Sunday, 26 April 2009

The Brensham Trilogy by John Moore

John Moore (1907-1967) was a writer who carried the concept of a sense of place to greater heights than perhaps any other in the English language. In his Brensham Trilogy (Portrait of Embury, Brensham Village and The Blue Field) published just after the Second World War, in which he served in the Fleet Air Arm, it is not so much that one is overwhelmed by a strong sense of place as that the place becomes the major character in the story.

Just as Benson's Tilling is a thinly disguised Rye, so Moore's locale is a thinly disguised Tewkesbury, where he spent much of his early life as his father ran an auctioneer's business there. The countryside provides the canvas onto which Moore splashes a whole series of rural characters, and it is their doings, mundane enough in themselves, which form the stuff of the books. Moore is clearly deeply in love with the traditional English countryside, but while his view is unashamedly nostalgic it is also fiercely honest. Many of the local population have no steady employment, and are engaged in an enduring struggle for survival as agricultural odd job men, able to turn their hands to harvesting, working with livestock, hedging or ditching according to the time of year. Weather conditions can be extreme, and creature comforts, other than the occasional pint of beer in the pub, almost non-existent.

Moore depicts a Brensham that is England in microcosm, starting in the Edwardian era and ending after the Second World War. The young men of the point to pointing set join the Yeomanry in 1914 and go off to get slaughtered in France. Their sons do the same thing in 1939, while the few survivors of their fathers' generation form the Home Guard and get ready to repel invaders with knives tied onto broom handles. Without him having to make it explicit, we realise that what we are seeing are scenes that are being played out all over Britain.

It is like watching a television documentary of day to day events unfolding through history, yet without any clear sense of exactly which period relates to which event, a sense that is made stronger by the narrative sometimes jumping around chronologically. This has a secondary purpose as well, since what Moore is showing is that there is a common historical thread running through any rural location. There is constant reference to Shakespeare, the town's three main scoundrels (who nonetheless band together to do their patriotic duty every time war breaks out) are called Nym, Bardolph and Pistol, and fittingly there is an explicit enunciation of this idea right at the end of the last book, when the sons of a man about whom there was little good to say struggle to find words to put on his tombstone. Eventually they decide on "said to be a descendant of the poet Shakespeare".

It is difficult to know exactly how to describe the Brensham Trilogy. In one sense they are not really novels at all, or at least do not read like conventional novels. They are a blend of travel book, memoir, local history and social comment. Yet Moore's love for the countryside and the life of its people is a constant which permeates every page. The dreaded Syndicate, for example, who are forever schemeing to evict people from their homes, come in for rough treatment. So, I will not attempt to analyse it any further. I will simply say that it is one of the most touching and affecting books that I have read for some time, and that reading it one is instantly transported both in time and space. Whenever I look at it on my bookshelves I will smell wet mud and hear the sound of soldiers singing as they march off to war, or perhaps the click of leather on willow as another cricket season gets under way on the village green.

This type of writing was once very popular. Particularly successful examples were A.J. Massingham and W.H. Hudson. However, whereas they portray the countryside, Moore tells a story, albeit the story chiefly of the countryside, and that is an important difference. He is perhaps similar in style to Compton Mackenzie, whom he knew, and to whom the last volume is dedicated. The first, incidentally, is dedicated to the poet Eric Linklater, from one of whose poems an extract runs through the book like a leitmotiv:

Soldiers and guns! Soldiers and guns!
These for your daughters and these for your sons!
What if your children be comely or tall?
When soldiers and guns come, down will they fall.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Years and years ago I read the trilogy. Now I can't find them.
Pursewarden? Is that not the fellow in the Alexandrian whatyoumaycalit? Anyway, I was looking for an online bootleg.