Walking the river flow
Just as some people have perfect pitch, which they can then learn to tune even more finely, and some have eyes which are attuned to see ever finer gradations of tone, colour and shade, and can then further train and refine this gift, some, I believe, resonate with a precision and refinement towards words, language itself, and are capable of conceptualising and describing the world new-minted, fresh, present. And will also then further refine this resonance.
Such a one is Olivia Laing, as this marvellous book effortlessly demonstrates. When I say ‘effortlessly’ I don’t mean that its construction necessarily came trippingly and fully formed for the writer – maybe it did, I don’t know – but that the reader has no sense of affect being striven for, no sense of ‘my, what beautiful writing’ in terms of showy flashness in description. It isn’t that I read with a sense of ‘what a beautiful description of a sunset’ – more, I read without effort, slowly, presently, observantly. Sentence followed sentence, and both the parts and the whole just WERE. This is authentic writing, and from first to last I just had the sense, which might often come with music which is balanced, and somehow winds the listener more deeply into itself, that ‘this is the moment; and this; and this’
Laing has written a walking journey the length of the River Ouse, which effortlessly weaves the long history of the planet, of geological time and evolution, with recorded historical fact, with the industry of place, with social history – and with the short lives of individuals, and how they connect to place. She renders all fascination, and the powerful presence of her writing had me reading with a kind of breathlessness, heart and lungs almost afraid to move on, so much did I want to ingest and inhabit each step of the journey, each sentence of the book.
Presiding over all, for Laing, and moving through the feel of the book, is Virginia Woolf, who, as we know, on a day in 1941 walked out into the Ouse with a pocket full of stones. Woolf was a woman perhaps too finely calibrated for the world, sharing with some other writers with an exquisite sensitivity to the natural world, a feeling too attuned to unsheathed nerve endings, unmyelinated. But what such writers can do is perhaps to waken and unwrap those of us who are too tightly sheathed AGAINST perception.
Laing solidly walks the journey, feet well on the ground, noticing, noticing.
I could have taken virtually any and every sentence from her book to illustrate the harmony, perception, reflection of her writing. I did start underlining, but quickly abandoned, as the book itself needs underlining.
The path spilled on down a long lion-coloured meadow into a valley lined with ashes. There the river ran in riffles over the gravel beds that the sea trout need to breed. I crossed it at Hammerhill Bridge, running milky in the sun, and climbed east again into Hammerhill Copse.The land had lain open to the morning and now it seemed to close up like a clam. There was a woman’s coat hanging over the gate to the wood, the chain padlocked about it like a belt. Who drops a coat in a wood? The label had been cut out, and the pink satin lining was stippled by mould
Reading this book, I feel invited, constantly, by the writer, to both inhabit the presence of the time and place of her journey, and, in an echo of Robert Frost’s poem, stay aware of the other paths and possibilities that might have been taken
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveller, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other,
I too am left wondering the story of that coat…….and other snags to possibilities she uncovers and suggests, on the journey. She is being compared to W.G. Sebald in her writing and her subject matter, winding the reader in, still further in, worlds within worlds, to the source. I don’t think this is mere marketers puff.