Book of a lifetime: My Uncle Silas, HE Bates
Friday 18 January 2008
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.
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