English pastoral: At Hawthorn Time


Cherry blossom, south London

It had been raining all morning, but the drizzle had stopped and the air was warm. Time to get away from the desk and into the world. New leaves in the beech trees dripped green emeralds, the woodland floor was smoky with drenched bluebells. Out in the lane, creamy garlands of hawthorn lay thick along the branches, scenting the air like soap.

I was walking down a lane in suburban London, a nowhere special made lovely by the breath of Spring. This is the Spring of pastoral fantasies, the green and pleasant England celebrated by English writers from Chaucer to HE Bates. I’ve recently read Melissa Harrison’s novel At Hawthorn Time, which captures some of the joy that I felt on that short walk.

The novel is carefully, specifically placed in a fictional village, Lodeshill, ‘an in-between, unpretentious place,’ drawn with loving detail. It contrasts the experiences of four people in that village – a local teenager, who longs to escape; a newly-arrived couple from London, trying to find the good life, and an itinerant lost soul, who simply wants to be left alone to live lightly on the land.

Their experience of Lodeshill is filtered through their attention to the land. Kitty, who wants to live in the countryside and paint, slowly moves from empty, generic landscapes  to a less pretty picture, which suggests she is finally looking properly.  Her husband Howard seems merely adrift, hankering for the London life which meant something to him. James, the youngster, knows every undulation in the landscape, every birds nest and copse, in his bones. Despite his drive to move on, it is a part of him. Jack, the romantic vagrant poet, belongs nowhere and everywhere, seeing everything of the land but noticing little of the people around him.

The restlessness of life, the feeling of dissatisfaction or fear of missing out, seem linked to our disconnection from the places we spend our lives. Like most people, I used to think of home as the house where I lived, my dormitory at the end of the working day. I spent more of my waking day in the office, or out and about in London, than exploring my own neighbourhood. A weekend was an opportunity to travel, to explore a European city or drive to the coast for a walk by the sea.

Since leaving work to freelance from home, I’ve finally moved in to my south London patch. I know where the wild garlic grows, which elder bushes have the best flowers for elderflower cordial, the cherry plum tree in the woods and the best blackberry bushes. I know my neighbours, especially the retired people and those with young children. I’m finally learning the landscape, and the quiet sense of belonging that can bring.

I enjoyed reading a novel that evokes that sense of belonging, albeit in a very different place, as well as the frustrations and difficulties that belonging or not belonging can bring. Melissa Harrison’s descriptions of Lodeshill, its countryside and community are precise and elegaic. At Hawthorn Time  reminded me a little of Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem, a more rollicking vision of Albion than Harrison’s melancholy tribute. Both play and novel speak about the non-metropolitan, monocultural backwaters of England, the people you don’t see on the news.

From the first chapter, it is evident that at least one of the four characters we follow has died, in a car crash detailed with eerie precision. It’s a tribute to the quiet empathy of the novel that, by the final chapter, I cared too much for each of them to want to find out.




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