The Hollow Land
Cumbria, England's most sparsely settled county, is hard by Scotland in the northwest corner of the country. I don't know if the locals would say "hard by." But after reading The Hollow Land, I want to say it. It's the best I can do to imitate the local patois that gives the series of interlocking short stories much of their charm.
Cumbria is home to England's famous Lake District, a reliable visiting spot for tourists since Wordsworth, at the very least. The Lake District lies west of where The Hollow Land takes place. In East Cumbria, however, there is only farming and less spectacular scenery, a nothing special sort of place. In the 19th century, there was a small mining boom, but it wasn't much and it soon played out, leaving the fells (barren hills) hollowed out with abandoned shafts and the becks (rushing streams) running, sometimes above the ground, and sometimes below. The grandfather thinks he hears rushing water all the time. Nobody else is quite so sure.
All down Mallerstang there's becks running down off the fell. It's bonny. Down off the sharp scales, dry in summer till one single drop of rain sends them running and rushing and tumbling down the fell-side like threads of silk. Like cobwebs. And when the wind blows across the dale these becks gasp, and they rise up on theirselves like the wild horses in Wateryat Bottom. They rise up on their hind legs. Or like smoke blowing, like ever so many bonfires, not water at all, all smoking in the wind between Castledale and the Moorcock toward Wensleydale. It's bonny.
That's Bell speaking. He's a lad. He's eight, as he tells us. He may seem precocious in his descriptions, but there is a hint of circularity (maybe it's only a lack of direction) in the narrative voice that suggests someone young. He believes his father is never wrong, and he thinks nothing much happens in Cumbria. He's right, about the latter at least, but that's part of the stories' charm: the narrative crises are minor everyday problems, the fruit of normal human peculiarities, all artfully recorded, all the difficulties easily resolved.In Cumbria, with little work besides farming, people are leaving and many houses are empty. But town dwellers --- the people who live in the cities of London and Manchester --- find the landscape idyllic, quaint, and so they are interested in renting. They are "incomers" to eight-year-old Bell, their motives incomprehensible:
Renting and leasing they come. Talking south. "Why'd they come?" I ask our grandad, who's leased the farmhouse he used to live in (my gran died). "There's not owt for 'em here. What 's use of a farm to them? Just for sitting in. Never a thing going on."
"Resting," says my grandad. "They take 'em for resting in after London."
And therein lies the situation: country mouse v. city mouse, a familiar trope that provides a defining backdrop to the larger description of rural charm. The locals are sure they wouldn't like London. They've never been there, mind, but they don't need to go to know what they would find.
In the first story, which establishes the series, the conflict is noise. Not the incomers' noise, as you might expect, but the farmer's. It's haying day shortly after the incomers arrive, and the noise of the tractor disturbs their expectation of idyllic rural calm. Words are exchanged. The incomers resolve to leave. A peace offering of tea cakes and eggs resolves the tiff. Bell and his incomer friend, Harry, get to be friends and grow up together, holidays only.
That's not much of a plot. But plot isn't the point here. It's language. Listen to Bell's description of the altercation: it may be preternaturally insightful, but it's the description itself, the narrative voice, that is the substance:
They'd got at cross purposes, see. First meaning of row with us seems to be quarrel. First meaning of row with them seems to mean noise, or any rate it does tonight. I could see this but my dad was busy, and tired, and working ahead of rain, so he took no heed. My dad might have been talking Chinese for all the London man tried to understand him and the London man might have been talking Eskimo. The big lads looked soft about it too, and started muttering and kicking their feet about in the new short grass left by the cutter. "Country peace and quiet," says one. "Country peace and quaat. Worse than Picadilly Circus."
What does "The big lads looked soft about it too" mean? I don't have a literal translation, but I am familiar with males of all ages looking sheepish (whoops, sorry: this is a sheep farm), and that's what I see as they talk amongst themselves and idly kick the grass around.The fells and becks are the landscape's most notable features, appearing again and again throughout the stories.
"D'you like our beck? .... That little bridge is old as history. Everyone comes taking photographs of it. D'you know our beck's never dried up they say in five hundred year? Not like all the rest. There's some becks around here you don't where you are with. Here today and gone tomorrow like the gypsies. There's some becks, they tell me, that even is called gypsies, if you can understand that. I'm not sure I can but it's in the dictionaries."
All the Cumbrian characters seem to talk with phrases like "There's some becks around here that you don't know where you are with." Perfectly understandable, but not perfectly grammatical and all the better for it.
One of Ms. Gardam's favorite regionalisms is "owt," meaning "anything." We've seen it already once. Is it too much, then, when unable to hold herself back, she has one character say "nowt of owt"? Depends on your own level of comfort with silliness, I'd think.
In other stories, the boys get trapped in a cave or, once, they are lost in a snowstorm. The author never plays up the danger --- she doesn't do cliffhangers --- and the problems get solved with only a minimal amount of narrative angst.
Grown-up Bell gets married and has a child in the chasms between stories. Ms. Gardam isn't interested in pursuing love and romance. It's like Robinson Crusoe who gets married in a dependent clause before going, once more, to sea. These stories, like Crusoe's, aren't conventional romances. In this case, they are stories about rural people, whose speech reflects their commonsense, practical manner of dealing with the next task. In their world, a world directed by tradition and necessity, there is always another obviously indicated task.
These rural tales are as simple and straightforward as the life they purport to show. Is rural life really this simple? The point here is not to question but to confirm, to entertain with human foibles rather than probe human faults. Does it work? It charms with a deft touch, never pushing further than its limited aim. Don't ask too many questions. The stories might best be read in front of a fireplace, under a blanket, on a cold winter's night to help set the mood.