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Book Review: Something Like a Nest


Book Review Something Like a Nest By Andy Sewell Reviewed by Colin Pantall What is the English countryside? Is it the Cotswold ideal; the image you see on British jigsaw puzzles where rolling green hills are dotted with sheep, cows and villages populated by simple folk who live in houses with thatched roofs and cottage gardens?

Something Like a Nest. By Andy Sewell.
Self-Publish, 2014.
 
Something Like a Nest
Reviewed by Colin Pantall

Something Like a Nest 
Photographs by Andy Sewell
Self-Published, 2014. 108 pp., 54 color illustrations, 11x9".


What is the English countryside? Is it the Cotswold ideal; the image you see on British jigsaw puzzles where rolling green hills are dotted with sheep, cows and villages populated by simple folk who live in houses with thatched roofs and cottage gardens? Or is it a semi-industrialised land, one where the chickens have no feathers and the cattle are all infected with tuberculosis and live on a diet of antibiotics and growth hormones?

It could be that the English countryside of the popular imagination does not really exist. If it’s pretty and near London, the countryside becomes a suburban getaway where the house prices have rocketed and the cottage dwellers commute to well-paid jobs in the capital. And if it’s pretty and far from London, then it’s a holiday home ghost town where the pub, shops and schools have closed because the locals can’t afford the houses which are only inhabited for the few weeks of the year when the wealthier inhabitants of this sceptred isle feel they can take a few days off without compromising their financially demanding lifestyle.

Or maybe it’s somewhere in between all these things; a place where the ideal and the sprawl, where the small trade and industrial blight all merge together, where the rich, the poor, the living and the dead are never too far from the other. That seems to be the conclusion of Andy Sewell’s latest book, Something Like a Nest.

Something Like a Nest. By Andy Sewell. Self-Publish, 2014.

Where Sewell’s earlier publication, The Heath, examined the urban parkland of London’s Hampstead Heath by focussing on the pathways and secret hideaways, Something Like a Nest is organised along seasonal lines. And instead of taking a purely dystopian view of the countryside as a TB-infested hell hole, Sewell provides us with a more layered perspective of England’s rural communities.

He starts in winter, with a view from a kitchen window. Outside we see the snow and cold, inside we see a plastic carton full of grapes, a supermarket bread roll, a flowering orchid and a milk jug shaped like a chicken. So there’s food and the question is asked; where does all this stuff come from?

Something Like a Nest. By Andy Sewell. Self-Publish, 2014.

Next we’re on to a frosty field that is stained with an outline of death. This is the death of winter, the destruction of the seasons. Move forward and it soon becomes springtime. There’s a jar of tadpoles (pollywogs), there’s a carton of eggs on a kitchen table covered in a plastic tablecloth with a hen-and-chick pattern, and there’s a pig giving birth on a green plastic draining platform.

Adding to the industrial feel is a food factory with product waiting area where huge containers are filled with finger-sized carrots and a daffodil farm where the daffodil pickers are visible behind opaque plastic sheeting. Most of the images in the book are from East Anglia and the Fen regions of England, so here there’s a nod to the changing demographics of rural Britain, with many of these farm labourers recent immigrants from Eastern Europe.

Something Like a Nest. By Andy Sewell. Self-Publish, 2014.
Something Like a Nest. By Andy Sewell. Self-Publish, 2014.

There are more kitchen windows; one shows home-grown rhubarb sitting in a washing-up bowl. Images of ‘traditional’ England are apparent in Sewell’s picture of an ethnically homogeneous primary school and the rambling pink rose that appears outside another kitchen.

The suburban countryside, the barren countryside and the industrial countryside all get a visual mention as does the rural class system. Sewell shows people and places that seem to have roots, though here he’s tapping into historical visions of the pastoral that have dripped down to us through art, literature and earlier romanticising of rural England.

Something Like a Nest. By Andy Sewell. Self-Publish, 2014.

Cake sales, bales of hay and harvest festivals take us into the Fall and hint at the communities that underpin these images, and then we’re onto dead pheasants and a mountains of old supermarket bread. There’s no community here, just the cack-handed rationalisation of the British processed-food economy.

A frozen turkey, a field of pine trees and a kitchen with a poinsettia mark the return of winter and we’ve come full circle. And that’s Something Like a Nest. It’s a quiet, sophisticated book that somehow manages to tick all the boxes of what rural England means in the twenty-first century. With its multi-layered approach, it’s neither predictable nor didactic; a book that takes you on a journey around contemporary England and lets you get on and off wherever you please.—COLIN PANTALL

COLIN PANTALL is a UK-based writer and photographer. He is a contributing writer for the British Journal of Photography and a Senior Lecturer in Photography at the University of Wales, Newport. http://colinpantall.blogspot.com

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