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England in Particular

A review of the new book by Sue Clifford and Angela King

The Independent, 16th June 2006

Usually I scribble in the books I review; pencil notes in margins to help me remember which bits to quote or criticise. This time around I made all my notes on a separate piece of paper. This is one of the most handsome books I’ve come across in a long while, and I’m not about to ruin it with my jottings.

It’s apt that the design and presentation of England in Particular should be as carefully presented as the text, for this is a book about detail. For over two decades its authors have run a small but influential campaign group-cum-think tank called Common Ground, the aim of which is to highlight the value of the everyday. For a long time it looked like they were swimming vainly against a rising tide; who wanted to hear about the importance of the ordinary when the global marketplace could offer them the extraordinary? Who wanted to know about quaint Derbyshire customs when they could grab a flight to Barbados for a few hundred quid?

But patience, like detail, is an underrated virtue which Clifford and King clearly possess and these days, as farmers markets spread faster than superstores and cloned high streets make the front pages, the country seems to have come around to their way of thinking. Not before time, for Clifford and King’s message is one which needs to be heard if England is to remain a country worth living in. This book, they say:

‘is about the commonplace; for us to value it, a creature does not have to be endangered, a building does not have to be monumental, a prospect does not have to be breathtaking … everywhere is somewhere. What makes each place unique is the conspiracy of nature and culture; the accumulation of story upon history upon natural history.’

This is not a message that is easy to get across in a soundbite, and it’s not one that our breakneck, consumerist society often wants to hear. ‘Richness is under siege’ say the authors, by everything from the fashion industry to intensive farming, increased mobility and corporate identity. The alternative is ‘local distinctiveness’: ensuring that places continue to live and develop, distinct from one another, fuelled by the interests of their communities rather than those of corporate shareholders or Gross National Product.

Hence this gazetteer of much that is special, distinctive and curious about England . Alphabetised but with no obvious theme other than the authors’ desire to highlight it, it is a joy to dip into.

So we get entries on chalk streams and garages, natterjack toads and ‘Obby ‘Osses, Chinatown and sea tractors, manhole covers and osiers. Have you ever heard of a flatner (a double-ended river boat particular to Somerset)? Or chert (a flint-like rock from the Pennines , used in buildings and walls)? Did you know that swallows are known as ‘half-year birds’, or that ‘fell’ is a Viking word for hill?

Have you ever noticed that different parts of the country can often be distinguished by different types of fencing – chestnut paling within drystone in the Cotswolds; cleft-oak in the New Forest; ‘devils’ rope’ barbed wire around many southern fields and ‘mean and monotonous’ wire-mesh in so many inner cities, adding to the sense of dereliction and despair?

Perhaps not. We are, after all, living in times which encourage us to take our eyes off the ground around us and focus on the horizon. Detail, we are told, simply gets in the way of the important things in life: income, development, competition, consumer choice. This has always been a tempting but perfidious lie; god, like the devil, remains in the detail. ‘Local distinctiveness is not necessarily about beauty’, say Clifford and King, ‘but it must be about truth.’ There is much truth in this book, and I would be surprised if anyone came away from it without having discovered at least some, and determined to do something with it.