• Michael Smith, Mythical Britain

Book Review: The East Country - Almanac Tales of Valley and Shore


I read a lot of books when undertaking my research into printmaking but occasionally my mind is drawn by something different. Just such a book is Jules Pretty's The East Country - Almanac Tales of Valley and Shore.

Taking the form of a country almanac, with 12 chapters for each month of the year, The East Country draws us into the unique atmosphere which shapes the edge of England in Essex and Suffolk.

As a regular visitor to both these counties when touring on Gringolet, I am familiar with how the landscape here eventually rolls flat to the sea; how the sky grows endless and how the great North Sea, the German Ocean of former years, looms forever brown in surging momentum.

What Pretty captures is not only the landscape but also a sense of the passing of time, the insignificance of man and, behind all this, the threat of environmental change. While he takes us through what we might perceive to be the turning of the seasons, he also reflects on different behaviours of fauna and flora as the world's natural rhythms have been changed by global warming.

We also read of his response to death as his father dies during the year; as part, almost, of the inevitability of everything. We are sad but, at the same time, we understand human kindness, human fragility, and the legacy of those who came before.

Pretty's great ability in this book is to remind us of man's enduring, if fragile, relationship with the world; of songs sung in pubs, of farmers tending fields, of snapshot moments of strolls down country lanes; of the vulnerability of his world. He manages, quite superbly, to place us in the moment: in the world as we ourselves experience it; commonplace yet vast and significant.

As he says: "every place has an east country, where dawn and dusk come first". In one sentence he encapsulates the emotion of a land by the edge of a sea. He writes in the way that Eric Ravilious painted: somehow exuding the inherent sadness of an England in a world of vast, uncontrollable turmoil, This is his genius.

The book is as exquisite as it is perfect but I would change just two things to make it a masterpiece. Being published in the USA has meant that many of the spellings are in American English (which is not, incidentally, meant in any way as a criticism of Americans); the book also measures out the world in the metric system.

To me, these are important because this book is above all a paean to a land and culture whose roots are deep and whose grip is tight. A foot, an inch and English colour would make this work magnificent, adding to the overwhelming sense of atmosphere which pervades this wondrous volume.

But these are small quibbles and take nothing away from what is an astonishing achievement. I hold this book close to me; it sings of all who went before and what might come again.

Michael Smith

The East Country - Almanac Tales of Valley and Shore by Jules Pretty is published by Comstock Publishing Associates, a division of Cornell University Press. ISBN: 978-1-5017-0933-3

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© 2020, Michael Smith, all rights reserved

Original linocut prints, books  and greetings cards featuring a range of mediaeval themes including: the Battle of Agincourt; Sir Gawain and the Green Knight; King Arthur;;Stonehenge; Viking art; Saxon art; the Sutton Hoo helmet; medieval animals; castles; medieval myths and legends; historic monuments and so much more!

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