I rarely write about out-of-print books, the focus of A Common Reader being primarily modern literature and European literature in recent translation. However, I recently found myself turning once again to an old favourite on my shelves, The Four Men, and felt it was worth writing about.
Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953) was one of the most prolific writers of the first half of the 20th century but is now largely forgotten. His great friend and associate G K Chesterton is perhaps better remembered, largely because of his “Father Brown” stories about a priest/detective which have often been the subject of television and radio plays.
Belloc was a writer of essays and poems, a travel-writer and biographer and a political commentator, deeply involved in most of the controversies of the day. Much of his writing is now redundant in the way that all comment on contemporary issues must become. But this still leaves a large number of works which will be read as long as people enjoy good writing and want to learn more about times past.
The Four Men, describes a journey Belloc made on foot from one end of Sussex to the other, and while it is a minor classic in its own right, it is also of interest to Sussex enthusiasts because of its many references to the towns and villages of the county. The story is told in a mythical or allegorical way. The writer is sitting in a pub in Robertsbridge in the east of the county, when he realises that he has had enough of his travels and decides to walk home to the far west of Sussex, “where the Arun rises”.
An elderly man overhears his musings and offers to walk with him, but refuses to give his name, whereupon the writer gives him the name Grizzlebeard, also giving himself the name of “Myself”. They set off from the George Inn at Robertsbridge and soon pick up two other travellers, The Sailor and The Poet, the four of them agreeing to travel in a group as long as it suits them.
One can assume that all four characters are different aspects of Belloc, and are largely a device to enable him to describe conversations along the road on a wide range of topics whether philosophy, religion or the attrributes of good beer and cheese.
This is a book for those who love Sussex. Early in the book, Grizzlebeard declares that Sussex alone will escape the Day of Judgement, for,
the horrible rain of fire will fall . . . upon the whole earth, and strike all round the edges of the county, consuming Tonbridge and Appledore (but not Rye), and Horley and Ockley, and Hazelmere, and very certainly Petersfield and Havant, and there shall be an especial woe for Hayling Island; but not one hair of the head of Sussex shall be singed . . . and that in spite of Burwash and those who dwell therein.
But this is a deeply rural Sussex of the early 20th century with remote hamlets hidden from view and rarely visited, of old Inns at which a traveller can arrive in early evening and find a room, of roads unsullied by motor traffic and still the domain of horses and walkers.
The Sussex Downs, the range of hills that reaches the length of the county, features throughout the book and Belloc describes the first view of the Downs with appropriate enthusiasm:
No exiles who have seen them thus, coming back after many years, and following the road from London to the sea, hungry for home, were struck more suddenly or more suddenly uplifted by that vision of the the hills then we four men some coming upon it that morning, and I was for a moment their leader; for this was a place I had cherished ever since I was a boy.
The book is suffused with Belloc’s almost evangelistic Catholicism. He like to write as though the Reformation never happened and that the England he loves remained with the old religion. We read of saints and martyrs and the four men sometimes discuss old religious controversies such as the Pelagian heresy as though they were contemporary. This is however done in a fairly light-hearted way and one can almost feel that Belloc is teasing his readers to see that the predominant Anglicanism of his time is a bit of a new-comer on the religious scene.
Despite his strong religious impulse, Belloc’s love of the English Inn surfaces throughout the book, and many of the pubs he refers to still exist:
Is there not the Bridge Inn of Amberley and the White Hart of Storrington, the Spread Eagle of Midhurst, that oldest and most revered of all the prime inns of this world, and the White Hart of Storrington, the Spread Eagle of Midhurst . . . and the White Hart of Steyning and the White Horse of Storrington and the Swan of Petworth . . . they were mortal inns, human inns, full of a common and reasonable good.
And there is no lack of celebration of beer either – Belloc often writes like a member of the Campaign for Real Ale, waxing rhapsodic over the beer he found at the Frankland Arms, Washington, West Sussex. the website for which records, “opened as coaching inn on the Worthing to London road, the inn was made famous by the publication of Hilaire Belloc’s book, “The Four Men” published in 1912. The book claims that the “swipes” he had at the Washington inn “are the very best I know”. Sadly, the Mitchell’s Brewery that supplied the beer that Belloc enjoyed so much, closed not long after the book was published“.
Even Sussex cheese gets a look-in:
In Sussex, let me tell you, we have but one cheese, the name of which is CHEESE. It is One, and undivided, though divided into a thousand fragments, and unchanging, though changing in place and consumption. There is in Sussex no Cheese but Cheese, and it is the same cheese from the head of the Eastern Rother to Harting Hill, and from the sea-beach to that part of Surrey which we gat from the Marches with sword and bow. In colour it is yellow. It is neither young nor old. Its taste is that of Cheese and nothing more.
Indeed it is hard to think of a book which exhibits more love for a county than The Four Men, and Belloc occasionally launches into a rich lyricism to describe the land he loves;
The moon stood over Chanctonbury, so removed and cold in her silver that you might almost have thought her careless of the follies of men; little clouds her attendants, shone beneath her worshipping, and they presided together over a general silence. Her light caught the edges of the Downs. There was no mist. She was still frosty-clear when I saw her set behind those hills. The stars were brilliant after her setting, and deep quiet held the valley of the Adur, my little river, slipping at low tide towards the sea.
With The Four Men before us we are taken back to an earlier age, a time when rural England was still deeply rural. And yet as one who lives in Sussex, I can say that there still are remote villages linked by bridleways on which one can walk from place to place without encountering a car. And certainly you can walk the spine of the Downs on the South Downs Way and remember that you are largely on ancient tracks which date back to Neolithic times, as is shown by the barrows and earth-works you encounter along the way.
I particularly liked the quite detailed desription of the route followed by Belloc. This meant that I was able to get out a map and trace his footsteps along the way. Much of the landscape is familiar to me, and I was able to obtain more information about Belloc’s walk by reading a public libray copy of Bob Copper’s book, Across Sussex with Belloc. Bob Copper recreated Belloc’s walk in the 1980s
Bob Copper was himself a noted expert on Sussex, being an avid collector of folk songs and in Copper’s book we find the music for the various tunes and songs referred to by Belloc. Across Sussex with Belloc makes a fine companion to The Four Men. I would dearly like to buy a second hand copy of Copper’s book but with prices ranging from £35 to £95 I think I’ll have to keep a watch on ebay for the chance to win one in an auction (later note – I bought a second-hand paperback version for about £12)