Book Of A Lifetime: Memoirs of a Surrey Labourer, By George Bourne

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The Independent Culture

All my greatest reading experiences have caught me unawares. It gets harder and harder for this to happen as you get older, and more conscious of the books you ought to have read and haven't. That sensation of being bowled over by a book you've come to with no preconceptions is one I'm always trying to recover.

The book I've chosen is the last one that made me feel this way. I stumbled on it on my in-laws' shelf among some books on gardening and only picked it up because the title struck me as almost deliberately off-putting – just like A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian.

Memoirs of a Surrey Labourer is by George Bourne – a pseudonym for George Sturt, who ran a wheelwright's shop in Farnham in the 1900s. The labourer of the title is a man called Bettesworth who was George Bourne's gardener; the book is really just a collection of sketches of Bettesworth's life and a record of his sayings.

This seems thin as a premise for a book, and possibly patronising – a kind of belles-lettres version of the Ted and Ralph sketch in The Fast Show. But, in fact, the book has an astonishing beauty and profundity.

Bettesworth lives vividly on the page, but there's a deep sense of mystery about him. He's in his sixties when the book opens and the details of his life emerge piecemeal. He rents a tiny cottage, worries about his crazy and infirm wife – who's shunned by everyone because she's so filthy – and he works as a day-labourer. But it's also clear that Bettesworth has a kind of alpha status among the local working people, that he served in Crimea, and that he's a living link with a folk tradition that goes back to before Shakespeare's time. He's like a cousin to Lob, the old man in the Edward Thomas poem who is as "English as this gate, these flowers, this mire". Bettesworth is essentially a peasant, maintaining peasant traditions just outside the area that, less than a century later, we think of as the M25.

I think in a subtle way the book shows that the way of life that seems so normal to us now in the 21st century is really an aberration. We've grown used to softness and abundance. But very recently lives in this country were conditioned by hardship and scarcity. Reading the book gave me a powerful sense of my incompetence in relation to my predecessors on the planet. I find myself increasingly fascinated by the gulf between the technology we give ourselves credit for (cars, planes, mobile phones, computers) and what we could, in a pinch, actually make. Bettesworth, by contrast, is a kind of rural Renaissance man – resourceful, versatile, with his own moral code. He is the last in a line of heroic and usually anonymous figures whose enduring monument is the English landscape they shaped and named.

Marcel Theroux's novel 'Far North' is published by Faber & Faber