Haunting tale from the riverbank

WITH descriptions on the cover like “haunting” and “heartbreaking” you are under no illusion that Kenneth Grahame’s life story is going to make for easy reading.

Accomplished biographer Matthew Dennison deftly and poignantly portrays an awkward, bookish bachelor dogged by personal tragedy who retreated into his own imagination from an early age.

His lasting legacy, of course, was the book he published in 1908 which became one of the greatest children’s classics of all time, The Wind In The Willows.

And as Dennison explains, the Thames Valley appears to have given Grahame the inspiration for his writing – as well as providing a place of sanctuary and escape from the harsher realities of life.

Born in Edinburgh in 1859, Grahame was only five when his mother died, and his father, who had a drinking problem and was overcome by grief and self-pity, gave the care of his four children to their grandmother, who lived in Cookham Dean in Berkshire.

There they lived in a higgledy-piggledy but dilapidated home in extensive grounds by the River Thames where they would be introduced to the riverside and boating by their uncle, David Inglis, the local curate.

Although they would later have to move to Cranbourne before the young Kenneth attended school in Oxford, it was at The Mount in Cookham Dean that the author became a “doodler and a dreamer”, exploring the adjoining Quarry Wood and the Thames beyond during a golden two-year interlude that would provide him with his most vivid and intense memories.

An unexpected bonus of his schooldays at St Edward’s School in Oxford was that the pupils were free to wander the city’s cobbled streets alone, imbuing in him a fascination for the city that he hoped to further explore as a university undergraduate there.

Unfortunately his sensible Scottish uncle had different ideas about his future prospects, and his appointment as a bank clerk in London was to pave the way for a respectable banking career that would immerse him in City life but leave him free to day-dream about riverside adventures and leave him free at weekends to return to the Thames.

Still in his twenties, he began to publish light stories in London periodicals and in the 1890s started to write tales about a group of parentless children whose circumstances sounded remarkably similar to his own childhood days at Cookham Dean.

By the mid-1890s, Grahame had tasted success in both his banking and writing careers, but Dennison reveals a bookish bachelor more comfortable with his pipe, a solitary ramble or male colleagues than in female company.

Nonetheless Grahame was to marry Elspeth Thomson in 1899 when he was 40 after a pursuit by her characterised by Dennison as “single-minded and unwavering”. But the marital relationship was emotionally sterile and both appeared to find it disappointing and unfulfilling.

Their only son Alastair (“Mouse”) was born blind in one eye and was plagued by health problems throughout his short life. Tragically he would later take his own life on a railway track while an undergraduate at Oxford University a few days before his 20th birthday in 1920. And yet it was Grahame’s bedtime stories for Alastair that formed the basis for The Wind In The Willows.

‘Mouse’ was about four when Grahame started to tell him stories and on the author’s frequent boating holidays without his family he would write further tales of Toad, Mole, Ratty, and Badger in letters to Alastair.

The four animal friends provided the basis for the manuscript for the book which would secure Grahame’s reputation, published in the year he took early retirement from the Bank of England, by which time he had moved back to the Thames, initially to Cookham and later to Blewbury.

Despite its success, he never attempted a sequel, although the book gave rise to many film and television adaptations and Toad remains one of the most celebrated and beloved characters in children’s literature.

Indeed the Julian Fellowes 2017 stage adaptation — filmed at the London Palladium, and starring Rufus Hound as Toad, Simon Lipkin as Ratty and Craig Mather as Mole — was offered free online when theatres closed as the coronavirus scare spread in the UK, with a small donation requested to help support theatre workers.

The pastoral tale of riverside camaraderie seemed to reflect the author’s fascinating with “messing about in boats” and is celebrated for its evocation of the Thames Valley. But as Dennison explores in a sensitive and nuanced account of his life, both the literary and real-life riverbank escapades may have provided a necessary escape from darker emotions.

It also warned about the fragility of the English countryside and express fear at threatened social changes that became a reality in the aftermath of World War I.

Grahame’s life was not without adventure. He met many of the literary greats of the period and was even shot at in 1903 when a gunman opened fire at the Bank of England.

But when he died in Pangbourne in 1932 it was for one thing that he was remembered – as his cousin and successful author Anthony Hope had engraved on his gravestone in Holywell Cemetery, Oxford: the fact that he left childhood and literature “the more blest for all time”.

Matthew Dennison has published a number of works of biography and writes for Country Life and the Telegraph. Eternal Boy: The Life of Kenneth Grahame was published in 2018 by Head of Zeus Ltd at £8.99

Settle down for a good read

THE GOOD news these days is the sheer number of nature books weighing down the shelves in your local bookshop.

The bad news is the confusion of choice when faced with so many different titles and too little time in the week to read them all.

Luckily there has also been an explosion in the number of good local independent bookshops providing a welcoming place to browse and some expert advice about the best titles to choose. But just in case you haven’t got too many local nature lovers able to advise you, what are some of the most interesting reads fighting for your attention this year?

Given our excitment about Raynor Winn’s prize-winning writing debut The Salt Path, we are naturally looking forward to the September launch of her follow-up narrative about returning to normal life after the period of homelessness which inspired her first book.

The incredible journey she and terminally ill husband Moth made along the South West Coast Path in the wake of the collapse of their livelihoods was as thought-provoking as it was life-affirming, but what happened when their odyssey came to an end?

Or if you need something to get your teeth into before then, what about Lindsay McCrae’s lavishly illustrated memoir of life with an emperor penguin colony, which came out in November.

The award-winning wildlife cameraman spent the best part of a year in Antarctica chronicling the lives of 11,000 emperor penguins and this is the story of their existence in one of the planet’s harshest environments – or as fellow wildlife filmmaker Gordon Buchanan described it on Twitter, “an incredible chap in an extraordinary place”.

Anyone interested in slightly less extreme conditions can find out more about how weather actually works and what the future may hold for us in climate terms in an intriguing analysis from meteorologists Simon King and Clare Nasir.

From how rainbows are formed to whether we could harness the power of lightning, the pair break down our knowledge of the elements to explain the significance of weather in history and explore the science behind a subject that affects us all.

Or if you feel overwhelmed by all the doom-laden talk of climate change, find out what happens when 3,500 acres of land which has been farmed for centuries is left to return to the wild.

Isabella Tree and husband Charlie Burrell were facing bankruptcy working their farm in West Sussex when they decided to try something radical and restore the Knepp Castle Estate to the wild, using herds of free-roaming animals.

Flash forward a few years and the estate has become a breeding hotspot for rare and threatened species where the fabled English nightingale sings again. Despite local and government resistance, here is a story of optimism and hope against a backdrop of looming environmental disaster.

For younger readers who would enjoy and a funny and informative introduction to the natural world, Ben Hoare’s infectious enthusiasm is accompanied by elegant photography and lush illustrations from Angela Rizza and Daniel Long.

Hoare introduces some extraordinary plant life, not to mention the odd tarantula, rattlesnake or wombat.

One book last summer which quickly won plaudits from a number of celebrity fans was Joe Harkness’s groundbreaking testimony to the transformative power of birdwatching.

Described as “life-saving” by Chris Packham and “wonderful” by Bill Bailey, the book chronicles the author’s efforts to recover from a breakdown, and his discovery of how birdwatching could help his sense of wellbeing and self-acceptance.

A slightly different type of natural escape was that chosen by Mark Boyle, whose efforts to live off grid and escape from the pressures of modern technology form the basis for The Way Home.

With no running water, car, electricity or internet, this is about discovering the pleasure of an elemental life governed by the sun and the seasons: building a home with your bare hands, learning to make fire, collecting water from the stream, foraging and fishing to survive.

Nature’s healing powers are explored in more depth in another 2019 book, this time exploring the science behind why being in nature makes us feel alive and helps us thrive.

Why on earth do we spend countless hours indoors in front of screens when being in nature feels so good? This book explores how nurturing our emotional connection with nature can impact on our physical, intellectual and spiritual lives too.

Meanwhile Douglas W. Tallamy’s new book explores practical steps we can all consider to help avert the decline in wildlife populations.

Tallamy’s solution is to encourage a grassroots approach to conservation where home owners everywhere turn their backyards into conservation corridors to provide practical and effective wildlife habitats.

As well as sidestepping the whims of government policy, this encourages neighbours and heighbourhoods to work together to start preserving precious wildlife for future generations.

Of course there are still plenty of other classics to catch up on if you haven’t read them yet, including Robert Macfarlane’s exploration of the world beneath our feet in Underland.

From the burial grounds of the Mendip Hills to the catacombs of Paris and the ancient ice of Greenland, Macfarlane explores the netherworld in a mingling of myth, memoir lyrical travelogue.

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?

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BADGERLANDS: 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.

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LIFE 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.

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NEW 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.

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ISLAND 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.

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REFLECTIONS:  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

Never too late to change

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BIG PICTURE: pondering our place in the universe  [PICTURE: Greg Rakozy, Unsplash]

THE MOST startling thing about Paul Kingsnorth’s 2008 portrait of England in decline (Seen and Heard – Books) is just how much of it sounds as if it were written yesterday.

And yet his round England journey was undertaken well over a decade or so ago. Which begs the question – why didn’t we all spot what was happening at the time?

Well, of course we did: we all had those bleak conversations echoing the book’s central message – moaning about those idiosyncratic pubs and cafes and shops being swept away amid the violent regeneration of our town and city centres.

And of course it wasn’t all bad, by any means. Many of those awful greasy spoons and appalling backstreet boozers were the very epitome of what was wrong with England. Those famous publicans who took pleasure in being rude to their customers, for example. Those village pubs empty on a Saturday night long before the smoking ban or the soaring cost of a pint had made a real impact on trade.

But as the song says, you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone – and in fact the lyrics from Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi would make a pretty good soundtrack to Kingsnorth’s expose of a country which seems to have lost its way.

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PRICE OF PROGRESS: high-rise city centre offices [PICTURE: Matthew Henry, Unsplash]

What resonates most about his book is the cumulative effect of all this so-called progress – of its dehumanising effect on us, creating a culture of dependency on the consumer machine created by the apparently unstoppable march of global capitalism.

“We expect. We demand. We are like children. Everything must be instant and, if it isn’t, somebody must pay,” he writes.

This is the real tragedy and it’s a growing selfishness that we see around us every day, in impatient queues at the till or blaring horns in traffic queues, the careless dropping of litter or the way tempers flare up so quickly over the most minor disputes.

The problem is that we have lost our ability to relate to other people, to empathise with their plight, share their concerns. Instead, we are living in a world of artificial reality, fuelled by our self-absorbtion, our narcissistic Instagram uploads and Facebook selfies.

We tap our feet in the supermarket when the person in front of us has the temerity to chat to the check-out assistant. We thump on the horn if someone takes a micro-second too long to spot the traffic light has turned green. We are patronising and sarcastic or downright aggressive when hard-pressed rail staff or shop assistants struggle to cope with problems beyond their control.

And all the time we are taking pictures of our food or the concert or the view and telling our friends how cool and happy and chic and contented we are.

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CONSUMER  CULTURE: global brands dominate our lives [PICTURE: Victor Xok, Unsplash]

And it’s this disconnect from any local community that poses the biggest danger to our wellbeing, not our reliance on global brands. It’s how we choose to use new technology that is the problem, not the fact that new technology exists.

And that’s nothing new. Joni Mitchell recognised the problem back in 1970 and we are far better informed today about the practical impact of our actions on the environment, as well of ways of starting to turn back the tide.

But if there is a more important message to be drawn from such a dystopian vision, it’s that there IS something we can do about it. As individuals, we can make choices. And as individuals working together we can be powerful.

That philosophy lies at the heart of what The Beyonder is about. At one level it’s about families exploring and enjoying the great outdoors so that it doesn’t feel as if we have totally lost touch with the landscape – or as if nature has just been contained and fenced in for our enjoyment (“They took all the trees / Put ’em in a tree museum / And they charged the people / A dollar and a half just to see ’em”).

It’s about youngsters feeling as carefree building a den in the woods or a sandcastle on the beach as they do battling dark forces in the latest computer game. It’s about having the patience to keep listening to the old boy in the pub rattling on about the way things were. And it’s about sharing our enjoyment for some of the simplest things in life – the new ducklings on the lake, the screech of an owl at night in the woods, the glimpse of a hare or badger disappearing into the undergrowth.

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SIMPLE PLEASURES: taking delight in the natural world [PICTURE: Olivia Beyonder]

Kingsnorth recognised that if there’s any antidote to the ideology of mass consumption and growing disconnect between human beings, it lies in rediscovering the essence of the place itself, not just the field and stream, but the town and village too.

Human beings are social animals and enjoy being part of a community. We feel more anxious when we feel isolated, remote, separate from our environment, so it makes sense at every level to know our place and the other people who inhabit it.

We can’t bury our heads in the sand, turn off the news and live in a bubble, pretending the problems of the world don’t exist. But we can take a moment to share our appreciation of the natural world, our joy of living and our recognition that thousands – millions – of other people feel the same way.

Just as a sneak theft or random verbal attack by a stranger can spoil our mood and our day, so a random act of kindness can bring not just a smile to our face but a deeper inner joy.

There may be plenty wrong with the world, but there are other people out there who care just as much about what’s gone wrong – and who are working out the best way to put it right, one little personal step at a time.

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

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BACK TO NATURE: England’s threatened wildlife [PICTURE: Ryan Jacques, Unsplash]

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.

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UNDER 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.

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LITANY 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?”

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BRAVE 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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SKY’S THE LIMIT: Toronto’s financial district [PICTURE: Matthew Henry, Unsplash]

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

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IDENTITY CRISIS: can England rediscover its soul? [PICTURE: Steve Harvey, Unsplash]

Calling all book lovers

AYDPH

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.

WHALES