In his debut Water and Sky, co-published in 2014 by Caught by the River and Little Toller, Neil Sentance explored the history of his family and the landscape which shaped them. Ridge & Furrow continues Neil’s project to chart in prose the voices of a seldom recorded people and place in twentieth century Lincolnshire’s flatlands, and beyond. Richard Benson reviews.
It is an old reviewers’ cliché to say that a book shouldn’t work and yet does, but when it comes to Neil Sentance’s Ridge & Furrow, there really is no better way to begin. Here are the facts of it. Subtitled ‘Voices from the Winter Fields’, Ridge & Furrow takes up just 93 pages, 22 of which are occupied by black and white family photographs. It comprises eight separate accounts of individual people, dated between 1940 and 1990, arranged in non-chronological order. The people are connected to each other, but only in a few cases are those connections explicitly stated; mostly the reader has to spot the details and work it out. Lastly the whole thing is clad in a jacket that has a somewhat mid-20th century look to it, shades of the Ladybird What To Look For In Winter perhaps, which makes it feel like a little lost gem discovered in a great secondhand bookshop, or at an older friend’s house. This nicely complements the history in the book, and given Little Toller’s dedication to old, neglected rural books, it seems unlikely to be an accident.
With the exception of Sentance himself, whom we meet as student in Holland in 1990, the people are working- and lower-middle class country people – shop managers, gravediggers, farmers, sales and repair men. Most appear to be related to Sentance, and all live generally unrecorded and applauseless lives on the low ridges and flat fields of Lincolnshire. Readers of Sentance’s first book, Water and Sky, will recognise the world. Skies hang low and overcast, and even warm weather is oppressive, or ‘slow-banked and close.’ The land itself is open and indifferent, covered in barley stubble or ploughed earth, and water is always present, either on the long coastline or in ditches and dykes. We cross Maud Foster Drain and Hobhole Drain, and visit Dogdyke; the channels in this flood-prone place so important that they are carefully listed and named.
There is a sense of hopes and ambitions draining away in the big, bare landscapes too, but under this author’s gaze the place and its small lives are redeemed by the individuals’ loving attentiveness to the world. Sentance has been praised for his lyricism and and formal experiment, but the ability to perceive that attentiveness in mundane behaviour, and then convincingly to describe it, is really his great gift as a writer. Take this passage for example, in which he describes his father’s pride in knowing the roads and landmarks of his local area:
[His] cognitive maps were multisensory – roads named not numbered, streets lined with trees he’d seen grow up, houses he’d worked in, the cars parked outside, shops he’d known the owners of, food factories and maltings he knew by their smell or engineering works he could recognise from the machinery din, or the sound of the shift siren. If need be, he’d stop often at houses he knew to ask the way. In this way he made space into place.
Or this brief recollection of a child’s fascination with his father’s fag packets:
…we loved looking at the little printed masterpieces on the cigarette boxes: the bearded sailor on Player’s Navy Cut, the battleships on Senior Service. On a fancy occasion, there might be Peter Stuyvesant’s, with its coat of arms.
The points of view shift between third and first person, with some sections clearly written from personal experience, and in others Sentance seeming to inhabit a character and pushing towards fiction. This is how family histories really are, of course, all of them loose sets of stories that range solidly from documented fact to memory to anecdote to unfounded rumour. If this sounds like Sebald territory to you, then you’re right; the is-it-or-isn’t-it-genuine written testimony of Sentance’s great-great aunt Kate, accompanied by a photograph of her Danish husband August at a séance, could almost have come from The Rings of Saturn. As with Sebald, seemingly parochial subjects and individual experience combine to evoke bigger histories. By the end of Ridge & Furrow the reader senses a sweep of British history from the Boer War to a globalised present in which young Neil can go to study in Groningen, where Dutch farmers’ ‘transcending pessimism’ reminds him of the people ‘back home in the fields on the Lincoln Edge.’
The Dutch episode, in which a new, young member of the family goes to live abroad, seems to be making a point here at the end. The Boer and First and Second World Wars are the dominant political events in the book, and they are shown to have shaped the details of individual lives; in that context, travel and basic cooperation between international students offers a positive, optimistic ending.
There’s something else, though. On re-reading, you notice that the old stories of this parochial, isolated English edge-place are full of engagements with foreign countries and people, even if they were hostile. Boer farmers, soldiers liberating Bergen-Belsen, Hollywood Westerns, Indian tea chests, farmers milking Friesan cattle, the German and Italian prisoners of war who worked on the land and in many cases stayed here after 1945 and helped rebuild British agriculture. From Boston in Lincolnshire, glimpsed in the first chapter, sailed the first Pilgrim Fathers, who first settled in Leiden before travelling to American via Plymouth in 1620.
In 2016, Boston, where one in the six of the population were born outside the UK, had the largest pro-Leave vote (75.6 per cent) of any town in Britain. Lincolnshire was the most pro-Leave county. There and elsewhere, the new populist nationalism then set in, and hasn’t gone away; it’s hard to say how many people embrace that nationalism, but it’s certainly enough to make you think twice if you want to write a book about the overlooked virtues of English country folk. What do you do as a writer if some of the very virtues you admire – self-reliance, or attachment to place, say – have been shown to have a harmful expression? Or if the idea of spirit of place has been corrupted by UKIP?
I don’t know whether Sentance thought about this or not, and I certainly don’t mean to imply that any of his relatives are xenophobic nationalists, but Ridge & Furrow does offer an answer. It is enough, he shows, to report who was there and what happened, and to avoid burnishing green English populist myths. Even if there were no other reasons that this book works, that alone would be enough.
Ridge & Furrow is out now and available here, priced £12.00.
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