‘Every real boy ought to be able to skin or pluck, and dress his own meat, and be able to make some sort of bread that is wholesome and satisfying to eat with it.’ Absolutely. Every boy and every girl. Ah me, those were the days.
I came across this splendid sentence on Lost World; England 1933-1936 by the imperishable Dorothy Hartley published by Prospect Books, which is run by Tom Jaine, a man who can skin a rabbit, pluck a pheasant, dress his meat and bake the most toothsome of bread.
Dorothy Hartley was a social historian by trade, but her enduring fame lies in Food in England, one of the most idiosyncratic and delightful books on food ever written. Lost World is equally delightful and just as idiosyncratic, but it isn’t one that D. Hartley, herself, might have contemplated publishing. It is the by-product of a TV documentary, The Lost World of Dorothy Hartley, which was shown recently on BBC4. I didn’t see the documentary, more fool me, but at a time when the BBC is coming in for a bit of a bashing, it’s reassuring to know that it still makes intelligent programmes for intelligent people, even if of they’re of minority interest.
Dorothy Hartley wrote these pieces about country life for the Daily Sketch between 1933 and 1936. They evoke a way of life that has almost entirely vanished, a world of tent peggers, scarecrows, gentlemen gypsies, plough boys, the art of making haystacks and gathering marrum grass, of flint pickers and clog makers. All gone. Their ghosts stare out from black and white photos.
Naturally, there’s a good deal about food, as well. The title of one piece is Elevenses I Have Known. Who eats Elevenses any more? I once constructed an elaborate theory that the British have the most highly evolved food culture in the world based on the existence of Elevenses. Part of that theory claimed that anyone who stops for a cup pf tea or coffee and a biscuit or whatever around 10.30 or 11.00 unconsciously honours the memory of Elevenses.
There are articles on wedding cakes, tea, shrimp teas, the uses of watercress, cooking fish, seaweed for dinner and toffee apples, all described with an infectious, breezy good humour. How can you not love someone who writes about the Mysteries of Clotted Cream – ‘The making does vary, so that it’s impossible to make hard and fast rules, but in general the reason the Cornish clotted cream comes smoother and more all-overish is that in skimming the fold and ‘tuck over’ the cream glouts, and put into a jar – so that all the cream is mixed. The best Devonshire cream-makers try to life the clots separately and unbroken, and pack it lightly into wide basins, so that the layers are unbroken and the slight ‘crust’ on top can be seen.’
I suppose the most remarkable thing about Dorothy Hartley was her curiosity. She was curious about everything. Every detail has a significance for her. She has a jackdaw’s eyes for glittering detail, recording her observations with candid clarity and a delicious lack of sentimentality. And yet a note of brisk, elegiac melancholy runs through many of the pieces. As a social historian, she knew she was bearing witness to a whole range of country pursuits and practices that were disappearing. Luckily many of them found a wonderfully sympathetic recorder.
Lost World; England 1933-1936 by Dorothy Hartley (Prospect Books; £15.00