The writer Adrian Bell first arrived in Suffolk in 1920 – a delicate young would-be poet, fresh from public school at Uppingham and the polite drawing-rooms of Chelsea, under pressure from his father, who was news editor of the Observer, to get a proper job. He was, he says, ‘flying from the threat of office life’ when he first presented himself for work on the farm of an old-established farming family in the countryside near Bury St Edmunds.
At first Bell made the townie’s mistake of assuming that country people were a fairly simple lot, but he soon thought differently. In this new world, he was the one who seemed unfit and incompetent. But he was a quick learner and a passion for the land took hold of him. He settled in Suffolk, and farmed there for the rest of his life, recording those early days almost as he lived them in a trilogy of lightly fictionalized memoirs, the first two, Corduroy and Silver Ley published in 1930 and 1931 (see SF nos. 22 and 46) and the third, The Cherry Tree, in 1932.
Bell may never have been recognized as a poet, but in these books his keen and sympathetic eye combined with the practicality of the farmer to create some of the most poetic yet down-to-earth accounts ever written of life in the English countryside in those last days of an old order, before mechanization took over completely. They were the books that soldiers slipped into their packs when they went to war in 1939 to remind them of home and the life that many of them had left behind. They have been favourites of mine since I read the first of them in a cottage looking out on to the same flat East Anglian fields and wide horizons that Adrian Bell came to love – a countryside which for me has always felt like home.
By the time The Cherry Tree opens Bell is established on his own small farm, Silver Ley, not far from Bury St Edmunds (which he calls Stambury). But although by this time he has grown to enjoy the life and its independence, the farmhouse has begun to seem rather a cold place in the evenings when he comes in tired to a dead fire and a lonely supper. Almost to persuade himself that all this hard labour has been worthwhile, he starts setting down on paper memories of his early days in Suffolk, and the publication of this first book in the trilogy leads to an unexpected fan letter from a young woman called Nora (in real life her name was Marjorie) whom he eventually meets and marries.
In her letter Nora tells him she has enjoyed Corduroy because the life described in it ‘seemed like clean linen, shining forks and spoons, the beauty of everything you use every day’. It was, Bell says, ‘continually with me, as I went about that morning, that such beauty, the bright-worn, manual workaday beauty of what one used, was the light of life to me, though it had not occurred to me in those words’.
In fact I can’t think of a more apt way to convey the charm of these books. The world they capture – so different from the one in which many of us now live, or partly live – is a tactile one, in which knowledge and experience come through making, using, doing; where the craftsman takes pride not only in the quality and usefulness of what he has made but in its beauty too. Here is old Mark Ashen, the wheelwright, choosing wood for the cart he is going to make for Bell at a time when such beautifully made carts were beginning to go out of fashion.
I went into his wood-store with him to select the timber for my tumbril. He smoothed his hand along one plank and another, murmuring ‘Now that’s a lovely piece of wood – that came out of Creevely Park in Lord Wenford’s time.’ And he talked with his hand resting flat upon it as if it were a source of strength. He rolled the great tree-sections about like the segments of a shattered pillar, choosing two that should do for the hubs. We chose the axle-tree and the shafts. I think he felt that he would not have the opportunity of using much more of his plentiful store which father laid up for son . . .
And the old man not only makes and paints the cart, but proudly decorates it too, with Bell’s name and address, and innumerable delicately painted flourishes and small motifs, so that when Darkie the horse drew it out of Mark Ashen’s yard ‘it was as though a king had departed’.
Some of these small cameos of life in this then remote part of East Anglia seem bathed in the mellow light of an old painting. There is a description of Charlie Todd, the overseer of the great barn on a neighbour’s farm, meticulously preparing the space for threshing. There is enormous pride and authority in the way he does his job, and a painterly eye in Bell’s depiction of it and of the great barn itself:
There was a wooden dais at one end, on either side of which the beams rose and curved ruggedly to the roof . . . a small door opened from half-way up on one side, through which sheaves had once been pushed at harvest-time. I have seen the sun coming through this opening in a single shaft, striking down upon the dais, a sloping pillar of haze. One was aware suddenly of the emptiness of the place, and of a presage and concentration, as though light were mind. One waited for the first actor in some old play to enter and halt there and speak his prologue.
This farm is well-run and well-established, but we are in the 1930s: farming life is changing – ‘the old bluff hospitable life of the countryside’ as Bell calls it, with its well-peopled farms, its hunting and shooting and generous sociability, is passing. Economic depression means that few can now afford these luxuries. Farmers are giving up, and there is a wrenching description of the bankruptcy of an old neighbour turned off his farm, who at the last cannot bear to be parted from his one cow, Daisy. Finally he asks Bell to take her and Bell buys her from him, but ‘for another week he hung about the gate of the meadow where Daisy was . . . When I passed he’d say again, “I’d as lief you had her as anybody.”’
Poultry, which had once been a sideline for the farmer’s wife, is now becoming a vital part of the farm’s economy, and broiler houses are springing up. The heavy hand of bureaucracy is beginning to be felt, with visits from the Government inspector, sent to look at Bell’s milking and butter-making arrangements which are found to be wanting, and his weights and measures, which are rejected because they are not ‘Government stamped’. Yet despite it all Bell feels that a hard life in the country is preferable to what he sees as the hectic and debased life of the city with its ‘modernity neurosis’, and he decides to hang on and wait for better times.
As well as evoking the period and the way of life of Bell’s country neighbours, The Cherry Tree is also a picture of a new marriage. In the conservative terms of the farming community the Bells are a somewhat unconventional couple, for Nora, though charming, kind and capable, is also quietly determined and independent-minded. She likes to accompany Bell and his farmer friend Bob Chilgrove on their walks around the farm, whereas normally wives stay in the house and ‘talk domestic matters’. She even helps in the fields, planting potatoes – and she doesn’t wear a hat! It’s clearly a marriage of equals, but Bell is certain that the village’s verdict on them is ‘She rule he, that’s a fact.’
Despite all the hardships, the picture is a happy one, and The Cherry Tree is a cheerful book written by a young and happy man. Later the couple would have three children – the translator Anthea Bell, best known for her English translations of Asterix, and the twins Sylvia and Martin, the former war reporter and independent MP.
Adrian Bell himself went on to write twenty more books on the countryside and from 1950 wrote the ‘Countryman’s Notes’ column for the Eastern Daily Press. He was a friend of the painter John Nash and together they collaborated on Men and the Fields, published in 1939, a poignant record in words and pictures of the Stour Valley countryside between the Bells’ farmhouse and Nash’s house at Bottengom’s Farm, which is now the home of the writer Ronald Blythe. When in 1930 the Daily Telegraph’s new daily crossword started attracting readers away from The Times, Bell’s father suggested him for the job – Bell had never even solved a crossword before and had only ten days to work out the first – and between then and 1978 he set around 5,000 Times crosswords, establishing the paper’s distinctive ‘cryptic’ style.
In one of the final chapters of The Cherry Tree a fair comes to the village and Bell describes how the laughter and loud music and the heady feeling of irresponsibility it brings give him a sense of regret at ‘how careful I had grown in the cultivation of the earth, how content with felicity and shrunken in ambition’. Yet he was simultaneously uplifted, ‘excited again by the dream that there was something in life that I alone knew, which I alone could tell’. It was in fact that slow, observant ‘cultivation of the earth’ that spoke uniquely through Bell’s writing, giving depth and substance to his wonderful trilogy – a lasting story of this countryside and its people that ‘he alone could tell’.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 54 © Hazel Wood 2017
This article also appears as a preface to Slightly Foxed Edition No. 38: Adrian Bell, The Cherry Tree