Save the Planet: If only more people were like Adrian Bell
PUBLISHED: 14:00 18 May 2019 | UPDATED: 00:52 19 May 2019
With the UN suggesting we're all going to hell in a handcart, one of our greatest writers about farming and rural life still reminds us what we risk losing
Adrian Bell was raised in London, went to an independent school in Rutland, and was then dispatched as a kind of paying-apprentice to a farm at Hundon, near Bury St Edmunds, to learn how to be a farmer. He enjoyed it and started to work the land in his own right.
He became a writer too (most of his 25 books focus on his life and work in East Anglia) and for 30 years his weekly Countryman's Notebook appeared in the Eastern Daily Press. (It later enjoyed a second wind in the East Anglian Daily Times.)
Along the way, this son of the Observer's news editor set the first Times crossword (and carried on conjuring up the puzzles for decades). One of the children born to wife Marjorie was Martin Bell, who would become a BBC journalist and an anti-sleaze MP famous for his white suits.
Adrian died not far off 40 years ago, being buried in the churchyard at Barsham, near Beccles, in 1980. "Dust to dust suited him, rather than ashes to ashes. Earth, not fire, was his natural element," Martin wrote.
I loved the vignettes
The world didn't forget the farmer/writer. Membership of the just-defunct Adrian Bell Society peaked at more than 200 enthusiasts and, now, a new book puts him back in the spotlight.
At the Field's Edge: Adrian Bell and the English Countryside looks at his relevance to modern-day concerns such as "industrial farming" and its consequences for the environment; the widening gulf between urban and rural life; and the weakened links between food producers and consumers.
It's written by Richard Hawking - an English teacher at Royal Grammar School Worcester and the son of a farmer.
It's because of his family farming heritage that Richard became interested in the history of agriculture. In a bookshop, a few years ago, he came across Bell's 1939 Men and the Fields. "I was entranced by its content and also its style, which was quite poetic.
"I loved the vignettes, the little moments of farming, but imbued with that were some of the issues my father used to talk about: some of the technological advances and maybe how they weren't all positive."
Men and the Fields captured a time about to change: when chocolate-box scenes of shepherds and the village forge would bow to modern agricultural practices.
Adrian Bell's experience of farming and writing stretched across 60 years in which agriculture was revolutionised - as was the character of rural life. These issues interested Richard. He writes about the changes, and uses examples of Bell's work to suggest what we might have gained, what we've lost and what might be at risk.
He accepts there's a danger about viewing the past through nostalgic eyes, "and I'm trying to make clear in the book that that's not my intention - and I don't think that's what Adrian Bell's intention was.
"I think the relevance of his work boils down to the fact that farming and agriculture is a creative act, ultimately. It's one where we produce, and work closely with the land to produce.
"Throughout the 20th Century we've become very much consumers. You've just got to look at how many people have left working on the land and how many now work in cities, and I think we've lost a lot of our culture because we've become consumers rather than creators.
"Alongside that is the environmental impact of intensive agriculture. We're starting to see a move back to organic subsidies being made available. Soil erosion: I think that's going to be the next big issue - this sense of degrading the soil."
Is there hope?
"I got a sense when he was writing in the late '70s that he could only see it going one way. He seems to suggest, even though it's often implicit, that we just need to get back to a deep appreciation of the land and the environment - and we need to become more ethical in our consumerism and our choices.
"Also, he felt the false distinction between intellectual pursuit and manual pursuit. He felt the hierarchy we had was problematic, because it means the value of manual labour is regarded less than someone who works in an office. Farming, I think he wrote, should be a vocation like any other. It should be regarded as highly as any other."
To me, all this is singing from the same hymn-sheet as the recent United Nations report about humans' terrible impact on nature. Basically, we should treat the world with respect and TLC, and work with it.
Is Richard optimistic?
"Well, I think so." He talks about the man who wrote an introduction for his book - a small-scale grower who produces organic vegetable and fruit boxes.
"He's very much into saying you don't dig the soil, because that destroys the structure. What you do is add nutrient to it - manure or compost - and build that up over time. That's got to be the way forward. We have to start putting things back into the land. That will increase not only the productivity of the land, it will also help with carbon-trapping."
We need to become more ethical consumers, though. "It's not just about people doing the farming; it's about us choosing not to spend the least amount of money (on food) as possible."
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Where to start?
Buy a few organic vegetables via a box scheme. "That would help. If everybody did that, it would build momentum."
As far as Adrian Bell is concerned, Richard says he's one of our greatest writers about farming and rural life.
"I think one of the reasons that statement holds true is he has a wonderful poetic clarity. I think that comes from having a very unpretentious approach to life generally. There is an element of him theorising at times, but I think it's grounded in the soil."
At the Field's Edge: Adrian Bell and the English Countryside is published by The Crowood Press on May 28, at £20.
Richard has three talk/signing events: At Harkstead church, near Ipswich, at 6pm on May 25; with Martin Bell at Browsers Bookshop, Woodbridge, at 7.30pm on June 11; and at Holy Trinity church, Blythburgh, at 6.30pm on August 23. Details here, from The Adrian Bell Society.
PLUS: The curtain comes down
John Ford was a 14-year-old Sunday school prize-winner at Wreningham, near Wymondham, when he became aware of the magic of Adrian Bell.
It was 70 years ago. Prize-winners could choose a book from Jarrold's in Norwich and John opted for a Bell. "To this day I will never know why I picked it off the shelf, but I did," he says.
Some years later, he discovered an Adrian Bell column was running each Saturday in the Eastern Daily Press. A joy. "I found I was reading them every week." A firm fan was born.
"One of the things I liked was that his writing was simple. There was nothing deep - where you had to screw your head up and think 'What do those words mean?'
"Where someone would write a sentence and it would have 17 words, he'd write the 'same sentence' with seven words. His descriptive ability was wonderful but succinct. There was no padding."
She did a beautiful job
Adrian Bell died in 1980 and those columns stopped, "and after a little while I wondered if anybody else missed them".
John wrote a letter to the paper, revealing his sense of loss, and "much to my amazement I had 14 or 15 replies". Meetings were held and, in 1996, The Adrian Bell Society launched.
Enthusiasts held two meetings a year - in different locations, and generally featuring a speaker - and, twice a year, members received journals filled with articles.
The society had well over 200 members at its peak, but folded on April 30 - not because of very thin ranks (still 100 or so) but a lack of younger blood and particularly someone to take over the journal.
Health reasons meant editor Moya Leighton couldn't continue, after publishing more than 40 over the years. "She was exceptional; there's no two ways about it," says John. "She did a beautiful job with the journal."
Three members did their best with the last edition. "At our age, it's a difficult job. Two of us were well into our 80s and one was over 90."
I remember his grubby £5
With little prospect of finding a new editor, "we had to sit down and say 'What do we do?' and decided 'Well, that will have to be curtains'." Sad, but not an uncommon problem for clubs nowadays.
Final-chairman John and other ex-members remain willing to give talks to groups about Adrian Bell - for expenses only. Ring 01508 480665 for details.
There had been members far and wide: most in Bell's adopted Suffolk, and nearly as many in Norfolk. Some were overseas.
The age profile was unbalanced, it's true. There was a man in his mid-40s, but his job took him away from this area. Everybody else was in their 60s or over.
John remembers an amusing anecdote about one man (a genuine lord) proffering his dues.
"I had a letter and the franking was the 'House of Lords'. He had put in that envelope probably the grubbiest five-pound note I've ever seen! I can't remember his name, but I remember his grubby £5."