Country Matters: A lesson from the life of Brian

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The Independent Culture
Old Brian is dead. Never again shall we see his diminutive figure, hunched and twisted, shuffle slowly past along the lane. Never again shall I watch him pause at the stile, summoning the effort to climb over on to the footpath that leads through a spinney and on across the meadow. Brian has gone, and with him has vanished the last trace of an earlier way of life.

Always a bachelor, Brian lived alone in the back half of a cottage a few hundred yards up the hill from us, and every day he set out on his unsteady perambulation to the village, a mile away. Never owning a telephone, never able to drive, or even ride a bicycle, he relied on his legs for contact with the outside world. For the few people who live along the lane, he was an absolute fixture. Every morning at ten past eight, he would come down past us on his way to the shop or bus-stop. In reasonable weather he would take a short cut across the fields, but if it was wet, he would stick to the road. Every morning - a couple of hours later - he would make his slow way home again, stopping frequently to rest.

Even when we first knew him, his gait was singular. He walked leaning to the left, with his left arm tucked horizontally round behind his back; and as he grew older, his list to port grew ever more pronounced. If a car came up behind him, he would ignore it until it was within inches of his heels - although whether this quirk sprang from stubbornness or deafness, it was hard to tell. Eventually he would move crab-wise into the bank, looking rather aggrieved.

In the days when he still went regularly into Dursley - our nearest town, three miles off - he would always decline a lift on his way to the village, on the grounds that he would reach the bus-stop too early, and have to wait; but on the way back he was happy to be picked up at any stage of his marathon.

Strangers who came across him sometimes took him for the village idiot, because often, if addressed, he would not reply. In fact he had a perfectly good brain and an excellent memory. He was a regular church-goer and a keen philatelist, and he could recall every detail of the fierce winter of 1962-63, describing how snow drifted in the lane to a depth of 13ft.

His trouble was a bad stammer, which made him reluctant to talk. When his voice did stutter into action, he could be exceedingly voluble, not least on the subject of the weather. Since he listened to radio and TV every morning, he was always an authority on the latest forecast, and - although they could not possibly affect him - he would be bang up to date on motorway traffic problems.

Gradually we got to know a little of his background. Always Gloucestershire people, he and his elder brother Richard were born at a farm beyond the Severn, but they grew up in the house on the lower side of our yard, where their father Maurice kept a few cows, pigs and chickens. At the start of the Second World War, the family moved to the cottage up the lane, and it was there, after his parents had died prematurely, that Brian lived alone for more than 30 years. He worked first at a sawmill in the village, and then at Listers, the engineering company in Dursley, until finally he was made redundant.

To me, the most striking fact about him was the simplicity of his life. His house was exceedingly primitive - no central heating, practically no plumbing (only a bath in the kitchen), and no means of heating water. The building is damp and cold, hunched so tightly into a north-eastern shoulder of the hill that it catches only a few minutes of sun on fine summer mornings, and none in winter.

Yet Brian never complained of his privations, and his demands on society were as light as could be. In spite of his physical frailty, he had an inner strength that made him self-sufficient: he was content with what he had. He expected very little of life, and I feel that in his stoicism, his acceptance of discomfort, he resembled the country people of years gone by.

The same was even more true of his walking. Two centuries ago, everyone in the community walked to and from work, creating the footpaths that remain one of England's unique assets. From cottages scattered round the sides of the valley, they trudged down to the wool mills along the River Ewelme, and back home every evening. By 1820, the valley was one of the most prosperous in England, and it supported 2,500 inhabitants. Then in 1840 came the great crash, as coal-powered mills came on stream in Yorkshire, and the bottom dropped out of the Cotswold wool industry. In 10 years the population fell to less than half its previous figure, and the parish exported hundreds of families to North America and Canada, since it was cheaper to get rid of them that way than to keep them on the rates.

In the good times, three cottages stood at the field gate below Brian's house, three more out in the big meadow, and two in the edge of the wood above our own fields. Now all are gone, the stone used again for other buildings. Of those cottages which had been in the open, no trace remains, but the site in the wood is still marked, every spring, by a drift of snowdrops.

Even more than the snowdrops, Brian's constant perambulation was a visible, living link with the past. Lucky for him, people say, that he died suddenly of a heart attack, and did not suffer the misery of long illness, or of having to leave his home. Maybe; but we have lost a regular feature of our landscape, and feel that much the poorer.

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