Category Archives: books

Heft is the word

Heft is a word used in North British highlands, such as the Cumbrian fells or Lake District where this novel is set, to describe an area of pasture to which a flock or herd of animals like sheep have become accustomed (‘ hefted’). In another meaning in English it also refers to weightiness; its use as a noun or verb now largely archaic, but it survives more commonly in use as the adjective often euphemistically employed to describe an obese person: hefty.

Towards Mellbreak is the first novel by Marie-Elsa Bragg, who is an Anglican priest and therapist as well as a writer. She identifies as half French and half Cumbrian, and brought up in London. Avid BBC Radio 4 listeners and alumni of Leeds University will recognise her surname as that of the eminent broadcaster and former University Chancellor Melvyn Bragg, the author’s father. Her mother, Marie-Elisabeth Roche, committed suicide when she was 6 years old.

I discovered this writer, and her novel, through a profile piece about her in the new arts magazine Monk; which takes a spirituality perspective on contemporary creativity. I chose to read Towards Mellbreak because of my own intense relationship with the Lake District in the years 1968 – 1977, as a frequent visitor and fell- walker.

The word ‘heft’ in both its senses sums up the book for me. It is the story of a hill-farming family struggling to retain hope of a future life in the land to which its members, as much as the sheep they love, have become hefted. It is a book with hefty themes; exploring the resilience and springs of hope to be found in the often hidden traditional resources of family memories, lifelong friendships and religious practices. These are sources of enduring strength which are invisible, to the governmental advisors and their ever-evolving policies. But ultimately remembering proves no defence against the perils of ignorance.

Remembering George Orwell

Yesterday finally I came across the grave of the English writer George Orwell (real name Eric Blair) which is improbably located in the Oxfordshire village of Sutton Courtenay. It is now where one of our family lives and the route of an Easter holiday walk took us by the churchyard of the village’s ancient parish church.

I had read all of Orwell’s books with the possible exception of A Clergyman’s Daughter (which I don’t recall) by the time I was 25. I had a craze on Orwell whilst I was in the 6th form and read all the books the school library had by him. Animal Farm I’d been required to read as part of the English examination curriculum at school. One of his books I read last of all was Burmese Days, which I taught to students at Kiamuya Secondary School in Kenya in 1979 as part of its O-level equivalent Literature in English course.