Saturday, March 18, 2017

Village England

Then and now

I have been known to complain that buying books online is never quite the same as visiting a traditional, bricks and mortar bookshop. Online, you get what you search for – and I’m grateful that the search engines, again and again, turn up just what I’m after. In a real shop, on the other hand, you are more likely to browse and make surprise discoveries – and that can be even more interesting and enriching than getting what you expect.*

The other day, however, my expectations were confounded when I received something I’d bought online that was indeed a surprise. Having read a reference somewhere to a publication called The Observer’s Village England (1979), I looked online and found myself a secondhand copy. I expected a book to arrive, but what I got was actually a series of pull-out extracts from the Observer newspaper’s colour magazine, which had been collected together and preserved in a leatherette† binder. It amounts to a book, but the way it displays its origins makes it more interesting and pleasurable to handle.

Each section concerns a region of England, and contains a series of entries on villages and small towns, together with short pieces by various writers, mostly well known at the time, about particular places that they know well: the playwright Ann Jellicoe on Dorchester; the poet P J Kavanagh on Cirencester; the historian W G Hoskins on Uppingham; and so on. The series is subtitled ‘A guide to the best villages and small towns in the country’, and this emphasis on quality plays in its favour. It means the editors could be selective, not trying to include everything but featuring places with something special to offer, whether it was architecture, scenery, a pub, good shops with local produce, whatever. One of the pleasures is the photographs, by people like Roger Mayne§ and Alain le Garsmeur, many of which include people – either the proprietors of notable shops or people going about their rural business thatching or shoeing horses. There is an extraordinary picture of a boy riding a bicycle on the grass in front of Oakham Castle, the greensward populated with wooden chairs – apparently he was practising for an obstacle race. 

It also tells us the state of things in 1979. I’ve not yet read deeply into the collection to see exactly what has changed where, but I’m already noticing differences on my own patch of England – Gloucestershire and the Cotswolds. The gorgeous thatched village of Great Tew in Oxfordshire was still dilapidated in 1979, with broken windows and holes in the thatch, even in some of the inhabited houses…just how I remember it back then. Cirencester was still a major centre for the Cotswolds and was a working town then as it is now. Stroud was not singled out as a good place to visit as it would be now. And so on.

Julia Butcher’s cover illustration (above) sums it up. If her image of Village England is idealised (immaculate white houses, cricketers, swans) it also stands for some of the things that are, as the subtitle says, ‘the best’. It’s a beautifully composed image – the reflection of the bridge, the pub, the Jolly Farmer paired with a real jolly farmer (or cow hand anyway) driving his cattle across the bridge. It’s redolent of summer (the swallows and the cricketers, even if they don’t seem to have fielded a full eleven). And it’s fill of interesting details like the windmill in the distance. Village England. I’m glad I found it.

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*I sometimes try to create architectural surprises of a similar nature on this blog.

† The sort of material used back then to encase reprints of the classics, ‘tooled’ in mock-gold. A phrase I remember from the advertising was something like, ‘Bound in luxurious red Skivertex’, stuff that must have been mass produced by the mile, to adorn, if that is the word, sets of Dickens, Russian novels, or the complete works of Shakespeare. Autre temps, autre livres. 

§ Roger Mayne was married to Ann Jellicoe and they created the Shell Guide to Devon together. There’s an exhibition of Mayne’s work currently at London’s Photographer’s Gallery.

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