Running For The Hills by Horatio Clare

The challenges and charm of growing up in rural isolation
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The Independent Culture

A previously unseen picture of the 1970s is now emerging as tales of growing up in that decade, such as Tim Guest's account of a commune childhood, My Life in Orange, are coming into print. Horatio Clare's Running for the Hills is another child's view from inside the grown-ups' dreams of an alternative life - those dreams affectionately satirised by that epitome of the 1970s sitcom, The Good Life.

Clare's parents bought a sheep farm in the Welsh hills, leaving a middle-class life in London to spend weekends and holidays up a mountain. He was born into this dream once it had begun to go wrong. The mountain comes between his parents; his father cannot live there and his mother cannot leave. She finally moves to the farm permanently with her two young sons.

Clare's portrait of a displaced childhood on an isolated hillside is cleverly structured from his own memory, combined with excerpts from his mother's diaries. The book shows both sides of this departure: the wonderful "vivid existence" of growing up on a hill farm, but also the real compromises and poverty that stem from financial dependence on a smallholding. He enters an indeterminate social position, posh but poor, English but Welsh, urban but rural.

Clare's descriptions of the landscape, the seasons, wildlife, and the trials of farming, are down-to-earth yet also otherworldly, like something from the fairy tales he read so avidly. He revisits his childhood wonder at the snowdrifts, at the shocking site of a newborn lamb covered in amniotic fluid, and at the determined call of the cuckoo - a bird he seems to identify with as a symbol of being out of place. It's the smallest things, the textures and colours, that mark the child's memory. Clare digs deep to bring us evocative details, such as the family of mice that lived "behind the bulges in the wallpaper in my bedroom".

Anthropologists talk about landscape insiders and outsiders; this book offers insight into a child who is in-between. Clare's mother struggles to manage the remote farm, but she cannot easily overcome her position as an outsider. Her sons are born into the landscape and absorbed into it. This charming book shows how memory is often shaped by that landscape. To have played out his childhood in such a beautiful but challenging place has left Clare - not unpleasantly - scarred. This memoir outlines the process of scarification with an impressive honesty and delicacy.

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