Selsey’s forgotten grand pageant, 1965
In my late father’s papers I recently came across a typescript of Tides of Invasion: The Selsey story, a pageant by Geoffrey Dearmer. I knew the author was a distinguished WW1 poet, long neglected, who had one important but slight Selsey connection. Light investigation revealed nothing about Tides though it was great to find that Juliet Woollcombe, the author’s daughter, knew a great deal about it and shared some ancilliary material as to its sole performance in 1965. Still, I have seen no other evidence of the pageant’s existence or performance.
Three documents from 1965
Tides of Invasion: The Selsey story, 1965, by Geoffrey Dearmer
The title above is a link to a PDF of the typescript of Dearmer’s Tides:
The official flyer and a explanatory brochure of Tides of Invasion
The above is a lnk to documents in PDF formA long RDN note on Tides of Invasion (with references)
NB: I have sketched below a project to update Dearmer’s Tides of Invasion but want to be clear that I see no public role for myself in any actual project.
Introduction: A forgotten historical pageant with a great future?
This is an account of a 1965 historical pageant by a distinguished 20th Century poet. The colourful and lively Tides of Invasion: The Selsey story, with a huge cast, deals with the history of the small coastal town of Selsey, West Sussex and the Manhood Peninsula of which it is the tip. Its time-span begins with pre-history and ends – rather sketchily, but intriguingly – in the 1960s. It is ripe for updating.
I have said a bit more about its author below, and about the remarkable Dearmer family in another post.
Tides of Invasion covers the sea’s incursions but also Selsey’s part in accepting (sometimes bitterly) human migrations over many centuries, and in more recent centuries, in helping to repel would-be invaders. Ideas come into it: Selsey had a fascinating role in the life of St Wilfrid, a belligerent clergyman who battled for Romish Catholicism in the 7th Century, not least against the Manhood’s paganism.
After the Normans, things quieted down for hundreds of years, but the backwoods county prided itself on a certain bolshiness: “Sussex won’t be druv”, was said to be a popular saying, as in, “won’t be driven”. That smacks of the faux regionalism or rustic romanticsm of the Victorian. Anyway, Tides sees the place as fairly undramatic for the most recent more-or-less 800 years. Very interestingly, Tides does not cover in any depth the very important 20th Century (or predict the 21st Century) story of “invasions” by water and immigrants and innovators which has seen a rural backwater become a leading part of the affluent South, albeit with some of the commonplace disadvantages native-born coastal people seem unable to shake-off. The strengths of Tides, and its lacunae, make it a wonderful starting point for a fresh storytelling.
I modestly posit that the last 100 years have seen very interesting waves of incomers to the Manhood, and they are the story of the Modern. The 1965 Dearmer pageant gives us glimpses of these, but could be brought bang up to date. Such a project might find its moment eventually, perhaps in a hybrid of real and virtual performance.
The script of “Tides of Invasion: The Selsey story”
I recently found a foolscap typescript of Tides of Invasion: The Selsey story in the papers of my late father, Paul Arundel North, a lifelong holiday-maker in and, latterly, a resident of Selsey and thereabouts. I have never seen evidence that any other copy is extant, though surely one or more must be, somewhere. The play was written by Geoffrey Dearmer (1893-1996), a First World War writer who had to wait until his old age to see his war poems and later work to be properly famous. He thrived, though, as a post-WW2 editor of the Children’s Hour on BBC radio. His pageant was performed at Church Norton, 2-3 miles from Selsey in June 1965. Church Norton was relevant because it was the site of Selsey’s parish church until its removal, stone by stone, to its present site on Selsey’s main street in 1864. The pageant was intended both as a commemoration of that event and to raise funds for restoration work at Chichester Cathedral, then in the hey-day of its artistic and musical Modernist patronage. Thirty years earlier, George Bell, then dean at Canterbury, had commissioned TS Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral (1935). As Bishop of Chichester later in 1935 he sponsored and performed in a Pageant of Sussex Saints and in 1955 saw Walter Hussey arrive as Dean and blossom as a progressive patron of modern art for the Cathedral. [Footnote, below]
How typical was Tides of Invasion?
Tides was in the tradition of the Victorian or Edwardian fashion for pageants. Dearmer’s work was a hybrid of the religious and the historical sort of pageant, rather than the purely religious or purely historical. It was perhaps more literary than most. It had some quite modern touches of the kind which were perhaps common in the mid-20th Century pageant scene. It was much more than an outdoor dressing-up parade or a re-enactment. In having children star in a lively and almost disruptive way it was perhaps properly of its time, the New Elizabethan, Boomer or Beatles age. But it had notes of the pageant form’s medieval revivalism.
The vital book, Restaging the Past: Historical pageants, culture and society in modern Britain (2020) (which didn’t know about Tides) cites an observation which is beautifully matched by the ending of Dearmer’s Tides. Dearmer’s finale depicts caravanners watching the show’s host of historic characters in wonderment. Restaging the Past remarks: “Pageants can thus be seen as a part of what [Michael M] Saler has termed the ‘re-enchantment’ of the modern world, where spectators could momentarily suspend disbelief to view historical characters appear in front of them.” I think the point is that modernity’s rather fragile confidence in itself was bolstered by seeing and feeling the threads of connection between the then and the now. It was prone to the perennially attractive view that the past always fields more stalwart characters than the present manages. But Dearmer nicely remembers his MacAulay and Whig History: his Moderns are looking back the better to look forward.
Tides of Invasion was put on to support the Chichester Cathedral appeal for restoration funds. The Cathedral had a long tradition of supporting religious plays so it is perhaps not surprising that Dearmer writes a conventionally – and to modern eyes, perhaps overly – religious text which has historical pretensions that don’t quite deliver.
Geoffrey Dearmer’s milieu and mindset
Geoffrey Dearmer’s parents, Percy and Mabel, were famously fans of the pageant form, and especially in its religious variation. Geoffrey’s daughter, Juliet Woollcombe, recalls her father being anxious that Tides, his first and only pageant, might not go over well. He was concerned that it was over-long, and Juliet certainly found it so when she saw the performance. She is not surprised that he might make this attempt anyway. Geoffrey was used to writing for and working with children, who feature strongly in his script, often as kind of skeptical interruption. He may have known something of Selsey from his association with RC Sherriff, whose Journey’s End was partly written and has twice been staged in the town. Indeed, Sherriff’s play’s emergence owed much to Geoffrey’s promotion. It is possible, also, that Dearmer’s work bringing Worzel Gummidge to Children’s Hour in 1947 reinforced a connection: as well as the slot’s editor, he was the scriptwriter and director and one of his stars was his actress and writer friend Mabel Constanduras, a Chichester stalwart.
Geoffrey Dearmer’s politics are unknown to me, and don’t feature in Tides of Invasion. His sensibilities seem much clearer. Tides promotes the broadly Whig History of GM Trevelyan and HAL Fisher, and the more romantically patriotic history of Winston Churchill. On, as it were, the spirit of the people, Dearmer quotes the poems of Rudyard Kipling and the prose of the pageant fan GK Chesterton. Barring Churchill (but with the addition of Arthur Bryant, now forgotten as an unforgivable Tory, and not deployed by Dearmer), these were staples of my childhood in the 1950s and 60s. But Dearmer’s sources go wider. He cites Hugh Chesterman, an uncontroversial children’s author of his day, but I think forgotten by mine. He cites the poem, “Sussex Wun’t Be Druv”, by W Victor Cook, an historian of the county (and fantasy or adventure novelist) of Lewes. It is interesting that Dearmer also deploys two rather mystical poets: the troubled Francis Thompson (1859-1907), and James Elroy Flecker (1884-1919), both of whom were acclaimed in their own time.
I take it that Dearmer, like other mainstream figures in early and mid 2th Century (Dorothy L Sayers and the painter Glyn Philpot, for instance), was profoundly interested in what one might call deep – mystical, imaginative – religion. Dearmer’s narrative is not bossily religious. He very much likes the brave, even belligerent, 7th Century St Wilfrid who wins over the recalcitrant pagans of Selsey and thereabouts as much by teaching them how to be fishermen as by preaching to them.
The “takeaway” point here is that Geoffrey Dearmer’s aesthetic was close to the norm for his generation. To an early 21st Century modern ear and eye (as best I can judge those), his pageant is demanding in a couple of ways. First, it accepts life can be rough and demands toughness, but it does so with no assumption that elites are necessarily wicked or oppressive. It has no agenda one could say is socialist, feminist or liberationist. It is the opposite of the Agitprop and Kitchen Sink theatre which was flourishing in its own time, the mid-1960s. Second, it demands time, attention and a degree of reflection which might not be got from modern, large, ordinary, audiences in the open air. Even Juliet Woolcombe, who was 27 when she saw it performed, thought her father’s play was overlong. The cast of children must have been patient indeed to tolerate the many pages of the show to which they contributed larkiness but also sustained recitation. But in the 1960s the young still lived in a time when the entire canon of British poetry was standard fare in schoolrooms. (It was less learned by rote than it had been a generation before when the peculiarities of Robert Browning were implanted in the affectionate memory of people who lived well into the 21st Century.) It is fair to suggest that the difficult, the profound and the complex was normal in the mid 1960s, though not so freely or self-indulgently voiced as they are now.
Pageants: authentically local religious or social history?
Tides of Invasion is a lovely, funny and serious piece of work for a very large cast. There is no sign of professional performers, who were probably locals as, seemingly, were the backstage team. There is of course a contradiction in pageants wrought in the Tides fashion. It also applies to the religious pageant-cum-act of worship, and the secular, playwriting work of Father Bernard Walke in Cornwall in the 1920s and 30s. Tides was “devised and directed” by Helen Lowry, a well-known figure in pageant-production, as indeed Walke’s religious pageants in the 1920s were produced for the wireless by Filson Young (who I discuss elsewhere). These were works by cosmopolitan writers who sought – genuinely, of course – to articulate the unheard popular voice whose main features were local rootedness and educational ignorance. It is a tease to know in what sense the work of Dearmer or Walke could be claimed to be “popular” expressions, though it is clear that local people did respond, as performers and audiences, to these efforts by outsiders (as to Benjamin Britten, and many others). It may be right to say that contemporary locals can be trusted to have made better judgments than angst-ridden retrospective reassessments are likely to. (See Restaging the Past in footnotes below.)
A future for “Tides…”
I only know of one commentary on Tides of Invasion. Mrs Woollcombe has sent me a photocopy of a flyer, and also the official brochure, for the sole production in 1965, which attests to its community roots and its support by the Bishop of Chichester, and many others. (These are now online, along with the script.)
An unknown author in the brochure notes and builds on the idea of modern “tides of invasion” rather more than does the Dearmer script. He or she talks about the post-WW2 invasion of Londoners, rightly presuming that they were as important to Selsey’s story as the invasions of the Belgae, the Saxons, the Romans, and the Normans, and the threats from invasions by Philip II, Bonaparte and Hitler which the script retails with telling vignettes.
100 years of social “invasions”
From the mid-1930s Sidlesham, very near Selsey, was the centre of the largest Land Settlement Association project in the country: 120 horticultural enterprises, broadly co-operative in nature, and designed to provide new homes and work for incomers from all over the country. That invasion hoped to address some of the distress of the Great Depression. As significantly, London’s affluence – Cobbett’s Great Wen – was spreading south. Many visitors to the coast, and many new residents from the 1920s on, were the beneficiaries of a new consumer affluence, which is much less remarked now than it was at the time. RC Sherriff’s 1931 novel, A Fortnight In September (about an upper working class annual sojourn in Bognor) gives a moving glimpse of that story.
Dearmer’s script does indeed end with the important appearance of a family of holiday-makers, not least (it is suggested) from the Selsey caravan parks (probably the hugely successful Bunn’s – now Seal Cove) which were increasingly important in the 1960s but had thrived since at least the 1930s and certainly do now. Static caravans are as much a feature of the place as are bungalows, and – scattered along the shingle foreshore – the converted railway carriages which appeared from at least 1907 but especially between WW1 and WW2. The story of those carriages was beloved of idealistic non-revolutionary anarchists who saw them as a sign of unexpected loveliness flowing from spontaneous development before misguided planners clamped down on ingenuity. (Dennis Hardy and Colin Ward’s Arcadia for All, 1984 and reissued 2004, tells that story.)
In the 1920s and 30s my father holidayed in a converted railway carriage in Pagham (which neighbours Selsey across an enchanting wetland), and lived in Selsey at different periods, first in a 1920s or 30s smallish detached house, and, latterly in a 1962 bungalow built like many others on fields previously owned by local farming and artisan families many of whom he knew well. He was solidly, unsnobbishly middle class, a cultured person of the mainstream and a little more bohemian than bourgeois. He and people like him were represented amongst Selsey’s incomers, but were by no means the majority.
An honest updating of the Selsey story would not be for the faint-hearted. Selsey’s recent history includes the way it was, in common with other local coastal towns, host to Fascist summer camps in the 1930s. (That story is told in JA Booker, Blackshirts on Sea: A history of the Mosely summer Camps, 1933-38). Indeed, it is easy to see the South Coast (with Brighton & Hove and, less solidly, Chichester, as striking exceptions) as patchily Brexit and far from generally Woke, especially amongst its many retirees. The good news for left-leaning Remainers is that the “invasion” by foreigners – often from eastern Europe and staffing the Manhood’s salad industry – has produced little obvious resentment from either natives or incomers. The east Europeans are the hard-working successors to the LSA’s homegrown innovators. The LSA built Dutch-style mansard houses, and now new estates sprout in Selsey with nods toward vernacular downland flint and seaside clapboard cladding. Most of the recent British retirees to Selsey’s older housing stock and many of the younger British-born incomers on its new estates are alike in being ex-working class. They are the newly affluent people whose lives are so different from those of their more obviously old-school working class parents and grandparents.
At Hunston, on the Manhood, near Chichester, an 1872 brick convent has been repurposed and massively expanded as an uplifting super-shed for the Chichester Free School. That is one neat sign of a refreshment which may help Selsey produce new waves of seriously educated young adults and go some way to address the often-remarked problems of Britain’s coastal towns.
These are all stories of at least 100 years of dynamism and success. Who will find, as Dearmer did, a way to tell of them all, and engage hundreds of people to enact them? Nowadays, it is perhaps reasonable to speculate, the kind of people with the energy and skill to produce, and find funding for, local or community theatre have broadly Woke agendas and may find Selsey’s mostly mainstream society rather a turn-off. In all kinds of ways, a modern Tides would need to be harder-nosed than the original. The beauty of the thing, though, is that Geoffrey Dearmer has laid out a compelling pageant of charm and vigour. Even for our time, it is a good starting point and challenge.
Bell’s Canterbury commission on TS Eliot is mentioned in an excellent book on pageants, Re-Staging the Past. It is part of a mammoth undertaking by “The Redress of the Past: Historical Pageants in Britain”.
Book, Free download, see, https://www.uclpress.co.uk/products/123496
Project: “The Redress of the Past: Historical pageants in Britain”, see: https://historicalpageants.ac.uk/
For “Pageant of Sussex Saints”, see: https://historicalpageants.ac.uk/pageants/1030/
True to its title the book covers the origins and present status of civil, secular, ordinarily historical pageants. But there are invaluable chapters which address the very tricky area of religious pageants. More properly, these were often what one might properly call religio-historical pageants.
“I wun’t be druv” (sometimes, “Sussex wun’t be druv” or “we wun’t be druv”): a term which was said by one 19th Century Sussex dialect specialist to be common in the county in 1875.
Tides of Invasion: The Selsey story
Sources of quoted works (and notes some recent events)
[Tides p6] Rudyard Kipling, “Roman Centurion’s song”
[Tides p8] Hugh Chesterman: “Hengis and Horsa” (collected in The Crusaders, Shakespeare Head Press, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1946, page 19)
[Tides p10] James Elroy Flecker, “The Dying Patriot” (on Augustine’s arrival in Kent),
“Humbler poetry”: perhaps lines by Dearmer
[Tides p11] Eddi biography maybe via Bede and his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, c731
[Tides p13] Edda [a misprint for Eddi [Eddius] in Bede via Bede
[Tides p14] Hymn: “Turn Back O Man, forswear thy foolish ways”, Songs of Praise, 329
[Tides p16] Rudyard Kipling, “Eddi’s Service” (poem), 1910. “Eddius” is the more formal, latinate, form of Eddi. The poem imagines the possibly fictitious Eddi at a possibly fabled chapel at what became Church Norton (what may have been Manhood End hamlet).
[Tides p17] GK Chesterton, poem: “Ballad of the White Horse”.
[Tides p18] Winston Churchill, on King Alfred
[Tides p18] Francis Thompson, poem, “Hound of Heaven”
[Tides p19] Percy Dearmer, “Song From the Selsea [sic] Pageant, 1965”. It is introduced by “Woman”, and performed by “A medieval milkmaid, a mother, Emma, Queen of King Canute, who with her ladies made vestments in cloth and gold and silver”. As published in A Pilgrim’s Song: Selected poems to mark the poet’s 100th birthday, Foreword by Jon Stallworthy, John Murray, 1993
[Tides p22] Rudyard Kipling, poem, “Norman Baron”
[Tides p24] Historic document: royal proclamation
[Tides p24] Tides Refusing to be “druv”. See note below)
Elizabeth I, speech “I know I have the body…”
[Tides p26] Local records: Spanish galleon
[Tides p27] Shakespeare, Taming of the Shrew
[Tides p28] GM Trevelyan English Social History
[Tides p29] Rudyard Kipling smuggling
[Tides p30] HAL Fisher, 1912, on Napoleon
[Tides p30] Thomas Hardy, The Dynasts
[Tides p31] Contemporary song c1803
[Tides p32] Events: RNLI history, 100 years from oar via steam to diesel
[Tides p33] Winston Churchill on RNLI, 1942
[Tides pp34-38] Events: Removal of Selsey parish church from Church Norton, (1866)
[Tides p38] Events: Colin Pullinger, Selsey inventor
[Tides p39] Events: Selsey tramway (1896)
[Tides pp41-42] Events: WW1
[Tides p42] Rudyard Kipling, “Big Steamers”, 1911 (Not ascribed in Tides)
[Tides p42] W Victor Cook, poem : “Sussex Won’t be Druv”, 1914. Wikipedia cites Louise Maskill as ascribing the poem which appears in Tides to WVC, in her Sussex Dialect, 2012, which I haven’t checked), and The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable as having “Sussex won’t be druv” as a local proverbial saying of the early 20th Century and the Dictionary of the Sussex Dialect 1875 as stating “I wunt (sp?) be druv” as a “favourite maxim with Sussex people”.
[Tides p43] Lamb, “I love a fool…”, from his essay “All Fools’ Day,” (1823) in Essays of Elia and Eliana, G Bell and Sons, 1913. Lamb is talking about the attractiveness of the reckless and even feckless.
[Tides pp 43-45] Event/Quote: WW2: diary by Miss L H Harris
[Tides pp46-47] Event: Need for new churches and cathedral restoration, and flyer and brochure
Fragments on Dearmer and his background
Dearmer and Clifford Bax
Geoffrey Dearmer and Clifford Bax co-wrote The Chronicles of Cupid, 1931, French’s Acting Edition. My father’s copy (which I have) is dedicated: “To Nan Dearmer”. Bax was my father’s mother Vera Bax’s third husband and Dearmer and Paul North may have crossed paths in that way. I am aim to put this online.
Geoffrey Dearmer at Westminster
Dearmer was at Westminster School a few years before my father. I have no idea if their paths crossed in some Westminster connection. I came across this rather touching vignette from Geoffrey’s Westminster schooldays.
On 20 October 1908 Lawrence Tanner (a senior pupil at Westminster School and a son of one of its senior masters) noted in his diary the bullying of Geoffrey Dearmer by other boys and on 29 October notes his actions to stop it. This diary is now partly online as outlined below:
The 20/10/1908 entry:
The 29/10/1908 entry