Corduroy by Adrian Bell may yet prove to be one of the gentlest and happiest books I have read this year. I've been reading the Faber Finds edition but the book has known several incarnations since it was first published in 1930.
Set in the early 1920s I can think of no better book to counter the infidelities of the early twenty-first century with its daily dose of misery. That misery currently being administered to us through gritted teeth with news of recession and swingeing cuts, spending reviews and unemployment, and how overwhelming it can all feel at times.
I say infidelities which is probably being a bit over-dramatic given that I am also reading Diana Souhami's excellent biography of Edith Cavell and am finding myself reeling from some of the bald facts and figures about the Great War.
It's well-known that ten million men died in that war but how many horses do you think died ?
I thought perhaps in the tens of thousands which seemed carnage enough, and so was stopped in my tracks to discover it was about eight million.
And before anyone mentions it...yes, I have finally booked to see War Horse next time I'm in London.
So perhaps that helps gain some rational perspective on what we are living through now here in the UK, and why sometimes a bout of good old-fashioned nostalgia does the trick here.
Of course I know life would not have been 'better' then.
These were the years immediately following the Great War, a nation swamped by grief, no antibiotics, death by influenza if not the trenches and I'd be the first to moan without my washing machine but this was an era when taking a pride in the land was treated with respect, and everyone from the postie to the blacksmith farmed their acre of land just to be a part of that community of growers and harvesters.
Actually I wonder if that's making a comeback? Allotments and Grow-Your-Own now more popular than ever.
Adrian Bell 1901-1980, Uppingham School educated, too young for the Great War, too old for the Second World War found himself 'flying from the threat of an office life' in 1920 and heading to Suffolk at the behest of his father, the news editor of the Observer who rather scoffed at the idea of his son becoming a writer with his assertion that
'the desire to write on the young was but a manifestation of the sexual impulse.'
Equally scathing about the university life for his son,
' the citadels of the privileged and the playgrounds of the rich..'
I am assuming that a young Adrian would have been following Old Uppinghamians Edward Brittain and Roland Leighton of Testament of Youth fame up through the school.
Adrian Bell is apprenticed to farmer Vic Savage on his farm in Weston Colville near Bury St Edmunds. It is a callow but hard-working youth who arrives on his motorbike and with so much to learn, having begged his father to at least let him live the outdoor life. Here he was to get the best agricultural education available, as his son the journalist Martin Bell suggests in his introduction 'on a well-run working farm' that eventually enabled him to run a farm of his own.
These were the days when the farmer's wife kept house on the money she earned from the chickens, the eggs and the butter.
When Sunday observance was paramount, smart clothes, church attendance, no deals done, a lunch gathering followed by a siesta and then the traditional 'walk round' the farm.
When the colours spoke to the richness and depth of the surroundings,
' The colours of his clothes and of the things he handles echo one another; his corduroy and the Suffolk horse he drives, his handkerchief and his plough-beam. With red-blue shirt and necktie he rides out to the harvest field in a wagon the colour of the sky. His face, too, contributes a tone, and his copper-coloured arms...'
When knowledge about the weather was primeval and instinctive... we have a go at that here, but only along the lines of when the hill over there disappears we have ten minutes to get the washing in.
None of the farms around us here have milking herds any more, which seems like a crime in rural Devon, but we were surrounded by them when we moved here sixteen years ago and there was much I could identify with as I read Adrian Bell's account of trying to persuade a languid herd of contented cows to stir themselves and walk in for milking.
You could set your watch by the farmer's shouts here too and the cows would always be right down by our garden gate leading into Rocky's Field, as far from the shouting as possible and the poor farmer would almost be on top of them before they'd budge. Wonderful to sit and watch too, it's impossible not to feel calm and tranquil when gazing at a grazing dairy herd, all that lazy chewing and tail swishing. Not a bit like the hyper-active young bullocks we get in the field now who all seem to have ADHD, and charge at the fence the minute they spot you. It's as if they know they'll be on a polystyrene tray in Tesco's any minute so best make the most of it and have the field sheared to a crew cut in hours.
Plenty more recounted in Corduroy that still goes on around us here and all in that timeless harmony with the seasons experienced by Adrian Bell in the 1920s. I am suddenly mindful that the family who worked the farm that surrounds us here then lost all three sons in the Great War.
We often think about that as we walk Rocky's Field behind the house, a field that those boys must have known so well and paths that were doubtless walked by their grief-stricken parents too.
We have emerged from harvesting and are now into the shoot season here in the Tamar Valley, so my thoughts whilst reading naturally turned to our own family Gamekeeper walking those same nearby fields and woodland. Twenty-five years-old, his first season as a Head Keeper and happily working from dawn until dusk every single day since he started the job in February. He's often back out in the darkness too... with apologies to all animal-lovers, a fox only gets one chance to kill fifty of his pheasants and Adrian Bell would have understood that too, as would the farmer's wife with her chickens.
Then there's the easy familiarity of the market town that Adrian Bell describes so accurately.
Where you can sometimes be on a stately progress along the street for hours as you stop and chat to everyone you know. Though you do have to seek out the cattle market in Tavistock, the auctioneers voice can still be heard echoing across the town on market day. Traditions that somehow rightly defy and evade twenty-first century sensibilities, and long may they remain because our resident Gamekeeper maintains that sometimes there are still no better ways to do things like catching those zillions of rabbits than by using ferrets, but only when there is an 'r' in the month of course.
So just occasionally along comes a book that transcends the ordinary and fits the reading moment as if born to it and Corduroy did exactly that. Somehow the gentle pace and rhythm of Adrian Bell's language fits the rhythm of the rural life he is portraying and I slipped into that comforting melody willingly and with ease. I was reminded of Edward Thomas, who I am also reading at the moment, as Adrian Bell recounted his first attempts at ploughing with horses,
'When I glanced up I was surprised to see the horses treading so slowly. This too I thought, must appear a sleepy occupation to the passing poet. One hears talk of the monotony of ploughing but I found it a keen exercise of hand and eye...'
and it was but a simple change of key in my mind and into that lovely Edward Thomas poem As the Team's Head-Brass
'Every time the horses turned
Instead of treading me down, the ploughman leaned
Upon the handles to say or ask a word,
About the weather, next about the war.
Scraping the share he faced towards the wood,
And screwed along the furrow till the brass flashed
If you live in the country this book will be comfortingly familiar, and if your are in a town and fancy an escape to the country from your armchair you could head for no better reading. Adrian Bell will quietly transport you to the place where, though his reference is to the cloth but equally applicable to the book, 'Corduroy takes on an easy grace in wear.'