Tag Archives: God’s Own Country

Novels of English towns and counties

From time to time I like to write a post that links books by titles or themes or in some other way. Today the link is English towns and counties. Place is so important in novels. Think of that imagined place: Narnia, although I should point out that Totnes is twinned with Narnia. And think of the significance of a real location, such as Dartmoor in The Hound of the Baskervilles  by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Except, of course, that it is not a version of Dartmoor that you will find on the maps.

Cities and counties have great significance in English literature. Here is my random selection, with links to reviews on Bookword where they exist.

Devon and the oldest book of all

Let us start with the oldest book of all, in Devon. The Exeter Book has survived a thousand years, not always cared for, and not always intelligible. It is now in the Exeter Cathedral Library and Archives collection, and can be seen on monthly open days. 

Written in Old English some time between 960 and 990 the Exeter Book originally had 131 parchment leaves, but the first eight pages are now lost. The text was written by one person, in miniscule Old English, and with some runes included. It contains 96 riddles and some longer poems. A few of the poems have Christian connections, but the collection is largely secular, despite its long connection with the Cathedral. But why it was compiled, and for whom remain mysteries. Read more here.

More history from Devon can be found in The Recent Past  by James Ravilious. It is a book of photographs of the recent past taken in rural North Devon. James Ravilious was a photographer whose commission was to document the North Devon area for the Beaford Arts Centre (today Beaford Arts). He began in 1972 and continued for 17 years to photograph the rural neighbourhood where he lived. There are 75 images in this large format book. It is beautifully produced and smells as good art books should. The photographs are all given James Ravilious’s titles, locations and dates and notes have been added by his wife Robin, which add to the pleasure of the viewing. You can read more about it here.

A county that does not exist

For her massive account of local community matters in the inter-war years Winifred Holtby invented a county, the missing South Riding. When I was young there were three Ridings of Yorkshire: North East and West. I often wondered about the missing South Riding. In Winifred Holtby’s novel Alderman Mrs Beddows took her place in the series on older women in fiction. She was the focus of the post I wrote about this novel. But the 500+ pages are about many more of the people in the community she serves. The beautiful countryside which Winifred Holtby knew so well is also a feature of this novel. 

More Yorkshire can be found in God’s Own Country  by Ross Raisin. The story is set in more recent times, and is a dark tale of under-privilege and rural neglect. It sets rural against urban, middle class life against  poverty, and shows us something of the challenge of the Yorkshire Moors. You can read the whole post here.

From Essex

In 2016 The Essex Serpent  by Sarah Perry won a great many prizes. I thought the cover was brilliant, although it has been copied a great deal since. The story is set in London and Essex in the 1890s. New knowledge is battling with older traditions and myths and this made for an excellent story, much enjoyed in reading groups. It was often described as gothic. My review can be read here.

A Classic about a town on the South Coast

Brighton Rock by Graham Greene is one of the most read of my posts on Bookword. It has a famous first line: 

Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him.

The novel considers the different beliefs of its protagonists. But above all it is a thriller, set on a public holiday between the wars in a town recognisable today. Here’s a link to the full post.

Brighton Beach on Whitsun, 31 May 2009. By David Hawgood of Geography Project via Wiki Commons.

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God’s Own Country by Ross Raisin

God’s Own Country is a grim story about a young lad who finds himself in opposition to his parents’ generation, the newcomers to the Yorkshire Moors and their class, ramblers, neighbours, and eventually the law. Sam Marsdyke’s story illustrates a highly divided country: generation against generation; urban against rural; class against class; even the experiences of the beautiful Yorkshire countryside brings people into conflict.

The Story

Sam Marsdyke (19) is the only son of a farming couple living on the Moors. He has a bad reputation because he was caught with a girl at school and there was an alleged rape. The story is told in the first person, so we only have Sam’s version for what happened. New people move into the farm next door, not to farm but to live in ‘God’s Own Country’ and they have a daughter, Jo Reeves (15), on whom Sam becomes fixated.

Jo has her own difficulties with her parents, not least that she didn’t want to move away from London, specifically from Muswell Hill. She visits Sam as he works on the farm, and eventually proposes that they run away, and so they do, across the Yorkshire Moors until they reach the sea at Whitby.

Their impetuous escapade becomes a progressive nightmare, as neither the girl not Sam makes any plan or has any sense of reality. Sam in particular becomes less realistic as their flight proceeds, until he believes he has to restrain the girl. She had no plan but to frighten her parents into noticing her anger.

The novel’s strengths

When it was published in 2008 God’s Own Country attracted lots of good attention, especially as it was Ross Raisin’s first published novel. It was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award, John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, Betty Trask Award and for International Dublin Literary Award in 2010.

The judges of the International Dublin Literary Award commented:

Marsdyke’s flight across the Yorkshire Moors is a journey from civility into depravation but also a desperate, anarchic rush for freedom, which completely absorbs and overwhelms the reader. Written with an extraordinary verbal ingenuity and a riotous play with dialect, this is a fresh and vivid novel which challenges our view of those who slip through the conventional nets of sanity.

Sam is brilliantly realised, through his own voice: his language, his continuous inner commentary, his anger and his imagination are all brilliantly evoked. Here is the opening, somewhat challenging as I walk a great deal.

Ramblers. Daft sods in pink and green hats. It wasn’t even cold. They moved down the field swing-swaying like a line of drunks, addled with the air and the land, and the smell of manure. (1)

The evocation of the Moors, a landscape in which Sam is entirely familiar, is in his characteristic voice.

I was up early. The sun had just started to show himself when I stepped into the yard, a ball of orange half-hid behind the Moors. That was the best time, when the Moors were coming alive with creatures waking in the heather, and the dark was shifting to reveal a mighty heap of heather spreading fifty miles to the sea. This new family weren’t fussed about that, mind. Their sort were loopy for farmhouses – oh we must move there, the North Yorks Moors is God’s own country – but they couldn’t give a stuff for the Moors, all they wanted was a postcard view out of the bedroom window. They knew nothing what I knew of it. Spaunton, Rosedale, Egton, thirty moors each bigger than your eye could frame, fastened together by valleys cutting into the earth between, lush with forest, flowers and meadow grass, where there weren’t towns or villages drying it all up. (9)

First person narrative novels require skill to bring off. Sam frequently speaks in the voice of others (as in that quotation), which reveals his attitudes, and that he is often mistaken about people, and about Jo in particular. He manages to tell us the story of their adventure on the Moors, and reveal to us his unreliability both as a narrator, but also as a young adult. And, he manages to retain some of our sympathy, despite the situation in which he puts the young girl.

My trip to Yorkshire

During the recent hot weather I spent a few days in Yorkshire walking with a friend. The photographs are from our walks near Grassington. We enjoyed ourselves greatly, but were frequently frustrated by the lack of signs for the routes and footpaths.

God’s Own Country by Ross Raisin, published in 2008. I read the Penguin edition. 211pp

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