On two occasions in my late teens, I visited the home of the author Adrian Bell, in the company of my mother, Anne Utting (another East Anglian writer). Adrian Bell and his wife Marjorie were charming people and made us very welcome. Many years later, while sorting out my late mother's effects, I came across a photcopy of Adrian's obituary, from the Eastern Daily Press of September 13 1980, written by his son Martin Bell, sometime BBC correspondent and independent politician. This obituary strikes a particular chord with me, and is one of my favourite pieces of English writing; with Martin Bell's permission, it is repeated here.
ADRIAN BELL 1901-1980
If we buried him privately, it was not that we wished to be exclusive in our grief. But he had always had a certain dislike of crowds: and a man has no reason to shift his opinions, just because he's dead. So there were no crowds that day in Barsham churchyard, just some twenty people - family and some friends as close - to honour the passing of a good and gracious man. The churchyard was sunlit and windswept, and the service was held entirely at the graveside. ("He always preferred it out of doors," said a granddaughter, aged seven.) The words were the old ones, from the Book of Common Prayer. He had wanted no new-fangled service, nor no new-fangled anything.
He was, we were reminded, an essentially old-fangled man (which is not to say reactionary, or even necessarily conservative) and we sensed we had with us at the graveside, in spirit, the community of the old-fangled: his legions of admirers both known and unknown, people whose feelings he expressed by expressing his own, “Eastern Daily Press” readers mostly, who every Saturday for thirty years turned first to the centre page for a saner view of the world than that afforded by the furore of the front page. (I write as one who lives by such furore, and not at all to disparage it.)
* * *
He was a man of ambitious notions, but few wants. One wish he had expressed, however, was to end his days in a quiet corner of a Suffolk churchyard. He has just such a pastoral resting place. It is overlooked from one angle by the church tower, and from another by the rectory where Nelson’s mother was born. He is surrounded by his neighbour’s ancestors, and far enough from the main road – out of earshot even of the living – to be indifferent to its thunderings.
Dust to dust suited him, rather then ashes to ashes. Earth, not fire, was his natural element. And the same applied, in a sense, to Barsham church, which had suffered a sort of cremation the year before. A spark from burning grass had caught the thatch, burning the roof off and badly damaging the interior. That was the practical reason for the open-air service. The pews and fixtures are still fire-blackened, but a roof is back on, and the new thatch nearly sculpted.
* * *
Out in the Glebe Meadow a Belgian visitor at his easel was painting that churchyard scene. It is the quintessence of England the foreigner looks for, but does not easily find. We assured him, in the best French we could muster, that he was very welcome to stay. My father would only have been delighted to have an artist in attendance.
All of us there – the painter, the thatcher, the priest, the mourners – were a bit, so it seemed, like figures from an English landscape. But it was a scene with such themes and resonances – of death and decay, of renewal and survival – that there was only one artist I knew who could really do justice to it. He was an artist in words, and we were burying him.