Corduroy

A while back Malcolm took time out to extol the writing of Ronald Blythe. Even further back a Blythe essay, The Salutary Tale of Jix, got a mention. Both came to mind because of yet another of those synchronicities.

First, Ferdinand Mount (who provoked that thought of Blythe last February) was at it again: this time in last week’s Spectator:

Ronald Blythe, our greatest rural writer, remembers sheep being driven through Lavenham, the Suffolk wool town, before the war. Now he’s lived long enough to see the same street filled with Japanese tourists. On the eve of his 90th birthday, on 6 November, Blythe doesn’t mourn that lost way of life. If anything, Akenfield — his 1969 bestseller about a fictional Suffolk village from 1880 to 1966 — exposed quite how back-breakingly grim country life was for most farmworkers, like his own father, a Gallipoli veteran.

The essay on former Home Secretary Joynson-Hicks came to mind when Theresa May went political over the non-extradition of young Master McKinnon:

Speaking in Parliament this afternoon, Home Secretary Theresa May confirmed that she would halt Mr McKinnon’s extradition because it would be “incompatible with his human rights”. The 46-year-old suffers from Aspergers Syndrome and depression and his supporters have warned that he would be at risk of suicide if he was held overseas. After seeking medical and legal advice, the Mrs May has concluded that Mr McKinnon would not be fit to stand trial in the United States. Instead it will be up to the Director of Public Prosecutions to decide whether a trial should be conducted in the UK.

Mrs May’s decision is controversial because only two weeks earlier the government approved the extradition of Talha Ahsan, a south Londoner accused of running a jihadi website who also suffered Aspergers. Mr Ahsan’s family believe the decision on Mr McKinnon was deliberately delayed until after Talha had been extradited.

While all pale-pink liberals might feel that McKinnon deserved this amount of absolution, Mrs May is not out of the woods yet. Indeed she has made political what ought to have been purely-and-simply a judicial matter. She shot; she scored:

Betfair has slashed the odds of the Home Secretary becoming the next Conservative leader from 23/1 to 14/1.

In the bad old days, Tory Home Secretaries sent men to the gallows in search of applause from the Tory back-benches. Now, in these softer times, it merely involves cocking snooks at the US system of true “separation of powers”. Oh, and kicking at Europe does no harm either (except to UK citizens who might find themselves in a Bulgarian prison cell, or worse, with no hope of extradition).

However, back to more pleasant topics.

There was yet another reason why Malcolm felt affinity with Ferdy Mount’s enthusiasm for Blythe. It was the Suffolk connection, and a direct link from Blythe’s cottage to its former occupant.

Let’s start in the Fulham Road

Last Friday morning, the Lady in his Life and Malcolm had taken a dander down to Chelsea, to view Thomas Carlyle’s house in Cheyne Row. The Carlyle’s moved here in 1834, and it became a focal point of the literary and cultural scene.

It is quite extraordinary to walk into the parlour and see it authentically reproducing Robert Tait’s painting from 1857:

From there we climb up this modest home, through domestic intimacies, all the way to Carlyle’s remarkable study in the attic (complete with Victorian sliding roof-light). Two hours well-spent, not excluding the basement kitchen and walled-garden.

Then to lunch.

A few days back a columnist responded to the question of what long-married couples still find to talk about on holiday. The answer was “Where shall we lunch?” followed by “Where shall we have dinner?”. Malcolm sadly acknowledges a germ of truth in that.

Friday’s lunch was in the Fulham Road, very pleasantly but virtually in solitary state.

That, however, wasn’t the point to which Malcolm is driving. It is that the restaurant was only a few doors away from the branch of Daunt Books. And, finally, we have reached Malcolm’s point. The Lady took away a worthy novel in hardback. Malcolm’s single purchase was more modest: a delicious reprint of Adrian Bell’s Corduroy from 1930.

Once upon a long-gone time Malcolm had the trilogy: Corduroy, Silver Ley (1931), and  The Cherry Tree (1932) — moreover, they were Faber hardbacks (though not, sadly, first edition). One or more may still be lurking in the attic of Redfellow Hovel — however, when Malcolm re-shelved his books some years back the ‘non-fiction’ (i.e. everything that wasn’t a novel) went on the end-wall. History was the middle five shelves. Poetry below that. Drama the next two. Guide-books et al. on the bottom. Sorted alphabetically, and reaching high above this lot, was everything else. So Bell, Adrian would be right at the top: in the very apex of the attic, sixteen shelves high. It seemed a good idea at the time.

The guilt-pile by-passed

At midnight last night, after relishing and digesting every paragraph, Malcolm reached page 287, and last. That chimed well with Bell ensconced in his ‘Silverly Farm’, acquired — as is traditional for these exchanges — at Michaelmas, just the day before:

I walked with a lantern to my small farm across the fields. Darky and Dewdrop [his two recently-acquired horses] peered at me over the wall of the yard. The night air refreshed me, and I felt far from sleep. I lit my lamp and opened my new account-book at the first page.

A grounding in Suffolk

The story (really a simple, but beautifully-linked chain of reminiscence) involves the author’s year of apprenticeship at ‘Farley Hall, Benfield St George’, Mr Colville’s farm in Suffolk. This is the faintest fictionalising of Mr Savage of Bradfield St George, just outside Bury St Edmunds (which Bell renders as ‘Stambury’).

In the course of the year, the young Bell experiences the whole cycle of the farming year, growing physically, mentally and constitutionally away from the sophistication and “elegance” of his family home in Battersea and into the boots and corduroy (a subtle motif throughout) of rural Suffolk. At Christmas (Bell went to Suffolk only in October) he is already conscious of the distance he has travelled:

I returned home to London, to a world of narrow sky and no darkness, to find the old life half strange already. My brown Sunday boots, in which I motorcycled home, once again seemed uncouth there, and I was asked to change them, as they would ruin the carpets. These ‘gentleman’s’ boots!

I re-entered a world of nervous significance, where the very furniture was a complex language, and a piece placed so had, to some perceptions acute as Bob’s for weather signs, the subtle rightness of a mot juste. This world fearful of mud splashes, that yet breathed grimy air ( remembered the threshing-men grappling muddy iron while they breathed air like well-water); a world of hurtful probing into personality.

I noticed most keenly the brilliance of electric light after oil lamps, and the absence of anything worn, or uneven, or over-grown. Interiors had the illusory quality of flashed scenes of midnight storm. In fact, the whole Christmas sojourn had a flashed effect, flat and unrooted, with people gesturing and smiling as in a charade. I was called with ‘Giles’ or ‘Hodge’ , and treated to enquiries of ‘Ow be thou mangel wurzels?’ Either that or I was a courageous self-emancipator, the wind whistling through my hair.

Said one, ‘How splendid to be free of dress formalities; hats, for instance.’

‘But I always wear a hat,’ I replied.

Malcolm recalls — just barely — north Norfolk before electricity arrived, and with it mains drainage (try the latter without the former to power sewer pumps). Even then, out of the towns, darkness could be absolute: he also recalls a terrifying moment, circa 1961, frost-bitten, near Sutton Bridge in the Fens. The persistent sleeting drizzle had shorted out the electrics of his aged Lambretta. The only glimmers in the entire universe were the faintly-red-glowing fuse-cover on the handlebars, a horizon smudged with the lights of King’s Lynn far away across the tundra, and a car’s headlamps approaching out of the far distance.

Bury St Edmunds? I didn’t know he was dead!

To a younger generation, who have never fully known such dark, such silence, Adrian Bell’s memories — where sweated and frozen human strength and dexterity still mastered the yet-to-be-mechanised land — must be totally alien. Even so, his description of ‘Stambury’, is instantly recognisable:

At the end of the town opposite to that at which the cattle-market was situated were the ruins of a great abbey, a memory of old ecclesiastical significance. Public gardens had been laid out within the walls. They were deserted today. I walked the lawns under bare boughs tranced to the stillness of stone in the frosty air. Shattered arches stood yup lonely from the grass. A door stood open in an enclosure of ruined wall. I looked in, and found a gardener there sweeping up the last leaves. It had been a family burial-place, he said. ‘The mossyleum, they call it.’ He looked around. ‘There ain’t much moss here now, but doubt less there was at one time.’

At the end of the garden a river ran, and a monk’s bridge spanned it. All this was in grave contrast to the bustle of market-day beyond the walls.

The tufted abbey walls flanked one side of a sloping space, called (on account of the inn that stood opposite) Angel Hill. As I passed out of the gardens a traction-engine stood fuming before the gate-tower, with a timber-drug sent to deal with a fallen tree within. here was a dragon which the blunt-nosed saints in the niches confronted with holy calm.

That, in the late 1960s, was Malcolm’s daily walk to his teaching, at the Grammar School, just across that monk’s bridge.

Number One daughter now regularly flies, business class, from New York to Houston, India, Hong Kong and places east and west, in her daily profession. Once, though, she was perambulated, to be christened at St Mary’s, on Honey Hill, which turns left at the end of Angel Hill. She nearly got born in the bar of the Suffolk Hotel (but that’s another story), which stood on the corner of the Buttermarket:

The chief shopping-place of the day was the Old Butter Market. Here beef and pork and poultry were turned by the alchemy of the coin to feminine adornments, tobacco, silks, and scents. here wives and daughters strolled.

So, you see, Malcolm has unfinished business. He needs the other volumes of Adrian Bell’s trilogy. Can he scale those attic heights? Were he to do so, would he find Bell, Adrian?

Only then can he tackle Carlyle and Sartor Resartus  — which for those denied a classical education means, The tailor re-tailored, and might bring us back to Bell’s problems with  ‘gentleman’s’ boots and unfashionable, sturdy, agricultural corduroy.

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Filed under culture, East Anglia, History, Law, London, politics, reading, schools, social class, The Spectator, travel, working class

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