Country Matters on Booksquawk
by John Lewis-Stempel
304 pages, Black Swan
*Review of the audio version, read by David Thorpe*
Review by Pat Black
It’s a hard life being a farmer, but you would never know it from reading Meadowland. John Lewis-Stempel’s year-in-the-life of his own field makes it sound like a dream, a fantasy of a life lived close to the land.
Following a full calendar year from January-December, the author follows in the footsteps of thousands of years’ worth of farmer-poets, and quotes liberally from many of them as he examines English national history through the prism of one square field.
The book is subtitled The Private Life of an English Field - but it’s almost a Welsh field, a mile or so away from the border in Herefordshire, in lee of the Black Hills. Isn’t there something about that name? The Black Hills.
Lewis-Stempel examines every creature that passes through his domain, whether furred, feathered, scaled or wriggling. He also looks at the land itself, the people who work on it, and – crucially – write about it. I loved one statistic about the staggering number of earthworms there are beneath us, and how they help sustain even the biggest predators in Britain, such as the fox and badger.
The practise of Wassailing was new to me, but it sounded like my kind of party – hallooing, gathering round a big fire, and getting plenty of cider down you. I think we used to have something similar back on my home estate, a thousand years ago, though presumably with more drugs and violence.
Lewis-Stempel is open about shooting for the pot, and is keenly aware of the tension between someone who loves and observes the land and its creatures, and our powerful need to consume them. He has clear demarcations between what he can and can’t shoot. He says he may be the only person in the world to have taken part in a hunt on horseback, and also been a hunt saboteur. His quotes from Blake on the price that may ultimately be paid for taking the life of any creature are a chilling counterpoint to his bluff, benevolent prose.
The book is not without incident and farce. One chilling moment strikes when Lewis-Stempel fears that his little daughter has been eaten by pigs, but is instead cuddled in with them under the sun. There’s an even stranger part during Midsummer Night, when some of the animals in his barn are taken by some unknowable impulse to stage their own ritual dance.
Lewis-Stempel rarely passes up a chance to anthropomorphise the creatures of his field, but he also mounts a robust defence of this practise. Are we not all beasts? He asks. And are animals incapable of feeling anything beyond brute sensation? There’s lots of evidence to show that they are. If we exclude the idea that animals cannot have any sensations or experiences, which is plainly false, then surely these sensations have an equivalent in our cognition, if not an exact replica?
There’s plenty of compassion for the critters under his control – the death of a prize cow comes across as particularly sad, near the end, though it did kind of remind me of that scene in Me, Myself And Irene where Jim Carrey’s character tries to put a similar beast out of its misery. I was moved by the moments when he uncovers tiny baby voles, and makes an attempt to cover them – or comes across the gory handiwork of the beautiful raptors he’s been admiring moments beforehand as they swoop overhead.
My favourite part, though, was where Lewis-Stempel’s tractor suffers a broken blade. Seeing an opportunity, he sharpens an ancient scythe, and mows his meadow old-style. He didn’t have to explain the kind of hell this would wreak on one’s back, but it’s a game effort by the man. He rails against incursions by modern technology, and hits out at some tractor cabs having computers and heaters inside, helping to place the man at one more remove from his ancient duties on the land.
Ach, I dunno about that. It sounds the business to me – feet up, rolling up and down the field, listening to the dawn chorus, watching the sky swallow the stars.
Meadowland is a delight, and I can’t tell you how much it cheered me up on the commute to and from work, hemmed in by concrete, chrome and arseholes, as my car continues to fart toxins into the air twice a day and hasten our collective demise. Meadowland is an idyll, but it’s nice to think about a better, more wholesome life, even if it’s no more than a fantasy existing in my own head. This book won loads of awards, and I can see why. As part of the modern canon of British nature writing, there are few books to match it.