Books by Patrick Wright:

The Village that Died for England

First published by Jonathan Cape, 1995
Paperback edition by Vintage, 1996
Expanded and revised edition, Faber and Faber, 2002.

A Review of Reviews by P Wright

The critical reception of The Village that Died for England was actually more varied than the snippets of praise on the jacket necessarily suggest.  Indeed, when it first appeared in 1995 the Sunday Telegraph noted, in its round-up of the week’s reviews, that ‘few books in recent years have had as mixed a press’.

I was abroad just before the first edition came out, but I remember landing at Heathrow one Sunday to find the book being condemned on the front page of the Sunday Times’s books section.  ‘This is the most depressing book I have read for years,’ opened John Carey, before going on to chide me for expressing the superiority of a ‘Guardian columnist’ (which I had never really been – although a few months previously, I had crossed swords with this leather-clad Oxford professor when he insinuated, absurdly, that Richard Hoggart was a snob during the course of a discussion on Radio Three’s ‘Night Waves’).

Whatever axes Carey had to grind, he was not alone in his reservations about the book.  Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Penelope Livesey declared it ‘maverick and illuminating’ – ‘a book to be read’ – while also worrying that it seemed ‘cynical’.  Charles Saumarez Smith, who reviewed it for the Spectator, noted that the tone was ‘studiously dispassionate. . . as if everyone in the story was in the wrong.’

Some declared themselves frustrated by the books ‘digressive’ approach.  Byron Rogers, in The Literary Review, was infuriated by my refusal to tell a simple story of evacuation and displacement: declaring the book more or less unreadable, he boasted ‘I have thrown it across various rooms’. Kate Chisholm, of the Sunday Telegraph, missed a tightly unified argument and concluded ‘better by far to take the road from Corfe Castle and turn left for Tyneham’.  Simon Stander, writing in Public Policy Review, seemed to want a more programmatic book that called for a restoration of the peasantry and  told him what to think  (‘I wanted something to rub off against. I wanted him to rub the Vaseline off the lens’).

This negative current was still running in 1996, when the first paperback edition came out.  John Blake, a paperback digester at the Independent on Sunday, expelled the book with a grunt:  there was, he said, ‘something wrong about the tone,’ and the writer was ‘too much the sardonic metropolitan, smirking at the dotty Merrie Englanders’.

My ‘digressive’ approach aside, it was, perhaps, not surprising that the book drew the hostility of some who felt challenged in their feelings of Englishness. Yet in writing it I was not aware of being compelled by contempt or ‘metropolitan’ disdain for country life.

The history I was uncovering required sympathetic interest, sometimes in views I strongly disliked, and also a large measure of critical distance. I could not have grasped the complexity of the contest that has defined this landscape through most of the twentieth century simply by taking sides, or by following the drift of emotionally compelling interpretations, or by telling readers what to think. I didn’t want to join the lamentation or adopt an elegiac tone either. After all, it was in its posthumous elegies that the myth of Tyneham became most detached from reality: as in the legend of ‘Churchill’s pledge’ – a promise that was retrospectively invented but which has survived my attempted curtailment and continues to dominate more recent journalistic versions of the story.

My publishers, meanwhile, were glad to concentrate on the more positive reviews, the most generous of which came from the poet and translator Michael Hoffman. Writing in the Independent on Sunday, he described the book as ‘brilliant’. He also got in touch with Jonathan Cape, enclosing the full typescript of his review, and apologising for the fact that the literary editor, Jan Dalley, had apparently stripped it of all further words of appreciation.  As printed, his review began with a non-committal plot summary. He had actually opened with the following paragraph:

‘I don’t think I have read a better book about this country than The Village that Died for England. It is a work of Pynchonesque coherence and revelation, the inexhaustible systemic comedy of a Musil, the subversiveness of a Bunuel – a work of genius and not just genius loci.’

Perhaps the excising editor was only trying to protect Hoffman from his own excessive enthusiasm. Neither I nor the book’s various publishers have extended him the same service. Indeed, we have been quick to use both modest and immodest versions of the expunged paragraph on the cover of the later paperback editions.

(August 2007)