Divide by Anna Jones – blogtour

It’s the last day of the blogtour for this thought-provoking book and I’m delighted to be closing the tour.

Anna Jones is a journalist specialising in country affairs, working out of Bristol. She’s also a farmer’s daughter, and her book is her analysis of the relationship between town and country as its sub-title says.

On days when I wake up rather early and switch on the radio, I can recall hearing her name as reporter on Radio 4’s Farming Today, one of many shows she is involved with, and she worked on BBC1’s Countryfile for over a decade.

The book begins by talking about ‘Home’, which for Jones’ first 18 years was a hill farm on the Shropshire/Welsh borders, and she explores her own family history on the farm. There are neighbours who’ve barely left the county. But contrasting with that there are the stories of incomers to the farming world, like Sinead who became fascinated by agriculture while working in recruitment. She took voluntary redundancy and started a market garden with her partner, growing speciality vegetables and edible flowers for the restaurant trade. She finally felt at home in her new career.

Jones is very good at looking at all sides of each chapter’s topic, moving on to look at Work, Politics, Diversity, Animals, Food, Environment and Community in the subsequent sections.

In ‘Work’ she looks at the problems of mental health in the farming community, talking to a variety of farmers about their extreme work ethics. The majority of calls to farming helplines are about serious mental health issues.

I am coming to realise that living and thinking like a workhorse and martyring yourself to a ‘way of life’ is flawed and flies in the face of all the best advice around achieving work/life balance and protecting mental health. And some farmers are reaching the same conclusion.

There are lighter sides to the subject of work too, viz some farmers’ attitudes towards how their business is portrayed on the small screen.

The perceived rose-tinted urban view of farming and rural life is a source of endless frustration to those who live and work on the land and it’s the precise reasons BBC One’s flagship rural affairs programme Countryfile earned its nickname ‘Towniefile’.There are many people in the countryside who truly, vehemently despise Countryfile. I know because they tell me. […]

But farmers would generally choose Clarkson over Craven.
According to the Cumbrian shepherd and author James Rebanks,
Clarkson’s Farm did more for British agriculture in one series than Countryfile did in 30 years. […]

He’s right though that Jeremy Clarkson has increased awareness of everyday farming life. […]
And it did a great job of shining a light on ordinary rural people. I know Calebs, Charlies and Geralds from my own farming community and I’ve long pondered how to get their unseen faces and unheard voices on mainstream telly.

The chapter on ‘Animals’ concentrates on animal welfare, and brings townies more into the narrative by discussing where our meat comes from, some of the practicalities about rearing animals to be slaughtered, looking at the various schemes and affordability. In ‘Food’ she looks at the very real divide between vegan activists and livestock farmers, but she is able to find a vegan champion who was willing to talk to a farmer who really does the best for his animals – neither won each other over, but they gained a new appreciation of each other’s points of view.

In the final chapter, Community, she returns to the theme of home, of the exodus of city dwellers to the countryside. Even she and her partner Adam, decide to move to Shrewsbury for a trial period to see if townie Adam can cope with a change of pace – in the post-Covid epilogue we discover he can!

I’m a resolute townie, and couldn’t live in a big city now, but I do like having enough facilities on my doorstep (especially bookshops!), being able to be observe nature close by (I go past fields of wheat and pig arks on my 5-mile drive to work), and still being able to access the city when needed – I couldn’t live in the isolation of farming hamlets. At the school where I work, we take our smallest pupils to Adam Henson’s (he of Countryfile) Cotswold Farm Park – a trip they adore, but farm visits are not on the curriculum further up the school years, which is a shame in a way.

As a townie then, Divide was an enjoyable and interesting read that gave me, (like Clarkson’s Farm), a much increased respect for the lot of the farmer, be they arable, livestock or market gardeners. Jones’s book is perhaps more of a paean to farming (although she does acknowledge some of its faults too) than a true exploration of the differences between town and country, but for us townies it is full of encouragement to connect the two worlds wherever we can, and I applaud that.

Source: Review copy. Kyle Books paperback, 282 pages.

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9 thoughts on “Divide by Anna Jones – blogtour

  1. A Life in Books says:

    This sounds very interesting. I tend to listen to the rather clumsily named Farming Today This Week on Saturdays which makes me feel more hopeful then my weekday dose of the Today programme. It often highlights interesting projects, although it doesn’t shy away from the problems that dedevil rural communities which don’t get much coverage in mainstream news, crime being one of them.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      She writes really well about it all, and has talked to so many interesting people in the research for the book, but I honestly can’t remember if she covers rural crime in the final chapter.
      That title ‘Farming Today This Week’ always makes me laugh, and I’d love to know if the comedy show ‘The Day Today’ inspired it, but can’t find a mention of the omnibus edition pre-The Day Today.

  2. Calmgrove says:

    A sort of insider’s view of both sides of the divide is always good to know and a welcome respite from the culture wars between the so-called Countryside Alliance and those vehemently opposed to them.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      It was a good read. Biased towards farming, but achieving the right sort of balance to help townies appreciate the farmers’ difficult way of life.

  3. MarinaSofia says:

    Coming from a family of farmers and shepherds, I have no romantic illusions about the lifestyle and the amount of work required, but that quote about just how sustainable the work-life balance is… wonder how easy it is to be more balanced as we get more and more environmental threats because of climate change?

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I can’ remember the exact situation there, but she was talking to a relatively young farmer who is putting his mental health first, not taking on more than he can manage, thinking about new methods of farming in this age of climate change etc. That quote was followed by some stats from a Farmers’ Helpline which had more calls about mental health than anything else.

  4. Liz Dexter says:

    Not sure how I missed this at the time, sorry! I grew up in a village so know how to behave around livestock, which is not the case with a lot of people it seems now from the book, but didn’t know any farmers. I like being suburban now, close enough to a city, with a good local high street but I can get out to countryside fairly quickly!

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