Rural idylls

12th May 2000 at 01:00
Do you know what Feoffees are? I do. The last time I heard of them I was in primary school. Now here they are again in Gervase Phinn's second volume of tales from his encounters as an inspector, Over Hill and Dale (Michael Joseph pound;16.99).

"The Feoffees," explains one of them in the book, "have existed for 500 years, helping the unfortunate, supporting the sick, giving bursaries and scholarships to deserving causes." We had a set of them in our bit of Yorkshire, too. My memories are vague, but I seem to remember Lord Wharncliffe was one, as was Lieutenant-Colonel H R C Walker, who, before nationalisation, owned the pit where all our dads worked. Maybe I had some new clogs from them, or a trip on a chara to Scarborough.

The charm of Gervase Phinn's storytelling is not just that he stirs up childhood memories, but that he kindles feelings of recognition in teachers and heads everywhere. Comparatively few of his readers and listeners inhabit his world of North Yorkshire dales and small village schools, but the events, and his understanding of classrooms and children, contain universal truths.

There's the tale, for example, of the little boy who, playing the part of the Pied Piper, had to be cajoled into the Piper's cruel response to the Mayor's refusal to pay him. Finally he cracked. "Well, you can stuff your thousand guilders!" roared the Pied Piper. "You're a tight-fisted old bugger." (Luckily, Phinn tells us, the Pied Piper's teacher thought he said "burgher".) Like Gervase Phinn's first book, The Other Side of the Dale, this is a collection of his engaging stories. Reading them is not nearly as good as hearing them, but they deserve a wider audience, filled asthey are with good-hearted understanding of the teacher's lot.

The title alone of Ronald Blythe's Out of the Valley (Viking pound;16.99) suggests the book will sit easily on a shelf alongside Gervase Phinn. There are other points of contact too. Blythe (author of the classic account of rural life, Akenfield) chronicles a passing year in a present-day Suffolk village, month by month. As beautifully written as you would expect, the account has a flavour of gentle reflection on things seen and experienced:

"Distant combines mutter across the fields, efficient yellow monsters biting down the corn. The harvest itself is a shifting dustcloud which forbids approach."

Nearly always, what seems at first bucolic carries a tougher message that sometimes borders on the bitter. There is a moving but not mawkish encounter with the Great War battlefields. And of the mechanisation of the harvest, and the consequent loss of any real meaning in the harvest festival, Blythe writes: "Some old hymns and decorations a few weeks hence will do their best to resurrect some of the old emotion."

Blythe is a governor of his village school and tells of turning with relief, after Ofsted, to discussion of the playing-field fence. During Ofsted week, it seems, children walked from the school to see him at his home, Bottengoms, to talk about art. The inspector came too.

"The Ofsteds have arrived at the school," he writes. "There has been nothing like it since Matthew Hopkins the Witchfinder rode over from Manningtree. Even more alarming, an Ofsted arrives at Bottengoms accompanied by 17 children, a pair of parents and the headteacher herself." A lovely book.


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