Memoirs of a fishing, trapping, ferreting man

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The Independent Online
Black Sal lived in the filthiest cottage down Double Alley, and her appearance was "horrific in the extreme". Dressed in black from head to foot, she wore a tall bonnet decked with sooty feathers, which gave her the look of "a witch on holiday, one of the Weird Sisters gone galivanting". The first time she was pronounced dead, her husband brought out the gin bottle to celebrate, only to see her rise up and claim her share - and what finally killed her was the indignity of being forcibly washed in the workhouse.

Hogarthian characters teem and steam in the pages of John Moore's classic Portrait of Elmbury, now reissued as a paperback to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the book's first appearance. Even in 1945 it was no secret that Elmbury was Tewkesbury, where the author grew up; but already the bucolic world which he depicted was slipping away.

Moore was born in 1907, son of an auctioneer, and at the age of 11 was sent to prep school at Malvern. Later he went to Malvern College - but classrooms never claimed much of his attention, which remained focused on poaching, ferreting, fishing, swimming and bird-nesting. Leaving school at 16, he joined his father's firm, and as a young auctioneer plunged back into the countryside from which he came. Later he became a full-time author, writing 40 books.

Portrait of Elmbury is described by its new publishers as a novel. In fact, it is an autobiographical memoir of life in deepest Gloucestershire between about 1913 and the Second World War. It is slightly glamorised, as most books of this kind are, but firmly rooted in the earth.

When Moore asked one old coachman why the place produced so many eccentrics, the answer was, "`Tis summat in the air as breeds 'em." Thus, jostling Black Sal, are Mr and Mrs Hook, who habitually fought each other in public simply because "for fighting on the scale practised by them, their hovel was not big enough". An equal cause of disturbance was Nobbler Price, who became mad when drunk and stormed about trying to shoot his wife, but ended up shooting the nanny goat in his back garden.

Technically speaking, many of the men around Elmbury were unemployed; but this did not worry them, as they preferred to dabble in the endless casual jobs which were then available on the land: hay-making, thatching, rick-cutting, eel-catching, fruit-picking, turnip-pulling. Legitimate activities apart, poaching was for many almost a full-time occupation.

The author skates lightly over his own schooldays, claiming he learnt most from Old Jim, the bird-catcher, who would declare, "I'm no scholard", and signed documents with a cross. Another mentor was Bassett the fisherman, "the stillest person I have ever known - as still as the stilt-legged heron fishing in the shallows". But Moore draws a memorable portrait of Mr Chorlton, a scholarly teacher of the classics who was also an entomologist, a former country cricketer, and an imbiber of vintage port.

Midnight steeplechases, Christmas fairs, village dances - all were reported in the local paper, whose editor was the admirably precise Mr Rendcombe. Once when a councillor complained that he had been misreported, the editor struck back by printing his next speech verbatim:

"What I means to say Mr Mayor and what I means is I have riz to take up your valuable time to say as how I feels, and there's many in this chamber and out as feels with me, as how I feels that the council if you sees what I means is wasting a lot of valuable time by argifying about this matter about which I feels, and there be others as feels it too."

It is sad indeed that Moore, who survived being shot down in the Fleet Air Arm, should have died of cancer at only 59. Yet were he alive today he would surely be dismayed at how few characters are left.

Not all is lost, though. Only the other day talk turned on a woman who dwelt upstairs in a tiny farmhouse, tyrannised her son and daughter- in-law who lived below, forbade them to have children, and for the final 20 years of her life never came downstairs.

`Portrait of Elmbury' is published by The Windrush Press, Moreton-in- Marsh, Glos, GL56 OLL (01608 652012) (£6.99).