A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to have an author contact me about whether I might like to read his book. His name is Ian Walthew and he has written a book called ‘A Place in my Country: In Search of a Rural Dream.’ Obviously he didn’t just want me to read it and then never mention it again. He hoped that I would read it, that I would like it, and that I would review it. He sent me links to his photoblog which you can find here and on my blog roll, and reviews of his book, which you can find (and buy) here.
I have to admire him. It’s a tough gig being an author, writing what is essentially a literary baby, and then watching it toddling about, hoping that people will be kind to it and pat it gently on the head, all the while knowing that you can’t please all of the people all of the time, and that some people are just as likely to want to hit it repeatedly over the head with giant baseball bats. It takes guts to ask people to partake in this process when you have no idea what kind of books they like and whether they will be nice to you or not.
The rise in blogging, and shopping sites like Amazon who rely on customer reviews means that this chance of a virtual drubbing is now far more widespread than previously, when maybe only your actual literary reviewers would get to publish their opinions. It can of course, cut both ways. You can get the phenomenal word of mouth success of something like Captain Corelli’s Mandolin for example, but that is fairly rare.
The other thing it strikes me about being yer actual bona fide published author these days is that it is less than ever before a passport to fame and success. Book sales are on the rise, despite the nay sayers predicting the end of the printed word every five minutes and trying to sell us those weird e-book reader things at the portals of Borders. Books are everywhere, and publishers are hunting around frantically for the next J.K. Rowling, Catherine Cookson or Salman Rushdie, depending on the cut of their literary jib. It’s true that more new authors get book deals, but it also means that more new authors have to fight for their space in Waterstones. There are only so many shelves available and there are authors queueing to fill them like never before.
So, like I said, brave. Also hard, hard work. Ian thought I might like to read and review it for him because I am fairly high up in the rankings in the Amazon review programme. He hoped my review might influence a few other people to read his book. I have read it. I liked it. I hope you will too, if you decide to buy it on the strength of what I’ve said. I feel for him that he is fighting his corner for his book. That he feels that he has to. His publishers are well respected, not a vanity press. There has been a lot of PR generated on the book’s launch, but it is not hitting the spot and publishers don’t keep pushing new books forever. I admire the fact that he is trying to do something about it.
So, the book.
The marketing reads like quite a lot of other books in the: ‘High flying businessman has a mid life crisis and jacks in his job to find himself in the countryside,’ genre. It’s a shame, because although that is it in a nutshell, it is very different from most offerings in this vein. It is not comedic, it is not sunshine and sangria. It is deep and dark and heartfelt. It is real. I understand that publishers have to find a niche, an angle along the lines of ‘if you loved that you’ll like this too,’ but I think in this case it does the book a disservice. It is not like any other book I’ve read, and that’s to its credit. It does of course make it quite difficult to market. It reads superficially like something you might find in the travel or lifestyle section, but is in fact a kind of memoir and a record of loss. They don’t really have sections for that in bookshops unless you’re Jordan or a man who has been locked in a cupboard and beaten with twigs dipped in gin for forty years only to emerge to find that actually you’re a best selling author and Oprah loves you.
Ian lost his elder brother and his father at a very young age. His very British family, who it is clear from this book, love him very much, just did not have the bandwidth to cope with what it would mean to allow a small boy to explore his grief and loss. Ian bottled it all up for many years until pushed into near collapse by his incredibly demanding job, he decided to opt out and live in a small farmworker’s cottage in a Cotswold village. Over the time he lived there he learned how to grieve, how to let go and how to prioritise what was important to him living a real life.
It’s not hippy nonsense, it isn’t really dramatically spiritual, it’s just a slow uncovering of what it means to feel alive again and all the attendant griefs and joys that go with it. It’s very much tied up in the simple cycles of nature and agriculture that the farmer next door begins to teach him. While beginning to understand the countryside he also begins to understand that the traditions of British farming and the natural cycles of life are being eroded from under us by intensive farming techniques, political subsidies and house prices which push the locals out of their own communities.
It is a kind of elegy for a lost way of life, both his own and that of the agricultural life that was the backbone of our nation for hundreds of years. It is not a political rant. He is clear that he does not have the complete understanding of the situation to make sweeping value judgements, nor does he have any answers, but at least he knows enough to think about asking questions.
I found it a really powerful book in a very understated way. I grew up in the countryside, surrounded by farms and wrote a blog entry only the other day about how my children cannot possibly begin to understand the kind of life I was allowed to lead then. This just confirms it for me. That way of life is probably gone forever and had I but known it, I was probably there at the start of that decline.
The farmers in our village sprayed pesticide like it was going out of fashion. My mother was the only one in the village remotely concerned about it and would make us come inside and play on the days they were spraying crops, saying that it made people ill. Bigger was always better, more land, more tractors, more kit, less animals, less mixed crops, more monoculture. When the farmer next to us used to farm a varied crop we would see hares in our garden dancing in the moonlight, rabbits, hedgehogs, foxes, voles, numerous birds and beasts. As his crops got less and less diverse, so did the wildlife.
I don’t live too far from that village still. I drive through it now and the cliche is so true. All this was fields when I was a kid. Our house used to be surrounded on three sides by fields. My garden backed onto the paddock where the new spring lambs would be born. Now it’s surrounded by houses. The farmer sold off all his land to build executive houses because the village is pretty and people want to live there but don’t want the muck of farming.
Ian’s book celebrates the muck, the dirt that brings things back to life and the darkness that attends any true and meaningful awakening into life. I liked it. I liked it a lot.