Rarely has there been such a comical gulf between critical reception and actual content as that created by the reviews of John Moore’s Brensham Trilogy and the books themselves. Ivor Brown in the Observer got lyrically carried away by Portrait of Elmbury, describing the town of the title (a fictionalisation of Tewkesbury) as "abbey-glorious, river-misted, in England's Middle West,” informing us that "the author was a babe and boy there...airman over blazing Europe, airman across the oceans, with Elmbury ever in mind." The Daily Telegraph said that the book was "true to the real heart of England," while the Daily Express went one further and even claimed that "It breathes the very spirit of our native land.” Finally the News Chronicle noted of Brensham Village that it did "everything to reinforce our pleasure in the Englishness of England." Taken together, the high diction of these reviews lead the reader to expect something worthy, high-minded, and a little bit dull. So it leaves one reaching for the smelling salts, on opening Portrait of Elmbury, to be suddenly plunged into a chaotic and disreputable environment reminiscent of Fellini's more baroque films.
This was the first book, published in 1946; as a recently returned war veteran, Moore seems to have been experiencing an upsurge of affection for his querulous compatriots. It is an open question as to whether his native region was really this full of larger-than-life people (including, of course, a Mad Lord) or whether his old-fashioned patrician tolerance, combined with a somewhat overactive sense of humour and delight in the bizarre, led him to exaggerate the antic fun for his and our entertainment. However, the reader does well to take seriously his comment that Shakespeare and Dickens merely observed, but did not invent, the wild characters who burst out of their creations, ordinary English life being infinitely odder than fiction. Local boy Shakespeare indeed captured the regional atmosphere well with his descriptions of some neighbouring villages: “piping Pebworth,” “dancing Marston,” “drunken Bidford,” etc. Brensham Village itself sadly went unnoticed by the Bard, but was proverbially known for its mad imagination, the inhabitants said to have penned up the cuckoo in the hope that this would bring them eternal spring. Its Church of St Mary Magdalene had a wonky spire and looked as if it had been subjected to a whitewash paint-balling episode, while the local pub and a large Blenheim apple tree leaned towards each other drunkenly. In the postwar period the General Store was still trying to sell off its curious Victorian stock of patriotic Jubilee baby rattles, insulting Valentines, and commemorative Mafeking milk jugs, all of which suddenly came back into fashion in the late forties. A less official commerce was pursued by a local odd-job man whose cottage gate advertised “LOBWORMS, FAT MAGGOTS, WARSP-GRUBS IN SEASON, TEAS.”
The trilogy is emblematic of the kind of light-hearted middlebrow material that sold so well to a postwar English readership desperate for cheering up and too spent for intellectual challenges. There is much to entertain here, such as the anti-pastoral section at the beginning of The Blue Field, “The brussels sprouts, melancholy of aspect, rise up out of the mud and are reflected on the dirty water; their yellowing outer leaves, torn off by the winds or the sprout-pickers, sail idly upon the brown lagoons,” followed by the gnomic comment that the English taste for sprouts “is an addiction which we share with the caterpillars of the large white butterfly, and with certain sorts of blight.” Moore can do genuine pastoral just as well, with many meltingly lovely passages such as the description of the tea break during the village cricket match (which, incidentally, can hold it own with the more famous one in England, Their England): “I remember the cuckoo which called all tea-time from a willow-tree in Cuckoo Pen; and the background of bees and woodpigeons and gillyflower scent on the soft light airs.”
The books certainly do give the lie to the widespread perception that everybody used to be much better behaved. The consumption of alcohol in the region was truly staggering, and chaos seems to have imbued every aspect of life, with Moore informing us that even "fruit-farming [was] conducted in a state of anarchy and disorder." Midlands country folk seem to have had no filter at all at the time. Take, for example, the tale of the local antiques forger who hopefully brought home a figurine of the Cerne Abbas giant in hopes of remedying his childless state, to no avail. Nevertheless, he managed to turn this misfortune into a nice little earner, inspired by the shocking amount of money that he had paid for the figurine to start forging small statues of a ‘Long Man of Elmbury,’ which he then sold to gullible passing folklorists with a lot of pseudo-historical guff. This red herring eventually made its way into an academic work of folklore, which ought to be a warning to us all.
Amongst all the rollicking uproar there is a lot of important material for social history; for example, that opening a pub used to be what retired men did for companionship and "a small income" in their "declining years." One particularly interesting insight is that England’s centuries-old class of mercurial, freethinking odd-job men went to the wall in the Depression which began in 1931. This led to a ghastly change in the local mentality: “Our people, who by lucky chance had escaped the defiling touch of Victorian industrialism, were now driven to accept the horrible heresies of Victorian industrialism, that the giving of work was a favour, that the doing of work was a virtue per se.” To illustrate the decline from the status quo ante, Moore provides a statement of yearly accounts for one particular odd-job man, Jim Fletcher, which highlights the prosperity, dignified independence and variety of rural casual labour before the disaster hit.
While they are invaluable sociological documents, the books are also a testament to their author’s deep compassion for the unfortunate. The chapter on a distress for rent sale of household goods in Portrait of Elmbury —an incident so harrowing that it led Moore to give up his job as a country auctioneer— should be required reading in whatever passes for moral education nowadays. Not so other sections, however. The biggest flaw in the books is Moore’s portrayal of Jewish people, to whom his love of humanity did not seem to extend. The BlueField is spoiled by an overly long section entitled “Lords of the Manor” in which he relates how a group of London investors, described in unpleasant, ethnically coded ways, were driven out of the region by the local people. In Brensham Village, the local blacksmith’s belief —with regard to the same incomers— in a shadowy international conspiracy is described in nauseating detail. It is shocking to encounter so much of this material in these classics of English rural writing. Moore’s portrayal of English Romany people, while less vicious and distinguished by an element of self-awareness lacking from the anti-Semitic passages, is often also extremely unpalatable. These dog whistles are completely unworthy of Moore’s usual generous melody, and jar in books which are otherwise warm and uplifting in their celebration of the rackety characters who stumble through them.
These significant health warnings aside, the books are very well worth reading for their sociological acuteness and their superb evocation of the richly abundant natural world of the Tewkesbury region. After exploring the country around ‘Elmbury,’ the reader is left slightly dizzied by the pantheon of eccentric and sometimes downright difficult inhabitants whom Moore portrays. That’s the point, and that may be what the overly serious reviewers were getting at. In contrast to the murderous utopian cult of human perfectibility espoused by Fascism on the Continent, Moore’s England lovingly embraces the shambolic, the unlucky, and the childlike. With apologies to Leonard Cohen, in this riotous part of the Midlands everyone is cracked, and everyone is illuminated.--Isabel Taylor