The past is another country

What farms are those?
What farms are those?

Not Your Heart Away steals its title from Housman’s poem, A Shropshire Lad. The poem had two main themes, the idolization and mythology of the English countryside and sound advice to a young man, to give not his heart away so young, advice which Ben, the late teenage narrator ignores as any young man should.

The book is set in 1980 or thereabouts. A distant time now; a period teetering on the brink of monumental change at a personal and national level to all of which Ben was almost totally oblivious.

Along with his girlfriend Theresa, school-friends Liz and Peter and more distant, contemporarily more desirable (read ‘richer’ in proto-Thatcherite Britain) friends Claire and Poppy, Ben is stuck between adulthood and childhood, school and university, home and something much stranger, much more desirable. The small town girlfriend is going nowhere, Peter’s going to work, Liz is going to university, Poppy to Drama School if she can convince anyone to let her in and Claire, the girl he doesn’t think he can get, is about to fall off a cliff as her secure, affluent world implodes in the wake of her parents’ wife-swapping disaster and the first of a long line of bankruptcies that underscored the Thatcher revolution.

Nothing out of the ordinary really happens. The group of friends drives to see a play and avoid a car crash on the way. They have a lust-charged picnic on the river then eat dinner in a restaurant, struggling not only with the menu but with the fact that the nice old man at the bar was a Nazi when he was their age. Ben can’t stop looking at Claire all through the theatre performance; the real reason he arranged the trip in the first place.

He learns about the summer job that will take her away from him during the drive back. After totally failing to recognise a nice middle-class girl’s way of offering herself on a plate Ben arranges a trip to London on an errand and accidentally-on-purpose gets off with Claire’s best friend. Moping about back in Wiltshire and trying to convince Liz that he’s going to be a famous writer Ben’s world explodes again when he discovers Claire not 5,000 miles away as he thought but sitting in the back room of a pub drunk, half-mad with rage, a U.S. deportation notice and the keys of a stolen Aston-Martin in her bag.

Maybe it doesn’t matter if it’s true, so long as you believe it is

It’s a tale of country pubs that no longer exist, some drinking, driving and drug-taking that nowadays might bring a smile of indulgence to the lips of the most hardened front-line police officer, of blue remembered hills and myths. At the same time the book is a requiem for lost love, lost songs and lost times. Ben finally gets the girl but really should have asked himself if that was going to be the best thing; when he loses her again all too easily in a world devoid of Google and Facebook and mobile phones the rest of his life becomes a morass of blame and regret as each successive partner fails the Claire-test.

It’s probably not their fault, not even a bit as Ben says, but they still just aren’t Claire. Ultimately, thanks to Liz, Ben’s oldest friend of all, he finds her again. But Claire is a continent away, her old house is now a hotel, Liz and Ben have some talking to do that can’t be put off much longer and Claire’s son bears a strange resemblance to someone Ben sees every morning when he shaves. The past is another country. They do things differently there. But Ben’s problem is that he never really left.

You can buy it here: Not Your Heart Away.

Share Button

The shining plain

Into my heart an air that kills from yon far country blows. What are those blue remembered hills? What spires, what farms are those? That is the land of lost content, I see it shining plain; The happy highways where I went and cannot come again.

Box Hill

I can’t really remember when or where I first heard Housman‘s A Shropshire Lad. That’s as it should be, indefinite, always there, underneath everything, the landscape in my heart.

The rest of the poem goes on a bit, but those lines come back to me again and again. I’m not from Shropshire and those lines weren’t written there either, whatever Claire thought in  Not Your Heart Away, if ‘thought’ isn’t too strong a word for her off-her-face recollections one evening in a mythical country pub.

The pub I described in the book really did exist once, making it a real land of lost content. It really was called the Red Lion – I’m not an imaginative writer. It was made of stone in a village that once used water from the nearby river on the very edge of the Mendips to power a mill that made broadcloth, the stuff (and it was properly called ‘stuff’) that made hunting pink riding coats and billiard table covers, wool that was teased out with teasles, hence the name, then cropped with eight-foot long shears worn around the waist then hammered flat over and again until it was dense, hard-wearing. It all ends in the beginning though, that story. The whole point of the mill was to provide power and once that walk starts it ends with the shearers replaced by machines, as Thomas Helliker, our local martyr found.

The Red Lion

But we didn’t know any of that in the Red Lion, not then. The only food they sold was crisps, Kit-Kats and Mars bars, the way country pubs always used to. Then peanuts came along and the rot set in. The next thing was the amazing thing, the Star Trek invasion. Somehow the Red Lion owner got hold of probably one of the first microwaves in the universe. It only cooked one thing, plastic-wrapped cheese and onion sandwiches that were microwaved in the bag. People used to watch it being done, the microwave machine behind the bar where everyone could see it. We made our own entertainment in those days.

Someone tried to organise a school reunion ten years ago and phoned the Red Lion to see if we could hold it where we’d spent so much of our school time, at least in the evenings and weekends. There was a big fireplace, a door at the front and another, the one everyone used, at the back leading into the car park that was more like a little wood than anywhere you’d leave your car now. It was warm in the winter and cool in the summer. Nobody bothered anyone. You could have a conversation if you wanted one and be left alone if you didn’t. On Friday and Saturday nights it was literally wall-to-wall people in all three rooms of the pub. Cars were borrowed, crashed, had their rusting sills ripped off on the stones that bordered the grass, abandoned with the doors open and lights on and even sometimes parked normally in the car-park. Love affairs started, flourished, turned into disappointment or jealousy and ended in that pub. It’s possible that whole lives started there too, but that was nothing to do with me even if I did know exactly who was involved in that particular episode.

The Red Lion shut over a decade ago. There’s another pub called the Red Lion just over a mile away but it’s not the same. It never was. It just wasn’t the one you went to. Was it so good because of the place, or the people who went there? It’s something I’m asking myself more and more these days. And more and more I’m thinking the land of lost content is a place in your heart, not anywhere you can find on a map.

Share Button
Follow on Feedly