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The town of Wigtan in Cumberland is at the opposite end of England from Akenfield (1969), Ronald Blythe's claustrophobic East Anglian village; like Blythe, Bragg has produced a remarkable oral history, but his scope is wider, his achievement more impressive. Wigtan has undergone a sea change since 1900 when the Georgian mansion, Highmoor House, and the dreaded Workhouse defined its upper and lower boundaries. A returned native, Bragg has gathered a wealth of remembrances--remembrances which collectively are a testament to the tenacity of English life and the unsuspected strength and diversity of ""ordinary"" people. Farm laborers, solicitors, school teachers, pigeon breeders, veterans of both World Wars, eighty-year-old women who entered domestic service at fourteen, coal miners, and shopkeepers speak plainly, unsentimentally, about their lives--each a part of the commonality. For most, Education and the National Service were the channels of mobility. They do not rue the aspidistras and the antimacassars or the council bungalows which today dot the manor grounds where Solomon the peacock once strutted. Though Bragg is infinitely respectful of the past, it does not hold him in thrall: ""the truth is that the overwhelming social movement of this century has been the rise in fortune and comforts of the 'masses'""--Elizabeth Armstrong, his grandmother, went into ""service"" at fourteen; the Education Act of 1944 sent him to Oxford on scholarship. The bucolic pastimes of the past were poor compensation for the unrelieved drudgery: today there are choral societies, a Rugby team, libraries, sewage systems--most important, leisure belongs to everyone. There is, unabashedly, an underlying theme of there-will-always-be-an-England. But it is not a smug, complacent book; quite the contrary. The endurance, the hardships, the triumphs of Wigtan are exhilarating, and Bragg has recorded them with miraculous freshness and, yes, deep love.

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 1976
Publisher: Knopf