“Apple Acre” by Adrian Bell

It is a relaxation to sit here and watch the wildness, after a day of order and cultivation; to exercise the power of stillness, that the wild things may come near. There is a pleasure in a well-kept oak wood, and also in the farmer’s little island of wilderness – his plantation. This is a long-neglected estate wood, and here I am in awe of the old, old England, and feel the spirit of the island abbeys, forest-islanded each from each, rejoicing to be alone with God.

There is a deep pleasure to be had in reading the writings of someone entirely content with their life and home. Cider with Rosie is an exquisite window into a since-passed England, described in that famously rich prose, borne out of a profound connection to a childhood home. Apple Acre has the same fundamental love of the English countryside and a contagious sense of peace – entirely at odds with the martial context in which it was written.

During the Second World War Adrian Bell lived in the Suffolk countryside with his wife and three small children. As the entire country returned to subsistence farming, eking out their rations with whatever they could grow, the Bells and their neighbours found themselves thrust back into a very simple way of life. They farmed their land; helped their neighbours; shared clothes; and, though it was borne from the very worst of times, found a kind of joy in this new-ancient rhythm. As the author says in his foreword, I think that, but for the war, they could have been the happiest days of my life.  In essence, Apple Acre is a description of a year in this family’s life, centred on their relationship with the land. In Adrian Bell’s hands, though, and through his wise, poetic voice, a philosophy of living emerges too: you are left with a tender portrait of his family; an intoxicating description of the English countryside; and a feeling that you want to change your own life, too.

I was so moved by this book, by Bell’s appreciation of his countryside and relationship with his family, which colours every page. He obviously delights, in particular, in his children’s voyages around the house and in the garden – he doesn’t romanticise them in the least, but finds the magic in their childhood logic, and the gentle comedy in their mannerisms.  One of his toddling twins, Martin, is frequently described as “strutting” naked around the kitchen – occasionally looking “profoundly wise” – which always made me laugh. The four year-old Anthea stands in her coat and gaiters holding Janet’s hand and facing the big door, waiting for it to be opened. She has formed in an hour such a perfect speechless friendship with Janet that she would walk straight out into the night with her anywhere. When his wife, Nora, and the children have to go to Northumberland for a time, the threat of a Nazi invasion having reached its peak, he doesn’t sentimentalise the separation. He says only that It is sufficient to record that the time passed. To write more is unnecessary, and there is a world of experience buried in this line; the simplicity of this, and the final sentence of the book, nearly brought me to tears.

The poetic quality of Bell’s language is very special. The image of a woman and her young child embalmed in the sunlight; the harvests that gleamed to him from a pint of golden ale; the toddling girl moving about the garden with blossomy gusts of movement; his belief that we are a firmament and have our inward sun – it has that vividly spun Laurie Lee quality, and must surely be one of the finest evocations of a disappearing England.

His philosophies, too, have a strange pertinence and immediacy. More than anything, he regrets the passing of the old ways. He believes that England hides bits of her old craft, deliberately, from the modern world, as though they were a persecuted religion, by putting up a machine-made façade. How wonderful to think of our traditions hidden behind panels, like Catholic Priests in Tudor England, still serving the loyal few. He notes that his farming friends’ sons, who are moving from horse-power to technology, now have to work so much harder than their fathers that they have no time to enjoy the land. He describes the popular feeling that something that has grown should almost be a gift, has cost nothing; I don’t know why. This in particular seems so relevant to our modern lives. He says that Ours is the age of mechanical perfection and therefore a perfect loss of sensibility – industrialisation gutted our traditions and our communities and left nothing in their place. Above all, though – and as I say, his observations seem even more urgent today than they were in 1942 – he is profoundly hopeful. Despite our century of reckless expenditure, he believes that the motley architecture of commerce will pass away; that the power of wind and water could be harnessed again with new skill by men (eerily prescient!); and that we will, eventually, return to working in the light and the air, and find the kind of integrity which was rediscovered by his village during the 1940s. Apple Acre is a hymn addressed to family, nature, and living with the rhythms of the countryside. If only these were the voices we listened to, rather than those that tell us to frack and shop and burn our way through fossil fuels.

I was given this book as a present, and I’m so grateful for it. I hope you enjoy it as much as I have.

 

Apple Acre

“Cider with Rosie” by Laurie Lee

In its obituary of Laurie Lee, the Guardian wrote, “that he had a nightingale inside him, a capacity for sensuous, lyrical precision.” The phrase encapsulates Lee’s extraordinary gift for poetry, the way he could lay a finely-turned line of verse down in this exquisite portrait of a long-dead England. He has a nimble, vibrant voice; there are flashes of “Under Milk Wood” dialogue, the Gerald Durrell language of boyhood, pitch-perfect comedy; and rifts with well-chosen, simple, ripe words. It is poetry in the finest school of Falstaff and Hal; a love letter to his mother (described below), his family, his childhood, and a country which has been extinguished by progress.

“…Solitary, eyes closed, in her silks and secrets, tearing arpeggios from the yellow keys, yielding, through dusty but golden chords to the peak of that private moment, it was clearly then, in the twilight tenderness she created, that the man should have returned to her…”

I am pleased, in some ways, that I did not read this book at school. I know it is the great favourite, but there is always that risk that schoolroom excavations can turn a work of art into a kind of icon of your exam years – I certainly couldn’t read “Of Mice and Men” anymore without recalling the classroom. Not, of course, that studying a novel ruins it in any way – that’s an argument everyone who has ever studied Literature is used to swatting away with disdain – but reading a book at a particular time can forever link it to a certain point in your own life. And I don’t think that I would have experienced the true, bittersweet sadness of “Cider With Rosie” as a teenager, when my childhood was still so recent –something about commuting on the tube every day so that you arrive at work snarling, sweaty, and slightly less humane, or seeing yet another swathe of the green-belt swallowed by uniform houses and office-blocks, really makes you ache for a time like Laurie Lee’s. When life was governed by the seasons and festivals, and when your village was your universe. I’ve romanticised it in the reading, but Laurie Lee doesn’t shrink from the harder truths either – he includes the deaths of children, and poverty, and the terrible cold; and there are murders here, and thieving, and glimpses of sexual abuse. It was by no means a pre-lapsarian world – but we seem to have lost a great deal of mythology in the transition to ours.

“I belonged to that generation which saw, by chance, the end of a thousand years’ life.

In what is only my second foray into the world of politics on this blog, “Cider with Rosie” also made me think very carefully about something Naomi Klein said in the Guardian last year:

“Climate change is place-based, and we are everywhere at once. The problem is not just that we are moving too quickly. It is also that the terrain on which the changes are taking place is intensely local: an early blooming of a particular flower, an unusually thin layer of ice on a lake, the late arrival of a migratory bird. Noticing those kinds of subtle changes requires an intimate connection to a specific ecosystem. That kind of communion happens only when we know a place deeply, not just as scenery but also as sustenance, and when local knowledge is passed on with a sense of sacred trust from one generation to the next.

But that is increasingly rare in the urbanised, industrialised world.”

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/apr/23/climate-change-fight-of-our-lives-naomi-klein

It is not just a sadness that we have lost this intimacy with our homes – it is blinding. Laurie Lee’s childhood was as much defined by his Cotswold valley as by his chaotic family; he knew the moment a season had changed, the names of local flora and fauna, and how to make his way home in the pitch-black of winter. How many of us can say that? Would we notice if a particular bird didn’t sing, or if the daffodils were late one year? We shouldn’t just read “Cider with Rosie” with nostalgic longing, we should use it as a kind of map. Because if we stop listening to the “white-whiskered, gaitered, booted, and bonneted, ancient-tongued last of their world,” then we are turning our backs on countless lifetimes of knowledge, which is not just beautiful – it is becoming necessary.

“The village in fact was like a deep-running cave still linked to its antic past…This cave that we inhabited looked backwards through chambers  that led  to our ghostly beginnings; and had not, as yet, been tidied up, or scrubbed clean by electric light, or suburbanized by a Victorian church, or papered by cinema screens.”