Steve Whitaker, Literary Editor

Our Land : Rural - The Lives Of The Working Class Countryside By Rebecca Smith

You could be forgiven for thinking that the working classes, as portrayed in historical non-fictional literature, were all raised in urban slums, susceptible to the vagaries of cholera and tuberculosis, and generally hungry. The disparity between wealth creation and reward – starkly illustrated in Henry Mayhew’s documentary examination of the poor of Victorian London*, and realised in E. P. Thompson’s seminal analysis of the lives of the English underclasses since the dawn of Industrialisation* – grew immeasurably at a time of extraordinary national productivity.

Rebecca Smith’s timely new study – though ‘study’ over-formalises a style that is entirely free of academic aridity – reverses the telescope of convention by focusing, instead, on the rural working classes. In an engaging flight over the terrains of England, Scotland and Wales, Smith’s proclivity for flitting between personal and wider regional histories is effortless; her sense of affiliation is rooted in peripatetic reflection. Divided into chapters with single-word titles whose bluntness is an ironic cover for greater semantic definition – ‘Coal’, ‘Water’, ‘Slate’ - Rural heads up a historico-geographical class of labour, endeavour and, especially, identity. ‘Our Land’, the final footfall in a book of step-taking, declares a sense of heimat, of a kind of undirected belonging.

This writer has an extraordinary feeling for the past and its underpinning of the present.
And it is fitting that the art of her endeavours should be rendered in a narrative as meandering as her own history; Smith ambles cheerfully between the present, the recent past and her ancestral history. Cogs in wheels of growth and direction, her now-remote antecedents become ciphers to broader national transitions, integral components of a more general story.

Unfolding on vast, rambling country estates, Smith’s early years carry the faintest of hallmarks of the settled traveller’s existence: relatively impecunious, her father’s arboreal interests lead him to a role as head forester at the Graythwaite Estate in Cumbria, a place she now fondly recalls as integral to an idyllic childhood. The remote wildness of the landscape allowed free rein for her imaginative instincts, whilst inculcating the beginnings of an unsettling sense of class difference, and of ethical positioning. For Graythwaite, along with many other estates, had been the home of the landed gentry, and was, by the time of Smith’s tenure, the location of regular seasonal pheasant shoots, during which the rich and monied disported themselves with shotguns. Smith’s process of learning builds by accretion as she becomes dimly aware of an anachronous paternalism, and its old orders of ritual:

‘I don’t think it was the actual shooting of the pheasant I didn’t like. I had grown up alongside the idea of this, although, thinking about it now, I’m much more uncomfortable about the practice of shooting for sport. What felt so unsettling was the clear divide between the two parties. I was tramping through the cold, wet grass for the benefit of someone else’s so-called fun.’

Smith’s passion for research acts as a corrective to a one-sided story of ownership and control: seamlessly cross-referencing personal and socio-cultural indices, she traces the place of her family line in the grander architecture of employment and labour, and in so doing, restores the drowned voices of those who weren’t heard in their own lifetimes. Her style gives the lie to the lingua franca of scholarly pursuit – at once entertaining and conversational, the reader is surprised by Smith’s depth of investigative acuity.

As seems apposite for a writer who is also a professional radio producer, her style is footloose, as prone to moving between landscapes as a documentary-maker, and as given to crossing boundaries of history as a practiced psycho-geographer. And all of Smith’s travels are rendered in accessibly written passages, whose tone is measured according to the humour, the sense of elegy, or the gravitas demanded by her themes. This writer has an extraordinary feeling for the past and its underpinning of the present. Her natural affiliation with the voiceless and overlooked poor, the masses whose labours built the Ark of Victorian progress, gives notice of a deeper rectitude and moral purpose: her propensity for taking an ‘aerial’ view yields a breathless tour of her own regional family connections which lead, in turn, to mining districts, to ‘enlightened’ model towns such as New Lanark that were planned and designed by philanthropists, to the textile industries of the East Midlands, to the Cumbria dam builders who were drawn from all corners of the UK to the new reservoir at Thirlmere, and whose waters fed the open maw of Manchester’s demand. once entertaining and conversational, the reader is surprised by Smith’s depth of investigative acuity
Smith's juxtaposition of circumstances, her in-folding of events at once distant and near-recent, gives currency to her narrative, reminds the reader of his or her place in the grander historical scheme. Her dialogues with people either previously unknown to her, or familiar by earlier association, bolsters that currency in neat counterpoint: we hear of connections anecdotally, as the past, and all of its trammelling sails into ancestral view like a visitant. In this way, dangerously disorganized underground raves conducted in the caves of Coniston in the ‘eighties contrast wildly with the monstrous hand-hewn productivity of the dam-building navvies of Thirlmere, or the pit disasters which were all too frequent facets of an earlier time of hardship. The new territory of Lakes labour is reversing such privations in unexpected ways: a combination of Brexit and Covid has throttled an already scarce workforce resulting in the closure of once-thriving pubs and restaurants in great numbers, not least in Hawkshead, the bustling tourist trap a few miles east of Coniston.

...we hear documentary evidence of sixteen-hour working days and death by natural causes deliberately disguised as accidental in order that the victim’s family could claim compensation from colliery owners.
But Smith is at her very best when delving deep underground to survey the brutal servitude of existences held in thrall to the pit. Amongst heartbreaking records of disasters, of men drowned, crushed and asphyxiated, and of hastily scribbled notes to wives and children discovered post-mortem, we hear documentary evidence of sixteen-hour working days and death by natural causes deliberately disguised as accidental in order that the victim’s family could claim compensation from colliery owners. Citing Catherine Bailey’s book Black Diamonds, Smith notes that to avoid what would otherwise constitute a dead man dying twice :‘”For the sake of the wives and children, the miners mutilated the bodies of the heart attack victims’”, in an ironic act of kindness.

Examples of such brutal history liberate Smith’s book from any suggestion of demographic diversion, for she is acutely aware that this confraternity of ‘urban’ warriors underpins her - our - present. The single nomenclature ‘Coal’ is morse code for a pulse that beats far underground, away from any inference of back-to-backs in grubby towns, and is, in fact, one shadow only of a journeyman’s experience: the comradeship of his fellows in endurance is the best and only guarantor of a sense of identity. And it is with no small irony, in this fine homage to a changing landscape, that Rebecca Smith should apprehend a certain diminishment in the loosening of traditional bonds, as we now caretake a nation of museums, Airbnbs and nostalgia :

‘The romanticised rural idyll of past industry is good business.’

Rural : The Lives of the Working Class Countryside is published by William Collins.

More information here.

*London Labour and the London Poor by Henry Mayhew

*The Making of the English Working Class by E. P. Thompson