REVIEWED BY JEFF TAYLOR
(Tinder Press: 2023) by Kate Worsley
Foxash is a novel set on a Land Settlement Association (LSA) estate in the 1930s. As Kate Worsley informs the reader, the LSA bought farms across England and ‘selected long-term unemployed industrial workers – mainly miners, but also shipbuilders and labourers – from so-called Special Areas, where unemployment was high’. Some Suffolk readers will be aware of the remains of the LSA estate at Newbourne, about 8 miles east of Ipswich. But they may be less well informed about a similar settlement, Foxash, about 3 miles west of Manningtree.
It is to Manningtree that Lettie Radley arrives by train from County Durham in late January to join her husband Tommy, an unemployed miner. He had arrived weeks earlier from their home in Easington to begin a new life at Foxash. She is not greeted by Tommy, but by their new neighbours, the ‘overbearing and unkempt’ Jean and Adam Dell, who were already well established on their own smallholding. The various connections that arise between the two couples, from that first January until Whitsun the following year, and the ‘terrible reckoning’ that comes from secrets on both sides, combine to form the core of the novel.
The story is told against the backdrop of changing seasons and hard physical work, linking the rhythms of the growing plants to the stresses and joys of life. The fruit of their labours is not just in the produce but in feelings of wellbeing. Lydia, the narrator of the novel, sees a big change in her health. Catching sight of herself in a glasshouse pane, she declares, ‘My eyes and teeth gleam, my hair is thick and dense; my skin golden. It feels downy, my flesh smooth and solid, and taut’.
I enjoyed reading about the rhythms and practices of work on the settlement. Readers with large vegetable patches will come away from this novel with a sense of their own achievements, but should take note that, ‘he who weeds in May throws it all away’.
The author is keen to point out that, ‘the novel is in no way a record, portrait or critique of the LSA project itself, or of those who came to live on the settlements or those who have lived there since.’ This hasn’t stopped me from seeing the remnants of the Newbourne settlement in a different light, during walks to the village’s popular public house. I now wonder if the people who live in the renovated LSA properties at Newbourne know the human history of their homes. The original settlements had 5 acres and livestock; they were ‘privatised’ after 1983. The Foxash settlement is much better known, as can be seen from this link. https://www.lawfordpc.org.uk/council/lawford/notices/Foxash-LSA-Story.pdf
Incidentally the film ‘Here is the Land’, produced by the Land Settlement Association in 1937, provided me with an excellent introduction to the novel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cAQwZarA58c&t=7s