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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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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