‘Portrait of Elmbury’ by John Moore is the recounting of the author’s life, in the small market town of Elmbury in the interwar years.
It seems that the name Elmbury is a fictitious name. In all probability the town of Elmbury is the author’s childhood hometown of Tewkesbury. The names of the characters that show up frequently in the narrative have also been changed to preserve anonymity. What cannot be disguised, however, is the author’s fondness for his hometown, its valleys and fields, its orchards and woods, its rivers and farms ,along with the assortment of distinguished and motley characters that lend Elmbury, a character all its very own.
We follow the author’s life chronologically, starting from the years 1913-1918, when he was a small child, to his boyhood: 1919-1924, his early working life as an auctioneer’s apprentice at his uncle’s office in Elmbury: 1924-1927, a period of returning to Elmbury after four years writing in London: 1931-1935 and lastly a description of the years leading up to the commencement of the Second World War.
The narrative is extremely dense. One needs to devote absolute concentration during reading lest one misses out a detail of an incident, a character or a description.
One fact emerges quite early on in the narrative and that is the fact that Elmbury is not that idyllic English country town bestowed with bucolic charm. This is no James Herriot style storytelling. We learn of the beauty of Elmbury but it is always coupled with the not so beautiful, the derelict and the ugly. And it rears its ugly face in the form of the disreputable ‘Double Alley’.
Indeed, even among Elmbury’s slums, Double Alley was something to be wondered at. Respectable women drew their skirts closer about them as they passed its nauseous opening; even the doctor and the priest were unwilling adventurers on the rare occasions when they were summoned to visit it; and policemen, who were more frequent visitors, took care to go in pairs when their duties took them there.
The author grows up in what he describes as the ‘loveliest house in Elmbury’, Tudor House, which is plump opposite to the entrance to the squalor of Double Alley. Through the window, the young author and his sibling witness the goings on that occur on the high street of Elmbury, the daily rituals of Elmbury residents and the Punch and Judy like theatrics of the Double Alley residents. We learn of the town scoundrels-Pistol, Bardolph and Nym; the Colonel who makes faces at them through the window and emerges later on in the narrative as one of the author’s dearest friends.
Even though, the author accentuates the dirt and filth of Elmbury, ever so often, we are treated to pictures of pastoral perfection. It is in these descriptions of nature where the author excels.
It was a perfect autumn evening. There was mist like blue smoke hanging about the little wood they called the Dogleg Spinney and down in the vale you could see streaks of whiter mist over the the river. The sun was setting in a mass of airy pink clouds like flying flamingos and the Abbey tower, catching the light, burned like a beacon. The chestnut trees in the churchyard, with brown and yellow leaves, were incandescent also. Sprawled around the Abbey, half in light and half in shadow, lay the lovely and haphazard town.
If I had one word of criticism about the narrative it is this that: I found the author distanced his own personal life tremendously from the text. We know scant details of his life: that his father was the mayor of the village, that he lost his father early on in life, that he joined his uncle’s office as an auctioneer, that he disliked certain aspects of his job especially auctioning off the belongings of poor farmers in debt, that he started writing books and left for London to be part of the fashionable writing set, that he returned to Elmbury, after those years in exile with a greater appreciation for the place.
Emotion seemed larger here, pleasures were keener, sorrows sharper, men’s laughter was more boisterous, jokes were funnier, the tragedy was more profound and the comedy more riotous, the huge fantasy of life was altogether more fantastic. London, for all its street lights, was a twilit world; Elmbury on a murky February evening, seemed as bright as a stage.
When the author does return to Elmbury, it is the time of the Great Depression and this time of hardship is felt as keenly in Elmbury as any other place in Britain. It can be witnessed in the long line of people standing outside the Labour Exchange, of the large number of people loitering without a purpose on street corners, in the abject expression in the faces of the villagers…
Then there is a period of ‘uneasy peace’, a lull before the great storm of the Second World War. The people of Elmbury, are called away- some to distant foreign fields to wage a bloody war and some like the author take to the skies in mortal combat.
For my part, I had determined that when war came-we no longer thought of it as ‘if’- I should fight it in the air; for I had just learned to fly a Moth, had discovered a brave new world of cirrus and cumulus, and was bemused by the strange beauty of the sky’s snowy regions, its unearthly continents of clouds.
Many of these people never return to the green verdant fields of Elmbury…
‘Portrait of Elmbury’ is, as the title suggests, a vivid and minutely detailed historical sketch of the market town as seen through the eyes of the author. What is very evident is the author’s great love for the place. I enjoyed it for a unique glimpse at a way of life that occupies a special place in the rural history of England.
I’m eager to read the second book in the trilogy- ‘Brensham Village’, to see exactly where the story takes us.
I received a review copy of ‘Portrait of Elmbury’ from the kind people at Slightly Foxed but all opinions about this wonderful narrative are entirely my own.