Saturday, 1 May 2021

Tolkien & industrialisation

Many people know that JRR Tolkien moved from Africa to a Warwickshire village when he was a boy. His father died in South Africa before he ever set foot in England again. Later - owing to financial difficulties following his father’s death - their mother moved JRR and the rest of the family from the idyllic village ( the shire) to Birmingham. 

As someone born in the Midlands I can clearly see how the contrast between town and country, industrialisation and rurality, clean air and smoky, dusty air belched out by factories would strike a sensitive lad like JRR. 

My parents were professionals. They weren’t labourers but my grandfather was a skilled foreman at an iron foundry. The muck in the air created by the Bessemer Convertor eventually killed him and nana lived in reduced circumstances as did many women when they became widowed in 1930s-40s. However nana was looked after and employed by a good man - a family friend - who couldn’t see her financially ruined. And she owned her own house. She led a happy, hard working life thereafter.

Many years later when I was a child there was woodland at the bottom of our road ( sweetly called Nightingale Place) and our house was surrounded by three fields. It sounds idyllic. But it was close to the industrial midlands which JRR disliked. I never knew the inside of the factories and only noticed the noise they made when machines started up again one new year after a long festive break. JRR’s son, Christopher, who died in 2020, said his father had a fear of mechanisation and of the modern world: Rural life and certainties destroyed by machines.

Only now are governments waking up to the notion that if we destroy nature we destroy ourselves. If we burn fossil fuel the air becomes thick and clogs our lungs. If we fell forests and jungles we make creatures homeless. If we block out the sun we die.

I see more and more articles about electric cars and alternatives to power stations to heat and light our homes. During this lockdown we would have missed the tv and the internet for sure. We can’t endure a British winter without heating. So alternatives are essential if we aren’t to lead lives like 1380s peasants.

JRR Tolkien was right to draw a distinction between the ugliness of factory flames and pollution and the bucolic life of the countryside. It would take a huge amount of adaptation, however, to become demechanised: to get rid of our cars and learn to ride a horse or a bike again. It would take an immense effort to light our home with candles and go back to a range for cooking and heating. And industrialisation brought work to thousands in the Midlands.

But the decades of relatively cheap transport, fuel and power in the home has come at a cost. JRR Tolkien could see that. But a Professor of Anglo-Saxon ( who wasn’t even sent to school when he was little) and Professor of English Language and Literature is a very different man from a Midlands industrialist who sells taps, and a labourer who makes them, for a living.

Both thinkers and industrialists have to learn from each other if we are to avoid catastrophe. 

And now I read the headlines   “‘urban flight’ raises house prices in villages.” Another kind of disturbance and imbalance in the community. Another stress for the countryside to absorb. We all need to treat our environment with care. And not push out those families who made their homes there long before the pandemic. City dwellers may have enough capital to move to the countryside. But can villagers afford to live there when prices rise? 

There’s a lot to consider in the tug of war between town and countryside, urbanisation ruralism. We all need to have a care.  

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