By Katherine Langrish
This morning to rise early in readiness for our water excursion, myself having slept at the house of the Cardinal in readiness therefore. At seven come the rest of our party, they being The Scoutmaster, the Muffin man, and Long John. Great bustle and to-do, there being a great variety of things to be taken… At Horning did receive our boat the Sea Mist, a fine roomy craft that is to be our home for a sennight. The Muffin man and the Scoutmaster being the only ones not acquainted with petrol engines, we three others did listen avidly to the teachings of the young man from the boat hirers, feigning ignorance thereof. Whereat much merriment, we being all in high spirits.
Sunday, and a most fair, pleasant and lazy day. Did rise early, being awakened at five thirty by the Muffin man, shouting ‘Pike! Pike!’ he, being a light sleeper, hearing the whirr of the reel running out. A fine fish, and being landed and killed, was put to soak for the removal of the muddy flavour that doth afflick freshwater fish. After breakfast did sail to Hickling Broad, a prodigious stretch of water and all so a-sparkle with the sun and dotted with white sails that we did cry out in admiration… Caught by the wind and thrust broadside into the weeds, whereat much laughter and quanting and towing off. So with much fishing and sailing passed the rest of this day… Supped off the morning’s pike with much others and did listen to the service broadcast and the music following and so to bed…
A glorious day. Returning to Potter Heigham for provisions, we did moor the boat and go in a body to the shoppe, where the Cardinal did borrow a pair of scissors, and the others making a most ungodly rush at me, and holding my arms, the Cardinal did cut off my moustache. The shoppe people very nervous and distrait, thinking they were to witness a falling-out. Sailing round Horsey Mere the engine did conk out, but occasioned no anxiety, there being plenty of room in which to drift. The wildfowl here a most marvellous sight, this being a bird sanctuary. Did find out and remedy the engine trouble, this being a blocked petrol pipe. Meals being taken when we were hungry, they consisting very finely of all the things that men chuse to eat among themselves, most tasty and abundant. The Cardinal’s dog to swim most grandly, which the Cardinal do attribute to her tail not having been docked…
The year? 1928. The author? My grandmother Emmeline (known to all as Linnie), writing from the viewpoint of my grandfather, her husband William (aka ‘Sam Pepys’). He and his brother and three friends had gone for an ‘all boys together’ spree on the Norfolk Broads in a boat called Sea Mist, and my grandmother – who stayed at home – had the inspiration to write it up as a Pepysian spoof and sell it to ‘The Anglers’ News’. It must have done well, as she followed it up next year with a similar article, ‘Pepys Fishes in Lincolnshire’.
Her own grandfather was a Yorkshire farmer: one cast from a rather different mould than the taciturn cliché: he was a poet (though none of his poems seem to have survived), the inventor of a number of farmyard improvements including a mechanism called the drop-platform plough, and – by all accounts – a bit of a dreamer. Maybe having a poet for a grandfather inspired my grandmother; maybe she was encouraged by her mother, a Knaresborough innkeeper’s daughter who went to Oxford in the 1860’s and read theology – without, of course, being awarded a degree. At any rate in 1905, thirteen-year-old Linnie wrote a poem on the death of the actor Henry Irving. It was published in the local paper. The editor told her parents to encourage her to continue writing. And she did.
No more than today, however, could one then rely upon making a living from writing. She trained and worked for Underwood’s as a demonstration typist – a useful skill for a writer, which opened the path for her to work during 1911 as personal secretary to the Earl of Leitrim in Rosapenna, County Donegal. For propriety’s sake she stayed not at the house, but in the Rosapenna Hotel owned by the Earl, and was known to all by the nickname ‘Miss Yorkshire’. Here it is, in a postcard she stuck into the album:
– and here - possibly in the room pictured below! - she was proposed to by a visiting Malaysian prince, the son of the Sultan of Johor, but refused him, being already engaged to marry my grandfather William Thornber, also of Yorkshire farming stock, who earned a living as one of the early breed of motor mechanics.
Once married and with children, Linnie began writing stories and poems as a way of augmenting the family income. She also wrote plays for the Sheffield Repertory Theatre: the first, ‘Grey Ash’ (a supernatural shocker about an accursed violin) was broadcast by the BBC, and after that several more of her plays were broadcast. There’s apparently even a recording of her reading one of her stories, and how I wish it were possible to track it down.
As her three daughters grew older, perhaps Linnie had more time to write. Her first book ‘Bitter Glory’ was a historical novel about the romance between Chopin and George Sand, and it was published in 1935 under the male pseudonym ‘Leon Thornber’. You can see the rather unlikely cover below on the left, with Sand glancing coquettishly at the portrait of Chopin.
However, the book is well researched and serious. It’s of its time, of course:
There was a certain apartment, very large and square and lofty, on the Chausée d’Antin, and there it seemed that spring had taken laughing refuge against the cutting winds and flurrying snow of winter’s last despairing stand. A bright fire leaped on the hearth, casting rosy shadows on the pale panelled walls and the polished floor strewn with rich rugs as bright as summer.
We don’t go in for that sort of fanciful flourish these days (but I like it). And it was well received, although for her next books Linnie stuck to places and people she knew well. Her next book, ‘And One Man’, 1936, was based on her own family history. Here's her hero, Jude Wayland, waking up in a Yorkshire farmhouse on a bitter winter’s morning:
In the big kitchen below him, he could hear Sarah, his brother’s wife, moving about her morning tasks with the maids. Fire irons rattled, dishes and cutlery clattered, the wooden pump on the sink groaned and gushed, there was a rattle of pails in the outer kitchen. Then someone dragged the coal bucket across the tiled floor, and the noise of it set Jude’s teeth on edge. He sat up in bed in sudden fury. ‘For God’s sake,’ he cried, ‘can’t Sarah keep those women quiet? She knows Dad’s ill.’
One of the most colourful characters in the book, Dicky Lismore, is based on her own father Sam Sherwood, a successful commercial traveller with an eye for the ladies. He meets Jude on a train to ‘Stelborough’ (Sheffield), and rattles on in a style which my mother tells me was pretty much verbatim:
‘It’s a rum place, Stelborough. Filthy, but where there’s muck there’s money, and where there’s money, women go in for being soulful and arty. It’s full of music. Some of it is good, too, but not all. I heard the Messiah there once. God, what a row! Half a hundred withered spinsters piping out, ‘Unto us a son is born,’ and then the basses chipped in ‘Wonderful.’ And it would have been wonderful too, judging by the look of them. They were past the bearing age.’
Her third book, ‘Portrait in Steel,’ followed the fortunes of the Sheffield steelworks via the personal history of one Nicholas Brough, who begins as an idealistic youth at the start of the first World War and ends up in the thirties as ‘a damned hard man’. This novel takes in the wartime steel boom, the slump of the twenties, and the resurgence of the steel industry as the Spanish Civil War starts to bite. It was published in 1938, and the whole of the second edition was bombed in its London warehouse during the blitz and went up, literally, in smoke.
After that she never published another novel, although my mother tells me that she did begin writing one. It had a supernatural theme involving black magic, and as she read it out chapter by chapter to the family, my mother and her sisters were agog with excitement to find out what would happen. But they never did. Linnie was always rather superstitious. Somehow she must have managed to scare herself. She stopped writing it, and after her death my mother could not find any trace of the manuscript.
I was only four years old when Linnie died. My memories of her are hazy, and from a child’s viewpoint – her full blue skirt: the Chinese wastepaper basket under her dressing table, the many pots of bottled fruit she made each summer stacked along the shelf in the passage upstairs, and the dressmaker’s dummy which lay on top of her wardrobe like some sort of pallid Egyptian mummy-case. When I stayed overnight and shared her room, I did not dare to turn my back on it.
Here are two publicity shots of her, taken in 1924 and 1930. I wish mine came out anything like so well...
How much I should like to sit down with Linnie Thornber and talk about her books and my books and the craft we share! But as that's not possible I’m just very happy to be able to read the account of my Grandad's far-off and golden 1928 holiday, in my Grandma’s delightfully flippant style:
Voyaging from Stalham, did find a most delectable spot, where we did stay all day, fishing and engaging in sports ashore. A great catch of fish, but maggots running short, the Cardinal says they are to be cherished in future. A boat anchoring near, did disclose four lovely wenches, whereat we were all delighted, but should have fared better had their parents not been aboard also. The Cardinal and Long John out at twilight to whisper to two of them. Supped on fish and fruit and coffee, an ungodly mixture which liketh us mightily.
So ends this day.