My last memory of my famous cousin John Masefield dates from the early sixties, when I visited him at his home, Burcote Brook, on the Thames at Abingdon near Oxford. As the author of over seventy works of poetry, non-fiction, novels, plays and children’s books, and as Poet Laureate for more than thirty years, John was already a literary legend. But since the death of his wife Constance, he’d become something of a recluse – and it was their eccentric daughter Judith I knew best, having corresponded with her since my childhood. We shared an interest in wildlife and exotic pets. She’d written me into a couple of her children’s books, and was now helping with my own first faltering attempts at writing.
Judith invited me to lunch in Abingdon one day in 1963, and although her father was working in his study to revise his final collection of poems: ‘In Glad Thanksgiving’, he joined us at table. He was a very tall man with a white moustache, heavy-lidded clear blue eyes and an immensely courteous manner. (Although I was only twenty and he was eighty-five, he insisted on pulling out my chair to seat me.) When he spoke, his voice was loud and sonorous.
‘Would you, would you care…’ he boomed at me from the far end of the table in the ringing tones of a Henry Irving or a Gielgud. ‘Would you care for some SPUD?’
But luckily that wasn’t all on offer. (Judith cooked appallingly; the mashed potato was full of lumps and bits of peel and served from a cracked tureen). The advice John Masefield gave me over lunch that day, which as an author I have found invaluable, was never to imagine for a moment that a thought, a turn of phrase, a line of dialogue, would stay in mind until I was ready to record it, seated at my desk.
‘Believe me young man it very seldom does. So always carry paper with you and a pencil,’ John memorably advised. ‘Jot it, JOT IT DOWN whenever and wherever it occurs.’
Which is exactly what I have done ever since – on bedside tables in the middle of the night, in lay-bys or in people’s driveways when I’m in the car, on trains and boats and planes – even on the paper towels I used for drying my cows’ udders, when as a dairy farmer I was struggling with my own first novel, Chalkhill Blue.
Three years after that lunch with him in Abingdon, John Masefield died, and soon afterwards the family were out in force for the interment of his ashes at ‘Poets’ Corner’ in the South Transept of Westminster Abbey. We Masefield cousins all came dressed in black in honour of the great man’s passing; Judith came in scarlet. The Dean and Chapter of Westminster presided. Robert Graves delivered the address. C. Day Lewis read one of John’s own poems, ‘The Everlasting Mercy’, and the casket with his ashes was interred beside the grave of Robert Browning, overlooked by Geoffrey Chaucer.
‘Which wasn’t what he wanted anyway,’ scrawled Judith later on the back of an old Christmas card. ‘Because I found this sorting his MSS, I think it must be his last poem.’
Let no religious rite be done or read
In any place for me when I am dead,
But burn my body into ash, and scatter
The ash in secret into running water,
Or on the windy down, and let none see;
And then thank God that there's an end of me.
John Masefield as it happened was also the last poet to be buried in Westminster Abbey, although on the basis of that verse it wouldn’t seem to be an honour he’d have either sought or valued.
Looking back, there are so many things I would have liked to ask him over that lunch in 1963: How did Sir Frank Benson perform as Pompey in the play you wrote for him? Is it true that you were always sick at sea? How did you first come to think of ‘Cargoes’ and ‘Sea Fever’? But at the time the old man had been anxious to get back to work, and considering the difference in our ages, such questions seemed impertinent.