Pj Kavanagh

Llamas but no locals

P.J. Kavanagh reviews two books which deal with English community

Richard Askwith is Associate Editor of the Independent and lives in a small Northamptonshire village; presumably he commutes. After a year’s absence abroad he returns to his village and finds that two loved neighbours have moved, eight houses (out of 94) have been sold, and five more have ‘For Sale’ notices outside them.

The pub had closed; the sub-Post Office was closing. (The school and the shop had closed years ago.) … One nearby farm — which hadn’t even had electricity when I first visited it a decade or more ago — had become a state-of-the-art equestrian centre.

‘And what’s wrong with that?’ demands his wife, who is a sensible Chorus throughout this book. He can’t quite say, but begins to wonder whether his idea of rural England, hazy enough anyway, indeed his idea of ‘Englishness’ (that increasingly recurring topic these days) has any basis at all. He decides to go on a quest in order to find out. ‘Well, I called it a quest. My wife called it a mid-life crisis.’

What he finds is predictable, as he confesses he knew it would be: the people he talks to are varied and he knows how to draw them out. He knows that a rural economy ‘based on aromatherapists, pet-groomers, and life-coaches’ cannot last. Nevertheless England is

astonishingly adaptable. (Who could have imagined even 20 years ago that they would be farming buffalo in Warwickshire, llamas in Lincolnshire and ostriches and crocodiles in Cambridgeshire?)

He visits his hero Ronald Blythe, author of Akenfield, the famous story of a rural community based on interviews in the mid-1960s. Blythe a little astonishes Askwith with his acceptance of change:

People have always wanted to get away. That’s why, as soon as bicycles were invented, everybody got a bike — suddenly life had a 30-mile radius.

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