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Crichton Porteous - Derbyshire Writer

Posted Sunday, June 3, 2007

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Crichton Porteous - Derbyshire Writer

`None capture the `spirit of place' more accurately, or with such passion'

Derbyshire is a county well blessed by a number of contemporary resident authors who extol the virtues and record the attributes of it’s famous or interesting characters, it’s habits and customs - and it’s magnificent and richly varied landscape. None capture the `spirit of place’ more accurately or with such passion for precise topographical detail than the late Crichton Porteous.

Ever since the Roman Emperor Vespasian ordered his scribe to write in a letter to Rome, that `the peac-setans (peak-dwellers) were `fierce defenders of territory and lived amongst impenetrable folds in the mountains of the Peak District’, people have been writing about Derbyshire.

Most of them have, like Vespasian, been travellers passing through and since noted for their work, like Daniel Defoe, Celia Feinnes and James Croston, or they have been temporary visitors who have stayed awhile like D.H.Lawrence, Charlotte Bronte and George Eliot.

Perhaps with the exception of Alison Uttley and R. Murray Gilchrist, both of whom painted vivid word-portraits and captured the very essence of time and place, very few Derbyshire-born authors of the past have given us substantial portraits of Derbyshire life `as-it happened’. Arguably the greatest exponent of the art was a gentleman for whom Derbyshire was an `adopted’ county, for Crichton Porteous, more than any other, successfully captured the essential spirit of place and essence of character of his beloved Derbyshire.

During a lifetime dedicated to the art of writing he published over thirty books, many of them set in Derbyshire, and was a prolific and respected journalist, becoming editor of the Sunday Dispatch, and later Chief Sub-Editor of the northern Daily Mail.

As his biographer Robin Allan astutely records, “…his writing has a vitality and topographical freshness which make him unique among writers of the English countryside and especially of Derbyshire, his adoptive county”.

Leslie Crichton Porteous was born in Leeds on May 22nd 1901.

His father died when he was ten months old and he was brought up in Manchester by his mother, who’s brothers (his uncles) were rich cotton merchants in the city.

From his early years Porteous was an avid reader, and his discovery in the Boy’s Own Paper of the writings of Dr. Gordon Stables, who travelled the country in a caravan jotting down his experiences and recording the scenes that caught his attention, made a deep and lasting impression.

His imagination fired, the young Porteous nurtured an abiding desire to emulate his new-found hero.

Whilst still at school he was reading the works of nature writers Richard Jefferies, Henry David Thoreau and the popular novels of Jack London, and soon developed a love of the outdoor life and a passion for the countryside during school holidays spent in the Peak District.

From the age of fourteen, until his death in 1991 at the age of 89, he kept a daily journal detailing his keen observations, which he utilised as a reference for his work. He left school at fifteen and worked for four years in the office of his uncle’s Manchester cotton factory, and his journal poignantly records the day in 1918 that he made the life-changing decision to turn his back on his family (and his uncles fortune!) and become a farm labourer.

He recounts this poignant episode in his first biographical book, `Farmer’s Creed’ published by George Harrap in 1938:

“Alone in our suburban attic I looked westward from the open window. It was as if I gazed over a desert of sombre blue-grey ridges, for the roofs were all of one height and stretched away level for countless miles,as it appeared….A more sombre or unnatural landscape was hardly to be imagined, for over all lay the grey-black hood of smoke from a thousand chimneys with no wind to move it. But far away over the desert of roofs, hemmed in by the cloud, was a narrow strip of golden horizon. As I watched it brightened.

I thought the sun would show. It did not, but suddenly several rays of light appeared, piercing the sombreness with long, straight beams. They shot beneath the cloud in brilliant flight, seeming to lift it bodily, as if each beam were a golden lever actuated by some hidden giant. Temporarily the roofs were transformed; that which had been prosaic and bleak took on the romanticism of a glinting sea. How strangely this unexpected display affected me is difficult to convey convincingly. But it was as if I had been beckoned into a new life…And I knew what I had scarcely dared to consider before, that all I had to do was leave past things and go”.

He packed a bag and cycled into Cheshire, towards that promising golden horizon, and was taken on as a farm labourer for half a crown a week and his board. He worked for four years on the land, relished working with horses and become an expert ploughman, earning the coveted job as `Teamsman’, which was later the title of his second biographical book, published in 1939.

With ambitions to be an agricultural correspondent, and still in his early twenties, Porteous returned to Manchester and became a reporter on the Manchester Evening Chronicle. His natural talent was soon recognised and within eighteen months he had become sub-editor, and during a fifteen year `neswpaper’ career, went on to become editor of the Daily Mail (North) whilst continuing to write articles and short stories for the Manchester Guardian, The Countryman, The Farmer & Stockbreeder, and many others.

Porteous married Ruth Marchington of Chapel-en-le-Frith in 1927 and they lived at Coombs in North Derbyshire where Porteous ran the Sunday School at the local chapel. A staunch Methodist, he was also a local preacher and remained a chapel-goer all his life.

His third book, `Land Truant’, also biographical, was published in 1940 and by this time he had made the bold decision to support himself and his wife entirely by writing.

When war broke out in 1939 Porteous served as Agricultural Labour Officer for Lancashire County Council and later became Agricultural Advisor to ICI, during which time he lived near Preston. He continued to write and produced four novels in four successive years between `The Cottage’ (1941) and `The Earth remains’ (1944).

After the war he returned to live at Two Dales near Matlock in 1944, and in 1947 published what is perhaps his best book, an illustrated edition of `Farmer’s Creed’, wonderfully illustrated by his friend and contemporary, artist C.F. Tunnicliffe.

With his desciplined approach, which was driven by a strict daily routine embodied during his beloved farming days; up at 6am, work from 6-30am until breakfast at 8-30am, and then work after breakfast until lunch time or until he had completed a thousand words, Porteous intended to publish a book every year – and for thirty remarkable years he achieved his target.

Whilst at Two Dales Porteous set a number of his books in the locality, `Broken River’, `Lucky Columbell’ and `Toad Hole’ are all set in the Derwent Valley. His non-fiction work during this period included `Derbyshire’, `Peakland’, `The Beauty & Mystery of Well Dressing’, `Great Men of Derbyshire’, `Derbyshire Customs’ and `Portrait of Peakland’.

He also wrote a commissioned work about the history of Robinsons of Chesterfield, `Pill Boxes & Bandages’ in 1958, and fulfilled a long-held ambition when his `Richard Jefferies, Man of the Fields’ was published in 1965. This was his last work, co-written with Samuel Looker.

Crichton Porteous has been described as a `True Son of the Soil’; and by his publishers as `The Thomas Hardy of Derbyshire’ – which he was not, for as Robin Allan, his biographer writes, “He lacks Hardy’s understanding of the tragedy of human existence…. but he expressively masters the `spirit of place’.

In his book `Derbyshire’ published by Robert Hale in 1950 Porteous asks, “What is the peculiar mood of this county, or the `spirit of place’ as D.H.Lawrence called it?”

He was a great admirerer of Lawrence, and strove with great success throughout his long career to capture Derbyshire’s unique `spirit of place’ and all his writings are concerned primarily with the land that he loved.

Though his books have been out of print for almost thirty years, many are still available on loan from the county libraries and his writing stands the test of time and is still as fresh and vibrant as it was when it was originally published.

In conclusion, and with the permission of Robin Allan, I reiterate his sentiments when he writes of Crichton Porteous;

“There is a `spirit of place’ in all his writing, a lyrical intensity tempered with common-sense observation which makes him unique among the writers of our ever changing, ever enchanting English countryside”.

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