For my ninth birthday my parents gave me a copy of a book called Lark Rise to Candleford. It was written by an English woman called Flora Thompson, and was first published in 1945.
“I’d like to read this out loud to you in the evenings,” said my mother,” but I know it’s going to make me cry.”
She was right – as far as I remember, she read most of the book to me with tears pouring down her face.
What was the book about? Lark Rise to Candleford is a collection of three volumes of Flora Thompson’s memories of rural England in the late 1800s. The first book is the most well known, and describes Flora Thompson’s childhood in a little village in Oxfordshire. It was a world that was about to disappear; the arrival of modern agriculture, and new technologies broke up the community, and it seems that the inhabitants gradually died, or moved away to towns and cities. The final book concludes with Flora returning to her village after many years, and finding that nothing is left but a ploughed field.
In the earlier chapters, she describes a childhood spent mostly outdoors, in a countryside full of birds, animals and wild flowers. The children still played traditional country games, and in the evenings the men in the village pub amused themselves by singing old ballads.
The tone is overwhelmingly nostalgic – no wonder my mother cried. I was left with the impression that something incalculably precious had once existed, and had now been lost. Although we now have many things that our great grandparents, and great great grandparents did not, and can do many things that used to be impossible, it seems to me, that no one is free from a sense of nostalgia for the world that has passed away.
Growing up in England it was very hard to see any traces of that traditional way of life. Cottages had vanished, old farming techniques were no longer practised, old crafts had died out, and any sense of traditions being passed from one generation to the next had almost evaporated. Moreover, in the countyside where I lived, wild flowers were almost non-existent, and the number of birds, butterflies and insects decreased every year.
When I was 13 I moved with my family to Brittany, in France. Here too, as in most of the UK, and indeed many parts of the world, the traditional way of life had been almost completely washed away – but not quite. The Industrial/Agricultural Revolution came late to Brittany, and my new neighbours were old people in their late 70s and 80s, who had grown up in tiny cottages with dirt floors, and no running water or electricity. They had farmed with horses, or in some cases a hand-driven plough, and had seen their grandmothers spinning wool, linen and hemp. In their childhoods all farming had been “organic” – there was no other sort – and sustainable and small-scale. There was essentially no pollution, and although the land was not “wild”, but carefully managed, the system allowed local species to flourish.
These old people had seen the same changes as the Flora Thompson's generation, and they too were overwhelmingly nostalgic about the world they had grown up in. Tragically, it was often they themselves who had helped in its destruction. Under pressure from the government, neighbours, and family, and lured on by the promise of undreamt of wealth, they had destroyed the legacy left to them by the generations before. Trees were felled in tens of thousands, little fields were amalgamated into one and rivers and springs (Brittany is a land of springs) were polluted. Old tools and furniture were hacked up and burnt for firewood, and cottages were left to grow over with brambles and finally collapse. This process of modernisation meant that people suddenly had enough money to be able to afford new, modern houses, cars, healthcare, holidays, and also new tools and farming equipment capable of doing in a few hours what would once have taken many days.
Almost all my old neighbours still praised and took delight in the new luxuries, but the fact remained that their sense of nostalgia for the past was so intense that they would sometimes start to weep.
“Never have we been so happy as when we used to help each other at the harvest,” said one old man. “We used to sing and dance, when the work was done. There is nothing like that now.” This same man is a well-known traditional singer at local fetes and celebrations, but I remember quite well hearing him say those words – he just seemed so sad.
An old lady who was in her nineties, and who was an exceptionally cheerful, lively person, used to speak of the past with a sort of bewilderment – I don’t think she could quite understand why everything she remembered, and liked, had had to pass away.
“We were poor, but we had so much,” she would insist, “no, the work was not hard at all (threshing buckwheat by hand with wooden flails – she herself was very small) – we all had so much fun. Back then things were as they should be – families lived together, children with their parents – and mothers – ah, they really were mothers.”
What did she mean? I don’t quite know, but I loved to hear her talk.
Having the opportunity to meet these old people strengthened the impression made by Flora Thompson’s Lark Rise to Candleford. To me there is something very essential missing from the modern way of life: Being really reliant on the land around us, and clearly seeing the need to work with the people around us, in order to survive on that land; and the sense of honest satisfaction that comes from making or doing what one needs for oneself, instead of being reliant on industries, factories and an army of unknown, unseen individuals.
Even if I can’t bring back the unspoilt world that used to exist, I have found that if I do something to address these two fundamental needs, my sense of nostalgia is alleviated. I certainly don’t want to learn to live with nostalgia – it isn’t healthy, nor is it satisfactory. If everything in the way I live is just right, but I feel an aching sense of loss when I see an old black and white photograph, or an idyllic painting of rural life, then something, somewhere is wrong.
The day I can look the old photograph in the face, and say to myself, your clothes were different, and the world in which you lived was different, but your needs are my needs and your struggle to meet those needs is the same struggle as mine – that is the day when something, somewhere, has been put right.
Bethan Lewis lives and works in Brittany, France. She has recently illustrated and helped produce An Introduction to Twenty-First Century Hoe-Farming –An Antidote to Globalisation, by Gareth Lewis. Available direct from the publisher at www.hoe-farming.com. Over 100 illustrations and diagrams, including 35 full-page descriptive cartoons. 100 pages. A4. 10€ + 5€ postage and packing.