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Marie Hartley wood engraving - Richard Ingrams on John Stewart Collis

A Lonely Furrow

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John Stewart Collis hated to be referred to as ‘a neglected writer’. He said that if people read that a writer is neglected their natural response is to say, ‘Well, let’s neglect him some more.’

All the same it is hard to avoid saying that Collis was, and is now, a neglected writer, this despite his having written at least one book, While Following the Plough, which deserves to be treated as one of the classic books about farming, nature and country life, on a level with those of Richard Jefferies or W. H. Hudson.

I wrote a short memoir of him not just because I greatly admired his writing but because the story of his life was so unusual. He was born in 1900 in the seaside town of Killiney near Dublin, the son of a successful Irish solicitor, but was educated in England at Rugby and Oxford. A twin, his troubles began early in life when his mother gave all her love to his brother and ignored him almost totally. ‘I was never taken in her arms and kissed,’ he wrote. Partly because of his upbringing Collis developed an independent, self-sufficient spirit that enabled him to cope with long years of poverty and neglect.

As a young man he spent much of his time in the British Museum Reading Room, encouraged to study by his then mentor – and another neglected writer – G. B. Edwards, author of The Book of Ebenezer Le Page (see Slightly Foxed No.15). Collis was a would-be intellectual, a role for which he was not suited. His life changed forever at the outbreak of the war in 1939. Too old for active service and dreading the thought of a desk job, he was seized by an overpowering urge to work on the land. Despite being told that he was not wanted he presented himself at a farm in Sussex and was reluctantly taken on, eventually moving in the spring of 1941 to a farm at Tarrant Gunville in Dorset where he spent the rest of the war. He later wrote two books about that experience, While Following the Plough and

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John Stewart Collis hated to be referred to as ‘a neglected writer’. He said that if people read that a writer is neglected their natural response is to say, ‘Well, let’s neglect him some more.’

All the same it is hard to avoid saying that Collis was, and is now, a neglected writer, this despite his having written at least one book, While Following the Plough, which deserves to be treated as one of the classic books about farming, nature and country life, on a level with those of Richard Jefferies or W. H. Hudson. I wrote a short memoir of him not just because I greatly admired his writing but because the story of his life was so unusual. He was born in 1900 in the seaside town of Killiney near Dublin, the son of a successful Irish solicitor, but was educated in England at Rugby and Oxford. A twin, his troubles began early in life when his mother gave all her love to his brother and ignored him almost totally. ‘I was never taken in her arms and kissed,’ he wrote. Partly because of his upbringing Collis developed an independent, self-sufficient spirit that enabled him to cope with long years of poverty and neglect. As a young man he spent much of his time in the British Museum Reading Room, encouraged to study by his then mentor – and another neglected writer – G. B. Edwards, author of The Book of Ebenezer Le Page (see Slightly Foxed No.15). Collis was a would-be intellectual, a role for which he was not suited. His life changed forever at the outbreak of the war in 1939. Too old for active service and dreading the thought of a desk job, he was seized by an overpowering urge to work on the land. Despite being told that he was not wanted he presented himself at a farm in Sussex and was reluctantly taken on, eventually moving in the spring of 1941 to a farm at Tarrant Gunville in Dorset where he spent the rest of the war. He later wrote two books about that experience, While Following the Plough and Down to Earth, much of the latter describing his work as a forester. Collis kept a diary throughout his years on the land so his picture is authentic and direct. It succeeds on two levels: first as a description of farm labour in the days before the combine harvester, and also as an account of one man’s discovery of nature and the beauty of the countryside:
Often, then, my day now started with getting a horse harnessed into a cart and then jogging across the farm to load up something. The morning young, the sun slanting, mist clinging to the ground, the bird in the tree, hope in the heart – the eternal, million-times repeated promise of the dawn . . . I was not making a living at all well by jogging along here, but I could not help feeling Alive, the freedom of the fields, the freedom of the sky, the freedom of movement gratuitously bestowed upon me – far more substantial than if I had been given the Freedom of the City of Birmingham or had had pressed into my hands huge Atlantic Charters and other paper monuments to the perfidy of Man.
Of course it was not always so romantic. Collis is very good at describing his own clumsiness when it came to farm work, the attitude of slight suspicion towards him, an educated outsider, on the part of his fellow workers, but also the lack of camaraderie amongst the men themselves. ‘Even when a man leaves he seldom bothers to say goodbye to his mates – he just packs up and disappears.’ They united only in scheming to outwit their farmer boss:
You could recognize him a long way off by his walk. He took huge strides, head bent slightly down, like a man measuring a cricket pitch . . . There was no dawdling nor diddling about with him . . . He neither would nor could slow down a bit. ‘’E’ll break up one of these days’ they would say at intervals.
This was the happiest period of Collis’s life, without money or family worries. He had never got on with his wife Eirene, whom he had married after knowing her only for a week. But at the end of the war when she and their two daughters returned from America he decided, reluctantly, to be reunited with them. Whilst in the US Eirene had found her vocation as the pioneer of the treatment of children with cerebral palsy, and now, working from Queen Mary’s Hospital, Carshalton, she acquired a worldwide reputation in this field. Collis, who had always thought of himself as the genius of the family, found it hard to adjust to the change in their relationship. Setting himself up in a garden shed at their house in Ewell he continued to write – books examining scientific phenomena from a layman’s angle and biographies of famous writers who, like himself, struggled within an unhappy marriage. But the books had little success. Just when he and Eirene decided to separate, she suffered a stroke. For the next twelve years Collis looked after her as best he could. When she died in 1970 his situation was desperate. None of his books had sold well and he was reduced to working part-time in the local post office. Many years previously, in 1931, he had written in a notebook, ‘At the age of 30 and 31 I constantly think how delightful it will be to be a vigorous old man. How marvellous it will be to walk down the street unburdened by the problem of money, the problem of sex, the problem of housing, the problem of the literary battle: all these, including the problem of marriage, will have worked themselves into solutions.’ It was a strange way for a young man to speculate but even stranger was the fact that as a prophecy of what happened to him it was extraordinarily accurate. In 1971 thanks, in part, to the help and support given him by Michael Holroyd, he published a memoir, Bound upon a Course, which was enthusiastically reviewed. His farming books were republished and remained in print until his death in 1984. Best of all he married again. His wife was the widow of a rich banker, also called Eirene – he tried unsuccessfully to change her name to Marina – a musician who had translated the novels of Françoise Sagan into English. In her luxurious home at Abinger Common in Surrey, he experienced affection and domestic comfort after long years of adversity and struggle. It was here at Abinger that I first met Collis in 1978. I was rather nervous about it, as the carefully constructed image that he presented to the public was serious and a little forbidding. But he could not have been more different – humorous, very Irish still in his way of speaking and above all delighted to meet someone like me who was an admirer. I was later able to help him in a small way by introducing him to the Spectator. He became a regular contributor and a great friend of the books editor A. N. Wilson, the one person who didn’t mind at all taking his phone calls. (He once rang up to get them to change a comma in one of his book reviews.) Later I interviewed him for Radio 4, but by the time the programme was broadcast he had died of cancer aged 84. By chance the publisher Carmen Callil, then in charge at Chatto, heard the interview on her car radio and was so interested that she commissioned my memoir, which came out in 1986. Although it had only a limited sale, I am prouder of it than any of the other books I have written.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 19 © Richard Ingram 2008


About the contributor

Richard Ingrams was born in 1937 and has spent most of his life with magazines, notably Private Eye and The Oldie (founded in 1992). He has written biographies of Malcolm Muggeridge and William Cobbett. He is hoping to write a book about G. K. Chesterton but hasn’t got very far to date.

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