"In America, every female under fifty calls herself a girl." -- H. E. Bates
Herbert Ernest Bates, CBE (16 May 1905 — 29 January 1974), better known as H. E. Bates, was an English writer and author. His best-known works include Love for Lydia, The Darling Buds of May, and My Uncle Silas.
He was born in Rushden, Northamptonshire, and educated at Kettering Grammar School. After leaving school, he worked as a reporter and a warehouse clerk.
Many of his stories depict life in the rural Midlands of England, particularly his native Northamptonshire. Bates was partial to taking long midnight walks around the Northamptonshire countryside - and this often provided the inspiration for his stories. Bates was a great lover of the countryside and its people and this is exemplified in two volumes of essays entitled Through the Woods and Down the River. Both have been reprinted numerous times.
In 1931, he married Madge Cox, his sweetheart from the next road in his native Rushden. They moved to the village of Little Chart in Kent and bought an old granary and this together with an acre of garden they converted into a home. H.E. was a keen and knowledgeable gardener and wrote numerous books on flowers. The Granary remained their home for the whole of their married life. After H.E’s death Madge moved to a bungalow, which had originally been a cow byre, next to the Granary. She died in 2004 at age 95. They raised two sons and two daughters.
His first novel, written when he was in his late teens was discarded, but his second, and the first one to be published, The Two Sisters, was inspired by one of his midnight walks, which took him to the small village of Farndish. There, late at night, he saw a light burning in a cottage window and it was this that triggered the story. At this time he was working briefly for the local newspaper in Wellingborough, a job which he hated, and then later at a local shoe-making warehouse, where he had time to write; in fact the whole of this first novel was written there. This was sent to, and rejected by, nine publishers, until the tenth, Jonathan Cape accepted it on the advice of its highly respected Reader, Edward Garnett. He was now twenty years old.
More novels, collections of short stories, essays, and articles followed, but the remuneration was meagre.
World War II short stories
During World War II he was commissioned into the RAF solely to write short stories. The Air Ministry realised that the populace was less concerned with facts and figures about the war as it was with reading about those who were fighting it. The stories were originally published in the News Chronicle under the pseudonym of “Flying Officer X”. Later they were published in book form as The Greatest People in the World and How Sleep the Brave. His first financial success was Fair Stood the Wind for France. Following a posting to the Far East, this was followed by two novels about Burma, The Purple Plain in 1947 and The Jacaranda Tree, and one set in India, The Scarlet Sword.
He was also commissioned by the Air Ministry to write the story of the Flying Bombs, but because of various disagreements within Government, it was shelved and publication was banned for thirty years. It was eventually discovered by Bob Ogley and published in 1994. Another commission which has still to be published is the story of the Night Fighters.
After the war other novels followed; in fact he averaged one novel and a collection of short stories a year, a prodigious feat. These included The Feast of July and Love for Lydia.
His most popular creation, however, was the Larkin family in The Darling Buds of May. Pop Larkin and his family were inspired by a colourful character seen in a local shop in Kent by Bates and his family when on holiday. The man (probably Wiltshire trader William Dell, also on holiday) turned up to the shop with a huge wad of rubber-banded bank notes and proceeded to spoil his trailer load of children with Easter eggs and ice creams. The TV series, produced after his death by his son Richard and based on these stories, was a tremendous success. It is also the source of the American movieThe Mating Game with Tony Randall and Debbie Reynolds (1959). My Uncle Silas stories were also made into a TV series.
Many other stories were adapted to TV and others to films, the most renowned being The Purple Plain in 1954 which starred Gregory Peck, and The Triple Echo. Bates himself worked on other film scripts.
Honours and death
A prolific and successful author in his own lifetime, his greatest success was however posthumous, with the television adaptations of his stories The Darling Buds of May and its sequels, My Uncle Silas and Love for Lydia
In his home town of Rushden, H.E. Bates has a road named after him to the west of the town leading to the local leisure centre.