Some writers have to go abroad to get their juices flowing. At home, surrounded by the quotidian, they find they have nothing to say. The shock of the new uncaps their pens and frees their typing fingers. That is why travel-writing has been so popular, and why so many lesser writers – as well as some greater ones – have been drawn to it.
Though the author of more than twenty books, Adrian Bell was not perhaps a ‘Great Writer’. He is probably better known for being the first regular compiler of The Times crossword puzzle or the father of Martin Bell, the former BBC television reporter. But he was one who found his tongue by going on a journey to a strange land – the English countryside. And Corduroy is (ignoring its ill-fitting title) a great book, as good as anything I have read by such pastoral panegyrists as Richard Jefferies, Ronald Blythe or Richard Mabey. At times, it rises to the descriptive heights of a Hardy or a Turgenev. Here, for instance, is the author feeling poetic about Christmas mornings:
I remember at such time approaching the village over untrodden whiteness (save for birds’ faint mazy patterns), and hearing the bells start suddenly to ring with chimes that seemed not to break, but only stir, the wintry spell (as the wind a dew-hung cobweb), the tranced cold echoing to them like a fine glass tapped with the fingernail.
Bell’s first book has the virtues which allow it to transcend its times: acute observation, sincerity and that simplicity of style which does not date. Published in 1930, it portrays a way of life which had been overturned by the First World War and was to go on changing rapidly through the century. It is more than a nostalgic lament for a vanishing world, however: it describes a way of living that is very much alive.
Today, city dwellers are migrating to the country in ever greater numbers. Most of them move to what one should call the rural suburbs, where they live out roles assigned to them, like characters in The Archers. The population of truly rural Britain has shrunk to probably half a million; and agriculture accounts for a mere 1 per cent of national output. Farming has been transformed by mechanization, and farmers are socially more mobile. Yet those who stay on the land continue to inhabit another realm. It really is like another country. And Bell’s mapping of that country, through the eyes of his youth, is what makes his book so satisfying.
The author was a 20-year-old ex-public schoolboy and aspirant poet when he set off on his voyage of discovery in 1920. His health was not good – he suffered from migraine – and he was under pressure from his father Robert, news editor of the Observer, to get a proper job. ‘I was flying from the threat of an office life,’ he writes on the first page of the book. His father declared that literary ambition was just a symptom of youthful lust but agreed to let his son learn agriculture. He sent him as a paying guest to a family called Savage in a Suffolk village. In the book they appear as the Colvillesof Farley Hall in Benfield St George; relatively prosperous on their 500 acres, with daughters who played Chopin, and employing twenty farmhands, including a yard man, a pig man, a horsekeeper and a maid of whirlwind efficiency called Millicent.
The transition from urban lounger to working farm boy is wittily described. The youth who arrived one autumn day on an old motorbike felt all wrong for the part. Pale and thin, he was taken for a convalescent by the women of the household. He was ashamed of the ‘weak shape’ of his hand which seemed designed to wield nothing more menacing than cigarette-holders and teacups. He couldn’t finish the pint of old and mild bought for him by the yard man Midden, who joked: ‘It ain’t too hot, sir, is it?’ His boots, advertised as suitable for mountaineering and hiking, were dismissed by the farm boy Jack as ‘gentleman’s boots’. The epithet of gentleman rankled.
Like all travellers, Bell had difficulty with the local language. The Suffolk dialect was baffling; and even when the words were clear, the sense often was not. Like townies down the centuries, the sophisticated young man had regarded yokels as dumb. Now it was his own ignorance that grated. A farmer, he discovered, stored away in his head thousands of facts about animals, crops and fodder, while his eye for a pig was ‘as subtle as an artist’s’. What pained the young explorer most of all was his physical incompetence. Like Levin in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina brought to his knees by a day’s scything with his serfs, Bell struggled to keep up. The harrow tangled behind the horse, the sliced mangold would not fly into the cart, the easy rhythm of the hoeing team moving in line across the corn left him sweating and grovelling in the earth. The cow would not give milk: ‘my futile meddling with its udder seemed almost indecent’.
After three months, the newness of this strange country wore off and enthusiasm waned. On weekend visits to London the farm apprentice had to face the mockery of his Chelsea friends, who called him ‘Giles’ or ‘Hodge’ and made jokes about mangel-wurzels. ‘I had grown rough-handed and round-faced, was in such robust health that I felt positively oafish in certain tense drawing-rooms of London friends.’ In town, he started to miss the country. In the country, he stopped missing the town.
After the harvest, the end of the agricultural year, his mentor pointed out to him a little 50-acre farm with an ivy-clad, thatched, three-bedroomed cottage, owned by Mr Pyke, an ironmonger in Stambury (Bury St Edmunds). The young man needed no prompting. He invited his parents to inspect the place. His mother came, and then talked to his father. Mr Pyke agreed to sell, and on 11 October, Michaelmas Day, the traditional day for such transactions, the transfer was completed. Farmer Colville accompanied Bell to the auction to buy a plough (£3 10s), a harrow, pig troughs and two horses, Darky (47 guineas) and Dewdrop (45 guineas). The auctioneer brought down the gavel and said: Mr Bell, isn’t it?’ And he was a farmer.
A farmer, certainly, but one who used his privileged education, literary skill and painterly eye (his mother had been an artist) to bring his adopted world to life. He saw his world as a series of paintings, as detailed as any Brueghel: the men dressing barley in the barn under gothic beams were actors in a medieval mystery play; the farmers conferring in Stambury market, each with a hand on a bullock’s back, seemed to be swearing on a sacred relic. He marked the way hens pause, questioningly, with a leg in the air and head on one side, and the perpetual expression of disgust on the face of a turkey; he saw the moorhen rising from the pond before dawn ‘scarring the calm surface with its trailing feet’.
Too long to quote are his magnificent descriptions of a day’s hunting, and of standing on the cornstack as the dawn came up, forking sheaves into the voracious threshing drum while the steam engine hauled at its belt. But here he is in the farmyard when the harvest has been brought in:
The last footfall dies into silence. The stillness tingles with the aftermath of noise. All around stand the new cornstacks, unfamiliar shadows, ramparts thrown up suddenly round the yard. An owl detaches itself from the darkness of a beam, swoops down into the moonlight and away, now white against a shadow, now black against the moon. A mouse scuttles somewhere in the straw. The gaunt shape of a binder stands in a corner, angular as a skeleton under its cloth. Its work is over until next year.
Bell wrote Corduroy in Sudbury, Suffolk, after selling his first farm in 1929. The next year he began setting The Times crossword. He continued farming for another twenty years, and writing and compiling crosswords until his death in 1980.
He was an author who plumbed the deep psychology of the farmer. Anyone who lives among farmers today will recognize how truthful his picture is. Why is it that their mentality seems unaffected by change and decline? The answer, I think, is the fundamental difference, which Bell brings out so well, between those who live from the land, and those who merely live on it. The focus of the latter is essentially aesthetic and sentimental; the former’s is economic, therefore pragmatic. These are competing visions which inevitably will clash. But however strenuously incomers try to impose their culture, they will not destroy the countryman’s – not until the last farmer is driven from the land.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 22 © Christian Tyler 2009
This article also appeared as a preface to Slightly Foxed Edition No. 6: Adrian Bell, Corduroy