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.