ABIGAIL HART”s book group is discussing the merits of the Charles Dickens classic, Hard Times.
“The title is quite appropriate considering there are dairy farmers among us!” quips Diane Clements as she opens the discussion.
Diane, who is a dairy farmer and a part-time estate agent, is not ashamed to admit that she found the book heavy going.
She is a busy woman who only finds the time to read at bedtime. This book had her falling asleep beyond half a dozen pages.
Today it is Doris Howells” turn to host the group of 11 women and she has pulled out all the stops to make this an enjoyable gathering. The lunch table is beautifully set, the wine chilled and a board of local cheeses is on the dessert menu.
Preparing a meal and discussing a book can be a taxing combination, but Doris knows there will be 10 occasions during the year when she can enjoy a lunch cooked by someone else.
Groups like this are enjoying a renaissance across rural Britain but the concept has been around for years. The Didsbury reading group in the north of England recently celebrated its 30th anniversary and is reckoned to be the oldest in the country.
Generally, all-women groups are more common but husbands and partners are getting in on the act by sharing the books.
Some groups regard themselves as highbrow while others adopt a less challenging approach. “It is a great opportunity to catch up on the gossip,” confesses Diane.
“You could say that 80% of the meeting is social and 20% is about the book but we do try! We all make a huge effort to read the book because we don”t want to be picked on.”
The book they are discussing today is no lightweight read but a testing tome specifically chosen to stretch the members beyond their reading material of choice. It has taken them two meetings to discuss this particular book because they felt they had not done it justice at the last gathering.
Oddly, it is often the books that the group enjoys the least that provoke the liveliest discussion.
After a year of selecting books on a rota system, the group has adopted a more formal system, choosing books in different genre, be it fantasy, foreign fiction and even erotica.
“We were very keen to broaden our reading material,” says Abigail Hart. She is married to Countryside Alliance chief executive, Simon Hart, and formed this group in Pembrokeshire after returning to live in the county. “
I was waiting for someone to ask me to join their group but nobody did so I formed my own!” she laughs.
Friendship, a desire to meet for stimulating discussion and a common link of fox hunting brought these 11 women together. This group has young mothers and grandmothers; they all live in the countryside but they come from different backgrounds.
What is obvious is that membership of these often eclectic book clubs is jealously guarded. Some have lengthy waiting lists of people keen to join. The reasons they are denied membership are often practical ones.
“If there were any more than 11 in the group discussion would be difficult. The more vocal members would put their points forward and if there were too many of us the others wouldn”t get a chance to contribute,” says Diane.
“Besides that, most of us would struggle to get everyone around the lunch table!”
Diversity is very evident in Jo Doran”s book group, also based in Pembrokeshire. There are eight members including a physiotherapist, a former film director, a journalist and a speech therapist.
Three of the members have farming backgrounds including Julia Ritchie, who was brought up on her family”s farm near Milford Haven. She is the speech therapist and returned to her countryside roots after 32 years of urban living in the south east of England.
Julia has a busy social life and her work brings her into contact with many stimulating people. But rural life can be very isolating for some, she suggests.
One of the first books she read as a member of the book group was Doris Lessing”s “The Grass is Singing”, a powerful story of a woman who marries a farmer and leaves the town to live on an isolated farm in Africa
The book held particular resonance for Julia. “I had just returned to my roots and rural culture, I was discovering Welshness again,” she says.
Reading books from different cultures is, she believes, important to overcoming the sometimes lack of cultural diversity in the countryside.
Book groups also encourage members to work as a team, another valuable aspect for farmers, she suggests. “Farmers are very independent and very capable but can lack experience of working as a team. A book group encourages you to listen and contribute to the discussion and respect the views of others. You have to think beyond the obvious.”