Goodness, it feels an age since I wrote a proper honest-to-goodness book review. Let’s see if I can still remember how to do it. Well, what better way back into the hurly-burly of reviewing than with one of Slightly Foxed’s latest Editions? The review practically writes itself, because it seems impossible that SF will ever put a foot wrong with their endlessly delightful memoir series. Country Boy (1966) by Richard Hillyer [real name Charles Stanks. You can see why he changed it] is no different. Review in short: it’s wonderful, and you’ll love it.
I made the deliberate decision not to look up Hillyer’s post-memoir career, because I thought it would be more interesting to see what I thought about his recollections of childhood and teenagehood without any sense of where his path might go – and I never read introductions until the end, of course. So I shan’t spoil it for you either, except to say that Hillyer doesn’t get as far as discussing his career, or even his adulthood – instead, the memoir ends as he moves into a different section of his life. And for some reason I don’t want to spoil that shift either. At times, the memoir is as tense and exciting as the plottiest novel, and it pays not to know much in advance.
Hillyer was born into a poor farm labouring family in a small village in Buckinghamshire in the first years of the 20th century – in a village Hillyer calls Byfield. As the grandson of a farm labourer myself, I found it especially interesting to read how my life might have been had I been born a few generations earlier – and the oppressive sense Hillyer reiterates throughout that, though he loves his family and has some friends, ultimately there has never been an escape from Byfield for its non-wealthy inhabitants, and only a windfall or very good luck will enable him to attend grammar school, let alone find a world outside that determined for him by his circumstances. As a second-generation university attendee, it was more or less assumed from the outset that I would at least have the chance of going to university, but for first-generation university students, I imagine it all felt a bit different (perhaps Our Vicar will comment on this…) (Of course, with the huge increase in fees in recent years, and thus the clear indication that our government doesn’t value higher education in the same way that it values schools, things have swung back the other way. But that’s as political as I’m going to get on Stuck-in-a-Book!)
Hillyer writes simply and touchingly about his family, and seems to have had an observant eye for his parents from an early age – as all children do, I suppose, which must be quite disconcerting for the parents at times.
I have no kind of fear or constraint with my father. Mother is different, you never quite know. Things went on in Mother’s head that were difficult to guess at. Father is always easy to understand. For him life was simple and had no worries. If he worked, and earned what money he could, Mother would see to the rest. In a dumb, speechless sort of way he loved and admired her beyond all things, and believed her capable of dealing with any crisis which might arise for any of us. Beyond that his thoughts did not go.
In any marriage where one partner is idolised and bowed down to by the other, there is the opportunity for the powerful partner to abuse this obeisance, knowingly or unknowingly. In the case of the Hillyer family, his mother (thankfully) doesn’t. There is no tyrant – rather each family member plays a role in a fully-functioning machine. It’s terribly tempting to (mis)quote “poor, but ever so ‘umble” – yet that is precisely what they are. The stringent hierarchy of class in the village is nothing to celebrate, but the way people behave within it is often moving in their determination just to get on with life, and value the importance of family and friends rather than pipe dreams.
After quite a bit about his parents, I was surprised about how quiet Hillyer was being about his brother John, and thought perhaps they didn’t get on very well. They were, after all, very different. But towards the beginning of chapter 10, this beautiful passage appears:
We were brothers, but there was more than brotherhood between us, a special relationship, that was entirely satisfactory to us both. We were two people, as different as could be in our ways and thoughts, and yet each perfectly accepting the other. He would listen to my confidences without understanding them or trying to; just taking them as coming from me, and no doubt making sense so far as I was concerned, but outside his sphere. Not treating them as trivial, because they were not his own; listening to them patiently but making little comment, and taking them just as a part of me. He was the outlet for all the odd notions that milled about inside me, and all the better outlet because he made no effort at all to influence me.
What nicer testimony to a brother – or, indeed, to a friend – could there be? Hillyer has such a touching way with words which, even amidst descriptions of the mindlessness of his menial apprentice farm work, or the visit of the lord of the manor, can bring out the most moving and acute sentence.
One of the main differences which set Hillyer apart not only from John but from everyone else in the village was his intellect. In a section which all of us bibliophiles will love, he describes stumbling across a furniture store which also, somewhat indifferently, sold bundles of books. The idea of owning a book was new and wonderful to Hillyer – and his earnings were soon redirected to this source of joy and the wider world.
Life at home was drab and colourless, with nothing to light up the dull monotony of the unchanging days. Here in books was a limitless world that I could have for my own. It was like coming up from the bottom of the ocean and seeing the universe for the first time.
Anybody interested in rural life in the early 20th century will relish this book, of course, but its appeal goes further than that. Anybody who believes that a love of literature can be an act of escape will love this book. Anybody who values the bonds of family, ditto. And anybody who appreciates simple, evocative, kind writing will want a copy of this memoir too. Slightly Foxed – you’ve only gone and done it again.