On a Monkey’s Birthday
Into the heart of Belloc’s Sussex
by Tim Rich

Published: Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010

It started with cheese. Someone was paying tribute to Brie, that pudgy French “Queen of Cheeses”. This led another to repeat Henry II’s belief in the sovereignty of cheddar, a claim enhanced by the King’s purchase of 10,000lbs of the stuff in 1170. I was rather hoping we might return to our earlier dispute on whether maize is corn or corn is maize. If they are the same, why didn’t the Bible refer to “an ear of maize”? And would the Romans have called their goddess of agriculture Ceres, name-giver to cereal, if they’d had the option of Maizey?

At this point a gnarled old boy wandered over, leant in and muttered “Belloc”. An insult, I thought. A High Wealden verbal slap for our under-age, under-the-influence joutering here in the Rose and Crown. This magical rookery, where the crouching oaks outside are forever insinuating their splin-terfingers between the weatherboards, through the thick sweet fug of logsmoke and hoptalk and dampdogpong, and down into the dark fabric of the pub.

I’d like to say there were four of us – a reflection of the book we were about to meet – but no. Three. A friend obsessive about privacy, so I’ll refer to him simply as Alfie Catt of 2 Spiked Rampion Cottages, Old Forge Lane, Mayfield, East Sussex TN20 9TR. Mark Cross, the extraordinarily hairy lead singer with local super-group Tolkien Heads. And the Holy Ghost, who we can call “I”.

Mark looked into the conker-brown eyes of our interrupter and said: “What on earth are you on about?” Alfie smiled in the man’s direction, and winked. I blushed like Sussex Flame.

Soft, just above the crawks and caws of the pub crowd, the man replied: “Hilaire Belloc. Talked about a cheese argument in The Four Men. Wrote an essay on cheeses, in fact. It’s called On Cheeses. Much better about Sussex matters than that gloompond Kipling over at Burrish. Frenchy. Liked a drop. Ar”. Then he turned and melted into a swaying gang of old boys murdering Hi Ho Silver Lining a cappella.

Mark, extracting a Capstan Full Strength from its coffin, said: “Good grief, clearly insane”. Alfie slurped his Harvey’s, eyes shut. I felt a cold snake of excitement slither down my spine and wondered where I could learn more about this fasci-nating femme écrivain, Hilary Bullock.

* * *

Turns out “Hilary Bullock” wasn’t such an original mistake. Tongue in cheek, Belloc suggested he might adopt the name. Even the family grave at Our Lady of Consolation and St Francis in West Grinstead says “Pray for the soul of Elodie Agnes Hogan, the wife of Hilary Belloc of this parish”.

Searching for Hilary revealed Hilaire, via some hilarity for the ferrety man who ran the village library. A forest of books, articles, careers and events loomed. Born near Paris in a violent thunderstorm. Outbreak of Franco-Prussian war three days later. Family fled to England. Childhood in Sussex. Soldier. Land agent (failed). Journalist. Novelist. Poet. Member of Parliament. Biographer. Lecturer. Religious apolo-gist. Curmudgeon. “How profuse and pure a genius”, noted Evelyn Waugh.1 Belloc’s Cautionary Tales for Children and its inflammatory star Matilda were what many people knew, along with a refer-ence to his name in The Two Ronnies (a faulty newsroom typewriter swaps each “e” for an “o”). I – a tender and earnest reader – only wanted the sophisticated stuff and ordered The Four Men: A Farrago. I didn’t know what a farrago was; some-thing to do with opera? The book would join my next literary expedition. Wracked by late teenage ennui, I wandered in search of lonely sunlit spots where I might try to understand Camus or Sartre and generally inspire myself to feel alienated. I read The Stranger in a beach-dry field of straw; Nausea in the barky embrace of an apple tree. The fruit was sweet and local, the prose always from elsewhere. Sussex writing seemed stuck in a muddy rut of histrionic doggerel. There was Kipling, but I saw him as a children’s writer (my mistake). Besides, Bateman’s – his morose walled house and garden – was where on hay-scented summer nights I tested my ability to trespass, face blackened with cork soot.

While we’re loitering without intent in Rudyard’s back-yard, I should explain that by “Sussex” I mean rural Sussex. To write both words – Sussex and rural – creates something of a tautology as Sussex is only properly Sussex when it is rural. A place must have the smell of wood about it. There are villages and towns in the heart of the county that are not in Sussex. Where are they? Everywhere and nowhere, perhaps. If this is unclear visit Horsham. Or Uckfield (where, writes Christopher Nye in Maximum Diner, the River Uck is “a site of relentless struggle between the council and the town’s graffiti artists”2). They smell of nothing, those places. In contrast, Lewes and Hastings are very woody, and most definitely in Sussex. Brighton and Hove are marvellous metropolises near Sussex. Crawley should be returned to Surrey. And Bexhill is a Kent town that has wandered down the coast into our county and refuses to go home.

Back in the reading room of some sun-dappled spinney or camomile-speckled slonk, I opened The Four Men and discov-ered farrago meant hotchpotch. I’ve learned since that it’s derived from the Latin word for mixed cattle fodder; a perfect root for Belloc’s discursive ramble from the Sussex-Kent border to his neck of the woods near Chichester. As a recover-ing Catholic who had moved with scurrilous haste from sips of sweet communion wine to illicit nights of bitter, I was relieved to find that the Roman Belloc preferred bibulous debate to pontification. True, he uses drinking to signal a communion between his principal characters, and there’s much breaking of bread to mark pledges, but everyone goes on to quarrel or sigh over very down-to-earth matters, from friendship, wealth and love to whether earache is worse than toothache.

* * *

Autumn

Immersing myself in excellent biographies by AN Wilson3 and Joseph Pearce,4 it strikes me that Belloc was always an unfash-ionable writer. His religious and social prejudices did for him, perhaps. And he’s probably too prolific, uneven and outspo-ken to win posthumous renown in our world of unique selling propositions, brand reputation and political correctness.

Regardless, I’m drawn back by the verve and exuberance of his language. Belloc’s best work is a counter-blast to current anxieties over readers’ attention spans, to our timid aspiration to write “plain English” that gets to the point quickly. He wanders around his point like a farmer inspecting a cow at market; ruminating, prodding, prompting, proposing. He sets up rumbustious dialogues that stretch and strain his themes. Even his interior monologues have a sense of conversation and exchange; of opinion forming as the writing unfolds.

I find Belloc a particularly fine writer of paragraphs, rather than sentences. And long paragraphs at that. Here’s just a section of a paragraph I love, from an essay called The Mowing of a Field:

“Good verse is best written on good paper with an easy pen, not with a lump of coal on a whitewashed wall. The pen thinks for you; and so does the scythe mow for you if you treat it honourably and in a manner that makes it recognise its service. The manner is this. You must regard the scythe as a pendulum that swings, not as a knife that cuts. A good mower puts no more strength into his stroke than into his lifting. Again, stand up to your work. The bad mower, eager and full of pain, leans forward and tries to force the scythe through the grass. The good mower, serene and able, stands as nearly straight as the shape of the scythe will let him, and follows up every stroke closely, moving his left foot forward. Then also let every stroke get well away. Mowing is a thing of ample gestures, like drawing a cartoon. Then, again, get yourself into a mechanical and repetitive mood: be thinking of anything at all but your mowing, and be anxious only when there seems some interruption to the monotony of the sound. In this mowing should be like one’s prayers-all of a sort and always the same, and so made that you can estab-lish a monotony and work them, as it were, with half your mind: that happier half, the half that does not bother.”5

And here I am sitting in London trying to let my pen think for me about Belloc. The grass won’t cut. Time to head south.

* * *

Shipley. The village he made home. Very Sussex. Very woody. It’s 5 November. Stout-black clouds are brewing to the north, but here by his windmill and house – King’s Land he called it – we have sunshine and short performances of rain. Electric air suggests thunderclaps to follow. Thrushes are singing with the joy of a wet worm feast. A dryad wobbles past on a bike mum-bling “Weather”, or “Whether”. Sussex calls such climatic confusion a monkey’s birthday.

For Belloc this territory was beyond compare, even locally. In Sussex, The Resistant County he writes:

“The lines of West Sussex are long lines, like those of waves following on a wind. The lines of East Sussex are sharp, pyramidal, isolated, pointed … The men of West Sussex will tell you, when they choose to be articulate (and they can be articulate when they choose), that their landscape is the most subtle in the world; but the landscape of East Sussex is quite clearly apparent and needs no mental digging to understand it … It is strik-ing. West Sussex is not striking. It is revealing.”6

An elegant report, but quite wrong, I think. The eastern part is enigmatic. Kipling’s “secret Weald”.7 The western ground is open and inviting to the eye – long, leggy expanses of photo-genic downland with chalk-teeth smiles.

Two Sussex men disagreeing. How very unusual. “We Wunt Be Druv” goes our motto, a polished relic from the drovers. If we had an emblem it would be an immovable pig with mischievous eyes and a bunch of bluebells in its mouth. Belloc adored this theme:

“The County of Sussex has this peculiarity among all the Counties of England: That it is more resistant than any … It has always had this quality. It was a separate kingdom much later than any other county … [To this day] one may talk a little fantastically but without too much exaggeration of ‘the Kingdom of Sussex’.”8

I wonder whom he imagined as King? Later, he states: “Sussex has been equally stubborn and tenacious in its resistance to any other change, even those of our own time”.9

I’m tempted to follow this line, but rural conservatism is a dead-end lane. The past might be pleasurable to visit but you can’t expect people to live there. Besides, old Sussex was never an Eden. Its beauty was formed by the seasonal pilgrimages of swineherds, who drove their pigs into the wild woods to munch acorns. By their settlement in farmsteads, creating small, irregular fields to match tough, irregular land. By the huge growth in iron foundries making cannon, which farmed the woods and funded glorious houses.10 By each new prosper-ous generation preserving these qualities. Yes, Sussex should be protected. From unthinking rurburbanisation. From ubiq-uity. From Leylandii culture. But Sussex needs new life as well as continuity. An appreciation of what is and what could be as great as what was.

Unfortunately, Belloc’s flames burn low when he considers the future. He projects his own maudlin – Magdalene – pes-simism onto the land rather than celebrates its potential. Death, dread and sentiment stalk his feelings. Here he is in the preface to The Four Men:

“ … on this account does a man come to love with all his heart , that part of earth which nourished his boyhood. For it does not change, or if it changes, it changes very little, and finds in it the character of enduring things. In this love he remains content, until, perhaps, some sort of warning reaches him, that even his own County is approaching its doom.”11

“Doom”. How very Catholic. The personal as universal. But enough of all this, we have a public burning to attend.

* * *

A blazing star turns Lewes night to day. Bonfire Night. The oratorio of shrieks and bellows and wails begins. This humpy necropolis at the meeting point of Downs and Weald is shud-dering its ghosts from the mortar. A wake. You are not welcome, however. Lewes Bonfire Council suggests “out-siders” stay away. Police issue health and safety warnings. Trains are cancelled. Parking is impossible. It rains. Seventy-five thousand people turn up.

I can’t find reference to Bonfire in Belloc. Perhaps it offended his Catholicity, for tonight, as always on the fifth, an effigy of a Pope will burn. The infamous “No Popery” banner is already flying down by the Ouse. It’s normally a gift shop area; I’d like to add a banner declaring “No Pot Pourri”. There is serious history at play, however. Bonfires burned

across Sussex in the 1550s. According to John Foxe’s The Book of Martyrs,12 four Protestants went to the stake in my home village, Mayfield. Seventeen were burnt outside the Star Inn in Lewes. A memorial in Mayfield depicts logs and flames and declares “Thy Word is Truth”. I think of Matilda Who Told Lies, And Was Burned to Death. Remembrance of the martyrs was introduced to Bonfire in the 1850s – a Protestant response to contemporary political and religious issues.13

Mark and Alfie meet me by the War Memorial, as arranged. “Good Lord, why are you hanging around here like a bad smell?” asks Mark, now with jazz-grunge experimentalists Horny Devil. Alfie has been helping one of the societies; he can’t reveal which. I mention Belloc and Sussex and the Rose and Crown affair. “What on earth are you on about?”, asks Mark. Alfie smiles in my direction, and winks.

Torches are lit, the procession begins, rook-scarers split cold hard air, and the bacchantes chant “Oi! Oi! Oi!”. There are Cavaliers. Zulus. Mongolian warriors. Siamese dancers. American Indians. Pirates. Space aliens. A man dressed as Herne the Hunter. A long line of mixed metaphors.

Despite the anti-popery, there’s something Bellocose about this combination of dark fuming and expressive zest, this farrago of black powders. Effigies of “Enemies of Bonfire” – usually local officials – are paraded on pikes, but there’s also togetherness and vitality. Sectarian prejudice is a persistent but feint stain. For most, “Popery” has become shorthand for authoritarianism.

Following a Society to its firesite, we find ourselves mixed up in the ranks of torchbearers. A marshall dressed as a Wren screeches “Respect the procession! Respect the procession!” The pyre is lit. The Archbishop of Bonfire hollers his sermon into the wind … to blazes with identity cards … Bonfire prayers rumble. Guy’s head explodes.

I raise a glass and a cheddar sandwich to Belloc. He would probably see all this as a memorial service for lost ways – a remembrance. But I think we can choose our fate. The real story of Sussex is one of resurgence not passive wistfulness. All the energy stored in those woods; the budding promise in the earth; the enduring local passion for the land; the vibrant spirit that filled the alleys of this town tonight – Sussex still has what it takes to inspire exuberant feelings, exuberant words.

It may have ceded ground, but there is life in the old kingdom yet.

Notes:

  1. From Here’s Richness, Evelyn Waugh’s review in The Spectator, 21 May 1954, of The Verses of Hilaire Belloc (Nonesuch Press (ed) WN Roughead).
  2. Maximum Diner: Making it Big in Uckfield, Christopher Nye (Sort of Books, 2004).
  3. Hilaire Belloc, AN Wilson (Gibson Square Books, 2003).
  4. Old Thunder: A Life of Hilaire Belloc, Joseph Pearce (HarperCollins, 2002).
  5. The Mowing of a Field, from Hills and the Sea, Hilaire Belloc (Methuen, 1906).
  6. Introduction to Sussex, The Resistant County, Hilaire Belloc (The Homeland Association, 1929) (British Library shelf mark YA 1996 b.4884).
  7. From Puck’s Song, in Puck of Pook’s Hill, Rudyard Kipling (Macmillan, 1906).
  8. Introduction to Sussex, The Resistant County.
  9. Ibid.
  10. For an excellent description of this human shaping of the Weald visit www.highweald.org
  11. Preface to The Four Men: A Farrago, Hilaire Belloc (First published by Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1911).
  12. The Book of Martyrs, also known as Foxe’s Actes and Monuments of these Latter and Perillous Days, touching Matters of the Church, by John Foxe (Published by John Day, 1563).
  13. For a thorough analysis of bonfire and religion in Lewes see Burn Holy Fire: Religion in Lewes since the Reformation, Jeremy Goring (The Lutterworth Press, 2003).

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