“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

“Kilvert’s Diary”: A Selection Edited and Introduced by William Plomer

Why do I keep this voluminous journal? I can hardly tell. Partly because life appears to me such a curious and wonderful thing that it almost seems a pity that even such a humble and uneventful life as mine should pass altogether away without some such record as this, and partly too because I think the record may amuse and interest some who come after me.

Kilvert’s Diary is another work I have to thank Susan Hill for (https://annabarbermyartisliving.wordpress.com/tag/susan-hill/). It is a treasure: an affectionate, vivid portrait of rural life in England and Wales in the latter half of the nineteenth century written by Reverend Francis Kilvert. Kilvert kept the diary in the nine years preceding his premature death, and in it records the almost fairytale qualities of his life with sensitivity, humour, and a deep love of the natural world. It is a great shame that much of it is now lost, thanks in part to the edits undertaken by Kilvert’s wife, and more significantly because a descendant – herself a minor novelist – burned most of his notebooks in the 1950s. What remains was expertly edited by the poet, William Plomer – and happily there is still a huge amount to enjoy.

My 1980 Penguin edition begins with the entry for Tuesday 8 February, 1870. Rather wonderfully, this first passage describes the misadventures of one Miss Child, who had tried to spend a night in a London hotel with a brown wood owl. The owl hooted all night in spite of their putting it up the chimney, before the looking glass, under the bedclothes, and in a circle of lighted candles which they hoped it would mistake for the sun. What a brilliantly batty introduction to our diarist – proving that, as is so often the way, real life is invariably stranger than fiction. There are several passages like this that demonstrate a keen sense of humour – the one which is frequently quoted being the description of a relation’s funeral, during which the weighty coffin nearly crushed the poor bearers. Once or twice I thought the whole mass of men must have been down together with the coffin atop of them and someone killed or maimed at least. But now came the time of the fat chief mourner… Throughout his diary, Reverend Kilvert demonstrates a love of life in all its strangeness and absurdity, and though he is generally extremely affectionate, he is not above gently pocking fun at his fellow man: High tea at 7 just before which someone managed to shoot a chicken with an arrow, or it was said so, and Margaret Oswald told me that as I put my head through the railings to rake a croquet ball out of the field on to the lawn, my head looked so tempting that she felt greatly inclined to shoot at it. Certainly there would have been this comfort that if she had shot at me I should have been very much safer than if she had not, because wherever else the arrow might have gone it certainly would not have hit me.

I loved the almost gothic strangeness of many of the vignettes, in a world in which life and death walked so closely together. There are descriptions of suicides and murder; winds so ferocious that it takes four men to carry a lady safely indoors from a carriage; ship-wrecks; Miss Sylvester, who has legs like a frog; soldiers scaring off wolves by snapping the locks of their flint muskets; and an old woman who punishes a dairy thief by making him sit by her fire with a hot ale in his hand, so that the stolen butter seeps through his hat and into his eyes. On Easter Eve, the entire village makes its way to the graveyard to dress the graves of loved-ones with flowers. The sun went down in glory behind the dingle, but still the work of love went on through the twilight and into the dusk until the moon rose full and splendid. People believe in fairies and ghosts; the distinction between the real and the supernatural is blurred at best, and Reverend Kilvert observes it all with fascination and love. There’s almost something Mervyn Peake-like about some of the more bizarre details – One day, Perch skinned an owl in London and from midnight till one o’clock he roamed about the streets seeking where he might bestow the body of the owl, fearing that the carcase of the owl might be found and described in the papers as the body of a fine full grown male child. Eventually he whirled the corpse over a garden wall. What a wonderfully strange tapestry.

In keeping with that vivid appreciation for life’s oddities, Kilvert also seemed to live his life at an extraordinary emotional pitch. Several times through the diary he declares himself to be desperately in love, feeling as though his world has been thrown upside down by an encounter with a pretty woman. He spends “feverish” nights fretting about his love for Daisy, and then Kathleen, and at one point describes himself as being exhausted with emotion. He nearly breaks down in Church when the King is ill, and when giving his final sermon in Clyro, gives himself up to his tears. It is unusual and bewitching to read the words of a man who felt everything so keenly – his orbit may have been narrow in some ways, but that does not mean that he did not experience things on a grand scale. Rather like Jane Austen, he demonstrates perfectly that there is nothing automatically limiting about a small community or a parochial life.

The only issue I had with that flood of feeling was the way in which Kilvert appeared to experience female, particularly pre-pubescent, beauty. Generally speaking this is mentioned by reviewers as being a sometimes awkward susceptibility, but I have to confess I found it more difficult than that. Perhaps it is because I am a product of my time as much as he is a product of his, but the way he lingers over descriptions of schoolgirls or young, naked bathers occasionally made me deeply uncomfortable. The fact that he was so ready to share his diaries with others suggests that he felt he had nothing to hide, and the descriptions never stray beyond a kind of breathless wonder at the girls’ innocent perfection, but still – it isn’t always easy reading. I think every reader probably has to find a way of fitting these passages into the context of the diary, and to make up his or her own mind about what they say about the man.

Putting that slight hesitation to one side, for me the most captivating thing about these diaries is the way in which Kilvert experienced, and talked about nature. The combination of his eye for detail and lyrical turn of phrase result in some truly exquisite passages. I love the description of his beard freezing to his mackintosh after a February walk; trees dripping from early showers, the tears of the morning; the sound of frogs croaking, snoring and bubbling in the pool under the full moon; and his assertion that it was a positive luxury to be alive. A tender haze brooded melting over the beautiful landscape, and the peaceful silence was only broken by the chuckling and grumbling of a squirrel leaping among the acacia boughs overhead, and the clear sweet solitary notes of a robin singing from the copper beech. Rather like Laurie Lee, Kilvert is extremely good at holding a mirror up to the British countryside, and showing us what treasures we are surrounded by if we will only stuff our pockets with biscuits and flasks of wine, and stride out into the hills.

“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.”