August 21, 2007

Palin Into Insignificance

It's said the past is another country; well, they have different cliches, for a start, but that's a cheap gag that risks undermining one of mine host's fundamental themes: that we are mistaken if we try to understand the past solely through modern frames of reference. I'm dipping in and out of Michael Palin's diaries at the moment, and this idea comes through clearly. Take this entry, for almost exactly thirty-one years ago:

The day drags on - the unions are asked to work until eight. Much muttering and sounding. They seem to agree, but no-one can have asked the electricians, who, at seven, pull the plugs out and that's it for the day.
This describes events within my lifetime, and yet after two decades of, first, Thatcherite hostility to organised labour and, subsequently, a refusal to reverse this legacy on the part of an administration that never quite rid itself entirely of the word 'labour', it seems far-fetched to imagined such power on the part of the unions.

In my previous foray as a guest poster, I cited a passage of rustic mysticism, or if you prefer, mystic rusticism, but played hard-to-get with the identity of the author. This seems an opportune moment to out him: it was G. Bramwell Evens, perhaps better known as Romany of the BBC. A little like Somerset Maugham's illiterate verger, if it hadn't been for Evens popularising nature broadcasting, then David Attenborough would have remained most famous for being head of BBC2... Yet I never knew him from his broadcasts, it was reading his books as a child that awakened in me a love for nature. When I was camping in the Yorkshire Dales some months ago, lying in the tent listening to the curlews, it was Romany I thought of. I then found my parents still had the books, and re-reading them showed me that all the natural lore I have - and I'm a city boy at heart - I gleaned from their pages: how the kingfisher builds its nest, why some birds hop while others walk, why some mammals are born naked and blind, whereas others can run within minutes.

But to my now more mature eyes, the theme I opened with also came shining through. Just as my fellow guest poster James Hamilton seems to derive at least as much interest from the incidental detail of the Mitchell and Kenyon films as from their ostensible subject, re-reading Evens' books revealed to me traces of a world long gone. In places, Evens was consciously describing a way of life under threat - he has stout yeoman farmers bemoaning the increased mechanisation of agriculture, and the toll exacted on the variety of wildlife - no such thing as biodiversity in the 1920s - as a result. And yet he is hard-headed enough to also mention the impact on the rural labour force. But elsewhere it is the passing details that contain a wealth of social information.

John Fell - and I defy you to come up with a more solidly English countryman's name - the gamekeeper casually mentions that he will need to keep an eye on a lurcher he spies tethered outside a pub. I live in the Calder Valley, there's no shortage of lurchers around here; indeed, if I didn't have cats, I would like one myself - they have the intelligence and hardiness of cross-breeds. But in the 1930s an enterprising countryman could use a net, a ferret and a lurcher to catch a few rabbits, if he was so inclined, and given the economic conditions, that might not have been so unlikely: that would be a working dog, not a pet. It would be one of the gamekeeper's tasks to make sure that inclination was curbed. Of course, the same three ingredients could do the same for you today, were you inclined to ignore the hunting with dogs act.

Ah yes, hunting; It is a mistake to think that Evens was paving the way for the Countryside Alliance as well as for Mr Attenborough: he is scathing throughout about hunters, as are the rural companions he wanders with: there is a moving passage where he and an angling friend mutely witness the gory denouement of an otter hunt, and the hunt follower's final words "It's been a great day's sport" need no gloss from the narrator to emphasise their hollowness.

Evens could claim to be a genuine Romany on his mother's side, but he himself was clearly a man of letters, which is not a trait so often associated with the popular image of travellers. His persona is that of the city man taking a break from the pressures of urban life - so the past is not so different after all? - with his favourite acquaintances in the countryside. However, his persona is not fixed: in his first book - A Romany in the Country - his country knowledge rivals that of the poacher, the gamekeeper and the farmers with whom he spends his time - he shows them, for instance, how the lapwings eggs are tapered, so that they form a smaller circle with the points faced in, allowing the mother's heat to be better distributed over the clutch.

In later books, his knowledge is downplayed, and he plays the role of Watson to the countrymen's Holmes. Like Conan Doyle realised, or indeed like Jack Aubrey patiently teaching Stephen Maturin the ropes, this mechanism is a much less forced way of imparting knowledge to the reader without sounding overly didactic. Mind you, the final iteration of the books sees a further change in format, whereby the chapters focus on a particular animal or bird as opposed to the insights of a particular character, and it is once again Romany in the role of sage, this time with a young companion to whom he teaches natural history. If ever proof were needed this was a more innocent age, at least as far as the public sphere was concerned, could you imagine a series now which threw together an older man with a young boy?

A final piece of the jigsaw falls into place when we learn what else Evens did apart from his nature broadcasts and writings: he was a methodist preacher. Even first time around, I remember wondering why Jerry the Poacher should be apologising for his "I'm d-----"s [sic] to the narrator, and assuming that the latter was just, well, priggish. There is a distinct subtext of the divine underlying the books, amd the narrator will occasionally make this explicit by re-rendering what other characters call mother nature. And yet, despite this fairly explicit religious undertone, Evens is a fervent supporter of evolution - there is even a discussion of how various birds, especially finches, developed their different beaks, which I find it hard to believe is not in deliberate tribute to Darwin's descriptions of the Galapago Finches' specialities. In these days of devotees of Intelligent Design, we might do well to remember not all religious people are deaf and blind to scientific methodology.

The Romany books are a rich and multi-layered series - I enjoyed reading them as much this year as I had twenty-five years or so ago, when they were already fifty or sixty years old. As I wrote at Nourishing Obscurity, Evens can turn a phrase; to that I would add he knows his natural history, and if you have even a passing interest in social history, then the books are a must: in one chapter, his invocation of the Lord as the ultimate insurance policy serves as corroboration for Brian Cathcart's report stating that free DVDs with your daily paper are nothing very new, just the modern incarnation of bribes to readers that pre-war took the form of free insurance; but the passing detail I enjoyed the most was the discovery that filling stations in the 20s used to advertise "No Bolshevik petrol" (presumably there'd be no red diesel, either). There is much talk of parallels between the Cold War and the supposed War on Terror, but I think that this is one ideological slogan we shan't be seeing any analogue of any time soon.


Gracchi said...

Fascinating piece about a fascinating man to be honest I now want to get hold of the books. I had never actually come across him- I am a great fan of Attenborough who is a wonderful film maker and some of his serieses are just amazing but this was an eye opener for me as well I have to say so thanks very much.