We are thrilled to publish on the Land Lines Blog today an essay by Jim Pratt, the nephew of Welsh borders novelist and nature writer Margiad Evans. The essay is focused on Margiad’s war-time correspondence with her brother Roger, who was imprisoned in a series of Prisoner of War camps in Germany and Poland, and features excerpts from previously unpublished letters.
In 1941, the thirty-two-year-old Border poet Margiad Evans (Peggy Whistler) moved into a semi-detached farm-workers’ cottage without electricity or running water on top of a hill in Llangarron, Herefordshire. Her own, fully equipped modern house a few miles distant had been rented out, and it provided most of her income during the war.
The cottage, named Potacre, had been built in the corner of a large field on a ridgetop with long views north towards the Black Mountains of Wales (Fig 1). This view became so embedded in her soul that 15 years later, while living in Sussex and on the verge of an early death from cancer, she was to write of it:
It will please you perhaps to hear that the neglected Anglo-Welsh writer you sent to Ireland all those years ago, is named by ten professors of literature as the leading writer (and poet) of her day. It did please me, but it seemed a long way off, since the writer, like the bee, is always building, always adding fresh cell to cell. This process finished, so is all. I am now tired […] I think I shall go home to live if I can get there anyhow as I have a longing to see the Black Mountains that sometimes seem to hang from the sky like a rainstorm.
Ever your grateful and loving
It is telling that ‘home’ in this letter is in the place she had last seen ten years earlier, namely Potacre, and it was here that she was to write some of her most memorable essays, short stories, poems, and her introspective observations on life which she named Autobiography, so ably reviewed on the Land Lines blog by Steven Lovatt earlier this year.
Llangarron is set in a countryside little changed since medieval times, of small hedge-girt fields and coppice woodlands in a discrete, intimate landscape of rolling hills and little streams in shallow, tree-lined valleys. It is crossed by ancient, deep-cut farm tracks. Describing Herefordshire in 1936 as ‘rural – gosh, how rural‘, A.G. Street notes ‘There seem to be less cars and more horses per hundred acres in Herefordshire than in any other English county. In Herefordshire they raise cattle and sheep, make cider from their apple orchards, and breed horses and cobs[…] If you like horses and cider, and glory in a really rural existence amidst unspoilt countryside, you cannot do better than settle in Herefordshire. It may be a trifle wet but it is always green and sweet and clean and peaceful. Three-quarters of it are grassland […] [Even where the land is ploughed it is cropped mainly with fodder for the livestock, while there is at least five times the acreage in orchard than in wheat’.
In 1939, Margiad’s younger brother Roger Whistler, recently married, volunteered for army service on the outbreak of war, and was commissioned in the 4th Battalion Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry. He joined his unit (part of the BEF) in northern France in March 1940. Following the German invasion of Belgium and France on May 10th, his unit provided part of a sacrificial defence of the southern perimeter around the town of Dunkirk that enabled the evacuation of over 300,000 fighting troops back to Britain. Only one officer and a handful of men from the 4th Battalion made it back to Britain: at least ten officers were killed, and the remainder, including Roger, became prisoners of war on May 30th. Along with some 2000 other British army officers, he was incarcerated in the notorious PoW camp Oflag VIIC in Laufen, Bavaria. In the confusion of Dunkirk, he had been posted as “missing” and his family had no news of him. However, on September 16, Margiad described how she first heard, in Ross-on-Wye, that he was alive:
By some freak I was the one who first heard you were alive. I was going from house to house investigating pension cases […]. I heard a telegram had been pushed under the door and at the same time I knew that Mother and Miss Smith were out. I knew in a moment that what I had believed all along was right and you were alive. The street – the Market Hall clock – they all seemed blurred and yet more real than ever before. It had been raining – I remember the wet leaves in the Ashfield gardens. I rushed to the Post Office and they told me what was in the telegram. Then I telephoned Mother who was having a day’s spree in Hereford. It was a day or two before her birthday and none of your cards had arrived. You should have heard her voice “What a birthday present! Oh thank-you, thank-you!” as if I had given her the world and all its lives. I did no more work I can tell you. About an hour later I sort of came out of my joy for a minute, and lord bless me if I wasn’t still gaping at that clock which looked absolutely vacant and silly with no more meaning in its face than a stone. That night we all drank to you.
This letter was followed by another fifty or so until the end of 1944, and they represent a rare, complete series among Margiad’s surviving unpublished writings. Most were written on her knees by candlelight in Potacre, and their function was to keep her brother grounded in the family news within the Border country in which he had grown up, and for which he had a deep affection.
Almost all the letters celebrate the countryside around Potacre, the landscapes Margiad could see, the people who lived and worked there and the weather to which they were all exposed. She had no idea of the conditions under which her brother was incarcerated: what he could see, feel or hear differed between the six camps in which he was forced to live for five years, and he had limited opportunities to describe them. Her letters are typically upbeat and optimistic. To avoid censorship, they rarely mention the war or its effects on her or even on Britain.
In January 1943, Margiad described a winter morning:
I saw snow last week…As it fell the fields turned blue as if with frost-dust and the sky thickened with one dense earthy cloud…Next day how beautiful – the soft silent trees with a strange dimness of atmosphere about them, the contours of the hilly fields for once not outlined by the higher boundaries but white and empty against the cloudiness in which the true hills and mountains were lost. Warm red cattle stood against the hedges & ricks; poultry crowed and cackled from their perches: the farms and yards looked half thawed in the whiteness, as if by the breath of the men & the beasts.
Roger received this letter on March 19th at Oflag VIIB, Eichstatt, Bavaria. Of all the camps he was to experience, this was the least unpleasant being in a wooded river valley with wide views over the adjacent hills. When her letter arrived, spring would have been well advanced, the trees in and around the camp in leaf and many birds nesting. In stark contrast to Eichstatt, the conditions in a subterranean camp in Poland (Stalag XX1 D, Posen) to which Roger and 500 other British army officer prisoners had been sent in May 1941 as punishment were appalling, with no opportunities to sample fresh air or daylight, or to view the featureless landscape outside the camp. Margiad had no idea of the location or conditions at this camp when she wrote to him on March 7th, 1941 and which he received nearly two months later:
It was a lovely morning. I rode down the hill to the farm and then up a long climb out of the valley. The sun was hazy throwing pale shadows of branches across the road, sky a lighted luminous grey. Crows below in the elm tops were all astir, sounding as one mounted above their din like the people of the land. The thrushes and chaffinches and blackbirds are getting loud. You hear a thrush in a holly or hazel by the roadside singing, another across the field fainter, and smaller sounds dwindling. Yet always clear and complete reflections of the song scattered and dispersed throughout all the hills and waves of the country. “Cher cher cher Women’s Institute” cries the chaffinch in fussy gossiping language and then a farm dog barks somewhere off in the distance and new born lambs bleat in the shelter of the hurdles. Green things, sharp as knives, are piercing the earth everywhere. Through the rubble of winter the nearly black ivy old leaves, rotten twigs and strings of dead plants show quilted primrose leaves, Lords and Ladies and lots of things I can’t name but all swarming out of the ground and filling the banks with fresh colour. It has been bitter cold, and the farmer brings his ewes and lambs into the barn. They lounge about in the straw with, of all people, a duck for company. An old plank door fastened with string keeps them in: chaff and straw eddies in the draft and gets in our hair as we fill the feeding baskets from the heaps on the floor. Some of the farm buildings straddle on pillars, over the open wagon sheds – the lower fold has a dating stone 1742. The bull lives there. He is like a small whale: his white head lights the dusk: he likes to lick my fur gloves and stands swinging his forehead behind the great thick posts and rails. He has such round innocent blue eyes and long straight white eyelashes and a shiny new copper ring in his nostrils and he breaths in snorts that puff out with the air a warm smell. One of the men sleeps in that place at night. They call him Parson Evans and say he is not all there. He has no home, lies on the hay, can go to bed when he likes, is a queer big fellow you can see for miles shambling along the horizon, a load on his shoulder. Good natured, calm they laugh at him but he works and we like him.
Stalag XXI was set in one of a ring of sunken fortresses built along the boundaries of Prussia in the 19th century. The men lived in cavernous brick-lined basements with no windows, no heating and minimal water. For them, there was no spring to savour: no birdsong or wildflowers or greening trees. It is not difficult to imagine how Margiad’s description of a Herefordshire spring would have been a tonic and a benefit to Roger and his fellow prisoners, and is perhaps one reason why he valued her letters above all the others he received in captivity.
Many of Margiad’s letters describe her fellow villagers, and the delight and genuine affection with which she treats their foibles and eccentricities belie the notion that she was the disinterested self-obsessed, anti-social egoist she later claimed to be. Indeed, in this excerpt, written on July 1st 1942 and received on August 17th in Oflag VIB (Warburg: one of the most unpleasant camps) she describes what she could see in the field outside her kitchen window, part of which she subsequently painted (Fig 2):
My darling – just a short torn one to tell you I have thought of you all day when I have been gardening, when cooking when watching the haymakers. If you had been here how we would have lent a hand together! As it was I played the gramophone at the open window for them to enjoy, if they could hear it above the tractor and the crackle crackle rumble of their elevator. I sang too: do you remember ‘The Golden Vanity’ in the bathroom at home and me rubbing you dry? They came early to the field. There were no horses and I was glad for it’s terrifically hot work for them working in the sunlight all day. The machinery and wagons were such beautiful colours that I longed to stop working and paint them. Sky blue and scarlet, soft faded blue, buff and crimson, the dark green trees behind the rick, the burnt, sun coloured clover, the men with their mahogany arms and white rolled up shirts. And the constant soft swishing, the rustling, the moving, swirling, tossing, the eddying scent that poured through the windows and doors and filled the garden so that I couldn’t smell the flowers. My neighbour made them tea in the field and every time the wagons bumped past the hedge, rumbling emptily or towering high, the men would laugh and sing out to me sweating away with hoe and rake in the garden. There was Peg Leg in great danger of sinking into the rick as he gyrated. And all the others I’ve hoed with in the beet field, and the farmer and a bossy gassy little chap known as Mr Little-So-Big who lays down the law and gets laughed at all over the land.
Peg Leg was Margiad’s neighbour William Saunders, so called because he had lost a leg in an accident many years before. He and his wife were a constant in her life in Potacre, and his presence at the harvest indicates its communal importance within the village.
Roger was released from Moosburg prisoner-of-war camp (Stalag VII-A) in April 1945 by the US 7th Army. Europe was in chaos, and his diary tells how he stood guard, fully armed, over food stocks to prevent them being raided by starving Russian prisoners running amok after release. He returned home to his wife and the son he had never seen a changed man, bringing with him the 52 letters from his sister: the other 400 or so which he had received during captivity were left behind. Clearly, he valued this correspondence above all others, and it is for that reason that I am preparing the letters, along with an account of Roger’s wartime experiences, for publication. His unit’s part in the Dunkirk evacuation has received scant attention and earned him no medals, and he returned home after the war as a lieutenant, virtually the same rank he held when captured. There seems little doubt that he was psychologically deeply scarred by captivity, describing himself on one occasion as a “common prisoner”. He was also affected by a sense of guilt that he had survived when others of his cohort had not. His complex emotional state was not helped when he was thwarted in his attempts to remain a regimental officer in the 4th Battalion, which he considered his home. In 1946, he transferred to the Royal Military Police, saw active service in Malaya in the 1950’s and lived until he was 97. His sister Margiad was less fortunate. She developed epilepsy at the age of 41 and died on her 49th birthday after suffering greatly from her affliction, which was caused by an inoperable brain tumour. Her last few years are described in her unsentimental pathographies A Ray of Darkness (1952) and its sequel The Nightingale Silenced (Honno: Welsh Women’s Classics, 2020).
By Jim Pratt, Scotland, June 2020
Jim Pratt MBE is Margiad Evans’ nephew. A forest officer, he retired in 2002 and lives with his wife near Edinburgh.
Fig 1. The view north from Potacre towards the Black Mountains. Photograph taken from the field being harvested on July 12st 1942.
Fig 2. Watercolour The Red Ladder by Margiad Evans. Painted in Llangarron, unknown date. Property of the author.
Fig 3. Lt Roger Whistler, 4th Bn Ox and Bucks LI, Oflag V!!B, Eichstatt, Germany 1944.
Fig 4. Margiad Evans, Springherne near Ross on Wye, Summer 1938 or 1939.
I thank Margiad’s daughter Cassie Davis for permission to publish her mother’s writing and Jane Dickson for transcribing a compressed, minute calligraphy in the letters which often defeated both British and German censors. I thank my cousins Tom Nightingale and Graham Whistler for permission to publish the portraits of Peggy and Roger Whistler.