Review: 21st Century Yokel


21st Century Yokel, by Tom Cox (Unbound)

Do you ever buy a lovely thing to eat – e.g. a lump of delicious cheese – that you then can’t bring yourself to eat because if you do it will be GONE? I do. Of course I don’t want to sit and watch things grow mould, but it takes some planning to actually eat the cheese at maximum enjoyment level; the time must be right, the crackers must be the best ones for the job, there must be proper butter and ideally some red wine to wash it all down with.

That’s what happened with this book. I just wanted it to be the right time for me to read it, when I needed to be immersed in some lovely writing, and when I had some hours at a stretch to devote to it. It turned out that the right time was the start of September (a month which is flying by in an astonishing manner actually) and may also have been encouraged by the imminent arrival of Tom’s next book ‘Help the Witch‘.

The first thing I ever read by Tom Cox was a long article in The Observer ages ago (2005, it says here) about Michael Tyack and Circulus. Circulus; fantastical purveyors of psychedelic medieval folk rock, who wear capes, other medieval garb (and occasionally horses head masks) I last saw at Glastonbury Assembly Rooms about 6 years ago, but I’m not sure they’re still going. If you want to know more about them just read Tom’s article which is handily online and obviously excellent. This is all a long-winded way of saying that when I came upon his 21st Century Yokel column in The Guardian some years later I had a very strong sense this I knew this writer from sometime before – having failed somehow to notice the ‘Cat books’ (which are not just about cats, I have read them now), or the golf books, for that matter.

I felt quite sad when Tom stopped writing his Guardian column, it had been one of my favourite bits of the week – a great insight into some lovely, and occasionally strange, bits of country life. Even better when it assured me I was on the correct side of odd myself – yes, I have been a wassailing morris dancer, and would like to be again. But there was no need to worry as, scarecrows be praised!, he started to publish much longer articles on his website. Some of these articles are also in 21st Century Yokel; though I think maybe sometimes re-worked, I haven’t checked – everything he writes is worth reading more than once anyway, I have enjoyed “Full Jackdaw” at least six times already.

Tom Cox has an ability to write about the world around him which, when you read it, makes it seems effortless. I could be half way down a page without realising I’m reading an absorbing description of a Dartmoor lane, because I thought I was reading a jokey thing about black bin liners caught in hedges being called witches knickers. The book includes accounts of walks, wild swimming, bat watching, encounters with otters, badgers and scarecrows. Lots about Tom’s cats (always welcome) and a borrowed dog, it covers folklore and eccentricity and ranges across Norfolk, Devon and Nottinghamshire.

The chapters where Tom tells us about his family; his dad in particular, you may know, is LOUD, and his speech is always in capital letters, are affectionate and often very funny. These stories aren’t all written for comic effect though, and Cox can turn on a sixpence from making you laugh to making you think. I found the story about his Nan’s love of the sea, which she hasn’t seen since she moved away, decades before, really poignant.

I loved this book so much I wanted it to go on and on. The hardback edition is a lovely thing too; Tom’s Mum – Jo – has made gorgeous prints for each chapter heading and ending, and the cover (by Claire Melinsky) and insect strewn end papers are beautiful. I haven’t had a book yet from Unbound which hasn’t been a thing of beauty as well as a really great read. Sometimes they’re also a huge surprise because I may occasionally forget I’ve pledged for something.

I’ll keep dipping into 21st Century Yokel while I’m eagerly awaiting Help The Witch – because, of course, the best thing about books is – unlike cheese – they are never gone, they’re just waiting for you to pick them up again.

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