Raight yo. Don’t be a gret lummox, tek yoursen a gleg at Forest Folk. Aght now!

Having done an excellent job with their publication of Dawn of the Unread – the graphic novel exploring Nottingham’s literary history – Spokesman Books have now breathed new life into a lost local literary classic, James Prior’s Forest Folk, published under their Leen Editions imprint.

First released in 1901, Forest Folk’s latest incarnation was launched at the University of Nottingham’s Lakeside Arts Centre. The book’s publisher Tony Simpson, who graduated from the University in 1975, was joined on stage by the digital producer Paul Fillingham and The Lord Mayor of Nottingham, Councillor Michael Edwards, to talk about the book and its largely forgotten author.

Abaht Forest Folk…

Southerner Arthur Skrene has arrived in rural Blidworth to claim his inherited farm. The story follows his year or so spent among the colourful locals. It’s not long before Arthur meets Nell, a plucky and amusing young horsewoman.  You might be expecting a romance novel, a tale of love between the classes, and you might be right, but Forest Folk is awash with believable characters coming together through the demands of country life, all taking place during an eventful period of history that included the Napoleonic Wars and Luddite riots. Nell is one of the Rideouts, a local family, blunt and informal they contrast with the well-to-do Skrenes. As new neighbours, the families mix with eventful consequences, with tests of loyalty, and threats of betrayal abound. Can they overcome their prejudices and learn from one another?

Whilst the writing offers historical interest and evokes the atmosphere of the local landscape, it’s the book’s vernacular that most entertains. The locals employ a broad dialect that’s recognisably North Notts. This provides life and energy to the narrative, and shows that James Prior was a man who walked the walks, and did so with a keen ear.

Abaht James Prior…

James Prior Kirk was born in 1851, in Mapperley Road, Nottingham, to Sarah Jane Kirk (nee Prior) and James Kirk. His father had a millinery business in the city centre (at Peck Lane, Hounds Gate and Pelham Street).  Despite his father’s desire for his son to have a legal career, Prior seemed destined for a life of words. A student of languages and literature, with a love of the Greek classics, Prior had written three plays and a book of short stories without success, before moving to Bingham with his wife and children. It was here that his novels were conceived. Forest Folk is Prior’s best-known book but even that failed to achieve the success it deserved. D H Lawrence, who shared a published with Prior, wrote, “What a curious man James Prior is!” and wondered why Prior was a ‘failure’.

Perhaps this was to do with the author himself. Prior was a not man for self-promotion, preferring the quiet life. It seems that this shy man may even have suffered from anxiety and depression, and he lived for many years with failing eyesight. J M Barrie, the writer of Peter Pan who spent time working in Nottingham, commented that Prior was a ‘fine writer’ and that had he had known that Prior lived in Nottinghamshire he would have paid him a visit. 

Aware that Prior was not given the recognition he was due, a Memorial Committee was established. Their most notable homage to Prior was in the building and naming of the Forest Folk Hotel, which came four years after his death. The establishment boasted a stained-glass window depicting themes from the novel and a room dedicated to his memory. Given that prior is said to have been a teetotal Methodist it might not have been the most fitting of memorials.

the people of Blidworth are known for their “reputation for belligerence and suspicion of outsiders”

Abaht the Launch…

Maybe the best memorial to Prior is in the republishing and promotion of his books. There certainly seems to be a local interest and pride in the work.Paul Fillingham grew up in Blidworth and recalled his school teacher introducing the class to James Prior’s writing. Fillingham said that the people of Blidworth are known for their “reputation for belligerence and suspicion of outsiders”. There is much of that spirit in evidence in Forest Folk, and of its local tongue passing down the generations. The launch was also graced by the finest speech by a Mayor I’ve ever heard: a rousing talk on the use of local history and stories in empowering individuals and society.  

Abaht Prior’s other books…

Set among the Leen, Erewash and Trent Valleys, Prior’s books are populated with everyday characters struggling to make ends meet, of flawed men and fearless women, of contrasted classes and backgrounds.

His first two novels, Renie (1895) and Ripple and Flood (1897), failed to make a mark, then came Forest Folk. Had this been followed by another strong offering it might have been a different story for Prior but Forest Folk’s all-important follow-up was Hyssop, perhaps his worst book.  A Walking Gentleman, which came three years later, is considered by some to be his best but by then his reputation was tarnished. Fortuna Chance (1910) was Prior’s last published work, a sectarian story set in the 1720s. He leaves two manuscripts unpublished.

Forest Folk, available at Five Leaves Bookshop.