by Ian Niall (Little Toller Books)
Review by Rebecca Harvey
“What a bare desert of a place the world would be without its woods and trees” writes Ian Niall. And what a colourful, eye-opening place it can become with writers who take the time to look at those woods and trees again, look at the creatures that they shelter and the birds that they house.
Ian Niall is the pen name of predominantly rural writer John McNeillie (1916-2002), who wrote over 40 books (including Wigtown Ploughman: Part of his Life and The Poacher’s Handbook), contributed to The Spectator, had a column in Country Life (‘A countryman’s Notes’, which ran for 40 years) and edited the fishing monthly Angling magazine. He was born in Old Kilpatrick, North West of Glasgow, but spent many years of his childhood in the care of his grandparents at North Clutag Farm in a far-flung corner of South West Galloway – and it was here in this other-time place that his love of nature flourished, here that he climbed trees, collected eggs, stalked, scrambled, poached, shot.
This place, the people, the woods and the fields stayed with him into adulthood in North Wales, and informed most of his subsequent work, including the highly elegiac Fresh Woods (1951) and Pastures New (1952). This year, these two volumes have been printed as one by Little Toller Books (an imprint of Dorset-based Dovecote Press), which republishes classics of British nature writing and rural life; Niall sits happily alongside works by Richard Mabey, Edward Thomas, Claire Leighton and W.H. Hudson, companions in vision and understanding of the natural world.
The title is taken from the final moments of Milton’s Lycidas, a lament for a drowned friend (And now the Sun had stretch’d out all the hills / And now was dropt into the Western bay; /At last he rose, and twitch’d his Mantle blew: / Tomorrow to fresh Woods, and Pastures new), and from the opening pages, Niall issues forth similarly lilting, lyrical lines that beckon you onwards. He leads you through these woods and trees by cajolement and encouragement, instructing you onwards by command (“Come with me now”; “Come to the High Wood”; “Stand still”; “Look into the wood now”; “Step lively”), enticing you (“I want to take you stalking a hare”), almost daring you (“Come with me […] if you are not afraid of a dish of mushrooms that were picked in a wood…”). He takes you to places named for their appearance and their use, teaches you to look at space and time measured relative to other aspects of a place (“…stunted bracken, no higher than a rabbit on his hind legs”).
The world of his childhood has long since passed, as have the characters that inhabit it. There’s no nostalgic sepia or rose-tinted memories here though; He rambles from creature to bird, season to anecdote, in much the same way a walker would pass steadily from field to field, but the writing remains sure and vivid, the colours and textures are tactile. “All my life” he writes at one point, “I have felt a happiness when looking towards the west. […] The sun may rise and fill the east with reds and gold, but what loveliness there is when one looks with the light, seeing it touch the tops of sleeping trees, brightening the last clouds of night.” These visions are accompanied by stunning woodcuts created by Barbara Greg (1900-1983), with whom he had previously collaborated to create the illustrations for The Poacher’s Handbook. Her black and white graphics serve to highlight Niall’s descriptions, making you look at birds and animals, who you may already know well, with new eyes, drawing your attention to a particular detail or marking.
There is beauty in both the descriptions and the described – but this never falls into sentimentality. Some writers use the natural world, or the idea of wilderness, as a salve for the wounds caused by too much time spent in towns and cities. There is no such beautification here. Life is joyful, and festering death is sad, but both are treated with equal respect in his observations: old nests are left to “moulder”; the clever crow is reduced to “a stinking corpse”; the stoat is “clinging there at the back of the rabbit’s neck, taking its life in greedy gulps that stain his mouth crimson”. Nowhere is this demonstrated more than in his anecdote about trying to save two young chaffinches who were shuffled out of their nest by two others in high wind. “Again it happened, and again I continued to put them back.” Eventually he “restored them to the nest and hurried away […] The following day I passed by the tree. Two dead fledglings lay on the grass. Two live ones sat snugly in the nest. The weak had gone to the wall; I sighed and went away. Nature made itself and preserved the balance.”
This volume is introduced by Niall’s son, Andrew McNeillie, another highly respected poet and author, whose literary magazine ARCHIPELAGO is preoccupied with “landscape, with documentary and remembrance…”, and whose own publishing house (Clutag Press) is named after the farm of Niall’s childhood. He presents a telling extract from one of his father’s notebooks:
I make no excuse for taking my readers into the fields of my boyhood […] my horizon has really always been the round hills my family farmed. Even when I was away from them, this horizon was mine. It is to Pastures New I ask you to come, in the fresh air of morning as it was when I was a child.
He asks us to come, we are invited in and given freedom to roam the paths and furrows with this countryman – and to us they are “fresh” woods, “new” pastures to look at through new eyes. In this way, Niall has kept these places alive, satisfying a quiet yearning to be back, bare-footed, among these memories. We are there with him, counting the woods before we leave, talking of a future when the sawmill may arrive, knowing that in all likelihood it has already come and gone.