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

The Herald - Arts - - BOOKS -

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

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