The power of an amazing book is that it can send you into the footsteps of others anywhere in the world, or indeed even out of it. Within a fifty pages of a book you can be transcended anywhere in the world; the deserts of India, the Gothic South of America, the jungles of Brazil or Africa, the heady city centres in Japan, etc. I could go on and on. There is much that is marvellous about this ability to transport so quickly, if only we could do it in real life, and indeed after my several years in the ‘I’m not reading anything, books are boring’ wilderness of my late teens and early twenties I would travel far and wide around the world through books, partaking in challenges to read for all over the world, and notably I carry on doing so for things like Kim of Reading Matters’ Australian and New Zealand literature month. Yet at the same time I also noticed I was missing books which celebrated the landscape much, much closer to home. Not quite in my back ground, but not far off.
However in the last few years, partly after reading from Fiction Uncovered’s very own selection (Catherine Hall’s The Proof of Love) one of the kinds of books I love to read the most are ones set in the British countryside. I have, I am sad to admit, become a tiny bit bored by books set in London, admittedly less so if they happen to be somewhere between 1850 and 1910. This however is not any author’s fault or a reflection of the city but after living there for over a decade I felt I knew the place well enough not to read about it. Interestingly when I moved to Manchester and then Liverpool on arrival I wanted to read fiction set in them to learn about them.
Just like all around the globe, every city in the UK is different. There seems to be assumptions that cities in roughly the same area (like Bristol and Bath, Manchester and Liverpool, Edinburgh and Glasgow) are going to be very similar, if you haven’t the time to travel them individually or maybe just whizz through them. I learnt a huge amount about Birmingham through the wonder of Catherine O’Flynn’s The News Where You Are which is a fascinating tale of a news reporter who becomes obsessed with the people who die alone in the city and its architectural history (the good and the bad), it’s a marvellous love letter to the city and had me wanting to go there straight away and visit. Through reading about these cities we can find what makes them tick and most importantly celebrate what makes them unique.
Of course it is not only the major cities in the UK that are full of all walks of life, head out of these cities and off to the shires and the towns and villages where some of the best stories can be found. Like the cities, every county in the UK is diverse and different. This is of course nothing new, it has been written through the ages; Hardy, the Brontes and Du Maurier have all celebrated some of the most beautiful parts of the country. I do think that we tend to forget that contemporary writers do this too. As I mentioned, Catherine Hall’s The Proof of Love celebrates the Lake District in all its beautiful and brooding atmosphere, Tom Bullough’s The Claude Glass does the same with the Welsh wilderness, and Edward Hogan’s The Hunger Trace does wonders with my home county of Derbyshire, even possibly the very town I come from.
In the latter case I am sure that the sense of nostalgia for the place I once lived and know so well contributes to why I love the book so much, obviously the writing is also bloody marvellous or I wouldn’t have got past chapter one. Yet what I love about the country side is the fact that as you pass it on a train/in the car you see the idyllic scenery, the quintessential villages with their cosy cottages and rose bushes. Behind closed doors lie secrets, sometimes far darker than ones in the cities and most importantly all the harder to hide, let’s face it in cities you rarely know your neighbours whereas head to the countryside and you can’t help but curtain twitch. You know this is true, don’t pretend you don’t.
There are also the dynamics of the towns and villages. In a city you are who you are and get on with it in the main, coming from a town I know there are unwritten rules, traditions and hierarchies. There is also the fascinating dynamic of the insider and the outsider, those new-to-the-town people, can they be trusted? There are of course the places where you might not have neighbours for miles, again these places come with a sense of the unknown, the isolated, the mysterious, the other. All this is a real treasure trove of material for any writer and fascinating for any reader because we know those people, we have met them and walked the same streets as them.
Now I should state here that by no means am I saying stop travelling to Asia, South America and the Artic, etc. in your reading – that would be bonkers – but do look for books which celebrate your own county, your own country. Then tell EVERYONE about them because just as we should be reading and supporting our local authors we should be reading about and celebrating our local landscapes. After all, it isn’t just people from other countries that want to read about the places outside ‘that big London’ (as some of us call it up north), the towns and villages and also the remote wilderness of our isles and the people who may reside in them, we all want to know more about our country and our heritage too don’t we? I know I do, so if you have some corking recommendations for such a book let me know!
Simon Savidge is a freelance journalist, blogger and book addict. He writes the (almost daily) blog Savidge Reads. He regularly contributes to several literature based magazines and lifestyle magazines. He is co-founder and Honorary Director of The Green Carnation Prize, you can also hear him on The Readers and You Wrote The Book podcasts. For full reviews of these, other Fiction Uncovered books and more do visit Simon’s blog Savidge Reads.