Book of a lifetime: My Uncle Silas, HE Bates

At art college in the late Sixties I fell in love with American writers, the great if predicable pantheon: Salinger, Steinbeck, Henry Miller, Kerouac, Damon Runyon. Reading them made me want to write. But giving yourself permission to try is one thing; finding a way in is another. They had the language, all that wonderful idiom to play around with. They had the space, the characters, the music and the stories. They had the great cities of New York and San Francisco, the majesty of Big Sur, the romance of the endless open road. I had rural Somerset. What was there to say?

There had been many British writers with country backgrounds, of course: Hardy, John Cowper Powys, Laurie Lee, Alison Uttley. All brilliant. But it wasn't until I revisited HE Bates that I finally began to resist the American influence, to be less beguiled by what would always be out of reach, and more inspired by something closer to home. Bates wasn't a West Country man, but the world as he saw it and the people that he wrote about were very recognisable to me. His love of the countryside shone through all that he did, and there was nobody to touch him for evoking atmosphere. Nowadays he seems to be remembered best for the jolly Larkin books – probably his least critically acclaimed.

Like Betjeman and Alan Bennett, he has a reputation for being cosier than is warranted. His tales could be dark, acerbic and strange. My own favourites were the Uncle Silas stories. Silas himself, the incorrigibly earthy and anarchic main character, has been a hero of mine since I first met him, and I love him still. The original illustrations, by Edward Ardizzone, are a perfect complement, deceptively simple yet with an air of ambiguity behind the charm; something there in the shadows, not altogether revealed.

I don't think of Bates as a literary giant, but then the term "literary" has become somewhat tainted and contentious. Graham Greene, Nicholas Monsarrat, Nevil Shute, JB Priestley – these were all highly respected popular fiction writers, along with Bates, but were they "literary"? Should we bother to make that distinction? I like stories, and well-written, thoughtful, intelligent stories are good enough for me. HE Bates was a great storyteller, and a beautiful writer. So I'll pick My Uncle Silas as my book of a lifetime.

I don't write like Bates, and have never wished that I could be him in the same way I might have once wished I could be Kerouac or Saroyan. But his influence was ultimately the stronger. Perhaps it was he above all others who showed me that I didn't need to be gazing wistfully across the Atlantic in search of stories to tell or ways of telling them.

Steve Augarde's 'Winter Wood' is published by David Fickling Books

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Save the Tiger: Meet the hunters tasked with protecting Russia's rare Amur tiger

    Hunters protect Russia's rare Amur tiger

    In an unusual move, wildlife charities have enlisted those who kill animals to help save them. Oliver Poole travels to Siberia to investigate
    Transfers: How has your club fared in summer sales?

    How has your club fared in summer sales?

    Who have bagged the bargain buys and who have landed the giant turkeys
    Warwick Davis: The British actor on Ricky Gervais, how the Harry Potter set became his office, and why he'd like to play a spy

    'I'm a realist; I know how hard this business is'

    Warwick Davis on Ricky Gervais, Harry Potter and his perfect role
    The best swim shorts for men: Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer

    The best swim shorts for men

    Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer
    Has Ukip’s Glastonbury branch really been possessed by the devil?

    Has Ukip’s Glastonbury branch really been possessed by the devil?

    Meet the couple blamed for bringing Lucifer into local politics
    Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

    Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

    Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
    Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

    Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

    When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
    5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

    In grandfather's footsteps

    5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
    Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

    Martha Stewart has flying robot

    The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
    Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

    Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

    Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
    A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

    A tale of two presidents

    George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

    The dining car makes a comeback

    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
    Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

    Gallery rage

    How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

    Eye on the prize

    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
    Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

    Women's rugby

    Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup