Perils and pleasures of island life

I’M not the greatest fan of travel writers.

Obviously, there are exceptions like the legendary Clive James and we all appreciate the sharpest observations of Theroux or Bryson, but for the most part I’d sooner be travelling than reading about someone else’s journey.

Jealousy, perhaps? But it’s not a lot better with nature writers. I genuinely want to savour their words of wisdom but although the bookshop shelves are groaning under the weight of a whole new generation of writers exploring the natural world, many seem to lack sufficient humour or depth to truly engage the reader.

But The Guardian’s natural history writer Patrick Barkham is an exception – and one who defies stereotypes as easily as he crosses literary genres.

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Not only is it hard to neatly categorise his work, but he also seems to brilliantly tread that fine line between caring about things intensely without becoming too pompous, pessimistic or pretentious when it comes to sharing his passion.

Barkham is a convivial travelling companion whose infectious vitality is matched by a ferocious curiosity and forensic attention to detail when it comes to research.

His early literary offerings on butterflies and badgers firmly established him as a nature lover able to combine literary panache with an inspiring brand of boyish zeal. How else could a book about a quest to track down all 59 British butterfly breeds be accessible to anyone other that the most hardened  lepidopterist?

robert-hoffmann-Mo8mILU0EaE-unsplashBADGERLANDS: Barkham’s second book [PICTURE: Robert Hoffman, Unsplash]

Then he’s off on moonlit excursions on the trail of the enigmatic and elusive badger, exploring whether our striped companions deserve their reputation as farmers’ foe needing to be culled or are better served by the homely image of that stoic character from Wind In the Willows, making his way to bed in dressing gown and slippers.

Racking up prize nominations along the way, Barkham found that his next challenge was a commission coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the National Trust’s campaign to save the British coastline from development and destruction.

The strenuous fieldwork involved in that project may have been perfect preparation for Islander, his fourth book, published in 2017.

ramon-vloon-QcCt8uxDTR4-unsplashLIFE ON THE EDGE: the Coastlines project [PICTURE: Ramon Vloon, Unsplash]

More than a travelogue and closer to a personal quest, this is a book which subtly entwines the political, philosophical and sociological as he embarks on a fascinating tour of some of our more unusual island communities.

The book has attracted an extraordinay range of adjectives from reviewers, and for once these are not the glib, overblown phrases we so often see on DVD cover sleeves, perhaps because so many of these words of praise come from people who are themselves writers.

Engaging, enchanting, lyrical, beguiling, vibrant, memorable – take your pick. And what they are excited about is that this isn’t just your average magpie journalist’s article, seizing on a few glittering treasures and lazily presenting them to the reader in a haphazard way.

mike-smith-0FijUNA1GiY-unsplashNEW HORIZONS: Barkham writes about island life [PICTURE: Mike Smith, Unsplash]

It may sound a little trite when it’s boiled down to the bare bones of “the British archipelago has thousands of islands, so author visits a few of the more interesting ones”.

But the premise is more intriguing than that, because this is a journey exploring what it means to live on an island and what it is about island life that intrigues and appals us.

Barkham takes as his starting point DH Lawrence’s 1928 short story The Man Who Loved Islands, where the unfortunate island-obsessed hero Cathcart was said to be somewhat cruelly modelled on his friend Compton Mackenzie, of Whisky Galore fame.

antoine-fabre-XwjICmfI0SQ-unsplashISLAND HOPPING: travels in Scotland [PICTURE: Antoine Fabre, Unsplash]

This adds an intriguing historical dimension to the quest – and a touch of mystery too as we consider Compton Mackenzie’s island-hopping adventures and the similarity or otherwise of his life to that of Cathcart.

The nuts and bolts of the adventure were covered well in reviews at the time, particularly in the Guardian and Observer, but the combination of themes works well as a means of exploring what islands can teach us about human nature and how the atmosphere varies so dramatically around our shores as we move from one to another.

Now as always islands bring out the best and worst in people, inspiring us with fear and longing, the desire to escape, or possess, to be part of a community or apart from one, like Lawrence’s ill-fated hero.

ross-sneddon-L1CLn8ZnXZA-unsplashREFLECTIONS:  Barkham visits 11 islands [PICTURE: Ross Sneddon, Unsplash]

And there is always that background echo of eccentricity echoing across the century as we move from Eigg to Barra and on to Alderney and St Kilda, with Barkham arranging interviews and meetings with the locals wherever he goes.

These provide us with first-hand memories of Compton Mackenzie on Barra and moving testimony from the islanders of Alderney who became wartime refugees when their home was surrendered to the invading Germans and turned into a prison island.

Elsewhere there are a host of fascinating anecdotes and obscure facts, of mad owners and ambitious incomers, of resilience and rebellion, laughter and tears. And always, always the elements, ever present as a backdrop…the crash of the surf, the howl of the wind, the cry of the gulls.

I’ve been fortunate enough to visit a couple of Barkham’s 11 islands, sampling the desolation of St Kilda and conviviality of Barra. And he’s not wrong about the contradictions and contrasts, the eccentrics and castaways, the superstitions and hardships.

What lessons we can learn from the lives of those communities around the periphery of the British Isles is a moot point. But Barkham leaves us to draw our own conclusions, and frankly whatever the answers, it’s simply a delight to be taken along for the ride.

Islander by Patrick Barkham is published by Granta and available in hardback and paperback.

Hardy echoes down the years

THERE’S such a deep melancholy about so many of Thomas Hardy’s novels that it’s almost a relief to re-read Under The Greenwood Tree, one of his earliest and gentlest works.

And yet there’s still something haunting about this relatively short love story between Dick Dewy and Fancy Day, traced through the course of the four seasons during one Wessex year.

One reason for revisiting the 1872 novel is to take temporary refuge from the travails of modern existence in a simpler earlier age – and who better to capture the English country scene of the early 1800s than a novelist famed for his pastoral depictions of rural life?

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Actually, there’s remarkably little in-depth description of the countryside in this novel, apart from the atmospheric opening pages when we first meet the Mellstock Choir on a lonely country lane through the woods and learn how to wood dwellers, every species of tree has its own “voice”, from the sob of the fir to the whistle of the holly and hiss of the ash.

But Hardy’s second published novel, which takes its name from Shakespeare’s poem in his pastoral comedy As You Like It, is an extraordinary rural idyll which introduces some familiar themes which will recur in his later fiction – not least a fickle heroine struggling to choose between suitors of different social status.

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And if it’s not stand-out descriptions of the scenery which make the novel memorable, Hardy achieves such an extraordinarily intimate depiction of the colourful characters in the choir that they all come instantly to life across the centuries, their banter and mannerisms as real and true as if we had bumped into them in the village pub at lunchtime.

Perhaps that’s not so surprising given Hardy’s familiarity with this world. Both his father and paternal grandfather were members of the local parish choir and this book was written in the cottage next to Thorncombe Woods where Hardy was born in 1840.

Bearing a remarkable resemblance to the tranter’s cottage, Hardy’s home – built of cob and thatch by his great-grandfather and little altered since the family left, is now owned by the National Trust and is open to the public.

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It’s just one of a number of autobiographical elements in the book, including the author’s love of old rustic musical instruments, which he inherited from his father, a keen violinist.

You can almost imagine Hardy as part of the group as the choir makes its way up the chilly country lanes with their instruments and lanterns for that Christmas tour of the village in the book’s opening pages.

Village musicians reappear in Hardy’s later novels, reflecting his childhood memories of rural music and dance, and there’s already that sorrowful sense that old traditions are being lost or challenged by new ways of doing things.

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It’s the same feeling you get when you visit the Chiltern Open Air Museum and start taking a journey back to a simpler age, where there’s a solidity and authenticity about the buildings and equipment that’s echoed in Hardy’s more colourful characters, like Gabriel Oak.

Already in Under The Greenwood Tree we can see a clash between the old and new order – in this novel reflected in the vicar’s attempt to replace the choir with a new mechanical church organ.

That emphasis on modernisation and the decline of traditional English country life anticipates Hardy’s later novels, particularly The Mayor of Casterbridge.

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Not that Hardy was naive about the gruelling realities of agricultural life in the early part of the 19th century, when working hours were long and poverty was widespread.

But he was vividly aware of how industrialisation was sweeping away the old ways, as labourers moved to the cities and the railways began to transform the rural landscape.

And that was something he reflected on in his 1896 preface to Under The Greenwood Tree, in which he pays personal tribute to the merry band of church musicians of whom he has written, and in a further note from 1912 which appears to lament having treated the choir so “flippantly”.

The book has been filmed on three occasions: in 1918 and 1930, and in 2005 was adapted for television, starring Keeley Hawes as Fancy Day. But if the story is a little slow for modern tastes and Fancy a little too infuriatingly fickle, the novel still provides a wonderful glimpse into a long-lost way of life – to the extent that on a lonely path through the woods on a chill winter’s eve, you might just fancy you can hear a few strains of fiddle music from the Mellstock choir on the chill night air.

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Numerous different editions of the book are available online and in booksellers, with the 2005 series available from BBC Video.

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Perfect time for a winter’s tale

JANUARY always seems the bleakest, dreariest, greyest month of the year.

But for anyone feeling down in the mouth about the lack of sunshine or suffering a bout of the New Year blues, help is at hand.

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The 2019 almanac from the BBC’s Springwatch team provides a timely reminder that spring is around the corner – and in the meantime offers a host of tips of ways to step outside and make the most of the British winter.

The good news begins with a table of daylight hours: true, it’s a little depressing to be reminded that at the start of the year sunrise in London is after 8am and sunset a whisker after 4pm. But flick ahead to the next chapter and you’ve got pretty much an extra hour of daylight to look forward to in February.

For now, you can take advantage of any mud or snow on the ground to look out for the tracks of some of our more surrepticious wildlife, from hedgehogs to mink, weasels to water voles.

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The bare tree branches make it easier to spot visiting birds and you can always take part in the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch, which has been monitoring the drastic decline in our bird population since 1979.

The sharp-eared can listen out for the vocal exchanges between little owls or barking calls of flirtatious squirrels, while more intrepid winter walkers may head to the coastline on the lookout for treasures washed upby winter storms.

The chapters are not a day-by-day guide to the natural calendar, but a series of snippets of seasonal delights, with occasional offbeat and quirky facts thrown in for good measure.

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You can find out about an ancient ceremony in Herefordshire to banish evil spirits, for example, or learn some of the score of different regional names for the humble woodlouse, or chiggywig.

Along the way there’s time to recall the horrors of the Big Freeze of 1963 or how the red kite was brought back from extinction to become a familiar sight once more, soaring on the thermals over the Chiltern Hills and elsewhere across the country.

Before you know it, you’ll be in February – the shortest month of the year, with Valentine’s Day a reminder that nature also has an extraordinary array of courtship unfolding during the month.

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True, it’s a little early to say spring is on its way – but the almanac provides a perfect way of keeping the winter blues at bay until those welcome longer days arrive.

The Almanac 2019 by Michael Bright and Karen Farrington features a foreword from Chris Packham and is published by BBC Books at £12.99.

 

 

 

Home truths from the fells

THERE’S a brutal and unflinching honesty about James Rebanks’ memoirs of a shepherding life in the Lake District that takes you by surprise.

Not that you would expect a book of this type to shrink from telling tough tales of a harsh climate, a difficult lifestyle, an imposing landscape…

But what gives Rebanks’ 2015 bestseller such a resonance is the author’s lack of equivocation when it comes to discussing his own flaws and shortcomings – as well as those of the education system, politicians, bureacrats, thoughtless incomers, naive consumers, irresponsible dog walkers and all those who understand little about the practicalities of a modern farmer’s life.

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The last time I read a book about shepherding it was 1983 and Iain Thomson had just published Isolation Shepherd, an extraordinary account of 1950s shepherding in the wilds of Wester Ross.

Although there are inevitable parallels in that account of an intimate and often harsh contact with the untamed world, and the shared all-consuming sense of purpose which shepherds share, Rebanks’ starting point is very different.

Indeed the opening pages are a devastating indictment of the comprehensive schooling offered to his generation of rebellious 1980s teenagers that has more in common with an Alan Sillitoe novel than a rural memoir.

Rebanks pulls no punches about the negativity and disillusionment this engendered in his 13-year-old self and  he is equally open about the fractious nature of family relationships at times: “Fathers and sons in our family tend to  bicker like hyenas around the remains of a zebra,” he recalls.

He is equally straightforward about the positive influence of the young woman who would become his wife: “From the moment we got together twenty  years ago she made me want to buckle down and make our life a good one. She makes me better than I am.”

But there is a pattern emerging here, of a straight-talking, unsentimental portrait of a way of life that has changed little across the hundreds of years when previous generations of his family tended flocks here.

The narrative is as firmly rooted in the landscape as a Grassic Gibbon novel, and some aspects of that daily routine are every bit as harsh and unforgiving. This is the land where Rebanks trailed around in the footsteps of his grandfather as a child, argued with his father as a young man and which he still works today with his wife and three children.

This is where he tends for the beloved Herdwick sheep which are such an intrinsic feature of these fells. And while his book chronicles a year in the changing landscape, it also flashes forward and back from boyhood to manhood, chronicling not only the daily challenges but some of the momentous memories across the years, from his grandfather’s death to the horrors of the 2001 foot-and-mouth outbreak.

There is irritation and anger here too, inevitably. Farmers are vulnerable to the whims of too many people far removed from their isolated farmsteads not to have strong opinions about the impact of the policymakers, bureaucrats and supermarket buyers on their precious but precarious existence.

Hence too that youthful frustration and anger with teachers who seemed to believe that anyone with the remotest hint of talent and ambition would surely want to seek a living elsewhere.

Rebanks detested school and left at 15, able to write only in block capitals. But that didn’t snuff out his desire to learn — far from it. At 21, he took his A-levels at evening classes in nearby Carlisle, where in due course he discovered that he might actually be Oxbridge material.

The dreaming spires beckoned, but if they helped to cement his literary credentials, they were to provide only a temporary change of scene from those beloved fells. The young couple spent a couple of years in Carlisle after Oxford, but moving back to the farm was always Rebanks’ longer-term dream.

Much of his autobiography chronicles the trials and tribulations of that life, the colourful local characters, the high points in the farming calender, the crises, the triumphs, the sheer blood, sweat and tears.

Rebanks could hardly have hoped for a more effusive reaction from the literary establishment for his authentic, moving and passionate book, as lean, sharp and tough in its writing style as one of his loyal sheepdogs.

But if the author is always keenly aware of that link across the generations that ties him to the land, he is also no enemy of modern technology, with more than 110,000 Twitter followers enjoying his words and pictures chronicling his family’s way of life (and perhaps half a million or more sharing the farm’s puppy videos).

That disgruntled 13-year-old has come a long way — if not geographically, then at least in his knowledge of the ways of the world.

And as he later wrote, reminiscing over those fiery family clashes: “I know my dad, and grandad, in ways that most people never do. I saw and shared in their finest moments. I was part of their world, and understood the things they did and cared about.

“I let them down at times, as they let me down to. I made them proud at times, as they, too, made me proud. We clashed sometimes. But who wouldn’t.

“Our lives were entwined around something we all cared about more than anything else in the world. The farm.”

The Shepherd’s Life, James Rebanks 2015. The Herdwick Shepherd is on Twitter @herdyshepherd1

 

 

At home with C S Lewis

BRILLIANT scholar, poet, philosopher, internationally renowned children’s author – CS Lewis was many things to many people.

And although it’s as the author of his Chronicles of Narnia fantasy fiction that he is best known, for millions of believers it was his inspirational writing and broadcasts about Christianity that had the most lasting impact.

Whatever the motivation for finding out more about the prolific Irish author, a great starting point is the house where Lewis lived from 1930 until his death in 1963, The Kilns in Headington, outside Oxford.

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This is where he wrote and worked, where he sat and smoked and debated philosophy and religion with his brother ‘Warnie’ and great friend and fellow fantasy novelist JRR Tolkien, creator of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

Tours of the home are conducted by appointment only, but those joining a small group to explore Lewis’s life and legacy are not entering a museum but a study centre which is also temporarily home to a number of young scholars.

The American foundation which runs The Kilns wanted to honour the author’s memory by encouraging its continued use as a quiet place of study, fellowship and creative scholarly work, much as it was during his own period of residency there.

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The Kilns was built in 1922 on the site of a former brickworks and the lake in its eight-acre garden was a flooded claypit.

CS Lewis bought The Kilns jointly with his brother and Mrs Janie Moore in 1930 and the extensive wild grounds would provide the inspiration for the Narnia chronicles, which started off as a tale told to children evacuated from London in 1939.

Although the house had been totally transformed by the time the foundation bought the building in the 1980s, much has been done to achieve an authentic recreation of how it looked during the years when Lewis lived there.

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Few authors of fantasy literature are as beloved as Lewis – or Jack, as he was always known to family and friends from childhood. Born in Belfast in 1898, he created an unforgettable, magical world to which readers return again and again, both as children and adults.

He wrote more than 30 books which have been translated into more than 30 languages and have sold millions of copies. And of course many of those books were produced here at The Kilns, including the philosophical writings widely acclaimed by Christian apologists from many denominations.

A brilliant academic, he was educated at Oxford University and returned there after service in World War I to become a fellow and tutor of English literature at Magdalen College.

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He had been wounded in France during the Battle of Arras and his former friend and roommate Paddy Moore was killed in battle. As part of a pledge the pair had made, Lewis looked after Paddy Moore’s mother and her daughter, living with them in Oxford from the early 1920s.

A full timeline of his life and works also appears on the HarperCollins official website, but it was here in Headington that Lewis and fellow novelist and Oxford academic JRR Tolkien became friends.

They were both active in the informal literary circle known as The Inklings, who for 16 years from 1933 held regular discussions about their work in a corner of the local Eagle and Child pub. The pair also argued about philosphy and religion in the “common room” at The Kilns, where the carpet was ingrained with pipe ash and the curtains fashioned from wartime blackout blankets.

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Christened Clive Staples Lewis, Jack and his older brother Warren, or ‘Warnie’, spent long hours in their childhood creating and chronicling the adventures of the inhabitants of their combined imaginary kingdom of Boxen.

Tribute is paid to that early creativity in an upstairs attic room here at The Kilns, next door to the bedroom where young wartime evacuees would hear stories paving the way for the seven Chronicles of Narnia, which were written and published between 1948 and 1956.

Lewis’s conversion to Christianity was not a sudden experience: in his 1955 autobiography Surprised by Joy he likened the process to being hunted down by God, or even being defeated by him in a game of chess.

But his influences were, as always, books and a few close friends, and the final stage in his conversion took place here. By the age of 32 he had become a ordinary layman of the Church of England and began writing his Christian apologetic books, with Warnie recruited to painstakingly type out his handwritten manuscripts.

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Lewis also gave a series of talks about Christianity on BBC radio between 1941 and 1944 which brought him wide acclaim, the text of which would later be published in a book called Mere Christianity.

His literary output in these years was considerable and as his fame grew, many people wrote to him – including the American writer who would become his wife, Joy Davidman Gresham, whom he married in 1956.

Their love story formed the basis of the celebrated 1993 film Shadowlands, directed by Sir Richard Attenborough and starring Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger.

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Joy was a New York teacher of English literature and a recent convert to Christianity. Outspoken and witty, she had been corresponding with Lewis for two years before moving to England with her two sons, where they became frequent visitors to The Kilns.

She was divorced in 1954, but two years later her work permit expired and she faced having to move back to America. Lewis decided to marry her and claimed the civil marriage ceremony, quietly performed in a registry office, was a purely legal measure to allow her to stay in the country.

Whatever their feelings for each other might have been at this stage, shortly afterwards Joy was diagnosed with advanced cancer and Lewis realised he loved her and decided to make their marriage public.

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The ceremony was performed around her hospital bed and when she was able to leave hospital, she and the boys moved into The Kilns.

Miraculously, her health improved and they enjoyed more than three years together before her cancer returned and claimed her life in July 1960.

Her death hit Lewis hard and tested his Christian faith, as he revealed unflinchingly in a record of his thoughts and feelings throughout the grieving process, published as A Grief Observed.

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He himself died on the 22nd November 1963, a week before his 65th birthday. He never wanted his death to be widely acknowledged and he got his way: American president John F Kennedy was assassinated on the same day.

On the 50th anniversary of his death, he was honoured with a memorial in Poets’ Corner at Westminster Abbey, but his grave lies much closer to home in the peaceful surroundings of nearby Holy Trinity church in Headington Quarry, where he and Warnie worshipped over the years.

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Inside the church are many reminders of his life and legacy – from the ‘Narnia window’ installed  in 1991 in memory of children George and Kathleen Howe, who died young, to the small plaque on the pew where the brothers chose to sit.

Another peaceful oasis nearby is a small nature reserve around the corner from The Kilns which is now maintained by BBOWT, the wildlife trust for Oxfordshire.

Whether or not this location played any serious role in inspiring such fantasy worlds as Narnia and Middle Earth perhaps is not perhaps too important. But The Kilns itself provides a restful setting to reflect on the life and legacy of an extraordinary writer whose work was to prove such a lasting and pervasive inspiration to future generations.

Tours are held on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays and cost £12.50 per adult and £10 per student, senior (60+), or child. See The Kilns website for details.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lament for a lost land

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PAINFUL at times to read and depressingly prescient, Paul Kingsnorth’s 2008 portrait of England in decline is even more disturbingly relevant a decade after its original publication.

Written with wit and charm rather than as an aggressive polemic, Kingsnorths personal journey around the country was effectively a manifesto against the homogenising forces of globalisation and a top-heavy state.

Following in the footsteps of Orwell and Chesterton, the former deputy editor of The Ecologist embarked on a quest to establish the nature of the ‘real England’ in the 21st century – and discovered a nation in disarray and under siege.

But this wasn’t merely a sentimental or nostalgic harking after yesteryear. In many ways Kingsnorth was as stark and hard-hitting in his portrait of the plight of the little man as Orwell – and at times he finds it hard to contain his anger.

“I am angry at what is being done to my country, angry at what is being lost and what is being deliberately erased,” he writes.

annie-spratt-160575-unsplashUNDER THREAT: the archetypal English village [PICTURE: Annie Spratt, Unsplash]

Kingsnorth takes his cue from words written a quarter of a century earlier by Richard Mabey in The Common Ground (1980): “Time and again we have seen how most of the naturally rich areas that remain on the farm are now confined to land that is agriculturally marginal.”

But Kingsnorth’s premise is that Mabey’s pronouncement on agriculture can be more broadly applied to our modern lifestyles, where the richest and most interesting remnants of English culture are now only to be found at the margins, away from the shopping malls and busy motorways.

His meander around the country picks up various threads which reflect a litany of loss: of closed pubs, specialist shops and second-hand bookshops on one hand and the destruction of wildflower meadows, chalk grasslands and ancient woodlands on the other – together with the flora and fauna which they supported.

ryan-jacques-465-unsplashLITANY OF LOSS: England’s disappearing wildlife [PICTURE: Ryan Jacques, Unsplash]

The “battle against the bland”, as the book is subtitled, is the battle against the apparently unstoppable spread of a manufactured corporate landscape, where individuality gives way to conformity, uniformity and mediocrity.

This is a world of identikit high streets, privately owned shopping malls and private security companies, where so-called progress destroys traditions, livelihoods and any sense of community.

“We are not a society which appreciates value,” he writes. “We appreciate instant gratification, primary colours, simple answers. We appreciate celebrities and shopping and media scandals and premium rate phone lines.”

Here lies the rub, because amid the bewildering distractions of technological advances, investment opportunities and a plethora of consumer choice, we are in danger of losing our way entirely, he argues:  “We are losing sight of who we are and where we have come from. And we don’t care. Or do we?”

victor-xok-615429-unsplashBRAVE NEW WORLD: inside a shopping mall [PICTURE: Victor Xok, Unsplash]

At the time it was published, the book was not unremittingly bleak and did contain various suggestions for steering a path to a more optimistic future, despite the dire warnings of  local pubs being turned into theme bars or pricey flats and rural villages becoming commuter dormitories or dead collectives of second homes for the wealthy.

Yet many of those warnings seem even more disturbing today after a decade of social networking, of the transformation of city centres and old docksides into high-rise offices and unaffordable penthouse flats.

The gentrification of whole boroughs of London is complete, grubby cafes and other  community meeting spots being swept away by stainless steel and smoked glass.

“The small and the local, the traditional and the distinctive were being stamped out by the powerful, the placeless and the very, very profitable,” Kingsnorth recalled in a Guardian article in 2015 – and not just in England, of course, but around the world, from Delhi to Sydney.

Yes, there have always been those determined to resist the Tescoisation of the land, but the author also believes this is not a straightforward issue in political terms, but about the individual against the ‘crushing, dehumanising machine’.

Back in 2008 the urgency of this book lay in its unequivocal message about the need for us to stop being complacent and do something before it’s too late.

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So is it too late? The onslaught on the whole cultural fabric of England’s local communities has continued unabated. The pubs and dairy farms have continued to close, the skyscrapers, motorways and luxury flats are still being built.

“The population is expected to exceed 70 million within 15 years, all in the name of growth and with no end in sight. Global capitalism is eating the soul of the nation,” wrote Kingsnorth in 2015.

Back in 2008 he lamented how consumerism specialises in creating a fake reality where new ‘needs’ are created by the brand marketing gurus and can be met, at a price, to help us fend off old age, pain, heartache, loneliness.

“We become narcissistic, self-absorbed, atomised. All that is real seems unreal; all that is false seems sublime. Everything is controlled – including us.”

It is a dystopia worthy of Huxley; ten years on and the unfolding tragedy seems to be even more vivid and terrifying. With Donald Trump as American president and Brexit looming, is England able to reclaim any of its lost character? The gulf between the haves and have-nots is even wider than it was in 2008. We live in any age of  suicide bombs and apocalyptic warnings about climate change and mass extinction.

But Kingsnorth still believes if there’s any antidote to the ideology of mass consumption and growing disconnect between human beings, it lies in the essence of the place itself: the woods, fields, streets, towns and beaches.

“We can be surrounded by plastic or be part of something real. We can be Citizens of Nowhere or we can know our place – know it and be prepared to stand up for it, because we understand how much it matters.”

That was his rallying call in 2008 and despite all the changes during the intervening years, it still makes a great deal of sense. All is not lost – not quite. And perhaps the growing resonance of that message in a world gone mad is that it’s never too late to stand against the tide – if we really want to.

Real England: The Battle Against The Bland by Paul KIngsnorth was published in paperback in June 2009 by Portobello Books at £8.99

steve-harvey-530335-unsplashIDENTITY CRISIS: can England rediscover its soul? [PICTURE: Steve Harvey, Unsplash]

 

 

 

Calling all book lovers

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We seem to be living through a golden age of nature writing, which is an encouraging sign – Waterstones list more than 50 titles dealing with nature and natural history, and the bookshop tables were positively groaning with Christmas gift suggestions reflecting this upsurge of interest in wildlife, rambling and untamed places.

Keeping pace with that monthly flurry of new titles is pretty hard, even for avid readers, so we are very keen to hear your recommendations and publish more detailed submissions from guest reviewers, particularly about new books hitting the shelves in 2018 as well as old favourites – like Chris Packham’s Fingers In The Sparkle Jar, which The Guardian’s Stephen Moss named as his book of the year for 2016, or Blue Planet II, the fascinating hardback accompanying David Attenborough’s extraordinary 2017 TV series chronicling the natural history of the oceans.

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