Last year I read, and very much enjoyed, The Egg & I by Betty Macdonald (and discovered that there is a thriving Betty Macdonald community out there). Although the very thought of going to run a farm with a recalcitrant stove and marauding animals fills me with horror (and I am very much a country boy – albeit one with a fondness for electricity), I very much enjoyed reading her witty, self-deprecating take on her adventures. It is non-fiction disguised as fiction. And I was hoping to find its equal in Elizabeth West’s Hovel in the Hills (1977). Well, er… it didn’t work out quite like that.
Elizabeth West and her husband certainly have many of the same difficulties. They decided to move from the ratrace to the bleak middle of nowhere in Wales. At high altitudes, with wind, rain, and cold being bitterly present throughout much of the year – with very little money to boot – this could easily have been an Egg & I Mark 2. The obstacles – from wallpaper which grew mouldy with alarming alacrity, to the difficulties of crossing vast distances without a car – are funds for much wry laughter and rolled eyes.
But, although the cover assures me that the contents will be ‘warm, funny, [and] moving’, Elizabeth West seems to have (had?) almost no sense of humour. Obstacle after obstacle is raised, with the smug solution given. Almost every page drips with self-satisfaction. They clearly feel an immense sense of superiority to all the fools in the world who wouldn’t know how to run a stove, or make a salad out of weeds, or have the curious weakness of preferring a flush toilet to a hole in a shed.
Perhaps it is just a weakness in me, but I found it hard to warm to a writer who had all the answers. Her husband was worse – the sort of irritating person who fixes everything with little more than a spanner and a stern glance. Self-deprecation is one of the qualities I find most endearing in fact and fiction (I am British, after all) and the Wests don’t have a drop of it.
I was on happier ground when she turned her attention away from their achievements and towards nature. Particularly when she wrote about the birdlife of the area – that was endearing and almost witty. True, she wrote about how good they were with animals and birds, but that couldn’t get in the way of how fun it was to read about the wildlife and the personalities they displayed. I was strongly reminded of Gavin Maxwell’s Ring of Bright Water during these sections. Here is a bit about the great tits which visited them:
We fed them on fat and peanuts as well as oatmeal and it soon became obvious which was the male and which was the female – from their behaviour as well as the slightly larger size and broad bely stripe of the male. Pinny was always completely trusting, and quite at ease when feeding from our hands. She flew to them without hesitation, ate daintily, and landed and took off with very gentle feet. Podger, her mate, had an entirely different personality. He only plucked up courage to come to our hands because he had seen Pinny do so. But he made a great fuss about it. Dashing in with great bluster, he would land with a clunk of clawed feet, grabbing what he could and making off with it straight away. We went to the door with peanuts as soon as we saw the birds at our window in the morning. If Podger arrived first he would sit on a nearby bush churring and chinking fussily until Pinny arrived to feed. He was probably kidding her that he was being a gentleman, but we know that he needed the reassurance of seeing her feed first.
Besides the chapters on birds, I did also enjoy her descriptions of the wrangles they had experienced with the local council when they bought a caravan for holiday lets. Everyone enjoys a tale of the small-mindedness of little people wielding power – so long as the tale is happening to someone else, of course – and West does give the whole saga amusingly. Her sense of superiority feels justified here, at least – and there is an excellent coda to the whole rigmarole, which I shan’t spoil in case you decide to read the book.
But, as you’ll have gathered, I found that the irritating outweighed the enjoyable in Hovel in the Hills. I’m probably just too cynical to enjoy the story of someone being better than everyone else. Give me Betty Macdonald accidentally setting fire to things any day.