Thursday, 28 November 2013

Review: The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane

South Downs, South England, snow; some sheep. (via

Robert Facfarlane doesn't live in the same world as the rest of us. His world is better, probably. He's the kind of guy whose life consists of looking out the window after a few hours of writing, noticing that it's just snowed, and pulling on his boots to walk across the crisp virgin whiteness  with a dram of whiskey and a few owls for company. This isn't me being poetic; this is the first chapter of the book. Last time it snowed I checked the bus schedule to see whether I would be late. The people he meets are all folklorists or poets as well as fishermen or sailors or farmers or just walkers. The people I meet mostly work 9-5 and don't like it very much. The places he goes are imbued with mystery and magic and soul; the places I go are now mostly dingy backroads near Kings Cross.

The delight of The Old Ways is that Macfarlane shares this world view with you, for a few hours at least. He is primarily a walker, of course, and not all of us have a lot of time for walks in the country or holidays with our academic friends in Gaza or our mountaineering friends in Tibet or our fisherman friends in Orkney. But we can enjoy them vicariously. Macfarlane, in places, writes a weird sort of travel writing.

Unlike most travel writers, however, Macfarlane is not really interested in describing locations or places per se. He is far more interested in analysing the journey itself, in the effect of a new place on the mind, in the palimpsests of history that leave their vague tracks across the land. This is travel writing located somewhere between love poetry and academia, closer to Nabokov's 'travel writing' of America in Lolita than Bill Bryson (disclaimer: I have never read a single word by Bill Bryson). In Macfarlane's eyes, the world is permanent but also weirdly inconstant. The walker has access to a whole range of levels of experience at once: aesthetic bliss in nature, the crunch of fresh snow beneath boots; the simple pleasures of greasy campstove bacon after a thirty mile day, a night spent with ghosts in a neolithic barrow; the slight resistance of the rudder as you learn how to steer a boat, tacking across the wind; company, the fact that hiking is about the only place where strangers acknowledge one another's presence rather than icily gliding past one another, eyes fixed ahead, like icebergs or ex-lovers; connection with the past, connection with a friend; profound alienation; and, perhaps most of all, the easy rhythm of an experienced walker's paces, free, unencumbered, tramp tramp tramp towards the horizon.

The amazing thing is that a Cambridge academic can write a non-polemic book about walking and folklore and Romantic poets and that it can be so rhetorically effective and convincing. Macfarlane gives the world a little bit of a glimmer, even as you tire of his almost precious interests and pursuit of obscure, long dead poets. There are other ghosts for us to follow.

As I sit here writing this, I am in the back of my parents' car, on the M4, just west of Swindon. Arguably the least romantic or exciting place in the world. But, post Macfarlane, or, with Macfarlane, I am starting to see a little bit of joy. It's a dark, cold November night, one of the first frosts of the winter, and we pass men in high-vis jackets spreading grit, slightly illuminated by our headlights, and pass into a world where vague fog gives a dreamy quality to the pricks of light that pass us by, and to the red dots than hang a half mile in front of us, leading the way, and to the cat's eyes that mark the road and keep us from going astray.