In the autumn of 2008, in issue no. 19, Slightly Foxed published an essay by Richard Ingrams. He had chosen John Stewart Collis’s book called The Worm Forgives the Plough – a title taken from William Blake’s ‘Proverbs of Hell’. The book had been written (originally in two volumes with different titles) during the Second World War when Collis, then in his forties, had become one of the agricultural labourers who took the place of farmworkers conscripted by the army. This was an inspiring period of his career during which he produced his literary classic – a judgement that was endorsed when in 2009 Vintage added the book to its list of classics with a compelling introduction by Robert Macfarlane.
‘To work as a labourer on the land had been a great desire of mine,’ Collis wrote. This was his adult education. He learnt harrowing and ditching, ploughing and haymaking and harvesting – and finally he cleared the wild entanglement of an ash wood later to be named ‘Collis Piece’. Occasionally he would revisit this wood. ‘Nobody is ever likely to confer upon me Honours or Titles or city freedoms, nor will any Monument be raised to perpetuate and repeat my name,’ he wrote. ‘But this plot of earth will do it, these trees will do it: in the summer they will glitter and shine for me, and in the winter, mourn.’
The danger of being known as the author of a single masterpiece is that your other books may unjustly be neglected. Certainly Collis’s biographies and autobiographies, his ecology and fiction are too original to be forgotten.
He was born in Killiney to the south of Dublin where his father worked as a solicitor. He was a younger twin, their mother giving all her love to the elder one. ‘From the hour of my birth she hated me,’ he wrote. ‘Ours was not a united family.’ To escape from such unhappiness his father sent him to England for his education: to Rugby, then to Balliol College, Oxford, to which he
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