Friday 15 November 2019

A lyrical manual for the good life

Memoir: In Sight of Yellow Mountain, Philip Judge, Gill Books, €14.99

Philip Judge in his new rural setting
Philip Judge in his new rural setting
Deirdre Conroy

Deirdre Conroy

Reading this memoir brings great hope. On a practical level, the author and his partner did something many of us ponder but dare not try, and they seem to thrive on the transition. Like many, they were challenged to find an affordable town home and ended up bidding on a remote, rural cottage. Before they knew it, they had moved from hectic city life into a brave new world.

Whilst the picturesque evocations and jaunty tone convey rural charm and cosy comfort, the author does not mince words when it comes to financial strain. Swapping the West End for Wicklow, Philip Judge brings this new experience to life in a humorous series of anecdotes, articulated in his fine actor's voice.

Sometimes, he makes this extreme transition sound easy, but surely it can only succeed with the support of a loyal companion, one you can laugh with, and more often cry with. The couple didn't know the area that well before buying the cottage and slowly discovered the nearby river "flowing languorously through a forest of ancient oaks" and a pub in a valley where they could sit amidst roses and grazing sheep. As Judge relates his learning curves of cattle-handling and mini-farm husbandry, he reveals a strong bond between the duo which, no doubt, made the isolation more enjoyable.

Typically, their 100-year-old Irish cottage has an ugly, leaky, cold extension, which gives Judge a chance to learn construction skills. As seasons change, he is acquainted with his inner gardener, handyman, lumberjack, proving that moving to the countryside requires full immersion in its rough and raw beauty. From acquiring a gun licence to kill rabbits for dinner and castrating a sheep so the meat won't be tough, Judge recognises the countryside as a "vast ante-room to an abattoir".

The pair quickly become artisan foodies, blending vegetables and berries into chutney, crab-apple jelly, elderberry cordial and sloe gin for gifting and barter. The book is punctuated with illustrations of local flora and fauna, with handy recipes, useful whether you are a forager or a farmer's market fan.

As a self-confessed blow-in, the Irish-born UK actor regularly distinguishes between Irish and British rural culture - whether it is the difference in how we react to bereaved neighbours or the random mix in a fox hunt. Of his Male Farmer Friend, he notes: "For uncomplaining fortitude, the oft-caricatured English stiff upper lip is merely a pale shadow of the grim forbearance of Irish cow folk."

Aside from Judge's own eloquence, many unfamiliar terms are a joy as it so rare to learn new words these days. For instance, next time you are eviscerating an animal, you are 'cleaning a fish', but you 'draw' a chicken or pheasant, 'paunch' a rabbit and 'gralloch' a deer.

The tale has a touch of Tom and Barbara from The Good Life about it - that old BBC classic about a loving couple determined to be self-sufficient, surviving on each other's humour and patience. But Philip and his partner have two boys that regularly bring reality checks. Aside from the full-on, born-again aspect, the couple are very much part of the community, the school board, the GAA, and bring their creative and acting talents to bear at annual events.

Judge's lyrical prose imbues this narrative with a luscious sense of Ireland's unique beauty. Sitting at his window, he ponders Sliabh Bui, the yellow mountain: "Golden cornfields predominate and, studded across them in pleasingly uniform ranks, the harvested bales are drying in the warm air. Interspersed amongst the yellow, there are meadows of light-green pasture. Dotted with drowsy cattle, they make a geometric contrast, an oblique patchwork draped across the gently tilted hills - it is absurdly beautiful". Clearly, a place without pylons.

This is not only a thoroughly good read but a genuine manual for urban to rural movers and shakers.

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