I loved this book. It is fascinating on many levels. A brooding military presence hangs over it. If you enjoy history, and especially if you enjoy Yorkshire, this might be your ideal holiday reading. The Plot contains profound philosophical insights, about what it is to be English and how we “belong.” It concludes that “belonging” is not about possession; it is about commitment. “One can belong in many places. Belonging is where we nurture our capacity for awareness of the myriad histories that constitute a place.”
The Plot is a literal one-acre plot of land that the author’s father, John Bunting (1927-2002), bought in North Yorkshire, near Ampleforth, where he had been a schoolboy. John Bunting was one of the UK’s best post-war sculptors, but is not as well-known as his contemporaries, because his work was not “modern.” It was also strongly and unfashionably religious in content and was often deployed in the service of the Roman Catholic Church, of which he was a devout, even fanatical, member. John Bunting's robust sculptures, worked in stone, bronze and hard woods, are infused with a dignity and compassion that celebrate his religious conviction. Life, death, love and suffering were his constant themes, vigorously expressed in subjects such as Madonna and Child, Christ Crucified and the poignant Soldier from his memorial chapel of 1957-60.
While clearly a fascinating and complex man, he was equally clearly rather a trial as a father and husband. Eventually his marriage collapsed and his children were alienated. On one level, The Plot is a gesture of posthumous understanding and reconciliation by his daughter.
First the history: The author has studied the archaeology and history of the plot and the surrounding area of North Yorkshire in great depth. This “detective story,” which starts in the Neolithic period and continues to the present day, is of great interest. The author intelligently examines changing land use, the ecological mess created by the Forestry Commission, the heritage industry and the struggle of hill farmers to make a living.
Then there is the biography. John Bunting was slightly too young to have served in World War II, although he had both expected and wished to serve. Like all the great public schools, especially those with a strong military tradition, the sacrifice of Ampleforth, “the Catholic Eton,” was immense in both World Wars. The lists of names – and of awards for gallantry - on the memorials tell their own tale. Bunting was from an early age conscious of a debt that could never be repaid and of the shadows of heroes, up to whom he could never live. His construction of the War Memorial Chapel on his acre of land was an act of gratitude and atonement. Everyone who has visited it comments on the striking effigy that dominates the small chapel: not a recumbent crusader knight but an Airborne Division soldier, complete with nailed boots. The presiding saints or worthies are not St George or St Alban but three Ampleforth military heroes: the poet Michael Fenwick (Gurkha Rifles), killed in Kowloon in 1941; Hugh Dormer DSO (Irish Guards), killed in France in 1944; and Michael Allmand VC (Chindits), killed in Burma in 1944. All had been very brave; all had shown literary promise. In 1977 a fourth was added and commemorated in the shrine: Robert Nairac GC (Grenadier Guards). The effigy bears Hugh Dormer’s features.
From biography, we move into the realms of philosophical inquiry. In addition to deep and searching questions about England, Englishness, English Catholicism and belonging, the author examines the cult of saints and hero-worship. Long before John Bunting placed the first stone of his chapel, Hugh Dormer was well on the way to unofficial canonisation at Ampleforth. His War Diaries, which have literary merit, are read aloud at the boys’ annual retreat. Dormer was a charismatic individual, a member of one of England’s oldest Catholic Recusant families. He was also very devout. Had he survived, he would probably have become a priest. He is seen as a role model for later generations of Amplefordians, who are still inspired by him to join the Army. Like him, they often prove to have a penchant for undercover operations. It is likely that Robert Nairac, listening to, and reading, the War Diaries, was inspired to follow in Dormer’s footsteps. Although not related, they were remarkably similar; even sharing the love of falconry and of Kenya.
Yet John Bunting’s tireless quest for information about his heroes uncovered evidence that Dormer was not quite the preux chevalier of Ampleforth tradition. In particular, a daring raid on occupied France in which he was involved, and which he believed had resulted in the destruction of a vitally important factory to the German war effort, had failed in its purpose. The factory had not in reality been destroyed; the men who died in the raid had died in vain. Surviving former soldiers who had served with Dormer had mixed views of him. Some regarded him as a Don Quixote: more of a liability than an asset. They thought that he was too religious for comfort, and did not share his often-expressed wish for martyrdom or heroic death in battle: they wanted to survive. Bunting was too honest to reject or ignore such evidence, but it upset him and even caused religious doubts. This made him harder than ever to live with. I am reminded of the words of another, living hero, John Ridgway (ex-Para Regiment, ex-SAS, Atlantic rower) and a sensible, down to earth man: “Don’t meet or get close to your heroes. You’ll find that they all have feet of clay.” Of course they do. That does not alter their real achievements.