Sunday, 18 May 2014

Penguin no. 654: Fruit in Season
by Anthony Thorne

They were, alas, a generation too late. Martimas in their father's day was a fine sight - a couple of hundred lads, mostly from Steeple, but from Ripley and Birdsfield also, and from the hamlets and endways about them, gathered in that cobbled square which they called The Green, a crowd of them stretching from the school clock right up to the door of 'The Stag' and, of course, behind it. Farmers, whose horses were tethered to the trees of Sparepenny Lane, came walking among the lads; and you could tell these by their good breeches, by the bunches of blue ribbons in their hands, and by the sound of the silver they jingled. They would be glancing about them, too, appraising a likely man by his looks, and the men, conscious of appraisal, were alert and gay.

There was something rather charming in this portrait of the hiring traditions of Steeple Goring. I suspect it was mostly because of Anthony Thorne's prose and the particular talent he has for evoking places and events. But it was also because he was describing something being experienced communally, involving ceremony and celebration, and underpinned by tradition and ritual. And while I don't imagine that 'appraising a likely man by his looks' falls anywhere within the ambit of contemporary notions of fairness and equal opportunity, what a contrast it provides with the need to address selection criteria, to reflect on personal anecdotes of teamwork and innovation, and to endure weeks of uncertainty.

Martimas Fest seems to offer a kind of sport for the villagers of Steeple Goring: everyone turns out to witness the contest between the young men, to support the successful, to commiserate with the losers, and to speculate on the reasons that this farmer has been rebuffed or that lad overlooked.The successful are given a blue ribbon to wear in their buttonholes to seal their contract of employment, and a shilling to spend in The Stag, so that the afternoon can be spent in celebration.

But the tradition had become an anachronism by 1920, a symbol of a way of life that was already passing away. Catherine, William, Glen and Douce are children at the time, and having been allowed a rare day in the village, they inadvertently find themselves witnessing the very final Martimas Fest of Steeple Goring. It is an insipid affair, one which has never recovered from the impact of the War years when the employable comprised only those too young or too old to have gone to the War, and when it was therefore marked more by what was missing than by what could be observed. But the children love watching it anyway, just as they love anything associated with the village.

Fruit in Season is a story in three parts. The first describes the children's final summer at their home Runeham Hall, near Steeple Goring; their summer, and their association with the only place they consider home, ends abruptly when their mother dies. But she had not been much of a mother, too in the thrall of drink to provide them with anything approaching consistent care, and they had mostly been raised by their governess, Miss Lancaster, who could have loved them but who had been required to keep her affection for them constrained within the limits allowed by her position. With their father already dead, their mother's death leaves the four children as orphans. And so an aunt arrives, dismisses Miss Lancaster, and whisks them away to the Continent, and it is seventeen years before the children are able to be together at Runeham Hall again.

Anthony Thorne's other novel published as a Penguin, Delay in the Sun, considered the effect of place upon the destinies of those who had found themselves temporarily stranded in a small Spanish village; Fruit in Season considers the effect of place, in this case of an old house and an adjacent village, upon the adult characters of a small group of children who knew the house for only a few months each year. The effect the home has upon them is enhanced by the lack of any experience of parental care.

Runeham Hall is left to moulder after the children are fetched away, as Catherine, who inherits it upon her mother's death, cannot bring herself to part with it, and it remains unsought by any tenant. As with Martimas Fest, it is a remnant of a world which no longer exists. The final part of the story tells of the return of the children to their childhood home seventeen years after their sudden departure, when Catherine opens the house for two weeks and invites her siblings and their partners to holiday with her in their old home.

It is a story about social change, in that it is progress and the modern world which render both Martimas Fest and Runeham Hall redundant. They both belonged to a world in which horizons were constrained, where the local farmers offered the primary source of employment, and where everyone was known by reputation. It was also a world in which ambition was curtailed, and so the chance to flaunt a blue ribbon and to spend a shilling in the local bar was as much as anyone dared hope for.

First published 1938. Published in Penguin Books 1951.

By the same author:
Penguin no. 493: Delay in the Sun

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