The Rebirth of England and English

The following review originally appeared in the Wessex Chronicle volume 2, issue 2 (Summer 2000)

(Published by Anglo-Saxon Books price £9.95 ISBN 1-898281-17-3)

Subtitled The Vision Of William Barnes, this masterly study does not concentrate so much on Barnes's poetry, which has already been covered in numerous other books, as on his philosophy of life. Actually, "philosophy" is probably the wrong word, due to its Greek origin, but more on this anon.

The book is divided into two parts. Part one, The Rebirth Of England, starts with a brief biography of Barnes, and follows it with six chapters, each dealing with a different aspect of Barnes's outlook. The chapters are: Religion; Nature and Art; Marriage; Society; Economics and Politics.

In truth, these views are not so easily compartmentalised, and there is considerable overlap between the chapters. Also, the heading of chapter 4, "Marriage", is rather too narrow, as it really deals with the whole vexed question of the relations between the sexes. Barnes was no feminist, but neither was he a male chauvinist pig, believing that women should be second-class citizens, even though he lived in an age when they were widely regarded as such.

Part two, The Rebirth Of English, concerns Barnes's efforts to "purify and fix" the English language by coming up with native English equivalents for foreign loan-words. More importantly for us, he wrote poems in his native Dorset dialect, which he argued was the language of Wessex. He was something of a mentor to Thomas Hardy, and the book tells us that "Hardy…got his idea of 'Wessex' directly from Barnes" (we would of course dispute that Wessex was Hardy's idea!).

Phillips is keen to point out that the desire for "pure" English was not motivated by xenophobia, but by a love of plain speech. According to Barnes, his native English words were more comprehensible to Wessex folk and other Englishmen than their Latinate equivalents. This was not always the case, though, and some of his words were longer than their Standard English equivalents. Who but the most rabid nationalist would use "push-wainling" instead of "pram", for example?

Father Andrew also ventures his own Barnesian equivalents to more modern words, such as "upthinker" for computer and "farspeaker" for telephone. But the real selling point of the book is that it gathers together for the first time all Barnes's pure English words from the variety of works in which they were originally scattered. These include original words coined by Barnes (some of which have passed into common parlance, such as "folklore" and "foreword") as well as plain English substitutions for words derived from Latin or French (eg "spyglass" for telescope). This makes for fascinating reading, and the effect is quite infectious.

Whilst I would have liked to see more on Barnes's dialect works, this book does illustrate that Wessex dialect was the standard form of Old English, and that Wessex English is perhaps the purest form of English there is. The sneers of the metropolitan elite are historical in origin, reflecting the Normans' contempt for their conquered English subjects. Wessex people have no cause to be afraid of the way we speak. As this book puts it, "BBC English, the English of the upper class, is merely a Norman accent, that of invaders who could not speak English properly and then, ironically, passed on their accent to succeeding generations as a status symbol, the sign of their superiority and prestige over the English peasantry". Well, quite.

Wessex Worthies: PC Wren

This article originally appeared in the Wessex Chronicle Volume 18, Issue 1 (Spring 2017)

An unusual entry into our Wessex Worthies series of biographies of prominent Wessaxons this time, as there is some doubt as to whether its subject actually qualifies for entry. Most “about the author” blurbs on the covers of his 30 novels and 9 collections of short stories will tell you that Percival Christopher Wren was born in Devon in 1885, a direct descendant of the famed architect Sir Christopher Wren. However, Wren was notoriously secretive about his life, and something of a fabulist to boot, so this could well be what we nowadays refer to as an alternative fact. Wikipedia, for what it’s worth, gives his birthplace as Deptford, London; Percy Wren, a humble schoolmaster’s son. It also lists his birth as being 10 years earlier, in 1875. He graduated from what is now St Catherine’s College in Oxford, but which was then St Catherine’s Society, a non-collegiate institution for poorer students. Could it be that the connection to Sir Christopher Wren was a way of elevating the status of a man who was self-conscious about his lowly origins? And who could blame a man who had the misfortune to be born in That London for wishing he had been born in Wessex instead?

Whatever his place of birth, Wren is chiefly known as the inventor of a genre of adventure fiction that was once hugely popular, but which has now fallen into disuse: the Foreign Legion story. Again, Wren’s own service in the Legion is a matter of controversy. No corroborating evidence exists to support the speculation that he had served as a legionnaire, and he refused to either confirm or deny it. It would appear, at least to my eyes, that he didn’t actually serve in the Legion, but wasn’t too upset by people thinking that he did. But his stepson, Alan Graham-Smith, always maintained that Wren was indeed a legionnaire, and was reportedly very upset by those who said otherwise.

He definitely served in World War I, however, in the 101st Grenadiers, a unit of the British Indian Army active in East Africa. After being invalided out in 1915, he concentrated on his fiction, though he had previously written a number of educational textbooks used in India. By far his best-known work is the 1924 novel Beau Geste, which has been filmed a number of times, and which spawned four sequels, two of which were also filmed. It was parodied by the Carry On team in Follow That Camel, and by Marty Feldman in The Last Remake of Beau Geste. The title of the latter proved to be prophetic as far as film is concerned, but it was adapted again for television in 1982 in an 8-part BBC serial written by Alistair Bell & Terrance Dicks and directed by Douglas Camfield.

PC Wren died in 1941, and is buried in the graveyard of Holy Trinity Church, Amberley, Gloucestershire. Whether or not he was born in Devon, he certainly loved the county. Consider this passage from Good Gestes:

“What would be the loveliest thing his mind could possibly conceive? What about a drive in the high dog-cart with Isobel?—through the glorious Devon countryside; the smart cob doing his comfortable ten miles an hour; harness jingling; hoof-beats regular as clockwork; Isobel's hand under his right arm; Devon lanes; Devon fields and orchards; Devon moors; glorious—beyond description.”

So whilst his birth in Wessex may be open to dispute, the fact that his heart, soul, and ultimately body belonged here is not.

The English Love of Nature

This article originally appeared in the Wessex Chronicle volume 15, issue 3 (autumn 2014).

The following printed item – labelled ‘MALMS Whitsuntide 1918’ – was found pasted in the visitors’ book of Alfred Bowker of The Malms, a large house at Shawford, near Winchester.
As Mayor of Winchester, Bowker, an energetic local solicitor, was instrumental in the commissioning of King Ælfred’s statue in the Broadway. The Malms (now demolished) was a pioneering, if problematic example of the use of reinforced concrete.

Hanham Court, near Bristol

All the beauty of early summer bloomed out in one week. The apple trees were covered with pink flowers and red buds. In the grass below them the narcissus gleamed. The thorns came suddenly aglow with blossom; the lilacs were each a heavy mass of colour and scent; the wistaria hung its bunches over the house-walls. Outside the garden the woods were misty with bluebells; the meadows gaily spread with buttercups and daisies, or tricked
more daintily with cowslips and cuckoo flowers. And after the long heat of the day, the nights were magical with the cool moon and the wide-set stars, and the nightingale
singing near the stream where the garden ends.

Such days and nights are all but intoxicating. So beautiful are they, and so rare, that they seem like some choice and expensive pleasure, which only the rich can afford and only the leisured enjoy. They carry an air almost of dissipation. Yet they are open to all dwellers in the country; they cost nothing, and take no time from work. They are a condition, not an achievement. We did not buy them: still less did we earn them. We rob no one else by
njoying them, retard no good work, obstruct no reform. If we have no
right to them, at least we do no wrong in accepting them as a gift. And, while we feel that it is “almost wicked” to be so happy – the old English puritanism, or some far older human fear of happiness, prompting us to mistrust the gift – the truth is that we are in such moments much nearer goodness than when the sky is grey and the wind in the east, and life seems a continuous effort instead of a blessed state.

At such rare times as these past few days have brought, the joy of being alive is forced upon us as never else. The present insists upon recognition. Each moment demands conscious enjoyment. As a rule, man looks before and after. He is hardly aware of the present, so fondly does he dream of the past, so eagerly or timorously does he peer into the future. Only now and then does the beauty and the dearness of his earthly setting compel him to concentrate his being in each moment. You cannot overlook the apple blossom, the lilac, the moonlight, the sound of the nightingale, and of the running water.

You cannot even remember that a week hence it will all be over, so intensely are you aware of it and of yourself within it. And thence, perhaps, you pass to the thought that it would be well for you to be more continuously and consciously aware of the present, not a moment of which but must have in it something consoling, or enlarging, or strengthening. For now, more than ever before, we know, vicariously or from experience, that life is short and
uncertain. In these days there is “no knowing what will happen”; and the folly of making plans for the future, however bravely, is seen at first hand to be as foolish as the great wise
men have all declared it to be. In the world before the war (though we were far from as silly and as greedy as certain timorous people have tried to make out) we were, beyond doubt,
to be found scampering more than was reasonable. We planned elaborate pleasures, worked hard to contrive them, and in the act of enjoying them set about thinking of
what to do next. There is no room now for elaborate pleasures, no time to plan them; possibly no future to squeeze them into. But the present is ours, and nothing can take it from us. The simple pleasures which we used to take unheeding, and therefore to lose, in the past, are now all that we can count upon. An hour with a favourite book, the song of a
bird, something good to eat or drink, a moonrise, a flower, a good walk – the value of all such simple pleasures, that cost nothing, that need no planning, that are pleasures of the moment, gifts or states, not achievements, has been increased a hundredfold by the conditions under which we live to-day. And if ever the war is over, the survivors must count
that among their gains from it: that they have learned the existence of the present moment, with its store of happiness, hitherto neglected.

To live fully in the present is in most moments to be happier than by living in the past or the future. To live in the past is, in the nature of things, to feel regret. To live in the future is to
be constantly subject to disappointment or to evil apprehension. We are seldom as miserable at any moment as we believe ourselves. The greater part of human unhappiness comes from our fear of what may be going to happen; just as the secret cause of most quarrels is the fear in each party of what the other party may be going to do. Most moments, rid of regret and evil apprehension, have in them something good, something
enjoyable, if it be only the joy of bravely enduring one moment more of evil case. At least, there is about living in the present a blessed restfulness. The past is past. There may be no future. There is nothing to regret, and nothing to worry about. And, if we cannot always have lilac, red apple-buds, moonlight and a nightingale, not even pituita molesta can prevent drear-nighted November from being very pleasant now and then.


Wessex Aviation Industry, by Mike Phipp (Amberley Publishing, 2011)

This review originally appeared in Wessex Chronicle volume 14, issue 2 (summer 2013)

Mike Phipp has been watching planes come and go at Bournemouth’s airport since the
1960s, so is well-placed to write the definitive book on the Wessex aviation industry. This is not yet it. He confines ‘Wessex’ to Dorset and Wiltshire and the western parts of Hampshire and Berkshire. Can you write our aviation history and exclude Westland of Yeovil, makers of the Wessex and the
Wyvern? Or Bristol, birthplace of the Brabazon and Concorde?

Or Farnborough, home of military flying? That the book actually makes frequent passing reference to all three places, and others in Wessex, only underlines its chief shortcoming. At 317 pages, however, Mike Phipp’s work does offer plenty to be getting on with.

It arranges alphabetically 26 locations used by aircraft manufacturers. The firms range from Vickers-Supermarine, with 13 locations, to single-site operations like Sheriff Aerospace of Sandown or Jackaroo Aircraft of Thruxton. There is a short bibliography but unfortunately the only thing like an index is the contents listing. The aircraft and their manufacturers have been written about before. What is new is their placing in a geographical context, allowing us to understand how the industry came into being. The south coast’s boat-builders were ready to apply their traditional skills to making seaplanes. In 1912 Saunders and Sopwith collaborated on the Bat Boat, the first flying boat to be built in Europe, with a hull based on Saunders’ racing boat construction methods. In 1959 the same firm, by now Saunders-Roe – ‘Saro’ – of Cowes, built the first full-size hovercraft, the SR-N1. And what exactly IS a hovercraft? The Navy’s were classified as aircraft until 1979, and since then as ships, but really they’re a bit of both, just like the industry that built them. Some firms went back to boat-building when aerial orders were few, with slipways rather than runways the most essential piece of infrastructure they needed to possess. Inland, it was the making of furniture, cars and railway rolling stock that was put on hold for aircraft, especially when Supermarine began to disperse Spitfire production in the summer of 1940. (Just in time, as the Itchen and Woolston factories were bombed in September.) The change has not been all one-way: Honda’s Swindon car plant stands on the old Vickers site at South Marston, with the runway now the test track. Wessex Aviation Industry is not an easy read for the non-specialist, who will struggle to keep up with the stream of carefully recorded design changes and all the details of who ordered what from whom and when. There are enough photos to keep a timetravelling plane-spotter very happy indeed. It’s at its best when the people involved come to the fore: entrepreneurs, designers and sheer enthusiasts for making the most of the air. I’m left wishing there was more about such splendidly-named characters as Major Hereward de Havilland, the family firm’s man at Christchurch Airfield in the 1950s, or Alliott Verdon Roe, who developed not one but two firms in succession (Avro and Saro). This may not be the definitive book but it does whet the appetite.

All Greek To Us

This article originally appeared in Wessex Chronicle volume 13, issue 1 (spring 2012)

The Olympic Games are a Greek invention and an English re-invention.  Much Wenlock in Shropshire gets the credit for reviving the games in 1850, 46 years before Baron Pierre de Coubertin staged the international revival in Athens.

But Chipping Campden claims to be the true birthplace of the modern Olympics.  The official bid for the London Games included an acknowledgement of its inspirational role.  The Gloucestershire market town first held an ‘Olimpick Games’ in 1612, with early spectators claimed to have included Shakespeare.  Known locally as ‘Robert Dover's Games’, the annual event takes place on Dover's Hill on the Friday after the Spring Bank Holiday and features marching bands, fairground stalls and a variety of unusual sporting contests.  One is shin-kicking, where players, wearing the traditional white smocks of shepherds, grasp each other by the shoulders and attempt to land well-timed blows to their opponent's shins.  Only then – in mid-kick – can a player attempt to bring his opposite number to the ground.  A ‘stickler’, the ancient name for a judge or umpire, is on hand to make sure a shin is hit before a fall can be scored.  The Cotswold Olimpicks feature other rural challenges such as tug-of-war, sledgehammer throwing and ‘spurning the barre’, a Cotswold version of tossing the caber.  The few thousand attending the event today are a far cry from the 30,000 said to have gathered in the 1830s.  Growing popularity, and associated rowdiness, led to the games ending in 1852, a victim of the enclosures, but they were revived a century later.