From Acre End — Portrait of a Village by Mollie Harris. Foreword by Phil Drabble (Chatto & Windus £7.50).
IN THIS low-key account of Eynsham, a "very typical English working village", Mollie Harris (`Martha Woodford' to fans of The Archers) records the reminiscences of a couple of dozen of her Oxfordshire village neighbours, drawing mainly on memories of the first quarter of the century.
The village had no particular pretensions to beauty or fame, life was for the most part monotonous, and as none of the contributors speaks with anything approaching the magic of Flora Thompson readers hoping for a second Lark Rise are in for a disappointment. Nonetheless the gradual accumulation of detail is hypnotic and successful.
After a while even such unmind-boggling remarks as "puddings and stews were often cooked in the oven" can be swallowed uncomplainingly, and there are vivid compensatory details, such as that of the deliciousness of sucking raw pigs' toenails (recorded with relish by two speakers) or of the bumper crops of grapes and tomatoes that resulted from feeding plants with slaughterhouse blood.
Many remembered pleasures, not surprisingly for a poor community, have to do with food: rook pies; bloaters fried over the blacksmith's fire after his day's work was finished; the consumption of slabs of cold rice pudding bought from one of the many little cottage shops (an especially popular memory); and tiny end-of-crop potatoes boiled in floury jackets and sold from another cottage kitchen.
The quality of life seems to have been grey and flat, although this may have something to do with the perspective of the speakers four are in their nineties and a number in their late eighties.
Colours and scents make a welcome alleviation: "One year I stood in that first field on a lovely spring day, knee deep in cow-slips . . . simply smothered with them the grass was". And so are jokes. One woman looks back at her thirteen-year-old self in domestic service, playing bookie from compulsory Sunday morning church: "What if they asks me what the text was, what be I going to say?"
"You tell 'um it was, 'Behold I went not'."
Mrs Harris makes an easy comprOmise over the tricky matter of verbatim reportage partly tidying up, partly not. And in the introduction she herself strikes a somewhat folksy note: "Boughten vegetables were unheard of, a least for the poor folk".
Nevertheless the naive accounts, reiterated details, occasional flashes of humour and lively turns of phrase, build up to a convincing picture of a society that has begun to seem extremely remote; and a generous allowance of illustrations — photographs of the speakers, their families and surroundings — reinforces an impression of authenticity and confiding immediacy. An unspectacular but useful piece of social history.