Caught by the River

Farmer's Glory: an introduction

3rd November 2017

First published in the early 1930s, Farmer’s Glory, by A. G. Street, is a warm and humorous classic about farming life. The book has now been re-published by Little Toller, with an introduction by James Rebanks – author of the bestselling The Shepherd’s Life – as well as the book’s original wood engravings by Gwen Raverat.

Find an abridged version of Rebanks’ introduction below.

A. G. Street’s Farmer’s Glory is rightly regarded as one of the great farming books.

I first read it when I was seventeen years old and working on my father’s farm. I got paid 40 pounds a week, and my keep, and like a lot of farmers’ sons before me, was a kind of ‘indentured servant’ (yes, this was the 1990s, but some things on farms never change). There wasn’t a lot else to do on winter nights, because we lived miles from the local town, or even the nearest pub, so I turned to reading, for entertainment, and perhaps also for a kind of freedom and escape.

My mother had inherited a tattered copy of Farmer’s Glory from her school-teacher father when he died. It sat in her glass-fronted bookcase slightly overshadowed by other seemingly cooler books by French, Russian and American writers. But, eventually, when I’d finished with Camus and Hemingway, I got round to reading it, and I loved it.

It was full of parallels with my own life, and years later I realise it shaped how I think about farming and had an influence on my own writing in The Shepherd’s Life.

The very same copy of Farmer’s Glory now sits on my writing desk, in a stack of my favourite ‘farming’ books, all of them worn and torn and with endless folded pages, as truly used and loved books should be. This stack is very small because there aren’t many really good books about farming; the harsh truth is that a lot of them are cliched, riddled with nostalgia, often outdated and dull.

Farmer’s Glory was published in 1932, as the American economy was reaching its lowest ebb of the Great Depression and amid widespread political unrest. Millions of people were starving in a man-made political famine in the Ukraine. Hitler was appointed German Chancellor. In Manchuria, genocide was taking place. Britain’s ability to control or shape world events was fast becoming a memory. World-changing trouble was brewing everywhere, changes happening that few could understand. Who wouldn’t want to escape into the past for a few hours reading about the gentle farming folk of A. G. Street’s youth?

His book was probably quite old-fashioned even at the time it was written. It is reminiscent of the Georgian poetry before the First World War, but a little bit more knowing. It also reminds me a little of Edward Thomas’s poetry, and scenes like those of the ploughmen in ‘As the Team’s Head Brass’. It has echoes of Siegfried Sassoon in it, his Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man. The First World War is almost entirely unmentioned, but it is there in the shadows.

It chronicles a lifetime of change and leaves the reader feeling irredeemably sad at what was lost. But Farmer’s Glory uses nostalgia cleverly, because this is a gently revolutionary book. It masquerades as a few homely tales about his farming life, but in spirit it says something very powerful and troubling. It finds a homely way to say that things may be getting worse, not better, and that what is considered ‘progress’ is in many ways regressive in the English landscape. It offers the rural life of his childhood as a counterpoint to the modernity crashing out of control in the 1930s. It raises questions about what kind of farming we might want, what kind of society, and what constitutes a good life. It asks whether economic change, in an earlier age of growing globalisation, is inevitable like some force of nature, or something that can be shaped and tamed.

It makes a damning point about the death of the older English farming system of rotation of crops and livestock, as it was replaced by newer systems that claimed to free farming, and mankind, from historic constraints and limitations. He was there as the new world of highly mechanised farming was taking off, with new machines, new artificial nutrients, new chemicals, and new medicines beginning to revolutionise farming. The agrarian tradition has always been sceptical of change and deeply nostalgic, and A. G. Street is too. He sees this change, and tells us why it feels wrong to him.

In A. G. Street’s writing, nostalgia is a radical thing. The best pastoral writing has always been political with a small ‘p’.

This old book oozes a very English scepticism about the changes he has witnessed. It isn’t, as he disarmingly claims in the introduction, just a matter-of-fact neutral tale about changes to farming in his lifetime. It passes judgement but so gently and charmingly that you barely notice. Farmer’s Glory is shot through with observations and tales about the modern being beaten by the older ways, about the arrogance of the ‘new’ and the robustness and good sense of the ‘old’.

There are limits to nostalgia, of course. If my children fall ill I want the medicine of 2017, not the medicine of 1910. I wouldn’t want to inflict the poverty, sexism, class hierarchy, homophobia, or racism of that age on any of my friends or loved ones.

But if I wanted to bring back the disappearing field birds of the British countryside then I might well find some of the answers in the dynamic, rotational mixed farming of the past. If I wanted to work out how to farm without oil, antibiotics, wormers, pesticides and artificial nutrients then, again, the past holds some of the answers.

I think A. G. Street was grappling for answers, caught between the paternalism of his youth and the free-market pragmatism learned in the prairies of Manitoba. He ends the book with sadness, noting how his own farm employs only a fraction of the people that worked it twenty years earlier, and describing a new-fangled farming system that many of the people in the community don’t trust or like, which cultivates the land into a monoculture of grass – a ‘green desert’ – and leaves farm economics precarious and volatile.

This is really a book about the modernisation of farming and the cheapening of food as farmers were forced to ‘specialise’, pursing ‘efficiencies of scale’.

A. G. Street seems deeply sceptical at the end of his story about the future he has lived to see. It is a very polite, humble and gentle form of scepticism, and is more powerful for it. The same economic processes are changing our landscapes today, with even greater force, and violence, and many of us suspect that they make the world worse in many ways, and not better, for people and nature. We, like A. G. Street, are left wondering whether things in our landscapes really have to be like this.

James Rebanks
Matterdale, Cumbria, 2017


Farmer’s Glory, published by Little Toller, is out now, and is available in the Caught by the River shop, priced £12.00.