The Mary Webb Society


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Birthday Lunch Event Report      The Edge Arts Centre, Much Wenlock 23 March 2019

It was an excellent turnout for our first event of the year with thirty three members attending on a fine spring day. The Edge is a perfect venue with adequate display space and a comfortable lecture theatre, not to mention the excellent catering facilities. It is always a joy to be in Much Wenlock, the place where Mary Webb spent her childhood years at The Grange.

Following a welcome by chairman Gordon Dickins, the programme started with an excellent talk by member, Christopher Nankivell on “The Airfields of Shropshire” based on his book of 22 poems, “Circuits and Bumps.” The talk was ably illustrated by slides of various airfields (or remains of) by Gordon Dickins. As part of his research for this task, Gordon had scoured the north Shropshire countryside to seek out some of the lesser known locations and also risk having to explain himself at some of the currently operational sites!

Christopher took us on a journey through the county’s military history: its castles, moats and forts, its many war memorials up to the many airfields which played such a prominent role in World War 2. The airfields were mainly sited on level ground away from the population with adequate space for training and storage of aircraft. Some of the sites mentioned included: Weston Park, Tilstock, Hodnet, Atcham, High Ercall and Bridgnorth.  Christopher’s evocative poetry accompanied the tour with both amusing and moving accounts of the life of R.A.F. personnel and  civilians during wartime.

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Mention must be made of the excellent caterers, Catering Academy Ltd who provided an excellent lunch and went the extra mile with beautifully decorated tables on a Mary Webb theme.

Members were able to browse the book sale during the day with all proceeds going towards a suitable memorial for our dear friend the late Margaret Austin.

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After lunch the programme continued with a talk by Dr Gladys Mary Coles entitled, “Memories of Mary Webb.” Gladys Mary gave us a unique insight into her biographer’s quest for a more in depth study of the life and work of Mary Webb, whose work she felt was unappreciated at the time. Her meticulous research over a ten year period resulted in the publication of “The Flower of Light.”

Gladys Mary produced some of her handwritten notes of interviews and visits over this period, including people who knew Mary Webb, neighbours, family, and in particular, Mary’s brother Kenneth. She also interviewed notable literary figures from the Webb’s time in London including Rebecca West and Susan Buchan (Lady Tweedsmuir).

She discussed the many roles of a biographer: a “literary midwife,” a detective and a judge.  Gladys Mary described how initially she was shy at knocking on doors and had to be prepared for how she would be received.However, many of the local people were happy to share their memories of Mrs Webb, particularly neighbours from Lyth Hill and Pontesbury. She also visited the homes of Mary Webb to interview the new owners. Again the reception was mixed. Gladys Mary had a special friendship with Kenneth Meredith and often went to visit him with her daughters at his hut in a field near Rhyl where he kept bees. Her poem “A Biographer’s Visit to the Novelist’s Brother” describes these visits beautifully (“Leafburners New and Selected Poems” Duckworth 1986)

Gladys Mary described her visit to Rebecca West at her flat in Hyde Park. She and Mary Webb were good friends for a time. Rebecca West was very complementary about “The Flower of Light” saying, “This was the Mary I knew.”

“The Flower of Light” was accepted by the first publisher, Duckworth but Gladys Mary was asked to reduce the manuscript by a third which was a difficult task. The book was first published in Great Britain in1978, then in the USA in 1979. It was an international success and had excellent reviews.

It was reprinted in paperback by Headland in 1998. There is little doubt that this pioneering biography spearheaded a revival in the work of Mary Webb.

With thanks to Gladys Mary for the privilege of sharing her biographer’s journey; we look forward as always to continuing that journey with her.

Took place on Saturday, March 23, 2019, at The Edge Arts Centre, Much Wenlock



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