THE HORSEMAN by TIM PEARS (Bloomsbury)
REVIEW by Malcolm Cockburn
Tim Pears leads the reader through rural life in a remote Somerset estate from January 1911 to June 1912. Because of the two world wars and intervening agricultural depression there was very little change in farming practice until the Agricultural Act of 1947, and there must be be people alive today who will recognise many of the vivid descriptions in this book. I hesitate to describe the book as a novel, it seems to be more of a countryside history at a certain time and in a certain place until the final chapter which combines love and tragedy,
Threaded through events on the unnamed estate in the Blackdown Hills is the son of the village carter, Leo Sercombe. He is gently perceived as he changes from child to young adult. He observes and learns the country crafts while achieving his best love, the companionship of horses. On the estate are a team of shire horses and his father's cart horses and the ponies. A foal is born to a shire, a race is raced on ponies by lads from Leo's school, a colt is broken, a hoof mended and the young lady Charlotte's horse dies.
Month by month we are introduced to the seasonal work; bitter cold ploughing in January followed by bread and boiled bacon for breakfast and milk from the warm cowshed. In April there is harrowing and Leo watches the hares and a fox cub. In May a sow farrows. In June, at crack of dawn, two of the heavy horses are harnessed to a mower, cutting blades newly sharpened . “In the half-light the mower gave the first colour of the day, red and canary yellow.” Three days later the hay is dry and loaded onto Leo's father's cart and taken to the rickyard.
Leo first meets the daughter of the big house when he lovingly attends to her sickly young horse and watches over it from his bed in the hay loft. It dies. Months later he rides, and approves, her new mount. In August it is time to harvest the waist-high barley. His father yoked Noble and Pleasant to the new-fangled binder. “Ye'll be riding him all day” said Albert Sercombe of the old horse Noble to his son. The weather proves to be fickle and harvest lasts into September; but finally all the sheaves are carted into the stack yard. The barley would not be threshed until the following March when a steam engine arrives towing a threshing mill. All hands are needed to feed the sheaves from the stack to the hungry mill and then to remove the sacks of barley and the heaps of chaff and to carry straw to the barn.
Every chapter and every paragraph of The Horseman is filled with poetic observation of rural life in the years before World War II. I fear for what will happen in the following part of this trilogy.
Tim Pears will be talking about his book at the Words with Wine meeting (and Society AGM) on Friday 22nd September at 7 pm. Further details can be found here. Tickets £5 can be purchased through Winstone's Bookshop.