Thursday, 9 April 2015

Wilhelmina Stitch on Blackgang

Reading Geoffrey Grigson's 1945 description of Blackgang Chine bazaar (see Blackgang: a whale of a chine), I assumed that his reference to "Fragrant Minutes of verse by Wilhelmina Stitch" was just a general example of the keepsakes sold there in that era. But no: it turns out that there was actually a specific piece of Blackgang Chine merchandise by this bygone inspirational writer.

A quick Google finds that the Chine sold photographic postcards illustrated with a picture of the chine not unlike this one ...

from Isle of Wight: Forty-one camera studies
of the nooks & crannies, bays
& chines of the garden isle
... and the following piece of doggerel:

Some ramblers start at Ventnor, and walk it, all the way.
Others go from Shanklin (I did the other day).
And if I must be truthful, I went by motor car,
But for stalwart, honest hikers, the distance isn’t far!

And on! when you get there, you’ll gasp out your delight,
This Chine is quite unusual, a most impressive sight.
Blue clay and yellow sandstone towering above the sea.
Silent, grim and scornfulgigantic masonry.

Take the ascending pathway to the Observation Peak.
On the wooden platform standbut do not speak.
“Tis the best feature of this Blackgang Chine.
In this lovely Island, no view half so fine
As seen from this pinnacle when the day is clear.
Boldly stand the Needlesand Dorset’s coast draws near.

(reprinted by permission of Wilhelmina Stitch, author of “The Fragrant Minute,” “Silken Threads,” “Silver Linings,” and many other booklets.)
The poem was a reprint from the Daily Herald, as reported in the IWCP:
Blackgang Chine was the subject of a glowing appreciation in rhymed prose by Wilhelmina Stitch in the Daily Herald on Friday week. It was the topic of one of her well-known cameos entitled “The Fragrant Minute.”
- Town and Country Notes, IWCP, Saturday, May 18, 1935, page 5 (reproduced as fair usage, Isle of Wight County Press Archive
I didn't realise until quite recently that Wilhelmina Stitch was real, as I'd only ever encountered the name in Bridget Muller's parody:
The leaves are falling from the tree, which bodes the end of you and me. Quite suddenly we'll fall off crash and lie unconscious in the mash. This seems a little drearbut no, we need not really make it so, and Wilhelmina Stitch can bring the fragrance out of anything. For think how peaceful it will be to lie insensate 'neath a tree; and how ennobling, ah, how big, to be uprooted by a pig!
- Bridget Muller, in Verse and Worse, Arnold Silcock, Faber and Faber, 1958.
This doesn't wildly exaggerate the style of Wilhelmina Stitch's relentlessly upbeat vignettes of homespun philosophy, in rhyming prose. Stitch - a pseudonym for the English-born Canadian writer Ruth Collie née Jacobs, Cohen by first marriage (1888-1936) - began to write verse when her first husband died, a "daily stitch, short verse about the every day human and homely incidents and feelings of life". These became phenomenally popular, taken up first by the American Metropolitan Syndicate then, when she returned to England, by the Daily Graphic and Daily Herald, attracting some two million readers daily. She also wrote book reviews as Sheila Rand. One obituary described her as "one of the best-known women writers in the British Empire" (ref).

There's no doubting her industry, or her talent in catching a market, perhaps that in an era (the late 1920s and early 1930s) that needed a bit of lightweight cheering-up. But by modern standards, they're nauseatingly pi. Nevertheless, you have to admire her skill in being able to coin these tightly aphoristic pieces so consistently. As the poet Fraser Sutherland wrote of the Stitch in the Toronto Globe and Mail:
Although the Stitch style is elusive, its sublime, edifying sweetness makes a Hallmark birthday card read like Oedipus Rex. One thinks of the unflinching, unfashionable optimism in one of Silver Lining's pieces, The Singing Kettle: "Up to its neck in water, boiling water, too. Yet the kettle keeps on singing - that's what we ought to do!"
- A Stitch in time reads fine, Fraser Sutherland, Globe and Mail, July 20th 2010.
(Sutherland mentions Marjory Lang's Women Who Made the News: Female Journalists in Canada, 1880-1945, and this is worth reading - page 119 - for a brief biography).

Wilhelmina Stitch books generally have titles based around some kind of weaving metaphor - Homespun, Joy's Loom, Silken Threads, Catching the Gleam, Mingled Yarn, Tapestries, and Silver Lining. You can get the general flavour from The Fragrant Minute for Every Day, which is online at Project Gutenberg Canada (I think it's out of copyright here too; it's more than 75 years since the author's death).
On 'Bus 15
What a day! said I to me. The sky's as grey as it can be. The fog is really growing worse. To think I have to write a verse! There's not a thing to rhyme about—such drabness puts all thoughts to rout.
      What fine balloons! So big and bright. The golden one is still in sight. Oh! see that pretty, tiny stall aglow with oranges and all. How lovely! Shining through the gloom, a flower-girl's basket rich with bloom. Despite the mist, the pigeons feed. A jolly sight it is, indeed, on such a very dreary day to see their grace and movements gay.
      A solemn voice. “Your ticket, please.” I prop my handbag on my knees and pull out trifles by the score. Then find it—lying on the floor. I laughed. He laughed. He scratched his head. “You women are a joke,” he said. We talked a bit, and then I thought I've found the very thing I sought. I'll sketch this ride—where is my quill?—from Paddington to Ludgate-hill!

I heard her say, as she bent low, “This log won't burn, I told you so. It needs another log, you see, to make it burn right merrily.” I looked and saw the flames leap out and wrap the new log round about; so bright and vigorous the fire, just like a newborn, strong desire.
      I thought: how like those logs are we, responsive to warm sympathy; just ashes if we have no friend with whom the heart and mind can blend. One minute, cheerless, almost dead, and then a word or two is said, and lo! forthwith a bright fire shines and life is filled with magic signs! When wood strikes wood there is a spark which flashes through the gloomiest dark. “A spark is light, and light is truth,” thus said a loved one in my youth.
      And so it is when heart strikes heart, a fire is kindled, flames up-start. The log, it cannot burn alone; the heart, untouched, is cold as stone.

The will to try
To be content is not my rôle. I have not got a patient soul. I do not like to sit and wait in meek and mild and hopeful state.
      Here is a door fast closed, I see; I wish 'twould open wide for me! I try a gentle knock or two; oh! door, I beg you, let me through. The door just shows a grim dark face: shall I sit down and wait a pace? Indeed, I won't, I'll knock again, and this time swift and sharp like rain. Indifferent and callous door, I'll bang again, and more and more!
      My patient friends smile as they stand and see my bruised and bleeding hand. “You'll knock your head against a wall, that's what you'll do, and that is all. Just be content to stand outside, the world is very large and wide. That door is closed, just wait your turn, and don't with such impatience burn.” But, oh! I'd rather, bleeding, die—than live without the will to try!

- all from The Fragrant Minute for Every Day [Daily Graphic—Series No. 1], Stitch, Wilhelmina [Collie, Ruth] (ca. 1888-1936)
Wilhelmina Stitch
The Fragrant Minute for Every Day
Project Gutenberg Canada
I'm afraid Bridget Muller was spot-on.
I bought a chicken in the street, and hung it up to serve as meat; but when I came to view the bird, ‘twas black and green and looked absurd. Was I despondent? Never—no—your Wilhelmina’s never so, though I had lost my lunch, ‘twas true, and wasted five and sixpence too. I sat me down and took a breath, thought fragrantly of Life and Death, of Strength and Grace and Love and Power, and so I mused for half an hour. Then up I rose, replete with calm, and softly sang the Hundredth Psalm; I gave the chicken to my mother and sallied forth to buy another.
- Bridget Muller, in Verse and Worse, Arnold Silcock, Faber and Faber, 1958.
- Ray

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