1 Sycamore Square and Other Verses.

A Celebration of Women Writers



by "Jan Struther"
(Joyce Maxtone Graham, 1901-1953)
author of Mrs. Miniver;
illustrated by Ernest Shepard.

Copyright, the Estate of Jan Struther, 1932.
This authorised internet edition was published with the permission of the Maxtone Graham family, and the assistance of Joyce Maxtone Graham's son, Robert Maxtone Graham, in 2001.
It is illegal to reproduce this work without permission.

to the Internet Edition
by the author's son, Robert Maxtone Graham, 2001.

Most of these verses originally appeared in Punch, The Spectator, The New Statesman and Nation, G.K.'s Weekly and other journals.

First published in book form in 1932, by Methuen & Co. Ltd, London.

The family–Tony, Joyce, who wrote under the name Jan Struther, and their children Jamie, Janet and Robert–lived from 1931 to 1936 at 16 Wellington Square, Chelsea, London SW3. "Sycamore Square" was the fictitious name given by Jan to Wellington Square, which is depicted in E. H. Shepard's charming pen-and-ink drawings illustrating the book and the pages of Punch. Some specimens of the Shepard illustrations are included, by permission of the Shepard family, in the biography of Jan Struther (The Real Mrs. Miniver) by my daughter Ysenda Maxtone Graham, London, John Murray, 2001.





Most of these verses originally appeared in Punch and are reprinted by kind permission of the Proprietors.

My thanks are also due to the Editors of The Spectator, The New Statesman and Nation and G.K.'s Weekly.

J. S.










   Is quiet and small;
In shape it isn't
   A square at all;
It's narrow and long
   And a cul-de-sac
When you want to get out
   You have to go back;
But everybody
   That's ever been there
Tries to settle for ever
   In Sycamore Square.
Its houses are white
   And its railings are green;
Its garden is tidy
   And tiny and clean
(For there's no room for anyone
   In it, you see,
Save the fish in the fountain,
   The birds on the tree,
The cats on the flagstones,
   The sun and the rain,
And William the gardener
   Now and again).
Oh, everybody
   That's ever been there
Says there's no place in London
   Like Sycamore Square.


THEY have muzzles of velvet
   And shoulders of silk,
The little brown ponies
   That bring round the milk.
At six in the morning
   They take great care
To come very quietly
   Into the Square;
Their little black hoofs
   So lightly tread
That no sound stirs us
   Asleep in bed;
But at twelve o'clock
   They paw and they stamp,
They rattle their harness
   And whinny and champ:
"Here's cream for your puddings,
   Here's butter from Devon,
Grade A for the baby
   At Number Eleven;
And all the price
   We want you to pay
Is best loaf sugar–
   Three lumps a day."
(And that, I suspect,
   Is probably why
Our grocer's book
   Is extremely high.)


IN Sycamore Square
   At the crack of dawn
The white cats play
   On the grey-green lawn;
One is the owner
   Of Number Three
And the other pretends
   To belong to me.
Slowly over
   The dew-soaked grass
Their low tense bodies
   Like serpents pass,
And each imperceptible
   Smooth advance
Is an intricate step
   In a mystic dance,
Which ends in the cat
   From Number Three
Rushing quite suddenly
   Up a tree,
While mine walks off
   With a dignified air
To the other end
   Of Sycamore Square.
(But nobody yet
   Has ever found out
What in the world
   The game's about.)


THE pigeons who
   Inhabit the Square
Say "Times don't seem to be
   What they were.
It was all very well
   In the days gone by,
The leisurely days
   Of the horse-drawn fly,
When nose-bags (once
   They were slightly torn)
Could be counted on
   For a feast of corn;
But it's no use looking
   For breakfast in
A battered old, spattered old
So what is a fellow
   Like me or you
To do, I ask you,
   To-doo, to-doo?"
But though they grumble
   And preen and pout,
They can't have much
   To complain about,
For each one's as plump
   As a new Lord Mayor–
The pigeons that potter
   In Sycamore Square.


THERE isn't much doubt
   That a cul-de-sac
Makes the most excellent
   Cycling track;
And even Jane
   Is allowed to go–
Provided she takes
   The corners slow–
Across the end
   And along each side
For an unaccompanied
   Tricycle ride.
Mary and Miles
   Of Twenty-two
Have bikes enamelled
   In egg-shell blue;
Benjamin Buller
   Of Number Sixteen
Owns a magnificent
   Black machine;
While Philip and John
   Of the yellow front-door
Have a scooter apiece
   (They're only four).
There aren't any rules
   Except "Hold on tight"
And "Don't have collisions
   When Nannie's in sight."
Oh, take it from me
   It's a dashing affair,
The Cycling Club
   Of Sycamore Square.


HE sits all day
   On the pavement where
The Big Road runs
   Past Sycamore Square,
With his lures all carefully
   Set to trap
Pedestrians' pence
   In his threadbare cap.
There's a sunset redder
   Than ever shone
Through snow-draped pines
A cut of salmon
   (That noble fish)
Tastefully laid
   On a pale-green dish;
A storm at sea
   With a wreck or two;
A Persian kitten
   (In Prussian blue)
Peeping out of
   A boot; and then
A very large stag
   In a very small glen. . . .
At night he washes them
   All away
And patiently draws them
   Again next day;
But he says–if you ask him–
   "Why, bless your heart,
It ain't no trouble–
   I'm used to Art."


"No street music
   In Sycamore Square.
So runs the notice–
   But who's to care?
On Monday morning
   The lame men come
With the saxophone, banjo
   And big jazz drum;
The barrel-organ
   Is Tuesday's treat,
Trilling and thrilling
   And cracked and sweet;
Wednesday's and Thursday's
   Excitements are
The fiddle-and-harp
   And the steel guitar;
On Friday evening
   We always get
A very old man
   With a flageolet;
And oh! on Saturday
There's the wizard who plays
   On two tin spoons.
(And yet, as we're perfectly
   Well aware,
There's no street music
   In Sycamore Square.)


ON winter Sundays
   At half-past three,
When we're just beginning
   To dream of tea,
There comes the sound
   That we know so well–
The welcome sound
   Of a distant bell.
Sweeter than harp,
   Braver than trumpet,
It sings of muffin,
   It shouts of crumpet,
Till two of us simply
   Have to tear
Out of the house
   And up the Square,
Shouting as loud
   As we possibly can
To catch the vanishing
   Muffin Man.
Then on he goes
   With his magic tray
Poised in a most
   Precarious way
Flat on the top
   Of his square grey head.
(It's practice does it–
   Or so he said.)


EVERY few hours
   Throughout the night
He comes to see
   That the Square's all right.
Slowly and solemnly
   Round he goes
On his great flat feet
   With their great blunt toes,
Shifting his very
   Portentous weight
From side to side
   With a rolling gait.
He flashes his lantern
   Up and down;
His brows are bent
   In an ominous frown;
To see him you'd think
   No thief would dare
To crack a crib
   In Sycamore Square.
Yet when he's at home
   You'll probably find
He's a jovial man
   And extremely kind,
Who likes his pint
   And a kipper for tea
The same as you–
   Or, at any rate, me.


FOR twenty-five years
   She's been sitting just there
At the right-hand corner
   Of Sycamore Square.
She never looked young
   And she never looks older,
With her black shawl drawn
   Round each thin shoulder,
Her stiff straw hat
   And her rusty frock
And her red hands knitting
   An endless sock.
Twenty-five times
   She's seen the Spring
Snowdrops, daffodils,
   Tulips bring;
And those give way
   To lilac and lilies,
Pinks and roses
   And prim Sweet Willies,
And those in turn
   To the small wan faces
And wistful eyes
   Of Michaelmas daisies;
Till one cold morning
   You'll hear her say,
"Nothing but chryssies,
   My dear, to-day."
And there she'll sit
   Till the year's Grand Chain
Has swung us the snowdrops
   Round again.


[London telephone exchanges had names, before the introduction of all-digit telephone numbers.–R.M.G.]



When I dial A-V-E,
Back at Limes I seem to be.

Old Mulwinkle's still alive,
Pottering down the western drive,
Pausing now and then to sweep
Fallen leaves into a heap.
Six years old, I follow near
Listening with respectful ear:
(Gardeners' words are always wise–
Age-old truth within them lies).
"Catch," says he, "a falling leaf,
Catch a day without a grief;
Catch three-hunderd-sixty-five,
You'm the happiest man alive!"
Old Mulwinkle sighs, and then
Stoops to pick up leaves again.

Back at Limes I seem to be
When I dial A-V-E.



When I dial F-R-O,
Round my head the sea-winds blow:

Swiftly now the swelling sails
Bear us from our Yorkshire dales
(Martin's men, a lusty score)
Towards a dim uncharted shore.
Shall we find the secret way
Through the ice-floes to Cathay?
Does our chancy future hold
Fame or failure, death or gold?
Nought we know, nor greatly care–
Hearts are stout and winds are fair;
High adventure's all our quest,
Speeding, speeding towards the West
(Martin's men through heaven or hell)
In the good ship Gabriel.

Round my head the sea-winds blow
When I dial F-R-O.



When I dial G-U-L,
Fancy weaves this potent spell:

Twenty years have slipped away
Swiftly as an idle day;
Book in hand, I'm back again
In the schoolroom, ætat ten.
Homework lies neglected, but
I'm hull down for Lilliput;
Sums and scales have failed to drag
Me away from Brobdingnag;
Vainly call the dotted minims–
I'm far off among the Houyhnhnms,
Lost in that enchanted land,
I and Lemuel, hand in hand.

Fancy weaves this potent spell
When I dial G-U-L.



When I dial H-I-L,
Here's the tale the letters tell:

How among the twisted heather
I and Tinker climbed together
Up the Sgurr-nan-Ramh, and lay
Half that last September day
(While the peat-smoke, blue and soft,
Rose from Coinneach's tiny croft),
Sad to think of all our fun
Ended, and our summer done–
Nothing left except the dim
Memory-scent of grouse for him,
And for me the heartless, brown,
Blundering train to London town,

That's the tale the letters tell
When I dial H-I-L.



When I dial M-A-Y,
I can hear the fairmen cry:

"Who'll buy laces? Who'll buy silk?
Who'll buy eggs and cheese and milk ?
Who'll buy shirts and who'll buy shoes ?
Wares for all–come choose, come choose!
Walk up, girls, and walk up, boys;
Who'll buy comfits? Who'll buy toys?
Cast aside your winter clouts,
Climb the prancing roundabouts,
Hurl the darts and toss the rings,
Clasp your sweetheart on the swings;
Kiss her boldly–never fear!–
Fair-time comes but once a year."

This is what I hear them cry
When I dial M-A-Y.



When I dial P-R-I,
Winter in a breath goes by:

Spring from her unsparing Mint
Flings us gold of every tint,
Scattering o'er fields and spinneys
Wantonly her fragile guineas;
Glossy gold that winks and shines
On the varnished celandines,
And the deeper hue that lies
In the jonquils' orange eyes;
Green-gold catkins, and the bold
Burning flame of crocus-gold;
Best of all–the rarest metal
Ever fashioned into petal–
Wafer-thin and honey-pale
Gold of primrose in the dale.

In a breath goes Winter by
When I dial P-R-I.



When I dial R-I-V,
Gently sways the willow-tree:

Where the stream runs wide and shallow,
Where the downy water-mallow
Lifts her pallid lamps of pink
All along the tree-hung brink,
Where, as summer noons grow hotter,
Swims the shy and secret otter,
And on wings of opal glass
Dragon-flies serenely pass–
In this dim and haunted place
Once I looked on Magic's face;
Heard with drowsy mortal ear
Notes immortal, cool and clear;
Fell asleep, and, waking, spied
Hoof-prints by the riverside . . .

Gently sways the willow-tree
When I dial R-I-V.



When I dial S-H-E,
Here's the picture that I see:

On a sun-enchanted down
High above the restless town
Corin, in a tattered smock,
Quite forgetful of his flock,
Lies, all drowsy with the bloom
Of the golden scented broom,
Watching, in the fields of sky,
Lamb-like clouds go scudding by–
(Far less hard a watch to keep
Than the care of earthly sheep,
Since, when skyey lambs do stray,
Corin lets them run away).

Here's the picture that I see
When I dial S-H-E.



When I dial S-P-E,
Memory turns a rusty key:

On a heat-hushed afternoon
Of that half-forgotten June,
In a meadow you and I
Met to say our last good-bye,
While the speedwell's sapphire eyes,
Gay and innocent and wise
(Wiser far than we, alas!)
Watched us from the emerald grass.
"Since," we said, "love's dead and gone,
Let us part, nor linger on
As the speedwell and the clover
Linger, brown, when summer's over."
Thus we spoke, too proud and sane
To await love's Spring again.
(Speedwell blows as blue each year:
Speed you well, my long-lost dear. . . .)

Memory turns a rusty key
When I dial S-P-E.



When I dial V-I-C,
Here's the dream that comes to me:

Leisured world where no one hustles,
World of crinolines and bustles,
Jingling hansoms, spanking hoofs,
Planeless skies, unaerialled roofs;
World of whiskers and of waists,
Drawing-room songs, domestic tastes,
Low taxation, high ideals,
Narrowed creeds and bloated meals;
World of wax and wool and tartan,
Sound and safe beneath the Spartan
Rule of Her who quite refused
'Gainst her will to be amused. . . .

Here's the dream that comes to me
When I dial V-I-C.



SIR DANIEL was a fearless knight;
In doublet green he went to fight.
The yellow plumes upon his head
Like the sun their brightness shed.
He rode no charger in the field,
Waved no banner, bore no shield,
But stood with broad and jagged blade
Challenging rogue and renegade.

Sir Daniel now is getting old;
He's laid aside his plumes of gold;
His hair is soft and silver-white;
He has forgotten how to fight.
Yet still he stands, a little bent,
Dreaming of joust and tournament,
Guarding the children at their play
And telling them the time of day.

(Since, before his youth departed,
He earned the name of 'Lion-hearted',
The children whom he keeps an eye on,
Laughing, call him 'Dan de Lion'.)


[Examinations made by London police surgeons for a Home Office inquiry reveal the fact that weight and height are no criterion of strength and efficiency, and that some of the greatest feats of endurance stand to the credit of men below average in size.]

      THE surgeons who picked 'em
      Have published this dictum:
"The smallest policemen are often the best";
      And I wish to point out
      That beyond any doubt
What's true of policemen is true of the rest.

      Too long have we small ones
      Looked up to the tall ones
As models of all that a human should be;
      But since Science denies
      The importance of size
Sing "Down with the mammoth and up with the flea!"

      No more shall the bantam
      Be scared by this phantom–
That men of few inches are feeble and frail;
      For since tonnage and length
      Are no token of strength
Sing "Up with the minnow and down with the whale!"

      In a world that's encumbered
      With millions unnumbered
(Which causes the experts to grumble and grouse)
      He who takes up less space
      Is a boon to the race;
So down with the mountain and up with the mouse.

      Then we who are little
      Are cheaper to victual–
Where you need a loaf we can thrive on a crumb:
      A knack in these days
      Which is worthy of praise;
So down with the giant and up with Tom Thumb.

      In fact, my reliance
      On medical science
In future I'll place with unqualified zest;
      For it's proved itself sound
      By this verdict profound–
"The smallest policemen are often the best."


[Considerable feeling has been aroused among the natives in some country districts where the housing shortage is acute by the transportation of "picturesque" cottages to the United States.]

FOUR years ago
   I mind Jim said
That, come another spring,
   Him an' me'd be wed.

Jim's at High Havens
   Tending Farmer's cows:
I wash the dishes
   Up at Squire's house.

Three years ago
   I mind Jim said
That, come another spring,
   Him an' me'd be wed.

But Lydbourne St. Mary's
   That full and that small
We couldn't find a cottage
   Anywhere at all.

Two years ago
   I mind Jim said
That, come another spring,
   Him an' me'd be wed.

And when that November
   Old Badger fell sick,
We tried not to pray for
   Lord to take 'en quick.

But you can't help thinking . . .
   I mind Jim said,
"Come next April
   You an' me'll be wed."

An' we used to go walking
   On my days out
Past old Badger's
   An' look round about.

An' I'd say, "Chimney
   D' seem to draw grand,"
An' Jim'd say, "Taters
   'D grow in that land."

A twelve-month ago
   Old Badger he died:
But I'm still waiting
   To be Jim's bride;

For old Badger's cottage
   It's gone 'crost the sea,
Packed in liddle boxes
   Like a pound of tea.

It's gone for folks to look at
   In a Yew-nited State;
So I reckon Jim 'n' me'll
   Just have to wait. . . .


[A correspondent suggests that in order to avoid the well-known confusion between the numbers "five" and "nine" the latter should in future be universally pronounced "nan."]

I'M not, I hope, a die-hard;
   In fact, I'm in the van
Of those who really try hard
      With swarms and swarms
      Of well-thought-out reforms
   To ease the lot of Man:
But here is where I'm forced to draw the line–
   I do not think I can
Stand meekly by and hear the number "nine"
   Being pronounced as "nan."

O Nine! O number mystic!
   O holy three-times-three!
O symbol cabalistic
      By priest and sage
      In every cultured age
   Revered on bended knee–
Never, I swear, while I am still alive,
   By any base decree
Shall you (because you sound a bit like "five")
   Profaned and garbled be.

Because the fool confuses
   Two words whene'er he can,
Shall the immortal Muses
      By mincing tongue
      Of poetasters young
   Be called "the Tuneful Nan"?
And shall we at a "nan days' wonder" stare?
   And shall Matilda Ann
From her sententious copy-book declare
   "Nan tailors make a man"?

Nay, nay! Let Five (a cipher
   Devoid of sacred lore)
Be known as "fife" or "fifer,"
      Or even let
      Us uncomplaining get
   Wrong numbers by the score–
Yea, let some unseen power strike us dumb
   With decent shame before
We say "Lars Porsena of Clusium
   By the Nan Gods he swore. . . ."


THIS morning, while I vainly sought
   Among the millinery-mongers
That hat, oft dreamed of, never bought,
   For which my soul in torment hungers,
I mused again, bewildered sore
(As I had often mused before),
Upon the objects labelled there
As "Suitable for Matrons' Wear."

The Matron's Hat is large and flat
   Of brim, its elevation frontal
A rampart-like expanse of "Plait,"
   "Pedal," "Baku" or "Ballibuntal";
A bow of felt, severely tied,
Sits primly on the left-hand side,
While on the right a stiff aigrette
Sprouts from an ornament of jet.

Great heaven! When fashions debonair
   Adorn the "bud" and deck the virgin,
When jaunty caps display the hair,
   Light as the wayward locks they merge in,
Must I, because I contemplate
The taking of a life-long mate
Before I'm middle-aged and fat,
Be asked to wear a thing like that ?

No, John! I hope I'll be to you
   As good a spouse as other spouses;
I'll bear you children (one or two),
   Order your meals and run your houses:
I'll love, I'll honour, I'll obey;
I'll ask your business friends to stay;
But this I swear–and that is flat–
I will not wear a Matron's Hat.


WHEN you feel that things are slow,
When your stock of news runs low,
When the murder-market's slack,
When there seems a woeful lack
Of your usual resources,
Of the earthquakes and divorces,
City frauds, fiasco fights,
Channel swims, Atlantic flights,
Storms, catastrophes and crimes
Which, in ordinary times,
Eagerly the great B.P.
Swallows with its breakfast tea–
When, I say, you're short of copy
Don't grow lachrymose and sloppy.
Quell those sighs and stem those tears:
Emulate the Fleet Street Peers.

When news is scarce and hard to get,
   Don't grumble, I implore you.
The paper need not suffer: let
   Your readers write it for you.

Take a leaf, Sir, from the book
Of the great Lord Botherbrook;
Take another–never fear–
From the wise Lord Rievermere:
When you're running short of news
Give more space to "Readers' Views."
Ask them daily to express
What they think of modern dress,
Shoes and ships and sealing-wax,
Sex-appeal and income-tax.

For the Women's Page, invite
Hints on keeping doorsteps white,
How to treat the common cold,
Moths and mice and iron-mould;
Raid each housewife's little store
Of pathetic, hard-won lore.
(Pay? Perhaps: but take this hint–
People love their names in print.)

When news is scarce and hard to get,
   Don't grumble, I implore you.
The paper need not suffer: let
   Your readers write it for you.

What? By some misfortune still
All your space you fail to fill?
Come, a fresh campaign begin–
Rope your readers' children in.
Never mind their tender age:
Make them write the Children's Page.
Publish contributions by
Roy Smith (12), of Ross-on-Wye;
Stories from the fertile pen
Of Priscilla Perkins (10);
Thoughts on current politics
From Jemima Jackson (6);
Lastly (sound of toddlers' feet
Being proverbially sweet)
Let your major poet be
Kenneth Higginbotham (3).

When news is scarce and hard to get,
   Don't grumble, I implore you.
The paper need not suffer: let
   The Kiddies write it for you.


[In a paper recently read before the Institute of British Architects it was stated that, owing to the immense carrying power demanded by modern transport, steel has almost completely ousted stone as a material for bridge-building.]

      WHEN ingenious Man
      First thought of the plan
Of fashioning bridges the rivers to span,
      He did what he could,
      Though they weren't very good–
He felled and he hewed and he built 'em of wood:
            Springy new,
            Swingy new
         Bridges of wood.

And village lovers often came
   With clumsy knife and simple art
Engraving each the other's name
   Within an arrow-piercèd heart
(Lest any should their love forget)
Upon the oaken parapet.

      Then up sprang a guild
      Of stone-masons skilled,
Who said, "Let us teach you to quarry and build;
      For demolish you should
      (Too long have they stood)
            Your creaky old,
            Leaky old
         Bridges of wood;
      Storm-battered and blown,
      They'll be soon overthrown;
If you want to be safe you must build 'em of stone:
            Solid new,
            Stolid new
         Bridges of stone.

And old men came to rest their bones
   At evening when their work was done,
And lean upon the kindly stones
   That all day long had drunk the sun,
And smoke their pipes and talk and sigh
And hear the news from passers-by.

      But now in our ears
      Sound the architects' jeers
And the cynical warnings of wise engineers:–
      "Statistics have shown
      That the traffic's outgrown
            Your bumpy old,
            Humpy old
         Bridges of stone;
      It's the Age of the Wheel,
      And we earnestly feel
If you want to be safe you must build 'em of steel:
            Dashing new,
            Flashing new
         Bridges of steel.

But who will lean, I wonder, now
   Upon these rigid, frigid frames?
On this unyielding metal how
   Can rustic lovers carve their names?
Enough ! A truce to vain reproaches:
The world's made safe for motor-coaches.


[The 1931 Census took place in late April, just before the birth of Jan Struther's youngest child, Robert Maxtone Graham–R.M.G.]

THERE! I've dealt with all the rest
In the neatest, roundest, best,
Firmest, fairest, clearest hand
I could find at my command.
Head (that's Tom) and Wife (that's me)
Benjie (six), Betsinda (three),
Nannie, Mary, Mrs. Hall–
Faithfully I've set them all
(Name and birthplace, work and age)
Down upon this ample page:
But I don't know what to do,
Robert-Caroline, with you.

Will you by to-morrow night
In the Law's fastidious sight
Be, I wonder, Robert dear,
"Legally residing here"?
Caroline, until this hour
Secret as an unborn flower,
Will you by to-morrow be
"Member of the family"?
Must I write–one problem more–
"M" or "F" in column four?
Will you, baffling child of mine,
"Robert" be, or "Caroline"?

Never mind–for what's the odds?
In that nursery of the gods
Where you all-unheeding play,
Robert-Caroline, to-day,
Let no thought of solemn census
Or the myriad laws that fence us
Round on this prosaic earth
Reach you ere you come to birth;
Lest, unwilling to be hurled
Into such a humdrum world,
As your parents you decline
To have us, Robert-Caroline!

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom