Sussex Literature

The South Country
Hillaire Belloc

I never get between the pines, but I smell the Sussex air;
Nor I never come on a belt of sand, but my home is there.
And along the sky the line of the Downs, so noble and so bare.

A lost thing could I never find, nor a broken thing to mend:
And I fear I shall be all alone when I get towards the end.
Who will be there to comfort me, or who will be my friend?

I will gather and carefully make my friends of the men of the Sussex Weald,
They watch the stars from silent folds, they stiffly plough the field.
By them and the God of the South Country my poor soul shall be healed.

If I ever become a rich man, or if I ever 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 Sussex story 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.

(Added 8 January 2008)

The Roadmender (1)

During the last years of her short life, Margaret Barber (alias "Michael" Fairless) (1869-1901) lived in East Sussex. Illness prevented much mobility but gave her the gift of observation.  In the following extract from "The Roadmender", she records life through the eyes of a highway repairer. (NRD)

My road has been lonely today.  A parson came by in the afternoon, a stranger in the neighbourhood, for he asked me his way.  He talked awhile, and with kindly rebuke said it was sad to see a man of my education brought so low, which shows how the outside appearance may mislead the prejudiced observer.  "Was it misfortune?"  "Nay, the best of good luck," I answered, gaily.

The good man with beautiful readiness sat down on a heap of stones and bade me to say on.  "Read me a sermon in stone," he said, simply; and I stayed my hand to read.

He listened with courteous intelligence.  "You hold a roadmender has a vocation?", he asked.

"As the monk or the artist, for, like both, he is universal.  The world is his home; he serves all men alike, ay, and for him the beasts have equal honour with the men.  His soul is 'bound up in the bundle of life' with all other souls, he sees his father, his mother, his brethren in the children of the road.  For him there is nothing unclean, nothing common; the very stones cry out that they serve."

Parson nodded his head.

"It is all true," he said; "beautifully true.  But need such a view of life necessitate the work of roadmending? Surely all men should be roadmenders."

O wise parson, so to read the lesson of the road!

"It is true," I answered; "but some of us find salvation in the actual work, and earn our bread better in this than in any other way .  No man is dependent on our earning, all men on our work.  We are 'rich beyond the dreams of avarice' because we have all that we need, and yet we taste the life and poverty of the very poor.  We are, if you will, uncloistered monks, preaching friars who speak not with the tongue, disciples who hear the wise words of the silent master."

"Robert Louis Stevenson was a roadmender," said the wise parson.

"Ay, and with more than his pen," I answered.  "I wonder was he ever so truly great, so entirely the man we know and love, as when he inspired the chiefs to make a highway in the wilderness.  Surely no more fitting monument could exist to his memory than the Road to Gratitude, cut, laid, and kept by pure-blooded kings of Samoa."

Parson nodded. "He knew that the people who made no roads are ruled out from intelligent participation in the world's brotherhood."  He filled his pipe, thinking the while, then held out his pouch to me. 

"Try some of this baccy," he said; "Sherwood of Magdalen sent it me from some outlandish place." I gratefully accepted. It was such tobacco as falls to the lot of few roadmenders.

He rose to go.  "I wish I could come and break stones," he said, a little wistfully.

"Nay," said I, "few men have such weary roadmending as yours, and perhaps you need my road less than most men, and less than most parsons."

We shook hands, and he went down the road and out of my life.

He guessed little that I knew Sherwood, ay, and knew him too, for had not Sherwood told me of the man he delighted to honour.  Ah, well!  I am no Browning Junior, and Sherwood's name is not Sherwood.

(Added 8 January 2008)

The Roadmender (2)

"Michael" Fairless lived at a time when community life in villages was noticeably breaking down; for centuries life in villages and the countryside had followed a similar pattern.  If the father was an agricultural labourer, more often than not, so would be the son - generation after generation, life having no great expectations. 

But the mid-19th Century brought with it so many changes.  Sussex, for instance, was in the process of moving from an agricultural economy to a very much mixed economy, principally supporting the flourishing seaside towns with market gardens growing up around them. Mechanisation in everyday life was apparent and there was even some light manufacturing in the county. By the end of 19th Century, even sheep farming had seen its heyday in Sussex. Could all of this have prompted Michael Fairless to write these words in The Roadmender?:

"Old Dodden's high-pitched quavering voice rose and fell, mournful as he surveyed the present, vehement as he recorded the heroic past.  He spoke of the rural exodus and shook his head mournfully.  "We old 'uns were content wi' earth and open sky like our feythers before us, but wi' the children 'tis first machines to save doin' a hand's turn o' honest work, an' then land an' sky ain't big enough seemin'ly, nor grand enough; it must be town an' a paved street, an' they sweat their lives out atwixt four walls an' call it seein' life - 'tis death an' worse comes to most of 'em."

(Added 8 January 2008)