The middle volume of Adrian Bell’s inter-war farming trilogy, Silver Ley (1931), is, in its quiet, unassuming way, the most poignant memoir I think I have ever read. Picking up where his first book Corduroy left off, it opens in 1921 as Bell wakes up for the very first time on his own Suffolk farm, full of hope, with two newly bought heavy horses, Darkie and Dewdrop, stamping in the yard. When it closes, something under a decade later, it’s with a clear sense of the irrevocable changes that have taken place both in the countryside and the wider economy – and a further, dizzying sense, unavailable then to Bell, of how much more would change in the years to come.
Although part of a trilogy, Silver Ley works perfectly well as a stand-alone book. London-born Bell (who began setting The Times crossword in 1930 and continued to do so for nearly fifty years) had spent the year described in Corduroy apprenticed to a Suffolk farmer and landowner he calls ‘Mr Colville’. Bell’s father, a newspaper editor, seems at first not to have thought a great deal of his son’s agricultural ambitions, but Bell would go on to farm successfully for sixty years, beginning with Silver Ley’s 50 acres. It was no passing fad.
All three books in the trilogy are parochial in the best sense, the sense Patrick Kavanagh had in mind when he called himself a ‘parochial poet’. Kavanagh believed that ‘To know fully even one field or one land is a lifetime’s experience . . . a gap in a hedge, a smooth rock surfacing a narrow lane, a view of a woody meadow, the stream at the junction of four small fields – these are as much as a man can fully experience’ – and Bell says something similar: ‘There are worlds within worlds, and to know thoroughly the whole of a single acre of my land would have taken several lifetimes.’
But if Corduroy is all about youthful enthusiasm and the thrill of new experiences, Silver Ley’s subject is the passage of time. Now settled on his own farm, Bell finds that his status as a relative outsider to the rural community he joins gives him a sense of perspective unavailable to those rooted within it; although one of his most appealing characteristics is his deep respect for farmers and willingness to throw himself into all aspects of the new life he’s chosen, he nevertheless can’t help but have one foot in a different world. So he can compare the modernity of 1920s Chelsea to rural life in East Anglia, where motor-cars, running water, modern fashions and electric lamps have yet to penetrate fully (but where, both writer and reader know, they will); he can also describe the hopeful and relatively prosperous post-war years from the perspective of a decade later – a decade in which agriculture would suffer a slump from which it would not recover until the Second World War brought a brief, bittersweet profitability to farming again. And to us now, of course, Silver Ley is imbued with a third layer of poignancy, one that comes from knowing that everyone in it lies under the Suffolk earth, and that some of the things even Bell thought would never change, like bare, brown winter fields and English elms, have become no more than sepia-tinted snapshots, lost to time.
But despite that poignancy, Silver Ley’s tone is cheerful, its humour deft – perhaps because its events are not being recalled nostalgically, in old age, but described almost in progress, by a man still young. In the beguiling and gently fictionalized years the book covers, not a great deal occurs; Bell’s family join him from London in a flurry of enthusiasm, and for a while he lives with them in a bigger house, Groveside, while continuing to farm Silver Ley; he acquires a feisty red heifer at market, with comical results; he joins the school board; he farms, and is funny and rueful about his failures; he shoots and rides to hounds, attends a flower show at the local manor house, acts as a special constable during the General Election, plays hockey, and participates in a hearty social set quite different to the Chelsea drawing-rooms he has left behind. Each of these episodes is lightly and beautifully drawn.
Of course, war stalks this rural idyll; both the Great War, not long passed, and the Second, which only we, as readers, know is coming. Looking at Mr Colville’s photographs of his younger years, following a hockey match, Bell reflects, ‘How many of those young men standing daringly arm-in-arm with the girls of their photograph had been trampled into French mud, or rotted away unburied.’ It is a shocking change of tone. In a later, haunting scene, he describes a company of itinerant threshers who come to help with his harvest:
There was a suggestion of something between a modern and a medieval expedition of a military order, or rather, of the ragged remnant of one. The ponderous elevator looked like a scaling ladder, and the other machinery like siege engines . . . the rabble that followed behind were clothed in the chaffy remains of soldiers’ uniforms – this man in a tunic with burst elbows, that one with khaki slacks and puttees, another with an officer’s hat . . .
The threshers are like revenants; the village’s poor, dear dead come back to their fields and farms for one brief sunlit afternoon.
Through season after season of hard physical toil, Bell’s deep belief in the ancient worth of agriculture remains unshaken: ‘It is an elixir under whose influence [man] will do double a slave’s work and still whistle and sing,’ he says. He describes the countryside not as an escape, but ‘a wonderful grappling influence, like love in its depths and darkness’. It is that simple, ancient love of land that lends some of his descriptive passages their depth and power: ‘There is an air of fulfilment and rest in the landscape and brooding weather of October,’ he writes.
It is like a ghost of summer evening all the time; the faint spears of shadow, the sun’s shield tarnished and hanging low, and under the trees, instead of shade, pools of their fallen colours. The fields, being mostly stubble, have still the straw-gold light of summer, but the ploughs move there, as in the very afterglow of harvest, and the earth is gradually revealed again that has not been seen since spring.
It is rhapsodic and, to me, deeply moving.
Unsurprisingly the Suffolk locals at first doubt his staying power. ‘I can’t help feeling it’s a pity,’ a young neighbour, Emily Jarvis, tells him candidly. ‘People are usually farmers because they haven’t been brought up to anything else.’ Like many others he meets she’s sure that Bell will sooner or later return to the city. But keenly observed details mark his growing detachment from urban life; when his parents arrive they bring ‘an ordinary good-sized fibre doormat, such as had seemed [to them] in London a boot-wiper adequate for the dirtiest weather. But already it was to the eye just a slab of mud.’ An old chaff-bag and a boot-scraper are soon substituted, and we begin to see, instead of the countryside through a Londoner’s eyes, London through a country-dweller’s – and it is London that seems the more foolish.
Bell’s temperament is clearly suited to a rural existence. He has the true countryman’s suspicion of progress, whether it’s the women in trousers he sees in Chelsea or the tractor bought by a local landowner; what he values are the old ways. Newly installed in the country, his mother learns to use a brick oven: ‘I have often had cause to observe how many old and primitive-looking methods are scientifically the best ones,’ he reflects. ‘So much so, that in the heart of civilization – the best hotels of London – wood-fires are installed for grilling; and it is also a curious side-light on progress that these old methods are nowadays prohibitively expensive, and only for the wealthy. The rest of us have to be content with the inventions of the age.’
Similarly, he recounts how Mr Colville’s father commends the pump he sees in Bell’s mother’s kitchen: ‘It’s handy having a pump at the sink, isn’t it?’ he asks her. ‘She, all her life until a week ago having been used to taps hot and cold over it, thought the old man . . . was speaking sarcastically. But in truth he was perfectly serious, comparing it with the more extreme inconvenience of having to wind up a bucket from a well in the garden or even fetch water from a land-drain. Which only shows that convenience is comparative, and what you haven’t had you don’t miss,’ Bell concludes. ‘Civilization, instead of increasing our contents, merely augments the possibilities of our discontents.’
In the hard years still known in Suffolk as the second ‘coming-down time’, it is the elliptical but hard-won advice of the ancient farmers, not the schemes of the new bloods, that Bell seeks – though it takes some while for the true, parlous state of agriculture to be understood.
But this is to overplay Silver Ley’s seriousness when it is, for the most part, an overwhelmingly happy read, part of an extraordinary outpouring of literature about nature and landscape that occurred in the 1920s and 1930s. But where many of his contemporaries are now little read, Bell’s work endures. The difference lies partly in the sheer quality of the writing; he was ‘in love with words’, as Ronald Blythe, who knew him well, has noted. What Silver Ley leaves you with at its close is two things: a sense of a lost world – the last of the yeomanry, the last heavy horses, the end of a certain kind of rural society – but also a contradictory sense of changelessness, of the way that the fields, at least, endure.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 46 © Melissa Harrison 2015
This article also appears as a preface to Slightly Foxed Edition No. 30: Adrian Bell, Silver Ley