Book review by Steve Matthews of Bookends.
My Cumbria Life: Collected Writings from Cumbria Life Magazine, 2008 – 2018 by Hunter Davies. Newsquest. £15.99 (£12.99 in Bookends)
“Only the memories remain,” says Hunter Davies after something like eighty years living a lot of his life in Cumbria.
But there’s memories and memories. Margaret Forster, his wife, who died two years ago, had memories. She “did tend to improve stories, exaggerate, but then she was a proper novelist”. Hunter isn’t a novelist, of course. He’s a journalist. He constantly recycles memories, turning them around, repeating them, looking at them in a new way, seeing them afresh, forever digesting, reshaping a past to meet the present.
He seems so casual, so relaxed in his writing - that affable tone that button-holes you from the first line - and seems to yatter on for column after column and before you know it, you’ve absorbed the picture of a whole life, the man entire, with his views on the world, the story of his days, the people he meets and the things he sees, an autobiography, a sociology of Cumbria, and a geography of the county and something of a history too. And it’s all done in the shortest of sentences. Masterly.
Month after month for ten whole years he’s being doing his bit at the end of Cumbria Life – keep the best till last, he’d say. The articles have piled up. Twelve a year. Ten years. A good ten dozen. At something like a thousand words per article that’s well over a hundred thousand words. Ideal material for Hunter’s hundredth book. A rare achievement in itself.
He loves charity shops. He opened the Save the Children bookshop in Penrith ten years ago. They don’t pay author’s royalties on the second hand books they sell, but Hunter constantly forages in the charity shops. His three jackets are all charity shop finds. And he knows the set-up. “As a rule, there are two women – one is posh, thinks she’s in charge, bossing around a humbler creature” and in the back there might be “a crone sorting rags and having a sly fag”. Hunter was never one for political correctness, or politeness.
And he likes a good open fire. It was “a magical moment” when they ripped out the electric fire in their new home in Loweswater and found “a beautiful old fireplace with hand-painted tiles”. And their fire has always lit immediately, “the gorgeous flames leaping up the lum”. (That’s quite poetic for Hunter.) But he also knows about poets and fires, about Wordsworth and his handsome new house at Allan Bank “where all the fires turned out to be rubbish, so badly built that in the winter everywhere was full of dirt and coal dust”.
A Carlisle school football cap on a poster from 1913 brings back memories of his schooldays in Carlisle – he had to catch up with his Latin at lunch-time – and thoughts on grammar schools and comprehensives and the way education has changed: “The corridors were carpeted and kids were lolling on black leather sofas. Gone soft, if you ask me.”
In Loweswater, he feels a real sense of connection with the land. He’d tell the blades of grass “I love you” and tell the nettles to “gerroff this is my land”. And he discovers his five fields have names – Muncaster House Field, Pond Field, Back Pond Field, Behind Joan’s Field and Orchard Field.
Ten dozen articles all about knowing Cumbria. A depth of knowledge, astute observation, a few good jokes and quite a lot of bad ones (but they’re funny too) and a real love of the county.
It’s a wonderful book of memories from a man that has more to remember than most.