Magazine article The Spectator

Overtaken by Time

Magazine article The Spectator

Overtaken by Time

Article excerpt

Overtaken by time


by Geert Mak, translated from the Dutch by Ann Kelland Harvill, L12, pp. 269

Once in a while one starts reading a book from idle curiosity, and then gets hooked. It can be very rewarding, as I found with Jorwerd, 'the biography of a village during the silent revolution that swept through Europe between 1945 and 1995... and all the other villages in...the rest of Europe'. It is an unusual and thoughtful book by an author recently acclaimed for an urban study, Amsterdam.

Yet in many ways this is a familiar tale. A rural agricultural community, which has pottered on without significant change since time immemorial, encounters modernity: butcher, baker, blacksmith, haulier, cobbler, library etc disappear one by one. New farming methods squeeze out traditional, labour-intensive husbandry. A population of 650 in 1900 is down to 420 by 1950. The bus service is discontinued in 1979 and in 1994 the church is bequeathed to an association for the preservation of old buildings. By 1995 there are just 330 residents, many of whom have moved there from the city. Only a handful of isolated stalwarts still have anything to do with farming, and they have more in common with computer scientists and accountants than with their forefathers.

An English reader is liable to think immediately of Ronald Blythe's classic, Akenfield, where accounts of those who remember combine with Blythe's own researches to create an astonishingly detailed and mesmerising portrait of a village. Mak's technique appears to be similar - his second chapter even shares its title with Blythe's first, 'The Survivors'. It is a little unnerving that Mak makes no reference to Akenfield, not even in his bibliography. However, his project is rather different. He is not nostalgic. Although he records a way of life that has disappeared in immense detail, his object is to show what has changed rather than to celebrate the way things were. Spending several months in Jorwerd, Mak got to know the villagers. We meet Folkert, an aged labourer; the old solicitor who has lost his garden to the summer show for 40 years; Lamkje, the butcher's widow who has preserved her husband's premises as if he might report for work tomorrow; Durk Siesling, whose barge (from 1957, motorboat) carried turf up and down the waterways. …

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