Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Dorothy Hartley's Made In England - my first recommendation for #readwomen2014

Explore the English woods with intrepid Dorothy Hartley

I’d begun writing a post in homage to the wandering wonder that was Dorothy Hartley before I heard about #readwomen2014 – a call from both men and women to redress the imbalance of attention paid to women writers despite the healthy proportion of women amongst the published (there’s a good piece explaining how/why this is happening in the Guardian here). I would have encouraged you to read her books anyway, but now you have an extra reason.

I’d turned to Hartley in the name of research. She trawled England in the early twentieth century recording the pre-industrial crafts and skills of the countryman, believing that many of these were dying out. It was as much the language associated with these activities that I was after, almost always evocative Anglo-Saxon words. Here, for example, is a question set in a timber merchant’s examination: ‘Explain the meaning of: Scanfin, riftgrain, double wrack, cup shake.’

Made in England, which was published in 1939, contains details of crafts intended to dignify workers already viewed by the world as inferior to those acquainted with industry and office work, illuminating their complexity but also their beauty.

Part of the joy of reading Hartley’s accounts is seeing how deep this lone female explorer would dig into each distinct world. She can tell which man made each of a set of wooden bowls just by the marks of their tools. She tracks down a timber cutting camp in Buckinghamshire ‘through noticing a chip of fresh-cut wood sticking in the mud on the foot-rest of a stile. It was a piece of white beech, near heart wood, so freshly cut that it was still damp; so I went into the nearest beech wood...’

Not only is she intrepid, she writes beautifully about the world she explores. On her way to observe a hazel coppicing site: ‘Up on the hill-side the bleached primroses trembled stiffly, and there was crackling cat-ice in the cart ruts. The freezing weather had dried every scrap of moisture off the wrinkled surface of the earth. Starving birds followed me, for my footsteps broke the ice on the tiny frozen woodland pools and they could get water... The whole landscape was frost bleached, colourless, flat, even the black tarred Kentish barns had a dull bloom over them, like the colour on a sloe in November.’

There is a matter-of-factness, a directness, in her writing about the countryside that is so refreshing compared with the self-consciousness that verges on smugness which I find so difficult to stomach in many modern nature writers. Hartley clearly didn’t care what other people thought of her, pitching up out of nowhere at work camps where there would be only local men and getting on with her recording. This lack of self-regard and desire purely to describe rather than boast comes through again and again, and allows her to write passages such as this, the kind of flight of fancy that lets you know she would laugh to read it too. She is describing a beech wood camp where the workers make tent pegs:

‘To hold the water there was a had-been-white-enamelled Oxford hip bath. (I don’t suppose they’ll ever bother to take that hip bath back; it will sit for ever now in the Buckingham beech woods, and the leaves will drift into it, and the rain will puddle, and the little birds will bathe in it, until the bottom gives out. And then the ferns will grow through it, the rim will drop off, robins will nest in the opulent ornamental handles, and finally the ghost of that Hip Bath will go flapping back, thin as the wraith of its vanished enamel, to the Pump Rooms of Bath and the upholstered hotels where hip baths belong. And the other hip bath ghosts, and the foot baths, and all the properly plated H’s and C’s will see the chips in its hair, and the ivy leaves upon its brow, and think how one respectable Hip Bath brother once lived a wild life, and went to the bad in the Buckinghamshire beech woods.)’

A flying ghost of a hip bath, buried in amongst the faithful cataloguing of tent peg production, is just one of the many gleaming and incidental gems in Hartley’s writing. So, if you are looking for women writers to add to your heap for 2014, track down Made in England, or Food in England, or The Land of England, and be transported.

Thursday, 2 January 2014

Alan Garner – Thursbitch

Thursbitch will lead you down a strange and wonderful path

I only discovered Alan Garner as an adult, when I read The Owl Service. I wished then that I had read him as a child – my mother grew up with his books and spent a lot of time in Alderley Edge, the landscape that inspired them.  I started making up for this in 2013, reading The Voice that Thunders, a collection of his essays and lectures, and The Stone Book Quartet, (both of which I wrote about here) and now Thursbitch.  The latter two would have foxed me as a child reader, I now realise; I found them complex but overwhelmingly beautiful as an adult.

Reading Thursbitch requires you to learn a new vocabulary. This happens quite naturally along the way, as you listen to voices speaking a dialect that at first can seem incomprehensible. I love this kind of experience in literature – Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker does the same (see my post about it here) – and the knowledge that Garner’s language is both authentic and deeply loved by the author only adds to the pleasure. Here’s an example of what I could understand by the end of the book:

“And how shall we fettle, you ask me? Corbel bread. Yon’s the truth of corbel bread, and why we always gather it up each back end down along the saltways and fetch it here.”

The narrative switches between the mid 1700s and our own era, characters in each time sharing the same landscape, and signs slipping between the two.  In the earlier time, Jack finds the meanings in the landscape by means of hallucinogenic mushrooms (the ‘corbel bread’ in the quote above) and ritual, while in the later time a woman whose mind and body are deteriorating through illness walks with her friend, using both her rational knowledge and spiritual sense to commune with the stones and caves around her. Both narratives are powerful and moving, and the combination allows the reader to experience Thursbitch the place, life and death in a way that transcends era.

With both the language and the content, Garner cuts the reader no slack. His writing is always taut and it is particularly so here, and you have to work to get to grips with a world of beliefs expressed in unfamiliar words and patterns. I found I had some advantage through having spent so much time reading about folklore recently. When a character mentioned ‘Old Bouchert’ I knew he meant a hare, but only because of the strange coincidence that I had just been reading an Old English poem listing 77 names for a hare! When the people of Thursbitch built a fire of branches and bones, I knew this was the origin of our bonfires (bone fires) and that driving cattle through it was not for fun or to hurt them but to keep them safe. This book is full of folklore, and while I recognised much of it, much was also new and strange. Whatever your knowledge or ignorance of such things, it makes for an eerie world that is also appealing on some deep, instinctive level. 

The unfamiliar language, beliefs and habits in Thursbitch can make it a challenging read but it is all the more engrossing for the concentration it requires. The worlds of the book would be unique even if written about more straightforwardly, but the style is working as hard as the content in creating something unlike anything else, and plunges us more directly into this other world. Such distinctive modes of expression also create a dreamlike lens, such that you are often not quite sure what you are seeing. This only contributes to the sense that you area peering through time as through a snowstorm, with all the distortion and beauty that brings.

The story of how Alan Garner came to write Thursbitch is told in his lecture 'The Valley of the Demon', which is available to read here. The fact that elements of this story sat in his mind for so many years before he wrote it perhaps explains the intensity and depth of feeling in the novel.

In 2014 I will be working my way through Garner’s Collected Folk Tales and hoping to absorb some more of his magical knowledge and powerful way with words.