The Great British Countryside in Books
Books to beat the January blues, with views from the Great British Countryside…
As we Brits desperately plow our way through Dry January and, like most poor folk in the Northern Hemisphere, cower away from the dankness and drizzle that fills the air, our reading habits can tend towards the escapist: the fantastical, the historical, anything but what lies outside our living room window. Although our lives can seem murky and oppressive after so much festive Christmas cheer, it’s important to remember that Britain can be a bleak yet bewitching place at this time of the year. There are many wonderful works of literature whose very lines, in their celebration of the lush and green, may even persuade the most intrepid office monkey to don a mackintosh and galoshes and brave the sideways rain in search of the haunting beauty and rolling hills that have inspired many a great author.
For a little natural inspiration to bring a ray of sunshine to your winter blues, try:
1. H.E. BATES For many, H.E Bates’ Larkin family (see The Darling Buds of May, Oh! To be in England, A Little of What You Fancy, etc) represents the last word in English summer madness and frivolity. Bates uses simple plots combined with sumptuous, descriptive prose to create a feast for the senses that will leave you gasping for a slice of Ma’s apple pie, a fat, juicy strawberry picked by the lovely Mariette, or a G & T poured by Pop. The Larkins’ carefree raison d’être (great food and even greater drink), combined with their neighbours’ stiff-upper-lipped approach to life, creates a feel-good factor that has yet to be bettered and will undoubtedly chase those rain clouds away.
2. PAUL GALLICO Although a New Yorker by birth, the master of the sentimental fable harnesses the natural beauty of our tiny isle to perfection and many of his tales are all the more poignant for it. In his critically acclaimed novella, The Snow Goose, the bleak and ever-changing perspective of the Essex marshes mirrors the changing nature of hero and outcast Philip Rhayader’s life on the coast. Although not UK-specific, Gallico’s allegorical novella Snowflake explores life’s trials and tribulations through the fleeting existence of a tiny piece of ice. Her journey through the natural world will have many joys and dangers before her untimely end. A gloriously romantic way of exploring the precipitation cycle. To be read in all primary school geography classes.
3. DEREK TANGYE Another sadly overlooked yet deeply worthy author. Most readers arrive at Tangye’s work through a mutual love of the feline variety. Tangye and his wife Jeannie abandoned their high-powered jobs in London in the 1950s to set up home in a Cornish cottage, starting a flower farm in St Buryan along with their animals. Although the degree of escapism Derek and Jeannie found in Cornwall, with its wild coasts and enigmatic animals, continues to elude most of us in our frenetic 21st-century lives, Tangye’s memoirs contain just the kind of hope, luck, and perspective that allow all of us to dream, just a little. What, after all, could be greater than having a cantankerous drake at the bottom of your garden?
4. KATHERINE STEWART Another advocate of the Good Life, Katherine Stewart and her husband Sam, like the Tangyes, abandoned the hustle and bustle of hotel management for A Croft in the Hills. An inspirational woman for more than just her rejection of civilized society, Stewart’s simple, vivid prose perfectly describes life in the Scottish Highlands and the profound learning curve she and her husband Sam experienced in going it alone. So glorious is the landscape that surrounds them and so wide their affection for the plants and animals that no reader can fail to be spellbound and simply desperate to leave their office chair for the wilds of the North. A woman who once volunteered to be parachuted into France to aid la Résistance throws her gauntlet to one side to milk the cow. How utterly excellent.
5. LAURIE LEE Although much of his work celebrates his travels through Spain before, during, and after the devastating Civil War, the first installation of Lee’s autobiographical trilogy, Cider with Rosie, is a work of a distinctly separate nature. Dappled with sunlight and eccentricity, Lee’s account of his Cotswold childhood will soften the hardest of hearts.
For the most ardent bibliophiles amongst us, the books we’re reading at any given moment affect our daily lives on almost every level. The bare trees and dingy fields outside our windows may not look so romantic today, so come along for the ride and allow a great author to remind you why the British countryside, its animals and people have inspired artists, musicians, and authors for countless generations. Is that Heathcliff I see on the wild, windswept horizon? I think so!