Edith Sitwell’s diamond-bright collection of winter writing, including this by Osbert Sitwell…
I was born in a small town not far from the New Forest. Now and again in the evenings, as a family, we would go and watch the deer from a viewing platform. It was like theatre, and we were in the dress circle, looking with binoculars at a sun-dappled herd lazing under a canopy of oak trees, or an antlered monarch stood on ceremony. There was also the Rufus Stone – a memorial to King William II, slain in 1100 while hunting.
I loved stories of Robin Hood, dreamed of living and waking among trees, and later devoured the wild landscapes covered in Roger Lancelyn Green’s stories of King Arthur. Winchester, home of Edward I’s recreated round table, seemed magical, and one summer I watched my brother’s girlfriend in a play at the Great Hall. It was inspired by Richard Jefferies’ book After London: Wild England, in which the country is ‘returned to nature’ by a great flood. In the final scene she took a white mouse from a small box, which ran over her hands as she spoke… the last living creature?
Earlier, I had inherited Enid Blyton’s Country Walks with Uncle Merry from my brothers (I doubt Uncle Merry would pass many checks these days). One day a supply teacher entranced our class of six-year-olds with Edith Holden’s Country Diary. (Nothing was as fascinating as the beetle who had crawled into the pages and been reproduced in the facsimile.)
I took anything by BB (Denys Watkins Pitchford), author of Brendon Chase and Bill Badger. Otters were my favourite animal – Philip Wayre’s The River People was rarely left in the local library. As an eight-year-old member of his Otter Trust my heart stopped at the line in the newsletter: ‘It’s time to renew your subscription – don’t let the otters go hungry!’
In 1980, en route from the New Forest to Devon, through Tolpuddle and Dorchester, you could still imagine Thomas Hardy’s heart fluttering past the cottages, the window-frames layered with paint from his lifetime.
Whatever our experience of nature and landscape, it becomes part of us. It’s not something we might acknowledge until there are some years behind us. The realisation comes through a growing susceptibility to pain at seeing it fade and become unfamiliar. And it’s different for each generation; what is still beautiful to a 20-year-old today might be wrecked in the eyes of someone who knew it decades ago.
Some passing things might be rescued in the only way our age seems capable of doing – over-analysing, creating niches to attract like minds and consolidate exactly what it is we want to perpetuate: unaltered landscapes, timeworn buildings, to preserve an ancient thread over centuries and keep in check our ability to modify and obliterate within a few minutes.
But we cannot picture ‘the countryside’ as existing outside the trends of our century. I’m typing this in a cottage with walls eighteen inches thick. You would barely hear a dog bark from next door, and yet I can hear incessant bombing from an Xbox, and when they’re not obliterating war-torn cities, it’s Formula 1 racing. There will be a huge hyper-real screen, the key point of interaction for the now and future, unless you disconnect, edit your life and put a shepherd in your garden like Marie Antoinette. I can, however, walk out on the moor and see the sheep, see the ponies, think of how many were recorded as neglected and emaciated earlier this year. It’s not so unlike urban life.
Since the Industrial Revolution our national consciousness has bred art and writing attempting to capture the essence of the countryside. Generally we’re told that this vision exists only in our imagination. It’s not long since there was derision in many quarters that the Olympics ceremony should draw on our ‘green and pleasant land’: how old-fashioned, how twee, how backward.
But perceptions are remoulded as the years pass.
Over the last decade a particular appreciation of the natural world has grown up: the fashionable face of nature-loving. Cooler record stores stock books from Caught by the River, music festivals are entwined with food and literary festivals… it is traditional non-corporate life as we might imagine it, restyled in a way palatable to lifestyle media. Fashion became obsessed with images of a stark, skeletal nature – animal heads, something dark in the forest. Chuck out your Beatrix Potter, to paraphrase Ikea.
In the 2010 preface to David Pinner’s Ritual, the book which inspired the 1971 pagan film classic The Wicker Man, Saint Etienne’s Bob Stanley writes:
“It is easy to take nature for granted in the 21st century, to see it as tamed by an increasingly urbanised world. We grow plants in pots and perch them on sills, herbs thrive on our balconies, parks and gardens are open air nail bars of plucked hedges and manicured rose bushes. But a trip to the countryside can soon remind you who’s boss, and of how small you are in the scheme of things, as soon as your jumper gets caught by a thorn or your bare leg grazes a thistle. The further west of London you go, the more this seems to be the case. It isn’t that the countryside there is any wilder than in other parts of Britain, just less known, and it becomes less and less familiar until its otherness dwarfs you. People don’t take nature for granted here. Here be monsters… behind the photogenic wildlife skirting the unseen bogs of the New Forest; ultimately, on Dartmoor.”
Whether this rings true depends on your circumstance, but it captures a moment, a place where the new godhead is Robert Macfarlane, who took the authenticity of Richard Jefferies, Edward Thomas et al and washed away sentiment.
This is all far from a knitted, unfashionable image of walking holidays in the countryside. But at the turn of this century, the nearest the lifestyle media might come to indulging such pursuits was a photo of Alison Steadman as Candice-Marie in Mike Leigh’s Nuts in May.
Of course, that quiet, ancient thread was always there and had never faded: the small publisher reissuing work by BB; people like Jack Hargreaves (as a child, he was a regular at 7pm most evenings on Southern TV – an elderly chap in a garden shed intoning about country pursuits with all the manner of a leisurely mull over beer in his village pub); the bench thoughtfully positioned in the unfashionably-termed ‘beauty spots’ on some unsung track – Frank loved this view and this seat was put here by his wife; the plethora of ornaments featuring wild animals in immaculately-crafted detail, endless prints of badgers, foxes or kingfishers in faux-gilt frames; Watership Down; Alan Titchmarsh enthusing about something or other… the solid dark green livery of the National Trust, set in stone and as yet uninterpreted; unflattering waterproofs before a testosterone-fuelled industry kicked in, now entreating us to ‘take all nature can throw at you and throw it back’.
Our new century is growing up but are we still living by illusions? Is our search for wild nature, the individual and the independent any different to the 1930s retreat to Olde England in the face of modernity? We like to think so. Perhaps we’re just the same as any age, hankering after Utopia, but won’t admit it.
Let’s be cynical for a while.
You can no longer drive through England and pass rows of cottages that would be familiar to their generations of owners, sun-faded with wrinkled render, mossy roofs and watery window panes. Well, you can, now and again, but it will be so beautifully preserved and Farrow-and-Ball’d that it’s a stage set without a cast. Yet the metal-embossed road sign at the cross-roads is at ease and true, a little rusted. Stand in the village square and choose your century. Not so long ago, it seemed we would always be able to come here and reconnect.
Tempted by practical comforts, low maintenance and rewards for environmental friendliness (or beaten by blanket-bombing marketing) the buildings in our villages and towns have been given make-overs with flawless float-glass double-glazing, immaculate shadowless render and plastic doors holding just an echo of beaded moulding to remind us what a timber door looked like. Shop signs are sheets of plastic screwed to the wall with the freedom of any font, any colour and any clipart the software allows. The signpost at the crossroads has Jock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert’s carefully-constructed Transport font condensed and squashed to fit the space on the standardised reflective board. This is life lived with care for immediate practical needs, even survival. These villages will not age gently and fade into the landscape anymore, or admit eccentricities, but they are no less authentic than the badger in his sett.
Preserved cottages are more often empty, the 19th century hovel a 21st century luxury from coffee table books. In off-track villages they’re part of the idyll, reassuring visitors that somewhere things are running in computer safe-mode, waiting for a some-day-soon.
They are stage sets, and outside showtime life is still reduced to the comforting essentials: no shop, no pub, no jobs, refuelling with coal or damp wood on the hour to keep a radiator working, no salt or grit for frozen roads, no privacy.
Decimated, the last of generations remain knowing they cannot make a living from the land like their fathers and mothers and yet struggle on. It’s in their skin and has been there since birth, every nuance of weather, every flutter of wing. Those dependent on the countryside know it as the rabbit knows the fox or the sparrow knows the hawk. This is becoming nature, where survival is king.
Are the rest of us able to say we really know the countryside? Or are we indulging the luxury of being able to consider a longing for nature’s otherness, a reminder that we are part of something truly beyond humankind’s control, the pull of the primeval? We might infuse our responses with modernity, a scrabble for authenticity: ultimately, it’s a privilege to be able to do so. We are looking to ideals, a pursuit of beauty, the antidote to over-sophistication, a dream of Utopia, a return to Eden.
No matter whether we express this with a well-placed bench, a faded print or bestselling literature, it’s an illusion that belongs to us all.
Stag Boy by William Rayner (1971)
Billy Buck by Josephine Poole (1972)
The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy by Penelope Lively (1971)
The invasion of ancient folklore and myth into the present is a feature of many novels for ‘young adults’ of the late sixties and early seventies. There had been, of course, the Alan Garner effect: in 1967 The Owl Service redefined the remit of this type of writing, beyond ‘writing for children’, ambitious in the way it dealt with human emotions against an older, wiser and more powerful landscape. The stories were different because they were as rooted in everyday realism as the kitchen-sink dramas of British film.
It may or may not be true, but for me these books spring from a time when genres were undefined and inspiration was not moulded to the market. They existed against a particular sense of modernity at the time: heritage culture hadn’t really begun; things were either ‘old-fashioned’, or they were ‘modern’. Myth and folklore had yet to be plundered and Disney-fied in ersatz Celtic script (usually metallic and embossed).
The three titles here were published within a year of each other in 1971/2, and have much in common besides their mythic associations with deer. They share the setting of Exmoor and the Devon/Somerset border, where a deeply-buried folk heritage rises from the landscape – a Horn Dance of the type still enacted today at Abbots Bromley, a Wild Hunt, an ancient antlered helmet.
The protagonists are all perceived as ‘different’ in some way – they are weak and ailing, like severely asthmatic Jim in Stag Boy and Harry recovering from polio in Billy Buck; or intellect has isolated them – like Kester in The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy, who goes to the grammar school (‘Brainy people aren’t always the nicest people, are they?’ says the strident village busybody to her daughters).
Of the three, it is Penelope Lively whose legacy is mentioned alongside Garner in critical studies. Josephine Poole’s and William Rayner’s out-of-print contributions are in danger of passing out of sight, although Poole is still writing today.
Like The Owl Service, Rayner’s Stag Boy deals with a relationship triangle. Jim returns to his childhood home from the urban sprawl of Wolverhampton and, by way of the helmet he finds in an undisturbed burial chamber, ‘shares a pulse with a stag’. His strength is restored as the mental and physical prowess of deer and human overlap, and he taunts both his rival and the pursuing hunt in shifting form. Jim as stag is hyper-aware of wild nature tamed and twisted: ‘What kind of world was this that made such cruel judgments on its creatures?’
At publication, The Guardian called Stag Boy ‘fine and powerful’ and others said ‘perhaps one day we shall see it on an enlightened GCE syllabus’.
Josephine Poole’s trump card is a deft hand with suspense and atmosphere and she is almost Wicker Man-esque in Billy Buck. Mr Bogle (‘His body was the shape of a fly’) arrives as tutor to the recovering Harry in a decaying, centuries-old family house. Soon he is driving the village to hysteria by way of bonfire night revels and a ritual dance, before exploiting the community’s appetite for persecution to destroy the remains of the ancient family.
Poole uses the marriage of Harry’s sister to a local landowner as a counterpoint of light; her dress will be sprigged with green, the garb of a May Queen, and the planned Christmas wedding suggests a Solstice-like triumph of light over dark in the depths of winter. In the United States the book was published as ‘The Visitor’ and the insidious presence of an unwanted guest is chillingly portrayed.
Penelope Lively’s Wild Hunt of Hagworthy also deals with persecution, seen through the eyes of the visiting Lucy. Like Jim in Stag Boy, Kester appears to goad and taunt, and won’t temper what sets him apart. When the vicar resurrects the Horn Dance, the rest of the village boys become malevolent beneath their antler masks, and over a lush and heat-hazed summer an inevitable storm gathers, and Kester becomes the quarry.
So why are these books worthwhile?
For one, it’s the deep sense of place that mark them out: both Poole and Rayner lived around Exmoor and they recreate a rich, sensory experience.
Here’s a genre that explores individuality and the search for identity. As such, characters are given a freedom that adults have only briefly, with parents and responsibilities elsewhere, replaced with relations who aren’t proprietary and whose homes are in wild spaces: urban, institutional lifestyles are removed, leaving ‘holiday’ spaces to explore.
All the books can be said to be ‘anti’ something repressive. Kester won’t hide his contempt for the blinkered outlook of the horsey Mrs Norton-Smith, a caricature of the rural guiding light; Jim (and there’s just a bit of Kes in there I think) is surly at the arrogance of humans setting themselves apart from nature; while a theme of Billy Buck is crowd manipulation.
It’s no wonder that there is much for adults in these books that can still resonate today. Don’t we all often need a space to explore, away from these things? Here the authorial voices aren’t hectoring; they create a world where nothing is yet set in stone, and possibility is king.