England in Particular, by Sue Clifford & Angela King

Respecting the lore in a land grown bland
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The Independent Culture

Usually I scribble in the books I review. This time I made all my notes on a separate paper. This is one of the most handsome books I've come across in a long while, and I'm not about to ruin it. It's apt that the design of England in Particular should be as careful as the text, for this is a book about detail. For over two decades its authors have run a small but influential campaign group-cum-think tank called Common Ground, the aim of which is to highlight the value of the everyday. For a long time it looked like they were swimming vainly against a rising tide. Who wanted to hear about the ordinary when the global marketplace could offer the extraordinary? Who wanted to know about quaint Derbyshire customs when they could grab a flight to Barbados for a few hundred quid?

But patience, like detail, is an underrated virtue which Clifford and King clearly possess. As farmers' markets spread faster than superstores, the country seems to have come around to their way of thinking. Not before time. This book, they say, "is about the commonplace; for us to value it, a creature does not have to be endangered, a building does not have to be monumental ... What makes each place unique is the conspiracy of nature and culture".

This is not a message that our consumerist society often wants to hear. "Richness is under siege," say the authors, by everything from the fashion industry to intensive farming, increased mobility and corporate identity. The alternative is "local distinctiveness": ensuring places continue to live and develop, distinct from one another, fuelled by the interests of their communities.

Hence this gazetteer of much that is distinctive and curious about England. It is a joy to dip into. We get entries on chalk streams and garages, natterjack toads and 'Obby 'Osses, Chinatown and sea tractors, manhole covers and osiers. Have you ever heard of a flatner (a river boat particular to Somerset)? Or chert (a flint-like rock from the Pennines)? Have you ever noticed that parts of the country can often be distinguished by types of fencing - chestnut paling within drystone in the Cotswolds; cleft-oak in the New Forest; "devils' rope" barbed wire around many southern fields and "mean and monotonous" wire-mesh in so many inner cities, adding to the sense of dereliction and despair?

We are living in times which encourage us to take our eyes off the ground and focus on the horizon. Detail, we are told, simply gets in the way of the important things: income, competition, choice. This has always been a tempting but perfidious lie; god, like the devil, remains in the detail. "Local distinctiveness is not necessarily about beauty," say Clifford and King, "but it must be about truth". There is much truth in this book, and I would be surprised if anyone came away from it without having discovered at least some - and determined to do something with it.

Paul Kingsnorth's 'One No, Many Yeses' is published by Free Press

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