Another Country Talk by J. H. B. Peel (Robert Hale).
IT IS SAD that this is the last Country Talk volume that we shall have, since J. H. B. Peel died in May 1983. He wrote about nature, about country people and about the English landscape with rare distinction, for he could give those touches of detail that can only be learned by long and patient observation.
He was no "weekend countryman", describing what he could see from his car; he walked the countryside in all weathers, squelched through the mud and got wet to the skin and accepted it all happily.
Peel was an extraordinarily prolific writer and the quantity did not at all effect the quality. His fortnightly column in the Daily Telegraph was always a pleasure to read, and the essays in this volume were mostly written, the publisher's blurb tells us, in the last few months before his death. But one never gets the feeling of "padding" and he could flesh out some trivial incident to make a delightful essay on it.
All the great writers on country themes were dear to Peel, and the apt quotation was always at his finger-tips, whether it was from Kilvert or John Clare, Gilbert White, Jeffries or Thomson; he knew them all and obviously carried much of their writings lovingly in his memory.
He gives here an amusing account of going to tea with Walter de la Mare at his home in Buckinghamshire, and of another visit — to John Masefield — when he was mistaken for the man who had come to mend the gas. That being his first meeting with the then Poet Laureate, he enquired if he had ever met Thomas Hardy and was somewhat abashed when Masefield turned to his wife and said "When did we last see Tom?"
Peel lived in Buckinghamshire and then on Exmoor, but he knew intimately a great deal of England and Scotland; he has written here about Sussex and Warwickshire, about Loch Lomond and the Border Country, and he has recounted his conversations with the people who live in those places.
There is an essay called "Roman Candles", written, apparently, soon after the Pope's visit to England, in which Peel talks of a Catholic family in whose private chapel mass is regularly said.
Tradition, he tells us, has it that Chesterton once tried to attend but could not get his bulk through the fourteenth century doorway. He mentions the hostility and suspicion with which some of the neighbours regard this little Catholic congregation. I could not decide, even after re-reading the essay, where his own sympathies lay.
In "External Decorations", Peel describes how he worked over many years, "sometimes with zest, sometimes with dour determination" to transplant great numbers of snowdrops, primroses and wild daffodils from a corner of his property where they bloomed unseen to a place beside the drive approaching his house.
He felt that he made very slow progress but at last, after more than a decade, he could enjoy the sight of the spring flowers blooming where he had re-sited them. It gave him well-deserved satisfaction to feel that "Long after I have been forgotten, the owner of these few acres of England will point to the flowers, saying: "They didn't just spring up by chance. Somebody took the trouble to plant them".