Brensham Village by John Moore

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Reviewed by Simon

Brensham Village, the latest volume from the Slightly Foxed Editions series that I love so dearly, is a sort of sequel to Portrait of Elmbury, also published by Slightly Foxed – indeed, it is apparently the middle of a trilogy. I have yet to read Portrait of Elmbury, so let me put your mind at ease from the outset: this is a straightforward delight that requires no familiarity with the first memoir. First published in 1946, it must have been a wonderful antidote to years of war – and is equally welcome today.

Elmbury is a thinly-veiled version of Tewkesbury, in Gloucestershire – which is, incidentally, about five miles from where I grew up. Moore claimed that Brensham was a ‘synthesis’ of various villages in the local area, though I don’t quite see how he could have known more than one village as intimately as he appears to know Brensham. In the book itself, Brensham is firmly one village, with a cast of characters Moore knows through and through – and the opening paragraph sets the rural tone:

Almost every morning of their lives the weather-wise people of Elmbury lift up their eyes to glance at Brensham Hill which rises solitary out of the vale, four miles away as the crow flies. According to its clearness or mistiness they make their prognosis of the day; taking into account, of course, the season of the year, the direction of the wind, and the rheumaticky pains in their backs, their legs or their elbows. It is supposed to be a bad sign – in summer at any rate – to see Brensham Hill very plainly. If you can make out the jigsaw pattern of pasture and ploughing, stone wall and hedgerow, quarry and cart-track, furze-patch and bramble-patch, and identify the stone tower atop which is called Brensham Folly, ‘twill rain like as not before evening. If the hill appears as a vague grey-green shape, with the larch plantations showing as faint shadows like craters on the moon, you can get on with your haymaking, for it’s going to be fine. But if you cannot see Brensham Hill at all, if the clouds are right down on its seven-hundred-foot summit, then you recollect the old rhyme:

When Brensham Hill puts on his hat,
Men of the Vale, beware of that,
and you know you are in for a sousing.

Well, this introduction delighted me and won me over instantly – and not just for the affection for the countryside, and knowledge of it, that Moore evinces. What I mostly loved was that these words were still in use when I lived in a village at the foot of this hill, almost a century after the period Moore describes! The difference is that we call the hill by its actual name – Bredon Hill – but otherwise the old rhyme still stands. (I did wonder if it was a rhyme used all over the country, but ‘Men of the Vale, beware of that’ brings up only one location on Google.)

While Brensham Folly is actually called Parson’s Folly – and is square, unlike the round one Moore describes – this is conclusively the place I grew up, and makes me think that Brensham must be Bredon, the village next to the one I lived in (Eckington). So, yes, this book means something special to me – but one needn’t know the area to fall in love with the world Moore describes.

And that world is quite a small one. As a teenager, Moore apparently made Brensham his playing field. It surprises me that a townie would be welcomed into village life this much, but he describes life in the pubs, fields, and cricket team. I did wonder if he remained something of an outsider – he is a shadowy figure in his own memoir; in this volume, at least, we learn nothing of his parents, whether or not he had any brothers and sister, or even any close friends. Instead, he tells us about the local drunk who is generally genial but occasionally goes smashing windows; about the various pubs and their liked or disliked landlords; about the mad Lord who owns swathes of Brensham Hill but chooses to live in penury. Every character is fun and known in and out, but Moore still seems a bit like he is a visitor – not on the scale of the Oxford Group who descend briefly on the village, winning converts, baffling locals (and being rather cruelly treated in the narrative by Moore), but I seldom got the sense that the locals were watching Moore as observantly as he was watching them. Even while apparently sharing a darts board with him.

I always quite enjoy tales of traditionalists shocked by the new in a setting which, to us, is also part of the olde worlde, or at least an unquestioned part of everyday life. This grumble brought a smile to my face:

There has also, I am sure, since the first primitive hunter grew stiff in his joints, been a company of old men, past masters of their various sports and games, who have delighted to watch the young upstarts throwing the javelin, shooting the arrow, wrestling, boxing, footballing, cricketing, and to recollect how much better they did these things in their young days. But the emergence of a huge class of able-bodied people who actually prefer to watch other people playing the games which they could, if they liked, play themselves is a recent phenomenon. The young men who ‘follow’ football teams surely represent something new and something contemptible.

Moore is not, for the most part, a grumbler – though the faceless power of The Syndicate comes in for much local wrath, which Moore both reports and joins in with. But overall, Brensham Village is a paean to the sort of close-knit community, reliant on the weather and each other’s temperaments, that no longer exists. He doesn’t see it through rose-tinted spectacles – and, in the 1940s, it was not that far behind him – but, above all, with the heart of one who loves the rural in all its reality. For me, it is a glorious look back at a part of the world I know well – but, for any reader, it is another joy to add to Slightly Foxed Editions’ apparently endless reservoir of joy.

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Simon is one of the Shiny New Books editors, and has often climbed Bredon Hill in his time.

John Moore, Brensham Village (Slightly Foxed, 2016). 978-1906562885, 269pp., hardback.

BUY at Slightly Foxed direct.