To the River is an unusual book, combining local and literary history, a walking journal, meditations on the topic of rivers and water, and a hefty amount of biographical material about Virginia Woolf. The author, Olivia Laing, walked the Ouse Path during a time of great personal sadness, soon after she had broken up with a long term man-friend, and something of the loneliness of this time, even a sense of personal desolation, also comes out in her writing. Indeed, as she describes her walk down through Rodmell where Virginia Woolf drowned herself, we readers almost feel a concern that this walk may be too much for her to bear at this stage of her life (but of course, the fact that she wrote the book showed that our fears were ungrounded).
The Sussex Ouse is a short river (less than fifty miles from its rising to the sea), and it flows through a rich countryside of woods and fields before flowing down between a gap in the range of hills known as the South Downs, until it reaches the port of Newhaven. I live in this area and walk bits of her route regularly and would say that it is on the whole a cosy landscape, containing a few pretty villages and the ancient market town of Lewes. Although it may lack drama, the route is steeped in history and this has given Olivia Laing a considerable amount of material to enrich the account of her walk which took place over the course of seven days in September, a couple of years ago. I could not help but be impressed by the huge list of sources at the back of her book which takes up eight pages of small print – although the walk may be short, Olivia Laing’s readers won’t be lacking information about it.
Britain has the reputation for being an over-crowded country with a population much the same as France but with only one third of its area. These figures can mask the fact that much of the British population is located in cities and conurbations and as soon as you drive outside these you can find solitude a-plenty, even in counties like my own, East Sussex. However, Wales is a much less-populated region and if you hanker after the quiet life, that could be the place for you.
Neil Ansell had the opportunity to rent a dilapidated cottage deep in the hills of Mid-Wales, in countryside so remote that you could walk twenty miles in one direction without encountering another dwelling. What started as short-term let, turned out to be a five-year period of solitary living, far removed from the services we expect to find today – hot water from a tap, central heating and plumbing. The rent of £100 a year reflected the lack of services but failed to take account of the incredible beauty of the location and the land available to the tenant.
Neil has a great affinity with nature and things which would phase other people were causes of delight. I am not sure how I would feel about sharing my home with twenty of thirty bats for example. Even Neil however baulked at the spring-invasions of mice – fortunately the pretty field mouse variety rather than the disease carrying house mouse. The mice reduced Neil to hanging food in carrier bags from ham hooks embedded in the ceiling. The only way Neil could reduce the population of mice was to trap them and carry them across a river where he released them. No doubt killing them would have had no effect other than to make space for others.
When I bought this beautifully-produced book, Corvus, A Life With Birds, I hadn’t fully realised that it would be more about living with birds than watching them. However, I soon realised that Esther Woolfson has long experience of nurturing and co-habiting with lost and abandoned birds, most of which would have been destined to an early death had it not been for her intervention.
The story begins simply enough with a set (flock? batch? colony?) of doves, which were kept in a converted coal shed. But it does not take long before birds are in the house, when Esther’s daughter Bec is given a cockatiel, named Bardie, for her 12th birthday. On the principle that “one bird swiftly begets more”, a stream of injured, dying, abandoned, runty fledglings arrives in the house, leading Esther to find out how to raise infant birds. More birds follow, but it is when an infant rook arrives in a box with the unlikely name Chicken that the story really gets under-way.
Esther learns that a rook should be fed on a mixture of rodents, chicks and insects, but replaces this diet with minced-beef, eggs and chopped-up nuts on which she soon thrived. Within weeks she was testing her wings and then flew onto the kitchen table. A house was constructed for her (never “cage” – and she was only put in it at night), but Chicken seemed to have a strong building instinct and began to pick at the plaster on the wall beside her house, leaving large holes. She was with the family constantly, playing with rubber mice, picking at the hems of jeans, flying on to the tops of cupboards and generally possessed of an insatiable curiosity.
It is when reading books like Field Work that you find yourself giving thanks for the large number of independent publishers such as Black Dog Books (and booksellers who stock such titles such as my local Much Ado Books of Alfriston.
I usually enjoy books of essays and this collection, Field Work, from Ronald Blythe was a treat for me. Quite apart from the content (which is excellent) the presentation is of very high quality with a fine painting by John Nash on the cover and a collection of Nash’s black and white illustrations scattered about the book itself. I am someone who usually likes the latest technology, but a book like this only makes me shudder at the thought of devices like the new Sony Reader which was launched this week. I would not want to lose the sheer tactile pleasure of having this volume in my hands.
The topic of most of these essays could be described as “literary rural England”, and anyone who enjoys reading about literary connections will be in their element here.
As a keen walker myself, I enjoyed reading the essay, John Clare and Footpath Walking. Blythe provides many quotations from John Clare about walking but also sets them in the context of the rural life in the 17th century when a walk in the countryside was by no means a solitary affair. Blythe writes that he recently went for a six mile walk and never met a single person – an experience I can relate to from a recent walk across the South Downs on a Monday morning. In Clare’s day however, “there was always somebody up a tree, or under a bush, or just riffling about with a scythe, or hiding away with a sweetheart or a book, or usually just routinely travelling to the workplace”. Blythe calls Clare, “the genius of the footpath” and it was fascinating to read of the routes he followed, either idly wandering about, or systematically aiming for a destination.