Occasionally I post a book on Instagram which gets a chorus of approval from people who’ve loved it. Never more so than when I posted that I was reading Susan Hill’s 1982 The Magic Apple Tree. It sounds like a children’s book but it is not – the subtitle ‘A Country Year’ gives a bit more of a clue about what you’ll find inside. This is a non-fiction look at life in Hill’s Oxfordshire village – called Barley here, though I imagine that’s a pseudonym – over the course of a year.
The book is divided into the four seasons, and each section starts with a description of the titular apple tree (after, in my edition, a beautiful full-page engraving by John Lawrence. They look like woodcuts but are credited as engravings, so let’s go with that. Here is the opening to the section on spring:
The blossom opens slowly, slowly on the apple tree. One day the boughs are grey, though with the swellings of the leaves to come visible if you look closely. The next day and the next, here and there, a speck of white, and then a sprinkling, as though someone has thrown a handful of confetti up into the air and let it fall, anyhow, over the branches.
The weather is grey, it is cold still. The blossom looks like snow against the sky. And then, one morning, there is snow, snow at the very end of April, five or six inches of it, after a terrible stormy night, and rising from it, and set against the snow-filled sky, the little tree is puffed out with its blossom, a crazy sight, like some surrealist painting, and all around us, in every other garden, there is the white apple and the pink cherry blossom, thick as cream, in a winter landscape.
And another day, just before the blossom withers and shrinks back into the fast opening leaves, there is the softest of spring mornings, at last it is touched by the early sun, and the apple tree looks as it should look, if the world went aright, in springtime.
Though Hill is writing about one particular year, much of the book could be about any year. The seasons are, of course, roughly the same – though with enough differences to make each year distinct for a bit, before they all fade into one. But there is no plot that puts The Magic Apple Tree specifically into any particular 1980s year. In any approximate time could Hill have discussed what she grew, what she cooked, which village events she attended, how her neighbours dealt with cold weather and unpassable roads, and so on and so forth. In some ways, it could be similar to 40 years later – though now, living in my own Oxfordshire village, I am rather more easily connected with the outside world.
What I most loved in the book were flavours of the village community. The brothers who lived in a run-down house, selling illicitly made cider and completing each other’s sentences. The amiable rivalry at the village flower and produce show. The bartering system of goods, and the friendly competence of villagers who’ve lived in the same spot for decades or generations.
Hill and her then-husband Stanley Wells are not among those who’ve lived there for long. They are relative newcomers – and I can attest that it is quite easy to become part of an Oxfordshire village on short acquaintanceship. Certainly, Hill seems at the centre of activity. There is an element of sharpness that those of us who read her book blog will remember. She is certainly sure of her views, and offers them decidedly. It makes The Magic Apple Tree all the more distinct, as nobody else would or could have written this sort of book with precisely her perspective. Sometimes she offers her opinions as fact, but that is all part of the character of spending the year in her company.
Large sections of The Magic Apple Tree are about gardening and cooking, and these are the parts that I enjoyed a little less. Hill includes recipes and, while some recipes are eternal, others are curiously tied to their decade. And I am not a gardener, so am unlikely to take any of the advice she gives in that quarter – most of her advice being about the growing of fruit and vegetables, which she much prefers to growing flowers and non-edible plants.
But there is still plenty to delight, in the less practically minded parts of the book. Hill’s perceptive eye is turned not just on her fellow humans but on all the other living beings around her. Any description she gives of flora or fauna is done with beauty and accuracy, and without the cluttering of undue sentiment. She is able to delight in the active world of nature around her, and we can share in that delight, without it ever stepping in the fey. For example…
On the last Sunday in August, at about eleven o’clock, in the morning, I carried a pile of bolted lettuces and old pea haulms down to the compost heap, and, as I was stuffing it down, I glanced up into the Buttercup field. It was a fine morning, the early mist was rolling back across the Fen and cows and trees and fences were emerging from it in the sunshine. Near at hand, the grass was glittering with dew. And not ten yards away from me, looking straight into my face, was a dog fox, big and bold and handsome, sniffing the air. I waited. He waited. He had been on his way to our garden, there was no doubt, at all, he would have been up and over the stone wall and among the hens in seconds. And the hens were all out of their run and scratching about the garden.
Then the fox caught my scent and turned and went streaking away down the slope towards the willows and up the Rise on the opposite side, brush up, ears pricked, and I called the hens in with a handful of corn, and shut the gate on them, just in case.
I really loved The Magic Apple Tree. I might have loved it still more if there had been a little more on fellow villagers and less on practical advice, but that is by the by. It is charming and honest and vivid, with much to recognise and to remember.