Sunday, August 19, 2012

Apple Acre - Adrian Bell

When I first became interested in wine rather than just in drinking it I was lucky to find myself in one of the best places in the world to learn about it. If you live in a wine producing country you get the wine from that country and generally very little else. Here in the UK we get the lot, and even better for me my first wine job was with a company that prided itself on discovering new things and was also small enough to buy in little parcels of wine. Each shop might only get a couple of cases but we could try wines made by producers who were both innovative and artisan in their approach, sometimes they pushed the bounds of eccentricity, bit they always made great wine. Now I work for a supermarket where you can buy excellent wines at prices that are basically fair to producer, retailer, and customer, but which essentially favours the larger producer. If you want wines from the little guys it comes at a price, of course not choosing to pay that price creates a different sort of cost - we lose choice, diversity, and sometimes the chance to imagine a different sort of lifestyle.

'Apple Acre' first came out in 1942, it roughly follows the seasons and events in a farming year on Bell's Smallholding in Suffolk and is full of details of family life as well as the authors own philosophy about how to live. It's a big slice of nostalgia for a way of life which wasn't destined to survive the war, as well as a little bit of myth making about what we were fighting for. 

When I was the same age as Anthea Bell is in the book our lives were really quite similar, the difference that 35 years had made was that my father had a dilapidated tractor, but we grew vegetables, cut hay, and peat to keep us warm in the winter, kept hens, sheep, and at various times cows and a pig. My mother baked bread and scrubbed the old oak table in the kitchen afterwards, she was also the one that dealt with the rabbits and hares that dad sometimes shot. The other difference was that my parents couldn't make it pay and eventually went their separate ways. Farming in Shetland is marginal, I'm grateful for the memories of those childhood years, in many ways they were idyllic, and just as Anthea Bell describes in her introduction they felt like a privilege though I wouldn't choose it for myself now.  

I'm sharing this because there are a few ways to read 'Apple Acre', what I took from it is coloured by my own experience and ideals. On one level this is very much a book of it's time and reading it now it's close to the sort of fiction that Persephone publish. Here in the middle of war is an oasis where nothing matters compared with the weather. If the Germans had invaded the harvest would still have needed to be gathered in the autumn, seeds sown in the spring. It's a world where a family can live with pride and dignity on a few acres despite the struggle, rooted to the earth, timeless. Bell doesn't pretend it's easy but he makes you believe it's worthwhile, worth fighting for, and above all real with family and future generations at the heart of all the effort. 

Seventy years later it doesn't always feel like we've learned very much. In Shetland this summer the fate of the local dairy is in question, it could supply the islands with all their milk needs but is struggling because people are buying imported milk from the supermarkets. I don't blame Tesco for this - they sell Shetland Dairy products alongside the stuff they bring in but I question the choices people make when they decide not to buy local produce especially when it means a choice between independence and dependency. Bell warns about the dangers of becoming separated from our food source and advocates the value of recycling and reusing. He talks too of the value of knowing your limits - a well run allotment might do better for you than a more ambitious small holding. 

Those niche wine producers convinced me years ago that there really is a place for the small farmer. Small probably means you'll never make a fortune, but it doesn't mean you can't make a living, if you're lucky you can do it on your own terms and make it interesting for everyone. For me that's worth supporting. This is a lovely book and a timely reissue, Bell's philosophy is firmly on the agenda at the moment - the more people who think about it the better.  


  1. there is need for books like this to be read for us to see what we lose when big business takes over farming ,all the best stu

  2. Thanks Stu, that sums it up exactly. Big farming isn't going away but it's interesting to consider if there are other ways of doing things alongside that.