Alan Mason continues his personal appreciation of twentieth century writing.


Like most decades, the literature of the thirties contains elements of harking back to a golden past, (The Midnight Folk, The Box of Delights, The Last Grain Race), breaking with the worst of the past, (Frost in May, Cold Comfort Farm), a pre-occupation with present economic and political troubles, (Of Mice and Men, Scoop), and a concern about the effects of the latest technology and what the future may hold (In Hazard, Wind, Sand and Stars, Brave New World).

In the world of art, the Surrealist movement was a major influence, especially on the commercial art of the period. It involved skilled and accurate painting, but the juxtaposition of incongruous elements.

Two of the most important Surrealists were the Belgian, René Magritte, and the Spaniard, Salvator Dali. Mae West, (1) was a voluptuous entertainer and film star, and Dali’s portrait assembles her face from the bizarre furnishings of the apartment.

1 The Midnight Folk/The Box of Delights..John Masefield..1927, 1935

2 Brave New World …………………..Aldous Huxley ……………………..1932

3 Frost in May…………………………Antonia White ……………………..1933

4 Of Mice and Men……………………John Steinbeck…………………….1937

5 Scoop ………………………………….Evelyn Waugh ……………………..1938

6 In Hazard …………………………….Richard Hughes…………………….1938

7 Cold Comfort Farm ……………….Stella Gibbons ………………………1932

8 The Last Grain Race……………….Eric Newby…………………………..1956

9 Wind, Sand and Stars……………..Antoine de St Exupery …………..1939

1 The Midnight Folk/The Box of Delights..John Masefield….1927, 1935

These two books were written for children, and like the best children’s books they can be understood on more than one level. Both are about the adventures of the hero, Kay Harker, an orphan boy from a well-to-do family, who is looked after by his governess, Miss Sylvia Daisy Pouncer. As rather solitary child, he makes friends with the black cat Nibbins, and the local fox, Mr Rollicum Bitem Lightfoot; these are the “Midnight Folk”. The book tells of his exploits with them, during the times when he is supposed to be at home in bed. So, we are never sure whether the episodes really occurred or whether Kay was dreaming.

The main plot is about the recovery of the lost treasure of Santa Barbara in South America. This treasure was entrusted to an English ship’s captain, during a revolution, but his crew mutinied and stole the gold. Captain Harker was the great grandfather of our hero, Kay. The boy wishes to find the treasure, restore it to the rightful owners, and redeem the reputation of his seafaring ancestor.

Kay is competing against the wicked wizard, Abner Brown, and his witch accomplice, the governess, Sylvia Daisy. They are hunting the treasure for themselves, using Seekings House, (Kay’s home) as their base.

Kay wakes up to hear a voice calling him to open the door in the oak wainscot. “Now that Kay looked, there was a little door that had not been there before. Just as he got down, it opened and there was Nibbins the black cat. ‘Come along, Kay, we can just do it as the witches are at their banquet downstairs.’

They went up some small stairs in the thickness of the wall and came out on the top landing. Nibbins led the way out on to the roof. ‘This is what the witches were singing about,

We saddle the horse that is hayless, oatless,

Hoofless, and pranceless, kickless and coatless,

We canter off for a midnight prowl.

Kay scrambled up to the middle chimney, which opened like a door; – inside was a cupboard with one besom broom, one stable broom, one straw broom, one broom broom, and three kitchen brooms, each with a red headstall marked with magic.

‘Take the besom and the broom broom,’ Nibbins said, and pitch the others over the gutter.’

Somebody at the witches’ banquet said ‘Hush’ suddenly, and the singing stopped.

‘They’ve heard us,’ Nibbins said. ‘Mount, Kay, and ride. Catch him by the bridle, say Sessa, and point him where you want to go. Watch me.’

Nibbins mounted the besom, Kay the broom broom. Just as he was mounted, he heard the sharp voice of Mrs Pouncer calling from the foot of the stairs.

`Night-glider, tell …
Are ill things well?’

Kay saw the besom toss up its head; it began to say:

`Save, mistress, save,

From white thief and black knave,’

Looking back, Kay saw the witches clustered on the roof shaking their fists, but already they were far away, rushing through the air so fast that soon the house was out of sight. As they went over the elm boughs, they came so close to the top twigs, that some young rooks woke in the rookery and cried `Kaa’ at them. A couple of white owls drifted up alongside Kay like moths; he could see their burning yellow eyes.” (4)

Eventually, Kay, the “Midnight Folk” and the “Guards”, (all his old toys, taken away when his governess was given charge of him) managed to recover the treasure and restore it to the Cathedral of Santa Barbara.

The author, John Masefield, (5) published his second book about Kay Harker, “The Box of Delights” in 1935, eight years after “The Midnight Folk”

As I wrote a longer article on this book on deskarati (“The Box of Delights” by John Masefield, An Appreciation for Tom), I give only a brief outline here.

This time Abner Brown is in search of a mysterious Box which enables the possessor to go into the past at will. Kay has been “recruited” by a mysterious travelling Punch and Judy man, Cole Hawlings who gives a performance at Seekings House. Cole is the current possessor of the Box, and he is in direct opposition to Abner Brown and his friends.

Kay overhears Abner explaining the nature of his quest to one of his underlings. What follows is a brief review of the European hermetic tradition, from Ramon Lully, Arnold of Todi, Dante, and Zaganelli.

Masefield was well aware of the survival of the hermetic tradition into the twentieth century and may have been closely associated with it himself. It is curious that he wove it into a children’s tale. Hermetic means literally, “of Hermes”, and is sometimes described as alchemy, but that is only one part of a hidden philosophic tradition that stretches back in time to ancient Egypt. In his attempt to gain possession of the Box, Abner Brown kidnaps Cole Hawlings and the entire clergy and choir of Tatchester Cathedral to prevent the Christmas Eve service from taking place. Needless to say all comes right in the end.


2 Brave New World …………………..Aldous Huxley ……………………..1932


The title of Huxley’s book has become a journalistic cliché for any use of new technology in human affairs, especially about reproduction. It is taken from a line in Shakespeare’s play, “The Tempest”, where Miranda says, “How beauteous mankind is! Oh brave new world, that has such people in ‘t.” Since she was a child, Miranda has been brought up by her father on a lonely island, and she speaks of her delight in first meeting other human beings. Clearly, Huxley was using the words ironically in his book title.

He opens the novel,

“A squat grey building of only thirty-four stories.
Over the main entrance the words, CENTRAL LONDON HATCHERY AND CONDITIONING
CENTRE, and, in a shield, the World State’s motto,

The enormous room on the ground floor faced towards the north. Cold for all the summer beyond the panes, for all the tropical heat of the room itself, a harsh thin light glared through the windows, finding only the glass and nickel and bleakly shining porcelain of a laboratory.

Row upon
row and tier above tier of bottles glinted with innumerable rubies, and among the rubies moved the dim red spectres of men and women with purple eyes. The hum and rattle of machinery faintly stirred the air.

The Director of Hatcheries, speaking to his new students, said, ‘Let’s walk round. You tell them everything, Mr Foster.’

Mr Foster duly told them. Told them of the growing embryo on its bed of peritoneum. Made them taste the rich blood-surrogate on which it fed. Explained why it had to be stimulated with placentin and thyroxin. Told them of the corpus luteum extract. Showed them the jets through which at every twelfth metre from zero to 2040,
it was automatically injected. Spoke of those gradually increasing doses of pituitary administered during the final ninety-six metres of their course. Described the artificial maternal circulation installed on every bottle.”

Huxley had lived for some time in the US wrote from first-hand knowledge of new technological developments, and the social attitudes of the thirties. Although the book is a futurist fantasy it appears more probable the more time passes since it was written. One of its ideas is that all aspects of human reproduction will be artificially controlled processes. In the second decade of the 21 C where are we?

Human egg collection, sperm donation, artificial insemination, surrogate motherhood, and intensive care of the prematurely-born have been achieved. All we need is an artificial womb to close the circle, and the work is done as Huxley predicted.

Huxley notes the commercial drive behind toys, because in the past “most games were played without more apparatus than a ball or two, some sticks and netting. Imagine the folly of allowing people to play games which do nothing whatever to increase consumption.”

Huxley describes a whole range of novel ideas that are now commonplace, like tranquilisers. “The recreational drug soma is widely used to create pleasurable feelings and reduce anxiety”. Children receive recorded information as they sleep, as well as approved social attitudes, in “hypnopaedia” or sleep-teaching.

The Controller, in B N W says to the students, “People are never alone now. We make them hate solitude, and we arrange their lives so that it’s almost impossible for them to ever have it.”

Huxley was a prolific writer and produced many books but none quite attained the celebrity of “Brave New World”.


3 Frost in May…………………………Antonia White ……………………..1933


Originally, this book was simply seen as a member of the genre of “girls’ school stories”. The Virago Press (9) realised that the novel was much deeper than this, being quite unlike the “jolly japes in the dorm after lights out”. White’s ending is so stunning that it is stands apart from the usual accounts of school life. It has a strong flavour of the Catholicism of the times, with threat and fear as powerful motivators of the girls.

For me, it is the fascinating story of an outsider, and it is this aspect that I want to explore briefly in this review.

It is common to find that many novels are semi-autobiographical, but in the case of Antonia White, the narrative follows so closely on her own life that it is virtually autobiography with the names changed. The author, Antonia Botting, used her mother’s maiden name “White” as a pen-name. Her heroine is ‘Nanda Grey’, short for Fernanda. We see the same combination of an easily-contracted, exotic Christian name, and a colour surname.

The author, like her heroine ‘Nanda’, was the daughter of a father, recently converted to Catholicism. His wife and eight-year-old child dutifully made the same conversion. She is sent to a girls’ boarding school at a big convent in the suburbs of west London. Nanda attends the “Convent of the Five Wounds”, while Antonia was at the Convent of the Sacred Heart, in Roehampton, in West London.

Nanda is clearly an outsider in that much of the liturgical life of Catholics would be unfamiliar to her, and needing to be learned. The other girls of her age would have experienced Catholic practice since babyhood. As the novel begins, Nanda’s father has taken her to the school, (10) handing her over to Mother Radcliffe, a teaching nun.

“Mother Radcliffe was tactful, understanding that Nanda did not want to hear the clang of the nail-studded front door behind her father. Outside an oak door, she paused in her walk, genuflected swiftly and made the sign of the cross. Nanda, with her hand clasped in the nuns, was taken by surprise, but managed to bob awkwardly. Not liking to remove her right hand from Mother Radcliffes, she contrived to sign herself with her left, and hoped the nun would not notice.

Come, Nanda, she said, that’s not the way little Catholic children make the sign of the cross. It’s not reverent, dear. Nanda felt hot with shame.”

It is clear that Nanda is a bright child and will quickly catch on to all the accepted behavior, but she is an outsider in another respect that is not so easily overcome. Her father teaches at a local public school. While not poor, he is far from wealthy. He takes Nanda to school in a horse-drawn omnibus. Many of the girls at the school are from abroad, particularly South America and have wealthy parents. Nanda is not able to keep up with their lifestyles.

“Girls of all ages and complexions came hurrying out. Here and there a velvet frock, a gold chain or American bows marked a newcomer. Nanda was thankful that her own home clothes were inconspicuous enough to pass without attracting attention. The older girls seemed quite alarmingly grown-up, and she wondered if she would ever dare to speak to such majestic creatures.

There were curtsies as Mother Radcliffe passed. Most were no more than quick, springy bobs, but some were deep and slow and wonderful to watch. They must be very difficult to execute, Nanda thought, sighing at her own abysmal ignorance. A bell began to clang, and two dark-skinned, graceful creatures with gold rings in their ears slid past, both talking Spanish at the tops of their voices.”

It is, I think, the great gulf between the wealthy and the middle classes which is the key to this novel. Nanda’s feeling of perpetual isolation as an outsider from the wealthy is illustrated by the conversation among the girls in the dining hall.

“She realised there were such things as country houses and deer parks and children who had ponies of their very own (12). Now it seemed that she was actually sitting at the same table with the inhabitants of this dazzling world.

Hilary, the pretty Irish girl, was talking of house-parties and the boredom of the summer when there was nothing to do but play tennis.

“And to think,” she sighed, “that they’ll be starting cubbing (fox-cub hunting) in a fortnight and I’ll be in this wretched place.”

“Daddy’s promised me a hunter next Christmas, if I get my blue ribbon next Immaculate Conception, “went on Hilary. It was easy to imagine her in a riding habit, sitting that hunter to perfection.

The kindly Hilary noticed Nanda’s breathless attention. “Fond of horses?”

“Oh, yes,” whispered Nanda.

“I suppose you’ve got a pony, haven’t you?”

“Well, n-not yet,” she had the presence of mind to. Stammer. “Not a pony of my own. But there’s an old white one that I’m sometimes allowed . . .”

“White … I suppose you mean grey?” said Hilary.

Nanda was crushed. But she had to admit to herself that she deserved to be. It wasn’t her fault that she didn’t know that only Arabs and circus horses are called “white,”

Nanda often caught herself making slight exaggerations of this kind during the years she spent at the school. It was not snobbishness; it was nearly always that agonising wish to be like everyone else, known only to children at boarding-schools, that made
her soften and enlarge the outlines of her home life. When everyone else had butlers, it seemed ridiculous to have a mere parlourmaid, and she got used to referring with fine carelessness to our butler. Also the cottage in Sussex (13) grew by imperceptible degrees to our place in the country, though she wisely alluded to this as seldom as possible.

The novel is a fascinating account of how this child convert is trained, not only in Catholic religious practices, but also in theology and the life and work of a nun. There is a hope that some of the girls will find they have a vocation to the religious life. The characterisation of the girls and nuns is percipient so that each of them is a distinct individual. Leonie von Wesseldorff is a literary creation for all time.

Antonia White created a further series of semi-autobiographical works, in which she explores her marriages, friendships, and affairs. She also describes the experience of madness, and confinement in a mental institution in “Beyond the Glass”. (I found her description of the interior of the institution fascinating as it was the original eighteenth century building of the Bethlehem Royal Hospital, or “bedlam” for short. She knew the building in the twenties, but I knew it from the fifties when it had become the Imperial War Museum, (15) where I used the magnificent library under the Dome. The illustration shows two 15″ calibre naval guns at the entrance.)

She fell away from her Catholic faith in middle years but returned at the end of her days and wrote a book about her experiences “The Hound and the Falcon” The reader is directed to the wikipedia article on her three marriages and the complexity of her relationships with men, and her two daughters.


4 Of Mice and Men……………………John Steinbeck…………………….1937


I once heard “Of Mice and Men” described as “the best short story ever written”, and I agree, although I am not widely read enough to support the judgement with any authority. Regrettably, it has become one of those books selected for in-depth study by teenagers doing English Literature. Some books are so delicate that the young should simply be guided towards them and left to make their own decision. Some will read these books and be left with a lifetime’s joy of them. Intensive study may well destroy affection totally. Fortunately, I never studied it. I re-read it only occasionally because it always makes me cry.

Lenny and George are cousins, two itinerant farm workers in the rural California of the thirties. George is small, smart, streetwise and protective of Lenny who is a gentle, childlike giant, mentally backward but good natured and vulnerable. They make a living by moving from farm to farm doing whatever heavy work is required, eating and sleeping in the farmer’s bunkhouse. At the end of the day’s work Lenny customarily asks, with great poignancy,

“Tell about how it’s gonna be, George, tell about how it’s gonna be.”

George repeats his oft-told-vision of a future rural idyll for both of them on their own little smallholding. This vision is sufficiently realistic for two other men in the bunkhouse to wish to contribute financially so they may share it with Lenny and George. With rising excitement Lenny pleads,

“Tell about the rabbits, George, tell about the rabbits.”

The story moves to its tragic end and we are left seeing that the innocence of Lenny and the caution and reasonableness of George are not enough to enable them both to survive in a hostile world.

The author, John Steinbeck, was a native Californian, born in the town of Salinas, 90 miles (145 Km) south of San Francisco. Much of his writing is set in rural California, (“Cannery Row”, “The Pastures of Heaven”, “The Grapes of Wrath”). Steinbeck (17) came from a well-to-do family. His mother was a teacher and his father was County Treasurer for Monterey County. They were of mixed German-Jewish, Irish and English stock.

His childhood home was a large building o (18) and is now a museum of the writer’s life and work. He went through high school and Stanford University, at Palo Alto but never graduated.

In his summer vacations, Steinbeck worked as a ranch-hand in farms along the Salinas Valley, where he encountered many of the characters and experiences that he drew upon for his later novels.

He had left university in 1925, aged 23, and began writing but, having difficulty being published, tried New York for a period, but had no greater success there, returning to California in 1928.

He remained economically dependent on his father, being provided with free housing and loans to give up other work to concentrate on writing.

His father’s confidence was finally justified in 1935, with the publication of “Tortilla Flat”, his first commercially successful novel. Steinbeck was now on his way, aged 33, building a house of his own, for his wife Carol. He published further successful novels in the thirties and forties.

His most famous novel, “The Grapes of Wrath” was published in 1939, the year he won the Pulitzer Prize. It was filmed three times.

He became a war correspondent in 1942, after the USA entered WW2. He returned home after being injured in a munitions explosion in 1944. In 1962, he received the Nobel Prize for literature, the pinnacle of his literary success.

He was married three times, and had two children, Thomas and John, by his second wife Gwyn. A heavy smoker all his life, Steinbeck died in 1968, aged 66, of coronary heart disease, in New York City.


5 Scoop ………………………………….Evelyn Waugh ……………………..1938

This hilarious, partly autobiographical account, of a hapless war correspondent in a troubled African country reflects Waugh’s experiences in Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) at the time of the Italian attempts to colonise that country in the thirties. The novel is a send-up of press barons, reporters, correspondents, the expenses system, and journalism as a profession. It succeeds admirably and has been loved by generations of journalists ever since.

Some of its phrases have passed into legend. Of vacuous “Nature Notes” we have; “Homeward goes the questing vole, through the plashy fen.” More particularly, the word “No” is replaced by “Up to a point, Lord Copper,” used to describe a very cautious way of countering the errors of a very powerful press baron. It is assumed that “Lord Copper” was Max Aitken, Lord Beaverbrook, a Canadian millionaire, and “The Beast” was the “Daily Express”.

The character of William Boot is said to be based on the young and inexperienced Bill Deedes, who was with Evelyn Waugh in Abyssinia. Deedes was a genial man who bore no malice, and the caricature may even have enhanced his career. He later became an MP and a Cabinet Minister, before returning to journalism. He survived into the twenty first century, still working as a journalist in his nineties.

The novel begins with the aspiring and self-confident writer, John Boot, angling for a job as war correspondent with newspaper, ‘The Beast’. The name Ishmaelia is used to mean Abyssinia (20).

“The lunch-time edition of the evening papers was already on the streets; placards announcing, ISHMAELITE CRISIS
were fluttering in the east wind. John Boot is discussing it with the influential Mrs Stitch.

‘Ishmaelia seems to be the place. I was wondering if your husband (a Cabinet Minister) would send me there as a spy.’

‘Not a chance.’


Algy’s been sacking ten spies a day for weeks. It’s a grossly overcrowded profession. Why don’t you go as a war correspondent?’

‘Could you fix it?’

‘I don’t see why not’.

‘Well, I’ll see what I can do. I’m meeting Lord Copper at lunch today at Margot’s.

That evening, Mr Salter, foreign editor of The Beast, was summoned to dinner at his chief, Lord Copper’s frightful mansion at East Finchley.
The two men dined alone. Lord Copper explained Nazism, Fascism, and Communism. Mr Salter’s side of the conversation was limited to expressions of assent. When Lord Copper was right he said, `Definitely, Lord Copper’; when he was wrong, ‘Up to a point.’

‘Then there’s this civil war in Ishmaelia.
I propose to feature it.

`I tell you who I want; Boot.’


`Yes, Boot. He’s a young man whose work I’m very much interested in. Get on to him tomorrow. Take him out to dinner. Get him at any price. Well, at any reasonable price,’

Unfortunately, Mr Salter, with only the surname to go on, chooses the inexperienced and cautious William Boot, contributor to the “Nature Notes” instead of the dynamic, thrusting John Boot, with influential friends.

On the ship to Ishmaelia, (21) William Boot meets Corker, a proper journalist, who explains the basics of his trade.

‘And what, please,’ asked William, ‘is a news agency?’ Corker told him.

`You mean that everything that you write goes to The Beast?’

`Then why do they want to send me?’

`All the papers are sending specials.’

`And all the papers have reports from three or four agencies?’


`But if we all send the same thing it seems a waste’

`There would soon be a row if
we did.’

`But isn’t it very confusing if we all send different news?’

`It gives them a choice. They all have different policies; so of course, they have to give different news.’

Corker looked at him sadly. ‘You know, you’ve got a lot to learn about journalism. News is what a chap who doesn’t care much about anything wants to read. And it’s only news until he’s read it. After that it’s dead. We’re paid to supply news. If someone else has sent a story before us, our story isn’t news.

Corker told William a great deal about the craft of journalism. Their ship weighed anchor, swung about, and steamed into the ochre hills, through the straits and out into the open sea (22).

Many of Corker’s anecdotes dealt with the fabulous Wenlock Jakes, who was syndicated all over America. When he turns up in a place you can bet your life that as long as he’s there it’ll be the news centre of the world.

Once, Jakes went out to cover a revolution in one of the Balkan capitals. He overslept on his train, woke up at the wrong town, got out, went straight to an hotel, and cabled off a thousand-word story about barricades in the streets, flaming churches, machine-guns answering the rattle of his typewriter as he wrote, a dead child, like a broken doll, spreadeagled in the deserted roadway below his window.

“Well, his paper was surprised with a story like that from the wrong country, but they trusted Jakes and splashed it in six national newspapers. That day, every special in Europe got orders to rush to the new revolution. They arrived in shoals. Everything seemed quiet enough, but it was as much as their jobs were worth to say so, with Jakes filing a thousand words of blood and thunder a day. So they chimed in too. Government stocks dropped, financial panic, state of emergency declared, army mobilized, famine, mutiny and in less than a week there was an honest to God revolution under way, just as Jakes had said. There’s the power of the press for you.”

When this novel was published, the author, Evelyn Waugh, (1903-66) was already popular and successful. His biography is given elsewhere in this series.


6 In Hazard …………………………….Richard Hughes…………………….1938


I am very fond of the work of Richard Hughes who never seems to get the literary respect he deserves. His most famous work is “A High Wind in Jamaica”, which has been made into a film. “In Hazard” is the story of a well-appointed, modern cargo ship which gets into trouble during a tropical hurricane in the Caribbean. It contains one of the best descriptions I have read, as to how a hurricane begins, in simple non-technical language.

It is also a twentieth-century morality tale. Set in 1929, it was ahead of its time, on how much we depend upon technology and the difficulties when that technology begins to close down. Fortunately, human ingenuity succeeds and the officers and crew manage to come through largely unscathed.

“The thing to remember about the atmosphere is its size. A little air is so thin, so fluid: in small amounts it can slip about so rapidly, that the conditions which give rise to a hurricane cannot be reproduced on a small scale (25). In trying to explain a hurricane, therefore, one must describe the large thing itself, not a model of it. For it is only when one thinks of the hugeness of a parcel of air on the world, the big distance it may have to shift to equalize some atmospheric difference, that one can realize how slow and immobile, regarded on a large scale, the air is.

The air above a warm patch of sea, somewhere near the Canaries, is warmed: so it will tend to be pushed up and replaced by the colder, weightier air around. In a warm room it would rise in a continuous gentle stream, and be replaced by a gentle draught under the door – no excitement. But on a large scale it cannot: that is what is different.

It rises in a single lump, as if it were encased in a gigantic balloon – being actually encased in its own comparative sluggishness. Cold air rushes in underneath not as a gentle draught but as a great wind, owing to the bodily lifting of so great a bulk of air.

Air moving in from all round towards a central point: and in the middle, air rising: that is the beginning. Then two things happen. The turning of the earth starts the system turning: not fast at first, but in a gentle spiral. And the warm air which has risen, saturated with moisture from the surface of the sea, cools (26).

Cooling, high up there, its moisture spouts out of it in rain. Now, when the water in air condenses, it releases the energy that held it there, just as truly as the explosion of petrol releases energy. Millions of horse-power up there loose. As in a petrol motor, that energy is translated into motion: up rises the boundless balloon still higher, faster spins the vortex.

Thus the spin of the earth is only the turn of the crank-handle which starts it: the hurricane itself is a vast motor, revolved by the energy generated by the condensation of water from the rising air.

And then consider this. Anything spinning fast enough tends to fly away from the centre — or at any rate, like a planet round the sun, reaches a state of balance where it cannot fly inwards. The wind soon spins round the centre of a hurricane so fast it can no longer fly into that centre, however vacuous it is. Mere motion has formed a hollow pipe, (27) as impervious as if it were made of something solid.

So this extraordinary engine, fifty miles or more wide, built of speed-hardened air, its vast power generated by the sun and by the shedding of rain, spins westward across the floor of the Atlantic, often for weeks together, its power mounting as it goes. It is only when its bottom at last touches dry land (28) (or very cold air) that the throttle is closed; no more moist air can be sucked in, and in a few days, or weeks at most, it spreads and dies.”

Hughes describes how the cargo ship, “Archimedes” became engulfed by the hurricane. It was November, and rather late for a hurricane, which needs warm water to drive it. Given meteorological radio warnings of a tropical storm and its probable track, the ship altered course to avoid trouble.

“But at nine o’clock the strength of the wind was found to be still increasing; so it was plain that something quite unusual was happening. First, this was a true hurricane; and, second, it was not where it should be. Either it had changed its course prodigiously, and in the wrong direction, or else this was not a single hurricane but a twin: he was being rapidly overtaken by a second and far more powerful vortex, not the recorded vortex at all.

He had told his chief officer, an hour before, that if the barometer continued to fall he would heave-to. The ship could thresh on, surely; but there was nothing to gain by subjecting it to such unnecessary strain. Better point her nose into the wind, keep her engines running just hard enough to hold her there, and ride it out.”

However, the ship, hove to, soon was in trouble. The next moment the firemen came out from the stokehold like bolted rabbits. Wisely, too: for steam was escaping, they said (steam at 200 lbs pressure to the inch, heated to 600 degrees Fahrenheit). No time to see where the leak was, only time to get out: for in thirty seconds the stokehold was uninhabitable. Meanwhile, in the engine-room, you could see on the gauges the pressure of main steam dropping back, dropping back. What had gone? There was no way of finding out.

Captain Edwardes found his way to the bridge, the smoke following him in eddies. Some trick of the wind, that blew it down on deck and perhaps … but that could hardly account for so much. He strained his eyes into the darkness, but could see nothing.

Captain Edwardes now received a message that main-steam had dropped to a point where the pumps had stopped, the fans had stopped, the dynamo was stopping: and the furnaces were blowing back.

It was with a frightful sinking of the heart that Edwardes compelled himself to believe what he was seeing. The smoke was rolling from a great oval hole in the boat-deck. The funnel was gone: Must have gone overboard an hour before: yet such was the storm that no one had seen or heard it go!

That funnel, guyed to stand a lateral pressure of a hundred tons! A hurricane-wind, at 75 mph would exert a pressure on it of fifteen tons. The pressure increases by the square of its velocity: the pressure of a wind at 200 mph therefore, would be seven times as great (105 tons).”

With all the power gone, the novel explains how the captain and technical officers manage to cope with the crisis, and eventually re-light the furnaces to bring the ship into port.

Richard Hughes came from the well-to-do family of a civil servant. His first published article was in 1917, as a schoolboy at Charterhouse public school. At Oxford University he co-edited a poetry review with the poet, Robert Graves. Hughes graduated in 1922 and within a few months had a play, “the Sister’s Tragedy” running in the West End of London. In 1924 he was commissioned to write the first radio play broadcast by the new BBC (“Danger”).

He worked as a journalist, and travelled before marrying the painter, Frances Bazley. At one point they lived in the small Welsh sea-side town, Laugharne, (pronounced larn). The poet, Dylan Thomas stayed with them for a period. Laugharne was “Llaregub” in Thomas’s radio play, “Under Milk Wood”

During WW2 Hughes worked for the Admiralty in London, and after the war wrote scripts for the Ealing film studios. He wrote four novels, of which, “In Hazard” was the second. Sadly, only two of his trilogy of novels were published before he died. (“The Fox in the Attic” 1961, and “The Wooden Shepherdess”, 1973)


7 Cold Comfort Farm ……………….Stella Gibbons ………………………1932


This is one of those books which makes it into the headlines and remains a classic ever afterwards. Of the many hundreds of novels that were contemporaneous with it, most have sunk without trace never to be heard of again. What is it that makes this novel special? It is a tantalising puzzle.

I was under the mistaken impression that he author, Stella Gibbons, (31) never wrote another book after this, her first novel. I was wrong because she continued to publish until 1970, but none of these ever matched the success of the first book. There were two sequels, “Conference at Cold Comfort Farm” (1949) and “Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm” (1959)

The story is a burlesque of a writing style popular at the close of the 19 C and the start of the 20 C. These novels, in a rural setting, were filled with smouldering passion and emotional intensity over trivial things. The landscape was described in terms of emotion too; hills crouched, woods loomed menacingly and rivers argued incessantly.

Typical of the genre was “Precious Bane” by Mary Webb (32). This writing style was short-lived and was out of favour by the time Stella Gibbons fired her broadside. However, she hit the target most accurately. There were more well-known authors who were also guilty of this over-emotional claptrap. Thomas Hardy’s heroines get themselves into needless trouble, so that they are unpopular with modern women. Heathcliff and Catherine are also cast from the same hyper-emotional mould, in brooding landscapes, just like any Mary Webb character.

One phrase of hers, now universal, is, “something nasty in the woodshed,” uttered by Aunt Ada Doom. We never discover what this is, and the phrase is generally used to describe a convenient excuse for any action or inaction on the part of the speaker. The biography of Stella Gibbons, written by her nephew, Reggie Oliver, was entitled, “Out of the Woodshed” (33).

The novel begins, “The education bestowed on Flora Poste by her parents had been too expensive, athletic and prolonged; and when they died within a few weeks of one another during the epidemic of Spanish influenza in her twentieth year, she was discovered to possess every art and grace save that of earning her own living.”

Flora has been left with an income of £100 a year, which, at that time, represented the wage of an unskilled worker. She decides to write to various relatives, asking if they will give her a home. She accepts the offer from the Starkadders, at the eerie address, Cold Comfort Farm, Howling, Sussex. Although Sussex is one of the Home Counties, and only a little over 50 miles (80 Km) from the capital, some of it was quite remote, and still is today (34).

Marking the absurdity of the novel, the author gives her “purple passages” double asterisks for emphasis. Here, for example, “* *DAWN crept over the Downs like a sinister white animal, followed by the snarling cries of a wind eating its way between the black boughs of the thorns. The wind was the furious voice of this sluggish animal light that was baring the dormers and mullions and scullions of Cold Comfort Farm. The farm was crouched on a bleak hill-side, whence its’ fields, fanged with flints, dropped steeply to the village of Howling a mile away.” The farm-house crouched, like a beast about to spring, under the bulk of Mockuncle Hill”.


This overblown, hysterical landscape description is an excellent parody. She also mocks the use of technical terms, hinted at in the passage above. “Dormers, mullions and scullions” mocks architectural usage. A dormer is a window projecting from a roof; a mullion is a vertical window bar, but a scullion was a medieval kitchen servant.

“Under the ominous bowl of the sky a man was ploughing the sloping field immediately below the farm, where the flints shone bone-sharp and white in the growing light.”

“Amos Starkadder and his eldest son, Reuben, came into the kitchen and, silently put his pruning-moot and reaping-hook in a corner by the fender, while Reuben put the scranlet, with which he had been ploughing, down beside them.” The author mocks the use of rural technicalities, because of their prominence in the books she despises. Pruning-moot and scranlet are made-up words, as puzzling to a readership of townsmen as are real terms, like heame, swingle or coulter. She makes the valid point that needless technicalities give a false sense of authenticity, and confuse the reader by getting in the way of telling the story.


Flora discovers, as she expected, that everyone has Old Testament names, (Adam, Amos, Seth, Reuben), and they also use a kind of ‘Biblical –speak’. As Flora first enters the big kitchen, she closes the open door. A voice protested, “Eh, niver do that, Robert Poste’s child, I mun cletter the dishes and watch the dumb beasts in the cowshed.” It was Adam Lambsbreath, a worker on the farm.

“I am sorry, but I cannot breakfast in a draught.” replied Flora, firmly.

Later, Adam explains to her, “There’s a curse on Cold Comfort Farm. The seeds wither when they fall in the ground, the cows are barren, the sows are farren and the King’s Evil ravages our crops.”

Flora sets to work to deal with these attitudes of hopelessness, beginning with Old Aunt Ada Doom, the owner of the farm. She is spectacularly successful, and the book ends optimistically with a film star in the family, a wedding, a feast and an aeroplane flight.

The question of the reason for the success of the novel remains. It is very funny, and Flora Poste is a splendid heroine. She is brisk and practical, but kind and courteous to young and old alike. Finally, she is romantically swept off at the end by a hero as practical as herself. These are reasons enough.

The author, Stella Gibbons, was the daughter of a doctor. He was a violent aggressive and domineering husband, later addicted to drink, and drugs. The hopelessness of her family life provided a blueprint for the Starkadders. Stella’s mother died, aged 48, and her father died in the same year (1926). So, like Flora, Stella was orphaned when she was in her twenties (aged 24), and had been expensively educated, (North London Collegiate School for Girls). She worked as a journalist and was the breadwinner for her two younger brothers. They were idlers and she felt unappreciated by them. She married, aged 31, and lived in Highgate, a wealthy suburb of North London. Two years later her only child, Laura, was born. Stella continued to write and publish successfully until she reached seventy. She died in 1989 at the age of 87. The reader is directed to a wikipedia article on Stella Gibbons, giving a full account of her published work and family life.


8 The Last Grain Race……………….Eric Newby…………………………..1956

I found this is an absolutely marvellous book about a corner of human history that has gone forever. The author, Eric Newby, left his London job in advertising and, aged eighteen, signed on as a Jungman (apprentice) on the Finnish square rigged sailing ship, Moshulu, (37) carrying grain from Australia to European markets. The ships would race each other to be first home with their cargo.

The book was published in 1956 but it describes events from 1938 to 1939. This was to be the last grain race of the clippers. From then on up to the present day, square rigged sailing ships were only used for sail training in seamanship, adventure holidays, or for historical films. They were never again to be straight commercial carriers of goods. It is remarkable that the clippers survived so long in the era of steam vessels and diesel turbine ships.

I wonder if, in the new world of renewable energy, there might still be a place for wind-driven ships? I do hope so, for in the old saying, “The wind is free.”, and Moshulu was a ship of breathtaking beauty, with her sails fully set, and under way (37).

Eric Newby (38) comes across as a decent likeable young man trying to cope with the sheer physical effort, (39) of working a great ship with the rest of the crew. Added to his problems was the use of Swedish as the lingua franca for working the ship among Finnish, Swedish, Lithuanian, Dutch and English crewmen. The book is filled with nautical technicalities in English but this should not daunt the reader as they can simply be glossed over, without losing the fascination of the story.

The Swedish terms have a certain magic of their own, recalling the idea that the English language itself, arose as a kind of compromise language, or “pidgin”, to enable Saxons, Jutes, Angles, Danes and Swedes to communicate successfully with each other. When I re-read the book, in preparing this brief essay I was gratified to find I could still translate the order, “Styrman, låt gå babords ankaret!” (Mr Mate, let go the port anchor!)

Even better, the cry, in the depths of sleep in the blackness of night;

“Resa opp! Resa opp! Alle man på däck!” (Get up! Get up! All hands on deck!)

The book is valuable for its cast of characters, Mr Sømmarstrøm (sur mur strurm) the Sailmaker, an English literature buff, (40) “Tria” the Third Mate, Sedelqvist, Jansson the Donkeyman, little Taanila, and Vytautas Bagdanavicius, a Lithuanian and Newby’s best friend aboard ship.

Even more so is Newby’s poetic or writer’s sense as he outlines significant events during the voyage. He describes the ship’s departure from the Belfast dockyards.

“Men strained at great capstans on the dockside, warping us out into the stream. In this way, without bands, without crowds, and without cheering, watched by a score of unemotional labourers standing in the soft rain, we set off on our fifteen-thousand-mile voyage. A voice called, ‘Good luck.’ An energetic little tug with a red and black funnel took us in tow. Soon we were out in the deepwater channel… With topsails set on the main and mizzen, Moshulu began to gather way and cut the water by her own power, and gain on the tug. It was time to part from her. The towing cable was cast off”


Much later, close to the Equator, Newby observes, “On November 19th, we had the good fortune to pick up the South-East Trade Winds off the coast of Liberia, in West Africa. Tria (the Third Mate) was delighted; he had been in ships stuck in the Doldrums for two or three weeks. The ship sprang to life; close hauled she ran ten and twelve knots. It seemed impossible that this lovely lively thing, its sails dazzling white against the dark blue sky, whose hull seemed scarcely to touch the water, could two days before have been a wallowing monster with slatting sails and flailing blocks.”

They sailed from Belfast on 18 October and made landfall three months later on the 8 January 1939, near Port Lincoln, on the Eyre Peninsula of Australia, about 180 miles (450 Km) due west of Adelaide. They moored alongside the barque “Passat” (41) and remained there for some time waiting for cargo. The outbreak of WW2 put paid to any idea of a return journey to Europe, by any of the dozen or so, sailing ships now stranded in Australia.


Moshulu was a steel four-masted barque of 5,600 tons deadweight, built in Port Glasgow in 1904. Fortunately, she has survived unlike many of her sisters. Today she is berthed at Pier 34 on the Philadelphia water front as a restaurant and tourist attraction. (42) The name, Moshulu was adopted by a modern racing yacht and then became attached to a chain of shoe-shops, which displayed big colour photographs of the yacht, but not the ship.

A book of photographs of Newby’s voyage, “Learning the Ropes“, was published very much later in 1999.

Eric Newby led an adventurous life. After the grain race he returned to England, and with the outbreak of WW2, joined the Scottish regiment, called the “Black Watch” for the dark green tartan of their kilts. Later he transferred to the Special Boat Section devoted to commando-style raids in preparation for a later European invasion.

He was captured during a raid on the coast of Sicily in 1942, and was later awarded the Military Cross for his part in the operation. Following his confinement as a prisoner-of-war in Italy, he eventually managed to escape. He went on the run through the Apennine Mountains of central Italy, where he was sheltered by Wanda, a Slovenian woman, whom he married after the end of the war. They had a long and happy marriage together. His wartime activities are described in his book, “Love and War in the Apennines“.

He earned his living as a journalist and writer, especially of travel books. “A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush“, describes how he and a male companion set out to climb the mountain, Mir Samir, in the Nuristan region of Afghanistan in the nineteen-fifties.

Newby’s 1938-9 experiences were not actually the last grain race as there were two more after the end of WW2. Wanda and Eric Newby had a son and a daughter. Eric died in Guildford, Surrey, in 2006 at the age of eighty-six.


Perhaps this book is only of interest to enthusiasts for sailing ships, so I must add a personal note. My eldest brother served in the Royal Navy for all of WW2 and though he was never in sail, he was a great enthusiast for sailing ships and communicated this to me. As a child I knew the names of all the famous clippers, Pamir, Passat, Lawhill, Archibald Russell, Herzogin Cecilia, Cutty Sark, and of course, Moshulu.

Many years later, I worked in a junior school for just one year, and made a model of Francis Drake’s ship “The Golden Hind” (44) from paper and thin card. This was part of a history study on the Spanish Armada. It sat in my classroom for weeks and I noticed one of my ten-year-old boys would study it for minutes at a time, I supposed, peopling its decks with sailors. When I came to leave the school at the end of term, I asked this little boy if he would like to take the ship model home. His reaction of total surprise and utter delight was a great pleasure to me.


9 Wind, Sand and Stars……………..Antoine de St Exupery …………..1939


The French title of this book, “Terre des Hommes” (tair days om) is a bit bland when translated into English, as “The Earth (or World) of Men” hence the more arresting English title, “Wind, Sand and Stars”
to convey something of the loneliness of solo flight. This book, like the previous one, carries us into the forties and WW2. The author, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (on twan de sant ex oo pair ee) was a poet and a pilot. Possibly his most famous work was an allegorical children’s story “The Little Prince” about a dweller on a tiny planet. He brought his poetic insights to the two autobiographical works he wrote on flying, Vol de Nuit, (Night Flight) and Terre des Hommes. (45)

He learned to fly in the French Air Force in 1921, dividing his time between France and French Morocco until demobilised in 1923. He began as a trainee pilot, in 1926, for the air mail unit Aeropostale, in Toulouse. He paints a picture of the sheer ordinariness and low status of his craft.

In those days there was little romance, or prestige attached to being a civil mail pilot and the French regarded them much like workmen. “It was three in the morning when they woke me, and I saw that rain was falling on the town, and got soberly into my harness. A half-hour later I was out on the pavement shining with rain, sitting on my little valise and waiting for the bus that was to pick me up.

Finally, I saw the old-fashioned vehicle and heard its tinny rattle. I squeezed in between a sleepy custom guard and a few glum government clerks. It stopped every five hundred yards to take on another scrivener, another guard, another inspector.”

He was making his first flight over Spain, explaining how, “the pilot of the Spanish and African mails,” had “to confront in the lightnings, the dragon of the mountains; and having vanquished it, would he free to decide between a detour over the sea and a direct assault upon the Alcoy mountain range, would be free to deal with storm, with mountain, with ocean.” He describes his flights over Africa and later, across South America. The painting of Saint-Exupéry (46) shows him in a leather helmet, with the “Little Prince” on his shoulder.

He and a fellow-pilot, Prévot, (pray vo) made an attempt, in 1935, to fly from Paris to Saigon. They came down in the Sahara desert, in the region of the Nile Delta, and nearly died of thirst until rescued by Bedouin nomads on camels. “We drank like calves with our faces in the basin with a greediness which alarmed the Bedouin who pulled us back.”

With the fall of France in 1940, and the invasion by Nazi Germany, he went to America, returning to North Africa in 1943 with the American forces as a reconnaissance pilot. He disappeared without trace on a flight in 1944, probably shot down by a German fighter aircraft.

The reader is directed to a very long and detailed wikipedia article about Saint-Exupéry (1900-1944). It gives a full account of his life, and writings. There is also a detailed analysis of the controversies surrounding the recovery of what may well be the wreckage of his aircraft, in the sea, off the southern French coast, near the city of Marseilles.

In reading the wikipedia article I was surprised by the international fame of Saint-Exupéry. There is not space to record all the schools, museums and monuments dedicated to him, around the world, from South America, to Africa and Russia. The monument at Tarfaya, Morocco, (47) next to the Cape Juby airfield, is where Saint-Exupéry was based as an Aéropostale airmail pilot and later station manager. There is even an asteroid named after him, (Asteroid 2578 Saint-Exupéry).

The reason for my surprise at Saint-Exupéry’s French national and international fame lies in another small personal reminiscence. At the time, in the nineteen nineties, I was working in Kent, and needed to live in lodgings. My landlord and his wife often took foreign students in the summer months. The students attended short language courses at the local college, where I worked.

Once, we had a twelve-year-old French boy to stay with us for a week. He was a rather serious and studious child. In conversation, I asked him about his interests, and he explained that he liked poetry. When I mentioned Saint-Exupéry to the boy, he said he had never heard of him. I wrote the name down for him. I was surprised because, not only was Saint-Exupéry one of the most famous French poets of the 20 C, but his children’s story, “Le Petit Prince” (48) is perhaps the best-known modern fairy tale in the entire world.

My thoughts at the time were how earthly fame quickly passes, but having read more about Saint-Exupéry for this review, I am amazed at how this French child can have been insulated from knowledge of this poet, and fellow countryman. As I said, he was a studious child, working away at his language “devoir” (homework) every evening. He was not glued to TV or out playing football with other boys in his school group, and he had volunteered specifically that he liked poetry.

One evening, while we were both working at either end of the table in the kitchen-diner, he suddenly announced in English, to my astonishment,

“I am dirty”.

Fearing some misunderstanding, I used French.

“Vraiment? Vous etes sale? Dites-moi, en Français.” (Really ? You are dirty ? Tell me in French.)

“J’ai soif” (I am thirsty.)

I opened the door into the lounge and spoke to our landlady, Betty, a jolly motherly woman. She came in and showed the boy lemonade, orangeade, Pepsi-Cola, and milk, and invited him to take what he liked when he needed to drink. I do hope he discovered Saint-Exupéry on returning home to France.






1. “Mae West’s Face which can be used as a Surrealist Apartment” a painting by Salvador Dali, made 1934-35 (“Salvador Dali” by Robert Descharnes and Gilles Néret, Taschen, 1999)

2. “Lessons” a painting by Helen Allingham (“The Victorian World of Helen Allingham” edited by J Marsden, Brockhampton, 1999)

3. The Hayless Horse, an illustration from “The Midnight Folk” Heinemann 1927)

4. Short eared owl (top) and long eared owl (below) (after “A Field Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe” R Peterson et al, Collins, 1954)

5. John Masefield (google image)

6. Inspecting the Developing Foetuses at the Hatcheries (Author)

7. Aldous Huxley, writer, 1894-1963 (google image)

8. Human Foetus at 3 months (“Heaven and Earth”, Phaidon, 2002)

9. The Virago Book Cover (“Frost in May”, Virago, 1978)

10. The Convent of the Sacred Heart, Roehampton (google image)

11. Schoolgirls from Argentina Practising Traditional Dances (google image)

12. A Pony of One’s Own (“Illustrated Guide to Riding” Eric Baird, Luscombe, 1975)

13. The Grey’s Place in the Country (Marsden, op.cit.)

14. Antonia White, writer, 1899-1980 (google image)

15. The old Bethlehem Royal Hospital, now the Imperial War Museum (google image)

16. “California Mountains” a painting by Karen Winters (google image)

17. John Steinbeck, writer, 1902-1968, (google image)

18. The Steinbeck Home on Central Avenue, Salinas (google image)

19. Abyssinia in Africa (after “The Faber Atlas”, L D Stamp, Geo, 1956)

20. The Italian Army in Abyssinia (FYP “Fifty Years of Pictures”, Associated Newspapers, 1946)

21. Abyssinian troops (FYP, op.cit)

22. Dhow off the Abyssinian coast (“Encyclopaedia of Ships and Seafaring” edited by Peter Kemp, Reference International Publishers, 1980)

23. Revolution with dead in the streets, Petrograd, 1917 (FYP, op.cit)

24. Panther Book Cover (Panther, 1977)

25. Hurricane Florence in the Atlantic Ocean, east of Bermuda, 1994 (HAE, “Heaven and Earth”, Phaidon, 2002)

26. Anatomy of Hurricane (“Weather Watching” edited by Richard Whitaker, Fog City Press, 2003)

27. Eye of Typhoon Odessa, 1985, seen from 373 Km. above in the Space Shuttle (HAE, op.cit)

28. Destructive winds and rain (Whitaker, op.cit)

29. A giant marine diesel engine (Kemp, op.cit)

30. Richard Hughes, writer, 1900-1976 (google image)

31. Stella Gibbons, writer, 1902-1989 (google image)

32. Mary Webb, writer, 1881-1927 (google image)

33. Biography of Stella Gibbons (google image)

34. Haymaking in Sussex, a painting by Brian Cook (“Brian Cook’s Landscapes of Britain”, Simon Master, Batsford, 2012)

35. Ploughing with a team of heavy horses (Master, op.cit)

36. The film version of “Cold Comfort Farm” (the film star, the bull and Miss Flora Poste) (google image)

37. “Moshulu” with all sails set, in Belfast Lough, 1938 (“The Last Grain Race, Eric Newby, Granada, 1981).

38. Eric Newby aboard “Moshulu” (Newby, op. cit)

39. Working a capstan to send a sail aloft (Newby, op. cit)

40. Two of the Ship’s crew (Newby, op. cit)

41. “Passat” sailing in July 1939 from Falmouth, England to Australia (google image)

42. “Moshulu” today in Philadelphia (google image)

43. Eric Newby, soldier, traveller and writer, 1919 – 2006 (google image)

44. “The Golden Hind” a full size replica of Drake’s ship (Kemp, op. cit)

45. Pan book cover (“Wind, Sand and Stars”, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Pan, 1975)

46. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (google image)

47. Museum and Monument in Tarfaya, Morocco, to the memory of Saint-Exupéry (google image)

48. The Story of the Little Prince (google image)




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  1. Deskarati says:

    Ah ha, at last, a book I have actually read. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New world is quite easily in my top ten books of all time.This is probably not as remarkable as it seems as my list of ‘books read’ is really very small. But this should not diminish the level that I, Alan and most critics hold this book. It really is good.

    As one who regularly sleeps with the TV on, I do not agree with Huxley’s idea of hypnopaedia or sleep training.That said I must get off now for a Coca Cola, a McDonald’s Burger and a Mars bar!

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