May 24, 2015
Imagine Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways, turned into a novel. British nature features in At Hawthorn Time as a character, as London does for Dickens. Disappearing and forgotten paths weave through the book, and those who remember or sense them often seem to be out of time. Opening with the aftermath of a terrible car crash on a country lane, At Hawthorn Time braids several narratives that give us space to think about the countryside and the natural world. How do we see our countryside now? What is it, and what might it be?
Jack wishes “just to be able to go where I like… Just to live how I see fit. I don’t do any harm, God knows…”. Repeatedly arrested and imprisoned for vagrancy and other things, we join him walking out of London, away from his hostel, and towards the village of Lodeshill where he hopes to find farm work. Howard and Kitty, retirees from London following Kitty’s dream of countryside life, are recent incomers to Lodeshill. The difference in their views of the countryside is just one of their problems. Their young neighbour Jamie has his own difficulties, with an ailing grandfather, and his unsatisfactory job as a picker and packer at a giant warehouse.
Each chapter starts with brief nature notes from Jack’s journal. We may admire or envy his total attunement to nature, as the current popularity of nature writing and television shows suggests. But this does not translate into society tolerating his unconventional way of living. Increasing legislation and surveillance restrict his choices, and his situation makes us wonder what we might be prepared to do to regain the freedoms we have lost. At a time when street homelessness seems to be everywhere – I have people living in my local park – it is worth thinking about who is allowed to be where, and when, and who enforces this. A timely and compelling read.
Review by Bethan
June 6, 2013
Paperback now available – £9.99
Nominated for the Samuel Johnson Prize, The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot is lyrical nature writing that draws deep on literature, myth and memory. It’s a book for walkers or indeed anyone who’s felt their imagination stir as they put one foot in front of the other on an ancient path. Macfarlane is intensely curious about the places and people he encounters – and himself. If you can read it outdoors with a majestic landscape as your companion then all the better. It’s also a book that does a fine job of reviving interest in the early 20th century poet Edward Thomas, who was heavily influenced by the English countryside. His collected poems are also available at the Riverside.
For fans of Robert Macfarlane, there’s also the intriguing Holloway about the author’s exploration of a sunken path in south Dorset. It’s a slender, exquisite volume illustrated by Radiohead artist Stanley Donwood.
December 2, 2012
We’ve been trawling the literary pages for the books of 2012 and – after totting up the picks in The Guardian, The Observer, The Daily Telegraph, Sunday Telegraph, Evening Standard, Spectator and New Statesman – here’s our top 10 poll of polls based on the books with the most nominations from fellow authors (all available at the Riverside, of course).
1. Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
“Superb history as well as magnificent literature” – David Marquand, New Statesman
2. The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot by Robert Macfarlane
“[A] magisterial mix of scholarship and exploration of landscape” – Penelope Lively, The Spectator
3. NW by Zadie Smith
“Angry, committed, richly humane” – Philip Hensher, Daily Telegraph
4. Bertie: A Life of Edward VII by Jane Ridley
“A model of how royal biographies should be written” – Philip Ziegler, The Spectator
5. Pulphead: Notes from the Other Side of America by John Jeremiah Sullivan
“The man is astute, funny and wonderful company” – Nick Laird, The Guardian
6. Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe by Anne Applebaum
“Comprehensive and compelling” – Amanda Foreman, Daily Telegraph
7. Behind The Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Slum by Katherine Boo
“Sets a gold standard for exactly what a gifted reporter may still do alone” – David Hare, The Guardian
8. Canada by Richard Ford
“Breathtaking” – Philip Hensher, The Spectator
9. Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure by Artemis Cooper
“The man whose life I think I would most have wished to live… a triumph of tact and sympathy” – Robert Macfarlane, Daily Telegraph
10. Joseph Anton by Salman Rushdie
“A memoir of the fatwa years that showed the human reality behind the headlines” – Louise Doughty, The Observer
It should really be a top 12 as Rushdie has the same number of picks as Skios by Michael Frayn and Alice Munro’s Dear Life. It’s also heartening to see The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers, Train Dreams by Denis Johnson and Hawthorn & Child by Keith Ridgway just outside the top 10.