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Margaret Woods, 2017
H. E. Bates
Discussion Group September 14th 2016:
Graham Padden and Victoria Wicks on “Uncle Silas Stories”
Margaret Woods' display

Margaret Woods writes:

I decided to create a display for this occasion. I was struck by the faithfulness of H.E. Bates’ account of a vanished world and how it mirrored some of my recent experience.

The book is set in a North Bedfordshire village, recognisably Sharnbrook, but not as it is today with the motor age, electricity and all the trappings of modern life – then it was gas light, horse power and the timelessness of the cottage garden.

My Mother, Stella Reynolds of Wymington, made excellent home-made wine and after her death in 2014, I found gallons of it in stone jars under the staircase – some 15-20 years old and having the potency of fine sherry. Silas loved to have a drop of “home-made”, and, like I did, the narrator found a hoard of the precious bottles, the last link with his Great Grandfather. My Mother knew all the skills of the traditional country kitchen and wove her knowledge into life at home. She shared her love of the countryside and its history with the children she taught at South End Infant’s School.

The display features a half-full stone jar of plum wine (1996) and two smaller bottles, one damson and blackberry (2001) and one unknown – all drinkable. I tried to give references to Silas’s life in rural Bedfordshire – for him as a thatcher, as sheaf of corn, for his cottage garden, all the bounty of Autumn that is evident each year. To represent his work, I found an old pot-hook for his thatcher’s tool, and likewise, sheep shears to stand for his clippers. My Great Grandfather’s stone mason’s hammer represents the sheer hard labour involved in work then. Joseph Betts of Sharnbrook, on whom the character is based, would have known of John Hill of Wymington, who built in the distinctive irregular herringbone style in limestone seen in Rushden and surrounding villages. These workmen would have travelled around by horse and cart looking for the next job – hence the horse brass in the display.

My Great Grandmother, Rebecca Hill, was asked, according to my Father, Ken Reynolds, if she wanted her cottages thatching – but she said “No, the sparrars have pecked’ em to mossuls and I’ve had ‘em tinned.” So no work for Silas in Wymington and no thatched cottages remaining.

The small items simply re-connect to the by-gone world: pieces of clay pipe, a sharpening stone, a few lace-makers’ beads dug up in the garden, evocative of everyday life and the people in whose footsteps we follow. The pine cones are like the ones that came clattering down when the old gun belonging to Silas is fired for the last time across the fields. The pheasant’s feather represents the one that may have got away.

My intention was to create a snap-shot of the not so distant past that H.E. Bates captured and distilled, recognisable from one’s knowledge of country yarns and village histories as being far from a complete work of fiction. It was also to acknowledge the similarity of feeling I had on discovering the still-maturing wine, a hidden gift from my Mother, a consolation, as I make my way forward in our time, helping to connect the present reality to memory and remembrance, just as in My Uncle Silas.

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