Monday, 30 April 2012

Wight Writers (1957)

I just found an old copy of Books and Bookmen that gives a glimpse into the genteel world of Isle of Wight writers in the mid-1950s.

by Patricia Sibley

J.B. Priestley, Margaret Campell Barnes, Aubrey de Selincourt are among many authors who have made their homes on the Isle of Wight. This account of the local Writers' Circle shows how some of the famous join in helping the lesser known writers.

On a map the Solent looks narrow as a river ; only islanders know how effectively it cuts off the mainland world, so that it is all the more necessary for local writers to meet together. To be honest, the Isle of Wight Writer's Circle seldom regrets its isolation, since it brings two blessings, comparative peace and a number of well-known authors in retreat.

We are fortunate to meet in the civilised comfort of a private house where our hostesses dispense tea and sympathy when necessary. Meetings are over only when the last member decides to leave. Once a new recruit brought his novel and read it right through to a stupified audience, finally departing at three in the morning; it is that sort of a circle.

Formal and informal

Activities include two meetings a month, one for a talk, the other, less formal, for reading and discussion: an annual luncheon and a garden party. The Journal, a file of typescript containing anonymous work of all kinds is circulated to members for comment. This is edited, most efficiently by Kate Stevens, expert on office procedure, broadcaster, author of books for children and innumerable verses for greetings cards.
Recently we had the fascinating and instructive experience of being tape-recorded and then listening to the play-back — the work of Harold Lewis who reads his own stories on BBC Children's Hour. Our late and much-missed president, George Holland, one-time dramatic critic of the Illustrated London News, takes with him to a new home in Australia a tape recording of farewells from us all.

Local settings

One of our best known members is Margaret Campbell Barnes, the historical novelist. Isobel The Fair is her latest book, though Mary Of Carisbrooke is the general favourite here because of its local setting. Mrs Campbell Barnes is always busy, either with actual writing, or the meticulous research which precedes it; even so she spares the time every year not only to judge our annual short story competition, but to write a detailed constructive criticism of each story. She is at present engaged in writing a new novel set in Tudor times.

Aubrey de Selincourt, author of yachting books and translations of the classics is one of our Vice-Presidents. His book on The Isle of Wight reveals a deep though unsentimental affection for its countryside. He is well known also for his children's stories which grow out of sailing adventures with his own family along the South Coast.

Naturally boats loom large. Other members include Uffa Fox, yacht designer and writer, sailing companion to Prince Philip. John Scott Hughes, yachting correspondent of The Times, and Commander Radford, who has turned his wide experience to good use in writing sea stories and a serial for Children's Hour.

Margot Arnold and RG Nettell are two novelist members with many books to their credit. Mrs. Arnold is at work on a new novel set in the Isle of Wight.

Two other members are well known specialist writers, the Rev. Walter Fancutt who writes religious articles for various national magazines, and "Margaret Harwood", famous as a newspaper "Aunt". No one will dispute that our proudest "possession", until his recent death, was our Vice-President, Alfred Noyes, who lived at St. Lawrence for many years, having learned to know and love the island before failing sight shut out its beauty. I remember two red letter occasions when he has talked to us, ranging with effortless memory over the whole field of English poetry, but best of all reciting his own - a deep hypnotic river of sound.

We are proud of the famous ones, but for the greater part we are all strugglers, so that one acceptance is the occasion for general rejoicing. We are mostly spare-time writers, members of that strange race who hurry home from office, works, school or shopping with dreams, net of television or tennis, or even of a "nice" book, but simply of a pen in the hand and a new, white page.

- Books and Bookmen: Volumes 3-4, 1957
It all sounds like a bastion of post-WW2 Middle England, and I do wonder if the description of the then 77-year-old Noyes's poetry recitations as "a deep hypnotic river of sound" is a euphemism for "bored us all into unconsciousness". Nevertheless, a name-check is of interest, and finds some names that have stood the test of time, and others that haven't.

RG Nettell is one of many mid-20th century novelists who had perfectly solid careers, but aren't remembered: see the next post - Genesis of a Novel - for more about him. But Margaret Campbell Barnes (1891-1962) is still read and in print for her corpus of historical novels (see Fantastic Fiction for a bibliography). Aubrey de Sélincourt (1894-1962) is probably best known for his niche work in the classics - though his influence runs further: the poet Mimi Khalvati recalls him as an inspiring English teacher when she was at school in Shanklin (see interview). The yachtsman Uffa Fox (1898-1972) was a household name in my childhood, as a sailing pundit and eccentric, but nowadays he and John Scott Hughes aren't much remembered outside boating circles. Margot Arnold (1925-), if it's the same person, is still going strong as a mystery fiction writer. Alfred Noyes (1880-1958) is still a poet of respected reputation, and an interesting writer for his breadth of work, which ranged through poetry, Catholic apologetics, a celebration of science in his The Torch-Bearers trilogy, and his 1940 apocalyptic SF novel The Last Man. Many of his works are old enough to be on the Internet Archive.

- Ray

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