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Bell, Adrian Hanbury (1901–1980), writer, was born on 4 October 1901 at 5 Birch Avenue, Stretford, Lancashire, the son of Robert Bell (1865–1949), news editor of The Observer, and his wife, Emily Frances Jane Hanbury (1873–1954), artist. His family moved to London, and he was educated at Glengorse School, Eastbourne, and from 1915 to 1920 at Uppingham School, Rutland.

After working for a very short time at The Observer Bell left London for Suffolk in 1920 to be a farm apprentice to Victor Savage at Great Lodge, Hundon, a decision partly influenced by recurrent migraine, which had closed off many careers. In the early 1920s he bought a small farm, Stephenson's in Stradishall, and later added to it Seabrook's Farm. He sold up in 1929 and began to fulfil an ambition to write, calling on his experiences of rural life. His first novel, Corduroy (1930), was written at The Gables, Sudbury, recalling his farming apprenticeship, and the second, Silver Ley (1931), recreated Stephenson's Farm. The Cherry Tree (1932) completed the trilogy. In 1930 he set the first Times crossword, and he continued to devise crosswords for the paper for the next fifty years. On 12 January 1931 Bell married Marjorie Hilda Gibson (1908–1991). They had three children: Anthea, Sylvia, and Martin (the international news reporter, and independent MP for Tatton from 1997 to 2001). He followed up his success with Folly Field (1933), The Balcony (1934), By-Road (1937), The Shepherd's Farm (1939), Men and the Fields (1939), Apple Acre (1942), and Sunrise to Sunset (1944).

After the war and for the next three decades Bell wrote ‘A countryman's notebook’ for the Eastern Daily Press, for which he was affectionately remembered. From the 1940s he lived at many places in East Anglia including Redisham, Barsham, Gillingham, and Beccles. In Westhall, near Beccles, he bought Brick Kiln Farm with the proceeds from Apple Acre. He sold that in 1949 and ceased farming. He continued to write books including The Budding Morrow (1946), The Flower and the Wheel (1949), The Path by the Window (1952), A Young Man's Fancy (1955), A Suffolk Harvest (1956), The Mill House (1958), his autobiography, My Own Master (1961), and The Green Bond (1976). He published over twenty-five books including two collections of poetry.

Bell's books are often fictionalized autobiography, documenting his agricultural experiences, and he gained a literary reputation that matched those of H. J. Massingham, A. G. Street, or C. Henry Warren. His early writing had as its context the inter-war rural depression in East Anglia. In By-Road he discussed ‘new’ farming methods—modern machinery, motorized transport, factory farming, new marketing and business methods, hedge removals, fruit specialization, and so on—showing options for the future. However, his own sympathies clearly lay with older styles of farming, and he had a great respect for earlier rural artefacts, horse power, hand technologies, and the people skilled in them, even though he knew he was describing the passing of a whole culture. The lantern was giving way to electricity, pantiles to sheet iron. Agriculture, he thought, was ‘the basis of all culture’, but it was now highly transitional. A persistent theme in his farming work and ‘land literature’ was an effort to link past, present, and future in village life, to find ‘some basis of unity, the germ of a new coherence’.

Bell had an animated and original turn of phrase and an approachable and evocative style. He wanted ‘to put into words the way unrelated things came together and formed a relation’. He was a particularly strong interpreter of small episodes and happenings, and he fondly drew out their significance, their vitality, and often their humour, bringing their details into artistic life. He revealed expansive significance in things that were small and immediate to the senses, expressing the beauty of that which is circumscribed, domestic, and locally known. His senses were acutely alive to noise, colour, dust, tools, animals, and people. Whether he was describing Suffolk or Westmorland (in Sunrise to Sunset), his atmospheric language conveyed a vivid sense of landscape, of animal life, of the friendliness of people connected in rural work, and of how these fused to create a spirit of place. For Bell the physical experience of work was fundamental to provide meaning in life, to connect means with ends. Family farming—‘rich in fundamental relationships’, having ‘a natural coherence’—was always central to his writing:
I felt as though I could not bear life to be any the less than the aliveness I felt in me when I was first in love. I am always seeking some recognition of it also in other people … It is only through this that I have been impelled always to try to bring something out of nothing, a poem out of my head, or a potato out of the earth, doing what I wanted to do in my own time and in my own peace, at whatever cost in money and security. (Bell, 83)
Bell had a gift for friendship, and among his friends were Edmund Blunden, F. R. Leavis, H. J. Massingham, Alfred Munnings, John Nash, Henry Warren, and Henry Williamson. He was a member of the inter-war group Kinship in Husbandry. He died on 5 September 1980 at his home, 9 Hemmant Way, Gillingham, Norfolk, and was buried in Barsham churchyard, Suffolk.

K. D. M. Snell

Sources  

A. Bell, My own master (1961) · private information (2004) [Anthea Bell; Martin Bell; Ronald Blythe; Moya Leighton; Ann Gander] · Eastern Daily Press (18 Feb 1974) · East Anglian Daily Times (8 Sept 1980) · The Times (6 Sept 1980) · Adrian Bell Society Journal · CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1980) · b. cert. · Uppingham School register · m. cert. · d. cert. · A. Gander, Adrian Bell: voice of the countryside (2001)

Archives  

priv. coll., family MSS · Suffolk RO, Ipswich, family MSS, HD 1439 |  U. Reading, letters to George Bell & Sons


Likenesses  

photograph, repro. in Adrian Bell Society Journal, cover · photograph, repro. in Eastern Daily Press · photograph, repro. in East Anglian Daily Times · photograph, repro. in A. Bell, The cherry tree (1941) · photograph, repro. in Bell, My own master, jacket · photograph, repro. in Book and Magazine Collector, 60 (March 1989), p. 50 · photographs, priv. coll.

Wealth at death  

£43,633: probate, 14 Nov 1980, CGPLA Eng. & Wales