Book Review – The Easternmost House – by Juliet Blaxland

‘’The Easternmost House is a portrait of a place that soon will no longer exist. It is a memorial to this house and the lost village it represents, and to our ephemeral life here, so that something of it will remain once it has all gone.’’

The bar was set high when I read the headline review for this book from John Lewis-Stempel:

‘’Destined to be a 21st century classic. Just brilliant.’

I raised an eyebrow. When it comes to books of this type based in the eastern part of England, the place that I call home myself, I automatically think of John Baker’s The Peregrine, and seem unable to avoid setting all ‘potential classics’ in comparison to that great book. However, having read The Easternmost House cover to cover I completely see where Lewis-Stempel is coming from. Certain chapters, especially in the latter stages of the book, and some of the stories set within the wider narrative, are pure brilliance. Juliet Blaxland’s account of a year in her house on the Suffolk coast is no nonsense and conjours images of sea and sky. I found myself smelling the saltiness on the air and hearing the wind whistling in from the east. She is humorous and engaging and her words a joy to read, if also encouraging reflection on the way that I personally see the coast and my place in and on it.

 ‘’Our cliff is in crumbling country, at the edge of a crumbling country. Long term maps of rising sea levels show the predicted future shape of Britain, with most of Norfolk and Suffolk under the sea.’’

I have a vested interest in the subject of coastal erosion and have watched daily as the cliff crumbles closer to my family’s farm buildings here on the edge of the Essex coast, itself rapidly retreating. We measure the ‘loss’ on a monthly basis, not that this will do anything to help in the long term. Is it simply constructing a catastrophising narrative in the way we see the place? Perhaps.

It is difficult for erosion not to be an emotive subject therefore on a personal basis and learning to deal with it objectively is a skill I am still learning. However, perhaps objectivity, or indeed particular views or perspectives are not the way of seeing erosion anyway. This I have taken away from this book. The Easternmost House is both a tribute to Blaxland’s home; an elegy in its final days at the top of its Suffolk cliff situation. It is also a reflection of rural life, thought processes, food and the state of nature.

I enjoyed the flowing and often broad nature of the prose, and yet it is often highly specific at times as well, especially when the story turns towards village happenings or encounters with people or animals. When I initially flicked through the pages I was expecting to moan that this is yet another book structured by month – there seems to be a mild obsession by publishers to fall into this sense of categorisation of late. However, Blaxland does not fall into the trap of making this a set of pure diary entries and whilst the prose fits a generally linear format by date, the narrative is refreshingly disparate. From village cricket to roadkill and personal accounts of how it feels to be a forces wife, we are invited into Blaxland’s day to day, and happenings at The Easternmost House. outhouse.

In the closing stages of the book Blaxland describes the process and experience of seeing the house that used to be closest to the edge, being dismantled. It was deconstructed bit by bit. She documented the entire thing, but for Blaxland this doesn’t appear to be an emotional experience, nor yet is it truly an objective reality. It simply is what it is. Nature is allowed to be nature, nothing more and nothing less.

It is inevitable that my Essex coastal farm will fall to the sea, or be completely engulfed by it. This is the reality but because I make my living from this environment it is difficult to not be swung by an emotion or by a desire to hold the sea back for as long as possible. Blaxland takes a kinder way of looking at erosion. She rents the Easternmost House, and it is the farm and the wider adjacent Benacre Estate that will lose out in terms of capital in the coming years as the sea makes its way westward and the land crumbles. The coast will adapt.

I was expecting this book to be a pure reflection on coastal erosion, perhaps the way that I might have written it myself, but I enjoyed it because I does not overly dwell on the issue. It is important of course, and erosion is a sub-subject within the broader narrative. However, the focus here is on life and nature on the coast. Simple. Pure. Blaxland writes of food issues, veganism, rewilding, watching birds, beachcombing and human fears and joy. Living on an eroding coastline, especially if you take notice of it and it becomes part of the way you think, can have a gross impact on you. It certainly has done that for me, and clearly also for Blaxland.

‘’Living with erosion has changed my perspective on life. I have become more tolerant of wild nature, more fatalistic and laissez faire, or laissez vivre, about wild plants and animals’’.

I enjoy local place-based books that draw on examples that are localised and seemingly small but open up to a much wider framework of national and internationally important and relevant discussion:

‘’While coastal erosion draws attention to the physical erosion of the landscape, there are invisible threats which could erode the countryside as surely as the North Sea eats away at this farm. The threats to rural life as it currently exists are many and variable, including a tsunami of hostility enabled by social media, but when combined they could cause great change to both the functioning of the countryside and its physical appearance. In no particular order, these invisible threats include, but are not limited to: opposition to sheep, sheep farming and sheep farmers; opposition to livestock and dairy farming; opposition to grouse moors; opposition to private landownership; opposition to many aspects of the horse world, especially National Hunt (jump) racing and The Pony Club and more glibly, opposition to and antipathy towards tweed and the wearers of tweed. This is not an exaggeration. It is increasingly real and vehement’.

This observation is vitally important and reflects a situation that has become obvious to many of us who write about the countryside. Certain acts and identities are seen in a negative light. Certain people are marginalised and feel threatened as a result. The coast is a place that is often forgotten and the Shoreline Management Plan and other similar government and civil service led projects could be seen to condemn some parts of the country in favour of others. Who really has the right to judge what is worth doing? Those who live with a coastal mindset such as Blaxland have a unique way of seeing the world. Her own words are best in describing what this equates to:

‘’I have found that living with coastal erosion offers a wider perspective on the world, and an outlook much along the lines of Stoicism, a Hellenistic philosophy found in Athens in the third century BC that feels oddly contemporary. Life is short. Live in the moment. Our moment of life is brief. The world is unpredictable, but we can control ourselves. Practise for misfortune. Rehearse worst case scenarios. Choose not to feel harmed and you won’t feel harmed. Meditate on your own mortality’’

I strongly recommend this book. Whether John Lewis-Stempel is correct in the long run or not, The Easternmost House will become a classic on my book shelf.

 

The Easternmost House is published by Sandstone Press and the paperback original was published on 25th April. You can follow Juliet Blaxland on twitter @julietblaxland

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