5 February 1999

Gripping tale of hard times tells it like it is

MYTHS about the countryside flourish among people who do not live there.

Some still imagine a place where every cottage is thatched and smiling, rosy-cheeked labourers sleep in hedges. Others a place full of fat-cat barley barons counting their millions. But anyone who wants to know what rural Britain is really like should read this book*.

This is fiction, telling it like it is. A tale of the real, post-BSE countryside. The place where farmers are deeply in debt and lead hard, lonely lives.

The setting is Dartmoor and Jane Reeves is struggling against the elements and against poverty. The elements, she can cope with; it is the debts that threaten her survival. Money is owed to the bank, the mill, the vet and the phone company. "She prays, Hold on, let no one die of BSE in the next 10 years. The crisis is fading."

She sells the chattels and wonders of the salegoers: "Maybe because debt is a disease they all fight themselves, every day of the week, Sundays as well, there is no such thing as a day off from it."

Eventually she grapples with the age-old question: Should I sell part of the farm in order to keep the rest? And the answer seems easier when Chris Gilbey appears, wanting to buy some land. "She tells herself the fight is over, she wont have to panic about money, any more, ever." He only wants a little, just somewhere to live. It should be simple. But Chris Gilbey is not the man he seems.

For a lot of farmers, this story will ring frighteningly true. So if you like your reading to be a form of escapism, this is not for you. Stick to John Grisham or Michael Crichton. But if you want some gritty realism, want to read one of the best descriptions of Devon ever written and get a gripping page-turning read to boot, then this is well worth a look.

In an age when ignorance of the countryside is still rife, it should be put on the A-level syllabus. It would not hurt to make it compulsory reading for Cabinet ministers, either. TR

*The Lie of the Land, by Sam North. Secker & Warburg (£9.99).

Finding the muse in fields of poetry

FIELDS in their many shapes, sizes and complexions have inspired poets for centuries.

More than 90 examples have been assembled in an anthology based on the impressions of authors from different backgrounds and how some of them were moved deeply by their personal affinity with individual fields, their history and seasonal beauty.

It is a pity that biased publishers use their preface and forword as a platform to rail against modern farming methods and the field enlargement needed by many lowland crop growers just to stay in business. A few poems extolling the sweep and unimpeded grand vistas of open downland, which has never been enclosed, would not have come amiss in an otherwise very readable anthology. HPH

*Field Days, edited by Angela King and Susan Clifford for Common Ground, from Green Books, Foxhole, Dartington, Totnes, Devon TQ9 6EB (£8.95).

Lakes film offers glimpse of past

FILM clips taken in colour by two enthusiastic amateurs in the 1940s and 1950s, in remarkably good weather, plus black-and-white footage from the 1930s, have been edited together into a nostalgic 55-minute video* about the Lake District.

The result is bitty but that will not detract from its appeal to those who climbed the fells or just enjoyed relaxing amid Lakeland scenery, before widespread car ownership brought its inevitable congestion.

Nostalgia is reinforced by shots of hand-clipping of local Herdwick and Swaledale sheep, climbers in flat caps and plus-fours and cars and motorbikes – the survivors now in valuable vintage category – labouring over the Lakeland passes.

The grandeur of the often rain-drenched hills, at least, remains untouched and unsullied by our increasingly mobile society. HPH

*The Lake District in the Past, narrated by W R Mitchell from Kingfisher, Dalesmade Centre, Watershed Mill, Settle, North Yorks (£12.95 inc p&p).

Comb this guide for the mysteries of the beehive

BEES fascinate people. They are a strange mixture of mystery, industry and danger, and while a hive of them is a sophisticated and efficient colony, the idea of actually managing one can be quite daunting.

Which is where Clive de Bruyn comes in. He is a full-time bee-keeper of long standing, who has studied bees throughout the world. He is one of the worlds foremost experts on the subject and has lectured on bee-keeping for many years. His book* will prove a significant reference for years to come.

Avoiding reader indigestion was his aim. He was anxious to present facts so they could be quickly discovered and easily absorbed. He has achieved just that in a way in which both beginners and experienced bee-keepers will appreciate.

And they can have their say, too, for the author invites questions and comments and gives his address. AR

*Practical Beekeeping, by Clive de Bruyn, The Crowood Press (24.95).



EXCHANGING a pair of trousers in a well-known chain store the other day, I recalled the wedding suit that was tailored for my husband in Uganda.

"It doesnt fit him," I protested to the tailor.

"That is his fault," came the sulky reply. "He is the wrong shape."

Fortunately that experience was not typical and we made many satisfactory purchases dealing direct with local craftsmen, many of whom sat by the side of the road with their wares and dealt strictly in cash. In the bigger retail outlets we soon found that quite large discounts could be expected on luxury objects such as cameras. There was then a sliding scale down through electrical goods, soft furnishings, general housewares and cars. Alas, it was difficult to gauge whether you had got 2% more discount than you were due, or whether the price had been raised to make you think you had!

But it was in the small "dukas" and markets that bargaining was keenest, and buying a basket of fruit and vegetables was quite a lengthy process with alternating insults and compliments passing between buyer and vendor as they haggled over the price. Having bought your bananas and pineapple you probably had to move to another stall for your paw-paws and okra because each stallholder brought produce in daily from his own "shamba".

Fortunately my housegirl enjoyed regular forays to the shores of Lake Victoria, where she bought freshly caught tilapia very cheaply from the returning fishing boats.

Sales were conducted differently on the research station where we lived after our marriage. The station had its own beef and dairy herds and payment for milk and beef was deducted from my husbands salary. The milk came straight from the cows, delivered to the door in unsealed bottles. A large pan stood by the back door and the milkman emptied the milk into it, taking away the bottles for the next days delivery. The milk was then boiled and the thick head of cream skimmed off.

Our neighbour was surprised to find tadpoles swimming in the milk one morning. The delivery boy had taken a long drink from one of her bottles and had topped up the bottle with water from the swamp.

Fairly regularly a bullock was slaughtered and in the absence of a butcher would be skinned and roughly chopped. We usually got about 5lb of meat that could be anything from rump steak to dogmeat. Whatever was in the parcel the price did not vary. Arriving in blood-stained newspaper, the meat did not greatly stir ones culinary instincts. It usually ended up as stew or mince. Sometimes the parcel included a lump of suet – and dumplings were a welcome treat.

Being far from the lake, I missed the tilapia, but quite frequently a fisherman would come on to the station with an enormous Nile perch. This he would throw down on a tree stump prior to hacking off shilling portions.

We still possess some of the straight-sided, round aluminium cooking pots that were sold by weight. I bought a 12in "sufuria" to make a friends wedding cake and we had a very large one for a safari bath.

There was one point of sale we would happily have done without – a certain back-street "go-down" where on a Sunday morning you could buy back the wheels (minus their tyres) that had been stolen from your car while you were in the cinema on Saturday evening.

Shirley Brown

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