An Austen-Ized Village

The last time I was in England it was in full financial crisis yet again. There is no virtue in England now— that is the general feeling. If we survive, it will be by luck—that concrete presence ringing the horizon, the North Sea oil wells. We are, as a nation, in the position of the scapegrace of Restoration comedy, the bankrupt ne’er-do-well with a rich uncle who is dying.

I spent most of my time in Weston, the village I grew up in, 150 miles from London, where the flowers that month were unusually luxuriant. And while I was there, the man next door died, and his funeral was a bit of the old England. The church was full and we sang “The Day Thou Gavest, Lord, Is Ended,” and “The Lord’s My Shepherd, I’ll Not Want,” and “Abide With Me, Fast Falls the Eventide.” These are all sonorous and moving hymns, and they were sung quite thunderously.

The dead man had belonged to several clubs, the Conservatives, the Men’s, the Bowling, and their members came in force to do him honor. It was the preponderance of men that gave the event its old-fashioned character. In villages like Weston, the men go to church less often than the women; they look stiffer in their best clothes, and in various ways more countrified. The faces and figures that crowded our pews that day were very much those I remember from my childhood —rather small men, with small faces, rosy and shiny, but ready and able—perhaps to their own surprise—to sing loud and clear.

And what the funeral showed me, “Weston Follies of 1976” had shown me a few days before. It has recently become an annual tradition that Miss Wynn should put on a concert, mostly of humorous and sentimental songs, broken up by monologues and skits. The vicar plays the piano, and everyone who performs or assists is well known to everyone in the audience, for there are only about three hundred people in the village. Five or six schoolmates I recognized, through time’s disguise, only by name or title. One fat woman was now Mrs. Jones from the Lane, though for three or four years I must have called her Molly Stubbs every day. The point is that the show succeeded. The players depended rather heavily on one semiprofessional performer, who supports most such occasions near us, but they sang in tune together, and with a charming readiness to entertain.

They had avoided—resisting pressure from the vicar, I heard—the trap of hamming the songs up. Molly swung her bulk onto the platform and got some laughs, but her singing was perfectly straight. In place of slapstick, the star substituted a silent clowning of someone getting stuck in a swamp— furiously hoisting boots up and outwhile the rest daintily sang “Tiptoe Through the Tulips.” This weirdly abstract satire, reminiscent of Marcel Marceau, was on a different level of sophistication from the rest.

Most of the time the players were dressed in Pierrot costume, but the last part of the program was titled “Down on the Old Plantation.” For this they were in black-face, and wore bandannas and full-skirted print dresses. Miss Wynn told me afterward that they had thought of themselves as “black and white minstrels.” The Black and White Minstrels are prime-time television, and wear formal dress, white gloves, and have black circles round their eyes. Most of Weston had never seen an old-style American minstrel show; in fact, Miss Wynn had to teach them the songs they offered as “the old familiar favourites.” Weston has no black inhabitants and no visible prejudice. But even if there were black Westonians, I doubt if any change of theme would have suggested itself to Miss Wynn. In her mind, this entertainment has simply nothing to do with race. She belongs to an older generation, an older England. The future is going to be different. The present is so already.

The Friday after 1 arrived in England, an eighteen-year-old named Gurdip Singh Chagger was stabbed to death in Southall in what was taken to be a racial murder. Southall is a London suburb, twelve miles west of the City, merged since 1965 with Ealing, where I was born. It has changed radically since my childhood. According to an article in the Times, it now has one of the highest concentrations of immigrants anywhere in England, and all come from the same part of India. Out of a population of 70,000, some 20 to 30 thousand are immigrants, or the children of immigrants, from around Jullundur, They are Sikhs by religion, and have strong ties of family, language, custom.

They dominate Southall economically, and still find plenty of work. Much of it is unskilled; Heathrow Airport, nearby, seems to be serviced entirely by Punjabis. But the Indians also take a high proportion of the places at the Southall College of Technology (where Gurdip Singh Chagger was a student) preparing themselves for better jobs. They are keen on work and selfimprovement of all kinds, which is resented by the whites. The Sikh temples are full, while the Christian churches are empty. The Indians do not patronize the pubs or the bingo halls. They are too busy.

What England needs more than anything else is just such new blood, a group of new believers in the old social forms and forces; but unfortunately, many groups have found no place in the structure of British respectability. The cities in which they are a large presence (notably London and Birmingham) will likely be drawn into the vortex of bitterness, resentment, and continuing crisis.

Seen in the national context of financial and social chaos, Weston is idyllic, for what is happening there is an active social reconstruction. Ten to twenty new houses have been built over the last ten years, and the new inhabitants are predominantly retired schoolteachers. Most are women, and all taught primary school.

They have brought to the village an enthusiasm for gardening, for walks and views and pets, an enthusiasm for local history and rights-of-way and the preservation of old buildings and customs, and, more important, an enthusiasm for local life. They support, and play a large part in, the local Women’s Institute, and recently started a branch in Weston. They service Meals on Wheels, which brings hot dinners twice a week to the houses of old people in the village. They organize trips and parties and hospital visits for those who would not otherwise have them. They organize the village concert.

Allied to them is a slightly different group of new inhabitants, less consciously and purposefully villagers, even the well-to-do farmers among them. Their faces are turned more toward town affairs. Under the vicar’s leadership, they campaigned a year ago to prevent the closing of the village school by the county education authority. Westonians now feel that they are looked after by other Westonians.

All this is of course a very oldfashioned idyll; conservative, even Conservative. The leadership lies with the middle class, who are marked as such by their income. There is as clear a division between the two classes of Weston now as there was in my childhood. Down at the more populist end, where Molly Jones lives, they talk with a Weston accent, which carries the same range of meanings as other local accents, of warmth, solidarity-against, cutting-down-to-size. There is the traditional acknowledgment of that class difference —humorous-aggressive on the part of the proletariat, uneasypolite on the part of the others. But it is not a difference that divides. Both sides take part in the same activities—for instance, in “Weston Follies” and in the school campaign.

I remember, as a boy, worrying over the two languages all the other children had; one for school and one for home, or one for the schoolroom and one for the schoolyard. I spoke only correct English, because I arrived in Weston from London at eight, so I was a social cripple. And the places I couldn’t go, lacking that other language, were the secret places of life, the sensual and crudely emotional places. I always knew there were depths of grossness to life in the cottages which our house lacked, and I heard the threat to invoke that grossness in all they said. That’s what Molly Jones hinted at by swinging her body round on stage, though she is just as refined as I am, and would be just as quickly offended by a hint from another system of grossness. But as between us, between her half of the village and mine, the threats run in my direction. In the happy situation that prevails now, however, that feeling only adds to the fun.

What has happened to Weston, since my childhood, is that it has been Jane Austen-ized. Social activity is simmering behind each door, and one begins naturally to identify each door, as Jane Austen did, by its moral character; to distinguish “Apricot Cottage” from “Green Lawns” by the greater fondness in the former for electoral office and proper procedure, against the latter’s spontaneity. As in Jane Austen’s villages, this awareness is comic; the precision with which these things can be known and measured against each other is unnatural, like art; but the comedy is inseparable from the clarity of mind and energy of will with which all the work is done. For them as well as for me, the smallness of scale on which they operate is a constant factor in the charm of the thing.

To become a Jane Austen village is a political achievement, because idylls are one kind of political fact. People with a strong desire to give life dignity, who recoil from the ugliness of industrial cities, but who are not ready for the cut and thrust of radical politics, have for a long time had recourse to smaller and quieter communities where they could turn their dreams into reality. That is what villages have been, for two hundred years, in England; not agricultural communities so much as places of retirement, where people of significant quietude, of active goodness, have maintained a high standard of life, for others as well as for themselves. That is the idyllic stream of history, and to this stream generalizations other than those of Marx apply.

We can call it a middle-class idyll, but by that term we mean a class characterized by schoolteachers, not by entrepreneurs or rentiers. My own family is of that class, and finds itself in the village because of the school. My mother’s aunt was the first teacher properly trained and hired for Weston school. She came there from Manchester in 1897, herself in retreat from the noise and dirt and unhealth of that city, and remained there, a royally successful teacher—and so viceroy of the village’s cultural life—for thirty years. Her nephews and nieces came there on holiday, again to get away from the city.

If the school had been closed this year, the village, founded about 125 years ago, might have begun to die. But it was saved by the school campaign. When the County Education Committee decided to close Weston school, a group of people formed an action group and a fighting fund. They held public meetings in the village hall, saw the local MP, tried to get support from the Diocesan Educational Council (because it is a church school), secured letters of protest from the Women’s Institutes and the National Farmers’ Union. They mustered a busful of supporters and drove to the Shirehall, with banners and songs, to present a petition. When the vicar received by phone the council’s decision to keep the school open, he rang the church’s two bells in signal of victory.

Another miniature, another two inches of ivory. At the universities, the talk was of nationwide sit-ins and marches, of Trotskyite factions and Maoism. Those new university towers are citadels of alienation in the English countryside. Of course they should be different from the old England. We need a new idea. But the language of alienation is not new. What would be new would be a politics that took account of that idyllic constructive activity of the villages; the silent bees of history, the honey-makers; the coral insects who build up the islands on which we build, the villages where the good conscience we remember was once made real, that good conscience that seems immemorial but was invented; that reaction against brutality.

I met on this visit someone who had been in Weston school with me. There was but one teacher for all the pupils between eight and fourteen. Lillian and I won scholarships to the local grammar school (two scholarships in one year was a “first”), but Lillian’s parents, who were farmers, would not let her go to the school in town, and so our paths diverged. She went to a finishing school later, and took lessons in art and elocution, but had no academic training. After a local marriage, and a divorce, she has returned with her three children to manage her father’s farm, and now sleeps in the room she was born in, works for Meals on Wheels, and so on. She had never been to London till quite recently.

Not that limitation, much less dullness, is an idea you could associate with Lillian. She always had remarkable gifts as a performer—singing, dancing, public speaking, above all, humorous monologues. And after school she continued to compete in everything, and to win the prizes, in cooking, decorating, homemaking. She was the performer who made a success out of “Weston Follies,” notably by a rhymed monologue satirizing Weston personalities. Though her accent is still Westonian, her diction and even more strikingly her voice are those of an actress. On stage she is absolutely impersonal in the intermissions of vivacity, and in personal conversation she is notably simple, out of the same self-discipline.

She married well enough, in terms of money, but her husband gradually succumbed to paranoid schizophrenia. He began keeping notebooks, in which he described seeing her, as she stoked the Aga cooker, revealed as the Devil feeding souls to the flames, their cat her familiar. He attacked her physically more than once. Her own mental health suffered in the conflict at first, but she has by now resumed her triumphant career. Inevitably, she is surrounded by envy, like other artists, and she suffers the constant paradox of the tiny scale on which she works.

On the other hand, she wans the truest recognition. Her audience knows exactly how good she is—they get the point of what she is saying. The glamour of the footlights does not remove her and her art from them. They do not applaud the theater, or the reviews, or the price of their ticket, but her.

She is a formidably gifted and energetic woman, and people are afraid of her, to some degree exclude her socially. Their pretexts for this are various, but underlying them, I think, is her character as actress, as satirist. Her lifestyle is freer than theirs. But it is also a life of service. On Christmas Day she invited one of the old men she serves in Meals on Wheels to dinner at her house, even though her arrangements were already complicated by a visit from her ex-husband and the presence of the other man she sees. Comedy, of course, gives her a way to handle all this.

Lillian has, it is perceptible, chosen village values. She admires very much the mother of the man she sees, a hardworking old countrywoman of no education who has devoted herself to work and has overcome every bitterness and dissatisfaction. Lillian herself clearly has been, perhaps still is, full of demands and dissatisfaction, but she has fixed her eyes on this model of patience. And in doing so she is contributing her share to the idyll of village life, building her cell in the coral of the island, of England as an idea, a meaning, a tradition—the island that will have to support us when the North Sea oil storm bursts.