An Island in Time: The Biography of a Village by Geert Mak

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An Island in Time: The Biography of a Village by Geert Mak

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Category: History
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: Subtitled The Biography of a Village Mak’s book gives you all the local gossip, past and present, makes you yearn for the gorgeousness of the setting, and makes you question your own views on how and why it came to this – and what we can do about it.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 304 Date: September 2010
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 978-0099546863

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In the mid 1990s journalist and author Geert Mak returned to his native Friesland and took up residence in the village of Jorwert. His aim was to investigate the quiet revolution going on in the agrarian communities not just of Holland but of the whole of Europe.

This wasn't going to be an outsider's view. Mak grew up in the northern Dutch province; he spoke the language; he knew the games and understood the people. In a very real sense Mak was going home… and finding that it scarcely existed any more.

There is nothing particularly special about Jorwert. The point is made, and reinforced by research carried out by others around the world that villages divided by space and time have more in common with each other, than they do with their nearest urban neighbour. Villagers are proud of the small differences. Jorwert is VERY special to Jorwerters. They are proud of tradition, and cling on to the facets of it that survive the changes in technology and bureaucracy as best they can. They believe in the future and in the family. And that is what the country, and therefore the village, life is all about. It is not about being an individual. It is not about making money or acquiring stuff . It is all about survival. Making sure that what IS outlives you, and that your children are there to take it on and take it forward and protect it as you have done.

This is true of every village, everywhere.

What is also true of every village in northern Europe is that since the end of the second world war, the local people have had to cope with the Europisation of regulation. The disaster of the Common Agricultural Policy played out with the best of intentions and the worst of results. This is as true for the dairy farmers around Jorwert as it is for the sheep farmers of Wales.

The lure of education, of easy money, of city life and hedonism affected the children of Jorwert, just as it did those of the French mountain youngsters or those in the Spanish plains. Schools struggled and then closed. Shops followed them. Churches remained the focus, but in protestant northern Europe they didn't have the hold they had in the catholic south – which isn't to say the whole Jorwert didn't put aside their personal faiths the day the church tower collapsed and set about figuring out how to rebuild it!

Mak examines all of the issues in true journalistic fashion, supporting his arguments with academic study and local example. It is the local anecdotes, however, that bring the book truly to life and make it worth reading. It really is about Peet who died among the cabbages with his leek bucket beside him. It is about the annual play that commandeers the solicitor's garden… and it is about that same solicitor ensuring that property changes into the right hands when it comes on the market. The real people that make the place what it is.

It is about the stories people tell. Reading "An Island in Time" is very much like sitting at your father's or grandfather's knee and hearing tales of how it used to be. Those tales survive in villages, because villages are really just overgrown families. Word of mouth is passed on and down the line.

Like families, villages are hotbeds of dissent and squabble. When planning decisions come up, battle lines are drawn and comments made in the resultant public meetings will determine outcomes of totally unrelated events for years to come. Some things are never forgiven. Small things, usually. The wrong things.

Being 'one of them' enables Mak to enter into the lives of the people of Jorwert. They trust him with their stories. Does he betray that trust? I don't think so. His take is a very sympathetic one. He rarely takes sides, and clearly understands the natures of the pressures and problems. He made me love the place, and its people. He made me care about the fact that their way of life is being lost and that, no matter how many city folk decide to downsize and go back to the land, no matter how genuinely they try to enter into village life, they will never truly succeed – because their motivations have entirely shifted by virtue of their urbanisation.

Your returnee (for want of a kinder expression) is likely to have an idealistic view of life in the country, and manipulate their townie contacts, connections and systems to ensure that is what they get. Or they over-romanticise and fail to understand that your never-left country folk actually WANT progress, they will NOT be frozen in aspic – they just want a bigger and better say over which bits of progress they want and how they want them delivered. And that is what they've never had… and to be honest are unlikely ever to get. There are too few of them, too scattered. They will have to fight for their corner just as they always have done.

I was fascinated by the personal stories, and intrigued by the research and the historical records, and I thoroughly enjoyed the read. The overwhelming feeling I was left with however was that at least some of this is my fault!

The consumer demands for better, more accurate labelling on their foodstuffs is what means that the open-pastured cows who got to choose what they ate (and produced milk of varying quality and quantity and content and taste as a result) got shut up in large sheds where the outputs were controlled by means of the inputs. There is something very wrong in that.

If all of this sounds a little too much A Year in Provence for your taste, then let me just add that as well as being an excellent researcher and talented story-teller, Geert Mak has an eye for the planet and a pen for the lyric. He beds all of his exposition in the most beautiful descriptions of the Friesian countryside as it mutates through the seasons. The autumn mists and winter ice; the storms and long slow summer evenings. If it wasn't for the fact I know Jorwert lost its bus stop a long time ago, I'd be trying to figure out when I could go visit for myself.

First published in 1996, the English edition has been republished in 2010 with a new foreword by the author. Fifteen years on, his predictions were not short of the mark, and his conclusions have lost none of their relevance. An interesting read for anyone with an eye to social history – and an important one for those who might like to influence our social future.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

Further reading suggestion: for more from Geert Mak I strongly recommend The Bridge which takes him to Istanbul. We also enjoyed In America: Travels with John Steinbeck by Geert Mak.

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