Saturday, 16 January 2010

Excellent - this blog gets a helping hand

Hello from the King's Cross train to Leeds - and we've just had that True Northern moment when the big blue loco pulls into the Throat tunnels and everyone on it seems to heave a great big sigh of happiness: we're off home. Romantic tosh. Probably. But Penny and I heaved our little sighs anyway.

And good news: an excellent reviewer, Paul Brassley, in this month's History Today draws attention to this blog in kindly terms, at least in its purpose as a bibliography. I've pasted it in below, plus the relevant weblink. My only reservation is over the way he says that the bibliography is 'inexplicably missing from the book.' Actually it's very explicable. As I say in TN, it would be a terrible waste of paper to print all this stuff out and add it to a book which already quite hefty, when we've got lovely free Blogspot and the broad acres of the internet.

One sentence which I specially like in the review is the one saying: He has the journalist’s love of a good story; there are many here and logical structure and sustained argument are never allowed to get in the way of telling them. Spot on, Mr Brassley. I can show you school reports from many years ago, saying very much the same thing.Anyway, here's the review (which as you'll see is mostly about my excellent colleague Madeline Bunting's great - and also Northern - book The Plot with a very much appreciated nod at the end to our efforts to continue the Manchester Guardian tradition).

What produces love of a single house, street, village, city, region or country? Is it something about the place itself, or is it more about our emotional connection to the group of people who happen to live there at a particular time, or have lived there in the past? Whichever it is, the attachment clearly exists and, as a result, people have celebrated, spent money, argued, voted and fought wars for thousands of years. In different ways, both of these books explore human relationships with places and how they are affected by historical change.

Madeleine Bunting’s Plot is a single acre of land on the edge of the North York Moors. On D-Day, June 6th, 1944, John Bunting, her father, was a schoolboy at Ampleforth and was walking to the school’s annual picnic when he came upon the site of a ruined farmhouse at the southern end of the old drove road along the Hambleton Hills. The view was stupendous and the sense of isolation and peace especially precious on that day. In 1957, by then a sculptor and part-time art teacher, he returned, rented the land for 25 years at ten shillings per year and within 18 months had built a stone chapel there, complete with a life-size stone effigy of a soldier on the floor. It was his memorial to three former Ampleforth schoolboys who had been killed in the Second World War, as he might have been had he been a year or so older.

The meaning of this place, both to John Bunting, his family and the world in general, is what the book explores, mostly through accounts of specific land uses and their history. It produces a fascinating mixture of personal experience and historical context. Thus, one chapter is a hymn to sheep and their influence on history, another is about landscapes and the resultant development of tourism and so on through abbeys and escapism (the ruins of Rievaulx and Byland Abbeys are nearby), forestry, farming, wildlife and battlefields. The focus moves in and out, from the chapel itself to its locality, on to England and its place in Europe and back again. The whole is unified by Madeleine Bunting’s own memories of the Plot, its place in her childhood and her changing relationships with it as she leaves, moves abroad and then becomes a Guardian journalist living in London. In addition, each chapter reveals a little more about her father. Maintained by considerable ambition, religious faith and self-belief, he was an accomplished artist and an inspiring teacher. But he also appears as a domineering parent with a failed marriage whose sculpture was largely unrecognised. The Forestry Commission’s planting obscured the view from the chapel and increasing numbers of tourists ruined his sense of isolation. The angels he carved for its buttresses were stolen. We ruminate upon success, failure and the ways in which identity is shaped by history and locality as Bunting deftly draws us into his small domain. The only shortcoming is the poorly labelled maps, which do little to enhance the text.

Martin Wainwright’s ostensible focus in True North is much wider. He claims to cover the whole of the North of England (although the Leeds-Manchester area gets by far the most thorough treatment), with the avowed purpose of replacing the image of a grim, black, rain-soaked, economic desert of depressed manufacturing industries, populated by grumpy, racist, male chauvinists, with one that more accurately reflects the beauty, variety and economic, social and cultural progressiveness of the region and the changes that have occurred over his lifetime. Whether anyone seriously believes the clich├ęs he seeks to destroy is debatable. So is his claim to explain how they arose. He is more concerned with exploding the myths than with tracing their origins. He has the journalist’s love of a good story; there are many here and logical structure and sustained argument are never allowed to get in the way of telling them. Much of the book is based on his experiences as a Guardian journalist working in the North since 1987 and illustrated by numerous superb photographs from the paper’s archives. He has also produced an excellent bibliography, which is, inexplicably, missing from the book and only available, here on its website.

It is now 50 years since the Guardian dropped the association with a particular place, Manchester, from its title, but these books by two of its writers reveal the power still retained by the imagined communities associated with localities and their history.

The Plot: A Biography of an English Acre
Madeleine Bunting
304pp £18.99
ISBN 978 184 708085 1

True North
Martin Wainwright
Guardian Books
300pp £18.99
ISBN 978 0 85265 113 1

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