In Field Work: What Land Does to People & What People Do to Land, Bella Bathurst identifies a series of painful truths about Britain’s relationship with its land. This is a country whose self-identity is closely bound up with its agriculture, and yet farmers have, over the course of a generation, become “the sort of profession which everyone disrespected without really understanding”. Farmers are responsible, so the narrative of several books goes – see Mark Cocker’s Our Place and George Monbiot’s Feral, for instance – for genocidal cruelty to the animals they process, and for the destruction of the countryside and its ecosystems through a mixture of hyper-intensive agriculture and devastating chemicals. We want our farms to be picturesque yet productive, cruelty-free and yet able to provide us with cheap and tasty food.
Field Work’s aim is to broaden and insert nuance into our understanding of farming. Bathurst moves to live in a cottage attached to Rise Farm, a 180-acre Welsh hill farm run by Bert and Alison Howell. She recognises almost at once that “what I thought I knew of farming was based on living beside it, not within it”. The book is a record of life at Rise Farm and the lives of other rural characters who contribute to the little known but essential functions of British agriculture.
We meet Ian, a genial knackerman, doing his rounds killing injured, ill or merely inefficient animals. We meet Heather and Sîan, NFU “succession facilitators”, who host communal counselling sessions in which they try to help families work through the thorny issues of inheritance. There’s Dean, the master butcher, whose work in the slaughterhall Bathurst describes in visceral, excoriating detail. Each of these characters is brought to lustrous life, with Bathurst’s prose bestowing on their work a dignity that speaks to one of the book’s central concerns: to recognise that “this place, this land, wasn’t a job or a business: it was everything – past and future, identity and rhythm, daily bread and Sunday rest”.
There are villains too. The only farmers who refuse to engage with Bathurst are the corporate farms selling “standard kitchen essentials – eggs, chickens, chips, burgers” – to major supermarkets. They send their PR execs, dressed in “polo shirts and reflective wraparound shades”, to talk to her “with trained sunniness about inspiring forward-thinking innovation and harvesting sustainable resources and acting as environmental beacons” but refuse further requests for interviews. This is the future of British farming, Bathurst recognises, part of the sad realisation that we either have to “accept a landscape which included polytunnels and solar farms, or we could shut up and get our chicken chlorinated from Kansas”.
I thought often of Melissa Harrison’s glorious agricultural novel All Among the Barley while reading Field Work. Partly it’s the engagement with a dying way of life. Partly it’s the fact that both books understand how important accurate and specific language is to bringing this rural existence alive on the page. Bathurst has a seemingly supernatural facility for getting people to speak to her honestly and movingly about the land and their place within it. One passage, in which a young Dorset farmer describes night-time lambing with her father, is among the loveliest pieces of writing I’ve read anywhere.
A beautiful hybrid of social history, memoir and nature writing, Field Work manages to bring an entire world out of the shadows. Like the great, largely forgotten Tony Parker, Bathurst shows us how interesting all life is if viewed with the correct mixture of sympathy and curiosity.