I’ve been writing all my life, and my inspiration comes from many different sources. My father was a great countryman, and he introduced me to the descriptive prose of H.E.Bates. There was always a book or two of his about the place. As Dad was a great one for reading aloud, over the years our family must have heard almost everything Bates ever wrote. He was writing fifty years or so ago, and his use of language can feel a bit dated now but his themes are constant. His short stories are often bittersweet, focussing on ordinary people whose futures seem bleak and limited. A common theme is someone’s silent dilemma: they are worrying while all around them life goes on cheerfully. The First Day of Christmas, for example, focusses on a man who has taken refuge in a pub after a lovers’ quarrel, and faces up to some hard thinking while his companions are dabbling in celebrations.
Thanks to film and TV adaptations, the five novels H.E.Bates wrote about the Larkin family are some of his best known work. The Darling Buds Of May, A Breath of French Air, When the Greenwoods Laugh, Oh! To Be In England and A Little of What You Fancy are set in the years after the Second World War but with Pa to duck and dive and Ma to cook, they are full of fun and feasts. Now foreign holidays and fast food have taken the place of fruit picking and home cooking, that way of life has practically disappeared. I can just about remember country living being as the Larkins knew it, but my children look on those stories as something from a different world!
My favourite work by H.E. Bates isn’t actually fiction at all, but his garden writing. A Fountain of Flowers and A Love of Flowers in particular are two wonderful books, full of his keen observation and humour. His writing makes plants interesting in a way few others can. I could never see the attraction of one particular tree until I read his description of it in flower. He thought its white bracts looked like a flock of white doves – what’s not to love about that? And he’s dead right when he says tulips are always doomed to be “Very expensive mouse food”! I tried to collect all the plants H. E. Bates recommended in my own garden, but I suffered from the same problem he had – the dead hand that steals away treasures the moment your back is turned. “I had them all,” he sighs after listing a lovely range of plants, “but I do not have them now.” Celebrity horticulturalists on TV never own up to their failures, but every keen gardener recognises the resignation behind the words of H.E.Bates!
“A garden should be in a constant state of fluid change, expansion, experiment, adventure; above all it should be an inquisitive, loving, but self-critical journey on the part of its owner.”
This could equally apply to writing. A writer can put anything down as a first draft, simply to disrupt the cruel white plane of an empty page. The care taken to design, mould and perfect a piece of work through many drafts can be seen as similar toil to building a garden. Writers and gardeners enjoy the same sense of satisfaction – a job well done is always worth celebrating.