Small place, faraway time

PUBLISHED: 13:13 10 February 2015 | UPDATED: 13:13 10 February 2015

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Sheena Grant meets the ‘uncommon common people’ of Michael Orsler’s Suffolk childhood, retold in his book, Backalong

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He may have been only eight years old when the Second World War broke out, but Michael Orsler’s recollections of growing up in a Suffolk village in the 30s and 40s have a detail that belies that young age.

It’s taken him more than 70 years to commit those memories, so vivid and profound, to paper, but despite that they have lost none of their immediacy and power.

Backalong, his book of 16 short stories about bygone days in Beyton and the surrounding area, evokes another era, but one that is brought to life so perfectly that to immerse yourself in its pages is to travel back through time.

There we meet Michael’s father, John Orsler, landlord of the Bear in Beyton, his mother, assorted aunts, other relatives and local characters – “uncommon common people”, sadly now long gone.

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In those days, the old A45 went right through the village and past the pub, which was the hub of community life.

There are stories about bonfire night, when children would go to the village shop and buy fireworks to let off on the green, something that can now barely be imagined in our health and safety conscious times. There are tales of family outings, local accidents, working life, new roads and, of course, war. In one story the young Michael hears German bombers passing by overhead, and on a trip to Norwich to visit an aunt in hospital finds the city aflame. In another he details preparations at Rougham airfield for the arrival of the Americans in 1942.

Then there was the time he shot his own foot and ended up in hospital in Bury St Edmunds after a hair-raising car journey, which involved stopping to pick up an American soldier thumbing for a lift.

But the book is far from just a ramble down memory lane, through times of momentous upheaval, and change seen through the eyes of a boy. It is a serious piece of literature.

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Michael, who lived at the Bear (where his nephew is now landlord) until he went to university in 1949, is the author of three novels. The first – The Imperial Room – was published in 1967, when he returned from working in Hong Kong’s education service, and is a satire on the colony’s last days under British rule.

The novel won an Arts Council Bursary of £2,000 in 1968, and on the strength of it Michael, who also worked as a secondary school teacher in Bury and Sudbury, wrote two more novels – the Big Dig, about archeology, and Rhumb Line, about world travel on an ocean liner.

Backalong begins with the First Day of War and captures his child’s eye naivety about all that entails. It’s a beautiful summer’s morning and Michael is practising turns on his three-wheeler, but is struck by how sad and quiet everyone is. The women were in the kitchen “drinking black stout” and his dad had dug a shelter in the meadow.

Many of the stories are written in Suffolk dialect. They capture the easy familiarity and affection people had for one another, but also something of the harshness of daily life and the straight-talking pragmatism and down-to-earth humour this often involved.

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Michael, who moved to Devon after retirement, says he wrote most of the stories this year.

“I wanted to give back to those I grew up among in that small place in that faraway time, and the affection I felt and feel for them,” he says. “I have never been out of contact with Beyton, but living overseas and in the West Country it has become more distant.

“Nothing shakes my belief that small communities are the deepest, best way of life, and I consider myself privileged to have grown up in a pub, with a cherishable variety of locals. It was not a particularly comfortable life in many ways. It was harsh – no-one had any money to speak of – yet the life of a young person had a simplicity and pleasures now quite vanished.

“People had more time and space to be themselves and become themselves.

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“If today’s readers witness how things were, they will see what has been lost as well as what has been gained by ‘progress’.”

Backalong, by Michael Orsler, is only available from Aldeburgh Bookshop (, telephone 01728 452389).

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