There is a rich literary tradition that has fed on the nostalgic notion that, a generation earlier, the English countryside was somehow better, more beautiful, less spoilt. Laurie Lee's luscious prose was as much bucolic elegy as it was autobiography. Wind in the Willows celebrated a gentle rural existence that seemed, a century ago, already to have departed forever. And, of course, the poets have had their say: Philip Larkin mourned the passing of country ways that he had previously assumed to be permanent.
Richard Askwith's is an earnest voice in the sea of despair that surrounds this particular genre of nostalgia. His particular concern is the decline of the archetypal English village, and a celebration of the values and characters that, he says, have historically propped up this key component of rural life. In The Lost Village, he wants to hear, first-hand, from those who recall the old days: primarily, to preserve their eye-witness accounts for future generations, and also in an attempt to analyse quite how far the decline of the village has gone. Given the title of his book, he views the process as all but complete: he is obituarist, as much as observer.
It's a worthy quest, which he undertakes with much soul-searching. Is he being condescending, he wonders at the start and end of pretty much every chapter. Is there not a conflict between his yearning for the preservation of a former way of life, and his self-professed liberal ideals? Is he transferring his own dread sense of mortality, part of his mid-life crisis, on to the passing of a culture that he connects so dearly and clearly to his youth?
It is hard to tackle such a nebulous story with rigour and precision, while weighed down with so much self-doubt. Askwith sets out from his Northamptonshire home in his "elderly Nissan Micra", an unworthily modern vehicle for such a noble mission, to investigate what has happened to a section of society that he calls "the old tribe".
He views himself, revealingly, as a sophisticated urbanite, and it has to be said that there can be a patronising tone in his treatment of those he meets – not just his heroes, the silver-haired, handsome, care-worn survivors of agricultural hardship who are the sages of his tale; but also the ghastly oafs who have trampled over a sensitive, irreplaceable, habitat, and replaced it with aspirational gardens, paddocks (he reserves a particular sneer for "horsiculture"), and luxury homes for pets. His villains are nearly all "red-faced", whether driving in their too-expensive cars, or bellowing down their mobile phones instead of admiring rural beauty. In Askwith's world, you can colour-code the two main sets of characters.
It is also problematic for the author celebrating an age that inflicted so much suffering on those that survived it: not just the grimness of their working conditions, but also the accompanying severe poverty, with its appalling knock-on effects. In Dorset he meets one of his "silver-haired" heroes, whose mother's family could not afford to take her to hospital. She was operated on, on the kitchen table, and died of septicemia. While the author rejoices in the authenticity of people with bad teeth, their bodies buffeted by decades of hard labour, it is understandable that their children may have chosen to flee rural hardship as they sought softer, urban options.
The author arms himself with statistics with which to ward off critics. There are pockets of this book that are composed of long lists. These can be percentages, pet hates, or other data. Sometimes the conclusions drawn are baffling: "Only 37.9 per cent of those living in the countryside at the time of the 2001 census had been living in the countryside 30 years earlier". This, Askwith maintains, is part of a trend that has him compute that "by 2008 the proportion of born-and-breds will be down to about 37 per cent".
Equally jarring are some of the attempts at humour. Writing of an Oxfordshire gastro-pub, Askwith confides: "Dick Turpin used to go out with the landlady's daughter. (Not the current one, obviously)." This owes more to Little and Large than to the wry offerings of that greatest of all humourous travel writers, Bill Bryson – himself now an official champion of England's rural charms.
The decline of the rural community – the relentless advance of the modern and the retreat of the traditional – is a story so hackneyed, that any new treatment of the theme must be innovative, beautiful, humorous or bold, if it is to demand attention. The Lost Village is a sincere cry for help from a man who has found a cause that resonates deep inside of him, and who, in the process, has written descriptions of England's countryside in a crisp journalistic style. However, he doesn't always succeed in his ultimate aim, to engage our passion.Reuse content