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Well Earthed

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I rediscovered an old favourite the other day. Peering up at the dusty gloom of my highest bookshelves, I caught sight of a name that first captivated me more than twenty years ago. S. L. Bensusan was an accomplished journalist and writer who enjoyed enormous popularity in the early to mid-twentieth century, but while so much of that period is now very much in vogue, he is little read today. This, I think, is a real pity, since his characters are so vividly drawn, his stories so beguiling.

Bensusan puts us right in among the insular inhabitants of rural Essex, where we meet a cast of unforgettable characters, among them the voluble ‘wise woman’ Mrs Wospottle; James Blight, the cunning poacher with an eye always to the main chance; and Solomon Woodpecker, labourer and rural sage, often to be found sampling the delights of the Wheatsheaf.

Samuel Levy Bensusan was born in 1872 to Orthodox Sephardi Jewish parents in Dulwich. The Bensusans were proud of their forebears, whom they believed had held high office in the imperial Spanish court; one of them, Samuel Halevi, had been a prominent poet.

Though Samuel was articled to a firm of London solicitors, it soon became clear that he was not cut out for the law. He found the severity of sentences passed on the company’s clients deeply distressing and craved an escape. His love of music enabled him to write with flair and authority, and he landed the job of music and drama critic on the Gentlemen’s Journal and the Illustrated London News. This quickly led to some serious journalism.

The sensitive temperament that had driven him from the law found expression again in 1896, when he wrote an indictment of the treatment of performing animals for the English Illustrated Magazine. Such was the force of his journalism that it led to an Act of Parliament protecting circus and other performing animals.

Bensusan travelled widely and his appetite for knowledge, especially the exot

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I rediscovered an old favourite the other day. Peering up at the dusty gloom of my highest bookshelves, I caught sight of a name that first captivated me more than twenty years ago. S. L. Bensusan was an accomplished journalist and writer who enjoyed enormous popularity in the early to mid-twentieth century, but while so much of that period is now very much in vogue, he is little read today. This, I think, is a real pity, since his characters are so vividly drawn, his stories so beguiling.

Bensusan puts us right in among the insular inhabitants of rural Essex, where we meet a cast of unforgettable characters, among them the voluble ‘wise woman’ Mrs Wospottle; James Blight, the cunning poacher with an eye always to the main chance; and Solomon Woodpecker, labourer and rural sage, often to be found sampling the delights of the Wheatsheaf. Samuel Levy Bensusan was born in 1872 to Orthodox Sephardi Jewish parents in Dulwich. The Bensusans were proud of their forebears, whom they believed had held high office in the imperial Spanish court; one of them, Samuel Halevi, had been a prominent poet. Though Samuel was articled to a firm of London solicitors, it soon became clear that he was not cut out for the law. He found the severity of sentences passed on the company’s clients deeply distressing and craved an escape. His love of music enabled him to write with flair and authority, and he landed the job of music and drama critic on the Gentlemen’s Journal and the Illustrated London News. This quickly led to some serious journalism. The sensitive temperament that had driven him from the law found expression again in 1896, when he wrote an indictment of the treatment of performing animals for the English Illustrated Magazine. Such was the force of his journalism that it led to an Act of Parliament protecting circus and other performing animals. Bensusan travelled widely and his appetite for knowledge, especially the exotic, was voracious. His travels informed much of his early factual writing, but it was a visit to the rural uplands of Essex in the early years of the twentieth century that changed his writing and his life. He fell in love with the landscape and its people, and in 1906 he bought a 50-acre farm near the village of Great Easton. The journalism continued, with his new passion informing agricultural articles for the New Statesman, but the seed of something far bigger had already been sown. He began to write short stories and plays inspired by the country people among whom he had chosen to live. Even in this backwater, he sensed that many of the old ways were dying out and knew he must capture the special atmosphere and idiom of a fragile place crumbling under the influences of the modern world. Stories poured from him. He produced twenty-four collections between 1912 and 1955, and they were so popular they appeared in many follow-up anthologies. A good starting place is A Marshland Omnibus (1954), which is still easy to find in second-hand bookshops. This was put together at the end of a long career and a long life, and it may be that Bensusan was having intimations of mortality. It contains some of his best work, spanning the period 1907–49. But the Omnibus is not merely a retrospective: still clearly brimming with ideas, he treats his readers to eighteen new stories too. When I started reading Bensusan, I was confused: was it fact or fiction? I attribute this delicious ambiguity to Bensusan the journalist. He can never quite switch off from the day job, and there is no doubt that the people of whom he writes were firmly based on truth. He would often stand a round of drinks for various gnarled old regulars of the pub taproom, drinking in their exchanges and banking their memories. Actually, the identities of his ‘fictitious’ characters were an open secret, but such was his popularity in his adopted community that no one much minded. If he poked fun at his neighbours, he always did so gently. In the introduction to A Marshland Omnibus Bensusan admits as much: ‘Nearly all the stories set out here have at least a background of fact, for as the years passed I found myself entering more and more into the lives of the farmers, farm workers, shop-keepers and odd-job men, and seeing life from the inside.’ Furtive scribbling was occasionally spotted:
When I found myself settled in marshland, the tendency to make notes proved irresistible. If I heard a rare phrase, I would make a note on my cuff with the pencil that never left me; in those days shirts were white and carried ample cuffs. All went well until a shrewd old lady demanded to know ‘whatever you makin’ all them squiggles fower, on y’r shut?’ ‘Writing history,’ I told her. ‘You don’t wanter do that,’ she replied sharply, even scornfully, ‘you ain’t at school no more, your time o’ life, t’ain’t likely.’
New volumes of marshland stories were always eagerly awaited, and the characters became so popular that later books carried an index so that readers could immediately turn to tales featuring their favourites. The titles were printed and reprinted in vast quantities over the years. Like Hardy (who spoke highly of his prose, as did Kipling and H. G. Wells), Bensusan took the liberty of changing the names of places in his literary landscape. He writes of Maychester, Market Waldron, Chenchester and a cluster of villages known as the Mudfords. These are respectively Bradwell-on-Sea, Maldon, Chelmsford and the villages of Tillingham, Asheldham and Southminster. All the stories are short, which makes these books such a delight to dip into even when time is at a premium. In Village Idylls (1926), with its beautiful wood engravings by H. Geo. Webb, you may learn of the arrival of a ‘furriner’ who has bought a house in Maychester: ‘He is a young fellow with the highly appropriate name of Newman. He has a young wife and an energetic manner; and Maychester, very properly, disliked him at first sight, because his pace is obviously in excess of that pursued by the village.’ Or you can eavesdrop on a hilarious conversation between the Oldest Inhabitant and the Tempor’y Man. The latter is trying to tell the former what a truss is.
‘That’s like a sarpent’, explained the Tempor’y Man. ‘You fare wind it round y’r stummick, an’ that howd ye together like.’ ‘I don’t say ye don’t,’ said the Oldest Inhabitant. ‘But I ain’t never heerd tell o’ sech things meself. That seem agin natur f ’r to wear a sarpent round y’r stummick. Are you sure that stay there quiet?’ he inquired suspiciously, edging a little away. ‘That ain’t same as a real sarpent,’ explained the Tempor’y Man hurriedly. ‘They make ’em in shops.’ ‘That’s all right then,’ said the Oldest Inhabitant, greatly relieved. ‘I don’t wanter be stung be no sarpent, my time o’ life.’

In all his writing, Bensusan moves seamlessly between comic interludes and poignant tales grounded in the very depths of rural poverty; laughter and tears, life and death, pathos and bathos, it’s all there. A charming example is ‘The Fall of the Elm’, which first appeared in Annals of Maychester (1936) and is reproduced in A Marshland Omnibus. It opens with Saul Dynes, an elderly woodman,admiring the ancient elm he has just felled, and which he has known all his life. Then he spots a figure in the distance.

The late afternoon was casting long shadows, the sun had flooded a westering ride, it shone on the figure of a man who came at slow paces over the grass, a harvester clearly, carrying his scythe over his shoulder. Saul Dynes knew him by sight, he had walked through the wood towards Maychester from time to time, but he would be puzzled to call him by name; old age has its limitations and a confused memory was one.

The man lays down his scythe, sits on a log, and chats amicably with Saul. They talk about the elm and all the other trees Saul has felled over his long life, but the old man is still struggling to put a name to the face. ‘Ha’ ye bin in these parts long?’ he asks. ‘“We have met, Saul Dynes, and under your own roof,” the stranger answered quietly, “but I am not often here.”’

He then reminds Saul he has been blessed with health, a good wife, honest children and work that he loves. ‘You’ve forgotten how I came to the cottage, but we were very near to meeting somewhere else, years ago, where you were helping to thatch the hayrick at High Elms.’ Saul had fallen from the roof. ‘I was very near you then,’ the man tells him. ‘Nearer than I have been at any time, until this afternoon . . .’

Saul realizes his time has come. ‘I’m ready, Master,’ he says, rising to his feet. ‘I oughter know’d ye soon as ever you set down. Now I remember I see ye time my Bessie died an’ yet I couldn’t rightly place ye. Do you show me the way, an’ I’ll come along.’

As they move off the stranger seems to change in stature, to assume an awesome majesty. For a moment Saul hesitates. ‘There is nothing to fear,’ says the man with the scythe. ‘I am your best friend.’

Bensusan himself died in 1958 at the age of 86. He left behind an enormous body of work, all of it – journalism, fiction, essays, biography, plays, travel writing, broadcasting – beautifully crafted and immensely readable.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 41 © Anthony Longden 2014


About the contributor

Formerly a newspaper editor, Anthony Longden is still a journalist and media consultant. He has been to Essex, and rather likes it.

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