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37 of 38 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Absorbing and Interesting
Madeleine Bunting wanted to find out more about her late father, John Bunting, the sculptor and art teacher, what motivated and drove him. In doing so she decided to look at the plot of land that he bought at Scotch Corner and why he built a chapel on it.

What we are given is part biography and part history as she delves further into the land. This may not...
Published on 29 Sept. 2009 by M. Dowden

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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not so much a biography, more a personal memoir
This book - subtitled "A Biography Of An English Acre" - initially appealed to me because it seemed to trace the history of a specific place. I was expecting something along the lines of Peter Ackroyd's historical explorations of London backwaters, adapted to the rural location of this corner of the North Yorkshire moors.

My initial expectations were not met,...
Published on 27 Oct. 2009 by C. O'Brien


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37 of 38 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Absorbing and Interesting, 29 Sept. 2009
By 
M. Dowden (London, UK) - See all my reviews
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Madeleine Bunting wanted to find out more about her late father, John Bunting, the sculptor and art teacher, what motivated and drove him. In doing so she decided to look at the plot of land that he bought at Scotch Corner and why he built a chapel on it.

What we are given is part biography and part history as she delves further into the land. This may not sound like everyones cup of tea - but what we are given here is something highly interesting and thought provoking. Not only does Bunting show what has happened on the plot of land itself over the millennia but also what has happened in the surrounding area. From drovers passing through and monks starting a community we also have the battle between Robert the Bruce and Edward II, which led to the latters ignominous escape. This area of land doesn't just show local history but some of the more broader aspects which have shaped the history of the British Isles. We are forced to think about what is real untamed wild land and what is really shaped by man, indeed so much that we take as the natural land has actually been made by us over the centuries. From this we also have to think about how we use the land and what impact our actions can have with any changes that become apparent climate change.

Farming has always been difficult in this part of North Yorkshire and with people willing to buy up farmhouses as weekend retreats and farmers trying to survive we are shown the problems of this area, also what effect has been made by tourism and those who shoot grouse. I must admit that I wasn't sure whether I would really like this book when I got it but after starting it I was fully immersed and absorbed, and was really glad that I ordered it. Admittedly this is never going to be a huge seller but if you like such tv programmes as 'Coast' and 'Countryfile', or just history you will probably enjoy this.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The power of a parent's unlived life, 1 Oct. 2009
By 
Sensible Cat (Manchester, UK) - See all my reviews
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Throughout the turbulent twentieth century, the English countryside served idealists and romantics as a "theatre of dreams" - an idealised space where time had stood still, suburbia had been excluded and craftspeople continued to find personal fulfillment working with their hands in villages that had remained unchanged for centuries. Madeleine Bunting's father went further than most in imposing this vision on his family. The North Yorkshire plot of land he leased in 1958 and used to build a highly personal chapel, a showcase for his sculptures and a focus for his unspoken but fervent Catholicism, was a place that aroused conflicting emotions in his family, and after his death in 2002 Bunting realized that if she was ever to truly understand him she would have to understand the Plot and its many historical associations.

So this book is a memoir, the story of a parent who must have been very hard to live with, whose aspirations made an uncomfortable fit with the realities of family life and the conflicting demands on the rural landscape in postwar England. It's a kind of exorcism, deeply personal but made universal and political by Bunting's intelligence and the research and writing skills she has acquired through a successful career in journalism. It's not a linear narrative by any means; the way the focus shifts from family picnics to Cistercian monks, from moths to the woes of modern farmers, could collapse into chaos in less accomplished hands. But in the second section, "War", the picture comes into focus and she draws together the threads of personal and collective memory.

Her father first discovered the Plot on a highly significant date - 6th June, 1944. While his contemporaries just a few years older were facing German tanks in Europe, he was an Ampleforth schoolboy on his way to a school picnic. Starting from a powerful image of her father bent over a memorial statue he carved and gave pride of place to in his chapel, Bunting shows us clearly that survivor guilt was a large part of his motivation. He was left with a life he hadn't expected to be spared to live and the statue of a 1940s soldier he is looking at, with a haunting mixture of grief and pride, represents himself.

Divisions can be very blurred between the personal and the political. What we naively think of as a natural landscape as we admire a view is, in reality, shaped by hundreds of years of human toil. While Stanley Baldwin was making speeches about the eternal values of the English countryside, real farmers were struggling to survive the Depression. And the pretty cottages now occupied by wealthy "good-lifers" commuting to the cities were abandoned rural homes falling into decay in Bunting's childhood.

It's not a depressing book by any means, but it's a very honest one. The countryside has always been exploited - by cattle drivers, monks, hill farmers, grouse beaters, the Forestry Commission and, most recently, mass tourism. With her trademark thoroughness Bunting brings all these influences to life and shows that they had both positive and negative effects. She writes lyrically, but never sentimentally, of the beauty of the North York Moors, articulating both the overall view (literally in the last chapter when she experiences her childhood haunts from the vantage point of a glider) and the tiny but significant details. She has a gift for making the most unlikely subjects fascinating - I never expected to read about grouse shooting or the subculture of medieval cattle drivers with such enthusiasm. You could rush through this book but, like driving through a landscape that needs to be hiked through to be fully appreciated, that would be missing the point.

This is a great contrast to the numerous coffee-table books you can buy about the countryside. The illustrations and maps are modest but each carries a wealth of meanings. It's a meditation on the value of knowing a small place very well and appreciating the layers of historical and cultural associations that landscape carries in this crowded island. As the nature writer Garry Snyder once said, sometimes the most radical thing you can do is stay home.
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22 of 23 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Meandering Around The Plot, 28 Sept. 2009
By 
Morena - See all my reviews
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After the death of her father, Guardian columnist Madeleine Bunting set herself the task of getting to know him, the land he loved and the ideas that informed his life, by writing this book, The Plot. It is the story of a one-acre plot on the Yorkshire moors (Scotch Corner, but not, as I thought for the first few chapters, *the* Scotch Corner service station on the A1!), and the surrounding area. It's also the story of a difficult man, his family life, hopes and dreams; and it's the story of how his daughter comes to something of an understanding and acceptance of him.

John Bunting bought the Plot as an idealistic young man, rejecting his suburban origins and determined to carve out an alternative life on his own terms. On it, he built a Catholic war memorial chapel, and a habitable hut, while raising his family five miles down the road in a village cottage.

Madeleine Bunting intertwines her father's relationship to the Plot with wider themes relevant to its history - companionship, war and change. We zoom in on the details, and then zoom out again to contemplate the abstract. I'm always fascinated by details of everyday life in history, so I enjoyed reading about the drovers' roads which went from the Scottish Highlands down to London, and the old occupations and ways of life which went with them - I could picture the farmhouses lit up on a dark moorland night, the cattle secured outside as the drovers bought their ale and waited for the blacksmith to shoe some livestock, glowing sparks flying. More universally, for example, she discusses the idea of landscape and the increasing dominance of vision over the other senses.

The latter third of the book examines the social changes of the twentieth century. Growing suburbanisation, and a precarious countryside which is abandoned and then nostalgically objectified.

I give this book four stars. I enjoyed learning parts of history that were previously unfamilar to me, and the many themes covered and alluded to did give me food for thought. However, the tone sometimes felt like a Guardian feature essay, and the Plot of land itself remains intimidating and mysterious. I was also put off by the presentation of dodgy anecdotes as fact - we are told that William the Conqueror got lost in the moorland fog and wound himself up into a rage, and therefore to this day, almost a thousand years on, the villagers use the expression "he was cussing like Billy Norman". This strikes me as an implausible and twee explanation for the phrase (I could believe it had originated in more recent history as a companion piece to the story of the frustrated conqueror, but not that it has been said continuously since the eleventh century), and I wish it had been explicitly presented as a colourful but dubious explanation. It's a minor gripe, but I feel the credibility of the book was let down by it.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A brilliant study of one man and his dreams seen in a wide context, 9 Oct. 2009
By 
Sally Zigmond (Yorkshire, England) - See all my reviews
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Shortly after the end of the Second World War, Madeleine Bunting's father brought his wife and family to North Yorkshire. There he bought an acre of scrub-land on the steep western edge of the North York Moors--not to live on or farm, but as a kind of sanctuary. There, he built a chapel (he was a devout Roman Catholic) and invited a very select few prepared to listen to his thoughts and opinions--and he had plenty of those. His wife and growing brood of children, whose names he often forgot, were tolerated, but not especially welcomed.

Why did he do it? What was so special about this particular plot and where it stood? What was its place in history and the development of this unique culture and environment? What was his, for that matter and what did this place mean to him? What did it mean to the author when she was growing up and what does it mean to her now her father is dead? Madeleine freely admits to having had a difficult relationship with him. In attempting to answer these questions, she has produced a tour de force, something which is neither a biography, a memoir or a history book. The result is greater than the sum of its parts.

She talks about the geology, the geography, the topology of this plot, the flora and fauna and how people mould the landscape. She discusses the evolution of landscape appreciation, tourism and a sense of place. She covers the economic ups and downs of agriculture, forestry and War, plaster saints and art. She wonders whether our 'love' of the land is a mere sentimental indulgence. Do we all need to have somewhere we can call home? How will things change in the future?

This may sound a muddle; believe me, it's not. As a journalist and historian, she pulls all these strands together into a sustained and coherent essay that is not just the story of a man, an artist with a vision, but of England itself. It's the kind of book you want to read over and over again, for its love of the land, its people and the wistful portrait of a sad man she only got to know and love after his death.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars 'The Plot' - I Think I've Just Lost It!, 1 Oct. 2009
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Madeleine Bunting recounts the story of a decades long interaction between her father, an acre of land, its neighbouring landscape, and those, past, present, and future, who dwell within, or pass through it.

It is a narrative of a man out of time, at odds with the society into which he was born, and, to some degree, at odds with himself. A man inspired by, and in thrall to, his heritage (A moribund concept to many these days),his faith, education and many of the people he encountered. Above all, it is about a man who ploughed his own lonely furrow, determined not to fit the mould others had made for him. Throughout, the author illustrates how her father set himself, and others, a high standard of achievement, and, in his own eyes, how both he, and they, failed to attain that level of achievement.

Ms. Bunting also quite ably outlines the chronology of her father's specific acre, and its development as a part of the area around the Hambleton Hills. Through her narrative we are shown the recurrent theme of continued neglect, through official mismanagement, stupidity, ineptitude, and mendacity, meliorated only by intermittent, and short, panic induced, often counter-productive counter-measures such as the introduction of non-native coniferous plantations.

The story of John Bunting shows that despite education, ability, and talent it is all too easy to fail. However, it is better to fail than never to try, the author shows that her father strove to succeed, and in the eyes of many he did, after all you are not awarded medals by a Royal Society of your peers for being an inept. The tragedy is that John Bunting used as a yardstick a set of impossible values and individuals have been canonised for attaining less.

In common with other reviewers I found Ms Bunting's personal involvement within the latter stages of the book to be a distraction, although, I believe it to be a sort of personal epiphany, and a realisation that she too is inextricably bound-up with the area.

On the whole then, a good book, although, again in common with others, I found it to be aimed squarely at her 'Grauniad' readership,
especially in her choice of words. [ I really must stop writing on this soapbox, and apologies for the plethora of commas ;)].

Cordially,

Al.

The BordersThe Reivers: The Story of the Border Reivers
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Plot - A Review, 6 Oct. 2009
By 
sb (Lancaster) - See all my reviews
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I picked up this book with a pre-determined resolution not to enjoy it and to find fault wherever possible - I am a fervent Lancastrian opposed to the glorification of Yorkshire in all its forms.

How wrong pre-conceptions can be. I fell in love with the story of the plot in the same way that the authour fell in love with the piece of land owned by her late father - I started with resentment but gradually warmed to it. This is a credit to her skill at describing the beauty of the surrounding area (yes, I admit, Yorkshire does have some nice scenery) in such a way that a reader with an appreciation of the outdoors, history and people's lives and the way that the land where they live is intricately linked to their being, cannot fail to connect to her words.

More than a list of important dates connected to the plot's existence, it is written with a great deal of warmth, both for her father (who she seemed to get to know better after his death during the research for the book - this is in itself an interesting sub-plot) and for the history of the surrounding area.

Long live the countryside, long live the plot and , gulp, long live Yorkshire.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not so much a biography, more a personal memoir, 27 Oct. 2009
By 
C. O'Brien (Scotland, UK) - See all my reviews
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This book - subtitled "A Biography Of An English Acre" - initially appealed to me because it seemed to trace the history of a specific place. I was expecting something along the lines of Peter Ackroyd's historical explorations of London backwaters, adapted to the rural location of this corner of the North Yorkshire moors.

My initial expectations were not met, however. "The Plot" is really more a kind of autobiography, spun out of author Madeline Bunting's memories of her unsatisfactory relationship with her self-centred sculptor father and padded out with an essayist's consideration of historical and sociological topics - the decline of farming, the fate of the land, the long-term effects of war and political shift on even the most obscure and hidden corners of the world. Using the "plot" simply as a starting point, these musings explore the nature of guilt and obsession (her father built and furnished the chapel as a kind of folly, a atonement in stone for having survived the war) and the way in which the "genius loci" looks and feels different to every observer - the native, the tourist, the rural planner, the incomer in search of redemptive spiritual symbols.

Personally, I would have liked to know more about the origins and archaeology of the land in minuter detail: aside from a consideration of the wildlife and some references to botched Victorian excavations, there's not a lot of that kind of study. That's not to criticise the book too much - it's a beautifully-written account, exhaustively researched and shot through with unexpected poetry which evokes the plot's atmosphere and associations in deeply moving terms, at least from Bunting's point of view. I couldn't help feeling, though, that it was less a biography of an English acre than an exploration of unfinished personal and family business.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Way way better than you might expect, 22 Oct. 2009
By 
Chris Widgery (London) - See all my reviews
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At first glance, the premise for this book - just under 300 pages about an acre of land in North Yorkshire - might not sound that interesting. But in it, Guardian journalist Bunting traces both the history of the land itself and of her father. Unlike some of the other reviewers, I was much more interested in the land (maybe I'm just an old misanthrope) so didn't mind so much that the man himself remains an elusive figure.

But the story of the land is fantastic. It looks at the history of the area, but more interestingly, the ideas of place. The development of the idea of the rural idyll, contrasted with the realities of life in what was a tough place to eke out a living. She explores the development of the rural romanticism that affected her father as much as anyone, as he watched London grow he fled north. As an aside that I could certainly relate to, she noted how, as more and more tourists discovered the delights of North Yorkshire he was determined that the family should holiday ever further north, away from people.

The book is not entirely free of gripes. I wanted a decent map of the Plot, and a couple of pictures of it (there are pictures, but they didn't feel to me like the right ones). And, as other reviewers have noted, you have to take one or two of the tales with a pinch of salt.

But it is beautifully written, tender and heartfelt. The history is very thoroughly researched and the story of North Yorkshire and the development of communities a very interesting read. The realities of life on the economic margins are presented thoughtfully, and some of the modern challenges the area faces (sheep farmers can no longer make a living there, and can make far more from selling up to Londoners seeking the quiet life, but without sheep farmers the character of the area will change and make it far less attractive to those Londoners) are adroitly presented.

Part geography, part social history, part family memoir. Really enjoyed it.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful Landscape, 29 Nov. 2009
By 
Richard M. Seel (Norfolk UK) - See all my reviews
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I chose this book because the title intrigued me. Its twists and turns held me spell bound until the very end. It's not the sort of book I would usually choose but Madeline Bunting has written, for me, a book I couldn't put down. It was like a wonderful meal with good friends, something you don't want to end although you know it will!

Madeline Bunting has carried out a tremendous amount of background research into a small piece of England in North York Moors. What I found so attractive was the author's father's relationship with this small plot of land combined with the historical aspect of that same piece of land.

Through exploring the history of this plot, she discovers more about her father and this, in turn, alters her relationship with him. A sculptor of no mean merit, he believes he is a failure and increasingly spends time at the plot. He leaves his wife, also an artist, to look after their children believing this to be her job and concentrates on building a chapel on the plot. The chapel is his escape and his delight.

I found the story of this plot of land fascinating - from Neolithic forts and earthworks to the thousands of cattle who walked by with their drovers from Scotland to York to Wordsworth and other romantics walking the very same land. And different events to the present day.

It's a book I look forward to reading again and my only complaint is that I would have liked more illustrations and photographs but this is a small point.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Corner of an English Field, 10 Oct. 2009
By 
Mr. Gtj Charmley "gerardtjcharmley" (Cardiff, Wales) - See all my reviews
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'Land', as those of us familiar with Gone with the Wind know, 'is the only thing that lasts'. Somehow, those words feel appropriate when referring to this evocative book. The subtitle is 'biography of an English acre', and in one sense it is that. The Plot ofthe title is a piece of land on the North Yorkshire Moors where the author's father, a sculptor, erected a war memorial chapel in the 1950s. Of course, it is far more. The book gives glimpses of her father's past, and of the break-up of her parents' marriage. One can almost smell the pine needles as she refers to the Forestry Commission's part in the changing landscape. It is also a portrait of an outsider, for the Buntings were Catholics, and the Chapel has been used for Mass and retreats. Running through the piece is Madeline Bunting's discovery of her father, and through him the deeper past of this corner of North Yorkshire. Yet there is also a sense of loss, of her father, and of his sense of loss at the world that passed him by. The chapel, she suggests, was built out of guilt at not having been old enough to have fought in the Second World War, and specifically dedicated to the dead of his school, Ampleforth, a monastic foundation.

The book is a work of art, and deserves to be read as one would examine a Constable.
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