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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.