|A Place In My Country: In Search Of A Rural Dream by Ian Walthew|
|Reviewer: Sue Magee|
|Summary: A very readable but in-depth look at the state of the British countryside from the point of view of someone who is part of the problem. The book is highly recommended.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 320||Date: May 2008|
At the age of 34 Ian Walthew was the worldwide marketing director of the International Herald Tribune living in various parts of the world and leading a jet-set lifestyle. He was also on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Faced with a move back to London, he resigned and rather than buy a property in London he and his Australian wife bought a cottage in the Cotswolds to give Ian the peace which he needed to recuperate.
The cottage was next door to Norman's farm. Norman was a bit fearsome until you got to know him, but his struggles to keep the farm going in the face of falling prices and competition from the highly mechanised 'agri-business' arable farms kept him under a lot of pressure. Little by little Ian and Han develop a relationship with Norman and the other characters of this tightly-knit community.
When I started this book I did wonder if it was going to be an English version of Peter Mayal's A Year in Provence - an amusing and entertaining read but ultimately rather superficial. I couldn't have been further from the truth. This isn't just the story of two people wanting an escape from the city; it's an examination of the state of the British countryside and a careful consideration of whether or not the way of life is sustainable. At times the writing had me close to tears.
It did cross my mind that the book would be biased as Walthew writes from the perspective of 'being part of the problem'. He's one of the people who have bought a cottage in the country, inflating the prices beyond the point at which the people who live and work in the area could possibly afford to buy. Agricultural workers can only live in the area if they can get one of a reducing number of tied cottages or are still living with their families. Lack of the availability of labour can tempt those farmers who can afford the capital outlay to go down the highly-mechanised route - with the resulting damage to wildlife.
This is no prettified look at the countryside either. A farmer once said to me that where there's livestock there's dead stock. Walthew doesn't shy away from dealing with what happens to animals, either in the natural course of farming, being shot as vermin or hunted. His look at the background to hunting gives a balanced viewpoint, including the fact that no farmer relied on the hunt for vermin control.
The stars of this book are the people. Although Ian narrates the book he doesn't dominate it, but allows the villagers to shine through. It was fascinating to see his relationship with them develop after it was initially assumed by some people in the village that he and Han would be part of a more upper-class set. The couple's growing relationship with Norman sees him take a fuller part in village life. Geoff, the larger than life landlord of the local pub becomes a firm friend, but it's Tom, the ex-gamekeeper, to whom Ian becomes closest and who introduces him to the real country way of life.
The book opens in the year 2001 and covers the period through to 2003 and is set against the background of some momentous world events. They were an almost eerie contrast to the struggles to survive in the countryside, with the lack of agricultural jobs, high house prices and the destruction of the environment. There's even the fear that the village pub will be given a makeover and become the dreaded 'gastro-pub'. Most striking of all for me was the fact that Ian began as an opponent of field sports but completely reversed his opinion in the course of his time in the village.
I live in the countryside but this book made me think more closely about the value which we should place on the land and how it could be better supported, preferably with less government intervention in areas of which the legislators are largely ignorant. It's several days now since I finished the book, but I was so moved by it that I didn't feel able to write about it immediately. It's by no means an easy read, but it's one of the most rewarding books that I've read for quite a while.
I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy of this book to The Bookbag.
You can read more book reviews or buy A Place In My Country: In Search Of A Rural Dream by Ian Walthew at Amazon.co.uk
You can read more book reviews or buy A Place In My Country: In Search Of A Rural Dream by Ian Walthew at Amazon.com.
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I'd have loved this too. Your remark about ignorant legislators hit a chord with me.
Joan Stanbury said:
An excellent review - but with one glaring omission: Ian Walthew's troubled and troubling childhood and the profound sense of loss which permeates his life - and which was probably the springboard for the book. I hope his exquisite writing was as much balm for his soul as it was for mine.
A fair point, Joan.