Books: An Arcadia worth having

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The Independent Culture
Perch Hill: A New Life by Adam Nicolson Robinson pounds 14.99

A ppropriately enough, the jacket of Perch Hill carries a reproduction of one of David Inshaw's richly green paintings: Inshaw belongs (if no longer formally) to that group of artists who call themselves the Brotherhood of Ruralists, a Ruralist being, by their own definition, someone who deliberately exchanges urban culture for the English countryside, there to find renewal and subject- matter. Adam Nicolson can also legitimately be termed a Ruralist, and Perch Hill is his testimony. It opens with an account of what made him and his partner search for a country home to which they could devote themselves, while the body of the book is an attempt not just to depict but to scrutinise their first years on the Sussex Weald, and from as many vantage-points as his honest and probing mind can think of. Authenticity and a realistic recognition of the disappointments inevitably awaiting its pursuer - these are surely Adam Nicolson's double goals in his writing about Perch Hill, as they clearly are in his living and raising a family there.

The first pages of this book constitute one of the most convincing and brilliant accounts I have read of a life turned out of joint with the personality of the man who has to live it, of an individual's awareness of a pervasive and destructive inauthenticity that will eventually insist on full and practical attention. The deep flaw in Nicolson's mode of life was brought dramatically and symbolically home to him by an eruption of that cultural disquiet he had perhaps preferred not to face up to: walking back to Hammersmith on a summer night he was mugged by three youths. "I was not a person," he writes now of the incident, "but a suit with pockets." But it was the person rather than the suit who suffered; in a dissatisfied, unhappy state of mind anyway, Nicolson underwent a virtual breakdown. He and his partner decided to move out of London. FInding Perch Hill was an accident, except that the place corresponded with their inner desiderata; its situation, its atmosphere and its needs matched those of the place of their longings. The couple was thus led to the Sussex Weald by the house and land, just as someone born into the property would have been.

The predicament of nature-loving townsfolk in an assertive rural environment is, of course, a recurring subject of post-Romantic English writing, part of the curious and powerful difficulty of middle- and upper-class England in accepting membership of an overwhelmingly industrial - or post-industrial - society. It is one of the most valuable aspects of Nicolson's book that he takes this tradition - in both its social and its literary forms - as a measuring-rod throughout; he knows from the first what it is he's doing in trying to farm at once modestly, commercially and ethically in this wooded but poor countryside. And perhaps he is at his most interesting when trying to convey the mental condition his successes and failures induce, on the relationship of his actions to his values, his aspirations and his aversions. It does not worry him that he can be seen as part of a wave, and a large one at that - of Londoners wanting old houses and fields that can be worked - though he is perhaps a little taken aback by quite what a lucrative affair this wave is for the estate agents. His Saturday morning in a Heathfield agents' office provides one of the most mordantly funny parts of the book ("Jason was doing the talk. `Smarden Farm,' he was saying, `yeah, that's the fella. Total area extends to over three-quarters of an acre. Yup. Three nine nine.' `A London Buyer,' Joyce half-whispered, half-mouthed at me. `I love it when Jason drops his voice, don't you?'"). Nicolson appreciates that what has animated him most must animate others as well, and that this may turn out to be a compound of protest, past unhappiness and regret for a way of life now endangered. But all that doesn't prevent him from wanting to make a go of Perch Hill, nor diminish the very real sense of the numinous the place arouses.

There are times, it must be said, when Nicolson is somewhat disingenuous. His financial affairs were, he tells us, when contemplating moving from London and again as a result of certain farming ventures, in a mess. And so they may temporarily have been, but I suspect that basically his economic position was more comfortable (perhaps quite a bit more so) than those of many of his readers. Also one is left in ignorance about what part of his life is taken up by his activities as a really rather well-known journalist and writer, and what these contribute to his income. His network of contacts too is something that surfaces every now and again; perhaps it is something he has come to take for granted. In next to no time, it seems, eminent media representatives are taking an interest in Perch Hill and its improvements. That would surely not be the case for the average Ruralists, making new lives for themselves in sequestered countryside.

But elsewhere it is the fearlessness of Nicolson's inquiring spirit that impresses. Perch Hill is adjacent to Bateman's, Kipling's home, and Nicolson, most interestingly, evokes the writer as a point of reference. Like Kipling, he loves feeling the past in the present, the age of fields, hedges, woods, many of them going back well before the Conquest. Like Kipling, he very properly banishes the hunt from his land, and like him he reveres quietness as the essential element for many lives, animal and human. But isn't there a danger in being too desirous of harmony, being too exclusive? Few pages in Perch Hill are more moving, or indeed shocking, than those describing the Nicolsons' discovery that a rather baffling neighbour, an accountant, has stolen money from her clients and has twice attempted suicide. There can be no Arcadia worth having that shuts the door on human complexity. Similarly, Nicolson agonises about the hidden and unhealthy desire for purity in both traditional and Ruralist country life. Does conservationism too easily contain ethnic and cultural separatism? It is Adam Nicolson's fervent belief that labour-intensiveness is the most important, and eventually the most socially restorative aspect of traditional farming, against which modern farming wisdom has set itself. But how likely is any sizeable return to it?

Behind his review of the crisis in end-of-century country life, however, is his spiritual response to what gives it its fascination: the perpetual existence of the non-human. Believing as I firmly do that there is no matter more important than humankind's relationship with animals, I found myself rejoicing in and admiring Adam Nicolson's tributes: foxes, chickens, a rogue cockerel, owls, a beloved dog, sheep of all kinds. He shows a deep and reverent tenderness and a stoical acceptance of things as they are. May he write more on this, and set us further on the path of the future: inclusiveness towards all members of the creature-world.