Summer time and book reading seem to go hand in hand, like Wimbledon and strawberries.
With his last book about Britain’s ancient pathways, author Robert Macfarlane completed a trilogy on his acclaimed meditation on landscape.
Finding a bad word to be say about his work is no easy task. The inside front cover of his paperback “The Old Ways” lists fifteen authors who made it one of their books of the year in 2012; the next four pages contain quotations from thirty five reviews, all saying essentially, “Read this book.” There comes a point when exhortation to do something proves counter-productive; and further on from that point, it becomes perverse not to do it.
So you might like to join the end of a long line of Macfarlane fans. He is part of what we are being told these days is a new generation of travel writers who create personalised accounts of some form of extreme, or at least interesting, geographical tour. Of course anywhere is interesting if you bring enough attention to it, and this kind of thing has been going on since Marco Polo’s stories were written up in the 13th century.
Macfarlane tends to prefer the wilder and woollier environments, like the Icknield Way. His second book,”The Wild Places”, tried to get as close to wilderness as these islands make possible; as did his first, “Mountains of the Mind”.
But here in “The Old Ways” unlike in “Mountains of the Mind”, Macfarlane is more interested in passes and paths than in summits. He has managed, as far as is possible to avoid repeating himself even as he revisits previous haunts. He describes this as “the third book in a loose trilogy about landscape and the human heart”, and that “loose” means it doesn’t matter which order you read them in, or if you only read one. This is really a book about walking – though there is a good deal, too, about the paths of the sea. It is illuminating to be told that before the Romans came, there was an extraordinary amount of sea traffic around the British Isles and Europe, which helps account for the remarkable genetic similarity of people from various coastal regions extending from Orkney to Spain. He helps us understand what it is to see the water as criss-crossed by routes as the land, partly by describing what it feels like to sleep in an open boat where the only navigational aid is the Pole Star.
There are also paths that are not paths: xenotopic places. He coins the word “xenotopia” to describe an uncanny landscape, and the part of the book that nails this concept best, and which will get you irrevocably hooked on his writing, is when he travels the Broomway, a contingent path along tidal sands between Wakering Stairs and Foulness in Essex, unearthly in both the literal and figurative senses, and said to be the most dangerous path in Britain. Reading the chapter will leave you with an impression of strangeness you will rarely, if ever, have encountered elsewhere. Writing and walking are great companions – think of Iain Sinclair, or Will Self. Here is a first-rate addition to the genre.
Credits to Nicholas Lezard, Rachel Cook and Andy Hall.