Imagine Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways, turned into a novel. British nature features in At Hawthorn Time as a character, as London does for Dickens. Disappearing and forgotten paths weave through the book, and those who remember or sense them often seem to be out of time. Opening with the aftermath of a terrible car crash on a country lane, At Hawthorn Time braids several narratives that give us space to think about the countryside and the natural world. How do we see our countryside now? What is it, and what might it be?
Jack wishes “just to be able to go where I like… Just to live how I see fit. I don’t do any harm, God knows…”. Repeatedly arrested and imprisoned for vagrancy and other things, we join him walking out of London, away from his hostel, and towards the village of Lodeshill where he hopes to find farm work. Howard and Kitty, retirees from London following Kitty’s dream of countryside life, are recent incomers to Lodeshill. The difference in their views of the countryside is just one of their problems. Their young neighbour Jamie has his own difficulties, with an ailing grandfather, and his unsatisfactory job as a picker and packer at a giant warehouse.
Each chapter starts with brief nature notes from Jack’s journal. We may admire or envy his total attunement to nature, as the current popularity of nature writing and television shows suggests. But this does not translate into society tolerating his unconventional way of living. Increasing legislation and surveillance restrict his choices, and his situation makes us wonder what we might be prepared to do to regain the freedoms we have lost. At a time when street homelessness seems to be everywhere – I have people living in my local park – it is worth thinking about who is allowed to be where, and when, and who enforces this. A timely and compelling read.
Review by Bethan