West of Warminster
Imagine you discovered that Jane Austen was a single mother who who worked as a scullery maid. Or that Dr Johnson was in fact a transgender, trapeze artist who worked in an Italian circus. Of course, shock, disbelief.
How about John Steinbeck author of the dust bowl classic Grapes of Wrath,the disability classic,Mice and Men and the tortured East of Eden, living in South Somerset. Not only that but on his death bed in 1968,saying that the year he spent in Bruton was the happiest of his life.
When I found out this fact from rereading GoW’s intro written by third wife Elaine, I scuttled off to the internet. And there it all is. Always an idealistic writer, from the age of nine Steinbeck had an obsession with the Arthurian legend. The dream of a nobler way, a better life, decency prevailing is an undercurrent in his work. A place where craftsmen are respected and needed, where the great combines of capitalism have not done their worst.
So from 1957 onwards he attempted to write his great work. He travelled all over Europe especially SW England researching Morte D’Arthur. Through playwrite Robert Bolt then a teacher at nearby Millfield School he came across the thatched cottage he lived in for nine months in 1959.
His research and attempts to write the great book failed. Yet living in this small, pre consumer, traditional, agricultural, church and pub based community appealed to the idealist and dreamer. The wife of the English teacher at Kings Bruton School became his typist.
He wrote ”My work room overlooks hills and meadows and an old manor house-there is nothing in sight that hasn’t been here for centuries.”
“Time loses its meaning. The peace I have dreamed about is here, a real thing,thick as a stone and feelable and something for your hands.
“The countryside is turning as lush as a plum…there is a quality here I haven’t known for very long. The twentieth century seems very remote.”
“Yesterday was something wonderful. It was a golden day of the apple blossoms out for the first time. I climbed up Camelot-Cadbury, I don’t think I remember an impact like that. Could see from the Bristol Channel to the tops of the Mendip Hills and all the little villages, Glastonbury tor and King Alfred’s towers on the other side… Made the hairs prickle on the back of the neck.”
As his wife wrote,”We loved our village,our neighbours,the Somerset dialect,and the Somerset cider. “
Picture shows Mr and Mrs outside Wells Cathedral