‘Once in a while, a special book reaches out through the wisps of time and demands to be read. John Moore’s Portrait of Elmbury was written in 1945 and recalls his corner of England during the first world war. It documents a country that was changing by the minute, a country that would never be the same again, for better or for worse. The Elmbury chronicles are lightly fictionalised and based on the real English town of Tewkesbury.
The section that really grabbed my attention, in this fabulous new edition by Slightly Foxed, was a passage that documented a group of independent workers who provided for their families. Moore claims that several hundred of these men thrived out of a population of five thousand. The jobs they engaged in were many and varied. They were not rich, but they were sufficiently busy to not have to worry where the next piece of work would come from. They were multi-skilled and flexible and they had the luxury of not having managers or employers. In the main, the work was so varied that it was enjoyable and rewarding. The men worked when they wanted to, or needed to, and rested when they didn’t. Not independently wealthy, but independent to a level that would satisfy almost anyone. It sounds romantic, and no doubt the system had its drawbacks. Ill health or injury is an obvious one.
The work these men did included building new punts or caulking old ones, fishing for salmon or eel, breeding animals, picking fruit and cutting hay, running errands, fixing and painting outbuildings, and they seemed to love almost every minute. As Moore points out:
They were not conditioned to believe in the popular fallacy, that work in itself was a virtue… In those days, when
sweated labour in the big industrial districts was sapping the vitality of the whole population and
turning millions into rather inefficient robots, the men in the country towns were able
to preserve their intelligence, their humour and their pride.
Moore is clear in his antipathy towards urban living, a type of living which is almost ubiquitous today and offers by far the best chance of making a good living. Or does it? And could it be about to change?’