I find I’m seeking out older guide books about the areas of England I particularly like. In the good ones there’s a wealth of knowledge and an intensity of observation that’s very rewarding to work with — and of course they’ve become an object of cultural interest in their own right. So I’m pleased that Geoffrey Grigson’s The Shell Country Alphabet is back in print after 43 years. (That and The Englishman’s Flora are two books of his I’m glad to have to hand.)
His worldview is clearly evident in the enthusiasms he championed: brightly burning poets of the countryside such as John Clare; visionary artists from Samuel Palmer to his contemporaries and friends, Ben Nicholson, Paul Nash, John Piper, Wyndham Lewis. Grigson revelled in finding the extra-ordinary in the seeming ordinariness of a rural life that twentieth century short term thinking was beginning to eradicate. Flora, fauna and rural lore were presented in inspirational compendia and essay collections such as the Shell Country Book, The Englishman's Flora, Freedom of the Parish and the Shell Country Alphabet. For the Festival of Britain in 1951 he edited the series of About Britain guides, penning the text of the volumes on Wessex and the West Country. Grigson also wrote books to lead children into an appreciation of the countryside, poetry and the visual arts; later he became an 'anthologist's anthologist', with a seemingly endless train of collections of epigrams and epitaphs, nonsense verse, 'unrespectable' verse. He revealed much light to be found in apparently dark and (at that time) neglected and disdained periods of literary history, the Romantics, the Victorians. He revived interest in forgotten poets such as William Diaper.
You can get a flavour of the Country Alphabet book from the large page spreads Penguin’s put online. Penguin’s done an attractive job with the presentation of this book (published under their imprint, Particular Books) and has this to say about it:
In the 1960s Geoffrey Grigson travelled around England writing the story of the secret landscape that is all around us, if only we take the time to look and see. The result is a book that will take you on an imaginative journey, revealing hidden stories, unexpected places and strange phenomena. From green men, ice-scratches, cross-legged knights and weathercocks to rainbows, clouds and stars; from place-names and poets to mazes, dene-holes and sham ruins, via avenues, dewponds and village greens, The Shell Country Alphabet will help you discover the world that remains, just off the motorway.
I like what Toby Barnard says about Grigson: ‘Geoffrey Grigson resurrected the minor, the provincial and the parochial ... [he was] an erudite and unrivalled topographer … ardent in promoting informed awareness of the distinctiveness of place’. That’s well put: ardent in promoting informed awareness of the distinctiveness of place.
I’ve been out a couple of times recently to Broad Town, where Grigson and his third wife, Jane, lived and are buried. The farmhouse that was theirs, where they both worked and wrote and where, it’s said, Edward Thomas once learned to make hay ropes, is close to Christ Church, the church that serves Broad Town. Locked when we went, the church itself seems undistinguished, but the churchyard is a spacious, sunny and quiet spot that looks out towards the Broad Town White Horse. The Country Alphabet tells me this was cut in 1863.
Last month I read Joe Moran’s excellent On Roads. Reviewing this, Craig Brown wrote:
Joe Moran is a young academic (and if his lecturing is half as good as his writing, I’d advise any young student to make a bee-line for the cultural history department at Liverpool University). Unlike most academics he is excited by the particular and the peculiar, and is obviously happy to spend time ferreting out odd information that more po-faced academics would dismiss as merely anecdotal. … Reading On Roads, I felt as though I was being introduced to a place I thought I knew well, and seeing it for the first time. Moran has the poet’s ability to find the remarkable in the commonplace.
And before On Roads, I was reading Roger Deakin’s Notes From Walnut Tree Farm. The things he sees, feels, hears, touches and then writes about — and that stick in my mind! (Too much to choose from … ‘There are 243 beams in this house, proportions natural, set by the size of the trees and their girth. … Trees are the measure of things. … The first measures of length must surely have been cut on sticks. … Trees have given proportions to things too. … The standard width of a timber-framed house or barn, between sixteen and twenty-one feet, is the distance a single beam from an oak will normally span.’ ‘People ask how a writer connects with the land. The answer is through work. … And when we work on the land, what is our connection with it? Tools, and especially hand tools. Much can be learnt about the land from the seat of a tractor, the older and more exposed the better, but to observe the detail, you must work with hand tools.’)
I was fortunate to be taught Biology at school by a fine field biologist, Arnold Darlington. I was a poor student and am still learning to have my eyes wide open, but he set me off on a course I’m still on, observing and naming as best I can. There’s a thread here that connects all these writers and it’s why I really liked this article in the NYT, Reviving the Lost Art of Naming the World:
We are, all of us, abandoning taxonomy, the ordering and naming of life … losing the ability to order and name and therefore losing a connection to and a place in the living world. No wonder so few of us can really see what is out there. … we barely seem to notice. We are so disconnected from the living world that we can live in the midst of a mass extinction, of the rapid invasion everywhere of new and noxious species, entirely unaware that anything is happening. Happily, changing all this turns out to be easy. Just find an organism, any organism … and get a sense of it, its shape, color, size, feel, smell, sound. … Then find a name for it. Learn science’s name, one of countless folk names, or make up your own. To do so is to change everything, including yourself. Because once you start noticing organisms, once you have a name for particular beasts, birds and flowers, you can’t help seeing life and the order in it, just where it has always been, all around you.
Once you start noticing … once you have a name for (the) particular … you can’t help seeing life … just where it has always been, all around you.