You are hereThe Plot: A Biography of an English Acre by Jeremy Seal

The Plot: A Biography of an English Acre by Jeremy Seal

Plot, as any writer must appreciate, is an interestingly elastic word. I wonder, however, if the columnist and commentator Madeleine Bunting recognises quite how good a title it makes for her impressive, often poignant but arguably unresolved portrait of place and person. For while several types of plot may be said to figure in The Plot, it strikes this reader that one of them goes glaringly unacknowledged.

The overt reference is to the family name for an acre of the North York moors; a patch of ground which the author’s Catholic father, 'a difficult, complex man’, made decidedly his own, and which Bunting herself describes as 'so full of intense memory that it will never let me pass through’. In a deft fusion of currently popular genres, family memoir and landscape writing, the author bids for 'the wisdom that sits in places’, a Western Apache saying which she sets some store by, the better to understand her late father.

John Bunting was an artistic Ampleforth schoolboy when he first stumbled across the Plot, with its pastures and derelict farmstead, above Oldstead in 1944. Thirteen years later, when he set about raising a chapel and a hut from the ruins there, he had settled nearby and was developing into an ambitious sculptor.

He was also the father of a rapidly expanding family, though the fact seems to have struck him as incidental; a man, as his daughter writes with characteristic, sometimes resentful candour, who was 'tribal in his admiration for sheer numbers, but his interest in the small children produced or the relationships required to bring up these broods was negligible’. Bombastic, misogynistic and snobbish, Bunting’s father insisted upon traditional divisions of labour and expected his wife (who would subsequently leave him) to run the house and bring up their five children largely unaided. 'It seemed,’ Bunting observes, 'his belief in the dignity of physical labour meant that my mother’s should never end.’

Bunting is occasionally snide about her father, who died in 2002, but mercifully the overall tone of her portrayal proves more complex; impassioned when she recounts her father’s slaughter of the Plot’s long-term respected resident adder, sensitive in her descriptions of his distressing decline, constantly inquiring and ultimately forgiving.

She peppers her text, besides, with vivid and original phrases; likening the field boundaries on a walker’s map to 'crackle glaze’, and the glider which one day takes her up over the Plot as resting 'on the warmed exhalation of the land’. She also amasses a wealth of cultural, historical, topographical, social and natural detail, ranging well beyond her single acre to quiz farmers, forestry men and other locals on subjects of relevance to the Plot, from the lives of the drovers who once crossed it to the conifer plantations which progressively obscured its views from the 1950s.

She fits in potted histories on the decline of sheep farming, Victorian barrow-digging, grouse shooting, the rambles of William and Dorothy Wordsworth, the Cistercian monasteries at nearby Byland and Rievaulx and much else besides, not least her father’s 'military, artistic and spiritual’ heroes. Bunting, haunted by the war that narrowly passed him by, would dedicate the Plot’s memorial chapel to fallen Ampleforth alumni including the renowned war diarist Hugh Dormer.
Bunting’s quest serves her well. She discovers a father who, she finally acknowledges, 'had lived in a place he loved, doing what he loved, and in the last decade of his life he was confident that that was enough’. She also comes to know 'a land reframed as somewhere I can belong’. It’s just that the land in question happens to be the wider region and not the Plot where, thanks to a weird reveal late in the book, we learn Bunting has not felt welcome since her eldest brother took over the maintenance. 'Just as it was for my father,’ Bunting writes, 'it is for my brother his own private plot.’

Up to a point. Something fascinatingly unspoken seems afoot here, as Bunting’s act of filial reconciliation makes way for a classic sibling rivalry. It turns out, talking of plots, that Bunting has pulled off a startling literary heist. The Plot, 'immaculate, with the grass neatly cut and trimmed, the saplings cleared’, is now her brother’s. But it is Bunting herself, by virtue of her memorably original book, who may truly be said to possess the place.
By Madeleine Bunting


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