Museum, to celebrate the acquisition of a fairly ordinary-looking smoker’s pipe.  And rightly so, for this pipe belonged to one of the town’s most distinguished sons: the Polar explorer, doctor, artist and naturalist, Edward Adrian Wilson (1872-1912). More than this, research into the pipe’s history has shed light not just on the complex character of Wilson himself but also on the importance of pipe smoking to those who chose to boldly go where no man had gone before in the early years of the twentieth century.


Made of polished rose briar, the pipe is of the ‘Billiard’ style. A silver band protecting the joint where shank meets stem is idiosyncratically engraved with Wilson’s monogram EW (See illustration below). The letters GBD, stamped both on the wooden shank and on the silver band, identify the pipe’s maker as the Paris-based firm Ganneval, Bondier and Donninger. The band, however, is stamped with London hallmarks, dating it to 1900. The initials AO, also stamped onto the silver band, identify A. Oppenheimer & Co. as the London distributor of the pipe.

It’s more than thirty five years since last I smoked a pipe myself. Like me, Wilson had taken it up at university: an 1893 Cambridge photo shows him smiling, boatered and bow-tied, with pipe in mouth. Certainly he smoked one for most of the 1890s and not even TB, severe enough to force him to go to Davos for treatment, put him off for long. He hated the forced inactivity of the regime his Swiss doctors imposed, and was jubilant when eventually allowed to take up his pipe again. ‘SMOKED ALL DAY!’ he recorded in his diary.

Many pipemen, I suppose, have a love-hate relationship with their pipes, and this was certainly true of Wilson. He was a man of extraordinary gifts and interesting contradictions. He used to give up smoking for Lent and would go up into the woods above Cheltenham, to throw his pipe away in a gesture of finality. But when Lent was over, back he’d go to retrieve the pipe and start smoking once again. Not so surprising, perhaps: pipe smokers hate to be separated from their pipes and will go to great lengths to be reunited with them. Robert Graves, in Goodbye to All That, has a story about the Everest mountaineer George Mallory, who

once did an inexplicable climb on Snowdon.  He had left his pipe on a ledge, half-way down one of Lliwedd precipices, and scrambled back by a short cut to retrieve it, then up again by the same route. No one saw what route he took, but when they came to examine it the next day for the official record, they found an overhang nearly all the way. By a rule of the Climbers’ Club climbs are never named in honour of their inventors, but only describe natural features. An exception was made here. The climb was recorded as follows: “Mallory’s Pipe. A variation on Route 2; see adjoining map. This climb is totally impossible. It has been performed once, in failing light, by Mr G.H.L. Mallory.”

There are plenty of photographs of pipe-smoking explorers and mountaineers seen with pipe in hand or clamped between teeth. Look at any photo of Capt. Scott smoking: you’ll probably see he has an identical-looking pipe to the one that now belongs to The Wilson. Just how much his pipe mattered to him, Scott himself explained in the South Polar Times, May 1902:

The day’s work is nearly over; but a solitary joy remains; throughout your recent adventures you have always kept your mind’s eye on the pipe, tobacco and matches that are distributed about your person [….] The solace of that pipe […] is a thing that only the true smoker can appreciate.

George Seaver, Wilson’s first biographer, claims Wilson didn’t smoke while on Discovery, and Scott himself referred to him as ‘a non-smoker’. Not smoking during the expedition (especially if he travelled with today’s pipe, probably presented to him on departure) would have been a severe test of his resolve, for other members of the team all puffed away with gusto. No wonder Discovery had to set sail with 1,300lbs. of tobacco on board: smoking mitigated the extreme cold and dulled the appetite.  Wilson did, however, return to his pipe once back in Britain. Some of his time after 1904 was spent in the Scottish Highlands researching the causes of disease in grouse. He reported that rubbing his socks with pipe tar helped keep the mosquitoes away from his ankles; no doubt wreathing himself in tobacco smoke offered further defence.

I suspect it was this presentation pipe that he smoked in Scotland. Although it comes in a well-worn and much-used leather carrying pouch, the pipe itself has has not been heavily smoked: there is only one tooth mark on the stem. There is, however, some slight pitting on the edge of the bowl. This suggests to me that Wilson was accustomed to knock out his pipe on a convenient stone or rock in order to dislodge the dottle. Seaver claims that by 1908 Wilson had lost all taste for a pipe, and never hankered after it again. Certainly this pipe wasn’t one retrieved from the Antarctic after Wilson’s death: it surfaced in an auction of contents from Hooton Pagnell Hall, where his brother Bernard (who managed this Yorkshire estate) had accumulated a personal collection of memorabilia associated with Edward. One can surmise that the pipe came to Bernard from Oriana, Edward’s widow; after his death, she distributed mementoes of her late husband to the family.

I have some fellow-feeling for a man who gives up his pipe altogether; I also have a sneaking admiration for those who carry on, often in the face of opposition from family and friends. Scott of the Antarctic never gave up – until forced to do so in those latter days, when tobacco as well as food had run out in the hut where he finally died, his arms cradling Wilson.  I know of few more touching letters than the last one Scott received from his wife, Kathleen, before his death:

How can I guess how things will be with you when you get this… But oh dearie I am full of hope. My brave man will win – with his own right hand and with his mighty arm hath he gathered himself the victory. Now don’t forget to brush your hair – and don’t smoke so much and altogether you’re a ducky darling and hurray for you!


Adrian Barlow


[Notes: Robert Graves’ account of Mallory’s Pipe comes from Goodbye to All That, (1929; London: Penguin Books, 1960) pp.35-36.  George Seaver writes about Wilson’s struggles to give up smoking in Edward Wilson of the Antarctic (London: John Murray, 1933) pp. 30, 49, 55, 88 and 161. Kathleen Scott’s last letter to her husband (found when his body was recovered a year after his death) was made public in 2012. You can read the full text of the letter here.

[Illustrations: (i, ii and iii) Edward Wilson’s pipe, now in The Wilson, Cheltenham Museum and Art Gallery, reproduced by permission of The Cheltenham Trust and Cheltenham Borough Council; (iv) detail from the west window of Binton Parish Church, near Stratford-upon-Avon, depicting Captain Robert Falcon Scott and colleagues about to set off the for South Pole (Wilson on right of image). The window was designed by John Lisle and made by C.E. Kempe and Co., 1915

My thanks to Ann-Rachael Harwood, Curator of Human History at The Wilson, and to Gill Poulter, Heritage and Exhibitions Director, Dundee Heritage Trust, for their help with this article.

Text and photograph iv © the author.