Could you tell us a little about your latest novel, All Among the Barley, please?
Back in 2015, when I started work on what would become All Among the Barley, I was reading authors like Adrian Bell, Ronald Blythe, George Ewart Evans and A.J. Street. I wanted to explore what it would have meant for a family farm to move from horsepower to tractors, as well as the link between mechanisation and the dissipation of folklore and ancient rural belief systems that occurred in those febrile inter-war years. I decided this time to write in the first person; it wasn’t something I’d done before, so it felt like a bit of a challenge to myself. Making Edie 14 raised some interesting questions about how much she would understand about current events of the time, and about her reliability as a narrator; it also allowed me to dig deep into my own experiences of being that age, which I hope brought depth and authenticity to her as a character – although it also made some parts quite painful to write.
With my first novel, Clay, I knew the title long before I knew what the book would be about. The title for my second, At Hawthorn Time, arrived when I was about half-way through. I finished the manuscript for this book without anything having come to me, which was extraordinarily stressful. In the end, it came obliquely, from the folk singer Sam Lee who I had asked for help in identifying a song one of the characters might sing. He suggested ‘All Among the Barley’, which proved not only to be the perfect song, but the perfect title for the novel, too. (Thank you again, Sam!)
All Among the Barley is full of beautiful detail about the natural world and the farming methods of the period. Did you do a lot of research to get the detail right?
This book required far more research than any of my others, and I found that I really enjoyed it. As well as visiting Suffolk at various points in the agricultural year I immersed myself in farming memoirs from the period (they were very popular, much like nature writing is now), spent time at the Museum of English Rural Life in Reading, and at the British Library, looking at their collection of political magazines from the 30s, some of which were really chilling.
Are any of the places or people in your novel based on real examples you found in your research?
The street plan of my fictional village, Elmbourne, is based roughly on a village I stayed in when I was researching the book; and some readers have found that Constance FitzAllen reminds them a little of Dorothy Hartley, the indomitable 30s reporter who bicycled around Britain recording old recipes and country crafts and sleeping in hedges. They’re right in that I was really interested in Dorothy Hartley’s courage and character – but in terms of politics, Constance and Dorothy are miles apart.
Edie, the central character, describes visiting her grandparents’ house as going back to the olden days, a temporary reprieve from the faster pace of modern life. Is this sense of life lived ever faster something that each generation feels, do you think?
Since the industrial revolution that’s probably true: technology now progresses at such a pace that each new generation becomes almost inexplicable to the one before, and it’s easy to believe that life for our parents’ or grandparents’ generation was not only slower but more peaceful or simple than our own. But in doing that we often overlook the challenges and difficulties they faced, many of which technology has solved for us.
During the harvest, Edie thinks about how field-work becomes ingrained in your body, like a muscle memory. I wonder whether you think we have a rural idyll ingrained in our collective memory, as a nation?
That’s a great way of putting it. In the middle years of the 19th century the urban population in Britain exceeded the rural population, the first time this had ever happened, in any country, anywhere. Urbanisation is still a relatively recent phenomenon; dig only a short way back into most people’s family history in Britain and you’ll find ancestors who farmed or lived in rural villages, and a huge strand of our national identity is still tied up with the countryside. “Well may the hiker, cycle-tourer or day-tripper venture forth from the city in search of a rural idyll he knows is his; for we all hailed from such villages but lately, and rightly do they remain the repository of our national pride,” writes Constance in All Among the Barley. But there are very real dangers in tying national identity to place in this way, because it leaves no room for change. In 2018, it is deeply worrying that we should feel a sense of collective nostalgia for a rural idyll set in what is essentially a pre-Windrush age.
One of your characters, Constance FitzAllen, is documenting the disappearing customs of the area. She seems in thrall to an idealised past and somehow hopes the country can be remade in its image. Is she a warning against the dangers of nostalgia?
I absolutely wanted to question the valedictory thread that runs through the English sense of identity; the sense you find in everyone from Stanley Baldwin to Betjeman and Philip Larkin to John Major that a golden era has just passed, or is passing, never to return; an era in which all our collective virtues reside. Connie’s a complex character, though, and I don’t think she’d call her interest in the past nostalgia. “One day, yes, a book of some kind, if it can be managed,” she says at one point, speaking of her ambitions. “And not one of these elegies for a lost world, either! No, the English are already far too much in love with the past. Something more practical, something that makes a difference – we must remake the country entirely, I feel; set it back on the right course. Don’t you agree?’”
Constance’s nationalism is eventually shown to be fascism. Were you aware of the parallels between your historical setting for the novel and the contemporary political situation as you were writing All Among the Barley?
I started writing this book in 2015, which seems like a different era now! It was only slowly, as events unfolded – starting with the EU referendum, then Trump, the emboldening of the Far Right in many countries and the ugly rise in anti-Semitic attacks – that I realised that the 1930s were becoming highly resonant years, and that the book was going to have to get a lot bigger – and I was going to have to get a lot braver – in order to rise to the occasion.
I was very struck by the physical reminders of witchcraft in your novel, the witch marks and witch bottles. Was witchcraft a regular feature of rural life in the 1930s?
Compared to a century before there would have been relatively few people remaining who professed a genuine belief in witchcraft, although many traditions lingered on in the form of superstitions, and the oldest generation would have held on to them for longest. But what did remain was the evidence of prior beliefs, and because Suffolk has so many old vernacular buildings – far more than in many other counties – it is not uncommon to find witch marks and other apotropaic marks and objects in houses in the Eastern counties. For instance, I have a mummified cat in one of the walls of my cottage!
Your work is rooted in the natural world. Have you always been drawn to the great outdoors?
I grew up in a very outdoor family, and was lucky enough to be part of the last generation to be habitually allowed to play outside unsupervised: since the 1970s children’s ‘radius of activity’ has declined by 90%. Connection to nature runs deep in my bones and is something I value enormously, and trying to inspire that connection in others is at the heart of everything I do.
Can you tell us anything about what you’re working on next?
I can tell you that it’s not a novel, and it’s not non-fiction, and it’s not poetry, or an anthology. That’s all I’m going to say!