Oliver Goldsmith’s ‘The Deserted Village’ updated

Sweet Auburn, loviest of village of the plain,

Where smiling spring it’s earliest visit paid,

And parting summer’s lingering blooms delayed

As a child I lived in many such Auburns, the first I can recollect was located in the Gloucester Cotswolds, the last in the Sussex Weald. Just as does Oliver Goldsmith, I also lament the loss of a community and a way of life which I cherished. My childhood came to a sudden and abrupt end when my father told me he was losing his job and that we would have to move as the house was a tied cottage. Suddenly I was thrust unprepared into the world of insecurity and anxiety, that is the adult world. Fortunately my father was offered a job on a nearby estate. Its owner was an old lady who wanted her estate run as if time had stood still. Employing a man in his fifties working as her gamekeeper schooled in the old ways suited her. If I gave this estate a anthropomorphic description I would call it a Mrs Haversham of an estate, it was one in slow decay that was desperately trying to cling its lost youth.

Oliver Goldsmith was lamenting a way of life destroyed by the enclosures. A period in which the people were denied access to the common land through the introduction of hedges and fences which now denied them access to the common land. (Breaking the fence to access the former common land was made a hanging offence under the infamous Black Acts.) If the agricultural poor were denied access to the common land they lacked the means to sustain themselves by farming that land. These people left the villages to find work in the towns. There was a similar depopulation of the countryside that started in the 1960s with the introduction of agri-business. The old country way of life with its intimate connection to the countryside was just not profitable. On the estate on which I lived most of my school mates and their families were given notice to quit, when the new owner introduce the new methods of farming. Although I cannot be certain of the exact number I think that at least fifty people were turned off the land.

The new lord was in contrast to his father. He was a man who had spent his formative years in the trenches of the Western front. There he got to know his men and had got to respect and value them. Death or the threat of it made brothers of them all. He as with many other junior officers was wounded in an attack on German lines. Sharing a casualty station and sharing the suffering of wounded and dying men of his unit can only have enhanced his sense of fellowship. He was noblesse oblige personified, he for example built retirement cottages on the estate for those who were to old or ill to work. A man blinded and wounded in the war was found a house and given a job minding the estates chicken. It mattered little that he contributed little to the estate, what mattered was that his sacrifice on behalf of the country was recognised. A man incidentally who us children found terrifying, were were scared to look upon his scarred face. Now to my shame I must admit our reaction was to run away on seeing him.

Writing this brief essay was to explain why I share Oliver Goldsmith’s sense of loss. I can read his and identify aspects of a lost rural life that are so similar to those he describes. He wrote of the village parson who cared deeply for his community, I knew two such Parsons. He writes of a terrifying schoolmaster, I experienced a terrifying choirmaster Mr P. Although beneath that gruff exterior I later discovered was a kindly and caring man. He was a teacher of the old school who believed fear was the best way of securing obedience amongst a group of unruly choirboys. One memory of him I cherish and that was when he spoke about me to a new choirboy. He said that ‘when J … joined the choir, he knew as little about music as that wooden bench. Now look at him’.

This essay is not intended to be a lament for a lost way of life, or to be a complaint about the ruthlessness of money obsessed landowners. Rather a celebration in prose a celebration of a lost way of life. What I also wish to show that despite all the changes in the countryside that had occurred since the 18th century there was still much that Oliver Goldsmith would have recognised in rural communities of the 1950s and 1960s. The loss of which I lament as much as did Oliver Goldsmith.


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