Jason Goodwin: ‘He had power of a prophet who knows he is right, because there is only one way of living sustainably’

Our spectator columnist admires H. J. Massingham, the journalist who became a sustainable visionary.

People still read W. H.Hudson, Cobbett was never out of print and Edward Thomas, the poet whose life was sucked out by a shell like a flame in the wind, is now fashionable, but I think, of all the old country writers, none speaks so urgently to us today as H. J. Massingham. Yet he is almost forgotten, as only a prophet who railed against the tenor of his times can be.

You can find his books in any second-hand bookshop, however, and they are worth picking up.

When I heard of a plan to widen the road by the Rollright Stones, I thought of Massingham driving along it to ‘the Stwuns’ one winter, when it ‘was filmed with a “gleer” of ice, and pockets of snow lay along the wayside grass’.

That’s from a book he wrote in 1932, Wold without End. Or hear him 20 years on, with echoes of HS2, decrying the destruction of an ancient Welsh wood by the Forestry Commission: ‘Behind the prostrate trunks come the winds and the waters, scooping up and flinging into the seas and silted rivers the top-soil without which man is blotted from the world and will vanish forever in the dust-storms of his own making.’

Alt yr Esgair with view into the Usk valley, Wales.

Alt yr Esgair with view into the Usk valley, Wales.

He was an archaeologist, an antiquarian, a journalist and a geologist who became a visionary.

His visions, I suspect, were swallowed by the war and by the march of ‘scientific progress’: deference to the men with clipboards, in their white coats, who pushed with sublime confidence and half-knowledge for chemical farming and a National Pig.

Massingham pushed back. His journey to organic and sustainable farming began with archaeology and anthropology in London and his friendship – he called it a laying-on of hands – with that great wild man, Hudson. The son of a radical Victorian journalist, brought up in the city and suffering from poor health, Massingham was drawn more and more to the countryside, as a repository not only of peace and beauty, but of dignity and reason.

‘We should look upon a farm or garden not as forms of cultivation, but as a complex society of living creatures both in and above the soil’

The friend of Edmund Blunden, Adrian Bell and the brilliant Sir Albert Howard, he wrote more than 30 books, digging into the past of the landscape, expounding his theories about Neolithic civilisation, arguing the importance of craft, continuity and soil. Much of what he wrote is, these days, almost beyond argument.

He wanted to keep soil in heart and villages alive. There probably was, as he saw it, a time when the country might have avoided the shift to industrial agriculture and perhaps kept control over a food industry that seems to have delivered us obesity and diabetes and – for the first time in 100 years – a falling life expectancy. No doubt the moment will come again.

Domestic Pig (Sus scrofa domestica), sow wallowing in wet soil.

‘We should look upon a farm or garden not as forms of cultivation, which must conform to industrial canons,’ he wrote in his last book, The Faith of a Fieldsman, in 1951, ‘presenting a set of problems to be solved by technological shortcuts, inordinately expensive both to fertility and in the astronomical bills for fertilisers, insecticides, vaccines, disinfectants, machine repairs and fuel and whatnot; but as a complex society of living creatures both in and above the soil, capable, if they are in good health, of doing for themselves what we spend so much on artificially trying to do for them.’

Massingham was sickly, cranky and had an false leg, but he had the energy and power of a prophet who knows he is right, because there is, after all, only one way of living sustainably. We may not have grasped it in his lifetime, and we may still not grasp it in our own, but in the words of the tribute offered to him by Arthur Bryant, his cause ‘was bound to triumph, because as he saw so clearly, it was that of the law of Nature, of the divine ordering of the world and universe’.


Jason Goodwin: Keeping up with the Jehovahs

'I don’t get into theological debate with them; I simply like to bask awhile in their radiant happiness'