Caught by the River

Through the Woods

13th June 2011

by H.E.Bates.
Review by Laura Beatty.

At the end of Through the Woods, when he has described the wood of his childhood and the wood at the end of the lane where he lived in Kent, Bates finds himself closing with the dreamy observation that ‘there is some precious quality brought about by the close gathering together of trees into a wood that defies analysis.’

So what is it? What makes a wood? What does the wood of his childhood, that ‘paradise of primroses’ through which the roar of passing trains smashes at regular intervals, have in common with the soft chestnut wood of his choosing, where the light falls on quiet and whose trees stand in pools of bluebells? And come to that, what do either have in common with ‘The English Woodland’ of his book’s subtitle? How, or even why, would you reconcile such difference? What is The woodland that we so often invoke, the woodland that all of us carry around in our heads? Because woods are very deep in our consciousness; they are our place of forage and shelter but also our place of trial and growth and horror at ourselves or of others, our resource and our repository. They are the place that both our food and our stories come from.

These are the questions that Through the Woods revolves, quietly and at the back of its mind, as it climbs the slow spiral of a year, from April to April. What are woods in themselves and what are they to us?

Bates was born in Rushden, in Northamptonshire in 1905, a county short on woods then, and even shorter now. His father worked in the shoe factory across the street and his grandfather, a hand-stitching cobbler by trade who couldn’t face church and couldn’t face factory work, took up the offer of a small-holding on a particularly intractable piece of clay-land that lay at the edge of the growing town, and worked that instead. There was no trap, no form of transport apart from an old wheelbarrow. There were no farm buildings, just the great flat field, so Bates’ father and grandfather had to make the piggery, the sheds, the stable and the barn themselves on Saturday mornings when the factory was closed.

This was the beginning of what Bates called ‘my love and feeling for the English countryside’. It was ‘out of this very ordinary, unprepossessing piece of Midland earth,’ he remembers later, that there sprang up ‘a paradise that remains to this day, utterly unblemished, a joy forever.’

In fact Bates’ upbringing, like his writing on closer inspection, was a curious mix. He played games with the other children, on the man-hole covers and round the lamp-posts of the street where he lived. On week day evenings after school they would all be out, between the dismal, brick-built terraces of Rushden, with the clang and smoke and dirt of a newly industrialised town around them. Then at weekends and in the holidays he lived a different life. He would be wheeled in a wheel-barrow to his grand-father’s plot on summer mornings, to spend the day working the land and listening and ‘pretending not to listen’ to the gypsies and the rivermen and the other small-holders. Or he was taken for long walks through the Bedfordshire woods by his father, woods that ‘etched’ themselves on his childish mind, ‘with such imperishable clarity that I can still see and smell the bluebells, the honeysuckle … the sheer concentrated fragrance of summer leaf and sap’.

If the countryside was what pressed itself indelibly on his mind, still the town was where he lived. Growing up almost under the skin of the land, as he did part of the time, with the rest spent in the town, often with his head in a book, Bates couldn’t help asking himself continually what to do with man in the landscape. Is he master or creature, creator or destroyer? Is there some way that he could or should be, or is it all hopeless?

For answers, he looks at the wood at the end of his lane. He observes and celebrates its quiet cycle. Then he remembers the wood of his Northampton childhood, and more elusive still, he fishes deeper and darker into the internal wood so central to the Western consciousness. And all the time that he is looking and thinking, he can’t help noticing that the world around him, the world of post-war England, is changing at breakneck speed. Farming practices were changing and with them the look of the woods and fields so dear to him. Industry and technology were whirling away the old, mud-clagged pace of his childhood and replacing it with something less localized, less inward-looking – with a pace that was fast and imported, not just from the town but maybe from even further, something trans-Atlantic.

So it is no surprise that Bates’s writing is deeply and essentially nostalgic. It looks back unashamedly and laments what is lost. We have a horror of nostalgia now. We think it better conscientiously to concentrate on the concrete rather than the emotional or the purely aesthetic, to talk about working the land, to exhume vocabularies that refer to dead skills, wooding or peat cutting or drowning of water meadows, as if the knowledge of these things will somehow jump-start our connection with the lost landscape. But if we called nostalgia, ‘home-sickness’ which is what it really is (nostos, a return home; algos, pain or grief) would we be less ashamed to confess to it? Home is where we grew up and where we belong. Home is what produces us. It is ourselves in the end. It may be that nostalgia over landscape is healthier than its opposite.

But if Bates is nostalgic he is also always robust. There is nothing pious or mealy-mouthed about his ability to embrace the nature of the world. He enjoys its contradictions. He never pulls his punches about his own background for instance. ‘Plebeian by birth and upbringing’ as he calls himself, he says he has a ‘cock-eyed way of looking at things’. He upholds poaching. He condemns hunting unless the fox be substituted for a ‘milk-maddened cow’. He hates game-keepers and one in particular ‘with a good, simple, hot-blooded hatred’. There are good things about the town and there are bad things about the country and if life is impossibly mixed and various, still it is all one and you are part of it, joined to it as closely as a limb is joined to a body. It is possible to dislike your knees or your ankles but you have in the end to accept that they are your own.

Bates tried, as he put it, ‘to look at the country as a whole, as an inseparable part of the whole English way of life, and not as a life separated and fenced off’. He believed in agriculture as something ‘creative’ and beneficial, especially to ‘millions who never take part in it’. He was actively interested in progress and reform. If he was nostalgic for what was lost, still he remained optimistic in the face of change, even when those changes were mourned by him for their private preciousness.

So it is alright to be nostalgic. It is just not alright to hold on, to decry change, because change, as the wood in the grip of the seasons told him, is in the nature of things. And then, in the end, if all the ‘tender trivialities’ go and we are really homeless, then at least there will be the woods and fields of memory, of folklore and fairytale. And it may be that these fusions of the real and the ideal are where we really keep our selves. Maybe this consummation of contradictions is at the heart of it, however fleeting. Perhaps Bates’s question could be re-phrased. Perhaps it is as well to ask where is the English woodland, as what it is, because if it is still safe inside our heads, then all cannot possibly be lost.

Through the Woods (Little Toller Books) is on sale in the Caught by the River shop, priced £10.