26th Oct 2012
The Crocodile By The Door by Selina Guinness
The Crocodile By The Door is a ‘story of a house, a farm, and a family.’ Specifically it is the story of the author’s own house, farm and family, something which has both benefits and drawbacks.
In May 2002, Selina Guinness returns to Tibradden, the farm and house that she lived in as a child, to care for her old and ailing uncle, who, with her grandmother, cared for her as a young girl.
On his death, she becomes responsible for the farm – not just legally, but finding a sense of moral and familial responsibility for the house, fields, trees, sheep, crops, bricks, mortar, and everything associated with the property, including the elderly Susie and Joe, who have been on the ground custodians, working the land on the Guinness’ family’s behalf for several centuries.
Despite what childhood games may have us believe, farming is no longer a business solely about animals and plants, but one of busy bureaucracy, and it is with a surprised curiosity that the reader navigates with the protagonist the world of European Union funding, the Common Agricultural Policy, property developers, Farmers Weekly, the optimum 6.66 sheep, as well as randy rams and woolly hoggets (sheep to you and me).
Generations are tied together by the land, and this is very much an exploration of house and home, space and place.
Guinness and her husband are academics by day, and become almost feudal owners of the land, responsible for all that dwells on it, including six thousand species of fauna that grow upon whitebeam trees.
The author’s task is to ‘find a form of stewardship that will not stifle our future,’ and the book straddles the balancing act of creating a sense of identity by preserving the past and simultaneously building a future.
However, it is the personal nature of the novel that is its undoing. A detailed and individual account, the narrative is executed in painstaking accuracy, which whilst heartfelt at times, is a little too intricately described.
A chapter devoted to the ancestry of the family is too much, and I know more about HSE payments than I ever needed to. The titular crocodile by the door is only briefly mentioned at the start of the book, as an object used as a letterbox by her family – mainly an individual aside that seems to make the author smile, but is of little import to the plot.
Fearing I was being too harsh with the book, I shared it with my mother (who loves family history and the sense of belonging that comes with it), and my father (who grew up on a farm, and knows a fair bit about looking after sheep). They gave up, bogged down in the detail.
Overall this book feels like an inoffensive cathartic piece of writing, and whilst life at Tibradden may well be a rewarding struggle for the author and her family, I’m not sure that we need to hear about it in quite as much detail.