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Authors: Henry Williamson

Lucifer Before Sunrise

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HENRY WILLIAMSON

LUCIFER BEFORE SUNRISE

‘If a poet is sensitive enough to his age, and brave enough to face it directly, it will kill him through exacerbation of his senses alone.’

Author
unknown

‘If way to the better there be, it enacts a full look at the worst.’

Thomas
Hardy

To
Father Brocard Sewell,
O.Carm., RAF (retired) etc,
of Aylesford Priory, Kent

The lines from Wilfred Owen’s poem
Happiness
are taken from
The
Collected
Poems
of
Wilfred
Owen
and reprinted by kind permission of Mr Harold Owen and the publishers, Chatto & Windus Ltd.

 

Henry Williamson is also grateful to the Trustees of the Joseph Conrad Estate, and to the publishers, J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd., for giving their consent to print the
extract from a letter
from Joseph Conrad to Edward Garnett, taken from Conrad’s
Notes
on
Life
and
Letters
.

 

Tribute must also be paid to the late Professor Thomas Callendar, formerly Professor of Greek, Queen’s University, Kingston, Canada, for quotations from his posthumously published book,
The
Athenian
Empire
and
the
British
, which illuminate an aspect of European history not generally known; and to Weidenfeld and Nicolson, the publishers.
CONTENTS

Title Page

Dedication

Acknowledgements

 

Book One

The Island Fortress

 

Part One

WINTER—SPRING 1941

1. London Blitz

2. Seed Beds!

3. The Keatsian Bird

4. Hooly

5. Sweet Meadow Hay

 

Part Two

WOODLAND IDYLL

6. To the West

7. Eclipse

8. Melissa

 

Part Three

THE DARK AND ABYSM OF TIME

9. Matt’s Warning

10. Luke Gives Up

11. ‘Narthin’ But Trouble’

12. The Cockerels

13. In the Stables

14. ‘War and Peace’

 

Part Four

‘A CADS’ WAR’

15. Suspension

16. The Duck Decoy

17. The Studio

18. Relief

 

Book Two

The Malevolent Glint

 

Part One

CRUX

19. The Inquiline

20. Some Sport and Some Sportsmen

21. Clearing the Home Hills

22. Dream

23. ‘Ginger’

24. The Swill King

 

Part Two

‘STILL ARE THY PLEASANT VOICES’

25. Recession

26. June, 1944

27. Visitors

28. Stubble Trotters

29. ‘Littles by Littles’

30. The Moon is Rising

31. Christmas 1944

 

Part Three

DEATH OF THE DOPPELGANGER

32. Icarian Way

33. Finis Declarat Opus

34. Sun in Leo

35. All In One Pot

36. Surview and Farewell

 

About the Author

Copyright

‘Whoever lights the torch of war in Europe can hope for nothing but chaos …'

—
Adolph
Hitler
in
the
Reichstag,
May,
1935 

‘Set Europe ablaze!'
              —
Winston
Churchill,
in
              
a
broadcast
to
European
                   
partisans,
June,
1940

Not long after the war broke out the land of Britain was controlled by the County War Agricultural Executive Committees. The Committees governed mainly by forms. Phillip welcomed control by experts—the County Committee he had found tactful and comprehensive in their knowledge—but he was discomposed by the forms. Every two months he had to reply to a long questionnaire in order to get petrol for his tractor, lorry, water-pump engine, and his old open sports motor-car.

There were also forms for feeding stuffs which were rationed, and available only for cows giving milk, and for young calves. Wood for farm repairs required a licence to be written in triplicate; as did applications for agricultural implements—if available.

After Hitler’s conquest of France, and the aerial Battle of Britain, the country was, according to the national newspapers which were now printed on a double broadsheet only, in a state of siege. The paper of these newspapers was thin and of poor quality, grey and flimsy, with the exception of
The
Times
, the paper of which remained white and firm.
The
Times
represented the stability of Britain, as Winston Churchill was the unshakeable spirit of what he called the Island Fortress.

Nightly the blows resounded on the fortress; nightly the
cock-pheasants
crowed their alarums in the woods; nightly the little group of cottages in Banyard village shuddered and shook with the tremor and distant reverberation of bombs; nightly the deep
brr-brr
,
brr-brr
of two-engined German Heinkels crossed the heights of the sky. One November night, in 1940, Phillip heard them passing overhead hour after hour; and going into the garden by the walnut tree, he felt bomb-vibrations in the strata of the chalk below him. He heard nothing by ear through the air. He heard them through the bones of his legs, as the cock pheasants in the tall ivy-grown trees of the wood across the river felt vibration through their clawed feet. In the morning, the B.B.C. announced
that Coventry had been bombed, and the cathedral burned out.

He accepted the nightly reverberations; he was even stimulated by them, and an occasional sky-glow as warehouse, barn, or stack burned fitfully in the distance was an excitement in an occluded local life.

 *

He wanted to go to London, to see something of the blitz, to hear again the sharp cracks of anti-aircraft guns, the chromatic whining of bombs descending, to crouch from stunning
detonations
. It would be almost like the Western Front—except that one could go home when one wanted to! He longed to be in the war, but all services were barred to him. When he had returned, the previous summer, from detention under Regulation 18b, the Local Defence Volunteers had talked of resigning. He had tried to enlist before this, but was barred. So he joined the Air Raid Precautions unit in the village; but a letter came from the county town declaring briefly that his services were not required. It was a time of rumours; one being that he was so ‘in’ with the Germans that the Chief Constable of the county hadn’t dared to hold him, lest he be shot by Hitler when the invasion came.

Civilian wind-up was boring. Phillip was lonely, feeling himself cut-off; and when a chance came to go one night to London, he took it gladly.

*

For a couple of years he had been friendly with a lorry driver who lived in the nearby coastal town. Phillip had met him before the war when he brought a lorry-load of things from his West Country home to the farm in East Anglia. Albert Close’s sense of quickness appealed to Phillip, also his knowledge and care of machinery. He had overhauled parts of Phillip’s Alvis car, and the work was expert. His own lorry, an old Ford, was well maintained by him.

Albert Close eked out some sort of living in competition with the big hauliers in the district. Several times during the past year he had come to see Philip on the farm, to help with one or another mechanical job. Phillip insisted that all his work be on a paid basis, of course. Bert Close said of the workshop that he had never seen one like it on any farm, nor such stores of building materials—sheet lead, tiles, timber, basins, sinks, ten thousand concrete-breeze blocks, etc.—which Phillip had bought cheaply before the war at sales of bankrupt builders’ yards. What were they all for,
Bert Close asked. Well, he had lots of spares for his lorry, hadn’t he, what were
they
all for? At that Bert Close had laughed, showing excellent teeth. He was Cockney-born and bred.

Bert Close told Phillip he had a girl who read books which she said were posh. One evening, in neat blue suit, and hair pressed with water to the skull, and a diffident manner, he brought her to the farmhouse. Seated at the supper table, Bert Close told Lucy, Phillip’s wife, how he had thought Mr. Maddison was all right ever since an evening, calling at his cottage to ask if he could take a load of barley to the railway station, Mr. Maddison had opened the door to find him and the kids seated round the kitchen table eating bread and dripping. On being asked if he would like a cup of tea, Mr. Maddison had not only not refused, but seated ’isself at the table and scoffed their grub.

“Cupper char?, I asked the guv’nor. Ta, he says, and helps ’isself to a slice off of the plate of skid an’ slippin’. Says it was ’is favor-ite grub. Go on, I says. Fact, he says. Blime, Mrs. Maddison, you coulda knocked me down wiv a traction engine.”

Billy, Phillip’s eldest boy, enjoyed the account. He and his brother Peter had a silent bout of laughter, eyes slanting towards the head of the table. “Without a word of a lie!” went on Mr. Close, easier now that his story had gone down well. “Straight, guv, I knew you was all right when you didn’t turn your nose up at ar sorta grub.” And when a little later, after bacon and eggs had been followed by apple pie and cream, the guest eased up and confided that his pals were wrong when they suggested that he, Bert Close, was being softened up to be brought into the Fiff Col’m.

“Ooh, that reminds me, Colham is where you lived, isn’t it?” said Poppy. “I remember reading about it in one of your articles in
The
Daily
Crusader.

“I meant little ’ole ’Itler’s Fiff Col’m,” said Bert Close.

Poppy usually went with Bert on his journeys. There was a trailer hitched to the lorry, and a brake-man was required by law to sit beside the driver to use the hand-brake of the trailer. The blitz was still on London. One evening, in the Schooner Inn, Bert Close asked Phillip if he’d like to go and see the sights. Phillip said he would, and the next afternoon the two set out together.

There was a queue of stopped lorries as they came near Stratford. The sky was dilating with flashes. Phillip thought of First Ypres, and felt stimulated. This was fun—he was a spectator! The lorry was loaded with sacks of whelks for Billingsgate. They had to go
through the City. Phillip asked Bert Close why he had brought an unloaded trailer, since it meant a slower rate of travel. The driver replied shortly, ‘Return load, guv’. Phillip knew that sometimes he brought back wheat or barley, damaged by water of the
fire-hoses
on burning wharves, to the Crabbe maltings. There it was dried and made into cattle food.

Incendiaries were now falling with the bombs. He saw one drop beside the lorry, the window was down against blast. The brilliant blue-white hissing light skittered over the pavement and stopped by a wall of sandbags. Bert’s jaw was set, his face looked grim in the shimmering light and moving shadows. Some of the wharves down-river from the Monument were blazing. Bombs were now crumping louder than any shells Phillip had heard on the Western front. His ears were singing, he did not know if he could hear or not. The guns were continuous. He felt the buffets as he sat inside the cab.

An omnibus on fire was coming towards them. Bert Close shouted to brake hard. The trailer slewed and bumped on to the pavement. They just missed the bus, which appeared to have only the driver on board. The lorry engine stalled. With a curse Bert Close got out to swing the handle. The engine started, he leapt in. They went on down the cobbled narrow street to their destination. When Phillip got out he found his legs were trembling.

A drapery warehouse was on fire somewhere beyond the dark tops of office buildings. He saw a strange sight, which might have come out of the coloured picture books illustrating Dante’s
Inferno
which his father once showed him when he was a small boy. In the book were human figures, some upside down, boiling away in pits of what might have been lava. They hadn’t upset him in the least, they were merely pictures of legs and arms and miserable faces. Now he was standing as in an earlier childhood dream, or
nightmare
—everything glowing red, himself lost, and with no wild emotional feelings, no terror; nothing. Above him towered the Monument of the Great Fire of London, its gilt fire-ball reflecting as though austerely another conflagration down-river. Phillip wanted to see more, and asked Bert Close if he could wait while he went down to be nearer the fires.

“Don’t be too long, guv, we’ve got to get back tonight. I’ll have a cupper char in a caff see, over there.”

Phillip went down the narrow, sett-stoned street. It ended in rubble. A man was on his knees lifting out stones and pieces of mortar, and going to see if he could help—perhaps to dig out
buried child or fire-watcher—Phillip saw he was filling his pockets with dolls’ glass eyes. There must have been a little shop-factory there before the bomb-burst.

When he looked up, a little afraid of smuts and sparks in his eyes, he saw barrage balloons swaying yellow, reflecting the brighter warehouse flames. Their swelled shapes rocked against a sky of duller red. He could see clearly to scrawl details in his notebook —pigeons flapping, spinning down, rosy plumage sparkling—
hairless
rats dragging tails slowly in gutter.

Peculiar kinds of floating objects arising from nearest warehouse. They glowed as they floated, some swirling, others drifting almost with the brightness of incandescent gas-mantles. They had various outlines—cotton stocking, shirt, tablecloth, even trousers—cotton pyjamas? Some broke and dropped near him as he went on
downriver
. He saw girders, bare with floors burned away and masonry fallen. They were sagging in heats apparently greater than those of furnaces the metal had gone through in the steel mills. He flung himself flat when, above the enormous roaring of flames, he heard the wailing shriek of a bomb, wrapped head in arms to protect ear-drums. A whizzling, vicious sound cut past him. He wondered if it was a coiled spring or springs out of a mattress.

When he got back to the lorry Bert Close was looking grim. “Come on, guv, I can’t stand ’ere all night.”

After driving down several side-streets they stopped by a bombed church. Two men were waiting to help load slabs of slate and marble on the floors of both lorry and trailer. Tombstones.

On their way to Cambridge Bert Close told him that all the rubble of the bombing was being loaded into ships returning to America as ballast. There was nothing much to export now, he said, the ships came with food and ammunition under
Lend-Lease
, and turned-about fast to get out of the Thames estuary. Phillip asked him about the tombstones. Bert Close said they were sold for new graves after the lettering had been removed.

*

In the New Year of 1941 there was some talk of making another Domesday Book—a complete survey of the land and stock of Great Britain. One afternoon a tired woman official from the War Agricultural Executive Committee arrived at the open
farmhouse
door. She saw a small boy standing behind a leather
armchair
and apparently dropping, from one hand, a sort of powder upon the head of someone sitting there. In his other hand the child held a comb. She said loudly, “Ahem!” A man got up
from the chair and came forward to greet her while barley kernels dropped on the shoulders of his coat.

“Do come in,” he said, when she had explained her mission. “This is David, who varies the monotony of combing hair to soothe the savage breast of his father—for money, of course—by pretending he is harrowing-in seed-corn upon the Bad Lands. But I hardly think the acreage of my cranium should be included in your survey.”

Lucy brought in a tea-tray while questions were being asked.

“Your name, please?”

“Phillip Maddison. Two ells to Phillip, my mother couldn’t spell.”

“In what condition do you regard your farm?”

“A ‘Z’ farm.”

“You are too modest, Mr. Maddison. Thank you, I’d like some honey. Your own bees, no doubt? How much arable land have you?”

“One hundred and fifty acres.”

She wrote it down. “How nice to see hams hanging on the beam. How much grass have you?”

“About a hundred acres. And fifty of copse and woodland.”

“Forgive me writing all this down during tea, but I must get home before the black-out. I expect you have read in the papers that all farms throughout Britain are being graded, A, B, and C? ‘A’ means first-class productivity, while ‘C’, the lowest, indicates poor organisation and output. ‘B’ implies considerable room for improvement. I have nothing to do with the classification, of course. Well, thank you so much for my rest in your delightful oasis, hardly ‘bad lands’, I should think.”

*

A few weeks after the visit of the New Domesday scribe, a letter came by post from the East Anglian W.A.C. informing the
owner-occupier
of Deepwater Farm that he was a ‘B’ farmer.

That seemed to be just, if erring on the tolerant side. For
undoubtedly
the farm had been in the lowest category, a ‘Z’ farm as Phillip had rated it, when he had taken it in hand four years before.

Since then, with rather more labour than was economic—five regular men, in addition to himself, and later his eldest son—a mile of farm roads had been remade, and buildings mended. Concrete slabs had replaced the great muddy pits by stable and cowhouse. Gates and posts renewed. Lice and rats in stable and pig-house obliterated. Some of the arable had been either
bare-
fallowed
to let-in sun and air, or bastard-fallowed. He had made a number of compost heaps—rushes, weeds, old sacks, waste paper, dead rats, dead calves and ewes—too many dead calves—and
anything
and everything that would rot and form the black mould of fertility. All the old tins and rotten woodwork and wreckage of implements, the broken glass and rusty iron which had strewed the premises since the depression of 1923 had been collected, together with old beer-bottles which had been used for oil and disinfectant and dropped into hedges, and forgotten. All had been buried in pits away from touch and sight. Calves were bred—he didn’t like the poor infected beasts bought at market, many with white scour —and had grown into bullocks, to tread straw in the yards to make muck to nourish sugar-beet, corn, clover, and roots. A small
ewe-flock
had been got together to eat and so improve the tired grass of the Home Hills. The money from everything had been put back into the land for its own sake, for the family’s sake, for England’s sake, while the red figures in the bank book, though wavering and diminishing after corn-harvest in the autumn, seemed ever to be growing more established.

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