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Wednesday, 29 April 2020

Review: J Land Barbara Hammond, The Village Labourer 1760 - 1832

There is something to be said for old fashioned historical prose, the sort which was written before the university institutionalisation of History. This powerfully written book dates from 1911 and has been more or less continuously in print ever since. It’s very readable and, indeed, moving.

One of the small ironies of such old works is that even when Radical and of great potential interest to a self-educating reader, they nonetheless assume a knowledge of French and Latin (though never German) of which the reader may be ignorant. The very first four lines of this book are in French - a quotation from de Tocqueville. The great radical R H Tawney had the same habit as the Hammonds. They did not quite escape from the assumptions of their class.

The Hammonds have a very clear story line and argument, supported by extensive quotations from their primary sources among which they (interestingly) include novels of the period. The old English aristocratic ruling class comes out of it very badly, the Church of England very very badly: in 1810 a Bill to remove the death penalty for shoplifting items below the value of five shillings passed in the Commons but was rejected by the Lords, the Archbishop of Canterbury and six other Lords Spiritual - six bishops of the Church of England - lending their support to the rejection (page 204) - and that’s just for starters.

At various points I was struck by similarities to the way we provide today for the poor. Though we do now have a minimum wage - an idea familiar and sometimes acted upon as far back as the sixteenth century - we also have all those kinds of income support which in the  18th and 19th centuries helped keep down wages and made swathes of the population dependent on public relief to the advantage of employers and rent-receivers. The Speenhamland system may have gone but we still have its legacy, for example, in the willingness of governments to pay private rents for poor tenants, thus keeping up the level of rent in a way deemed very acceptable to landlords. That a better idea might be to build more homes is not one that we have often acted upon, though Harold Macmillan in the 1950s famously did.

Like many English people, I can trace lines of descent through the agricultural labourers of southern England who are centre stage in this book. Those labourers did leave a record in their certificates of birth, marriage, and death but in very little else apart from the names they passed on. I read this book to fill out the picture and found much more of interest than I had expected.

Tuesday, 7 April 2020

Review: Yrsa Daley-Ward, The Terrible

I read this book at one sitting (rare) and had no real quibbles (also rare). True, it’s not quite as big a read as its 208 pages might suggest - that’s because there is a lot of white space. I’m a fan of white space and don’t mind buying blank pages.

Daley-Ward chronicles a troubled (sometimes traumatic, sometimes chaotic)  Northern England black girl childhood and adolescence in deft, word-sparing sketches which sufficiently evoke character, milieu and feeling to make any more plodding framing (“I was born in … my mother …. my father ….) unnecessary. At no point did I feel lost in what are often quite complex relationships - her mother has three children by three men, for example. This suggests to me that Daley-Ward has deployed a lot of craft skill in shaping her material and a lot of thought in keeping a firm hold on a main narrative thread. She knows what she is doing and it isn’t splurging. (The question whether some of it is poetry rather than prose or vice versa does not interest me, though I see that other reviewers discuss the question).

Daley-Ward sustains that thread from birth to eighteen, often using her precise age as an anchor point. This takes her to page 107 at which point I suspect many writers would have stopped and said, That’s it; done my childhood. At no point did I feel she was using her prose to illustrate some general truth, nor did it feel as if she was writing with the baleful gaze of hindsight and the disapproval of adult judgement. No one really gets hit over the head with an imported adjective; Daley-Ward simply tries to express how she felt about her life and people in her life, sometimes in everyday terms, sometimes more poetically. Both ways, she carries the reader (this reader) along with her.

The bold decision was to continue beyond the age of eighteen and into the fairly recent past (she was born in 1989 so still not thirty when this book was published in 2018). This continuation is written very frankly (to her credit) and my quibble would be to say that when your life is in a messy period it’s hard to give it much narrative shape; there is just a succession of things which happen. You hook up with this person and then move on to the next; you drink and then you take drugs and back round again; you do sex work and then modelling or vice versa. And you live to tell the tale ( those who don’t live simply don’t tell their tale).

The book was awarded the PEN Ackerley prize in 2019, a prize which is given to a British literary autobiography published in the previous year - and with quite a bit of emphasis on the literary; ghost written celebrity memoirs don’t qualify for consideration. Though I haven’t read the other two shortlisted autobiographies, I think this one clearly meets the standard expected for that prize. It sits comfortably alongside Amy Liptrot's The Outrun which won  in 2016 and which also has religious fundamentalism and alcohol as prominent themes. The two books could be read together in a book group; Liptrot is white, grew up in Orkney and was in her early thirties when she wrote her book.

My own memoir I Have Done This In Secret was called in by the judges for the same longlist of twenty six from which Daley-Ward emerged the winner and I would of course be very happy if you read that memoir too. But do read this one first.