Sunday, 23 September 2012

Corduroy by Adrian Bell

Corduroy - the title comes from the habitual dress of the Suffolk farmer, as opposed to the finer fabrics worn in London - is a memoir of Adrian Bell's first year in farming.  Bell's father was a journalist, and the young Adrian tries newspaper life briefly, but succumbs to the lure of the rural, and goes to live with Mr Colville, part of a large Suffolk farming family; his own family hope this will get the agricultural itch out of his system.  Mr Colville helps him to learn how to farm: Adrian starts from the bottom up, helping with the routine farm chores, but Mr Colville also shows him how to manage a farm, the disposition of labour, machines and money to get the best results.  By the end of the year he has learned enough to consider starting to farm on his own, but will his stubbornly urban family accept this choice?

The book, written about 8 years after the experiences it describes, is like somebody's memoir of the early days of a love affair.  Everything about the farm and country life is fascinating and exciting to Adrian. The language used to describe the Suffolk countryside is lyrical and poetical but also rich in agricultural detail:

"Things had now reached their climax of growth. The corn stood high in the fields, green yet, but with emerging ears, and the grass was deep in the meadows left for hay, and shimmered in the breeze.  Every corner by wall or barn had its growth of grass and nettles.  Nothing was yet cut down, but blades were being prepared.  Scythes were brought from dusty corners and weighed in the hands."

It is, perhaps, Adrian's poet's attention that helps him to prosper in this environment.  In the early chapters, he is a stranger in a new land; the narrative is almost a travelogue as Adrian learns the local language - verbal and not - and begins to find his way about.  He admires the skill of the people around him; he identifies with the ingrained love of the land that means that any local man - the blacksmith, the postman - will have a field somewhere in which he grows a crop of wheat or raises a few pigs.  I grew up in the country in the 1970s and there were still a few people like this, fitting in odd bits of farming around a day job in the local town.   Most of this world, though, was probably disappearing when the book was published.

At first, his class status causes some awkwardness with the other farm labourers, although not with the Colvilles, who are secure in their social position as a successful farming family.  Adrian is particularly annoyed when his boots, which looked so rugged in a London shop, are dismissed as "gentleman's boots".  But his good humour and willingness to learn see him through.  The book is very funny throughout, and most of the jokes come from Adrian's clumsiness and naivety, or the sudden impact of hubris when he thinks he is doing well.  Here he is, a less than expert rider, out hunting on the mare Cantilever:

"I was congratulating myself, saying 'You've been a first-rate horseman all these years and not known it'.  I began to enjoy the hazards. A hedge ahead [...] Cantilever sprang at it.  Next moment her head seemed miles below me and I was flying through the air. I found myself turning a somersault, and as I did so I remember thinking, 'You are coming the deuce of a cropper'.  I hit the ground with my shoulder, then stood on my head.  I seemed poised thus for ages.  It felt undignified; I kept wishing my legs would come down."

The tone is a slightly peculiar mixture of the modern and the conservative.  Socially, the farming world is conservative; gender roles are rigid, hierarchies are fixed.  But Mr Colville is a believer in modern farming methods, and interested in improving his skills and equipment to increase his yield.  Adrian often emphasises, however, the enduring traditions of the farming calendar, and contrasts this authenticity with the Chelsea drawing-rooms he is still obliged to visit; his affinity is entirely with the rural. Slightly drunk at an agricultural show, he feels that he is fitting in at last:

"I lost all sense of strangeness in my surroundings.  It seemed I had become a real agriculturalist at last, for I felt pleased and familiar with everything about me.  I admired the old County gentlemen with their neat check ties, their yellow gloves turned back at the wrists.  I would grow old like that. "

Not all of farming life has such a golden glow over it, and Adrian is willing to admit that some of it is dull, cold, wet or just plain unpleasant.  His strength of feeling has something of the overpowering notstalgia for the old ways that is often experienced by newcomer, and he is not so naive that he cannot recognise this.  Bell keeps the balance between mockery of his early naivety and celebration of his affection for the countryside exactly right, so that neither is overwhelming. Similarly, the equation of the rural with the traditional, and the urban with the modern, recognises that the world cannot be so easily divided up.

Modern readers will find the occasional antisemitism tiresome, although it is not untypical of works of this period.  However, the lyrical descriptions of the Suffolk countryside and Bell's humorous approach make the book well worth reading.  There are two further memoirs, The Cherry Tree and The Silver Ley, which follow Adrian Bell's farming career.  This book is currently available from Slightly Foxed. with a beautiful woodcut cover - the cover of my OUP copy is less elegant, featuring pigs, swill, and mud in large but probably accurate quantities.