Tuesday 21 January 2020

Rural retreat: an Irish actor's journey to becoming a rural house-husband

Memoir: In Sight of Yellow ­Mountain, Philip Judge, Gill, hardback, 416 pages, €17.99

Change of script: Philip Judge has swapped treading boards for donning of wellies
Change of script: Philip Judge has swapped treading boards for donning of wellies
Inside Yellow Mountain

Hilary A White

This charming pastoral memoir about an Irish actor's journey to becoming a rural house-husband is full of mud-splashed anecdotes and sparkling nature writing.

For many young professionals and fledgling families in Dublin, house prices in the capital are making the very concept of buying property within striking distance of the city limits a  fantasy. Sitting in bumper-to-bumper inertia on a grim Monday morning provides much time to consider this along with soaring rents, clogged thoroughfares, unreliable public transport, blasting sirens and broken glass as part of the general equation of city life. Is a city postcode entirely worth it anymore?

Thus, many are looking to satellite towns and commuter belts in neighbouring counties where more gentle economics and a quieter vista eagerly await the chance of some rural community replenishment. Philip Judge, an Irish-born UK actor who settled in Wicklow with his wife and two children, has written a debut that certainly strikes while this iron is hot, inadvertently making him something of a poster boy for embracing wellies and log fires and cocking a snook at gridlock, clampers and €6 pints.

Judge admits to being a lifelong urbanite before the move back to his native Dublin from the UK and then on to deepest, darkest Wicklow, where he and his "beloved" bought a cottage across the valley from Sliabh Buí (the Yellow Mountain of the title). A role in a West End production of Dancing at Lughnasa and Mary Robinson's beckoning candlelight in the window of the Áras helped draw him home, inciting a wholesale but fundamentally organic reconnection that is sumptuously mapped-out here.

A jobbing actor meant - as it does for a great many actors - long stretches neither jobbing nor acting. This allowed time to train as the archetypal rural house-husband for a new age, as at home chopping wood and sowing seeds as swirling a glass of Côtes du Rhône. Judge takes in a year of Wicklow life bookended by the harvest wealth of Lughnasa. The seasons bring with them different duties and challenges, as well as a changing landscape both outside the cottage window and inside his own constitution.

Never, however, is In Sight of Yellow Mountain a smug, self-important gloat about how little urbanites understand or how once you've grown your own spuds, you'll never look back. Judge, who has a litany of TV and stage credits to his name, imbues everything with a devilish humour of which he is usually the brunt. Listening (and this is very much a conversational memoir) to him relay mud-splashed anecdotes about lending his neighbour some hands-on assistance with livestock or dealing with a nest of rats under the chicken coop makes his gritty determination to win the county chutney-making contest all the more bemusing and, in truth, charming.

Plenty of authors can write just as well as Judge but you rarely see them do so with as much unforced rhythm and confidence on their maiden voyage.

A gentle and effortless momentum begins to establish itself as everything rolls along from season to season. The effect is blissful, beautiful and frequently laugh-out-loud. The descriptions of the flora and fauna at his doorstep are rendered into brilliant life by some sparkling nature writing as he reports back on drowsy summertime oak trees, nesting swallows and the changing colour scheme of the omnipresent Sliabh Buí. There's also the small matter of the richly diverse human wildlife in his midst.

This is wedded to the pithy observance and wit of James Herriot and non-fiction Douglas Adams as he rolls up his sleeves and gets out of his depth ("The farmer friends had told me that male lambs at a certain age produce testosterone. Well, naturally they would, I thought, I can relate to that. They also told me this gave their meat a strong, gamey flavour which could only be prevented by castration. I couldn't really relate to that").

Like all the best pastoral memoirs, it is the climate patterns and soil composition of the self that is anchoring everything. Judge is a sincere and measured memoirist who portrays himself as benefiting from the structure and earthiness that a country life with his family has provided. This pervades even as caterpillars are ransacking the vegetable garden or, as detailed in one wildly funny passage, the septic tank starts euphemistically "acting up". Between the bounteous celebrations of Lughnasa and the regenerating early glow of Bealtaine, Nollaig finds Judge contemplating the Polaroids of his own childhood Christmases and the gilded echo chamber his two sons provide. Unless you have a heart of stone, this is all deeply touching, as are the core narrative punctuation provided by watching "Older Boy" and "Younger Boy" develop.

There are recipes to round off each season - everything from elderberry cordial to pheasant curry - that contribute to a very comely, lived-in feel to this title. There are intriguing sojourns into ancient Celtic mythologies and rural traditions that are done with the clarity and rigour you often feel only the blow-in is truly capable of. And there is, perhaps most importantly, a story of a man trying to provide for his family outside of the rat race while doing right by the environment around him.

If we are to stem the widening disconnect between our increasingly urbanised society and the natural world, voices such as this may play an important role.

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