21st Century Yokel is the book that, as someone entrenched in a love of the countryside, I’ve been waiting a decade to write - maybe longer. It’s not quite a nature book, not quite a humour book, not quite a family memoir, not quite folklore, not quite social history, not quite a collection of essays, but a bit of all seven.
People who’ve read my recent books about my cats - which are in truth often about lots of other subjects, besides cats - will hopefully get similar enjoyment from it but get something a little bit broader and more muscular out of it too. It’s the restless, sometimes dark beast I could feel ferociously trying to punch its way out of my last cat book, and in order to give the restless beast the space it needed I decided not to try to sell it on a synopsis and sample chapters, as I had with previous books, but to let it take me where it needed to go, without commercial influence. I wanted it to be what I needed it to be, first and foremost, not what a sales team needed it to be.
The result is a book that explores the way we can be tied inescapably to landscape, whether we like it or not, often through our family and our past, and goes deep into ties of this nature in my own life. It contains owls, badgers, ponies, beavers, otters, bats, bees, scarecrows, dogs, ghosts, my loud excitable dad and, yes, even a few cats. It’s full of local folklore - the ancient kind, and the everyday kind - and provincial places and small stuff, but in a curious way what has emerged from that is something broader and bigger and more definitive than my other work.
I am aware that I could have approached 21st Century Yokel in a different way: forced it into a neater, more marketable concept, but I felt that would have made for a less natural collection of writing, and one where I challenged myself less, and found out less about who I am. Instead, I think the book has a lot in common with the country walks I was on when I composed much of it: it’s bewitched by fresh air, intrepid in minor ways, haunted by weather and old stories and the spooky edges of the outdoors, restless, sometimes foolish, prone to a few detours, but always reaches its intended destination. As a non-fiction writer, all my books are true, but this one is somehow a bit truer, and it’s been by far the most difficult and enjoyable and painful and satisfying I’ve ever written.
I like to climb Yarner Beacon on a clear day, gaze several miles into the distance towards the sea, and try to pick out the location of the footpaths I’ve walked, which, after nearly three years of living here, is almost all of them. I once previously made the mistake of moving to an exciting new part of the British countryside and not immediately investigating every bit of it forensically on foot and I don’t intend to make the same error again. From up here I’m always amazed at the way all the threads connect, their shimmies and jinks and thrusts being disguised when you’re beneath hilltop level, in the thick of it. It could be compared to the moment when, having only previously travelled through London by tube, a person explores the city at ground level on foot and realises the unexpected interconnectivity of the stations, their surprising proximity to one another. So many of the paths here in south west Devon are of a hidden nature: sunken lanes that were already old in Saxon times, created by landowners digging ditches at the boundaries between their properties and piling earth into continuous banks on their own sides. These holloways feel impossibly solid when, as a walker, you’re bracketed by their banks, below the bulk of the land, in an eerily quiet semi-subterranean shale, fern, mud and moss world.
In winter this countryside is a totally different colour to Norfolk’s: reddy brown and green, as opposed to grainy brown and muddy grey. Rich rain-sodden earth and leaf mulch provide the reddy brown; plentiful moss, resilient fern and lichen add back-up greens on the borders of fields and meadows that stay more emerald luminous in the cold months than any other fields and meadows I’ve known. There is a strong argument in favour of every season here: autumn for its crunchy lysergic coppers and golds, its sunlit spiderwebs and sudden forgotten woodsmoke rush, summer because summer here is just dizzying with all the possibile ways it offers to fill your time. But in winter as the land strips itself back it shows you new secrets and you feel like you’re getting a glimpse into something special behind everything else: intangible, ghoulish, a necessary dark pigment on the edge of the land of the living. On a steep rocky holloway leading down from the hamlet of Aish the leaf curtain has fallen back to reveal a ruined barn I never knew was there.
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