Better ‘an Heaven

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Some books announce their quality straight away. On p.3 of Small Talk at Wreyland, the author tells of an old lady looking out across her garden on a gorgeous summer afternoon. ‘She turned to me, and said, “I were just a-wonderin’ if Heaven be so very much better ’an this: ’cause, aless it were, I don’t know as I’d care for the change.”’

The writer was Cecil Torr, born in Surrey in 1857, whose grandfather lived at Wreyland, in the parish of Lustleigh on the edge of Dartmoor. As a child he often stayed with the old man, and in late middle age, after travelling widely, he gave up his London house, went to live in Wreyland in the house he had inherited, and never left. In 1918 he published the first of three volumes of Small Talk – publishing it privately, ‘sibi et amicis’, for himself and his friends. But its popularity led him to publish the following two books conventionally, in 1921 and 1923, and the three are now always collected in one volume. They consist of a wonderful anthology of the sayings and doings of the people of the village – some culled from his grandfather’s notebooks, others noted from day to day as they occurred – and the result is the most remarkable, endearing portrait of village life in Devon over the century before the First World War.

Torr himself remembered the leisurely 1880s, when a man came over to the village to fetch something left for him a couple of days before, only to find it had been stolen. ‘People shook their heads and wondered what the world was coming to, if you couldn’t leave things by the wayside from a Saturday to a Monday without their being carried off.’ Forty years later, Torr saw the first aeroplane fly over Wreyland – where, not too long before, an old man had recalled the first sight in the village of a wheeled vehicle of any kind. Or so he said.

The railway, when it came, caused some concern. Trains often passed straight through t

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About the contributor

Derek Parker’s biography of Voltaire was published in 2005.

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