Monday, 18 February 2013

The Old Ways.

Somewhere in the dim and distant past, I studied literature.  And somewhere in my memory of those four years (it was literature in French and Russian so they gave us a year frolicking in parts foreign at the taxpayer's expense - free tertiary education, now there's an idea...) there's a seminar that came to  mind recently.

It was all about how reading is a two way process.  It's not just me, the reader, absorbing what you, the writer, put on paper, because I, the reader, bring my own attitudes, thoughts, even momentary moods to the party and I can't divorce my experience of reading from those.  So what I read is never going to be quite what you wrote, and what I read is going to be different from what anyone else reads, even if the words are the same.

And obviously, a callow youth (can you be a "youth" if you're female?) I thought (technical literary term here): Tosh.

But it's not, actually.  It's true, and I was really struck by it on reading The Old Ways, by Robert Macfarlane.

I'm not sure how to describe this book; it's part travelogue, part literary and art criticism, part biography, part meditation on geography, geology and man's relationship with both. It's not fable or myth, but parts of it read as though they are.  And throughout it's a sheer joy to read,  just for pleasure it gives in the act of reading - the right words in the right order. 

It's brilliant, and unsurprisingly it was picked by pretty much every book reviewer of last year as one of their books of the year. But, as I say, what it made me aware of, more, perhaps than anything else, was how I reacted to it. 

And it was all to do with his age.

I picked it up and read the first fifty or so pages thinking, if indeed I thought about it at all, that he was probably sixty-ish, with a lifetime of experience behind him, a gnarled old countryman, quite possibly bearded, rich in lore and legend.  I felt comfortable with that idea - happy to be led by someone with experience beyond any I could have.

Until I realised that I knew someone he writes about, and that being so, he probably wasn't at all what I'd been imagining.   He is, it turns out, a grand four months older than me.  But still with a lifetime of exciting experiences and intellectual questing beyond any I have.

People used to talk, didn't they, about the moment you realise that policemen are younger than you.  I've not had that.  You don't see policemen as often as you used to, after all.  But I think I now know what they felt.  Suddenly I had a vision of other stuff.  Things I could have been doing had.... well, had I don't know what, but had I been someone else, done something else, lived somewhere else.

I don't want to be an academic and writer, (well, I wouldn't mind being a writer, but you know what I mean), nor do I particularly want to walk the Broomway or sleep under hedges, but I read the rest of the book in a state of mild irritation with both Robert Macfarlane and myself - him for being what he is - polymath, walker, sailor, writer, friend of artists and craftspeople, writers and thinkers - and me for being none of those things.

It's not that I am unhappy being what I am, but that he made me aware of other possibilities that are now closed, if indeed they were ever open.  The paths not travelled.

It's a great book though.  Even if I didn't read it as he wrote it.  And even if he can't spell reivers correctly.

Image from Amazon.  Thank you, Amazon.


  1. Policemen get younger by the year, and GPs too.

  2. My mother used to baby sit her GP. She still hasn't got over it.

  3. I came within a whisker of picking this up when lurking in a bookshop in the UK but resisted on account of the baggage allowance. Now I think I missed a trick. Your description makes it sound just as fantastic as I thought it would be.

  4. I have made a note to read the book by R. Macfarlane and thanks for the write up, I feel I shall enjoy the read, your review says it all, thanks again!

    1. Come back when you've read it and let me know what you think!


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