I’ve been trying to sort out my books lately; a pretty thankless task since I have so many of them, but without wanting to, I find I’m drawn down dark mysterious alleys of literature, rediscovering old treasures and re-visiting newer ones. One such is a book titled The Roadmender, by a writer known as Michael Fairless.
Michael was in fact a woman, named Margaret Barber, who was writing in the 1920s, and her work is meditative, devotional and, I read, well suited to the taste of Edwardian gentlemen, many whom did not know the gender of the writer.
The edition I have has a delightful woodcut frontispiece by Norman Hepple and an introduction by Frederick Brereton. The roadmender sits, legs akimbo, on a pile of road mending material, shovel in hand. He has a contemplative look, eyes unfocussed. Has he finished for the day? Is he about to have his lunch? Or just surveying the work he’s done so far?
The writer is aware that he is at a crossroads in history where war is imminent and old ways collide with new technology. The writer (I presume Barber) loved Germany and had spent happy times there, so there was a real personal challenge in addition.
The meditations on which the book is based are quasi religious, a little like mystic eastern religious works, but they evoke the quiet contemplative space of the English countryside as it was then. Re reading it, I was reminded again of my own country childhood just after the Second World War, of horses. haywains, quiet countryfolk. Laurie Lee would have recognised it.
I’ll have to keep the book.