The past is another more courteous country


Review by Val Hennessy:

Talk about the past being another country. Even the recent past. My nonagenarian mother and her contemporaries will certainly recognise, with regretful shakes of their heads, the England depicted by Victor Canning in these elegiac essays commissioned in the 1930s by the Daily Mail. But, for the rest of us, he could be describing another planet.

His England is a place where weekend cinemas are packed to bursting with enthusiastic film fans all cheerfully whistling, shouting and applauding the action.

The main street of a town in the Fens throngs, on Saturday nights, with a good-natured ‘slow-moving, joking, flirting, healthy mob’, dressed in their best, farm-labourers and their girls congregating ‘to forget the toil of the week ... to seek colour, warmth and laughter’.

From the doorway of every inn comes the plunk and tinkle of pianos and the group chorusings of mawkish ballads. By 11.30pm everyone has hurried home to bed, and the streets are deserted.

Hey ho! No vomiting, fornicating, brawling and scantily-attired, knock-kneed, boozed-up girls baring their bottoms. Those were the days...

Canning finds beauty everywhere, but never sentimentalises, and is consistently honest enough to highlight poverty and social inequality.

In Maryport in Cumbria, where the silent pit heads signal the decline of the mining industry, he discovers unemployed men foraging for small fragments of coal on the snow-covered shingle. A morning’s foraging will fill half a sack, to be hauled back to keep fires going in homes where fires are luxuries. Yet there is laughter too, and ‘the happy clatter of clogs’ from children playing in the streets.

In sooty Halifax, a town ‘which has wrung dignity and beauty from chimney stacks, gasometers, canals and mills’, the doorsteps and windows are spotless, and proud working men tog up at weekends in bowler hats, white collars and navy-blue suits.

In the Cotswolds Canning describes the soft patina of lichen and moss on walls, and senses the pride taken in ‘houses built to last ... reflecting the spirit of the master craftsmen who made them’, and in Norfolk he gets talking to an ancient sea salt who had joined the Navy when ‘sails and bare feet and a penny a week for boys made Britain mistress of the seas’.

In Rutland Canning describes an incident which is unthinkable in modern Britain. Exhausted after a long ramble, he knocks on a cottage door to ask for water.

A jolly, motherly sort invites him inside to freshen up, then sits him on the porch amongst the hollyhocks and roses, offers him tea and, referring to her husband who is out hedging and ditching, explains: ‘The master does the kitchen garden and I look after the flowers’. ‘Master’ indeed! What distant times!

His best anecdote concerns the hilarious men-only bathing rules at Parson’s Pleasure on the river Cherwell. Mixed bathing was forbidden due to the tradition that men bathed naked there.

In this male Arcadia (and I think Canning misses a significant social situation here, in his innocence) Oxford dons and undergraduates would loll about ‘clad only in spectacles and a copy of Plato’s Socratic Discourses’.

Any approaching punt steered solely by women would be halted; the punt would be taken through the bathing enclosure by an attendant, and the women were made to avert their eyes as they walked along a special footpath to rejoin it. Forgetful females were known to disobey the rules, causing a mad scramble as naked dons flattened themselves behind tufts of grass or scuttled for cover amongst the willows.

It is astonishing to remember that Canning’s pilgrimage to ‘understand the intricate pattern and appreciate the colour of the fabric of English life’ was made within living memory.

His gentle adventures will probably seem boring, if not ludicrous, to post-war generations who travel more often to exotic, far-flung foreign hot spots than to the towns and villages of England.

Canning travelled through a law-abiding, slow-paced, courteous country where a stranger in town (Canning) would address a passing resident like this: ‘Good day to you, sir. Would it be a breach of good manners if I was to ask you to oblige me by telling me a little history of this town?...’

Good-manners, and respect, yes. It certainly was another country... No obscene gestures, filthy language, feral yoof on the rampage or lawless, mindless morons burning and looting for the hell of it. And if I’m beginning to sound like my mum, I make no apologies...


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