Friday, 16 November 2007

In the Country by Kenneth Allsop

First published in 1972, this book is a collection of essays originally published by Kenneth Allsop in The Daily Mail. Well-known in the UK as a broadcaster, he died a year after the book was published, and is buried in the village he wrote about, Powerstock in Dorset. Throughout the book, for reasons, at the time, of privacy, he uses the names of Hardy’s Wessex (so Dorchester becomes Casterbridge, for instance), a conceit which sits very nicely for bookish readers, who may enjoy the sense of continuation it offers to the Wessex novels.

The book follows the calendar year, from darkest January to Christmas, finishing on a joyous note, and each month is broken up into shorter essays on a variety of subjects. We learn a good deal about Allsop’s ancient restored mill home, the trout in the millrace, the ungrateful doves who only drop in to eat all the corn, and the changing landscape around it. Changing both with the advance of the year, but also with proximity to the 21st century. Yet while Allsop was an ardent conservationist, and a campaigner until his death, his concern is worn lightly in these pages, which convince without haranguing. His love of birds is ever present, as is his passion for the countryside, and no tiny detail is beneath his notice.

This book is about the pleasure and the occasional affectionately-tolerated inconveniences of country life (he suggests that within 25 years it would be possible to rebuild Wessex entirely of corrugated iron), the daily communion with the furred and feathered inhabitants of his home. His joy is shared with the reader through the immediacy of his writing, his detailed description:

The bees aren’t yet fully operational. The sun had prodded an arousing finger down the shrew’s tunnel or through the eiderdown of moss where each had dozed through the frosts [. . .] Above the powdery red cliff which the thrust of the current has gouged into a crescent (and where there is an old kingfisher’s nesting hole – unused, now, for even down here kingfishers are scarce) the bees burnished the air with golden pencillings [. . .] How frail is the thread which sustains them: the few comatose queens nurturing the seed of their kind within their bodies for the long blank months of danger.

Allsop’s troubled life and his uneasy relationship with another of our great nature writers, Henry Williamson – an equally troubled man - are absent from these short pieces, although I think Williamson’s influence shows through the nature writing. And in that sense, this is a slight work, purely an elegy to life in the country, rather than a portrait of its author. But I think I am rather comforted to know that, despite great pain and unhappiness, he found a love of the countryside to be sustaining and a bringer of at least occasional joy. I recommend it as a pleasurable read and an interesting piece of recent country history.

A minor personal sadness is that with this recent re-reading, my 34-year-old paperback copy has fallen apart, and will not be accompanying me on my next trip to the West Country.


Ann Darnton said...

I remember Allsop as a TV reporter (and was horrified to realise how long ago he died) but didn't know anything about this side of his life. I love journalistic essays. I have a whole collection of Bernard Levin's pieces and keep promising myself that I will buy E B White's New Yorker collections. I must look out for these as well.

Becca said...

I have always enjoyed journals and diaries ... so this is another to consider reading once my stacks begin to diminish!

GeraniumCat said...

I haven't read many diarists, though I do enjoy them - I've been reading Alan Bennett in an "on and off" sort of way for a while. Like you, Ann, I've meant for a long time to read E.B. White.

Melanie said...

I lived in the same village as Kenneth when I was a child in the 1970s and have several copies of my favourite book 'In The Country' around my home. I love to dip into it every now and again - it's my 'comfort' reading! My years in Dorset were the very best of my life and every now and again, I love to return to my old village. Sorry to hear that your copy is falling apart. Check eBay every couple of weeks and you're sure to find another one. Simply the bset book ever written!

GeraniumCat said...

Melanie, I'm not too worried about my copy falling apart completely as my mother has one in better condition :) which I discovered since I wrote this. But if I can't wait (!) I'll buy another. It's such a lovely book.

Amanda said...

Kenneth Allsop was my father and it's really delightful to come across writings such as yours and the other comments on this page and know he is remember with such admiration anf affection. Thank you.

Amanda Allsop

p.s. I understand a new edition of 'In the Country' is to be published before Christmas.

Anonymous said...

I have a paperback edition (bought 1975) and an original hardback copy of In the Country and still re-read it every year. I have read all of Ken Allsop's books and much of his journalistic writings and also Letters to His Daughter. This last is a marvellous collection that shows the private man more so than his other works. Overall, he was a brilliant writer, and though I only vaguely remember him on 24 Hours in the early 1970s, I think his influence has lived on and become more relevant with the passing years.

I would very much like to see exerpts from his television work, but it seems hard to find. Does anyone know how this is achievable?

Incidentally, I also have the autobiography of Ken Allsop, 'Field of Vision' by Mark Andresen (2007). It is a fascinating, if flawed, book, great for creating a sense of the history of television and Ken's role in programmes like Tonight, and also for filling in his boyhood and some family life. However, it is undermined by some strange observations and a mediocre regard for grammar and syntax. The sloppy writing would have appalled Ken Allsop, who put such store in language and took such care with expressing himself. Still, the book is worth reading.