Matthew Oates Presenter
I first perused In Pursuit of Spring in my penultimate year at school, naively attracted by the title. I had found a copy in the school library, but I could relate only to the paragraphs based around my native Somerset, including the final chapter The Grave of Winter. I knew Thomas as a minor First World War poet, in the shadow of Owen and Sassoon, but was hugely impressed by his rural descriptions and by his profound love and knowledge of nature. It took me years to discover him properly as a poet, even though I lived within his East Hampshire heartland for 20 years. His is my favourite poetry – and here I am certainly not alone, for it seems that his poetry is growing in popularity almost monthly.
But I fear that his rural prose is underrated and in danger of becoming neglected. The South Country (1909), In Pursuit of Spring (1914) and its precursor The Icknield Way (1913) are classics in English rural prose, every bit as memorable as Adlestrop and As the Team’s Head-brass, his two best known poems. Thomas’s rural writings could follow those of his mentor Richard Jefferies and friend WH Hudson into relative obscurity. That would greatly devalue British natural history – by severing it from its roots.
The Radio 4 series came about when two streams of consciousness converged. I submitted a tentative proposal to R4 to celebrate the book’s centenary, only to find – joyously – that my friend Andrew Dawes of the BBC Natural History Unit (radio) was thinking along similar lines. Of course, the BBC is gearing itself up for the centenary of the First World War anyway.
Originally, I aspired towards following Thomas’s route, on cycle, but today’s traffic – and Thomas detested the traffic levels of 1913 – would erode any vestige of poetic experience from that. It would be purely a physical, mechanical pilgrimage. No, a faithful re-enactment would not work. At one point, live transmissions were considered, involving a network of radio stations, but that was rather over-ambitious and would have proved too costly.
In the event we found Thomas such a rich seam, with so many dedicated and scholarly admirers, that we ended up recording rather more than we originally intended. Much had, of necessity, to be left out, including The Other Man (Thomas’s alter ego which makes a series of curious interjections in the book) and the remarkable responses I received from asking contributors what they felt poets are actually for.
In Pursuit of Spring, a tribute to Edward Thomas, is presented by Matthew Oates and produced by Andrew Dawes. Readings are by Robert Macfarlane, with contributions from Richard Emeny and Colin Thornton of The Edward Thomas Fellowship, Sophie Lake of Values In Nature & Environment (VINE), Justin Shepherd of The Friends of Coleridge, Rebecca Welshman of The Richard Jefferies Society and Lucy and Sophie Milner, Edward’s great and great-great grand daughters.
In Pursuit of Spring programme 1 Good Friday 3.30pm BBC Radio 4