Book review: Rural, by Rebecca Smith

Presenting a rounded, nuanced view of rural working class life, Rebecca Smith’s book doesn’t reduce the world to easy answers but instead revels in its difficulty, writes Stuart Kelly

This is a considered and considerate book, and one which appeals to me a great deal. On a personal level, I have some experience of the book’s topic – “The Lives of the Working Class Countryside” – albeit a historical one. Like the author, I moved class: my parents were schoolteachers, but my grandfathers were with and on the land. I am now in the nebulous “culture sector” which means cultural capital rich (you get invited to things), penny in the pocket somewhat poorer. Smith knits her own personal history into this book, which is slighty standard practice in “creative non-fiction” these days, and peccavi you can count me in on that. But her analysis is acute and dislodging and revelatory. It is also very self-aware, in a good way, the author constantly cross-examining herself on the ambiguities and paradoxes of what the rural life really means.

She captures the slippage between idyll and exclusion perfectly. The opening line is “Often, I think, people assume I am something I am not”. She grew up on an estate, where her dad was a forester, and as she puts it, “stepping in the footsteps of the upper classes did not mean I wore their shoes. Our lives ran in parallel, but our worlds were very different”.

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The book is structured around different aspects of rural employment – land, forestry, mining, the management of water and dams, food production, slate-works, textiles, tourism (why are we always “attracting tourists?”, I wonder), new builds, entrepreneurship and finally a finale on the perennial question: to whom does the land belong? The one with the title-deeds or the one with a sense of connection? It drills deep into questions of ownership and property, and if the rural working class are deeply imbued with what a classical Marxist would call false consciousness. It might well be that they are the nannies of the land, because the pampered hands would not know a hoe from a rake, but they are complicit in the swell of pride when the swells allow them into “the big house” for a sherry at Christmas. So much of our popular culture hyperventilates on this kind of nostalgia.

Rebecca SmithRebecca Smith
Rebecca Smith

One of the most informative aspects of the book is the part on tied accommodation. I declare an interest: my grandpa lived in a tied cottage. The experience that Smith describes chimes with my family’s history. On moving to a council house in an urban area, they were always unsettled. The sense of dislocation is conveyed well here, with a raised eyebrow to how a terrace end might seem surreal. Not that she is at all sentimental about the conditions of many tied cottages – damp, cold, remote and with landlords who cared little for repairs or safety. I would add that there is another group in tied accommodation with such problems: church ministers, for whom it is “custom, not law” to leave the Presbytery bounds on retiral.

Every chapter has a factoid or observation that makes this compelling. The problems of both community buy-outs and second home ownership are forensically studied, even if the conclusion is that these are complicated issues. In terms of tourism, she is extremely precise: these areas need business from tourism, but tourism can “ruin” the area, ecologically and culturally. Worse, it prices out the locals who might want to buy, since holiday lets generate more income. (I remember one person saying to me that they did not want the Borders Railway because “we’re happy to be left on our own”).

I was unsure at first about Smith’s repeated references to her children and her pregnancy. Nevertheless, I think it was not self-indulgent but actually necessary to the book’s structure. This is a book about what is inherited and what is passed on to the next generation. There is a radical difference between the Brideshead era, bemoaning death duties and inheritance taxes, and those who were out on their ear when their work was done. She enfolds into the book a sense of care about what we leave behind, even to the as-yet-unborn.

The natural world plays a large part; from hiking to wild-swimming to building dens. Glamping, thankfully, is absent. Again, this is part of the structure. There is a reason “Garden Cities” were so-called; that access to nature was not a privilege but a right. Perhaps the best chapter involves her partner touring her around an estate he is designing – the irony is not lost on her – and the differences between militarised rows (such as in places like Newtongrange, where you have “First Street”, “Second Street”) and the twee commemorative names, where few remember those they commemorate. Does your road wind, or does it march?

This book walks a very delicate path very well. It shows a working class which was multifarious. The references to Covid somehow fit, in terms of indoors, outdoors, freedom and entitlement. There are – a modern phenomenon – snapshots and old photographs, but these do give a sense of transience. The recent past sometimes seems long ago. I do not know if unpolemic is a word, but I admire that Smith has written something which does not reduce the world to easy answers but revels in its difficulty.

Rural: The Lives of the Working Class Countryside, by Rebecca Smith, William Collins, £18.99

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