‘Brave Old World’ by Tom Hodgkinson
I picked up this book in my local radical community bookshop, attracted by its beautifully detailed, medieval-inspired cover, and opened it to find a lovely synchronicity: the author shares my birthday (listed under “April’s festivities”). It was April at the time, on the cusp of my birthday, so I treated myself.
Perhaps this predisposes me to overlook its faults and champion its virtues, but, as a good-humoured attempt at reviving old calendar customs, I feel there is much in this book for modern pagans to enjoy.
Summarised as “a month-by-month guide to husbandry, or the fine art of looking after yourself,” the book is structured as a journey through the year, borrowing heavily and self-consciously from Virgil’s Georgics, medieval almanacs and English diarists and naturalists from the C16th – C18th. Each month is given a seasonal activity, drawn from an almanac: March, for example, is “Sow Seeds”; October is “Brew Beer” (don’t mind if I do). Through these, the author explores the ways in which a return to traditional, agricultural rhythms of life can work in the modern world, allowing us to sidestep some of the worse effects of consumerism and globalisation. Concluding each month is a ‘calendar’ of monthly festivities, drawn mostly from Classical authors (Roman gods are prominent) and the medieval Christian church, but with an occasional nod to native pagan traditions as well (Gwyn ap Nudd is briefly mentioned in connection with the lengthening nights of late September). Some readers may be put off by the author’s interest in classical Latin literature and “pre-reformation Christianity,” which he gives – tongue in cheek – as his preferred religion, but the values which underpin his work will be familiar to many pagans.
Politically, the ideas here are as radical as any you would find in angrier, more polemic books on anti-capitalism. Instead of challenging his readers, however, the author carries us along with him on his journey towards a simpler, happier and more independent way of life, winning us over with his practical focus and good-humoured admissions of his failures as well as his triumphs. His consistent focus on the idea that “toil conquers all” is surprising, coming as it does from the man who co-founded The Idler, but the emphasis here is on the real work of providing for ourselves and our loved ones, as opposed to the empty busy-ness of the 9-5 office job, which frequently deprives us of our capacity to do much more than spend the money we earn.
Hodgkinson’s tone is occasionally patchy, and while his personal experiences are always an entertaining and enlightening gloss on the ideas and arguments he raises, the narrative sometimes wanders into a maze of anecdotes and personal musings. Fortunately, the almanac-style arrangement of the book ensures the pace is never lost, and if one section is not to your taste (vegetarians may want to skip November: “Kill Pig”), it is easy to move on to the next.
Overall, this is a book in the best tradition of the enthusiastic British amateur: gently eccentric, baffled by bureaucracy and, most importantly, deeply in love with the land. Readers from other countries may find that the author’s cultural references and observations about legal niceties are less directly relevant to them, but his good humour and clear-sighted appraisal of the problems with consumerism can be enjoyed by everyone. If nothing else, this is a lovely description of how and why we should try to live in greater harmony with the land and the seasons. The author is great company through the wheel of the year, and I expect I shall be dipping into this book for inspiration and encouragement over many years to come.