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THE recent Countryfile programme centred on the Malvern Hills on BBC television reminded me of personal recollections I have of George Sayer, then Head of English at Malvern College, and a neighbour of mine.
One memorable evening over dinner at his house in Alexandra Road, we talked about CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien. George’s wife had cooked a delicious meal, and it seemed particularly meaningful to be sitting in the room where the famous authors had dined.
Both of them considered George a close friend and confidant in terms of personal relationships and religious faith; Lewis as a prominent convert from atheism to the Church of England, while Tolkien and George were members of the Roman Catholic faith.
After his mother died, the young Tolkien had been brought up by priests at the Birmingham Oratory. When staying with George, they attended Mass together at St Joseph’s, in Newtown, a short distance along Laburnum Walk and down Hospital Bank.
During the past 30 years, as part of the Autumn in Malvern Festival, I have presented talks on Lewis and Tolkien given by leading biographers such as George Sayer himself, Humphrey Carpenter, and Alistair McGrath. So popular was Professor McGrath’s talk on Lewis, two other institutions booked him to speak in Malvern later on.
CS Lewis the creator of the Narnia fantasy series
Meeting Tolkien in Oxford one day, George found him depressed and dishevelled; his wife was away, he was struggling with his writing, and his publishers were not interested in The Lord of The Rings or The Silmarillion.
George brought him to Malvern for a few days holiday with the typescripts of both travelling on the back seat of the car.
George had recently purchased a Ferrograph tape recorder from Burston’s in Newtown Road.
To cheer him up, he persuaded Tolkien to record extracts from The Lord of the Rings. However, before proceeding, the reluctant author insisted on recording The Lord’s Prayer, speaking an ancient Gothic language, in order to ‘cast out the devil’ that he felt sure to be present in this piece of modern technology.
For many years before he died, Oleg Prokofiev, son of the famous Russian composer, was Principal Patron of the festival, and often stayed with me.
At one festival, before a BBC recording of Russian Images, a programme I devised for Radio 3, I noticed George Sayer standing outside Malvern College Chapel, where the concert and recording was to take place.
Oleg mentioned that he had just read George’s biography, Jack : The Life and Times of CS Lewis. Naturally, I took the opportunity to introduce them to each other.
We stood by the chapel, looking up towards the Worcestershire Beacon, and walked down the lawn to look out over the magnificent view of the Severn Plain towards Bredon Hill.
I remember George saying how much Lewis, Tolkien and he enjoyed walking on the hills, often in the company of Warnie, Lewis’s brother, and their friendly GP, Dr RE Harvard.
There was another Malvern connection for the Lewis brothers and Tolkien. Maureen, Lady Dunbar, daughter of Mrs Moore, CS Lewis’s landlady in Oxford, had married Leonard Blake, Director of Music at Malvern College.
Once, when staying in the Blake’s house, they chanced upon George, and asked him to show them interesting walks on the hills.
Tolkien walked slowly, stopping and starting, which frustrated the Lewis bothers. George gladly offered to accompany him on the hills where he puffed on his pipe, talked rapidly, pointing out wild flowers, birds and especially trees. Lewis and his brother walked at a strenuous pace for half an hour before taking a break or ‘soak’ as they called it, while Tolkien and George caught up.
The Unicorn pub in Malvern
A pint of real ale at an appropriate hostelry was always a great incentive, lubricating the conversation. The Unicorn in Great Malvern became a favourite where the Flowers Ale bitter was well kept.
Malvern to Narnia by Tarquin Shaw-Young
My subsequent chats with George Sayer confirmed that Lewis never identified a Malvern Gas lamp with the one in The Lion The Witch and The Wardrobe.
Nor were the Malvern Hills the inspiration for Tolkien’s books, The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings and so on.
The idea seemed so entrenched in the mind of a few in Malvern, that George suggested it was polite to say ‘you could be right’ and change the subject.
The inspiration for the Misty and White Mountains and other locations in Tolkien’s books came from a holiday he spent in the Swiss Alps in 1911.
It was during and immediately after the First World War, in which Tolkien fought, that he began to write the tales which formed the principal elements in his books. Tolkien remarked that peaks at the southern end of the Malvern’s helped him to relive how he imagined the White Mountains of Gondor.
Malvern Hills in the mist. Picture: Victoria Bradeley-Davies
He told George, that sometimes, places on the Malvern’s seemed to take him back to scenes of fantasy that he had written previously. Walking on the hills brought him great pleasure, but they were not the original inspiration for his books.
Both Tolkien and Lewis owed much to George Sayers’ kindness and generosity. From his Oxford days, as a student at Magdalen College, he knew Lewis better than any other biographer through 30 years of close friendship, access to family papers, and Lewis’s intimate diary.
I felt strongly that George should be commemorated in the town centre, alongside Lewis.
When I suggested a plaque in Rosebank Gardens, there was a degree of resistance. “I see no valid reason for this plaque,” stated one councillor.
CS Lewis plaque
Despite this, I wrote the text, and the Autumn in Malvern Festival fully funded the plaque.
After the concert in Malvern College Chapel, Oleg Prokofiev mentioned George Sayers’ ‘English graciousness’. Regrettably, this quality of quiet courtesy appears absent in so many today.
Peter Smith is a native of Malvern, founder and artistic director of the Autumn in Malvern Festival, Aldwyn Voices and a Councillor for Priory Ward, Malvern Town Council
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