What is this nostalgia we have for the past? The work was so hard. It was relentless. People died so young, they were worn out
Tim Pears talks horses and war with Jackie McGlone
TO Oxford to meet the novelist Tim Pears, who does not live in an old farmhouse tucked into the pillowy patchwork quilt of the opulent Oxfordshire countryside but in a semidetached on a major arterial road in the suburbs of the university city. You can, however, be forgiven for imagining you might find the 61-year-old author of eight acclaimed, prizewinning novels fresh from mucking out the stables, after reading his ninth book, The Horseman, the first of a trilogy set in a valley on the Devon-Somerset border.
It’s an assured, slow-burn, lyrical book, a rewarding read in our troubled times. Once again Pears celebrates growing up, the trials of family life and the beauty and wildness of untamed nature, offering fascinating insights into the consolations as well as the cruelties of rural life – pig-butchering, rabbitstoning, rat-poisoning. Then there are the pony races, the horse shoeing, the breaking in of a foal.
Which leads to the assumption that he’s no mean horseman, a horse whisperer even, as well as a Hardyesque son of the soil. (His writing has often been described as reminiscent of Hardy.)
Pears is, however, none of the above, although he’s an outdoor type – the healthy, ruddy complexion and wellseasoned walking boots testify to that.
“I have not ridden a horse since I was 12 – I was terrified of them, although my two sisters rode,” he admits, sinking into a sofa in the book-stacked, cosy front room of the home he shares with his wife, Hania Porucznik, and their children, Gabriel, 17, and Zosia, 14. We’re drinking coffee and eating delicious pastries baked by Hania, who is of Polish extraction and who qualified last year as a psychoanalyst, a fact that has Pears positively bursting with pride.
“This has become the music room since you were last here,” says Pears, gesturing at the piano, which Hania plays, a guitar, for which Gabriel has recently discovered a talent, and an electronic drum kit. Dad’s? “No!” laughs Pears, “I am not at all musical and our daughter is into football.”
I met Pears on the publication of his last novel, In The Light of Morning (2013), set over six months in 1944 in Yugoslavia – now Slovenia – and inspired by his late father Bill’s wartime experiences. It was Pears’s first historical fiction, after contemporary works ranging from his debut novel, In the Place of Fallen Leaves (1993), to Disputed Land (2011), while his superb 1997 epic, In A Land of Plenty, was a memorable 2001 10-part BBC TV series. “It’s disappeared without trace – you can’t even get it on DVD,” he sighs.
When we last met he had just embarked on researching a novel in which he planned to draw on his paternal grandfather Steuart’s extraordinary story. A large, framed photograph of him, an angelic 13-yearold naval cadet at Dartmouth College, hangs above the piano. As a young midshipman, he took part in the Battle of Jutland in 1916. That idea has now developed into a trilogy, beginning with Leo, the eponymous horseman. A carter’s son, aged 12 when we first encounter him in 1911, he’s a quiet, keen-eyed boy, “with equine blood in his bones”, who bunks off school to be at the stables where his father works carthorses.
Innocently, Leo befriends Miss Charlotte, haughty, horse-mad daughter of the lord of the manor. The book ends with a cataclysmic event, but the good news is that Pears has already finished the first draft of the second novel and is now at work on the third book.
“Like In the Light of Morning, The Horseman was inspired by a family story, although I didn’t use my father’s experiences in my last book nor will I use any of my grandad’s experiences. Jutland will figure in the trilogy, however. Because of his involvement, I’ve always been interested in the battle and wanted to write about it.
“I spent ages trying to get hold of my grandad’s accounts of the battle. Actually, they’re not very interesting though quite factual. But he was the starting point, then the story went off somewhere else. I had to keep reminding myself that although the First World War looms over this trilogy, in 1911 people had no idea what was coming. ‘Don’t foreshadow, don’t let the reader know that this is coming, although they know it.’ I kept telling myself.”
On the internet and in second-hand bookshops, he found memoirs by old countrymen – “and only a few women” – written in the 1960s and 70s looking back to their childhood and their parents’ lives at the beginning of the 20th century. “As I was reading, I had a strong sense of what they had and what we don’t. It led me to thinking about nostalgia – I keep meaning and forgetting to look up the precise meaning of the word – but what is this nostalgia we have for the past?
“The work? It was so hard, especially for people working with animals. There was no escape, they had to get up at dawn, feed and groom the horses, come back, breakfast, then out again to work with the horses, then feed and groom them again, home to supper and bed. It was relentless. People died so young, they were worn out by hard work.”
What lured him back to the landscape of his childhood?
“I felt drawn to the west country where I grew up, which was the setting for my first novel, In the Place of Fallen Leaves, which is probably my best book