The Reading Room

Muddy Boots and Sunday Suits

Fred Archer (1915-1999) was an English farmer and author who wrote almost a book a year for three decades following his first foray in 1967 with The Distant Scene. Archer wrote passionately and with great humour about the English working landscape and the community which lived from its harvest. Archer’s determination to preserve the memories of local people, their dialects, customs and way of life won him many fans and gave future generations a charming insight into a life in rural England long since gone.

In Muddy Boots and Sunday Suits Archer writes an autobiographical account of Ashton-under-Hill, his home and that of generations of his family who also farmed there. The book covers his childhood years from 1915 until 1939 living in a half-timbered farmhouse where he left school early to work on his father’s farm as an under-cowman and ploughman’s boy. He was immersed in the old ways, the folklore of the land and the men and women who passed on their stories through the spoken word until Fred found his second niche as a storyteller and preserved these precious memories in a remarkable series of books.

Reading this book, it is hard not to feel the sharp pang of nostalgia as Archer describes daily life as a young boy between the two Great Wars. Whilst no one can doubt the hardship of life long before the comforts we take for granted, it is impossible not to be affected by simplicity of how they lived and more especially of what we have lost as a result of rapid innovation and modernisation. It is particularly interesting to consider how different childhood was between then and now. Today we bemoan how quickly children grow up, how their outlook and attitudes to life are shaped by social media, peer pressure and pornography. The window of opportunity to simply be a child seems to be becoming ever smaller but in a much different way to Archer’s generation who were expected to work and make a physical contribution to the family. But they did so innocently, without the corruption so inherent in modern society and this shines through every page of this book.

When strawberries were picked and punneted in one-pound square chips and six-pound baskets, it was often that fruit that we had for tea after we walked into the station road after school. Our satchel-swinging group lazily made its way past the hemlock, cornflowers and marsh mallow of the roadside verge. The dust, the hot sun on the still untarred road was choking as they passed and Stodge, the roadman shovelled the horse muck into the growing barrow of soil and road sweepings on the ditch side of the road

Archer gives the reader a real sense of the spirit of community that was the bedrock of these towns and villages; how his father helped the mother and children of a man killed in the Great War with simple acts of kindness and a generosity often beyond his means. He describes characters vividly, everyone knew one another, looked out for their welfare and charged that spirit which would be needed once more by the onset of World War Two. It is a fascinating book, an escape from today’s world and where we find ourselves. This is the story of a previous generation who loved the land, understood nature, reused, recycled and wasted nothing. When people and real jobs mattered, hand-crafted tools built to last, food free of plastics and preservatives, of society being sociable and caring. In a world consumed by consumerism we could all do with reading books like this. There’s much to miss.

Categories: The Reading Room

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