Ah, the country. John Julius Norwich has been known to sing, to the tune of Beethoven’s Sixth: ‘The country, the country, it always gets me down/ The country, the country, I’d rather be in town.’ Foolish boy (only in this: in all other ways, he is a thoroughly good thing, not least for coming up with the phrase (when asked about his father’s serial adultery), ‘ah, yes, well, he made friends terribly easily’). Today, we went for a walk by the North Tyne. The sun glinted on the river, a salmon leapt with a splash like a hippo dropping her soap in the bath, and a kingfisher caught the light as he swooped just above the clear waters. And we picked blackberries. We will not have bread and milk and blackberries for supper, even though we have undoubtedly been good little rabbits (reference too obvious to give you: if you don’t recognise it, I despair), but we shall have the first crumble of the autumn.
It’s not always an easy thing to write about, the countryside. Shades of purple prose hover uncomfortably over too many earnest attempts. Better than Mary Webb’s Precious Bane, then, read Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons. And watch the completely perfect film version starring Kate Beckinsale with pretty much everyone in it (Judi Dench seems to be unaccountably missing but otherwise the band’s all there: and rather gloriously, it is directed by John Schlesinger). The ‘Miss Read’ books remain incomparable in capturing a way of life in the countryside in mid-twentieth century England. Flora Thompson’s Lark Rise to Candleford novels, now hugely prettified and soaped for television, are in fact quite clear-sighted memoirs of impoverished rural life at the end of the nineteenth century. Like so much writing about life in the country, they strike an elegiac note for a world that has gone or is on the brink of going.
Children’s books tended to hover around the countryside until the fashion for gritty urban realism overcame them. In real life a loather of camping or indeed of any physical discomfort, no matter how minor, I adored all the Arthur Ransome sagas and also the lesser-known (and now I re-read them, much more pedestrian) Fell Farm books by Marjorie Lloyd. Anthropomorphic books about animals tend, for obvious reasons, to have rural settings, which can present some difficulties, as anyone who has read Dick King-Smith’s The Sheep Pig will testify (if you haven’t read it, do: there is more to Babe than Babe). Life in the wild can be scary. If you don’t believe me, ask Mole about the Wild Wood. Life on the farm hasn’t always had a good press, either: George Orwell, anyone? You will be pleased to hear that you can introduce your offspring to the delights of the socialist parable (for or against? You decide) at a very early age by virtue of the wonderfully concise Farmer Duck by Martin Waddell, beautifully illustrated by Helen Oxenbury.
Sometimes we need books to tell us what the hell we’re looking at (yes I know I should now be relying on an app to do this but I have some shreds of dignity left and I am not going to start tramping the fells peering at a microcosmic screen which I can’t see anyway because (a) it is raining or (b) the sun is shining). I inherited several sets of very worthy books about birds: in fact I think I may have been the fourth generation to have not opened one particular set. You know the sort of thing: fancy spines (the books not the birds, sadly), very small print and rather muddy reproductions of monochrome photographs of – let’s be honest here – birds that were only ever some sort of little brown job to begin with. I think I’d rather have ‘Nature Notes’ by William Boot (you’re going to love Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop if you haven’t already read it) or – o yes please! – Alexander Worple’s American Birds and More American Birds (I could explain, but I won’t: you’ll have so much more fun finding out for yourself with the help of PG Wodehouse in Leave It to Jeeves). Meanwhile, Simon Barnes’s Bad Birdwatcher books will help me tell a hawk from a handsaw (which, as we all know, is a heron and things were clearly coming to a pretty pass in Elsinore if there was any danger of confusing the two).
Still, John Julius Norwich does have a point. Literature is awash with heroines (it is usually the female of the species) who tramp about in the countryside a great deal to show how emotionally over-wrought they are and who don’t have the sense to come in out of the rain. Yes, Cathy Earnshaw, I’m looking at you. There is such a thing as taking the pathetic fallacy too far, you know. It’s why Jane Austen is such fun: she’s so nasty about all that sort of self-conscious pretension. Not a Romantic, it would be fair to say, and without a sentimental bone in her body (praise indeed from your correspondent).
But fiction is the thing. Two books, both called A House in the Country, both set during the Second World War, both quietly marvellous. I have seen Ruth Adams’s lightly-disguised memoir of the attempt she and her husband made to set up a commune in the English countryside described as a comic novel. Well, so is Bleak House. Jocelyn Playfair’s novel has a wryly comedic tone, too: but it also, effortlessly, breaks your heart. Read it. Persephone Books have reprinted it (and also a different title by Ruth Adams), which is a good indication in its own right that this is a book worth reading.
Proof of Persephone Books’ invincibility (as if you needed one)? They have reprinted The Children Who Lived in a Barn. It’s by Eleanor Graham, who by being Editor at Puffin Books did more for launching children into a world of reading than probably anyone else, and it’s wonderful, and you can see the rather splendid Puffin front cover from the 1950s thanks to our friends at Google so you don’t even have to miss out on that. And now, having read it – possibly a tiny bit obsessively – in childhood, live in a barn is exactly what I do. So be careful what you read.