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W.R. Mead

W.R. Mead was until recently head of the Department of Geography at University College, London.

Melton Constable

W.R. Mead, 22 May 1986

‘The owner of Melton Constable, one of the finest Charles II houses in England and listed grade one, is to be served with a repairs notice and compulsory purchase order … if …’ The handsome façade illustrated above this caption from the Times of 31 December 1985 might have been an appropriate frontispiece to The past is a foreign country had the order been issued somewhat earlier, because Melton Constable was the location for the film of L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between and it is from the opening words of the novel that the title of this unusual book derives. The preservation and restoration of the past has become a growth industry as those who support Save Britain’s Heritage know only too well. We live in a retrospective age and David Lowenthal’s discursive study is a product of it. One of the attractions of this book is that it enables the Melton Constables of the world to be seen in the context of the future as well as the past.

Dealing in futures

W.R. Mead, 21 March 1985

For some years, 2000 has been rivalling 1984 as a golden number in the calendar of futurologists. It has now taken over. And while Europeans have been casting economic horoscopes for their continent at the dawn of the next millennium, nothing is good enough for their American cousins but a forecast for the great globe itself – hence Global 2000: Report to the President, the establishment of the Global Tomorrow Commission, and Global Future: Time to Act, with its list of a hundred recommendations. Norman Macrae’s cheerful 2024 fantasy contrives to disregard Global 2000; The Resourceful Earth offers an alternative and positive point of view.’

Golden Fleece

W.R. Mead, 1 March 1984

There is little in common between these two books save that they are both written by enthusiasts, and that they both extend the reader’s vocabulary. One book is by a man of the West Riding with an obsession for sheep; the other by an author who is making a distinctive contribution to Australian literature and who has a passion for the outback. Sheep and Man employs the full range of zoological terminology and gathers together the arcane languages of the shepherd’s calling from the four corners of the world. It will enable us to add ‘slynkette’, ‘kebb’, ‘riggon’ and ‘jerk’ (or ‘gimmer’) to our terms of affection or abuse, to display our knowledge of wool weights by reference to cloves, tods and weys, or (if we encounter an ear-clipper) to understand the difference between a fidder, a hingin’ widder, a stoo or a gongbit. As the anecdotes and biographical sketches of Outback attest, a glossary of powerful and pungent expressions is also to be found in the thirsty, bull-punching Northern Territory. It is the language of a land such as God gave Cain – or Mina Minahan, to select one of the characters that Thomas Keneally pulls in from Australia’s badlands and sets amid the colourful photographs of Mark Lang and Gary Hansen.–

An Exploration of Geography

W.R. Mead, 18 March 1982

For many people, geography remains the story of exploration. But there is more to it than that, as these three books attest. They present the geographer as the student of landscape, as the environmentalist and as the ideologist. Richard Muir looks at the landscape as nature’s stage. Ian Simmons and Michael Tooley, with their team of scientists, identify the stages of nature as they have changed through the successive periods of British prehistory. David Stoddart’s conclave of geographers engage in a philosophical exploration of geography itself.

The Lesson of Swaffham Down

W.R. Mead, 5 March 1981

These two books could not have been written about any other country. They are distinctively – indeed instinctively – British. Both are concerned with Britain’s most precious and irreplaceable natural resource – the land – and with the problems of its employment. With one acre of land per capita, it behoves us to keep an eye on how this scarce resource is used or misused. The emphasis in Marion Shoard’s book is on the increasing divergence between farming practice and conservation – conservation of the landscape itself as well as of its natural constituents. She prosecutes with vigour the thesis that the farmer has become increasingly the destroyer rather than the guardian of the landscape. Graham Moss takes a broader look at the way in which so many of the finite acres are being wasted. He contrasts the neglect of the inner city with the continuing expansion of the urban area over so much of the country’s highest-quality farmland. He estimates that between 3 and 4 per cent of the country’s surface area is wasted, that wasted land in urban areas alone is as extensive as the area occupied by all of Britain’s 34 New Towns, and that every five years an area of farmed land equal in size to the county of Gloucester is lost to urban and other developments. He laments that he is only able to deal in estimates, because facts and figures relevant to his theme cannot be consulted except from a host of organisations using different criteria and employing different definitions. Indeed, there appears to have been relatively little progress in the collection of the kind of statistics that he needs since L. Dudley Stamp prepared his pioneering land utilisation survey in the 1930s. Marion Shoard is no less sensitive to what Alice Coleman (director of the second land use survey) has called ‘the galloping consumption’ of agricultural land for other purposes, but her banner is unfurled for a different reason. So, following in the wake of a stream of hardbacks and paperbacks, official reports and semi-official documents (all listed in Graham Moss’s helpfully annotated bibliography), come two more polemical statements about the landscape of Britain. The one aims ultimately at a plan of campaign to control developments that impair the unique heritage of the rural landscape. The other challenges the profligacy with which farmland is being squandered and the complacency with which (in the words of George Orwell) its ‘defilement is taken for granted’.

Topographies

W.R. Mead, 16 October 1980

The topographical tradition is probably stronger in Britain than anywhere, and during the last generation professional and amateur alike have endowed it with a new vitality. In the process, they have given succour to many of the old-established local archaeological, historical and antiquarian societies. The professional inspiration has come largely from the archaeologists, economic historians and historical geographers. Although it is the work of a professional historian, one of the most stimulating books for the amateur has been W. G. Hoskins, The Making of the English Landscape (1951). It has directed attention to the origins and evolution of the simple but fundamental features of which the landscape is composed, and it has stirred a new interest in the sources of information that enabled them to be explained. The range of county and regional studies that are the product of today’s topographers displays the same spirit of curiosity, the same concern with detailed observation and the same enthusiasm as those of earlier times. Where they are the work of scholars, they may be intellectual forays in their own right. And, as the professionals sharpen their wits upon each other’s opinions and theories concerning the countryside, the amateurs enjoy the new light that filters through to illuminate their understanding of old familiar scenes.

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