Widecombe History Group Talk on Writer Vian Smith


VIAN SMITH 1919-1969

A talk given by Bob Mann of Totnes.

The group invited Bob Mann to give a lecture on the life of Vian Smith, author and journalist. Bob has done a great deal of research into the life and works of Vian Smith and hopes to produce a Biography on him at the end of 2004.

Born on 2nd (corrected from 3rd) February 1919 in Totnes with his maternal grandparents living at Holne, the Crocker family, he very soon became enthralled by Dartmoor. At 4 years old often with his Grandfather he would go onto the moors nearby. His father was a Master Cabinet Maker and his mother was greatly involved with the community of Totnes.

Vian's most well known work is "Portrait of Dartmoor" 1966, in which he delightfully describes Dartmoor as he saw it, not always being complimentary about the way the authorities of that time were managing it. Quite refreshing in the beauty of his writing, expressing his opinions quite forcefully in his prose, disagreeing with the mainstream opinions of the time, not afraid to criticise, often recording the views of the 'ordinary people', and by no means can it be interpreted as a 'Guide' in the Crossing or Worth styles.

He was able to get an amazing amount of information from the locals he met and some appears to have come from unusual sources.

To emphasise this Bob read several extracts from his books, leaflets and newspaper articles, the meeting was interested in the descriptive quality of much of his prose. The way he described horses, their work and temperament, but most obvious was the effect that his Grandfather had on him. His Grandfather was a very religious man of the old school, Jehovah ruled, terror, fear and sin, heaven and hell, no half measures here! If things went wrong it was due to the wrath of the Lord. Some of this can be felt in his last published book "Parade of Horses" 1970. He lived at Mountview Terrace, Totnes and attended Grove School, afterwards attending the Edward VI Grammar School. Spent much of his holidays with Grandparents at their farm at Holne. His English teacher Mr Kinsman wrote that at 11 years old he had a special way of writing though he had a speech impediment.

The influence of Dartmoor was with him all his life and beautiful extracts were read from an essay written when he was only 13 years old, this told of harvest time, rabbiting and cider. He joined The Old Totnesian Society in 1932 at 13 years old and wrote in the School Magazine an article 'An Ideal Dream'.

His teacher a Mr Kinsman, encouraged him to go to Totnes Grammar School where he also proved to be very good footballer. It was unusual for working class families to go into writing and art, the need to earn a 'proper living' was paramount. On leaving school he worked as an office boy at Dartington Hall, then apprentice for painting and decorating at Paignton. In 1939 he worked for Staverton Builders.

All his spare time was spent writing, this was his real love. At 18 years he was in The Royal Engineers, 1939 saw the beginning of World War II, and in c1946 he wrote "Song of the Unsung", a story of the life of a sapper in the war years, much of this no doubt based on his own experiences and his keen observation of what had gone on around him during those years. From 1946 to 1950 he produced no fewer than 7 novels. In some of these he was looking to the future with expectations. These novels were descriptive of all that was going on around him. Some titles mentioned were, "Hungry Waters" c1946, "Hand (corrected from Hound) of the Wind" c1948, "Holiday for Laughter", "Stars in the Morning" and "So Many Worlds" c1949, the latter concerning housing problems and class variations. Acute observations and insight into the lives of the people of the time and the effects of social divides. He was beginning to get involved in journalism. He produced a novel at this time which has never been published and Bob has the manuscript. It concerned the variety of workmen employed on a building site, titled "Straw in Paradise", it looks at a great deal social depredation, even mentioning subjects like paedophile activity, no wonder the publishers at that time steered clear of involvement.

He made contact with a Mr Lidstone, proprietor of Torbay Press and this led to him being involved with that much loved weekly paper "The South Devon Journal". This was a real family paper full of 'nice stories', 'happy stories' and his writing set the tone of this paper. At one time he wrote most of what was published but under a variety of pseudonyms, Rowley with a strong Dartmoor influence, Journeyman looking at South Devon as a whole, and John Britten the lovely stories of "Emmie & Fred" or was it "Fred & Emmie"? written in a gentle Devonshire Dialect, a must each week for the regular reading public.

He was never afraid to touch on contentious issues and his writings are a great source of information relevant to his time. The reader may not agree with much that he wrote but he expressed an opinion and recorded what he saw, thought and felt. In the 1950s The South Devon Journal was an important part of many peoples lives each week.

He wrote in c1950 a novel titled "Press Gang", based on the life of a newspaper office, was he once again drawing on his personal experiences? This contained references to Dartmoor, Horses and of course the Office, in some of his writings many people felt that they could recognise, themselves and others, in the script under fictional names. He tended to write about what he knew and in some books Totnes can be recognised and some of the neighbouring villages too. In the mid 1960s he wrote some children's books, plays for radio and television, covering a wide diversity of ages. In the late 1940s he wrote a guide book of Totnes. He also produced a book on the history of the Grand National, the range of his works are considerable. In all he wrote 19 books and when he died in December 1969 aged 50 years he left us a legacy of literature well worth studying. In the mid 1960s Boston University bought his manuscripts.

He lived for a while at Sparrow Road, Totnes with his wife and children. He also lived at Netherton Farm, Littlehempston.

A real professional, an important writer, excellent, controversial, interesting in his approach to the happenings of the day. Whether you like or dislike his writing, he has something to say, his books are still obtainable from the lending libraries and are certainly worth a read.

Corrections supplied by his daughter 31/12/2014

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