War correspondent Martin Bell introduces one of the classic rural columns written by his father Adrian Bell for 30 years
My father, Adrian Bell (1901-80), was a bohemian and man about town in London in 1920.
His first ambition was to become a poet in the style of Keats or Swinburne. In the 1930s, he actually had two slim volumes of poetry published, as a gesture of thanks from the publisher of his first and bestselling autobiographical novel, Corduroy (1930), which was about farming in Suffolk before it became mechanised and industrialised.
However, needing to earn a living, and wishing to escape the tyranny of an office life in London, he became an apprentice to Vic Savage, a yeoman farmer in Hundon near Haverhill, and there he lived the experiences that stayed with him through the rest of his life. He went on to own two small, unviable farms, both of less than 100 acres, one in Stradishall in west Suffolk and the other near Redisham in east Suffolk; and he married and brought up a family, of which I was a part.
But he remained a poet at heart. His columns in the Eastern Daily Press (EDP), from 1950 to 1980, were not really journalism but prose poems about the natural life around him.
Examine November, the first in this collection, printed below, and you will see what I mean. It was written two years before his death in 1980.
By then, I was a reporter ‘out in the great world’, as he put it, having wars in Vietnam, the Middle East and Africa behind me and many others ahead of me.
But I noted that he could find more of interest to write about in the pond life in his back garden than I could in the war zones of the world. These he expressed in his weekly columns for the EDP, entitled ‘A Countryman’s Notebook’.
They were drafted on the Monday of every week. A certain amount of groaning and moaning from his study went into their composition (he suffered from migraines until he was 60). My first journalistic assignment, when I was a teenager, was to take them to the village post box every Tuesday. There was of course no email back then. They would then appear in the EDP on Saturday.
He was one of the newspaper’s two columnists. The other was his friend Eric Fowler, who wrote under the name Jonathan Mardle. Both were eccentrics who reflected, in a deep and personal way, the communities they served. My father was a regional columnist with a national audience: his devoted audience would clip out his pieces and send them by post to their friends all over the country.
He never lost his sense of wonder at the natural world and seldom travelled further afield than Norwich. On the one occasion when he did, to attend the birth of his third grandchild in Canada, he continued filing his columns for the EDP. He had hardly ever flown before. He described the experience, with whisky in hand, high above the clouds, as being as close to the angels as he had ever imagined. And then he lost his car in a multistorey Canadian car park. Norwich, his nearest city, had no such constructions but only the old cattle market.
His pieces belong not only to the literature but also to the history of East Anglia. He attended my passing-out parade as a soldier in the Suffolk Regiment in Bury St Edmunds in 1959, and he captured the occasion perfectly, using it to pay tribute to those amateur soldiers who had saved us in two world wars.
After his passing, I took over his column in the EDP’s Saturday edition to salute him and give an account of his funeral at Barsham church, which was then without a roof. My bereaved mother said, ‘I wept with pleasure, pride and sadness when I saw what you wrote.’
Adrian Bell’s column, November 1978
On my radio channel, they start the first of every month with a few poems from accepted authors. Well, here goes, and all my own work, but expect no rhymes.
Did any of those authors watch a dead leaf dancing from a gossamer? That’s November. Brown and bent, it twirled and bounded on the breeze. At moments, the single gossamer on which the brown leaf was hung could be seen to shimmer.
I was enchanted by the ballet of the dead leaf: it scooped itself up and whirled with frantic gaiety. Then it sank a little and turned slowly this way, that way, as a performer will bow to applause from all parts of the house.
Next moment, it was twirling around and around like a skater who blurs himself going round himself so fast. Then began a series of bouncing somersaults as if it were fighting with its tether. All around it live rose leaves, ovals of green light, were trembling in the breeze, as with the thrill I felt at the dance of the one dead leaf.
Unbelievably tough was that single gossamer which shone at moments fine as a hair, but mostly was invisible. I sat staring at that merry husk until the sky seemed to turn pink from my fixed attention. What an entertainment – Nijinsky in the guise of an autumn leaf, dancing to the west wind that puffed into my open house of leaves.
This is it – the month we have dreaded even from April, at the beginning of the long, dark winter. October’s name is benign, even to its last day: the idea of it is golden, breathing a sense of ripeness. This year it has been all it promised. The fallen leaves are dry; they crackle underfoot and smell like corn.
On October 31st, we were raking them up and mounding them in skeps that weighed like nothing. From the incinerator rose a column of smoke that was monumental; thick, vertical, fragrant.
I said to her, ‘This is not good for your sore throat.’ She said to me: ‘It is not good for your hay fever.’
But who could refrain from raking and loading those rattling leaves while it was so fine?
We picked walnuts out of them: ‘Here’s one;’ ‘Here’s another.’
Walnuts and chestnuts shed their leaves early. The sycamore’s leaves lie flat and turn black and sodden and won’t burn and won’t willingly rot. I have peeled them up from the middle of the compost heap where they have become a kind of leather – thin, black leather.
How different from my young cherry tree, whose leaves hang on and turn a pale yellow, pure as candle flames surprised by the dawn – almost transparent – yet for a few more days transfixed on the tree. They see November in, then fall suddenly as a shed garment.
So now ends this November day in darkness at five. The old wooden rake is housed. We sit either side of the fire, she coughing, I sneezing and both exuding an odour of leaf smoke.
November: but the fuchsias still dance before my windowpane, crimson in the light of my lamp after tea. I woke this morning and drew back my curtain with the glum thought, ‘November is here: we are right in it, and soon the clangour of Christmas advertising will be on us, distracting us from our God of the Beginning.’
Then I saw a scattering of beech leaves on the front grass – not too many yet, just a pattern of them as if waiting for a breeze to make them dance. In the early sun, they looked so beautiful I could only be glad of the day and of the impulse which immediately possessed me to fritter it away – say in watching a dead leaf gambling from a gossamer.
November has been detested ever since we became a city populace – umbrella-poked, gutter-splashed. Ever since Thomas Hood wrote his famous lines in November, that are all ‘no’, ‘no’, ‘no’, ending ‘No sun, no moon, no dawn, no dusk, no proper time of day … No-vember.’
We should all be farmers. As a farmer, I never disliked November. On the contrary: harvest all home, ploughing well forward, beans ploughed in, wheat drilled and harrowed, the fields smooth carpets of vital brown, some already pricked with tiny needles of new corn.
What a glad time November then was after a kind autumn such as this has been, the work that mattered all done. After that, our ‘go-slow’ (but any other industry’s usual pace) of littering yards, ‘shaving’ corn stacks and ‘pulling’ haystacks – it was as good as a holiday.