Described as 'A nice enough man but totally unsuited
to politics' by his Tatton election opponent Neil Hamilton, Martin
Bell was one of the BBC's most recognised and respected reporters
before his high-profile entrance into politics. Here, in an extract
from Father & Son from the Penguin Collectors' Society press, he
writes about his father's career as an author with Penguin.
ADRIAN BELL 1901-1980 by Martin Bell
from Father & Son, from the Penguin Collectors' Society Press
little that happened to me was ever planned. Most of it was accidental
and even serendipitous. That certainly goes for my short career
as an author. Even while the Bosnian war was still raging, in the
summer of 1995, I completed a personal account of it, entitled In
Harm's Way. I remember writing the final chapter by candlelight
in Sarajevo's embattled Holiday Inn, as the snipers' bullets were
cracking past the window. There was no point in living through all
this without attempting to make some sense of it. The book was published
in the autumn of that year by Hamish Hamilton, under the guidance
of its Editorial Director Kate Jones. Kate later became my agent
in the Tatton election campaign: but that's another story and the
subject of another book, An
Accidental MP. The Tatton campaign was itself a war zone, requiring
a certain steadiness under fire.
Hamish Hamilton is one of the imprints which rest under the Penguin's
Harm's Way was duly published a year later, with a couple of
added chapters in the Penguin edition. It actually did quite well,
especially when I was pitch-forked into politics. People bought
it to find out who this odd fellow was who dared take on the formidable
Hamiltons and then to try to chart a course, for the term of a single
Parliament only, as an Independent MP.
My father's career as an author was much more distinguished.
He could write in a more arresting manner about the pond life in
his back garden than I could about the world's conflicts and commotions
that I chronicled for the BBC.
Bell was entirely one of a kind. At the age of 20, then a rather
Bohemian young man about Battersea, he heard the call of the land
as an almost religious vocation. His dream was agricultural. He
was apprenticed to Vic Savage, a yeoman farmer in Carlton Colville
near Bury St Edmunds, who taught him all he knew in the best agricultural
college of all, which is a working farm. Out of that experience,
my father wrote a book, Corduroy,
which prospered greatly by word of mouth and became a countryside
classic. When he graduated to a small farm of his own he wrote two
more, Silver Ley and The Cherry Tree, to complete the trilogy. All
three books ran to many editions - the grandest of them an illustrated
version with perfectly matching pictures by Harry Becker. They are
hoarded to this day, and traded, by the many devotees of my father's
work. There even exists an Adrian Bell Society.
The most important edition of all, without doubt,
was the Penguin. It was published in 1940 in a small format and
on paper of distinctly war-time quality. A Penguin could fit into
a soldier's pocket or his kit-bag, and often did. It thus found
a place wherever British forces served, by land, sea and air, in
the war zones of the Second World War. It was especially prized
in the prison camps.
I became fully aware of the effect he had only after
his death. At the bottom of a drawer we found a collection of the
letters sent to him by servicemen who had read his books in their
bivouacs and tank turrets, and drawn from them comfort and hope
in their lives' hardest times. He provided a life-line to another
world, a world of peace and sanity, of enduring values and country
rhythms remote from the war's destruction.
In a now almost forgotten magazine, Everybody's, he
wrote an open letter to one of the members of this far-flung constituency,
an RAF fighter pilot. 'You wrote to me from Malta, from a Malta
pounded by air from Sicily, from North Africa, ringed by U-Boats,
all but cut off. You wrote to me (heaven knows how the letter got
through) that when the war was finished, you and your girl wanted
to marry and have a little farm in England. You have a vision of
England. Wherever you are, it has been your consolation and hope.
Keep that vision, because it's true. It may be the key to your life.
I am anxious that you should know this; because if you follow your
impulses and live your farming life, with all its ups and downs,
at the end of it you will sit back and recall that first vision
of it that you had in the desert or the jungle. And you will know
then that all in all it was a true vision.'
My father's vision was shared and communicated through
that little paperback edition. Mr Penguin has many achievements
to his credit, but in my view his wartime work was the most valuable
of all. I would even call it heroic. It sustained the faith and
fortitude of men who had lost touch with friends and family, and
the country for which they were fighting. When it was all over and
the survivors returned, it is my view that Penguin should have been
decorated - with the DPM (Distinguished Publications Medal) or some
such. He had surely earned it.
Corduroy has just been republished in a large print
version. A production company has acquired the rights to it, with
a view to turning it into a TV series - a sort of agricultural Ballykissangel.
If the project comes to fruition, I would like to see someone like
Colin Firth in the lead role, as the poet-turned-farmer. But the
real stars of the show will be the sheaves and stacks, and the steam-powered
threshing machines of the 1920s - great engines which my father
saw as poetry in motion.
Nothing matters to me more - certainly not my short
spell in politics - than the present revival of interest in his
writing. He has as many admirers today as in his lifetime. Much
credit must go to that Penguin edition. Mr Penguin also has reason
to be grateful.
Taken from Father & Son, published by the Penguin Collector's Society.