Magazine article The Spectator

'The Village News: The Truth Behind England's Rural Idyll', by Tom Fort - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'The Village News: The Truth Behind England's Rural Idyll', by Tom Fort - Review

Article excerpt

The old coaching inn on the green. The Sunday morning toll of church bells. The ducklings paddling on the pond. The soft sound of leather against willow. Nothing, absolutely nothing, defines England's idea of itself more than the sleepy rural village. World events can shake our island nation. Population growth can swell our cities. Who knows, climate change could even sink East Anglia beneath the waves. But as long as the country's villages stand true, then England is safe and we can all put the kettle on for tea.

Utter rot, says Tom Fort, in this timely, myth-busting march through English rural history. Racing through the ages on his bicycle, the travel writer and historian -- himself 'by inclination a village type of person' -- is at pains to decry our sentimental attachment to the rural idyll. The idea of the old, simple, pre-Fall rustic England may cling on in our hearts, but it's a 'deathly silent sham'.

Villages were never meant to be permanent. Nor, for most of their history, were they very pleasant. Their primary purpose was to enable the land to be worked. Life was tough, amusements were few and poverty was pervasive. The idea of rootedness is similar poppycock, Fort maintains. Villagers were regularly on the move, whether running from marauding Vikings or driven off by the dreaded enclosure laws. As far back as 1751, the poet and novelist Oliver Goldsmith could lament how 'desolation saddens all the green' in his famous poem 'The Deserted Village'.

The Village News makes its case with dogged determination. Each chapter is dedicated to a single village (or occasionally two), invariably with a strong literary or historic connection. A standard format quickly becomes apparent: Fort arrives pedalling on his bicycle, chats to a local or two, maybe visits the pub or the cricket pitch, then gets down to dissecting what-

ever book or event drew him there.

The result is a whistle-stop tour around non-urban England, from dormitory villages in commuterville to picture-postcard honeypots in the Cotswolds. One of the book's joys is the host of rural writers we meet along the way -- albeit, most of them are dead. Some, like Ronald Blythe and Laurie Lee, are stalwarts of the theme. Others are lesser-known writers, such as the 'high priest of fundamentalism' H.J. Massingham or the amateur historian Rowland Parker (who diligently charts the history of his Cambridgeshire cottage through two millennia).

While the canon of rural writing gives the book shape, Fort treats the vast majority of it as a straw man. …

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