Bunting, M. (2009) The Plot – A Biography of An English Acre Granta ISBN 978 1 84708 085 1
After the death of her father, Guardian columnist Madeleine Bunting set herself the task of getting to know him, the land he loved and the ideas that informed his life, by writing this book, The Plot.
John Bunting was a sculptor who bought the Plot, five miles from Oswaldkirk, as an idealistic young man, rejecting his suburban origins and determined to carve out an alternative life on his own terms. On it, he built a Catholic war memorial chapel to the memory of three Ampleforth boys (he had become the school’s art master) who died during the second world war, and a habitable hut. The chapel, his daughter believes, was to some extent founded on a survivor’s guilt.
The book is part memoir, part a memorial and part a meditation on the value of knowing a small place very well, appreciating the layers of historical and cultural associations that the landscape carries.
Madelaine Bunting studies the acre of land in the middle of nowhere, with scholarly zest, until it becomes no longer a nowhere but a somewhere, known and minutely understood. She is an exemplary guide. She goes back to the Iron Age. She contemplates a nearby Cistercian monastery. She describes sheep, and the moths around the chapel earn pages to themselves!
Her achievement is to work this single acre to produce a more general portrait of rural England. It’s also a form of exorcism, deeply personal but made universal and political by Bunting’s intelligence and the research and writing skills she has acquired through a successful career in journalism. It’s not a linear narrative by any means; the way the focus shifts from family picnics to Cistercian monks, from moths to the woes of modern farmers, could collapse into chaos in less accomplished hands, but this is a successful one-off book that, in its own way, is every bit as eccentric as the chapel her father built.