Rural Reads Review #3 – Waterland by Graham Swift

Robert Davies, reviews our October ‘Rural Read’…

The book for MERL’s Rural Reads monthly book club last month was Waterland by Graham Swift. The book is set in the Fens and covers a time period of 200 years, successfully bringing the fens to life for the reader with vivid descriptions and endearing characters. For the scale of the time period the book is not as densely packed as one would automatically assume, the novel moves swiftly and smoothly, moving between different periods and is told by one narrator.

Waterland by Graham Swift

Waterland by Graham Swift


There are many elements and strands that contribute to the overall story that pulses through the novel. It is essentially a fictional family history and a history about the Fens. The story begins with the finding of a body and from there the story unfolds keeping the reader turning the page eager to know more. The author, Swift, speckles the novel with factual episodes that range from the construction of the fens to the life of an eel. The eel is the animal commonly associated with the Fens and slips through the novel with distinction. The discussion of the eel leapt from the page and into the debate during book group.

Swift deals with a multitude of themes within the book from murder, jealousy and love to the coming of age, and a major theme is loss. Loss of love, a way of life, children but I don’t want to give too much away. He also brings the Fens vividly alive. One would think he was a native of the land but on reading the introduction you discover he isn’t well acquainted with fens as you are led to believe with his fantastic writing. This is very interesting from a writing perspective; he poured his energy into his imaginative writing and not the research. Waterland still produced a positive response from people who are familiar with the Fens, which we believe is a sign of a good writer.

As a whole the group enjoyed the book, finding Swift’s descriptions and characters endearing, though there was one loose end which frustrated us a little. However, we thought the book to be a neatly bounded story that kept us engaged and entertained. It didn’t encourage any of us to visit the Fens, it’s not a book written to inspire people to visit the Fens as a holiday destination. However it did broaden our minds, engage us with a part of the country that we had not interacted with before and drew our attention to the life and times of eels!

The book to read for the ‘Rural Reads’ meeting on November 28th, is Trespass by Rose Tremain. Join us for an informal chat and a mince pie! For the months of December and January we have decided to Lorna Doone by R.D. Blackmore.

Trespass by Rose Tremain

Trespass by Rose Tremain


Rural reads review #2 – The Worm Forgives the Plough by John Stewart Collis

Rob Davies reviews the book discussed at MERL’s Rural Reads book club this month…

This month we read The Worm Forgives the Plough by John Stewart Collis. The book is comprised of two novels: While Following the Plough and Down to Earth, published as whole in 1973. It is an autobiographical account of Collis’s time working on the land during the Second World War. The need for farm labourers during the war was increased due to an entire generation of men at war, and as Collis was too old to join active service he opted instead to work on the land as part of the land army. Collis writes about his experiences, the people he met and the long days he spent working on the land.

The Worm Forgives the Plough by John Collis

The Worm Forgives the Plough by John Stewart Collis

Before the war Collis worked in an academic environment, this is evident in his references to literature throughout the book and in the way he combines the hard heavy work with beautiful prose. He mentions Thomas Hardy who is perhaps one of our greatest writers of the rural nineteenth century countryside, and who played an important role in how we envisage rural history. His references transfer into the collision between romance and the reality of life in rural England. Collis directly addresses this issue throughout; in a section entitled Sheep he states “There is very little that is romantic about sheep, though for some reason they enter literature and painting in an idyllic manner not bestowed to an equal extant upon other stock, while it will be sometime before the shepherd loses his poetic place.”

An endearing element of the book and a level which I found enjoyable are his descriptions of the people he came across, people very different from the world he was used to. These are the working men and women of the countryside, not to mention the Land Girls. Collis provided the most vivid descriptions of the people he met and worked with. “He was a man in the fifties. His eyes were impressive in their mildness, but his mouth was large and ugly, partly concealed by a stumpy moustache.” For the group this really brought the book to life.

Collis’s anecdotes and descriptions of working on farms are fascinating; they provide a hands-on guide to farming by a beginner, his work and writings stretch from potato picking to the life and work of ants. This is a good read for someone who wants a personal experience of farming during the Second World War; the book isn’t driven by a story but purely by the work.

As a group we had mixed reviews about the book, some members could not warm to Collis whilst others found him utterly amusing. Not everyone completed the book and some found it difficult to engage with, whilst one member read the book at University.

Next month we’re reading Waterland by Graham Swift. See details on our website. Do feel free to pop along and chat about a book we’ve been planning to read since the book group began!

Rural Reads review #1 – Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household

MERL’s book club, Rural Reads, has been running for three years. We have read an incredible range of novels, poetry and non-fiction, all with either a rural setting or related to the countryside. In this new feature, Rural Reads regular, Rob Davies, will share his personal views and the group’s reactions to the book they read each month. 

August’s choice of read was Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household. It is a short book of fewer than 200 pages that reads well and is a thrilling page turner. Rogue Male tells the story of the anonymous narrator who is on the run from a sinister agency that has imprisoned and tortured him. Having escaped from their clutches, first of all he heads for London but after a close encounter he makes for the remote countryside of Dorset. Finding an area in the countryside that he believes suitable for his survival, he creates a small hovel which he shares with a wild cat, and the two intrepid survivors learn to find solace within each other. The story culminates with a head on battle of attrition between our protagonist and the agent who goes by the name of Quive-Smith –  I won’t tell you the outcome in case you would like to read the book.



It is clear that this book, written in 1939, is a forerunner to the great spy novels of our time, in particular those written by Ian Flemming and John Le Carre. Household served with the intelligence services during the war and has poured his training, maybe even experience, into the novel.

The rural themes of the novel are based around survival and using nature, the countryside and inhabitants of rural communities as a method of survival. It explores the reality of living rough and being exposed to the harsh milieu that is the countryside, removing the reader from the rural idyll which we automatically conjure up in our minds when thinking of the English countryside.

It is fair to say that Rogue Male is quite different from the usual books that cross our laps at MERL’s ‘Rural Reads’ book group! Yes, it is set in the countryside but this is tale of a British gentleman on the run, with nothing but his survival skills and raw human instinct to save him from a persistent hunter. We felt as a group it was very much a “boys own” book but this doesn’t necessarily mean that we didn’t like it!

Reviews from the book of the group were varied; we all enjoyed it and thought it was a quick read. However some felt it was claustrophobic and found it difficult to read, not because of the style of writing but due to the intense situation the author was describing. I personally enjoyed the book, again it is not the usual style of book I usually read (but that’s the point of book group). I thought it was an easy page turner, with a tale that will grip you by the hand and drag you along.

The book to read for this month’s meeting on September 26th is The Worm Forgives the Plough by John Stewart Collis (Read a review in The Guardian here). Don’t worry if you haven’t been before, everyone’s welcome and we’ll even offer you a free cup of tea and a biscuit on your first visit if you mention this blog post!

Further details are on our website, where you can also find a full list of all the books we’ve read since the club started in 2010.  All the books were chosen by the group members – often the discussion about what to read next takes just as long as the review discussion, so if you have some ideas about more books to read, just bring along your suggestions and be prepared to argue your corner!

Rural Reads books from the MERL library

Rural Reads books from the MERL library