‘I have written a book which gives me much pleasure. It is a kind of full-length portrait of a small country town – this small town – between the wars. The sort of life that will never come back,’ John Moore told T. H. White in the summer of 1945. Already a well-established and prolific professional writer, Moore had written Portrait of Elmbury in six weeks after leaving the Admiralty Press Division in London to return to his home town of Tewkesbury, and it was to form the first part of a trilogy based on Tewkesbury and its surrounding villages. Portrait of Elmbury and Brensham Village were both published by Collins in 1946, and The Blue Field followed two years later: the names of places and people had been changed, but the disguise was lightly worn.
Portrait of Elmbury got the trilogy off to a flying start: I read it in hospital, waiting to be operated on, and it did me no end of good; so much so that I persuaded my wife to get hold of its successors so I could remain in this magical, vanished world. It’s a book of Dickensian energy and flamboyance, sturdy in its defence of small-town life against metropolitan condescension, and peopled by vibrant eccentrics, including a water-logged, heavy-drinking Colonel who spends his days shooting ducks while semi-submerged in reed beds before propping up the bar at the Shakespeare, one of the twenty-eight pubs serving a population of 5,000; Pistol, Bardolph and Nym, the town’s drunken reprobates, tottering along at the back of any procession and lowering the tone as they go; and their improbable friend the Town Crier, ‘a very frail-looking old man with a white beard and a thin quavery voice’.
Born in 1907, John Moore grew up in Tewkesbury, and was to spend most of his life in and around the little market town on the Severn, best known for what Pevsner described as ‘probably the largest and finest Romanesque tower in England’. Moore’s family was ‘bourgeois and ordinary’, doctors, lawyers and auctioneers who ‘had lived in and about Elmbury for so long that they seemed to have proprietary rights in the place’, and he himself ‘belonged to the place as a limb belongs to the body’. As a child, Moore lived in Tudor House, ‘the loveliest house in Elmbury’, which ‘looked across a wide main street upon the filthiest slum I have ever set eyes on in England’, consisting of a series of ‘tottering hunchback cottages’, each more squalid than the last. ‘The ragged women, the drunken men, the screaming wanton wretches, the rickety children, were more real to us than many of our relations,’ Moore tells us, and the drunken Black Sal and her fellow slum-dwellers were to loom large in his pages.
Elmbury was never a beauty spot, Moore insists, and he came to resent the fact that, in the late Thirties, it became a magnet for charabancs from the Midlands, and the Hogarthian Double Alley was tidied up to keep the tourists happy: ‘beauty and ugliness grew up side by side and merged into a single entity, indivisible and unique, in which you could no more easily separate and distinguish those two qualities than you could winnow out the good and evil in the heart of man’. He relished its
extraordinary higgledy-pigglediness, the rich seething hotchpotch of a thousand ingredients . . . Elmbury was a small town, and such are generally supposed to be dull, and to be associated with aspidistras, and to infect the souls of their inhabitants with something mean and crabbed and petty, with ignorant ‘provincialism’ and with something specially reprehensible and circumscribed called a ‘small-town mentality’. But Elmbury wasn’t like that at all. It had infinite variety. It was splendid and it was sordid; but it certainly wasn’t dull.
Moore was sent to a nearby prep school, where he fell under the benign influence of Mr Chorlton, a bachelor schoolmaster of the best kind, an expert on Greek verse and Lepidoptera who had played cricket for Oxford and Somerset, and who resurfaces in the later volumes. From there he went on to Malvern: like C. S. Lewis and Raymond Mortimer, he claimed to have loathed his time at this ‘hateful’ institution, but it seems that the then headmaster encouraged him to write, while a colleague spotted his burgeoning interest in natural history. (I remember him coming to talk to the school in the late Fifties, so he can’t have disliked it that much.)
He left school at 17, and went to work for his uncle as an auctioneer in Tewkesbury. As his friend Eric Linklater later wrote – and as Portrait of Elmbury makes plain – ‘from the clients of a country auctioneer he received an education more liberal than that offered by most universities’. Nor did he neglect his own education: Mr Chorlton had imbued him with a love of Greek literature; he read poetry by the yard; he knew about butterflies and wild flowers, and he could shoot, ride and sail; he even learned to fly, which enabled him to join the Fleet Air Arm at the outbreak of war. Good-looking and convivial, ‘I was a tough young rascal with my head full of poetry and the rest of my interest divided pretty equally between horses, fishes, motor-bikes and girls.’
But he wanted, above all, to be a writer. He made his way into print at the age of 16 and wrote whenever he could, in between flogging off the chattels of bankrupt farmers or estimating the value of a herd of cattle or a warehouse full of old furniture, perched in one corner of his uncle’s dusty old office, surrounded by the leather-bound records of sales going back to the eighteenth century. He amassed his fair share of rejection letters, but his second novel found a publisher. ‘Write! That’s a hobby, my boy, not a profession!’ his auctioneer uncle remonstrated when he handed in his notice to embark on the life of a freelance writer.
He went to Spain during the Civil War, working as a journalist; he spent some time in London, but found both the city and its literary circles uncongenial. London literary folk were amazed that he preferred to ‘bury’ himself in ‘a dead-alive country town’; Moore, for his part, thought the inhabitants of Bloomsbury ‘as conventional as the heroes and heroines of their novels’, wraith-like figures compared with ‘the full-blooded exuberant company at the Shakespeare or the Swan’. On his return to Tewkesbury after some years away, he wrote:
Emotion seemed larger here, pleasures were keener, sorrows sharper, men’s laughter was more boisterous, jokes were funnier, the tragedy was more profound and the comedy more riotous, the huge fantasy of life was altogether more fantastic. London, for all its street lights, was a twilit world; Elmbury, on a murky February evening, seemed as bright as a stage.
Moore kept writing through it all, turning his hand to fiction, poetry, scripts and – during his time with the Admiralty Press Division – wartime propaganda (his colleagues included Ludovic Kennedy and Nicholas Monsarrat). John Buchan was an early and faithful admirer, as was Compton Mackenzie, later to become a close friend; he made a good living, but, in Eric Linklater’s temperate words, ‘Moore was never a fashionable writer, nor made any attempt to catch those errant breezes which may carry cleverer men into a climate warmed by intellectual approval and popular applause. On his own themes, however, and within his own territory, he was a very good writer, and his territory was England – an England which has vanished, or is vanishing, but deserves a loving remembrance . . .’
Richard Church – another neglected writer, and for a time Moore’s editor at J. M. Dent – once wrote of his friend that ‘not since Richard Jefferies died have we had a spokesman of the English country life, the very spirit of place, who can conjure the smells, sights and sounds as well as the mysteries, silences and portents of night and day down on the farm, along the winding lanes, and through the lush woodland as John Moore does’, while Harold Nicolson acclaimed him as ‘one of our best writers on the English countryside’.
All this is true enough, but what one treasures most in Portrait of Elmbury are its inhabitants: the duck-shooting, whisky-toting Colonel, with his pulsating red nose, his ‘badger-grizzled walrus moustache and little twinkling blue eyes’; Miss Benedict, the censorious barmaid of the Shakespeare, who disapproved of her customers’ drunken ways and knew all the secrets of the town, and without whom the pub would never be the same again; Mr Rendcome, the implacable and incorruptible editor of the Elmbury Intelligencer, tireless in his exposure of municipal misdeeds, and forever harking back to a vanished golden age; the dashing young farmers, riding helter-skelter across country in pursuit of a bet or a girl; the town’s small army of odd-job men, who could turn their hand to whatever needed to be done, from plum-picking and cutting osiers to salmon-netting and rick-cutting, and who ‘acted as a leaven on the whole community’; the young men of Elmbury marching off to war in 1914, many of them never to return.
John Moore died in July 1967, leaving his widow, Lucile, to sort out his debts and liabilities. As well as being a popular and successful writer, he had been one of the founders of the Cheltenham Literary Festival, an effective Chairman of the Society of Authors, and a determined defender of old Tewkesbury, but he has yet to make it into the Dictionary of National Biography. He deserves to be far better remembered: a lyrical yet level-headed combination of autobiography and topography, Portrait of Elmbury is his finest achievement, and the book with which to revive his reputation.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 42 © Jeremy Lewis 2014
This article also appeared as a preface to Slightly Foxed Edition No. 26: John Moore, Portrait of Elmbury
About the contributor
Jeremy Lewis, a well-loved figure of the literary world and a friend of Slightly Foxed, died in April 2017 aged 75. He was a man of letters through and through, and his long career included early bouts of publishing, writing biography, autobiography and journalism, and reviewing and editing.