Walking the poetry of landscape, wildlife, relationship and music through the years
I have been waiting since last summer to post a review of this wonderful book here on the blog. I had received, and reviewed it, on Amazon UK, as it was offered to me on Amazon Vine, where I was bound to review it within a month. No point in sharing it here at that point, since it is not due to be published until mid January 2017. Shame, really as I think keen walkers, keen philosophers and reflective types (which must include serious readers, surely) keen engagers with the natural world, keen yearners-for-beautiful-writing-on-the-natural-world, keen lovers of music, of history, of good conversation, and, well, those with any kind of keen-ness to appreciate life-in-real connection would Have welcomed finding this book in their Christmas stockings Enough preamble:
What can I say to justifiably praise this deep, joyous and poignant book?
Christopher Somerville is a travel writer, specialising not in exotic tales of derring-do in sub tropical or polar Lonely Planet inaccessibility, but in travelling, on foot, through the hidden and not so hidden highways and byways of these isles.
This particular book, taking as its springing-off point a folk song entitled ‘The January Man’ recounts the months of the year, and some walks undertaken in those months in different parts of the British Isles.
Frogs are at risk. There are no wallflowers in the ranine ballrooms of romance. The opening notes of spring have stung all the sleepers into a conga of love. They singlemindedly pursue their search for partners across high roads and dual carriageways. Toads are at it, too, with just as much gusto as their froggy cousins. They teem recklessly out of the ponds and ditches along the old Roman road from Bristol to Wells. Randy toads and frogs with reproduction on their minds are run down and flattened by the dozen, martyrs of love on the B3134
Somerville writes most beautifully, evoking the landscape itself, painting the vegetation, illuminating the chatter of many birds, so that the armchair reader, feverishly polishing their boots and raring to get outside, can, in imagination pour themselves into the territory the author is describing. But he writes about so much more than this. Whilst walking in place, he also walks in time. Some of these, in fact most of these, are walks he has done decades before, so he is accompanied by his younger self, and, most poignantly, by his dead father John. John was a keen walker. The relationship between John and Christopher was at times a little estranged, difficult and distant, caused by the times and the great and rapid change in cultures and generations, post war. John had a reserve to do with that war, and also due to his occupation – he worked at GCHQ Cheltenham, so discussions of what he did were off-limits.
Fathers didn’t make mistakes. They knew what to do. They showed you how to ndope the tissue wings of a model glider and paint a bedside cupboard nwith smelly green gloss. They gave you a florin if you cleaned the car properly with a chamois leather, they spoke sternly to you about your school report, and they chastised you if you hit your sister or cheeked your mother. They were upright and dutiful, the object of everyone’s respect and admiration. They set the moral bar so high it daunted you
The reserved father and the child of the 50s and 60s found the beginning of meeting places in walks they took together.
Walking in the present, often meeting people who recount their lives and the lives of their parents in the specific regions he visits, he is also meditating on history, geography, culture and deepening his connection to his own family, whether his loved, now gone, father, or appreciating his present connections to his family and friends. Celebrations, often traditional and local of the passing of the seasons are woven through this book; folk songs, folk music and dancing connect present with the past.
From May, walking before dawn as a seasonal ritual on May Day morning, up May Hill in Gloucestershire
Every bird in these woods is silent. There’s only the sound of our breathing, the faint creak of boot leather and the glassy tinkle of the stones. Then ahead a dog barks, and a blackbird breaks out scolding. It turns to tentative notes, sweet and unsure. A wren whirrs briefly. A robin begins to chitter, and deeper in the wood a warbler produces some sweet, expressive phrases. By the time we leave the edge of the wood and enter the common land of May Hill top, the dawn chorus has got under way. There’s another musical sound, too, faint but growing louder, coming up behind us – the silver jingle of tiny bells, bound round the shins of three men who are walking the hill in ribbon coats and breeches
I wiped away tears, moved by descriptions of landscape and wildlife, not to mention the recounting of human connections to those landscapes as well as to each other, as I read
And, over and again, having found a most wondrous version of the song, The January Man, on YouTube, performed by Christy Moore, I played this, its plangent rendition revealing the layers in the deceptively simple lyrics about the months of the year, and the man who moves through them
The only thing I missed through being lucky enough to have this as an ARC for review, is that there will be maps and walkers notes when the book is published, not available here.
But what I did find is that Somerville has a blog, and a walking website, where he adds new walks, photos and descriptions and much more besides, each fortnight. I’m sure details of a terrific walk, somewhere near any of us, is either there already or will be, waiting to be explored……….Christopher Somerville’s website where you can gorge on links to many walks and more
Somerville is a rambler and a rover, all over this land, And, to be honest, his writing holds the benison of rambling and roving – not to lose or to fox you, but to surprise and stop you, making you draw breath and notice. This is far from a linear journey, this book. Rather it is a spiders web, suddenly sparkling, where every thread makes you notice the sure connections to every other thread, a woven whole.
I didn’t underline what I was reading – because it could and would have been everything, as almost everything I read made me glimpse words behind words, thoughts behind thoughts – or, the poignancy of the meaning of ‘June’ in that January Man song ‘the man inside the man’ – by which I loosened gender, because, what Somerville was revealing to me was something about who any of us, all of us, each of us is inside the passing external we show to the world
As is obvious, I recommend it. It will be published on January 12th