Singer-songwriter Darren Hayman’s Thankful Villages is a new project about rural life…
It all starts with a title. The cogs in my brain only start to whir when I see the title. Then I go backwards and try and work out how to get there.
My friend Ian Button lives in Sidcup with his Dad, Ken. I’m jealous of their life. Ian often tells me of their food and drink routine, their film marathons and their journeys down bottomless wells on the internet.
Ken is 94 and has an insatiable appetite for learning. He watches Al Jazeera and Russian news channels to get both sides of the story.
Ian was driving me through Kent backlines when he asked me, ‘Do you know what a Thankful Village’ is?’
A Thankful Village is a village where every soldier returned alive from the first World War. Ken had told Ian about them. A doubly Thankful Village is a village where they returned alive from both World Wars. Thierville in France, Ian told me, was triply thankful having survived two world wars and the Franco-Prussian War.
Thankful or ‘Blessed’ Villages were first identified and named by Arthur Mee in 1936 in his series of guide books, The King’s England. He originally found 32 such villages. (My current list stands at 54 though some are disputed.)
Me and Ian joked about it being a band name and thought of song titles like ‘Blank Memorial’ and ‘Zeppelin Guilt’.
I was being serious, however – Thankful Villages is such a beautiful and strange title. It is full of soft consonants that want to wrap you up in a woollen blanket. Who doesn’t want to be thankful? It implies worship and religion, but not explicitly. We can be thankful to many things other than god and we can, of course, just be thankful.
And the word ‘village’. To some of us it’s almost mythical, the cornerstone of the imaginary English idyll. Does our mind’s eye version of this paradise exist, or has it been smothered by its own blankets made from pages of the Daily Telegraph?
My recent records have all been concerned with place and location. I’m agoraphobic and hate leaving my home, but I always write better music when I’m in transit. I’m particularly interested in the idea that music created in a certain place takes something of that place with it. I don’t mean this in a mystical way, merely that location and circumstance must affect creation. We can make albums on our phones now and there’s no reason to be in windowless bunkers anymore.
I knew what I had to do. I had to visit every one of Britain’s 54 Thankful Villages. It was not going to be a project about war. Arthur Mee’s definition was really just a starting point; a random device to point me to small places. That’s what I love and that’s the one certainty I had about Thankful Villages – that it would be about small things, small things that matter.
Other than that, a random scattering of map pins on a British road map was going to slowly reveal to me what this project was. I knew that it would have to change and grow as I progressed. I knew 54 pieces could not be identical, yet I also knew that common themes would reveal themselves.
I went into this project unknowing and wide open.
Knowlton was the first Thankful Village I visited. Barely even a village, more a collection of houses. It also has the title of Britain’s bravest village after winning a competition in the Times by having the largest proportion of volunteers going to World War One. The prize for the competition was a large stone monument.
This title was disputed by nearby villages who claimed Knowlton cheated by counting employees of Knowlton Manor who didn’t live there.
Indeed it is barely a village. I drove down a small lane and saw a marquee being set up for a wedding but other then that, no life and few houses. I would soon come to realise that the one common site that many Thankful Villages wouldn’t have is a war memorial. It’s interesting that a fair few of the Villages erected one none the less. Despite their good fortune there seemed to be a need to be a part of a communal sense of gratefulness and grief.
This monument is an odd one though, bigger than many war monuments it not only dominates Knowlton, it almost IS Knowlton. What’s more, it’s a monument to a lie – or, at best, a disputable fact.
The monument in Knowlton is really a piece of war propaganda, and everything about Knowlton is as thin as the paper the propaganda was printed on; both its village status and its title of ‘bravest’.
The monument is made of hard stone, however. It is surrounded by a well maintained hedge with an iron gate. To me, it felt like it was loved and made from love.
I tried to write a lyric about the kind of love that might be buried amongst harmless half truths.