Sunday, May 30, 2010


My daughter loaned me a compact hardcover reprint of Adrian Bell's Corduroy, originally published in 1930.

The publisher's web site offers the following description:

Bell’s father had been withering about his son’s literary ambitions but agreed to let him learn agriculture and sent him as a paying guest to a farming family in a village near Bury St Edmunds. ‘I was flying from the threat of an office life,’ Bell writes on the first page of the book. Yet when he arrived one autumn day on an old motorbike he felt all wrong for the part
too much of a ‘gent’ with his weak hands, his boots which were unlike anyone else’s, and his inability to understand the Suffolk dialect. Like many townies, he assumed at first that the yokels were somewhat simple, but soon his own ignorance of the countryside and initial inability to do the most basic physical tasks taught him a new respect. A farmer, he discovered, stored away in his head thousands of facts about animals, crops and fodder, while his eye for a pig was ‘as subtle as an artist’s’. Bell’s eye was subtle too. He grew to love the land, and Corduroy is filled with the most precise yet poetic descriptions of the countryside and of farming life. It was a book, his son the former MP Martin Bell tells us, that many soldiers from the villages of England took with them in their kitbags to the war zones of the Second World War to remind them of the world of peace and sanity they had left behind. For Corduroy is not simply a period piece it captures what is unchanging about the lives of those who live from, rather than simply on, the land.

An entry last month on The Ibooknet Blog explained that Corduroy was followed by several sequels, as Adrian Bell acquired his own small farm and set about the country life in earnest – but I have not pursued any more of these additional bucolic memoirs.

Instead, I'm now reading The Country Life, an early novel by Rachel Cusk in which a young woman of the 1990s abandons an unsatisfactory London existence to become the paid companion of the disabled son of a somewhat crazier country family than Adrian Bell fled to 70 years earlier. Cusk's protagonist can offer none of Bell's agrarian rhapsodies. On the contrary, here is one of her first, tentative explorations of her new environment:

The village was very pretty, and quite full of life. It was arranged mainly along the road, which became a sort of quaint high street at its centre, and consisted of a collection of very old houses mostly red-brick or painted white many of which had lovely baskets of flowers hanging around their doorways or in pots adorning their window sills. My first thought on seeing these pots and baskets was to smash them. I have no explanation for this impulse, other than that my thoughts were still, at this early stage, essentially urban in nature. In London, I was probably thinking, these pots would almost certainly have been smashed, and perhaps I was, while imagining such an act of vandalism, assuming part of the vandal's character in the process.