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A Countryman’s Notebook: Adrian Bell and the Loss of Rural Culture – Richard Hawking

Adrian Bell working Suffolk soil

Adrian Bell, most well-known for Corduroy and his ‘Rural Trilogy’, was a farmer-writer whose work reflects the changes in farming between 1920 and 1980. In the second half of his life, his Countryman’s Notebook essays were his main literary output. From 1950 to 1980 he wrote one each week for East Anglia’s The Eastern Daily Press: nearly 1600 in total. They provide unique snapshots of the significant environmental and cultural changes rural Britain underwent in the decades after the Second World War. Scrapbooks of these articles, lovingly cut out and pasted in, reside – some dearly remembered, some since forgotten with the passing of the collector – in cupboards across East Anglia and further afield.

It is in the Notebook that we see the finest of Bell’s writing. Like the rural craftsmen and women he so admired, and who knew intimately how to manipulate their material, he achieved this in his own work: distilling his experiences of rural life into 1000 pitch-perfect words. The raw material for these weekly essays were the daily dairies Bell kept for much of his writing life, and they provide a fascinating insight to Bell’s process of writing. They reveal a minute observation of detail, not just of his natural surroundings, but also of his relationships with others. Perhaps unsurprisingly for a farmer, these entries often start with a short observation of the weather before moving on to detail the day’s events. Adrian’s daughter, Anthea Bell (who was entrusted with these diaries as part of Bell’s literary estate), noted that it was suggested that these should be published. However, she strongly felt that Bell would not have wanted them to be – his published work was carefully crafted for a wider audience. Much like an artist field book, these dairies were his personal sketches.

Adrian Bell’s diaries

The Notebook essays that drew upon the raw material of these sketches are a species of life writing – that generically diverse category that encompasses biography, autobiography, letters, memoirs, journals, and, of course, much of the nature writing published today. Together with his earlier work they evince an enlightened approach, and his desire to connect the rhythms of his life with the people and the land around him makes his work a valuable contribution to our nation’s rural history, as well as a powerful narrative about English individuality.

Indeed, the wider significance of Bell’s writing should not be underestimated by twenty-first century readers. In his seminal study of rural literature, The Country and the City, one of the criticisms Raymond Williams levels at rural writers is that their vision of the countryside is often over-intellectualised, aesthetic and idealised – not grounded in an authentic experience of it. Consequently, Williams argues that many country writers present to varying extents a ‘part-imagined, part-observed’ version of rural England, which is to its detriment. Indeed, with the notable exception of Fred Kitchen in his 1939 autobiography Brother to the Ox in which Kitchen recounts his experiences as a farm labourer in plain and realtistic terms, he struggles to find an authentic voice of the countryside in his survey of rural writers. However, throughout Bell’s writing this authentic voice emerges with increasing strength and clarity, particularly in his Countryman Notebook essays.

To create such a voice, a fundamental engagement with place is necessary: this engagement is at the heart of Bell’s writing. Like the poet John Clare, Bell’s view may not have been broad, but it was deep. The land of which he writes is, primarily, a small part of his beloved Suffolk, and his connection with it is integral to his work. He understands that our relationship with nature must be an interdependent one: nature is not there to be controlled by us, nor should we seek to separate ourselves from it. As a farmer who worked with the land for years, Bell knew that Nature should also not be viewed as a rural idyll or overly aestheticized. His view was a pragmatic one: he understood that we are only able to truly reap its benefits by working with it, not against it.

However, in the post-war years when Bell was writing the Notebook, he saw that the shift to industrial farming – through significant investment in machinery and artificial fertilizers – was leading to an increasing capitalization of the land. He questioned the effect that these ‘progressive’ farming methods would have on the land, and on rural communities. Although he acknowledges that technical progress and economic growth can lead to positive changes in people’s standard of living, he was concerned about what was being lost as a result. He saw a growing commodification of the countryside, driven largely by those in business who had a financial but not an environmental, emotional or spiritual investment in it.

Bell illustrates this in a poignant passage in which he recounts meeting an ageing farm labourer called Tim Dukes. Dukes’ particular skill is hedging, but is now over seventy, and finding it increasingly difficult to get any work. Bell visits Dukes in his small cottage just after his wife has suffered a stroke. After offering him a glass of raspberry wine, Dukes takes Bell outside. Bell writes: ‘He opened the door to his shed and it was lined with implements, all the blades of husbandry; billhooks, reaphooks, slashers, blades of varying and subtle curves. All these tools were polished and greased; I should not think there was a speck of rust on one.’ Dukes wants Bell to see these tools because he wants him to appreciate them not only for what they are, but also for what they represent. He is rightly proud of these tools because they represent a vocation, and as such are fundamental to his identity as ‘an expert hedger’; they represent a way of life that is dependent on knowing the finer details of certain elements of nature. For Bell, ‘that shed was a revelation after the rather haphazard room, and the ruinous state of the cottages. It was like a glimpse of culture’.

This culture is grounded in traditional husbandry and a sensitive, close working of the land. It is a culture that is born of a deep and lasting connection with the place in which one lives and works. However, Bell shared with Dukes the sadness and sense of loss associated with the beautifully kept tools in front of him; although they are valued, they are increasingly without purpose and becoming relics of the past. In his depiction of Dukes, Bell’s purpose is not to offer an idealised vision of the life of a rural labourer, however much Dukes is admired for his specific skill. Bell sees him as a victim of modern farming practices that were becoming less and less reliant on the traditional knowledge and skills of rural craftsman.

As a consequence, Bell witnesses the impact that a changing economy is having on farming communities such as the one in which Dukes lived. He could see the marginalization of local producers, tradesmen and shopkeepers by the growing influence of bigger businesses. In this, any real chance of social or environmental sustainability – for either the consumer or the producer – is severely compromised. It is the division between the consumer and producer and the undermining of this relationship that Bell arguably laments above all else when he writes:

At the start of the last war, there were almost half a million farms in Britain, including part-time holdings. The majority were small, mixed units of less than 50 acres. Before the age of state protection farmers needed to grow a range of products for financial security. At the same time, almost a million workers were employed on British farms. Yet it cost the taxpayers nothing. If politicians had truly understood agriculture they would have recognised that the mixed-farm structure was a national treasure to be nurtured and prized.

As well as observing the fragmentation of rural communities, Bell also addresses the dominant economic ideology that relegates the production of food below that of the relentless pursuit of all other ‘goods’. This growing culture of capitalist consumerism was taking a stronger hold on a larger proportion of society than ever before, with traditional agriculture and the fundamental values associated with it lost in this climate of changed priorities. He warns us that we foster this culture at our peril. He cautions that a preoccupation with  –  and prioritisation of  –  material possessions will lead to a culture of selfishness and dissatisfaction. In doing so, he is voicing a reaction against this ‘new order’, particularly the decline of small agricultural communities and the growing disconnect between the producer and the consumer.

Countryman Notebook Article

In The Green Bond, a collection of his Countryman Notebooks essays published in 1976 that explores this disconnect, Bell’s recounts delivering a speech at the opening of a rural museum of old farm tools: ‘Look at all these handles. Do you see how thin they are worn, how shiny they are? Think of all those men and women who turned all these handles, for hours and days and years, that we might stand here, fed and clothed.’ Bell wants the assembled crowd to appreciate that the roots of any economic growth are to be found in the most fundamental of all of humankind’s interactions with the natural word: farming. This close relationship with the land is symbolized in the worn handles of these old, now redundant, tools which have rapidly disappeared due to the industrialization and commercialization of agriculture. The old order of farming – and to a large extent rural life – that had existed and supported the population at large for generations was being consigned to history, and its remains put on show for posterity.

Consequently, as the separation of the country and city widened towards the end of the twentieth-century, with more people viewing the countryside as a place of leisure or in aestheticized or economic terms, so a dichotomy in the way that society regarded this countryside emerges with more clarity. This increasing commodification of rural England was engendering a contradictory view of the countryside: on the one hand, it was a place to be exploited and despoiled to meet the demands of a modern, increasingly urban society; on the other was also a place  –  or designated parts of it  –  to be cherished and preserved by the same society. 

Therefore, not only does Bell want to give a voice to rural figures like Dukes, who are often overlooked or idealised, he also seeks to foster a greater appreciation of the rural culture that was being lost in the shift towards industrial agriculture. It is in this context he made the following plea:

Yet not forget to look further than to-day, and not forget the local life, and the peculiar quality of local earth, and the peculiar powers of local hands with the produce of local earth, which have been the shaping of our constitutions and our characters.

For him, living in a society that encouraged the dismantling of rural communities in favour of serving the increasing demands of capitalist consumerism fosters a more individualistic, selfish culture. Rather than live and work collaboratively, with an appreciation of co-dependency, working for faceless institutions would lead, for an increasing number of people, to a narrower view of their immediate world. In turn, this would lead to a population becoming more disconnected with their immediate environment – their sense of placeand viewing it as a commodity to be possessed and controlled so it may serve the consumers’ desires.

As a result, Bell’s Countryman Notebook essays document the huge changes he witnessed in his lifetime: not only a revolution in farming methods, but also a radical transformation of the structure, purpose and culture of rural communities. And although he may be critical of such ‘progress’ in the essays, he also offers hope for the future by his deep understanding that whatever misguided journeys our society may take, ultimately we cannot separate ourselves from that which sustains us:

The set of the buildings and stacks in the view is an emblem of the life that has gone on there for centuries, and goes on today. I know the evenings with firelight, and the early mornings with wavering candlelight and cold. But the groping work before cockcrow was warmth-engendering. There is vegetable life and much animal life, and embedded among them is human life, with its beliefs and pieties and loves and relationships that develop between the tending of the horses and the cattle and the corn; the latter so pressing and important it is almost as though the human relationships were a by-product of the guardianship of the Earth.

                                                                 Richard Hawking, Worcestershire, June 2021

Richard Hawking’s interest in farming stems from growing up on a 70-acre farm in Somerset. Like the 20th century rural writer Adrian Bell, his family ran a mixed-method farms during the twentieth-century agricultural revolution. In 2019, Crowood published At the Field’s Edge: Adrian Bell and the English Countryside, Hawking’s monograph on Adrian Bell. In October 2021, Slightly Foxed will be publishing A Countryman’s Winter Notebook, a new collection of Bell’s essays introduced and selected by Hawking.

All images have been provided by the author and are used here with permission.

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