The novelist who came for tea

John Fowles with James Crowden
John Fowles with James Crowden

I was in a bookshop in Ilminster, Paragon Books, the one that was owned by Chris Chapman, who also owned the bookshop in Lyme Regis, Serendip. Sadly Chris is no longer with us, but both bookshops are still flourishing. He passionately believed in local authors and local books. I got on well with Chris and so I waved a manuscript under his nose, something I had written about poetry and farm labouring: sheep shearing, night lambing, forestry and cider making. This was back in the summer of 1991. A lot of cider and sheep have gone under the bridge since then.

Chris took the manuscript and said that he would show it to someone he knew who might be interested in reading it. I thought no more about it and then there was a phone call from John Fowles. Could he come for tea? I lived in Winsham in Somerset, just over the border from West Dorset. Only about 10 miles as the crow flies but a fair bit longer if you drive. He had another author called Peter Benson who could drive him over. Would next day be alright?

I had visions of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, the Cobb, The Magus and The Ebony Tower. John was of course very well known and so we tidied the house up a little bit. John arrived and tea was served. He was, as ever, the bearded Magus himself and very charming. Peter knew all about basket making, the Somerset Levels and cider so there was plenty of common ground. John mentioned his love of old varieties of English apples. His father had grown apples in their garden in Kent after the First War so it took him right back to his childhood. Cider was more associated with his time in Devon when training as a Royal Marine. John even had Cornish roots, Pascoes near Sithney, who were a little bit on the wild side. They were blacksmiths and had a bit of the old wrecking blood in them he reckoned.

From then on we became friends and I used to drop into his house in Lyme during shearing time and also to Peter’s house in Charmouth. As he was leaving, John offered to write a foreword to my book which of course I accepted. By this time the book even had a title: Blood Earth & Medicine — the year in the life of a casual agricultural labourer.

Seamus Heaney liked the book and so did the BBC. It was dramatised for the Farming Today programme and that provided me with an entrée into broadcasting. It was my first book and was also translated into French. Since then I have written on many other subjects such as cidermaking and Cornish tin mining. I am now working on a book about Afghanistan. Amazing what a cup of tea can do for you…

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