What do you think of if I ask you to picture an English village? Is it something quaint? Is it the Shire, with fewer hobbits and more above-ground houses? Is it a place where milk is still left on local doorsteps in glass bottles? Is it green and verdant, with a little Anglican church on the hill? Or is it a place that looks mundanely idyllic on the surface but is actually filled with all the peculiarity, nostalgia, loneliness, local legend, infatuation, hilarity, ghosts and crazy cat ladies that make up pretty much any small community worth its salt? Whichever one you’re leaning towards, Louis de Bernières has a story to tell you. A whole collection of them, actually.
De Bernières is a writer invested with the extremely rare quality to both move me to tears and make me laugh out loud. I was introduced to him through his magnificent novel Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, where time and again he had me in stitches one minute and weeping the next. He came back in true form with Notwithstanding, a collection of tales inspired by life in the Surrey village he grew up in—a world he believes has disappeared through the onslaught of modernity, as the beckoning of computer and television screens has led to village families living in virtual isolation of one another. “What was really special about those times was that everyone knew everyone else,” he writes in the afterword. Without the ubiquitous social support of old, he contends, the villages of modern England often fail to be proper communities. I’d say that’s a phenomenon shared right across the world.
While reading this book I couldn’t help but think about my own brush with the English countryside. Back when I was in university my brother spent a year working in a tiny village called Botton in the moors of North Yorkshire, a place known in a documentary about it as “the strangest village in Britain.” Strange I’m not so sure. Unique and one-of-a-kind, absolutely. Just getting there was probably the strangest part. After riding across half the country and missing my last connecting train, thereby getting stranded in the town my grandfather happened to have been born in, I hitched a ride with a stranger I met on the street, who drove me through the countryside and dropped me outside an old pub in a village that looked about as wide across as you could stretch your arms. The owners inside pointed down a dirt road that they said my destination lay at the end of. Darkness fell while I dragged my massive luggage bag down it and eventually I was tromping through dark lit only by the moon. With no idea where I was I let myself into a sheep field, bee-lining for a barn light at the top of the hill, and was confronted by a man with a pitchfork. When I explained in my foreign accent that I was trying to get to Botton, he pointed into the pitch black and told me it was further on that way. “Just close the gate on your way back,” he told me jovially in the gloom. “So the sheep don’t get out.” Around 11pm, dead tired and thankfully not eaten by a pack of moor-roving hedgehogs, I arrived in a sleepy village with not a soul about and followed a cobbled path by the light of a few street lamps until I turned the corner and saw my brother sitting on a wooden box, wondering where in the hell I’d been.
That was my first 12 hours in England.
On the surface Botton turned out to be like something out of a fairy tale, as quaint and pastoral as you could imagine. About half of its population (of under three hundred) are mentally handicapped adults, who are able to live a productive, rewarding life there. The town produces lots of organic food, as well as other products. I stayed with my brother and his vegetarian lesbian host mothers for the week I was there, and over that time met many of the caring, quirky and ever-friendly people who made up the community.
I remember walking into the village library my first morning and saying a few words to the only other person there, a man who peered at me speculatively from behind thick glasses. “You’re from Nova Scotia,” he said musingly. “Aren’t you? You have that accent.” I later heard that he was some kind of expert, not just about accents but apparently everything. People in the village called him “sleepy Simon” because he’d spend all night reading and continually fall asleep during the day. This guy might be a borderline genius, and he spends his days tucked away in a small library in a village nestled in the moors.
There was also a genuine savant in the village. You could give him any date, from any year, and instantly he’d tell you what day of the week it had been, which I suppose made him a local fascination, though I wonder how many would have heard of him beyond the quiet borders of Botton.
Between eating organic vegetarian meals, often garnished with some kind of mushroom paste that my brother had come to love, I wandered about the village meeting its other residents. At tea time there would always be someone to usher me into a nearby building for biscuits and Tetley’s. One night some of my brother’s friends and I had a little barbecue, and I got to talking with one of the resident (mentally challenged) villagers from the house we were at. He was bald, slim, and had this calm, keen look in his eyes, like he spent his time peering into other universes. I guess that’s why he stands out in my memory. He looked a bit like Moby, actually, and in another time and place he might have been a Buddhist monk. He was quite intent on telling me of the transient nature of the volunteers in the village like my brother, all who come and eventually leave. “But I say to them, you can always come back, anytime,” he said in this airy voice of his. “Always welcome.” I’ve rarely met anyone else who looked so profoundly at peace with himself and the world as that gentleman. I was starting to wonder who was “mentally challenged” and who was “normal” in this village, including myself.
I’m sure my mind has idealized that week over time, glossing it up a little and clipping off any negative bits. It certainly was a beautiful place, but my whole idyllic impression is based on merely a taste of it. Would it seem too far removed from, well, everything else after a while? To use the Internet I had to go up to something of a little shack that needed a key to open and had a computer in it. I don’t think my brother had a TV either, and there probably weren’t many of them in the village overall. Are those very elements that de Bernières mentions as having isolated modern English villagers from each other the same things that I would find it intolerable to go without for too long?
There’s something to be said for the way that we sometimes idealize the past—a simpler time, we like to say—while ignoring what reality in that period would be like for us, considering our ever-faster, ever-complicating and ever more convenient lives. This is the age, after all, of entertainment on demand and cherry-picked online socializing. “My village in southern Surrey was many years past the era of rural idyll,” writes de Bernières, reflecting on his youth. “The centuries of ‘idyll’ were in any case a period of ignorance, disease, servitude, bone-numbing cold, relentless hard work, perinatal death and extreme penury.”
The stories of Notwithstanding take place over a number of decades, and only one I can recall in what might be thought of as the era of rural idyll. They are often sincerely beautiful and haunting, as well as funny and sad. I enjoyed leaping about town with each story, into the heads and hearts of different people each time. I think de Bernières is trying to capture all that made the English village special, what he cherishes most in his own nostalgia, and by extension what makes small tight-knit communities special in general. Much of what he reveals through his characters can pertain to people anywhere. He has an amazing ability to pull the reader into another person’s mind and build compassion for them, if not care and affection.
After a while I got to know the village of Notwithstanding, as though I’d been there once upon a time, or passed through it on some forgotten summer. And maybe I had. Maybe Botton was a Notwithstanding, or the very community I grew up in, with our little post office and elementary school and the church up on the hill. Maybe I live in a Notwithstanding right now, even if it’s on the other side of the earth; it’s still a place where often enough people know each other by name, and what each other does for a living, and the streets are filled with the hushed gossip of other people’s lives. I guess de Bernières teaches us to savor a good Notwithstanding while we have it, because someday it’ll be gone and we’ll be left reminiscing about the lives that filled them, back in more deeply connected times when it seemed everyone knew everyone.