Forty years on… then another forty

It’s amazing what you come across by accident – or, to put it another way, browsing in charity bookshops.  In this case, it was a shop in Princes Risborough where we found a book about King Zog (one of the less likely foreign visitors to the Chilterns), a collection of stories about Buckinghamshire villages by the local Federation of Women’s Institutes and a Ward Lock guide to the Thames and the Chilterns.

The guidebook dates back to 1977 and is a cheery, relatively standardised guide to the sights.  “An understanding of the historic background of a building, guidance on walks and excursions… [and] knowledge of the facilities available for entertainment, all play an important part in the thorough enjoyment of a holiday,” as the dustjacket blurb states.  The balance of content is sometimes debatable – Bekonscot is covered in one sentence – but overall the book could still be used today.

Go back almost 40 years further and you find Chiltern Country by HJ Massingham (1940).  I bought this online on a personal recommendation.  In fairness its author says in his preface that the book “cannot claim to be exhaustive enough to be called a guide-book”.  Massingham claims that “we are rather tired of the repetition of literary anecdotes and the enumeration of local antiquities dissociated from the life of the people.”  Today this comes across as a rather narrow and naïve view; the historic houses of the region, for instance, were key community hubs and major local employers, and hardly “dissociated” from local people’s lives.  But the author was the son of a radical journalist, and also a well-known writer on country life, and by 1940 Attlee and Labour’s New Jerusalem was just beginning to hove into view.

Much of Massingham’s other writing was on country matters, so it isn’t too surprising that Chiltern Country is an amalgam of topographical essay and polemical lament for a vanished, or fast vanishing, past.  The author criticises the design of the Whipsnade Lion:

“What a pity that the designer failed to note that the great original of all the chalk figures on the downs – the White Horse of Uffington – is stylized, as all such figures should be, not magnified copies out of a picture-book. They knew better how to do these things in BC.”

As nostalgia goes, this is hard to beat. On his travels, Massingham meets Edward Goodchild, “the very last of the Chiltern handicraft chair-makers”, and laments this breed of craftsmen’s “virtual extermination… sheer murder by an evil economics… Theirs has been an innocent death and the blood is on the head of the killer.”  The “killer” is, of course, mass production.

Later, Massingham uses an anecdote about a travelling companion’s geographical confusion to argue that

“The identity of this part of the Chilterns [between Chenies and Chalfont St Giles] has been obliterated… everybody was a stranger in these parts… a country without a name as well as without natives… The loss of the individual, whether in thing, place or person, is the danger to which our twentieth-century civilization has exposed the world…”

Perhaps predictably, this is part of a sub-chapter entitled “Suburbia”.  We are in familiar territory in which nearby “Metro-Land” becomes a symbol of modern blandness and of loss of tradition and identity.  It makes for powerful writing, whatever you make of the writer’s world view.

We believe, almost 80 years on, that there is still plenty of distinctive Chilterns identity to find, whether it’s in the form of heritage or something else.  Perhaps some other author, in another 40 or 80 years, will find our Slow Guide. I wonder what they’ll think?

Behind the green(e) door…

Before we go any further… if you’re a Shakin’ Stevens fan who has stumbled on this post by chance, I’m sorry it isn’t meant for you. If you want to find out what was behind the green door Shaky sang about, try this theory.

This door is in a quiet corner of Hertfordshire, in the town of Berkhamsted. Specifically it’s in Berkhamsted School, which is not too far off its 500th anniversary.  Today, it links the School’s impressive archival display with the Old Hall.  But around a century ago, it loomed large in the schooldays of one Graham Greene, whose father was the headmaster and who spent his schooldays on either side of the door: firstly while living with his family in the headmaster’s lodgings, and secondly as a boarder.  These were miserable times for the young Graham, especially when he became a boarder.  The green baize door separated the school from the headmaster’s lodgings.  It symbolised two sides and Graham never knew which side he was on.

“I was on both sides,” he said years later. “I could never choose between the saint and the sinner.”

This duality and doubt informed much of Greene’s later writing. Even today, while it’s easy to be impressed by the School’s trappings (in both senses), its impressive Chapel and cloisters as well as the Old Hall and the sense of history, it is also easy to sympathise with the young Graham.  He was, as his biographer Norman Sherry puts it, “isolated, disliked and distrusted since he was the headmaster’s son”.  Graham’s natural sensitivity and the circumstances conspired to produce a toxic combination, which led him to attempt suicide several times.  Anyone who has ever heard a nostalgic older person describing school as “the happiest days of [their] lives” will be on the young Graham’s side; that is to say, on both sides.