Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Wood

Much has been written about the return to comfort brands in this recession (promoted by retro advertising) and an increase in English holidays is forecast for this summer. Penguin's new English Journeys series can probably be seen in this light. The Stoke Newington Bookshop had a display of them when I popped in this morning, placed alongside Roger Deakin and other recent environmental / nature books. On a nearby table they had another nostalgic set of book designs, Faber Firsts (including rather bizarrely a 1950s-style cover for Orhan Pamuk's The White Castle which I own in its original 1990s cover). Despite my reservations I couldn't resist buying one of the English Journeys and sat down to read it in the garden this afternoon.

The Penguin blurb for The Wood says: 'An academic and writer, during the Second World War John Stewart Collis was put to agricultural work. Clearing and thinning an Ash wood, he found a meditative peace and an earnest pleasure in the use of axe and bill-hook. The Wood contains his beautiful, thoughtful writing on the joys of nature and of a life of activity, how a love of the sun affects a man, and the progression of nature that sees each plant - hawthorn, honeysuckle, larch, elder - have its hour.' From my garden chair it was easy to take vicarious pleasure in the author's account of his work chopping trees in the sun. His rhapsodic descriptions reminded me of that famous section of Anna Karenina where Levin sharpens his scythe and goes to help the peasants with their mowing, experiencing the intense joy to be had in manual labour. The Wood's author John Stewart Collis would later write a biography of Tolstoy.

There is a critical review of the series by Owen Hatherley in New Statesman which notes that 'there is only one of these slim books that has any obvious political axe to grind – From Dover to the Wen, a despatch from William Cobbett’s Rural Rides. Cobbett is a remarkable and odd writer, a sort of proto-blogger, whose notes veer suddenly from descriptions of landscape to cranky proofs of the existence of God, to satirical dialogues, to ferocious class war calls-to-arms.' The review concludes: 'we have a series of “journeys”, focused on a semi-mythical England, with no Pylon poet, no Ian Nairn or Iain Sinclair allowed to sully the view. The England we live in is largely uncharted. As a now mainly rural Conservative Party is likely to win the next election by default, the myths of rural England urgently need debunking, but these English journeys are more about escape from an urban country in deep crisis. Lie back and think of England.'

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