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The Shell Country Alphabet is not the sort of book that would have leapt of the shelf at me. I enjoy country walks and I am interested in wildlife but something about the title made me think this book would be dull and dry. Luckily for me, a neighbour who is downsizing his home gave me several boxes of books to re-home, and this little gem was amongst them. When I was in bed with a virus and needed something to distract me, I picked this up expecting just to flick through it. A couple of hours later, I was still reading...
The author, Geoffrey Grigson, is described as an author and poet with a life long passion for the countryside and it's history. He apparently spent much time travelling around Britain, picking up a lot of knowledge along the way. The author is a very real presence in the book. Whether you think this is a good thing or not will, I think, depend on whether you agree with his opinions or not. For me, Grigson's writing style and forthright opinions is one of the reasons I found the book enjoyable. Anyone could come up with an A-Z of things you could find in the countryside. Grigson writes as tthough he is talking to you as you walk, and part of that involves airing his views such as the fact that Druidical remains do not exist, and country house owners had dubious taste in furnishings!
THE CLASSIC GUIDE TO THE COUNTRYSIDE
This book was first published in 1966. It was reprinted in 2009, and again in 2010 which is the edition that I have. The author says the purpose of the book is to "illustrate or explain things we come accross in the countryside". I have been fascinated by how the features of a building can tell us about it's history, if we know what to look for. I think that if you are also interested in this or in architecture in general, then this book will be of particular interest because these subjects are especially well covered. It also covers country customs, natural history and the origin of place names to mention just a few subjects. Taking the letter C at random, you will find entries on the constellation of Cassiopeia, cirrus clouds and why "Cold Harbour" is a common place name. I love this eclectic mix of subjects because there is something to interest me under every letter. I don't feel that the book is trying to be a "jack-of-all-trades" though. No entry feels like it is there to fill the pages! This isn't a guide book to any particular area or a travelogue, rather a general guide to the countryside.
DOES CLASSIC MEAN OUT OF DATE?
The book is getting on for 50 years old now but I don't feel that this makes it dated. The subjects are timeless really. The author does recommend some places to visit but as they are places such as the South Downs in Sussex, I think it is safe to presume that most still exist. There is a notice in the front of the book to say that county and road names have been left as the author knew them. I haven't found this confusing and have hardly noticed the difference. I would presume that anyone wanting to visit any of the places mentioned would use an up to date road map or sat nav anyway!
One thing that has been added is some recommendations of more recently published books that pursue some of the ideas in more depth. The original suggestions also remain. I think this is a sensible idea, because books do go out of print and if any book leaves you wanting to read more of the same, it is this one. I think that some of the "latest" archaelogical discoveries have also been superseded. It would be easy to have a look into the latest digs and research elsewhere if you wanted to though.
ILLUSTRATIONS AND PRESENTATION
The front cover of my copy is a dull green colour with a black and white landscape picture on the front. Inside the book is quite plain. It mainly consists of straightforward print and bold subject headings. I actually like this because it makes the book easy to dip into. You can open it at random and read an entry or two and do the same the next day and it doesn't matter if you lose your place in between. I can understand it not appealing to someone looking for a more colourful and illustrated book. There are only a few line drawings. I am not sure that these were in the original edition because they have a copyright notice dated 2009. Personally, I don't think they really add anything as there are so few of them. They do look well drawn so you may appreciate them more than me.
WOULD I RECOMMEND THIS BOOK?
Absolutely! I love the fact that it has opened my eyes to so many things. Whereas previously I only noticed mounds and dips in a field if I was struggling up and down them, I now wonder if they are the remains of medieval artificial rabbit warrens or abandoned brickworks. There are so many interesting facts within the pages that I still find new things to wonder over every time I pick it up. I think that if you enjoy hiking or visiting historic sites, you will enjoy this too. I would only not recommend this if you would prefer a guide with photographs or plentiful illustrations.
My edition is paperback, with 440 pages. It includes a brief introduction by the chef Sophie Grigson who is the author's daughter.
ISBN 978 0141 041 681.
Cover price £9.99 with new copies from £6.99 on Amazon at the time of looking. There is also a Kindle edition for £7.99.
Published by Penguin.
This review also appears on Ciao under the same user name.
Geoffrey Grigson (1905 - 1985) British poet
(Father of Sophie Grigson author)
Grigson wasn't a quiet unassuming man, you would of thought, perhaps, wistfully, ambling along, whilst breathing in the balanced scents of decay and lush odours; maybe beaming and giving off a hearty laugh, when a pheasant was disturbed and bombs upwards from the heavily foliaged pathway, followed by a weighty descend to the undergrowth within fifty yards of take-off. No, sadly his pompous egomaniac poise over-shadowed his love of rural beauty, in his poetry. Amongst the passionate scripts of observing nature, his irritating character angst was not far away. Being the editor of the 1930s 'New Verse' was the embarking of major 'cheek wobbling' moments; the trait engrossed his young demeanor. He deplored John Betjeman's works; although he did earnestly try to get his work in the 'New Verse;' Grigson disregarded the work; Betjeman's disdain was matched by Grigson's tenacity. Albeit, Grigson garnished Auden with grand plaudits even Auden himself found bemusing. By 1966, Grigson spawned a popular non-fictional offering 'The Shell Country Guide'. And since its initial publication, writers have added to the fold, including his daughter Sophie Grigson, right up to 2006, as specified by Grigson himself. A poetic time-line of progress should never be halted.
'As if written by the country side, itself.'
During a period when drivers wore leather hand mittens for driving, I assume to help grab hold of the wide girth of the leathered heavy steering wheel; stitched together like a football and where the second most important facility was the roomy suitcase style glove compartment. You can see where Grigson was going with this country guide. A bulbous book with all you would need to know if you find yourself ambling into the country, hooting your hooter around sharp tight corners, praying no other vehicle will be mirroring you twenty yards ahead, that'll endanger the fragile wing-mirror scraping against the mud-face or gets entangled in the coiled brambles. Grigson certainly has thrown the kitchen sink at this piece of literature; he includes all that he deems as worthy and idyllically passionate about, which duly is everything in the countryside. Yes, the book might as well be an encyclopedia of what is in the countryside except in a poetic, literary sense: instead of the almanac bullet-hole facts - Grigson simply regurgitates and recycles and then provokes a conversation with a centipede - he'll unlock the wonders of nature and engage an audience with identifying atmospheric phenomenon's; ditto with birds, wild-life and tinkers with his Cornish green fingers. An irksome character who'd did not 'suffer fools gladly,' nor anyone whose impressions did waver differently from his own Machiavellian mind-set.
Brazenly telling his readership as if they're mid 20th century school-children on a field trip dressed in caps and immaculately ironed shorts Grigson preaches like a head-master in script. The idea of eating crisps whilst reading his anecdotes deemed impolite, perhaps rude - you can envisage his Cornish tones speaking. The Shell Country Guide is not industry manufactured as instructed by the pin-striped suits in 'ivory towers;' orchestrating bell-ringing 'Olivetti' typewriters, firing off letters like a manic machine gun; changing the printer's ribbon every six hours. Basically, the idea this book is subtitled as a travel book isn't really the case - the personal aspect Grigson provides, overrides the concept the book is aiding travelers. If, a subject entity is required, its truest form would be 'biographical' - Grigson's buoyancy is delivered with a bulging, passionate gusto, from; chiseled rock formation, quaint churches, fields of golden corn, too his mumbo-jumbo views of repugnant druids. You don't get that in the mandatory travel book, amongst the Bed and breakfast establishments and their culinary condiments, admiring the lavishly regal window-seats. By being married to a cookery writer namely Jane Grigson, the impression that one would delve into a dialogue of cooking techniques maybe not out of the question; alas he sticks to his roots, the same roots absorbing what nature has randomly offered them. Apparently the post-code lottery refers to foliage and plantation alike too.
The 1960's also allowed huge corporations to invest into literature, and this is what Shell did. They commissioned illustrators to visually create the ambience to these books; and so, Paul Nash's picturesque landscape answered Shell's briefing; a grand advocate to the British countryside. Nash's image portrays a fresh vibrant landscape, conveying a subtle, decadent lifestyle with an open-top convertible glinting in the sun. Simplistic in theme, complimentary to the literature works of Grigson; by which he no doubt had a hand in the creative decision - his contempt with over elaboration and theatricals seemed to envelope his whole entity. The paraphernalia of indulgent attires for events bewildered him, 'a spade is called a spade' and that is it. Clarity is the cornerstone to Grigson's views; you know where you are with the author at all times, 'no beating about the bush' - if there is need for bush beatings Grigson will tell you what month is best to do it in. He knows best. Naturally, being part of the arts during a long period of time sprouts out major draw-backs if your character is blatantly not superficial - nor a 'lovey' type - but entrenched Cornish values set in concrete, doesn't aid popularity.
One Guide I recommend.
What is refreshing is the style the Shell Guide adopts, (there are a plethora of Shell Guides' written by many famous British authors across each county, even Betjeman gets a call up) Grigson, is a countryside enthusiast but alternately a twentieth century Wordsworth. He adds a mixture of material to this Guide including influential artists that have helped shape the moder day lyrical landscape, plus fifty pen drawings and tributes to the members who Grigson deems worthy; fascinating on the premise that it is written beautifully by a countryside enthusiast for countryside enthusiasts, who are lucky enough to drive off the motorway and within a stone throw, enjoy the tranquility of the country.
Walkers, Trekkers, Mountaineers, Picnickers - get your copy for 17.00 GBP at Amazon.©1st2thebar2011