4.5 out of 5 stars

Neil Sentance now lives in West Dorset, but he grew up in the 1970s in Lincolnshire and it is to that landscape that he returns to his childhood to uncover a little more of his family history and to understand how the county that shaped who they were.

He grew up a few streets from the River Witham, as he describes it ‘a place of mossy banks and murky water’ and it where they lived out the stories and adventures in their heads. He has fond memories of wooden swords and pirate battles, rope swings in the long summer and seeing the crayfish at the bottom of the pools. The nearby football ground, where dreams of league success would be dashed every week, has inevitably become a supermarket. Just down from the river was Swallows Mill, a place for catching tiddlers, and now vibrates to the sound of the kick drum as a nightclub.

The memories go back further too, his dad reminisces about Bonfire Night, building up the fire from all sorts of kindling and windfall branches and the anticipation leading up to the moment when his grandfather would light it. Tradition meant that there would be a few fireworks and red hot potatoes from the fire before tipping the ashes into the river and heading home at midnight smelling of smoke.

Before the war his grandfather had shown some talent as a fast bowler, and could be useful with a bat; however, the dreams of going professional were dashed as his father needed the help on the 200-acre farm. It was to be his life’s work, every day’s labour was visible on his hands. Did he ever wonder what his other life might have been? He never said and no one will ever know.

Another generation back and the memories of the Great War are still raw as Charles Chalk thinks of his son in the graveyard of Pas-de-Calais. A young life wasted early in the war that would never make old bones. It brings him full circle as he watches his children running around near their new home, forming their touchstones in their own landscapes.

This is a wonderful series of short stories, vignettes and essays about family life in a Lincolnshire village. Not been to the county myself, but the descriptions that Sentance has of the place make it very appealing. The partial memories of his family are like shattered glass shards, a glimpse of a whole lived. It had echoes of Cider with Rosie, but with less of the rose-tinted elements, instead, it is written with a piercing gaze coupled with the tiny details that go to make up a life. All of this sparkling writing is what Bruce Chatwin calls the ‘substance of our ‘mental soil’ – to which forever after we are bound’. It is true too, I can still remember the stamping ground of my youth crossing the red stream over at a place called Sheets Heath as clear as something that happened last week. Very highly recommended.

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