A thatcher at work in Botley, Oxfordshire in 1933, the county in which the Lark Rise books are set. (Photo: Getty)
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Flora and fauna: Dreams of the Good Life by Richard Mabey

The story of Flora Thompson’s semi-autobiographical novels set in the Oxfordshire hamlet of Lark Rise.

Dreams of the Good Life
Richard Mabey
Allen Lane, 240pp, £16.99

This is the story of the evolution of Flora Thompson’s semi-autobiographical novels Lark Rise (1939), Over to Candleford (1941) and Candleford Green (1943), first published together as Lark Rise to Candleford in 1945. I hope the editor at Oxford University Press who came up with the title was duly rewarded. Lark Rise to Candleford brilliantly captures the poetic appeal of these three books.

Through the persona of the young Laura, Thompson looks back on her Victorian childhood in Lark Rise, an impoverished rural hamlet in Oxfordshire, and to her first job at the post office in the neighbouring Candleford. The rhythm of the world she recalls is cyclical: the rising of the sun is always followed by candlelight. Yet against the predictability of nature can be felt the march of progress: by the time Thompson, in her early sixties, wrote her quiet masterpieces, a different dawn had broken and the lights had gone out all over Europe.

Like Thompson, Richard Mabey is more interested in places than in people. He excels as a writer in embedding characters in their surroundings and describing the effects of displacement. Thompson left the safe “fort” of Lark Rise when she was a child but she was out of place in other ways, too. She was producing romantic rural tales long after the birth of modernism; Freud’s contemporary, she had no perspective on inner landscapes.

Thompson admitted that she had little self-knowledge and even Mabey confesses – beyond that she was self-taught, ambitious, solitary and a lover of high fashion: he finds her unknowable. Yet by plotting the progress of her writing, from village post mistress to chronicler of lost England, he tells us a good deal about her rise as a woman of letters. Critics like to see rural writers as instinctive producers of prose, naive woodlanders who lack the art of their urban contemporaries. Mabey successfully shows how, rather than writing her books as a bird might sing, Thompson achieved something more complex, particularly in her narrative voice.

There is much to admire in Dreams of the Good Life, particularly in Mabey’s descriptions of the natural world, but while it has the wings to fly, it does not take off as his other books have done. It stays rooted on the earth. 

Frances Wilson is an author, biographer and critic, whose works include The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth. Her most recent book is How to Survive the Titanic, or the Sinking of J Bruce Ismay. She reviews for the TLS, the Telegraph and the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 12 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, 4 years of austerity

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Why does food taste better when we Instagram it?

Delay leads to increased pleasure when you set up a perfect shot of your dinner.

Been on holiday? Take any snaps? Of course you did – but if you’re anything like me, your friends and family didn’t make it into many of them. Frankly, I can only hope that Mr Whippy and I will still be mates in sixty years, because I’m going to have an awful lot of pictures of him to look back on.

Once a decidedly niche pursuit, photographing food is now almost as popular as eating it, and if you thought that the habit was annoying at home, it is even worse when it intrudes on the sacred peace of a holiday. Buy an ice cream and you’ll find yourself alone with a cone as your companion rushes across a four-lane highway to capture his or hers against the azure sea. Reach for a chip before the bowl has been immortalised on social media and get your hand smacked for your trouble.

It’s a trend that sucks the joy out of every meal – unless, that is, you’re the one behind the camera. A new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that taking pictures of food enhances our pleasure in it. Diners at the food court of a farmers’ market in Philadelphia were asked either to photograph their meal or to eat “as you normally would”, then were questioned about how they found it. Those in the photography group reported that not only did they enjoy their meal more, but they were “significantly more immersed in the experience” of eating it.

This backs up evidence from previous studies, including one from this year in the Journal of Consumer Marketing, which found that participants who had been asked to photograph a red velvet cake – that bleeding behemoth of American overindulgence – later rated it as significantly tastier than those who had not.

Interestingly, taking a picture of a fruit salad had no effect on its perceived charms, but “when descriptive social norms regarding healthy eating [were] made salient”, photographing these healthier foods did lead to greater enjoyment. In other words, if you see lots of glossy, beautifully lit pictures of chia seed pudding on social media, you are more likely to believe that it’s edible, despite all the evidence to the contrary.
This may seem puzzling. After all, surely anything tastes better fresh from the kitchen rather than a protracted glamour shoot – runny yolks carefully split to capture that golden ooze, strips of bacon arranged just so atop plump hemispheres of avocado, pillowy burger buns posed to give a glimpse of meat beneath. It is hardly surprising that 95 million posts on Instagram, the photo-sharing site, proudly bear the hashtag #foodporn.

However, it is this delay that is apparently responsible for the increase in pleasure: the act of rearranging that parsley garnish, or moving the plate closer to the light, increases our anticipation of what we are about to eat, forcing us to consider how delicious it looks even as we forbid ourselves to take a bite until the perfect shot is in the bag. You could no doubt achieve the same heightened sense of satisfaction by saying grace before tucking in, but you would lose the gratification that comes from imagining other people ogling your grilled Ibizan sardines as they tuck in to an egg mayonnaise at their desk.

Bear in mind, though, that the food that is most successful on Instagram often has a freakish quality – lurid, rainbow-coloured bagel-croissant hybrids that look like something out of Frankenstein’s bakery are particularly popular at the moment – which may lead to some unwise menu choices in pursuit of online acclaim.

On the plus side, if a diet of giant burgers and salted-caramel lattes leaves you feeling queasy, take heart: if there is one thing that social media likes more than #avotoast, it is embarrassing oversharing. After a week of sickening ice-cream shots, a sickbed selfie is guaranteed to cheer up the rest of us. 

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser