Monday, 5 May 2014

The Changing English Village (Part 1)

History, at least in its state of ideal perfection, is a compound of poetry and philosophy. It impresses general truths on the mind by a vivid representation of particular characters and incidents.
– Thomas Babington Macaulay

Thirteen years after writing the biography of her father, Kathleen Ashby authored The Changing English Village: A History of Bledington, Gloucestershire in its Setting 1066-1914 – published by Gordon Norwood, at The Roundwood Press, in Kineton – an immensely detailed and objective work; and yet, at the same time, full of love and respect for the place she had made her home; and filled with the same heartfelt humanity as her earlier book. It is an ideal sequel, therefore; and, in some ways, is a perfect companion (offering a complementary perspective and yet similar sensibility) to Ernst Gombrich’s classic, A Little History of the World.

As the blurb on the dust-jacket says:

Miss Ashby’s book is the story of an English village through nine centuries; but it is more than this: it is the story of the ever-changing pattern of communal existence as reflected in the lives of the inhabitants of a typical parish of the English midlands. The name of the village is unimportant: what is important is the way in which the lives of its inhabitants are shaped by external changes…: Acts of Parliament, national movements, economic, religious and social, have moulded the lives of its inhabitants. Therefore – and this is the importance of the present work – it can be considered as the archetype of all English villages in its development through the centuries. Miss Ashby’s prose is compelling and eminently readable. Here is a book which all who are concerned with the future of rural England would do well to ponder, considering as they do so whether the English village community has come to the end of the road, and whether it will ever exist again as a separate entity.

It would be easy to imagine, from these descriptions, that this is quite a scholarly work – which, in many ways, it is: but any trend towards academe is buried deep beneath the ubiquitous fellow-feeling; and the immense amount of detail it contains therefore lies lightly – each fact being a small, solid, necessary brick that contributes equally to the solidity and beauty of the whole structure – simply serving its order as part of a wonderful travel through the chronicling of what could almost be, as described, any village in ‘middle England’ with deep roots in the past. Such as the three Tysoes, for example!

Kathleen Ashby makes a good wayfaring companion, as she explores Bledington’s relationship with its surroundings, its context, happenings elsewhere that have impact on it and its people, and their contribution to the wider world: putting you in their shoes (when they had any); enabling you to see their growing awareness and environment – cultural, religious, geopolitical – from their perspective, and with their mores. Wherever – and whenever – you open the book, little jewels emerge, small plums of delight; and it soon becomes apparent that, although Bledington is her great love, as a place (equally with Tysoe, where she grew up, I think…), it is England’s history – and that of its inhabitants – that she is narrating.

As Dr Joan Thirsk, then reader in Economic History at the University of Oxford, says in the book’s foreword:

While Miss Ashby writes about the past, she writes unwittingly about herself and her vision of the future…. So [her] history of her village cannot fail to cast brilliant shafts of illuminating understanding through the reflections and memories of every villager who reads her book. The problems of every village community are the same though the solutions vary…. Miss Ashby clearly owes her sharpened vision of this matter to her family and the village of Tysoe in which she was brought up… [and Bledington is a village] that is significantly not unlike Tysoe in its essential lineaments. It was a lordless community, master of itself.

She also sounds a topical warning note…

Our planners would be more wary if they read more history.

…a statement I can only concur with! And then finishes her foreword with typical foresight – which I hope, we, as a village, can continue to bring life to –

There is clearly no reason why the sense of community that pervaded life until the end of the seventeenth century, and the individualism that swept all before it in the eighteenth and nineteenth, should not be blended again into a new harmony in the twentieth or twenty-first century.

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