New Sussex Celebration - Lewes author's book in tribute to poet Belloc
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But one writer, with dozens of Sussex titles to his name, has waited patiently for years for the chance to bring out his latest. And David Arscott has done so in tribute to the author of some of the most beautiful lines ever written about our county.
‘Hilaire Belloc knew and loved Sussex better than anyone,’ says David, who lives in Lewes. ‘He’s not as well-known today as Rudyard Kipling, but his hymns to the county were heartfelt and still have the power to move us.’
David has long wanted to bring out a companion to his A Sussex Kipling, still in print after 17 years, but he had to wait until the copyright on Belloc’s works expired, after the statutory 70 years.
‘Like my Kipling book, A Sussex Belloc is an anthology, a selection of his writings. They deserve to be much better known and now, after waiting for the years to go by, they can be.’
Unlike Kipling, who was a vastly successful author from early in his life and had the house to match, Belloc was always writing with one eye on his slim bank balance and lived in a relatively modest house right next to Shipley windmill near Horsham in West Sussex, which he also owned.
‘Every morning, as he passed the windmill, he would doff his hat to her and say, ‘Good morning, Mrs Shipley,’ says David. ‘He was a sociable man, who loved walking with companions, talking around firesides, drinking in pubs and even writing drinking songs.
‘Kipling drove the county, or rather was driven around it. He was a quiet man, most at home in his study. Belloc was a fit outdoors type. He walked the county, rode it on horseback and even sailed its coastline. He knew it yard by yard.’
Belloc was well-known in his lifetime and many older people today can still quote from his cautionary tales. No one who ever read it could forget that ‘Matilda told such dreadful lies, it made one gasp and stretch one’s eyes.’ Nor could they forget that she was burned to death, having cried fire too often. And then there was poor little Jim who didn’t heed the advice to ‘always keep a-hold of nurse for fear of finding something worse’.
‘They don’t write ’em like that for children these days,’ says David. ‘Belloc was remarkably prolific and was one of the big four of Edwardian letters, who debated with each other. It was Belloc, GK Chesterton, George Bernard Shaw and HG Wells.
‘But my anthology concentrates on his Sussex writing. As well as poems such as The South Country, we have countryside essays and extracts from The Four Men, an imaginary walk across Sussex, with four characters stopping off at pubs, drinking, arguing, singing and telling stories. Belloc was a big, heart-warming character.’
Many of Belloc’s places will be familiar to readers of A Sussex Belloc. The Four Men starts at the George Inn at Robertsbridge. Halnaker windmill, high on the downs above Chichester was damaged in a storm and prompted a lament by Belloc. As for Gumber, near Stane Street, the very few who have ventured there will agree with Belloc, for whom it was ‘a place more beautiful than gardens’.
‘I like to think of the book as an invitation, the sort of invitation Belloc might have made to us all, to enjoy his beloved county along with him. It’s time to raise a long-awaited glass to his memory,’ says David.
You’ll find the invitation repeated in one of Belloc’s poems in the book, The South Country.
‘If I ever become a rich man,
Or if ever I grow to be old,
I will build a house with deep thatch
To shelter me from the cold,
And there shall the Sussex songs be sung
And the story of Sussex told.
I will hold my house in the high wood,
Within a walk of the sea,
And the men that were boys when I was a boy
Shall sit and drink with me.’
A Sussex Belloc is available directly from David at £8.50 post-free. Send a cheque to David Arscott at 1, Friars Walk, Lewes, BN7 2LE or email him at [email protected] to arrange a bank transfer. A Sussex Kipling is also available, at the same price.