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Peace and Good Neighbourhood
J. W. ROBERTSON SCOTT and THE COUNTRYMAN MAGAZINE
The journalist J. W. Robertson Scott is a towering figure in the history of Idbury. He lived in Idbury Manor from 1923 until his death in 1962 at the age of 96. It was from the Manor that Robertson Scott launched his monthly magazine The Countryman, which is still published today.
Robertson Scott had long had an interest in agricultural affairs, and in what he called “rural advance”. His books England’s Green and Pleasant Land (1925; first published as articles in The Nation) and The Dying Peasant and the Future of His Sons (1926) were hard-hitting polemics about the true problems of rural life, not nostalgic celebrations of an imaginary idyll.
John Robertson Scott was of Scottish parentage, but born and brought up in Wigton in Cumbria. He was born on April 20th, 1866, and by the time he moved into Idbury Manor in early 1923 was already 56 years old, and was retiring from the hurly-burly of a distinguished journalistic career. He learned his trade under W. T. Stead, the pioneering editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, and subsequently wrote for a number of liberal and progressive papers, including the Westminster Gazette and the Daily Chronicle, from which he resigned in 1899 as a mark of his opposition to the Boer War. He went to live in Essex and transformed himself into an expert on rural and agricultural topics. In 1906 he met Elspet Keith, a fellow-contributor to the magazine The World’s Work, and they were married for 50 years until her death in 1956; they had no children of their own, but one adopted son, Peter, who was killed in the Second World War.
Robertson Scott was a pacifist, and he and Elspet spent the years 1914-18 in Japan. They returned to England after the war, and he took a post on The Nation (which later amalgamated with The New Statesman), from which he retired in 1922 to Idbury Manor, which he described as ‘a high cold house on the edge of a hamlet’.
In retirement, Scott made the rather rash decision for a man in his 60s to found a new magazine, The Countryman, which he would edit and publish himself from his home in Idbury. The first issue came out in Spring 1927, with a print run of 9000 copies, many of which were given away. Within seven years the magazine was selling 9000 copies of each issue,
The success of The Countryman was down to Scott’s energy and drive. The third editor of The Countryman, Crispin Gill, recalled, ‘There is a story that he went down Fleet Street one day with a pony and trap, going into each advertising agency in succession with a punnet of strawberries. The next day he was back on the same circuit, this time in Cumberland tweeds and with order book to hand.’ Whether true or not, this story is typical of his imaginative approach, which included sending sprigs of rosemary for remembrance to those whose subscriptions were running out, and bunches of primroses to prove that The Countryman really did come from the country.
Robertson Scott wrote an account of the founding and running of The Countryman, in his book about newspaper editors he had known, ‘We’ and Me, the frontispiece to which is a photo showing Mr and Mrs Scott in their attic office; Anton van Anrooy’s original drawing of the fiddle player of the Idbury morris side, Charles Benfield – the frontispiece of the first issue of the magazine - is hanging on the wall.
He recalls making a complete dummy of the first issue of the magazine and taking it round to his neighbours, Richard Bond and his wife.
It was Richard who had planted near my house years before the great walnut, the trunk of which is now seventy-six inches round at my shoulder. He it was also who, on his death-bed a year or two later, was to ask that his spade and fork should be stood up beside him, for, as he said to me, ‘Aa don’t rightly know what they’ll be setting me to.’ I left my little draft with the Bonds for two or three days, and, on looking in again, rejoiced to find them exceedingly pleased with the production and unable to stop praising it.’
This dummy issue, by the way, was called the Countryman, but had the subtitles the Rural Reformer, the Cottager, the Villager, Village Neighbour, Village Clubman, and Parish Councillor, laying claim to all the titles Scott could think of just in case someone else wanted to muscle in on the act. Scott received a lot of discouragement from fellow professionals, but trusting his own experience and his wife’s instincts he launched the magazine anyway. The first issue in April 1927 had 82 editorial pages and 16 pages of adverts; by April 1934 the magazine had 162 editorial pages and no fewer than 184 pages of advertisements – even though Scott resolutely refused to accept adverts for alcoholic drinks, patent medicines, circuses, betting, and a whole list of other things of which he disapproved.
Scott proudly claimed among his readers such luminaries as Princess Louise, the Duchess of Argyll, Earl Attlee, the sexologist Havelock Ellis, George Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells, Rudyard Kipling, Lord and Lady Baden-Powell and D. H. Lawrence. To please such a varied readership, the magazine itself had to be both varied and lively. Thomas Hardy wrote, ‘The Countryman makes one feel in the country’; Bernard Shaw that ‘I take in many magazines I never read, but I always read The Countryman’.
There is a very lively account of the way The Countryman was run at Idbury Manor in the memoirs of Victor Bonham-Carter, which are actually entitled What Countryman, Sir? Bonham-Carter went on to write The English Village and The Survival of the English Countryside, as well as the two-volume study Authors by Profession. As a young man of 23 he replied to an advertisement for a job on the Countryman:
By the time I turned up for tea at Idbury in June 1936, the circulation of the magazine was up to 11,000 and rising steadily, and so was the advertising revenue. The toughest pioneering days were over. Even before I drew up at the door in my old Morris, I was partially intoxicated – by the sheer beauty of the limestone villages we had passed through, some with a stream running beside the street, by the speckled textures of the barn roofs, by the dry stone walls that divided the fields, and by the scent of new mown grass drying into hay. At the back of my mind was the exhilarating possibility of working for an ‘ideal’ enterprise, deep in this wonderful countryside. It was just what I had hankered after during my last year at Cambridge – the opportunity to make a living in the country, other than by farming for which I had neither the experience nor the means. Of course I had no experience of journalism either, but I felt I had the ability, given the chance; and when I was kindly received by this tall ‘white-bearded figure’ (who looked like Bernard Shaw and, as I discovered later, cultivated the resemblance) and by his small fey Highland wife, in their ‘high cold house’ filled with Japanese prints and homespun furniture; and when, further, the Editor told me he was looking for a young man to train up as his successor, I was halfway to becoming punch-drunk.
Bonham-Carter gives a vivid account of how The Countrymanwas run at Idbury Manor.
The entire house was divided up between the offices of The Countryman and the private apartments of the Scotts. The lower ground floor, which led out into a pleasant garden, contained the kitchen, dining room, larder and stores. The only office on the ground floor was the Post Room, in the charge of Mr Smith, handyman, and Janet, a local girl; and this adjoined the hall and sitting rooms. Four staff worked on the first floor – Madeleine Moore, the book-keeper, and three girls in charge of subscriptions and circulation – Dorothy Pollard, Kathleen Wyborn, and Alma (surname forgotten), the last named doubling as Mrs Scott’s secretary. Three more staff worked in the advertising department – Joyce Westrup, David Green, and May Phillips; while the spacious attic was shared by the Editor and Mrs Scott, who faced each other across a big desk with a low partition in the middle, over which they would throw mss. and correspondence to and fro. Round the corner was Scott’s secretary, Eileen Quelch, and the assistant editor, Frank Prewett.
All of these people are interesting in their own right – Eileen Quelch, for instance, wrote the book Perfect Darling, a biography of Winston Churchill’s stepfather; Joyce Westrup and David Green were to marry, and provide an account of their Idbury years in Green’s book Country Neighbours; Frank Prewett was a prominent Canadian poet of WWI, whose early career was encouraged by both Siegfied Sassoon and Virginia Woolf. But it is another of the girls in the subscription department, Kathleen Wyborn, who has left the most vivid picture of her work there. When she applied for a job on the Countryman:
I received a huge questionnaire, wanting to know all about my ancestry, my tastes and habits, as well as the usual educational qualifications. To my surprise I was summoned to two interviews. First I met the Old Man at the Farmers’ Club. . . Not being a hat wearer, I thought it proper to buy one, a nice furry sort of felt with a pheasant feather which I thought appropriate. His first words were, ‘Take off your hat.’ Next, ‘What’s your Christian name?’ Very self-consciously as I always thought it cissy, I said ‘Phyllis’. ‘We can’t have that,’ he said, ‘we had a Phyllis and she has just left’ [this would have been Phyllis Hartnoll, later author of the Oxford Companion to the Theatre]. He appeared to accept ‘Kathleen’, Next, I saw Mrs Scott at flat in Hampstead. She seemed very nervy and overwrought. Her hair was held together with little combs, and she spent the whole interview tearing up and down the room frantically combing her hair with these little combs, muttering ‘We want a girl with flair and vision’.
Unfortunately, once Kathleen started work, she found that flair and vision were not really required:
From the word ‘go’ I was a zombie. There were about 10,000 subscriptions a year. That meant roughly 2,500 people paid their ten bob subscriptions every quarter. For each one I had to write a receipt and post it, but if the subscriber had made some remark, good or bad, I had to type a letter and thank them for their ‘kind words’.
The staff were overworked and underpaid, and behind the Scotts’ paternalistic facade was a ruthless streak. Despite the family-style tea parties ‘with raspberries and lashings of cream, baps, and chocolate cakes’, and the fun and games, such as summer evenings when Robertson Scott threw pennies into the murky spring-fed swimming pool for the staff to dive for, there was a good deal of unhappiness. There was a very high turnover of staff, so that eventually, in Kathleen Wyborn’s words, ‘the Scotts were surrounded with an unwanted colony of ex-staff whom the current staff were forbidden to talk to. Of course we all did, which led to more sackings.’
Victor Bonham-Carter joined Kathleen, Eileen Quelch and other ‘typewriters’ as they were called in the village, at a boarding house in Nether Westcote, run by a Miss Squires, ‘a thin miserable little women, with greying hair scragged tightly behind her head in a wispy bun’.
The Scotts were both highly individual people, Mrs Scott especially is remembered as a fey and eccentric person. Victor Bonham-Carter remembers how,
Mrs Scott took me into her confidence one afternoon when we were having tea downstairs, eating honey and baps. She continued the conversation unexpectedly, looking at my untidy mop of hair.
‘I hope, Victor, you won’t ever wear anything on your head. It stifles the hair, you know.’
‘Oh yes, indeed, you must always let your hair flow free. Its your foliage, you know.’
‘Like a tree. A man should glory in his hair. Yes, do take another bap, yes take them all, I made them myself this morning.’
Bonham-Carter writes with great admiration of Robertson Scott as ‘a first-class radical journalist’ and ‘an excellent teacher’, but he also concludes that ‘as an employer, he was a monster. He attracted young people into the country, eager to work for an “idealist” enterprise, willing to learn and willing to work for next to nothing while learning; but when they became useful, deserving proper pay, he sacked them and recruited fresh fools in their place.’
Scott’s attitude to his staff involved an exaggerated idea of the kind of loyalty they owed to him. For instance when David Green left The Countryman to work for Punch, ‘the Editor went around with a long face, complaining, “How ungrateful, after all the training we have given him!”’
Green later became the archivist at Blenheim, about which he wrote a book. His first book, however, was entitled Country Neighbours. Published in 1948, it gives a more guarded but nevertheless revealing picture of life at The Countryman. ‘The scene of most of the book is laid between the rivers Windrush and Evenlode, in that elm and willow country lying north-west of Oxford’, he writes. Elspet Robertson Scott welcomed him with the words, ‘I do hope you’re eccentric. It does so help the village through its long winter evenings.’
He took lodgings first with a lady he calls Mrs Frost (probably at Idbury Farm), before being turfed out for refusing to eat heart; then found lodgings at an Inn he calls the Drover’s Arms, which from his description must be the Merrymouth Inn on the Burford-Stow ridge road:
The bedroom had a view. Standing on a rabbit-skin rug I looked across the road to the may tree in the low hedge and the cornfield beyond, with a little black firwood to one side of it and the weathercock on Wychwood spire seeming about to feed on the ripening wheat . . . I flung the sash window wide and blessed my luck.
The village he calls Wychwood is Fifield. His colleague at the Countryman, later his wife, Joyce Westrup was living there in a shepherd’s cottage, and together they used to light a camp fire in the old quarry at Idbury copse (the ‘little black firwood’) and enjoy blissful picnics of: ‘eggs, tomatoes, bacon, chipolata, potatoes, mushrooms. . . chased down with strong Indian tea.’
Life at work sounds rather more stressful:
In our jobs, our days of toil, we were both working at pressure, and every morning when I heard the warning mistle-thrush and swung my feet out of the feather-bed and on to the rabbit-skin rug I wondered how on earth I was going to convince my employer that I was as efficient as any of that bunch of howling totties (as someone had rudely called his staff) already installed.
David Green’s middle name was Brontë, and it was he who organised a village production in Idbury of John Sangster’s play The Brontës, with the bearded Robertson Scott giving ‘a fearsomely dignified interpretation’ of the Rev. Brontë.
When David and Joyce married, they searched the villages round about for a cottage to live in, only to discover that in this part of the Cotswolds, ‘everyone had lived in his cottage since creation, or so it appeared, and meant to go on living there till the last trump, possibly longer’. But eventually they rented a farmhouse in Bould, which he calls Fardle:
Lower Farm was a low grey house, a hundred yards from the road and looking south on to a rising grass meadow called Cowpen. It was old enough for no one to know anything of its beginnings and so inconspicuous that though nothing but a barn and its own waggonshed stood between it and our regular route to the river, I had never even seen it until I found myself paying its modest rent
The Greens were happy but isolated at Bould. Their social life centered around Fifield and its people, rather than Idbury:
If we felt in need of company and there seemed to be no one about, there was but one thing to do and that was to leave Fardle and take the field way – Cowpen, Wetfoot, Yallands and the rest – to Wychwood. . . Wychwood was . . . a warmhearted little stronghold of independence.
The independence valued here is, I suspect, independence from the Robertson Scotts. But on the way home from that warmhearted stronghold, they would call in at Idbury, or Mulberry as he calls it:
For the return walk from Wychwood we might take the road that twisted down through Mulberry, if only for a sight of the Neville children or a word with old Mrs. Frost.
My introduction to the Nevilles had been by way of a dish of wild violets set upon a sill in Mulberry Church, where J happened to be ‘doing the flowers’. Someone, it was clear, had done a great deal of picking, for there were at least seven bunches of various sizes and all had been massed in a shallow earthenware dish and then lifted on to the sill to catch the greenish light diffused by the old leaded panes. But what was most remarkable in the flowers, which smelt sweetly, was their colour. They appeared to be wild, for they were smaller than most cultivated kinds, and yet here were not only violet violets but white, blue, purple, and some distinctly reddish ones which, as I came to know later, grew on a hidden bank beside larches planted over Saxon graves.
It was the Neville children, I was told, who had gathered them, and their mother the carter’s wife who had arranged them and put them on the sill.
David Green’s wife, Joyce M. Westrup, worked for many years on The Countryman; she wrote poems that were published in a number of magazines, including the Countryman itself. Joyce is especially remembered in the villages round Idbury for her habit of sunbathing naked on the top of Idbury church tower, until continual buzzing of the village by hopeful airmen from Rissington put a stop to it.
Scott had a rather more high-minded view of himself as an employer than either Victor Bonham-Carter or David Green. He writes, ‘I turn up an address on my birthday in which I am saluted as “Model Employer”. A feature of our Idbury staff of about a dozen was always, intentionally, the high proportion of women, for the right kind of woman is always a worker and capable of faith and enthusiasm.’
One of those women was May Phillips, the secretary whom Scott thanks warmly in the acknowledgments to ‘We’ and Me. In 1938 she wrote to Victor Bonham Carter that things at the Countryman were even worse than when he was there:
Eight of the staff went in six months. Four were sacked and four gave in their notices. The Editor had me in and said that I had dared to go on associating with a member of the staff who had been sacked and that I had let him down badly. Was I in future prepared to give him my utterly loyal support in everything I did? I said I valued my liberty too much to promise anything so rash, but pointed out that my work had always been well and conscientiously done. He said, ‘I am not talking about your work’ and then told me I had best resign. At that we parted. Denys Forrest was so furious that he went straight to the Editor and told him exactly what he thought about him, which was a good bit. He left the next day, refusing to stay any longer. And now presumably he has a very happy, very loyal staff. Heigh-ho
Probably the most prominent of disaffected ex-staff in the villages around Idbury was Frank Prewett, who earned Robertson Scott’s undying emnity by launching, with Victor Bonham-Carter, a rival to the Countryman. It was called Country Scene and Topic, and was published from Bourton-on-the-Water, from an office affectionately known locally as Adultery House.
In 1948 Scott edited a collection of articles from The Countryman under the title The Countryman Book. It includes a wide range of work, representative of the magazine itself, with contributions by H. E. Bates, T. F. Powys, Sylvia Townsend Warner, and M. K. Ashby, the historian of Bledington, to whose great book on her father, Joseph Ashby of Tysoe, Scott contributed a foreword. One interesting contribution was by the former Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, by then Earl Baldwin of Bewdley, recalling a long tramp through the countryside and a halt in St. Nicholas Church, with its sanctus bell:
The name Idbury strikes a chord. In 1906 I was beaten by a Liberal at Kidderminster. I was disappointed because I wanted to be in the House with my father who sat for Bewdley. When spring came, I got the hump so badly one day and I went off for a walk. I took train to what is now Kingham and started off into space with no plan in my head.
I went I remember, up hill for some way and found a church with the place of the sanctus bell left: was it Idbury? I’m not sure. I went on through Fifield to Tangley ... then Burford, and on to Minster Lovell.
In 1947 Robertson Scott decided to retire from editing the Countryman – which he had sold to the proprietors of Punch. The Scotts stayed in Idbury until the death of Elspet in 1956 after 50 years of marriage, and then of J. W. Robertson Scott at the age of 96, in 1962, the same year as Frank Prewett.
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