The provocative art of village life

Country Matters
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Village and parish appraisals are all the rage at the moment. Encouraged by the Countryside Commission, many small communities are putting together design statements that (people hope) will have a beneficial influence on future development and help places to retain their character.

The Cotswold village of Bisley, near Stroud, is even now polishing up such a statement. But while the official document was being prepared, Donald Workman - one of the sparkiest inhabitants, and a great reviver of rural tradition - had another idea: that people should be invited to create individual pictures depicting anything their village meant to them: memories of the past, present anxieties, hopes.

He therefore designed an ingeniously cut and perforated sheet of cardboard, which was produced flat but could easily be folded to form a frame, with a broad, sloping border enclosing a picture space 16 inches by 12. At the start of November, 600 of these were distributed in Bisley and its neighbouring wards Oakridge and Eastcombe, together with a sheet of paper outlining the idea. "The frame is for your view of the village," this said. Together, the portraits would show "what every villager feels about where they live and their sense of belonging". On the back of the sheet were listed possible subjects: weddings, the church, growing food, field names and so on.

The initial reaction was mixed. A school caretaker immediately said she would gather up a day's harvest of crisp packets and stick them in her frame, thus illustrating her job to perfection. Ron Fletcher, an old-timer well known around local hostelries, proposed to get a large-scale map and stick marker pins in at spots where he'd come off his bike on the way home. Many people seemed apathetic: for weeks Donald and his wife Sue were afraid they might not elicit a worthwhile response. They need not have worried. A week ago more than 200 portraits went on show in the Thomas Keble school at Eastcombe.

Children had made many of the exhibits: frames were painted gold, silver, red and blue, and every kind of material had been used - wool, leaves, flowers, grass, cloth, photographs. Among grown-ups, Felicity Waggett, Brown Owl for the Eastcombe Brownies, had knitted a representation of the view from her front door, which included a cat, a sheep, fields, the vegetable garden and the churchyard. Yet on the opening night the star of the show was Daisy Toll, aged 91, who had contributed a fine portrait in partnership with her granddaughter Gemma, a budding saxophonist.

When asked whether she had been in Bisley all her life, Daisy replied crisply: "No, only 50 years." Originally from Northamptonshire, she had lived in the New Forest for a time before moving to the Cotswolds. Inevitably, in half a century, the place has changed. "New people have come," she says, "but the great thing is, they've taken to the village. The old spirit has survived, and it's still a welcoming place."

Historical events featured strongly, not least the dire winter of 1947, when villagers had to cut their way through 8ft snowdrifts and were without running water for weeks. Many well-remembered characters lived again, among them the old fellow with a cottage behind the post office. So poor that he couldn't afford a saw, he had a unique method of building up his fire: once it was going, he stacked it with long branches pushed high up the chimney, let gravity do the rest - and to hell with the fire brigade.

Donald Workman's own portrait commemorated two craftsmen-artists who, during the Thirties, plied the same trade but in strongly contrasting backgrounds. Walter Wilkinson, an anarchist poet and vegetarian, toured the country on foot, pushing a handcart and giving shows with a dozen glove puppets, basing his little plays on Gloucestershire folklore and celebrating the local landscape. William Sim-monds was also a puppeteer, but he performed in fine country houses and in London, and was a friend of the poet John Drinkwater.

One keenly felt personal memory was of "dentist day" at Oakridge School, also in the Thirties, when a classroom was turned into a makeshift surgery and the dreaded practitioner arrived with his chair and equipment. Pupils were evacuated for the duration to the parish room, along a path smelling of wet leaf mould and rotten leaves, and concentration became impossible as they waited for the summons from a monitor, "who with an important demeanour would call the name of the next victim and escort the trembling mite... to make sure that escape was not on the cards".

There was an evocative glimpse of Slad (Laurie Lee's village, nearby) before the era of street lights, when "on moonless nights one was wrapped in velvety blackness", and many a poem raised arcadian echoes: "Of Sudgrove sleeping in the sun/ Of bluebells after rain,/ The waving corn at Miserden/ For harvest once again".

Yet there was also a vigorous contemporary protest, given substance by a bunch of leeks, from a vegetable gardener whose allotment is about to be taken for new houses; and at one end of the hall, ranged across the steps of the stage like tombstones, stood several rows of frames blank except for terse messages of rejection from people who had declined to take part. These, printed up by Donald in a deliberate attempt to provoke, told their own story: "This is a private house"... "They're ruining the village"... "Bugger off"... "You're wasting our time: we could be playing bingo".

The only sad fact about the show was its ephemeral nature: after two days the portraits were taken down and returned to their makers. However, the project was voted a phenomenal success, for it had brought neighbouring communities together in a way that nobody had anticipated - and it also released ideas and emotions which the artists themselves are normally too shy to communicate.