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From the NS archive: Echoes of Africa

7 June 1966: Chinua Achebe reviews John Masefield’s Grace Before Ploughing

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It may have seemed somewhat perverse of the magazine’s literary editor to send a book of “Fragments of autobiography” detailing a Victorian childhood in rural Herefordshire to the Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe. It was though an inspired choice. Despite the striking differences between the two writers – in age, geography, circumstances – Achebe found fellow-feeling with the English Poet Laureate. Some of Masefield’s experiences growing up on the Welsh border were those of Achebe too in West Africa. While others, such as the nature of progress and the complicated feelings it evokes, are universal. Here, reviewer and book are in perfect harmony.

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I read John Masefield’s “fragments of autobiography” with reverence and gratitude. Reverence for its great, sparkling beauty, gratitude for purely African reasons. In a recent comment on three new African novels (including mine) Naomi Mitchison compares the “bursting out” of African writers and artists in our time with the “tremendous pouring out of artistic energy” in Europe after the collapse of feudalism. About the same day I saw a letter in New Statesman in which a respected Africanist compares Nkrumah’s Ghana with England during the War of the Roses! Now such comparisons (innocent and well-meaning though they be) are shattering to those of us who want to arrive quickly into the 20th century. And this is why I am deeply grateful to Dr Masefield for this marvellous story of his childhood, from which I have extracted so much hope. “I looked at that shadowy land... the land of the Welsh, who were not the English but a foreign race with whom our natives disagreed.” Tribalism! “People there had made the earth their father and protection and the earth remembered that, and they, as parts of the memory of the earth, could still impress and terrify.” I rubbed my eyes and read that again, for the meaning of my surname is “may the earth protect”. This was the pastoral England of only 80 years ago and it spoke some of the esoteric language of Africa.

I hope it is not too perverse of me to drag these strange thoughts into this pure, nostalgic story of an imaginative boy’s intense response to his little corner of England – its canals and the barges that plied them, its woods, hills and wild flowers, its hiring-fairs and markets. Another man’s nostalgia can become tiresome because we are left out of it. Masefield took me along and I saw with wide-eyed wonder the sights of his childhood and felt something of the terror planted in his young mind by protective, well-meaning adults – the fear of bulls which could “gore a little boy so that his own mother couldn’t know him”, of gypsies whom he was not entirely persuaded to fear, whom in fact he greatly admired for their waistcoats, their gold buttons, “their choice of vans as homes and the breadth of England for their doorsteps”. He would not believe the popular accusation of child-stealing made against these kindred spirits. His wanderlust was later to draw him physically and imaginatively to even wider expanses, with “the lonely sea and the sky” for his doorstep.

Masefield’s art astonishes by the simplicity of its line. I think it comes from a rare gift of sight that reveals to those who possess it “the unutterable worth of humble things”. We feel the boy’s wonder at the passage of a strange cloud formation; his sorrow at the death of the stag he had seen “leap the stile with unspeakable, matchless grace”.

Perhaps those echoes of Africa which I thought I heard in Grace Before Ploughing are deceptive after all. As I read on, I realised how different this childhood was from anything imaginable here. There were none but some nameless children mentioned in passing. The most poignant pain he felt was for animals. His young spirit clearly yearned for loneliness and he was lucky to be born into a society that allowed a child to walk alone. In his last chapter, in which the adult Masefield allows himself a say, it is to counterbalance his personal happiness as a child and darken the picture a little. It was beautiful for him, he says, but he also saw children in rags and barefooted in frost: “men unable to read or write; men marked with smallpox and many young men getting out of England to begin elsewhere at all costs”. But in his lifetime be also saw these things change beyond the expectation of even the most generous heart, which gives him great hope for what’s to come.

Masefield’s spirit of optimism is remarkable for a man who witnessed the disappearance of so much that he had enjoyed as a child. He achieves this spirit because, I think, he sees life as a continuing adventure in which what’s to come has always been unsure. He knew and loved the old canal from Ledbury to Gloucester; he saw it closed and a railway built in its place. He tells us of “men who mourned for the old canal”, but we can be sure he did not spend years in their company; even a railway had something to engage his sense of wonder: “I wonder where the Public Works men found all the earth they tipped to make that strong embankment.” And now the railway in turn is closed. No doubt there will again be mourners. But Masefield says: “I notice that in today’s paper a man suggests a first-rate air-service.”

Read more from the NS archive here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

Chinua Achebe (1930-2013) was a Nigerian novelist, professor and critic. He contributed occasional essays and reviews to the New Statesman magazine.