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Unsuspected Depths

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My sister gave me Copsford (1948). It was clearly a book she loved, and its author – Walter Murray – was someone we’d once known. So it seemed odd I’d never heard of it. It’s a strange, exhilarating book about a solitary year spent wholly absorbed in the natural world – a book in the tradition that runs from Richard Jefferies to Robert Macfarlane and perhaps has roots in Wordsworth too, and John Clare in saner moments. But though it has devotees and is reissued now and then, it has never been widely read. In fact most people, like me, have never heard of it.

Walter Murray was born in 1900. He was bright and maybe opti­mistic too, war having ended, and in 1919 he moved to London to become a journalist. Newspapers however proved the wrong world for him, and London seemed a kind of death. He couldn’t bear its grey streets, crowds and haste. Indoor work meant clouds and sun­light passed unseen, and the four seasons merged into one. His work depressed him and so did his room, a third-floor back ‘with its tiny gas fire, its naked electric light and its distressing view’. One winter evening by the Thames he watched the smoke ‘roll sombrely away from the four black satanic chimneys of the power station [with] the dull fire of sunset trapped among them’. He called it the dramatic setting of enslaved humanity and quit.

It must have been hard to go home worsted by his first job. But he did – to Horam in Sussex, to start afresh. Horam was an unprepos­sessing village by a railway station, though surrounded by glorious fields and woods. It was also where his ‘music mistress’ lived, a young pianist who was his girlfriend in the tentative way of those times. He didn’t exactly start again, but the following year did transform his life. It began quixotically but became something more profound.

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My sister gave me Copsford (1948). It was clearly a book she loved, and its author – Walter Murray – was someone we’d once known. So it seemed odd I’d never heard of it. It’s a strange, exhilarating book about a solitary year spent wholly absorbed in the natural world – a book in the tradition that runs from Richard Jefferies to Robert Macfarlane and perhaps has roots in Wordsworth too, and John Clare in saner moments. But though it has devotees and is reissued now and then, it has never been widely read. In fact most people, like me, have never heard of it.

Walter Murray was born in 1900. He was bright and maybe opti­mistic too, war having ended, and in 1919 he moved to London to become a journalist. Newspapers however proved the wrong world for him, and London seemed a kind of death. He couldn’t bear its grey streets, crowds and haste. Indoor work meant clouds and sun­light passed unseen, and the four seasons merged into one. His work depressed him and so did his room, a third-floor back ‘with its tiny gas fire, its naked electric light and its distressing view’. One winter evening by the Thames he watched the smoke ‘roll sombrely away from the four black satanic chimneys of the power station [with] the dull fire of sunset trapped among them’. He called it the dramatic setting of enslaved humanity and quit. It must have been hard to go home worsted by his first job. But he did – to Horam in Sussex, to start afresh. Horam was an unprepos­sessing village by a railway station, though surrounded by glorious fields and woods. It was also where his ‘music mistress’ lived, a young pianist who was his girlfriend in the tentative way of those times. He didn’t exactly start again, but the following year did transform his life. It began quixotically but became something more profound.

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I want to fast-forward briefly to the Walter Murray who was part of my sister’s life and my own. In his mid-twenties he and his music mistress, by then his wife, started a village school and that’s where, years later, we began our education. Murray’s was the only school our parents would contemplate for us. It was private but inexpensive and I’m not sure they’d noticed how unconventional it was. I started early, aged 3, because my sister aged 5 refused to go without me. She was my keeper and, remarkably for a girl of 5, had already taught me to read and told me solemnly all about sex. From this distance it feels as if school life was mostly Sports Days, with the whole village involved. I seem to remember bands of pupils in white tunics marching from the corners of the playing field, shout­ing slogans and waving banners and – as I thought at the time – pretending to be ancient Greeks. A whole circus of sports was com­pèred by Mr Murray with his loudhailer. At the end there would be a tremendous climactic tea in the hall. The school did pantomimes too, and plays, most written by Mr Murray himself. Also concerts; Mrs Murray would play the piano, he the violin, and capable pupils would play or sing. There was plenty of nature study as well, walks and fact-finding both near and far. And there was also a strong academic tradition, sometimes eccentric. I remember being taught simple French, pronouncing the words as if they were English so as not to be confused by too much French-ness – a novel system which might have worked, except that the teacher fell over a log in the field and wasn’t seen again. Away from the commotion of school there was a nature sanctuary in the grounds; it was completely hushed except for the birds. Trusty pupils were allowed in, but silence was too difficult for me. The Murrays had a son who died at 15 of meningitis. No one spoke of this grief, but the sanctuary was his memorial. I have lively images of both: he vigorous but gentle and a bit reserved; she thoughtful, getting a little stout, chignon always about to come down; and in early days happy to tie my shoes up for me. The school took pupils to 18; it was a completely engaging experi­ence. But after a few years we were sent to stuffier, more humdrum schools – perhaps for the best. I think my sister has missed it ever since.

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The new start in Horam that Murray devised in 1919 was not a school but something much less social. He planned to find wild herbs and sell them to specialist firms for use in medicines. These were (to me at least) strange herbs: clivers, centaury, agrimony, traveller’s joy, eye­bright, yarrow and so on. His first need was to find somewhere isolated and above all cheap, where he could live alone, repair his psyche and seek out the plants that would pay for his keep. Amazingly, the music mistress had heard there was indeed an empty cottage not far off, Copsford. But it was a shock when he saw it. It was no bucolic welcome; in fact it was twenty years derelict, bare and grim like a rock in a sea of rough grass, its grey chimney stark against the skyline. He found it hard to go inside at all. ‘The loneliness of the place repelled me, repelled me forcibly, and I would gladly have left it in peace and forever had I not needed just such a place.’ The first moments beyond the door were ‘graven so deep in my memory that I think nothing can ever efface them. It was as though the place resented intrusion, as though human life had no further right there.’ Next there was ‘a scampering, which grew louder, a violent crescendo of hur­rying multitudes, a crash . . . and then stillness. A stillness more terrifying than any movement . . . It required a great effort even to breathe and a concentration of will-power to relax muscles which held me as rigid as a dead stick.’ In his biography, The Green Man of Horam, Tom Wareham won­ders whether the sense of hostility and the swarms of rats weren’t to some extent symptoms of Murray’s state of mind. The rats at their most melodramatic were always somehow in the walls. And his dog Floss, bought from the postman, seemed to banish them altogether just by keeping him company. Patrick Leigh Fermor wrote of similar feelings on going into a monastery as a guest, to write a book: ‘the place assumed the character of an enormous tomb’, he said, and ‘a mood of depression and of unspeakable loneliness felled me like a hammer-stroke’. But it didn’t do so for long, and so it was for Murray too. He would somehow force himself to tame the place and clean it up. There might be no proper door, no unbroken window or water­tight roof, but there was a well, and also a pond in which he could wash. It would never be fit for habitation, but he would inhabit it anyway. It helped that the countryside around was an enchanted place. Alien as it was, the cottage stood on what was almost an island between the little River Darn and one of its tributaries, reached by a barred footbridge as if it were a tiny independent state. And what was extremely rare about it was that there was no longer any track or path that led there. The farmer who owned it was suspicious but agreed: 3 shillings a week, with milk and eggs, plus the right to wander anywhere on his land. So Murray set to work. ‘There is a fascination about herb- gathering,’ he wrote, ‘which I felt from the very first day. It is not merely the satisfaction of having gathered something good and useful . . . not merely the atavistic urge to harvest, not only the close contact with Nature, but something of all three, mingled with the delights of liberty.’ He learned to read plantscapes and soon could find his herbs however well concealed. He could duck behind the tapestries hang­ing from fallen boughs, and negotiate impenetrable jungles of brambles, nettles and thistles. I travelled by spinney and copse, through shaw and forgotten corduroy, at first because there I expected to find my herbs, but later because I became secretive and shy. Living so close to the wild, almost instinctively I copied creatures from the wild. I travelled swiftly, silently and unseen. I learned woodland behav­iour, I heard woodland sounds. He became rather mystical:
The freedom that I won by living in that lonely cottage brought me into touch with real Nature in a way that I had never under­stood to be possible . . . It was closer contact than touch, it was almost union . . . The birds, animals, trees, plants, insects, all meant or brought something to my life. I felt their presence . . . I became more sensitive to light, my sense of smell brought me new contact, movement was language.
Then more mystical still:
At rare moments in our lives, we are suddenly aware of an al-together new world, different completely from that in which we normally live . . . For brief moments we perceive meaning instead of things. In those golden minutes I understood every word on a single page of the magic book of Life inscribed in a language neither written nor spoken.
Inevitably the harvesting year ended and with it the hunting and euphoria. He bagged up the dried herbs and put them on the train to his dealers in London – bribing the guard to care for them like children. After some time a cheque arrived, for £34 4s 2d. It was modest but would do to live on. What would not do, he realized, was the fact that it was money. The things he’d suffered, learned and done were part of him; the herbs had grown in their idiosyncratic ways; he had picked them with restraint, skilfully dried them in the now aro­matic rooms of the cottage, and shipped them with love. And all this had turned into a little slip of coloured paper. He realized there was no bridge between the idyll and a lived life. He’d needed his solitary existence, but it had to end. Arrival at Copsford had been hard, and now departure was too. Rain came down suddenly, with maximum force and all day long. The little rivers became two vast sheets of swirling water, fizzing from the force of the downpour. Dependable way-markers vanished beneath the surface.
I stared at this bewildering sight, thinking I must be crazy . . . It could not be. I stripped on the shores of the flood. Holding my clothes in a bundle before me, I waded out into the icy, racing waters. I found the barred bridge and somehow crossed it. The water was breast high on the other side and I had difficulty keeping my feet, but at last I was across. I wedged my clothes in a bush and returned for Floss. Somehow we crossed the frothing waters at the bridge and then Floss swam the rest.
I stood, a naked man, in the midst of the floods; leaves, mud, froth, ice, swirled past me. I looked up the hill through the streaming rain and could just see the top of that grey chim­ney. Unmistakably, Copsford had returned to its former self. And back in civilization was the music mistress. As I read it, Copsford seemed like some medieval allegory, written perhaps by the poet of Sir Gawain. Guided from afar by his damsel (who sometimes brought him cakes), a poor knight braved despair to reach a mystical land of enlightenment, then fought his way back to the human world, healed. Our Mr Murray of Murray’s school was that healed man, though naturally at the time my sister and I had no idea.

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Though he never achieved much fame as a writer, Murray did do so on the wireless. The three wise men of early nature broadcasting were Peter Scott, Maxwell Knight and Walter J. C. Murray. Scott was the son of the Antarctic hero and named after Peter Pan, the creation of his father’s estranged but still close friend J. M. Barrie. He was a painter, an inventor, an Olympic medallist and the founder of Slimbridge. Maxwell Knight was the model for James Bond’s M, though unlike M he thought animal study was the key to spy-craft. He had once been a bandleader, was fascinated by the occult and drawn to fascism. And Murray was a schoolmaster with strange unsuspected depths.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 74 © Grant McIntyre 2022


About the contributor

Grant McIntrye was to some extent formed by the hero of this piece. Much later he became a publisher, and then a sculptor, and is now mostly an idler.

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