Sixty-seven years ago this month, an RAF Mosquito on patrol over the Thames was ordered to intercept an incoming V1 flying bomb. It never returned.
Its pilot, Fred Kemp, left behind a wife and three young children. Its navigator, James Farrar, left arguably a more enduring legacy – an extraordinary collection of poetry and prose, characterised (in the words of a review in the Spectator) by “an inner clarity and quality, an authority of imaginative expression far beyond his actual experience”.
Unlike his near-contemporary Keith Douglas, four years his senior and killed in Normandy the month before him, Farrar never achieved recognition in his lifetime. His mother sent his manuscripts to his lifelong literary hero, Henry Williamson, who published an anthology in 1950 under the title The Unreturning Spring.
As a writer, Farrar’s great strength and maturity is in description. (Be warned: if you are one of those who spurn the adjective or the adverb, look away now: there is nothing for you in this post, nor in Farrar’s writing.) His imagery is of the sort that demands to be read deeply and thoughtfully. (I posted about this kind of thing a few months back. Yes, I feel strongly about it.) Here he is at sixteen, watching a Battle of Britain dogfight:
I walked endlessly, no clock drips by the hours, The burnished hedgerows, clotted and high, The still woods, the dead meadows, the closed flowers, Shrunken under that bright scarred sky. A light-play, as of sun on August leaves, A height-soft moan, a wooden intermittent rattle, And, as the scrolled conflict eastward weaves, Feelers drooping darkly out of battle. They come slowly, soft tap-roots questing down, At the groping tip of one glisters a bead of light: I see them, like waterflies struggling not to drown, Soundlessly pass into earth, and meet night. What is it that they are fallen? Sane men hold it to be just That each, when dead feed the earth like pollen, Lies strewn in some broken field like a wrack of dust.
I will have more to say about Farrar’s writing in a subsequent post, but reading it this past week, I have found myself as never before face-to-face with the man.
Above all, he comes across as an introvert, though without any of the negative connotations that word seems to have in our mediaholic society. By ‘introvert’ I mean one who draws their energy from solitude and expends it in company, in the Myers-Briggs sense of the word, as opposed to an extravert (sic) who draws their energy from interacting with others and expends it in solitude. However, he was no loner; his brother David recalls that “in his last months he was up to all sorts of pranks with his fellow officers”, and after his death, his commanding officer wrote about his popularity among all ranks (he was equally popular with the WAAFs!).
Nevertheless, his writing shows a side of him that is more observer than participant. Self-sufficient without ever being self-absorbed or self-centred; thoughtful, meticulous in his eye for detail, he was equally perceptive observing humanity and the natural world. In his description, there is a constant awareness of his own other-ness from his fellow man. He wrote to his mother in July 1942: “I want to be able to stand apart and watch people and use life, instead of being used by it…” Fifteen months later he broke off a searingly honest character critique of Fred Kemp to remark: “The above is part of a character-study, not a tirade”. He comments on “the boys…having a beer-up”, but does not join in himself.
(Perhaps inevitably, he was subjected to the occasional practical joke, as when he chalked up 7.15 on the early call board, in order to hear a piece by Delius on the wireless. “During the night I am told it was seen to have become 8.15 and by the morning had disappeared altogether.” He appears to have had little tolerance for the cultural philistinism of many of his fellow airmen.)
Farrar was altogether more at home with the natural world, with which he had a deep and easy familiarity:You say ‘honeysuckle’ – a word only – and I see ivory virgin lips as dusk, the many carven clusters against the sky….Here I hang between sun and star in the hour of transition, a calm hopelessness of beauty upon me…
Even here, though, hanging between sun and star, he is somehow set apart. Here is his poem The Beloved:When I am in the fields she lies Alone upon the hills, for she is Day And I am Night, and brightest shine her eyes When I must look away. But briefly as in summer dawn we meet, Her beauty in a flood Burns vagrant through my blood. And when the swift floats high On molten tide of sunset, silently Together in the meadows do we lie, But never wed shall be: For soon she sleeps in mist and I must rise, And when the stars are grown Must seek the hills alone.
For all his extraordinary linguistic maturity, he seems to have been diffident about his talent. Perhaps the most poignant episode in the book comes when he learned of the death of his closest friend, Don Powell. He wrote in his journal:…it is as if one’s feelings are a fantastic and elusive moth, and the effort to become articulate or to clarify is merely a candleflame raised to illuminate it, which instead sears its wings: and unwittingly destroys it….The whole half of my childhood has been stripped away. Only a fool would be inclined at such times to start carving mountains with a penknife….For the first time I understand how people – the spirit of them – can pervade places.
And yet his letter to Don’s parents contained none of this outpouring of eloquence, but rather the gawky uncertain half-comfort of a youngster a week past his twentieth birthday.
And it is this diffidence that has given me pause for thought. I have written elsewhere about the risks of the new publishing model, which forces the writer to become his or her own publicist, and rewards self-promotion skills rather than writing skills.
There is absolutely no doubt that, had Farrar lived, his extraordinary talent would have found its way into print – that after the war he would have found a publisher who would have done all the publicity, allowing him – if he wished – to remain apart, an acute observer of the world around him, drawing inspiration from nature and creative energy from solitude. And the world would have been richer as a result.
Indeed, the world was and is richer, thanks to the vision and energy of the two people who, after Farrar’s death, brought The Unreturning Spring to life. Margaret Farrar was a tireless champion of her son’s writings, without whose tenacity they would in all likelihood have been lost altogether. And Henry Williamson was in modern parlance the curator, the authoritative voice of the artistic establishment, who could present to the wider world not only Farrar’s talent, but also his enduring place in literary posterity.
But had Farrar been born sixty years later, that same talent would have been poorly served by 21st-century publishing, insisting in its shallow arrogance that every writer must “build their own platform”. Indeed, his talent was rooted in a character to which the whole concept of self-promotion would have been antithetical and destructive.
So yet again – having asked the question repeatedly, and had not one satisfactory answer – I am left wondering what can be done to support and nurture the writer whose greatness stems from introspection and solitude.
For in today’s frenetically interconnected world, perhaps more than ever before, we are in desperate need of the particular qualities that such writers bring – above all, of the deep stillness that restores the soul.
Step forward, then, the champions and the curators of the twenty-first century’s quiet writers. Because right now they are missing out. And so are we.
Read my article on After Night Offensive, arguably James Farrar’s finest poem, here.
Another post on the power and value of silence – Clean Forgotten
‘The Unreturning Spring’ was republished in 2008 by the Friends of Honeywood Museum, and is available to order here. James Farrar’s poems are reproduced here by kind permission of David Farrar.