Mike Smith uncovers the wonders of the world of H.E Bates
Waiting for the computer to load I turned to the bookshelf and noticed my set of The Saturday Book. Thirty-five of the eclectic annual volumes were published between 1941 and 1975, with a ‘Best of’ following in the early 80s.
I needed a reading project and decided to start at the beginning of volume one. I accumulated the set over many years having been given two as birthday or perhaps Christmas presents in 1959 and 1960, but I’d never read them all from cover to cover. Long after discovering one of my favourite short stories (H.E.Bates’ The Little Farm), I found I’d had for years it in Volume One of The Saturday Book. What I hadn’t found was a second piece by Bates in the same volume, or rather, a first piece by him, for it opens the book and the whole series.
‘Sea Days, Sea Flowers’ begins with recollections of summer trips to the Sussex and Kentish coast ‘as far as the white dunes of Sandwich bay’, and to ‘the flat wide shores beyond the Dymchurch sea-wall’ or to ‘Hastings and Rye’. I assumed at first that I was reading the opening to another short story, though it did cross my mind as odd that he should get two in the same volume. There are many short stories that start with such descriptions of rural England. Du Maurier’s ‘The Old Man’, Coppard’s ‘Weep Not My Wanton’, and Gallico’s ‘The Snow Goose’, all play heavily on the landscape in which their tales are played out.
But here Bates’ description seemed to go on for so long and was in such detail. It was a journey such as that Kipling took in his opening to ‘They’: a drive through England, to England rather than a mere setting for a tale. As that journey entered its second page the penny began to drop that I was reading what we would now call, I suppose, a piece of creative non-fiction.
The detail is astonishing: about the landscape, the topography, the architecture of the towns and villages, the working lives of the fish-hawkers and the fishermen, and the tourists who drive down for the summer to buy their fish; of the “smoke-stacks of ships steaming up the Channel as they come in close at Dungeness”; of the “coast that is full of Napoleonic memories”; of “the toy passenger train that peeps and shrieks across the flat marsh”. And, throughout it all, those flowers: “the tall mauve-pink marshmallows, like delicate wild hollyhocks…the clusters of reed and willow-herb and purple loosestrife…”
It’s a luscious, artist’s eyeful of this southern corner of England, and it goes on for pages. How can you make such a tour, packed as it is with such detailed description, and no narrative, and the only real character a fish-seller with whom Bates’ reminiscing narrator banters, how can you make it work, and over some thirteen pages of text? For it does work.
Scotland has always been a foreign country to me, but I know most of it far better than I know any of the so-called Home Counties, and the country that Bates describes in this piece is totally alien to me. Yet it made me want to visit, to see it, to see how much of that 1941 landscape still lives and shines under his summer sky. Of course, Bates is a superlative writer, but there’s more to it than that. And he knows a lot: about the flowers, about those childhood holidays, about the lives of working people. The piece is jam-packed with detail and keen observation. But there’s more to it than that as well.
The clue is in the date, and in the three words that open the piece, which, at eighty years’ distance you might have missed: ‘IN PEACE TIME’, and yes, they are in capitals too. For this lush description, redolent with nostalgia, elegiac for a lost world, was published in 1941, when World War Two, for England, was already two years old, and the beaches were sealed off to casual visitors, barbed wired and mined for defence, prepared for an invasion that never came. A couple of pages in, Bates gives us a reminding nudge, repeating the phrase, this time in lower case: “it was always so easy, in peace time, to find a light excuse [to make the coast journeys]”.
By 1941 Bates was already at the top of his game. Stories like ‘The Mill, The Kimono, and The Boxer’, had been written, stories that by his own account were more fully developed than those prompted by what he called ‘the facile devil inside’. And he was a master of the descriptive. The sense of heat that pervades the deserted farmyard and surrounding farmland in the story ‘A Great Day for Bonzo’is palpable, and that same intensity is present in many others of his rural tales, not least the often dubbed ‘bucolic’ Kent of The Darling Buds of May (1958). He was already putting those talents to the National Service, most famously in the stories of Flying Officer X. And this piece too, no doubt, had its propaganda purpose, for Britain, like other nations, was fighting for the survival not only of its lives and infra-structures nor merely for its political systems, but for the narratives of its physical homelands. This was one of the notional as well as real England that the majority of the British were fighting for, and here Bates is summoning a sense of loss that could already be felt as war took that landscape, albeit temporarily, away from the people.
Towards the end of his piece Bates makes this context more explicit. “It is a year since I was down on the coast.” And he lets the war intrude more specifically: “A mine was tossing a little out to seaward…”, where the fish-hawkers “would talk to you of the dead Nazi airmen that were washed up every day…”. Not for nothing did the Kent coast, in the days of the Battle of Britain, become known as ‘Hell’s Corner’.
Bates does not end on the war though, but returns us to nostalgia, to the seashore, “the scream of gulls”, and the “toy train, penny plaices, sea-flowers, peace-time world”. He ends on a reflective note, and one, I think, that carries a whiff of English comic irony: “But it’s no use getting sentimental now.” There was, after all, still a war to fight.
Mike Smith lives on the edge of England where he writes occasional plays, poetry, and essays, usually on the short story form in which he writes as Brindley Hallam Dennis. His writing has been published and performed. He blogs at www.Bhdandme.wordpress.com
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL