Melissa Harrison: At Hawthorn Time

Written by Dr Paddy Bullard, Associate Professor in Literature and Book History at the University of Reading. @MatWitness


Melissa Harrison is a novelist, photographer and nature writer based in south London. Her first novel, Clay (2013) established her as a leading voice among the new ‘urban naturalists’. Her second, At Hawthorn Time (2015), is a powerful and ambitious attempt to find voices for several different kinds of modern country-dweller: the itinerant causal labourer, the middle-class incomer, the rooted but economically marginalized rural twenty-something. Melissa also writes non-fiction, including Rain: Four Walks in English Weather, published by Faber in 2016 in association with the National Trust, and contributes to the ‘Nature Notes’ column in The Times.

On Tuesday 17 January Melissa visited Reading to open the MERL/DEL Visiting Speaker Series, a new programme of lunchtime talks organized by the University of Reading Department of English, in collaboration with The Museum of English Rural Life. The theme of the series this year is ‘The Intangible and Tangible Countryside’. Over five talks our speakers will look at different aspects of rural life and culture. The talks focus on how the stuff of the countryside ­– the land, its flora and fauna, its products and artifacts ­– is bound up with all sorts of elusive, immaterial things – with sounds and stories, memories and inheritances, skills and crafts. The series showcases five diverse experiments in disentangling the tangible from the intangible when we describe rural life, or when we imagine what rural life might one day be.

HawthornMelissa read three passages from her novel At Hawthorn Time, and responded dexterously to questions from the audience, and from me as session chair. Over the course of the reading we got a strong sense of the themes and ideas that preoccupy her, and that lie behind her fiction. Cultural and social ownership of the countryside – the perennial question of how to balance the interests of different occupants of and visitors to rural spaces, of whose interests should preponderate – is an especially important subject. For Melissa, conflicts of use and conflicts of meaning will always dominate the public conversation about green spaces and natural environments. In her fiction she sees rural spaces as test spaces for social pluralism, where the incompatible interests of people from different classes and backgrounds can be held together meaningfully, and in spite of that incompatibility.

The MERL curatorial team responded especially warmly to the passages that Melissa read, and to her commentary on them. There was a real sense of sympathy and shared purpose here – after all, the recent redesign of MERL has been all about opening up the collections to tell stories of the different groups of people who have lived and worked in the English countryside. As a novelist Melissa shares with the MERL curators a desire to describe and to narrate an English rural heritage which is vivid and meaningful to the widest possible range of people today, young and old, in both town and country. We all hope that this is only the first of many visits that Melissa makes to MERL and to Reading.

Our next speaker in this free series will be Tanya Harrod, the author of the prize-winning The Crafts in Britain in the Twentieth Century. She will be speaking at The MERL on Tuesday 31 January, 12-1pm. Click here for more information.

Melissa exploring the museum and signing copies of her book.

Melissa exploring the museum and signing copies of her book.

Rural Reads review #8: ‘Clay’ by Melissa Harrison

Rob Davies reviews the latest rural read.

clayFor the September meeting, we read Clay by debut author Melissa Harrison. Clay is an unusual novel for Rural Reads because it is set firmly in a city; it is, however, about how people within an urban environment interact with the green spaces available to them. This is a theme we as a group find particularly fascinating, partly because of where we all live, but also because of MERL’s urban location in Reading.

Clay is driven by a loose plot about a group of people who in some way or form have a relationship with a green common within a housing estate. The characters all have varying degrees of interaction and relationships with one another; each of them is missing something from their lives and all are craving friendship and companionship. These characters include a young boy from a disrupted home, an elderly widow, her daughter and her granddaughter, and an Eastern European immigrant who lost his farm and now works in England. Each of these characters has a relationship with the Common, which for each of them is variably a place of peace, adventure, memory and intrigue.
Yet it wasn’t so much the plot that captured our attention as the wonderful nature writing with which Harrison filled the pages.

“Over by the oaks the elegant, sandy feathers of tall oat grass floated above the finer, reddish inflorescence of the common bent below, like the two lengths of pelt on a cat.”

Harrison interweaves the main plot with these beautiful descriptions that add a whole new depth to the novel; this is what really captured our imaginations and also why we consider Clay to be a ‘rural read’!

My first question to the group was “did you enjoy Clay?” and I was answered with a unanimous yes. We all enjoyed the book as a whole, and it was a light read that we were easily absorbed by. We all really enjoyed the way Melissa Harrison wrote about nature, and I would recommend reading her blog Tales of the City where she writes about the diversity of nature found in urban environments.

The new home of our bookclub

The new home of our bookclub

For October 30th we’re reading Unicorn by Iris Murdoch, which marks a change in our reading remit. When the Museum closes at the end of October for work on the Our Country Lives redevelopment to take place, Rural Reads will move to the beautiful Staircase Hall in the Victorian part of our building. Our remit will expand to encompass the varied and vast Special Collections held by the University of Reading. Alongside books themed around the countryside, we will be taking inspiration from the libraries and archives. The depth of these collections means we’re all very excited about where this new reading adventure will lead!