Go Wild In The Country!

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Who could ignore the sage advice of Bow Wow Wow? A rainy, muggy Summer Solstice day reminds me that books are one of the cheapest and most potent transportation devices we have. There are few better things in life than getting out into the open air. Work/life commitments means this happens less often than we would like. So grab a copy of one of these books, find your favourite chair, crack open your favourite tipple (a nice bottle of Summer Lightning or Old Peculiar maybe), and let your mind go a-wandering.  Altogether now: ‘Summer Is Icumen In!’…or maybe not….

Akenfield by Ronald Blythe Akenfield, Portrait Of An English Village by Ronald Blythe (1969)

Akenfield was a publishing sensation when it first appeared in 1969. The journalist Ronald Blythe compiled a series of interviews with a variety of farm labourers, blacksmiths, farmers, teachers, district nurses and other village folk from Sussex. Akenfield cut through any misty romanticism about rural life and showed a way of life that was often more about subsisting than anything else. An incredibly moving book, Akenfield reminds us just how hard some people had it.

 

A month in the Country by J.L. Carr  A Month In The Country by J.L. Carr  (1980) 

This is one of the great novels about the First World War and the generation it ruined. It tells the simple story of a veteran restoring a mural in a village church in Yorkshire. Gradually this broken man is absorbed into the quiet routines and rhythms of country life and, to a certain extent though not completely, rehabilitated. One of the few novels that is worth revisiting time and time again. Don’t pass up the chance to see the 1987 film adaptation with Colin Firth and Kenneth Branagh which is, for some inexplicable reason, hard enough to track down.

 

The Go-Between The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley (1953)

Another novel that shatters the myth of the rural idyll is L.P. Hartley’s classic novel of sexual awakening. Mainly set in the grounds of Brandham Hall in Norfolk, young Leo Colston becomes a messenger for the daughter of the aristocratic host family and her secret tenant farmer lover. Hartley’s masterful prose captures the oppressive heat of summer.

 

The Worm forgives the Plough The Worm Forgives The Plough by John Stewart Collis (1973).

Collis’s two accounts of rural working life  - While Following The Plough (1946) and Down To Earth (1947) – were published as a single volume in 1973. During the Second World War, the academic John Stewart Collis was sent to work as a farm labourer in Dorset and Sussex. He threw himself into his daily chores and, as he writes, found some spiritual solace in almost constant physical exertion. If you want to learn about the effort involved in building a haystack, this is the place to start.

 

The Wild Places by Robert MacFarlane The Wild Places by Robert MacFarlane (2007)

MacFarlane set himself the task of finding the remaining untamed places ‘beyond the systems of motorway and flight-path’ in the British Isles at the beginning of the twenty-first century. He sleeps out on mountain tops, walks frozen rivers, and crosses ancient meadows, all the time invoking the great poets and painters of these islands.

 


The Wind in the Willows The Wind In The Willows by Kenneth Grahame (1908)

Some books are so familiar to us through film and television adaptations that we are in danger of ignoring the source. The tales of Ratty, Mole, Mr Toad, and the Weasels of the Wild Wood are immortal but, as Syd Barrett astutely recognised, there is a kind of pagan poetry to Kenneth Grahame’s riverbank.

 

Watership Down Watership Down by Richard Adams (1972)

Watership Down was an unlikely publishing sensation when it appeared in the early seventies. It was rejected by thirteen publishers before being taken on by a one-man publishing house. The book was a phenomenal success both as a children’s novel and as a counter-cultural manifesto at a time when the ecological movement was taking off. By the end of the 1970s, this tale of rabbits trying to find a new home after the destruction of their warren by property developers had sold three million copies. The resonance of this theme for post-Celtic Tiger Ireland is self-evident.

On the Black Hill On The Black Hill by Bruce Chatwin (1982)

There is a growing consensus that On The Black Hill is one of the great British novels of the late twentieth century. Taking place on the Herefordshire and Breconshire borderlands of England and Wales, it follows two generations of farmers inextricably linked to their land. The brutalising effect of farming life  is interspersed with lyrical passages on the power and beauty of nature.

 

That They May Face the Rising Sun That They May Face The Rising Sun by John McGahern (2001)
Has there been a better novel published by an Irish writer in the past twenty years? John McGahern’s final novel follows the patterns of rural life over a year in a small Leitrim village. But this is no nostalgic or idealised portrait of country living. The characters' back stories reveal a dark undertow to the Arcadian rhythms of life. Family squabbles, domestic abuse, and sectarian violence frame the villagers’ lives. As ever with McGahern, there is restraint and compassion for everything he considers. Each character plays out their allotted part against the unremitting changing of the seasons until they meet their rest, with their heads to the west, facing the rising sun.


 

Comments

And another thing......

There are many other books that I could have, indeed should have, included in this list: Adam Thorpe's Ulverton, Graham Swift's Waterland, any of Richard Jeffries' spellbinding essays on the countryside, the poetry of Edward Thomas, and, of course, Laurie Lee's Cider With Rosie and Patrick Kavanagh's Tarry Flynn. For a very interesting discussion on nature-writing with a comprehensive bibliography for further reading see Robert MacFarlane's excellent Guardian essay. I hope you find something to tickle your fancy!

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