Mr. Cornflower has been reading Adrian Bell's Men and the Fields, and he has kindly obliged me with a guest post on the book which was first published in 1939 and which, in its current Little Toller edition, has an introduction by Ronald Blythe and a foreword by the author's son, Martin Bell.
Over to Mr. C.:
If you go to many rural parts of Britain and find a good vantage point, it is easy to persuade yourself that what you are looking at hasn't changed for centuries. Squint a bit to blur out the pylons, look away from the grain silos and towards the village church, and you instinctively connect this stable landscape with a stability of lives and customs. This is a comfortable illusion, but it is an illusion.
Adrian Bell's wonderfully written account of travels through England in the 1930s captures a particular moment when the fields were still busy with the labour of men, women, children and horses, and the villages still had their blacksmiths and their millers, but all were aware of how the world around them was being altered. The underlying causes - technology, changes in the law, new sources of supply in other parts of the world - have been picked over by historians in minute detail, but what Bell is interested in, and what he makes his readers take an interest in, is how it felt to lead out a team of horses early in the morning or to shepherd a flock of sheep along an ancient track on the South Downs, feeling the sense of connectedness and satisfaction from an ancient and still vital activity, but knowing that you might be the last man to do this on this piece of land.
The young people Bell spoke to would have been the older generation of farmworkers I first encountered when my family moved to a very rural part of East Devon in the 1970s; the roadmender who wore a sprig of honeysuckle in his cap and cooked on an old iron pot over the fire, the farmer who left a loaded shotgun outside his back door the better to deal promptly with vermin in the fields, the old man who'd been to Taunton once and didn't care for it. But the world they knew from before the war had gone; that is the world which Bell's words, with John Nash's illustrations, beautifully evokes.