"After 60 years of writing and reading I would place H.E. Bates and V.S. Pritchett as the best short-story writers of my time."
6 December 1988
"H.E. Bates was a lifelong friend. In his Rushden days we spent much time together, and when he moved to Kent a steady correspondence began, which lasted until his untimely death. He was a hardworking and prolific writer, and the task facing Peter Eads might well have daunted a less determined man. To him it was a labour of love to trace a large and varied output. He accepted the challenge and I cannot praise too highly the skill displayed in the search. The results will surprise many admirers of Bates, learning for the first time of books quite unknown to them. Everything Peter did was marked by accuracy and close attention to detail. This record is not likely to be superceded: To Bates' admirers it will be indispensable."
EDMUND E. KIRBY
Barton Seagrave, Northants
Herbert Ernest Bates (always H.E. to his family and friends) was born at Rushden, Northamptonshire, on 16 May 1905.
From his local school he won a 'free scholarship' to Kettering Grammar School where in 1919 he was destined to meet Edmund Kirby, a young infantry officer who had been seriously wounded in the Great War and on leaving the army had taken a post as English master at the school. From the moment of their first meeting, Bates, who excelled as an athlete and footballer but who had shown a general indifference towards many of the school's teaching practices, found a new inspiration. His lethargy disappeared and a secret ambition to become a writer suddenly emerged. On many occasions in later life he dated his literary career from that moment and acknowledged the debt he owed to Kirby for the awakening. He dedicated The Last Bread and Thirty Tales to him and they remained life-long friends.
Bates's first literary success came when his poem 'Armistice Day, November 11th 1920' was printed in the school magazine for December 1920. He later described that event as 'the first of a host of embarrassments of seeing myself in print'.
He qualified by examination, obtaining Third Class Honours, for entrance to Cambridge University, but decided himself not to go, a decision he always maintained he never regretted.
He left school when he was sixteen and a half and obtained a post as a junior reporter with a local newspaper at ten shillings a week. Finding his work and his immediate employer equally distasteful he quickly realised that journalism of that sort would not provide easy stepping-stones towards becoming a successful writer. He then obtained work as a clerk in the warehouse of a local leather and grindery factory with a salary of one pound a week. The move was a fortunate one for he found time there to write. Being left alone in the office he somehow managed to dispose of his official work by nine-thirty in the morning and then was able to concentrate on his own work. In fact, every word of The Two Sisters was written in the office.
Following the benefits of his employer's time in the writing, the path towards publication was not easy. The manuscript had been in the hands of nine publishers before it was read by Edward Garnett for Jonathan Cape. As with Kirby earlier, Bates's work had again fallen into the right hands, for Garnett had an undisputed reputation for discovering talented writers. The Two Sisters was published when Bates was just twenty-one and the tutelage, encouragement and guidance he was later to receive from Garnett beyond measure. The two became close friends and the acceptance of The Two Sisters by Cape was the start of an association which was to last for twenty years. The partnership with Garnett was truly a great one and was acknowleged by Bates in detail when his book, Edward Garnett: A Memoir was published by Max Parrish in 1950.
Bates married Marjorie Helen Cox (Madge) at Rushden in July 1931; immediately he and his wife left Northamptonshire to live at Little Chart in the heart of the Kent countryside. There they converted an old granary into a most comfortable home and with a great appetite for gardening Bates created a wonderful garden from what had been a wilderness.
With his reputation as a novelist and short-story writer established he scored two notable successes as a writer of country matters when Through The Woods (1936) and Down The River (1937) were published by Gollancz. Both books were beautifully illustrated with wood engravings by Agnes Miller Parker and they received general acclamation.
His writing of short fiction continued to impress and the annual inclusion of one or more of his stories in Edward J. O'Brien's 'Best Short Stories' series enhanced Bates's reputation as one of the greatest short-story writers of this century. Many of his books were published in America and at home the 'Uncle Silas' stories were an immediate success.
When war was declared on Germany in 1939, Bates had a wife and four children to support. Many publishers' premises were destroyed during the bombing of London and life for authors became precarious. While waiting for some appointment in which he could best use his skills as a writer for the benefit of the country he compiled The Modern Short Story: A Critical Survey. Published in 1941, the book remains today a valuable work of reference for students of the short story.
In the autumn of 1941 Bates was commissioned in the Royal Air Force and given the task of writing stories about the men who were striving at great odds for supremacy in the skies. His commission was literally a roving one for he was able to visit Royal Air Force Stations without hindrance and there observe and talk to the men who fought the war in the air. His stories, written under the pseudonym of 'Flying Officer X' were a phenomenal success, both in this country and in America. The first stories appeared in the News Chronicle and when published in collections by Jonathan Cape they sold in hundreds of thousands. Certainly no other writer during the years of war received the acclaim given to Bates. Despite such overwhelming success he made little or no financial gain, for it was argued that as a Crown servant he was not entitled to receive royalties from the huge sales. That situation combined with other matters brought about disagreements with Jonathan Cape and in 1943 Laurence Pollinger became his agent and Michael Joseph his publisher. These fresh associations were given an auspicious start with the publication of Fair Stood the Wind for France. The book became an immediate best-seller and was hailed my many critics as the best war-time novel to have been written by a British author.
Following his success as 'Flying Officer X', Bates was promoted to Squadron Leader and continued to write official pamphlets at the Air Ministry. Two of the most important, 'The Night Interception Battle 1940-1941' and 'The Battle of the Flying Bomb' were, for diplomatic and security reasons, never published and remain in their typed state in the Public Record Office.
During this time his own books had not been neglected; In The Heart Of The Country (1942), The Bride Comes to Evensford (1943) and O More Than Happy Countryman (1943) were all published during the war years.
His last overseas assignment for the Air Ministry was in the Far East. Experiences and observations in India and Burma resulted in the publication between 1947 and 1950 of three more best-sellers, The Purple Plain, The Jacaranda Tree and The Scarlet Sword.
The post-war years saw Bates riding a huge wave of success and when he came to write his autobiography he could faithfully describe that period as The World in Ripeness.
During those years his output was enormous and some critics argued that he had written too much. He astounded some by writing the Larkin novels. The first, The Darling Buds of May, was an immediate favourite with the public and despite being censured by some serious critics as a book of nonsense, its popular appeal was repeated in successive years with A Breath of French Air and When the Green Woods Laugh.
Bates wrote three volumes of autobiography, The Vanished World (1969), The Blossoming World (1971) and The World in Ripeness (1972), each with masterly illustrations by John Ward.
Bates was created CBE in June 1973 and died in January 1974. A service of Thanksgiving for his life and work was held at the Church of St Bride, Fleet Street, London, on 22 April 1974; Sir Bernard Miles read a lesson and Sir Robert Lusty gave an address.
An obituary notice in The Times paid tribute to his work: 'he was without an equal in England in the kind of story he had made his own and stood in the direct line of succession of fiction-writers of the English countryside that includes George Eliot, Hardy and D.H. Lawrence.'
Bates was a determined, resolute man who in a literary sense was self-educated; he was a lover of family life, the countryside and his garden.
Since his death critical studies of his work have been made in America and in this country. Without doubt there will be more to come for Bates's versatility has presented the student with a vast and intriguing choice.