Downland Maniacs

Michael Mason

  • The Village that Died for England by Patrick Wright
    Cape, 420 pp, £17.99, March 1995, ISBN 0 224 03886 9

‘Acid rain’ was first identified, and deplored, almost 150 years ago. That is a disconcerting fact for our modern environmental awareness – which thus appears not to be modern at all, but almost as old as the manufacturing processes that have caused all the trouble. We have a triumphalist perception of human treatment of the environment: for a long time there was benighted callousness about it, then wisdom dawned, in isolated heroic acts such as Silent Spring, and now we are blessedly enlightened, like South Sea cannibal islanders converted to Christianity. Patrick Wright’s new book is all about not being triumphalist, or taking any simple view on the history of attitudes to human use of the natural world. This sounds like an implausibly large endeavour for a book whose subject is just one bit of England (Purbeck), in the years (1916 to the present) in which it has been used as a tank firing range by the British Army. Purbeck and the Army in the 20th century is an episode of tremendous resonance, however, and Wright is an author wonderfully adapted to do it justice.

His epigraph is from Hilaire Belloc: ‘the corner of a corner of England is infinite and can never be exhausted.’ The quotation raises the daunting thought that any small part of England could yield a book like The Village that Died for England, and if Wright is saying as much the reader can scarcely doubt him, on the strength of his formidable performance here. However, he has previously published A Journey through Ruins (1991), which started from another Bellocian ‘corner of a corner’: namely, Dalston Junction (literally a corner). Although that book was marvellously copious, like The Village, it did not open out into the historically momentous as this one so quietly and unforcedly does. Scratch the recent historical surface of Purbeck, as you might scratch the downland soil for flint tools, and well-known names and grand if forgotten individuals lie on every hand. Moreover, because of the vicissitudes of the area, the members of this remarkable roll-call were often engaged with a cluster of deeply interesting issues: locality, ruralness, land-use, community, patriotism, the aesthetics of landscape, the primitive versus the modern, wildness.

In his Preface Wright says that his two corner-of-England books ‘form a pair’, which reinforces the sense that he has changed tack from the better known of his two earlier books, On Living in an Old Country (1985). That study of the heritage industry and associated questions (‘heritage-baiting’, Raphael Samuel has called it) seems to be widely admired, but I am relieved Wright has not followed up its example. Aware that he then had a reputation for both ‘anecdotalism’ and ‘excessively abstract generalisation’, he apparently tried to redress the first failing by a large dose of the second, in the form of a turgid theoretical Introduction whose tone probably owed a lot to Wright’s being a part-time academic. He is now very much a writer, not an academic, which has liberated the ‘anecdotalist’ in him in its best, most searching form.

‘Tyneham’ secures its place in his title because the 1943 evacuation of this village in advance of D-Day – at first promised by Churchill to be temporary but after the war becoming permanent – was the most notorious recent case of military intervention in Purbeck. For Wright the anti-triumphalist, the fate of Tyneham, of Tyneham Great House and of their inhabitants, and the quarrel over these fates, is rich in twists and paradoxes, but it is only a fragment of his sardonic story. ‘Tyneham Valley’ (a loaded, ruralist phrase now cherished by anti-Defence Ministry activists and by the Army’s ‘Conservation Officer’ alike) never used to exist, as an ex-Tyneham resident complained: there was only ‘Purbeck Valley’. The more general military takeover of Purbeck, temporary in its first execution, made permanent in due course through various bureaucratic and Parliamentary sleights-of-hand, goes back to 1916, when Bindon Hill became the testing-ground of the newly created Tank Corps.

Even at that date another vision, or set of visions, of the area was already in place: through the pseudo-archaeological ‘downland’ mania of H.J. Massingham, the neo-paganism of Llewellyn Powys (brother of John Cowper), the symbolist nostalgia of Mary Butts, the Marxist version of village life offered by lesbians Valentine Ackland and Sylvia Townsend Warner, the Luddite organicism of Rolf Gardiner and the yeoman-patriotic creed of Sir Arthur Bryant (both the latter having shady pro-Nazi backgrounds). These idealists were all anti-MoD in a general way: but because they had other bugbears too (trippers, modern agriculture, the aristocracy), it often turned out that the Army – which restricted tourism, allowed the country to revert to wilderness, turfed out the landowners and gave local people jobs – was the lesser of two evils.

All these figures, and several other obsessives, lived in or near Purbeck, in houses grand or primitive. Surrounding them are figures more tenuously linked to Purbeck: Thomas Hardy, D.H. Lawrence, James Meade Falkner (who wrote Moonfleet), Gerald Brenan, John Stewart Collis, Fritz Schumacher, John Eliot Gardiner (son of Rolf) and via him Roger Norrington, Lord Hinchinbrooke, Jimmy Edwards, Kenneth Allsop, Tariq Ali, Fenner Brockway, J.R.R. Tolkien, Bill Douglas (who made a film about the Tolpuddle Martyrs in a revamped Tyneham), Mike Leigh (via Nuts in May), Nigel Coates, even David Mellor. The piquant list of names should convey something of the flavour of Wright’s book, and also the flavour of Purbeck as he understands its role in 20th-century English culture.

Wright’s reminder of how muddled is the broadly ‘conservationist’ position, and of how long a history these muddles have (the first nostalgist for lost Purbeck he has discovered is the poet John Fitzgerald Pennie, born 1782), is extremely valuable – it would be good to have his penetrative gaze turned on the mendacities and confusions in the recent Brent Spar affair. But the reader is bound also to wonder whether Wright himself has a point of view about the English countryside and its human use. Everyone seems to have lost their head over Purbeck and opted for one ill-considered, vehement position or another. Has Wright, uniquely, kept his cool?

His text is puzzling on this question. For the most part it is a model of an apparently unjudgmental (or tongue-invisibly-in-cheek) presentation of individuals and their prejudices. But occasionally an evaluative term of surprising force, positive or negative, gleams out, suggesting that the author has his own convictions. Are these betrayals inadvertent, or playful and teasing (Wright is certainly a sophisticated author)? Wright is committed to the idea that our utterances give things away unawares – for his book’s habit is to probe letters, speeches, novels, manifestos, poems, travel-writing, about Purbeck, for the secret irrationalities of their authors. His book is itself a new recruit to the Purbeck textual corpus. It is Olympian, above the fray, a meta-book about Purbeck, in a way no other book has been, but has it escaped the condition which afflicts the rest?

The fact of this being a text about texts is something a future commentator, a Patrick Wright of the next century, might dwell on. What was offered to previous Purbeckians by hedgerows, downland turf and prehistoric barrows is offered to Wright by second-hand bookshops and contemporary archives. In this turn of attention he is as much a man of his day as his predecessors were. And what he has to say about contemporary Purbeckiana is oddly self-referring in its idiom. ‘Tyneham,’ he suggests, ‘became emblematic of the wider cultural syndrome, endemic in post-war Britain, that leaves its victims unable to grasp the modern world except through allegorical fables of malign encroachment.’ ‘I first noticed the phenomenon,’ he tells us, ‘by the mid-Eighties.’ But here Wrights’ own perception smacks of a fantasy of malign encroachment, whereby there is a ‘syndrome’ abroad, with ‘victims’. His book is full of people claiming in sensible tones to have just ‘noticed a phenomenon’ – when we can tell that what they have really heard is a bee buzzing in a bonnet.