Not strictly inspired by Plaxtol, but I have come to realize that the books I love best inform my writing, elaborate my understanding of wildlife, landscape and history, and affirm my sense of place. Here are the ones which come most readily to mind.
‘The Country Child’
I was weaned on Uttley’s Little Grey Rabbit stories, and progression to her books for adults was inevitable. There is simply never a flaw in Uttley’s writing – her prose says exactly what it is meant to and never has to be re-read. Packed with rural social history and depictions of the natural world, it flows like the cool, clear spring-water she describes. In The Country Child and its follow-up, The Farm on the Hill, Uttley fictionalized life on the much-loved Derbyshire farm of her childhood. Over the course of the year in the first book, we experience the trials and triumphs of the child and her farming parents, through the clamping cold of winter, the bright return of spring, summer’s haymaking and harvest and the traditions, feasts and fairs which punctuated the country year towards the end of Queen Victoria’s reign.
At school, this book was rejected by all of my peers. They are the poorer for it.
‘A Moment In Time’
Bates is of course famous for his Darling Buds of May canon, but should be equally well-known for his war-time tales, of which Fair Stood the Wind for France (his first financially successful work) is perhaps the best-known. The Kent setting of A Moment In Time was always going to place it high on my reading list. Superficially, the novel is simply about the coming-of-age of a young woman against the backdrop of the Battle of Britain, but gradually it immerses us hands and heart in the mounting tensions of that hot summer, the surreal contrast between wasps swarming around the fruiting plum trees and Spitfires scrambling in the skies above the ripening wheat, and the changes which the events of those few months wrought in the men and women who lived through them.
In this Battle of Britain 75th Anniversary year, it is a novel which deserves to be read more.
‘Only the sun was slug abed.’ So begins the tale of a single farming season, divided into four parts just as the eponymous month is divided by the four phases of the moon. In contrast to Uttley, Moore’s prose is sometimes a little uneven, even halting, but his story-telling is sublime. This depiction of hop-picking in Herefordshire, which could so easily be transposed to the hop gardens of Kent, reminds us of the once-integral colour, noise and immediacy of the working countryside; in short, its vitality in every sense of the word. The characters – the farmers, the gypsies, the Black Country folk who were to Herefordshire what the East-Enders were to Kent at hop-picking time – are drawn deftly, with the assured, bold strokes of a artist who knows both his medium and his subject. They are, by turns, as lusty, craven, flawed and bawdy as any in Chaucer or Shakespeare, but I defy anyone not to care about the fate of John Sollars and his son Tim, sexy Marianne, and the feckless dreamer, Tommy Tomkins.
‘The Oaken Heart’
From 1934, ‘home’ for the mystery writer Margery Allingham and her artist husband, Philip Youngman Carter, was a rambling, gracious but inefficient house in rural Essex (with an elegant façade but, as Allingham herself describes, inclined to resemble a heap of upended egg-boxes at the back). From the time of the Munich crisis up to May 1941, Allingham described events in a series of edited letters to American friends. Despite receiving countless evacuees, the village (called Auburn in the book) finds itself in the front line, close enough to the North Sea that the windows rattle with the shock of the big guns firing in the Low Countries and for the villagers to experience genuine fear as the so-called ‘funny’ war builds to the full pitch of the invasion scare. It is impossible not to feel camaraderie for the village and its old country people, so steady in their furrows and as resourceful as they are fatalistic.
An added point of interest is that Auburn village was in fact Tolleshunt D’Arcy, the family home of Frances D’Arcy, wife of the first Sir Henry Vane of Plaxtol. Other towns and villages are given aliases such as Bastion and Goldenhind, unabashedly playing on the sentimentality of the American readership whose sympathy and support the book was originally meant to secure.
‘Diary of a Provincial Lady’, ‘The Provincial Lady Goes Further’, ‘The Provincial Lady in America’ and ‘The Provincial Lady in Wartime’
A bit of a cheat to call this one book, but the Virago Modern Classics edition I have includes all four volumes of Delafield’s witty, wryly-observed record of a fictional middle-class housewife in the late 1930s, running up to November 1939. In the best tradition of Dickens and Hardy, as well as Jan Struther’s Mrs Miniver, the work was first published in serial form – in the Provincial Lady’s case, in the literary magazine Time & Tide. In her introduction to my copy, Nicola Beauman says that it is a mistake to read even one volume – much less all four – straight off, but I cannot help it. Each time I dip into the day-to-day sketches from the life of the unnamed Lady, I am hooked and in for the long haul.
© New Moons For Old, 2015