April 6, 2009

Penguin English Journeys

Posted in Penguin Modern Classics at 8:00 am by John Self

I can’t help fearing that in financial hard times, the lowest common denominator will win out, and that mainstream publishers will abandon their more interesting and imaginative projects. Well, Penguin Books recently reported record profits in the teeth of a recession, so they must be doing something right. And fortunately, it seems that they intend to keep on doing it. Over the past few years, they have given us several series of slim, small-format paperbacks with beautiful covers and meaty content: three runs of Great Ideas from thinkers through the millennia, as well as Great Journeys and Great Loves. Now they narrow their sights with English Journeys, a series of elegantly designed volumes containing literary celebrations of the English countryside, heritage and regions.

It is a rich selection, which contains cultural compilations (Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard and other poems, Country Lore and Legends, English Folk Songs), famous literary lights (Henry James on Cathedrals and Churches, Vita Sackville-West’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Gardens, the Wordsworths on Life at Grasmere), regional reviews (William Cobbett’s From Dover to the Wen, Francis Kilvert’s A Wiltshire Diary), special interests (L.T.C. Rolt’s The Clouded Mirror on narrowboating, Simon Jenkins’ Country Churches, Alan Davidson’s The Pleasures of English Food), and even the odd title which I always thought was a Victoria Wood joke (Celia Fiennes’ Through England on a Side-Saddle).

It does risk seeming parochial, however, and unless you’re going to buy all twenty books (I did that with the first two Great Ideas and Great Journeys, but a shelf space recession has long since hammered that completist impulse out of me), it’s difficult to know which titles to try. On the one hand, this is a serendipitous selection: I want to read them because they’re there, and would never have known about them without this series, and because I trust the judgement of the editors at Penguin Classics. On the other hand, I need some stars to steer by, and I ended up selecting three to sample based on knowledge of the authors’ names.

Many of the titles in the English Journeys series, like the Great Loves and others, are extracts from larger works, which I obscurely feel somehow to be cheating. One book which appears complete is A.E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad. I risk expulsion from polite literary society by admitting that I had never read it before now. Yet what a revelation, not just for its inspiration to other authors for titles and epigraphs (I spotted phrases lifted by James Ellroy, Dennis Potter and J.L. Carr at a glance), but its perfect rendition of celebration, remembrance and elegy.

Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.

It is bucolic without being sentimental. If, like me, you’re foolish enough to have got to here without reading it, correct that imbalance now.

James Lees-Milne was a name familiar to me as a prolific diarist; fifty years of his journals have been published in several volumes. For much of his life he worked for the National Trust, and Some Country Houses and their Owners brings together his diary entries dealing with his work on the Trust’s Country Houses Scheme, where the government offered incentives for owners to donate their properties to the Trust. In the 1940s Lees-Milne travelled the country trying to persuade them to sign up. His informative, gossipy entries speak as much of the owners as of their houses (“Poor Tom, he should not have lived in this age. He cannot drive a car, ride a bicycle, fish or shoot. He would have stepped in and out of a sedan chair so beautifully”. Another is “a common, waspish woman, who got where she is through persistence and money”) and even more of Lees-Milne himself: his love of the aristocratic homes (“I am blissfully happy this afternoon. I write this at my table on the raised platform at the south-east end of the Gallery…”) and his snobbish despair at their passing:

This evening the whole tragedy of England impressed itself upon me. This small, not very important seat, in the heart of our secluded country, is now deprived of its last squire. A whole social system has broken down. What will replace it beyond government by the masses, uncultivated, rancorous, savage, philistine, the enemies of all things beautiful?

Despite this, Lees-Milne is an affable and amusing diarist, relating how he “kept nodding off” as one owner read his interminable will to him, or another took him into her confidence (“She denied that the Germans had committed atrocities, and declared that the Jews were the root of all evil. Oh dear!”). But he never forgets his first passion: “my loyalties are first to the houses, second to their owners, and third to the National Trust.”

One book which has stared down at me from the unread shelves for some time is Ronald Blythe’s Akenfield. Its damned small type has been the main thing putting me off what I understand – and now know – to be a masterpiece of oral history. I know this because one of the English Journeys is a condensed version, Voices of Akenfield.

Akenfield is a fictional place, a putative village in Suffolk which Blythe has constructed from the words of rural workers in the 1960s. Voices abridges these, leaves out many (30 of the 50 in the original Akenfield are omitted) and does not include any of Blythe’s commentary. Nonetheless it is a exceptional work. Many of the people we hear are elderly, the last of a dying culture (sometimes dying literally: “they worked and lived, and kind of toppled over at the end”), who remember how things used to be. “People believed in religion then,” says Leonard Thompson, a farm worker, “which I think was a good thing because if they hadn’t got religion there would have been a revolution. Nobody would have stuck it.” This notion of belief bringing people together recurs. During the War (the First), “we believed the fighting had got to be done. We were fighting for England. You only had to say ‘England’ to stop any argument.” This notion seems to distance us from the times spoken of more than any material details. Even those who are younger seem to be of another time. Christopher Falconer, gardener:

I am a young man who has got caught in the old ways. I am thirty-nine and I am a Victorian gardener, and this is why the world is strange to me.

What comes out repeatedly is the sense of limitation of life, where people are not only happy with their restricted lot (“Nobody would have stuck it”) but view with suspicion any attempt at self-improvement.

Should there be a boy or girl with initiative and a bright intelligence, he or she is soon frustrated. With most of them it is, ‘We know quite enough for what we have to do, thank you very much.’ … A market gardener I know, who is now about twenty, is a lonely person because he went to the grammar school and the village women say, ‘Didn’t get him far, did it? All that schooling and he’s still on the land!’

Voices of Akenfield shows that everyone has something to say which is worth hearing, or at least that they do with Ronald Blythe as editor. It is essential reading.

All three books I read here make the pastoral vision of England appealing largely because it is portrayed as being in decline. The English Journey in question is not only through the geography of England, but through time also. Even when there is a sense of loss, there is a balancing impression of reassurance – probably because the past cannot spring up and unpleasantly surprise us as the present so often does. Perhaps that makes such an admirable project as this ideal for pressing, recessing times after all.

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24 Comments »

  1. Steerforth said,

    I got to know ‘A Shropshire Lad’ through Vaughan Williams’ beautiful setting of some of the verses and during my teens, when I should have been sniffing glue, I was obsessed with the English pastoral movement (if you can even call it a movement).

    The yearning for that ‘land of lost content’ – pre-industrial England – can be traced back to Blake and Samuel Palmer. However, it has remained a vibrant force in English culture, thanks to the horrors of mass production, the First World War and the loss of local identities.

    Then I remember that I am descended from Kentish peasants and would probably have been shovelling shit today if it hadn’t been for all the changes that have taken place, so I feel ambivalent.

  2. I have ‘shelf-space recessions’ on a regular basis but fortunately for me my children have recently left home for good and I can plaster their walls with shelves.

    I don’t know if you are aware of what has been happening in publishing over here but last December we had Black Wednesday when editors were deleted by the cartful. Predictions are that the middle tier books will start to disappear. These are the books I look for so I am more than a little disturbed. Thank god Britain will be holding up her end.

  3. Oh no.

  4. JRSM said,

    Steerforth: Vaughan Williams actually has a book in this series too: ‘English Folk Songs’ (ISBN: 9780141190921).

  5. John Self said,

    Yes Steerforth, I am pretty sure that without the industrial revolution and growth of capitalism I too would be a shit-shoveller, or even the boy who cleans the shit-shoveller’s shoes of shit (a never-ending task). Which I tend to bear in mind when I want to instinctively bemoan society. Still, Freedom for Tooting, eh?

    Candy, as you’ve seen, my fears cannot be entirely allayed. These Penguin titles would have been in the planning long before the great shitstorm struck last year (using the word ‘shit’ in this comment has become a kind of mania). As, I suspect, would have been the beautiful but ridiculously extravagant Bill Amberg leather-bound classics, which were reduced from £50 each to £20 each on Penguin’s site not long after publication. They definitely came out at the wrong time. Still, the price reduction enabled me to get the set, and they are entirely beautiful.

    Oddly, even though I’m the one who started the discussion about the English Journeys, I don’t really know what other ones would be worth reading. I did also pick up the Henry James (Cathedrals and Castles) but the first page – the first sentence – seemed to confirm all prejudices about James so I put it aside. I liked the other three very much though, so I’m sure there must be others just as good in there. But where?

    (I’m slightly depressed, by the way, that two of the automatically generated links from this post go to sites full of Blimpish Daily Mailism about how hard done by the English are. That’s what I get for writing a post with the word English in the title. The little-Englandism which these blogs display, and which I distance myself from entirely, has nothing in common with the literary and intellectual love of England which the English Journeys series communicates.)

  6. My Bill Amberg set, which I discovered and ordered because of this site, arrived last Friday — I appreciate this chance to say thank you, thank you, thank you. I cannot tell you how beautiful they are and, like you John, I’m having trouble deciding whether to leave them in the beautiful boxes (there is a proper bookish name for these boxes that hold volumes, I’m pretty sure, but I don’t know it) or display the leather covers. I’m trying the current option first — I know what is inside the box and so far it has been rather fun going through the ritual of slipping off the band and opening the box to show guests how nice the actual book is. Sort of like the ritual of opening and decanting a good bottle of wine. Thanks for putting me on to this — it is money well spent.

    On the more general question, there will be fewer books published in the next few years. And those who are looking forward to reissues are probably going to be in the ranks of those who suffer most, lined up behind the people who like to read first novels (alas, there are not very many of those which is why that category is the first to go).

  7. Steerforth said,

    Agreed. It’s about a love of a landscape and cultural heritage rather than the gutless, narrow-minded xenophobia of the Daily Mail (the Englishness of Richard Littlejohn and Oswald Mosely, overcooked food, Patience Strong, inspid watercolours, tutting, complaining, no sex please, the ‘polite notice’, fussy curtains and nostalgia for the war).

  8. John Self said,

    …overcooked food, Patience Strong, insipid watercolours, tutting, complaining, no sex please, the ‘polite notice’, fussy curtains…

    Oh, you make it sound so perversely appealing, Steerforth. There’s probably a good business to be made in providing retro-England holidays, where the bedrooms have candlewick bedspreads and your starter for dinner is a glass of fruit juice on a paper doily. Actually there are probably plenty of such places still in existence. I’m not so sure that complaining is a trait of this type of Englishness though – shouldn’t it be ‘putting up with things’?

  9. kimbofo said,

    I’m slowly working my way through The Great Loves series and when I saw this new series promoted in the Penguin Newsletter I was sorely tempted to go on a splurge, merely by the cover design alone. Honestly, they are such gorgeous-looking books, aren’t they? Sadly – and this is where I admit I’m a philistine – I don’t find the subject matter really grabs me enough to warrant such a spend. Maybe I’ll just wait until the Book People put it on offer for £20. *kimbofo gets her coat*

  10. John Self said,

    Well that’s the thing k., the subject matter didn’t necessarily appeal to me either, which is why I sampled a few from authors I’d heard of. It really is a leap of faith – or trust – for the reader, but one which I think is worth making.

    Nothing wrong with getting them cheap from the Book People – that’s how I got my Great Ideas I and II and my Great Journeys (from them or bol.com or whatever they were called) – and presumably Penguin still get money for them. However for the concerned bibliophile, do note that the discounted editions seem in my experience to be printed on much lower quality paper.

  11. kimbofo said,

    Really? The paperstock is different? I hadn’t clocked that. Not that it really matters in my case, as I don’t hold onto books after I have read them – they go to charity, or I mooch them, or I send them to my sister. I simply don’t have space in a tiny one-bedroom flat to keep anything more than a handful of books.

  12. John Self said,

    Ah but then why be tempted by gorgeous looking books if you’re going to discard them afterwards anyway! And you’ll have to explain what mooch means, as I only know it as meaning loiter (‘mooch about’), kind of. (Re the paperstock, these titles, like all Penguin Classics books, are printed on good quality very white paper; the discounted ones I have are on yellowy bog-paper stuff, practically newsprint. But the covers are still lovely.)

    I must admit though that my own previous keep-‘em-all policy has considerably softened in recent years. Now I only keep a book if I think it’s likely I’ll want to re-read it. Even books I’ve reviewed positively here I don’t necessarily hang on to.

  13. JRSM said,

    I stumbled across that Book People website, and was staggered by the deals on offer–and then saw the horrible words “not available outside the UK”.

  14. kimbofo said,

    Aaaaah, you haven’t discovered the joys of Bookmooch.com then? Basically you list all the books you want to swap and every time someone requests something from your list you get points. The number of points you get depends on whether you have to send the book within the UK or abroad. You then use your points to “mooch” books from other people. I joined in October 2006 and since then I have given away 166 books and acquired 139! It is a bit like an addiction. I get the distinct impression, however, that it may not be for you, as I think you’re a “new” book person only, right? But it’s a great, cheap way of acquiring books that are out of print or difficult to track down. If you’re unsure of whether you’d like a particular author it’s a great way of trying them out without spending loads of dosh.

    As to the why read books with lovely covers if you’re going to give them away question, I admit that it sounds crazy but I get enjoyment from them for a short period of time and then I get a buzz passing that enjoyment on to someone else. Awww, how sweet. No, but seriously, I will be keeping my Great Loves series because it comes in a cute little box that means I can keep them anywhere, such as my dresser, rather than a non-existent bookshelf.

    PS> Sorry about the overly long comment!

  15. John Self said,

    Ah, thank you very much, k., and no need to apologise for the modest length. Bookmooch, eh? And to think I was just getting up to speed with Twitter.

  16. kimbofo said,

    Have you heard of this thing called Facebook? ;)

  17. John and kimbofo: Further to your earlier exchanges on bookshelf recessions…..

    34 boxes of books left the house today (wine boxes, so they hold about 20 volumes each) — most of them headed to the local charity used book bazaar, some (with textbooks and magazines they won’t take there) to the dump.

    I mention this because when we moved into this house, we had 300 feet of shelving installed, which we were (until this morning) overflowing. Just goes to show, that for the real book buyer, it does matter how much shelving you have, you will always end up with more books than the shelves will hold.

    Facebook, eh? That’s a Britney Spears thing, isn’t it? :)

  18. […] – which is in part what this blog is supposed to be about anyway. So now, after Gothic Reds, English Journeys, extravagant Bill Amberg leather-bound classics and more, we have the Penguin Magnum Collection. […]

  19. […] Ronald Blythe: Voices of Akenfield A bit of a cheat, as this is an extract from the full book (Akenfield), published in the Penguin English Journeys series, but thrilled me so much I had to include it.  It is an exceptional recreation of a world proceeding from one age to another, a magical oral history of time and place.  “People believed in religion then,” says Leonard Thompson, a farm worker, “which I think was a good thing because if they hadn’t got religion there would have been a revolution. Nobody would have stuck it.” […]

    • Evie said,

      Ronald Blythe is someone I very much want to read – my sister is a vicar and takes the Church Times, and RB writes a regular column in it called Word from Wormington – just a half-page or less about life in his rural corner of the world, the passing of seasons, interactions with other villagers, his white cat…it sounds a bit so-so from that description, but he writes so stunningly beautifully that I can’t get enough. His sense of quiet wonder at the world, told with wry humour and lack of sentimentality, is profound and bewitching. I have Akenfield in my TBR pile, and it has been pushed up to the top.

  20. Kerry Wood said,

    I got this set for Christmas because I loved James Lee Milne so much that I bought his diaries on the strength of ‘English Country Houses and their Owners’

    http://rottenbooks.wordpress.com/2011/06/21/james-lees-milne-some-country-houses-and-their-owners/.

    Unfortunately really struggling through Henry James’ Castles and Cathedrals at the moment, so I think John’s prejudices might be right, will have to write a review when I finish.

  21. Kerry Wood said,

    I read Lees-Milne’s diaries, they were fantastic! A really interesting and witty account of the period.

    http://rottenbooks.wordpress.com/2012/04/15/james-lees-milne-diaries-1942-54/

  22. […] Ronald Blythe: Voices of Akenfield A bit of a cheat, as this is an extract from the full book (Akenfield), published in the Penguin English Journeys series, but thrilled me so much I had to include it.  It is an exceptional recreation of a world proceeding from one age to another, a magical oral history of time and place.  “People believed in religion then,” says Leonard Thompson, a farm worker, “which I think was a good thing because if they hadn’t got religion there would have been a revolution. Nobody would have stuck it.” […]


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