Sunday, 23 December 2012

Penguin no. 278: Silver Ley
by Adrian Bell

"One can have too much art. One gets so that one longs to see something that isn't spun out of somebody's brain; a field of mangolds, or dawn that an artist daren't paint because it would be called sentimental. Art is in a curious state," I added - this was a matter on which I felt strongly, and probably wrongly - "when a man isn't allowed to paint a sunset because it is too beautiful." But I don't think she she quite saw what I was driving at, and I reconsidered Why should I disturb the tranquillity of the fireside with the snarl of controversy? and desisted, saying only: "One gets a keener pleasure from these things for seeing them the less frequently, and living in the fields meanwhile."

Adrian Bell could have stayed in Chelsea and continued with his relatively comfortable existence, but even at nineteen he despaired at the prospect of an office-bound life, and his thoughts were of escaping to the country. He persuaded his parents to fund a year-long farming apprenticeship at Farley Hall in Suffolk, later recording his experiences as a naïve town-bred trainee farmer in his first book Corduroy. When his apprenticeship ended he convinced his parents to purchase a nearby farm of 50 acres named Silver Ley, so that he could put into practice all that he had learnt without having to venture too far from his mentor Mr Colville. It meant that by the age of twenty he could think of himself as master of his own farm, with all the freedoms and responsibilities such a position entailed.

But the early 1920s proved an unpropitious time to embark on such a venture, as the post-war period saw a slump in agricultural prices which continued to worsen during the seven years that this book chronicles. He was undaunted by the challenge, however, and willing to endure the necessary hardships, and give up typical youthful pleasures, in order to succeed in the farming life to which he aspired. Perhaps his equanimity was partly underpinned by the knowledge that there was always a comfortable home awaiting him in London if he failed.

But his period of independence was unexpectedly short-lived, possibly because of his own overly-enthusiastic descriptions of the idyllic nature of rural living. On a weekend visit home he learned that the Chelsea apartment was to be relinquished, and his family, inspired by his example, intended to leave London and join him on his farm in Suffolk. With the house on Silver Ley inadequate for their needs, a second property was leased and it was never questioned that Bell would do other than give up his cottage, and his independence, and return to live in the family home, now a mile down the road at Groveside.

And, of course, the family were just as unprepared for rural life as he had been a few years earlier, with their romantic view of life in the countryside extrapolated from Bell's descriptions and the few weeks they had each spent on the farm lending him a hand. Their thoughts were of looking upon fields and morning birdsong, rather than of the abundant mud, and the inevitable lack of modern conveniences and intellectual diversions. His mother adapted quickly, however, and within a few weeks was embracing the rustic nature of her new life, teaching herself to milk cows, churn butter, pickle hams, and make sausages, and in her spare moments seeking out archaic implements that even the rural folk had long discarded. Adrian Bell notes wryly that the superseded methods often produced better results, and when available in places such as London, often came at a premium.

Inspiring though his mother's industry was, it took its toll upon his own ambitions, distracting him from the things he had hoped to achieve. She soon had him helping her with her tasks, sending him up to London each week to sell her products amongst friends and relations. In the end he had to leave most of the farming to his employees while devoting his time to his mother's projects. In part the story is about how he had to eventually undermine his mother's plans.

Adrian Bell's sympathy was clearly with the traditional farming methods in which he had been instructed by Mr Colville, but the 1920s was a time when modern ideas were beginning to make inroads into rural areas. He takes the sale of Farley Hall, reputed to be the best farm in area, as almost a case study in the unintended consequences upon farming, farms, and farmworkers of the incursions of mechanisation and the new ways of thinking. The new owner seemed to be on a mission; his first act was to lay off most of the men, so that he could introduce in their place a traction engine and a tractor. He didn't succeed, and his experiment ruined both the farm and the lives of the displaced farmworkers. The combination of the post-war slump and increasing mechanisation meant that there was little work for even the most industrious and capable of farmhands.

While he gives a reasonable account of his first years of farming, I didn't enjoy this book as much as I enjoyed Corduroy, and there were even times when I found it a little dull, although this may have been partly due to the strain of reading a fragile wartime edition with its small and hard-to-read font. The book seemed to lack the structure and humility of his earlier work, with this a more rambling account of his family's experiences and of the lives of the friends he had made during his time in the country.

By the same author:
Penguin no. 247: Corduroy


  1. Olá meu querido amigo, e eu estava lendo o seu site, eu só quero dizer que eu realmente amo isso! A aparência geral do seu site é fantástico, assim como o conteúdo! Parabéns por seu trabalho incrível! Eu sigo seu blog (126) ... Espero que você siga-me de volta .... Desejo-lhe felicidade e alegria ... e bênçãos para o Ano Novo. Desejo-lhe o melhor de tudo ... Que você tão bem merece.
    Saudações do Rio de Janeiro / Brasil

  2. I thought Corduroy and Silver Ley both sound interesting, perhaps because they relate to my own family history. At the time Adrian embarked on a farming career, my grandfather had the same dream, but lacked a family to buy him a farm. Nevertheless, he managed to move his family out of London into a kind of smallholding (the first of several, I believe)where he grew fruit and vegetables and kept goats, chickens and rabbits. The family ate well,and were fairly self-sufficient, but Grandpa never made his patch of land pay, and was only able to 'farm' by keeping his job as an electrician on buses.

    1. I know I live on the other side of the world and many decades later, but the experience of trying to grow just a little food on a semi-rural block means that I have nothing but admiration for those who attempt farming. So much work must be put in which can be wiped out by a single adverse event (in our case this is typically a failed pump or a flock of birds, but real farmers must of course gamble on weather and prices as well). I'm glad your grandfather was able to fulfil his dream, even if he needed another occupation as well.

    2. I wonder if Allen Lane was particularly drawn to books like this because of his own gentleman-farmer ambitions. He was insulated from the dangers by his own wealth, but I think he was attracted to the element of chance in the farmer's life. All the great pioneering British publishers were tremendous gamblers.



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