BOOK REVIEW : When buzzards hovered o'er the lofty crags . . .

THE VILLAGE THAT DIED FOR ENGLAND Patrick Wright Jonathan Cape £17.99

The village that died for England, in a fit of involuntary patriotism, is Tyneham, a secluded cluster of houses in a valley on the Dorset coast. In 1943 the villagers were evacuated to make room for a gunnery range. They were told by Churchill's government that they would return when the war was over, but Attlee's cabinet overturned the original pledge, exiling the villagers for ever. It is a shabby episode, a shameful example of state power trampling over the interests of innocent bystanders; and it forms the centrepiece of Patrick Wright's expansive investigation of the English countryside and its place in the national psyche.

The story begins when Lulworth Park, a handsome chunk of southern Dorset, is taken over during the First World War as a training ground for tanks. It was never returned. Landlords wept over the ruin of their pretty vales, and begged the army to move to Yorkshire or Sussex; artists decried the destructive spirit that had invaded their leafy haven, historians grew wistful at the loss of a cherished slice of land which came to seem emblematic of the English character. Wright is quick to show how Tyneham became the symbol of a vanished golden past to generations of rural reactionaries. He offers Tyneham Man as the flip side of Essex Man - a creature morbidly devoted to the idea of England as some kind of lost Arcadian paradise. In the process he exposes a story that really is typical of the English character: a more severe state might have asserted itself with greater zeal, and less duplicity, and might not have indulged the seemingly endless protests on Tyneham's behalf - protests which turned out, at almost every step, to be futile.

The result is a tale rich in dizzy ironies. All causes create odd bedfellows, but Lulworth attracted a bizarre and vexed group. On one wing was Sylvia Townsend Warner, Dorset's celebrated communist and lesbian, fierce in her resolve to protect local people from the oppressive demands of the military establishment. On the other was a quasi-fascist forester, Rolf Gardiner, who copied German youth movements with work camps and country marches, and tried to mobilise a back-to-the-land cult to head off the advance of a decadent modern world.

Even the environmental protesters, who came later, were a mixed bunch. Some were sentimental liberals longing for the return of the peaceful olden days when buzzards hovered o'er the lofty crags; others were empire loyalists, heckling the government to "stand up for the White Man in Rhodesia", and desperate to restore the hills around Lulworth as a slice of "real" England. Aristocrats mourned the loss of their ancestral rights, and sad, displaced villagers wondered at the power of the faraway whims that were shoving them to and fro. Wright offers a detailed portrait of class tension in action, and suggests that the history of this small chunk of coast is also the history of lunatic national anxieties. But in truth there are heaps of heroic feelings and fine intentions in the long fight, however vain they seem in retrospect.

In a nice twist, the local inhabitants welcomed the original army camp at Lulworth if only because it was "a great inconveniencer of squires." The things the aristocrats and artists loved - tranquillity, wildlife, sea views and picturesque impoverished labourers - were low priorities for serfs. For aesthetes, the tanks were symbols of an encroaching mechanisation, a harsh eruption of screeching metallic life in a world of brambles and soft owl hoots (it wasn't just tanks they hated, pylons and tractors were enemies too). But for others the new arrivals were exciting; a tank bumbling across a lane was rather like an elephant, and the wrecked hulks that lay on the hillsides had a striking sort of defunct resonance, like dinosaurs. Tanks were a "vanguard force blasting its way through the idylls of class power".

These days of course, the military presence will strike most people as an instance of class power rather than a subversive force. But the last of the many ironies in Wright's account is that the army, having evacuated the local population and blasted the hills with tank shells for 50 years, has today become an energetic champion of "conservation". Wright meets an eager Colonel who remarks: "One's always had a great interest in all things natural history." It's all about wagtails nesting in rusted engines, moorhens pecking at the fins of a mortar, and barn owls peering out of tanks. This might sound ludicrous, but Wright is anxious that we do not laugh too hard. The hills of Purbeck, he reminds us, contain no caravan sites, no three-lane by-passes or car parks, no out-of-town superstores or drive-in burger joints, and no breeze-block holiday bungalows. Give or take an unexploded shell or two, the Lulworth ranges still represent the largest surviving tract of Thomas Hardy's Egdon Heath.

Actually there is a further irony. Wright is glum about the recent refurbishment of Tyneham as a shiny monument to vanished bliss. "Tyneham," he writes, "has lost much of its post-war charisma". It vexes him that the village is cherished by people whom he dislikes, such as P D James and Kenneth Baker, with their grating fondness for an England full of cap-doffing Christian virtues where everyone gets on famously with each other and the thrushes can be relied on to warble just when you're having sherry on the lawn. But at the end Wright falls prey to a similar nostalgia. He misses the tanks, like many of today's visitors who feel cheated if they do not hear the sound of gunfire. At times he sounds almost like one of the blimpish aristocrats he satirised at the beginning, shedding tears for a world that suited him perfectly and excluded everyone else. "The measures taken to convert Tyneham into a tourist attraction have demythologised the place," he writes, and this sounds quite true. But his criticisms of landlords and environmentalists spring from a desire to expose their myths as shallow dreams - as if there were anything shallow about dreams. For most people, post-war Tyneham was a no-go area, but for a heritage critic such as Wright, it must have been paradise.

Perhaps this is why he grows elegiac. "Who could ever forget," he says towards the end, "Keith and Candice-Marie Pratt?" It is a bold question. Keith and Candice-Marie, it turns out, are the eco-warrior heroes of Mike Leigh's television film Nuts in May: Morris Minor types who dream of scrapping the army and unpasteurising the world. Wright deals with them curtly, dismissing them as archetypal rural fantasists. All the same, it is quite touching that he should think them celebrities. It made me feel quite ashamed to admit that these particular Pratts had quite slipped my mind.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Arts and Entertainment
James singer Tim Booth
latitude 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Lee says: 'I never, ever set out to offend, but it can be an accidental by-product'
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe judges were wowed by the actress' individual cooking style
Arts and Entertainment
Nicholas says that he still feels lucky to be able to do what he loves, but that there is much about being in a band he hates
musicThere is much about being in a band that he hates, but his debut album is suffused with regret
Arts and Entertainment
The singer, who herself is openly bisexual, praised the 19-year-old sportsman before launching into a tirade about the upcoming Winter Olympics

books
Arts and Entertainment
music
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Cryer and Ashton Kutcher in the eleventh season of Two and a Half Men

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

film
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman as Doctor Who and Clara behind the scenes

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cheery but half-baked canine caper: 'Pudsey the dog: The movie'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce leads the MTV VMA Awards 2014 nominations with eight

music
Arts and Entertainment
Live from your living room: Go People perform at a private home in Covent Garden

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
MasterChef 2014 finalists Charley Boorman, Wayne Sleep, Sophie Thompson and Jodie Kidd

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Trade unionist Ricky Tomlinson (right), later a television actor, attends a demonstration in London, 1975
theatre
News
The three-time Emmy award winner Elaine Stritch
peopleStar of stage and screen passes away aged 89
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

    The 'scroungers’ fight back

    The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
    Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

    Fireballs in space

    Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
    A Bible for billionaires

    A Bible for billionaires

    Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
    Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

    Paranoid parenting is on the rise

    And our children are suffering because of it
    For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

    Magna Carta Island goes on sale

    Yours for a cool £4m
    Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn
    Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

    Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

    Meet the man who doesn't want to go down in history as the country's last Scottish Secretary
    Legoland Windsor's master model-makers reveal the tricks of their trade (including how to stop the kids wrecking your Eiffel Tower)

    Meet the people who play with Lego for a living

    They are the master builders: Lego's crack team of model-makers, who have just glued down the last of 650,000 bricks as they recreate Paris in Windsor. Susie Mesure goes behind the scenes
    The 20 best days out for the summer holidays: From Spitfires to summer ferry sailings

    20 best days out for the summer holidays

    From summer ferry sailings in Tyne and Wear and adventure days at Bear Grylls Survival Academy to Spitfires at the Imperial War Museum Duxford and bog-snorkelling at the World Alternative Games...
    Open-air theatres: If all the world is a stage, then everyone gets in on the act

    All the wood’s a stage

    Open-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
    Rand Paul is a Republican with an eye on the world

    Rupert Cornwell: A Republican with an eye on the world

    Rand Paul is laying out his presidential stall by taking on his party's disastrous record on foreign policy
    Self-preservation society: Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish

    Self-preservation society

    Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish
    Generation gap opens a career sinkhole

    Britons live ever longer, but still society persists in glorifying youth

    We are living longer but considered 'past it' younger, the reshuffle suggests. There may be trouble ahead, says DJ Taylor