Sussex - book review
by Peter Brandon
Published by Robert Hale
SUSSEX BOOK REVIEW
Peter Brandon is a historical geographer who has spent much of his professional lifetime considering why places are where and how they are.
In Sussex Brandon applies these skills to the county he lives in to produce an excellent broad history which has a good stab at working out how Sussex got to where it is today. Throughout the book he analyses some of the desecration of the Downs and the Sussex coastline which occurred during the twentieth century with a well balanced understanding of why conflicting demands on our beautiful county could not be easily balanced.
Brandon doesn't try to condemn the guilty men - he wisely accepts that the state of our landscape is inevitably driven by a competition for resources.
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There's a strong theme that things might have worked out worse than they are throughout the book and he never strays towards nimbyism, even though there are many man made impacts on the Weald and the Downs that are clearly sources of great regret to the author.
Despite these lamentations, you get a strong sense that Brandon believes that we have started to turn the corner in preserving Sussex. Time and again he invokes Belloc's question "Will Sussex endure?".
Brandon's answer is a cautious yes, although equally importantly, he seems sure that the essence of Sussexness has almost gone forever.
Fair minded throughout though, Brandon recognises that much of the romanticised essence of old fashioned Sussex went hand in hand with poverty, hunger, disease and practical slavery for many Sussex folk. His book is a great reminder of how much more comfortable our lives are compared to even seventy years ago.
The most original parts of the book are those that look at the early geography of Sussex. The shape of parishes, the influence of the droveways, the importance of water and the springline at the foot of the South Downs are just three of the subjects which Brandon develops extremely well.
As you might expect from a man of his background, he reads the landscape well at a macro level. As a keen walker and lover of wildlife he also notices a lot at a micro level too. Brandon adds to this a wide knowledge of the literature of Sussex.
If at times he seems a little keen to show what he has learned, this all adds a little colour to what could otherwise become a little dry. Although Brandon clearly has strongly held opinions about Sussex, they are expressed in moderate and considered terms. His writing probably wrongly suggests he is imbued with more interest than passion for the matters he describes.
A chunky volume, Sussex is nonetheless highly recommended reading for anyone with an interest in finding out more about why our landscapes and townscapes here in West Sussex have developed in the ways they have.
Book reviewed by Mark Hoult, West Sussex.info
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