The whole vale was carpeted with bloom under a dappled sky. It was a late season; the trees had all come out together, ten million, twenty million boughs had burgeoned on the same blue-and-white April morning. The flowery tide ran up the slope of the hill for a little way and then broke, where the orchards thinned to a mere sprinkling, a spatter of silver-white spray. In the midst of all this loveliness, half-submerged by it, were the thatched roofs of Brensham; the airy spire of the church and the three tall poplar-trees rose as if out of a flood.
A year after the success of Portrait of Elmbury (1945) John Moore’s Brensham Village was published. In it he turned from a country town of ‘incomparable beauty and incomparable squalor’ dominated by the Abbey’s Norman tower, to an outlying village a few miles away, a place of thatched cottages, orchards and market gardens, complete with cricket on the village green (complete with cuckoo), darts in the pubs and dances in the village hall. Elmbury is based on Tewkesbury, where Moore grew up. Brensham is, he freely tells us, a synthesis of several villages whose fields he roamed as a boy and whose pubs he drank in as a young man. But though he has played fast and loose with chronology and topography, and now and then has not hesitated ‘to make what Byron would have called a short armistice with truth’ in order to spare the sensitivities of living people, he draws on a deep knowledge and love of a way of life in rural 1930s England which made for perfect nostalgic reading just after the Second World War and is still enchanting now.
At its best, Brensham Village offers some of the finest nature writing of its time, calling to mind Richard Jefferies and Edward Thomas, although the tone is more buoyant than plangent or elegiac. Sensibilities in the first half of the twentieth century were rather different from our own: as the author and his young friends explore field and woodland, a ferret in one pocket, a snake in another – shades of Just William, here – they combine a reverent fascination with a cheerful slaughtering of the natural world. Now, in what we might consider a new golden age of nature writing, we watch and with enormous respect try to understand and enter the world of the wild creature. Then, they had fabulous knowledge but hunted to death anything that moved. This was still a time of bird’s-nesting, of capturing butterfly and moth: there’s a marvellous scene in which Mr Chorlton, the bachelor prep-school classics teacher who first appeared in Elmbury, lures moths to his collection by sugaring the bark of trees at dusk, watched by three thrilled small boys. And the whisky-sodden Colonel – another reappearance – roars about on a motorbike hung with ‘guns, fishing baskets, salmon-rods, otter-poles, cartridge-bags, even rat traps!’ On at least one occasion he takes a bat to bed. As for the amiable bee-keeping Rector, a new character, he might make honey and put up nesting boxes in the church porch, but he is also known to store live bait in the font between christenings.
As much as living creatures might have cause to tremble at the appearance of anything on two legs, Brensham is a village whose main source of prosperity is the produce of orchard and garden, and it is mercilessly ruled by the seasons. Moore writes rhapsodically about spring and summer days, as here on a cricket match.
I remember it better than all the other matches . . . perhaps because it happened on the loveliest June day you could possibly imagine, a day of blue and green and gold, and of light breezes, gillyflower scented, and lullaby sounds of bees, wood-pigeons and far-away cuckoos. The sky was immaculate, hedge-sparrow egg blue; the mowing grass rippled in all the water meadows along the river and like green foam were the leafy orchards on the lower slopes of the hill. Buttercups along the unmown edges of our ground were a frieze of gold which gilded white cricket boots and the turn-ups of flannel trousers.
But he is also clear-sighted about the cruelties of winter, and in particular the dreaded frost, whose ruining of entire crops of apple, pear and plum occupies a whole chapter. Blackened fruit is now worthless, stocks and tulips are felled ‘as if [a] scimitar had passed with deadly precision along the unwavering line’. And if we have in recent times grown used to photographs in the newspapers of Tewkesbury Abbey marooned in a glassy sea of floodwater, so Brensham in the Thirties was no less liable to ruin as the river rose. ‘The river, every month or so, crept out over the water-meadows, licked the bottom slopes of the hill, lapped the doorsteps of a few low-lying cottages, and then sullenly went back, leaving a brown scum on the fields. The people . . . paddled about in gumboots and cursed their rich dark soil which made such sticky mud.’
When river and rain combine to cause a real flood, Moore offers a tremendous set-piece, in which a great band of drinkers – including that Shakespearean trio of rogues from Elmbury, Pistol, Bardolph and Nym – turn out from the pub to rescue by moonlight the Colonel’s stranded sheep and cattle. In the ensuing drama, with an Ayrshire bull ‘swimming like a hippo towards the river’, the Colonel himself almost drowns and is hauled out of a submerged gateway sodden and spluttering. Drinks by a great log fire restore him, and it is only later that they all discover that the trio have made off with three useful mackintoshes hung in the hall. Amid the sweep of local people Moore so lovingly describes ‒ gardeners, farmers, publicans, the darts and cricket teams – a few are particularly memorable. Gentle Lord Orris, watching cricket on horseback and surely descended from the Knight in Alice, is generous to a fault: so generous, indeed, that his neglected manor, mortgaged to the hilt, is falling into ruin. Growing up here is his motherless daughter Jane, who as a girl shows the young Moore and his companions the remains of a Crusader ancestor kept in an urn, and as a young woman returns from Oxford a Communist.
There’s another of these on the cricket team: Briggs the blacksmith, whose smithy is next door to the Adam and Eve pub. There is no spreading chestnut tree, only a heap of old iron in the yard, cast-offs from the great slow farm horses whose enormous hairy hoofs he shoes. Briggs and Jane – who reminds Mr Chorlton of the young Shelley – make an unlikely pair, but Jane is one of those young women who mesmerize everyone they meet and politically this is a meeting of minds.
However, it is capitalism which Jane hopes will restore the family fortunes. Beyond the brimming orchards waits the shadowy ‘Syndicate’ of businessmen, the embodiment of grasping modernity, who see the village as – dread phrase – ‘Ripe for Development’. When their long-nosed lawyer threatens to foreclose the Orris mortgage, Jane drums up sponsorship from a national newspaper to finance her flight in a tiny new red and silver aeroplane – ‘like a toy’ – to Australia.
It’s a fabulous idea, but as modern times and war approach little can keep Brensham safe. We are, after all, in the Thirties, a time of agricultural unemployment and depression. Moore writes lyrically, and with much affection, of a world on the brink of vanishing, in which pubs finally begin to open their doors to women, villagers tiptoe into Hire Purchase, mannerless City people come down for illicit weekends and an ugly
petrol station is built in a quiet village street. And the cinema arrives!
I grew up in such a place in the Fifties, where enough remained of such a world to make me cherish it in memory for ever. As I write ‘quiet village street’ I can hear hens announcing the arrival of eggs not far away, and the train from a nearby market town come chuffing down the line, steam pluming into the air. But Moore is unsentimental about country life: as a young auctioneer in Elmbury he suffered to see small possessions sold to stave off the bailiffs; in Brensham he knows the hardships of the Good Old Days. ‘Maybe they were good for some, sir,’ says a worn old worker from the railway, whose trains take all that market-garden produce into the cities for sale. ‘I can tell ’ee they weren’t good for us.’
By the end of the book, lorries from an aircraft factory are rumbling past the cricket field on a new cinder road. Everything is about to change, and Moore himself goes off to fight. What happens to Brensham in wartime is told him in letters to the front: of his own war we know almost nothing. As narrator he is, as in Elmbury, self-effacing, but, in his observation and often pitch-perfect prose, utterly engaging.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 50 © Sue Gee 2016
This article also appears as a preface to Slightly Foxed Edition No. 34: John Moore, Brensham Village