It is peculiarly exciting to turn a page and find a strong personal emotion exactly distilled – an emotion hitherto believed to be one’s private idiosyncrasy. Around the age of 13 most bookish children break into verse (the literary equivalent of acne) and I then wrote a ‘poem’ about corncrakes – specifically, what their crake did to me (and continued to do until farming became agribusiness and the crake was heard no more.) On p. 282 of Woodbrook David Thomson says in a few words what I failed to say in several feverishly florid verses.
Woodbrook is a longish book yet everything is said, with graceful lucidity, in the minimum number of words. When Penguin put their edition in the ‘autobiography’ category, no doubt remembering how much bookshops and libraries value unambiguous labels, they oversimplified. In truth Woodbrook belongs to no category, for it is one of those multi-layered books that demonstrate a rare skill: how to ramble to and fro, apparently at random, between past and present, without confusing the reader.
In 1932 the 18-year-old David, an Oxford undergraduate reading history, arrived in the west of Ireland as summer tutor to the Kirkwoods’ daughters, Phoebe aged 11 and Tony aged 5. Since the seventeenth century Kirkwoods had been living in Woodbrook House, between the small towns of Boyle and Carrick-on-Shannon in a corner of Connaught seldom visited by outsiders. By the 1920s they ranked as impoverished Anglo-Irish gentry, a wide step down the social ladder from their aristocratic neighbours. Somehow they were surviving on precarious horse-breeding and the Major’s meagre Indian Army pension.
For generations the Kirkwoods had been Indian Army and almost inevitably Mrs Kirkwood was the daughter of an Indian Army colonel. David, too, had been born in India: ‘My father and his friends could not afford the uniforms and accoutrements British Army officers had to buy nor the splendid life they
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