Simon Doubleday July 19, 2021

Where? (Book Review)

Simon Moreton, “Where? Life and Death in the Shropshire Hills” (Little Toller Books, 2021).  

Take what you have gathered by coincidence, someone once sang; and it was by a string of coincidences that I discovered the new radical bookshop Lockdown Books, in Kington (Herefordshire), and in it, prominently displayed, Simon Moreton’s brilliantly observed and moving evocation of belonging and loss, Where?, a response to his father’s recent death, to his places in the world. “Cancer and premature death,” he writes in the preface, “are a fucker for playing with things you once imagined static or stable”. The book spoke to me at once, in my own moment of losing, if not yet loss–a parent in ever more fragile condition; a moment of sensing a rediscovered belonging in this place, where family have lived since Sarah Ann Lloyd moved with her seven young children to Castle Hill Cottage in the 1890s. Another Sarah Lloyd makes a brief, tragic cameo in this book, washed away in a river torrent in Ludlow.

Moreton’s graphics and his minutely detailed, historically precise, prose speak to each other, too, filling in the silences of the other, their rhythms and cadences beautifully judged. He writes, and draws, of a childhood in Shropshire, which was also the birthplace of my great-grandmother and her extended family; he writes of collecting his father’s ashes in Leominster, which is on the road to Kington. This was a book I knew I needed.

Moreton’s view of the Shropshire landscape is deeply felt without ever slipping into romanticism, a topography in which he and previous generations are deeply embedded. Its places, its quarries, its new housing estates, its crumbling country estates where he played as a child, the radar station where his father worked, form “a human-made landscape” shaped by “wealth, power, privilege, and tragedy”. The countryside is not simply an idyll or a restorative antidote; it is, and has also been, the scene of poverty, hard labor, violence at the pits, school bullying, Royalist massacres, suicide.

The places of this book, in the border country and beyond—in his parents’ adoptive county of Devon–encompass hospitals and hospices, as well as landscapes where the exuberance or vengeance of nature is always accompanied by unglamour: “We pause at the railings overlooking St Bartholomew’s cemetery. Below us the land slips steeply away into grasses and yews and headstones and blackbirds and dog-shit bins”. Life and death are capable equally of generating wonder and its opposites. But in Moreton’s hands, they are woven into a visual and textual narrative that is nothing if not wondrous. In the endless days of vigil by his father’s bedside, he observes “my Dad’s sleeping form, the flowers, the vase, chest of drawers, doorhandles, us, our hollow, hand-touching, story-telling forms”.

Pasts and presents intertwine throughout the book; everything is synchronous. Like Alfred Watkins, the theorist of prehistoric ley lines, Moreton finds meanings in the landscape, personal tracks of significance, weaving between 1502, 1738, and the bees that gather on a house opposite the deceased beekeeper in the summer of 1994. The author’s personal pasts, but also the many other pasts that shape him, and us, long after death. “The event of death makes absence corporeal. We accrue these absences throughout our lives, and just as we feel the resonance of deaths that happened before we were even born, our deaths will be felt long after we are gone”.

Eventually, Moreton writes, “we had to say our goodbyes and leave, so that Dad could quietly rejoin the world as something new and so that we could, too”. The moment of his father’s death is accompanied by new life; “a beautiful Devon spring unfurled two weeks early outside—sun candling the daffodils, the tree cherry-blossomed”. And “where is he?” His father’s presence is felt, in the months and years that follow, in the smell of Earl Grey tea, in the process of baking, the sudden rush of passing roadside deer.