H.E. Bates — An Appreciation

Here in the U.S. we also commemorate great authors and statesmen with plaques and statues. Visiting tourists linger and read, while local residents walk by, busy with their lives. Now the plaque at 15 Essex Road has been replaced, marking the birthplace and birthday of Rushden’s greatest author, is there any reason for a Rushden resident to stop and ask “What does H.E. Bates have to offer me today?” The answer I find is that Bates indeed has much to say to us in 2012.

An appreciation of time. Even as a very young man, Bates stopped to observe nature and people with a careful eye, and honed his talent for describing what he saw. To write as he did of birds, animals, and fish, and to document the course of the seasons through his beloved Northamptonshire — these required stillness, attention, time. To write so perceptively of his fellow human beings — a boy in a first glimpse of the complexities of adulthood, a woman excited and anxious about her pregnancy, an old man grieving the loss of his wife — such passages only come from a very attentive and sympathetic observer, and one who takes the time to go beneath the surface. Eighty years later, the pace of life is much faster: tweets, emails, and cellphones can easily render us blind to what is right in front of us, ever rushing on to what we think is more important. Bates would have us slow down, and reconsider our priorities.

An appreciation of place. For Bates, life was rooted in the land and people of specific places, two in fact: Northamptonshire, where he was born and raised, and then Kent, where he lived most of his adult life. His best work shows people in intimate connection to the land, moving with the seasons, and in connection with others — farmers, villagers, tradesmen — who are similarly rooted. He vividly depicts the landscape and its people adjusting to industrialization, the arrival of the automobile, the demands and effects of war. Decades later, we are connected to the internet, the television, and the telephone, but many of us have lost that close connection to our land and community. Bates would see this as a loss, that a connection to place sustains us. He would have us look at what is near, and reconsider.

Compassion. In his hundreds of stories, and dozens of novels, Bates wrote of people of such variety and in all stages of life — the wide-eyed child, the man out of work, a violent soldier, an aged woman with dementia, — most of all he wrote of our search for love. He rarely judges or moralizes but instead observes with a clear and sympathetic eye. He offers no easy solutions to the challenges of life, but through his writing one nearly always discovers a reason to forgive, or at least understand, even the worst of human behavior. And he also offers endless reasons to marvel at how dignity and joy can exist in even the bleakest circumstances. All these years later, when intolerance and polarity amongst us is pervasive, Bates would have us question the firmness of our prejudices and judgments, and open our hearts where they are closed.

Humour. Bates’s empathy for his fellow humans also emerges in his comic work, in which he delights in absurd situations and characters that are however only a step away from real life. In The Darling Buds of May, the Uncle Silas tales, and in other works of humor, he paints an idyllic life of bountiful food, drink, and sex, but in a manner so good-natured and kind that by today’s standards is positively innocent. At a time when many attempts at humor are crass, derogatory, and mean-spirited, Bates offers another way to lighten life’s load, one that gently pokes fun at others and ourselves.

Bates was never the teacher, not one to tell us to take time or connect more to place, to cultivate compassion or to laugh more. But in his works, we see the fruits of doing all of these things — a rich appreciation of life in all its facets. For that, we can be genuinely grateful for the man born on this day.

Paul Machlis (April 2012)