Friday, 8 June 2012
'It enlarges the imagined range for self to move in' (George Eliot)
I loved Robert Macfarlane's two previous books in this 'loose trilogy', Mountains of the Mind and The Wild Places, and he is one of my favourite writers on landscape, place, and travel. So I have to confess to feeling some disappointment with The Old Ways. There are some very fine passages in this book - Macfarlane's description of following 'the deadliest path in Britain', his journey to sacred mountain Minya Konka (which compares extremely favourably to Colin Thubron's account of a similar journey in To a Mountain in Tibet) and his brief sketch of the final days of Edward Thomas in the trenches spring to mind. For this reason, I still enjoyed it, but it ultimately lacks the coherence, restraint and power of its predecessors.
A major problem with this book is a lack of focus - Macfarlane seems to play with and then discard the idea of centring it around paths - and I thought it would have worked better as a collection of essays. But even then, several of the chapters are simply over-long and repetitive; Marfarlane makes the very interesting points that walking helps us unravel our thoughts, and that we are shaped by the landscapes in which we live, over and over again. His writing can also become slightly pretentious and pseudo-academic at times, which I didn't think ever happened in his earlier work - ironically, because Mountains of the Mind is actually a far more academic work about man's fascination with mountains, and yet a much easier and more interesting read than this. In the same chapter, his descriptions range from the spot on - 'a slice-of-lemon daytime moon and a hot-coin sun' - to the laboured - 'landscape that was both real to the foot and mirageous to the mind' - and sometimes he simply says too much - 'moss as nightmare proofing-absorbent, a dabbing cloth for ill feelings.' After the very strong section on Thomas, the book simply trickles to an end with a meandering ramble about footprints.
On the other hand, Macfarlane's strengths are still showcased in this work, even if they are more diluted than normal. The mini-biography of Edward Thomas is simply beautiful. I've long been a fan of short biographies, which often seem to distil the essence of their subjects more effectively than long, comprehensive ones (Carol Shields on Jane Austen is a great example) and Macfarlane provides further evidence for this here, although I'm still keen to read the Matthew Hollis biography of Thomas that he uses extensively as a source. His description of the relationship between Thomas and his wife Helen is heartbreaking in its brevity: 'Their relationship is founded on her absolute love for him. But unconditional love is arduous to give, and even more arduous to receive... You cannot match my love; your love will always fall short of mine. Added to this is the realisation that the lover who loves you so much cannot be hurt by you; that their love is imperishable. Therefore you can try, almost guiltlessly, to hurt them'. While I have no way of knowing if this is factually true, the emotional truth of this description of such a relationship shines through, and this calibre of writing is evident in many isolated passages throughout the book.
I would recommend reading this by dipping in and out, as, if not a success as a complete book, it's a wonderful quarry. I appreciated the glossary, but I'm suspicious that no pages have been left free for maps in my proof copy and so wonder if this is a problem in the final version as well. 'Paths need walking' says Macfarlane, and it would be a shame if the reader could not follow him.