Posts Tagged ‘walking’

Journey by Moonlight

February 17, 2014

And while there is life there is always the chance that something might happen …

Journey by MoonlightThis is the brilliant final line of Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szerb. Beginning with ‘And’, ending with ellipses (Szerb’s not mine), the novel doesn’t so much finish as keep on going. It leaves you asking what will be the next coincidence in this wonderful novel of chance, wandering and possibility.

Nicholas Lezard begins his excellent Guardian review saying that once he got to the end of Journey by Moonlight, he went straight back to the beginning. I found myself doing the same. It wasn’t that I wanted to re-read it all, but just to remind myself how it began, to try to join those dots.

The opening is nearly as good as the ending:

On the train everything seemed fine. The trouble began in Venice, with the back-alleys.

Immediately we know that the book will be about travel – train journeys, wandering through alleys – and about trouble. Szerb explains that his protagonist Mihály is in Italy because:

He was now married and they had decided on the conventional Italian holiday for their start to married life. Mihály had now come, not to Italy as such, but on his honeymoon, a different matter entirely.

So we are introduced to Szerb’s unique lightly ironic tone. He points out the flaws and shortcomings of his characters, but their marvellous eccentricities make it impossible to lose your sense of humour and feel too cross with them. He invites you to laugh at his characters rather than criticise. (One of my favourites is the Hungarian academic, who sleeps all day, has the messiest study imaginable and eats only cold meat so thoughtfully provides a banana as some variation for Mihály when he comes to dinner.) Throughout the novel, however fed up we get with Mihály, we still forgive and indulge him, just as Szerb here points out and forgives his conventional honeymoon.

Mihály finds himself wandering through the Venetian back-alleys all night. He returns to his hotel and finds that he cannot explain himself to his wife:

‘So this is marriage,’ he thought. ‘What does it amount to, when every attempt to explain is so hopeless? Mind you, I don’t fully understand all this myself.’

These wry asides are another feature of the book, which made me want to jot down line after line as the perfect comment on something or another. A real gem is:

November in London is a state of mind.

The scene is set: a new marriage, foundering even during its honeymoon, and a man who doesn’t understand himself. His attempt to understand himself – a great deal of self-reflexive wondering – is translated into his wandering feet, through the back-alleys of Venice and then further afield.

The opening is a metonym for what will happen in the rest of the novel, not only in the way it captures so many elements of Szerb’s brilliant style, but also in terms of plot. Before long, Mihály accidentally gets on a different train to his wife and instead of trying to find her again, continues his Italian wanderings alone. (His wife, meanwhile, goes to Paris, stays with a girlfriend, and becomes involved with a friend of Mihály’s and an enigmatic, tigerish, Persian.)

As Mihály wanders, he is running away from his ‘bourgeois’ present – his conventional honeymoon, his job in the family firm, his whole middle-class life – and trying to return to a period of adolescence when he was friends with a bohemian brother and sister. They used to spend their time role-playing, stealing, pretending to kill themselves and being rather too close to each other. He is haunted by his relationship with them, and the novel is a testament to the power of this nostalgia.

Mihály feels lost as to his future. His wanderings are driven by his desire for this period of his youth. He doesn’t know what to do now or next, wanting only to reconnect with his past. Perhaps this is why we feel the need to go back to the beginning of the book, once we’ve reached its end – its whole drive is pushing back into the past.

You’d have thought this might be problematic in terms of plot and pace – for surely you want to be thinking about the future, what happens next, rather than revisiting past events, but Szerb is very good at keeping us on our toes. It’s a bit like Murdoch’s Under the Net: you’re forever guessing where the protagonist will go next, who’s knocking at the door, or lurking down the alley. Somehow the elaborate chain of coincidences doesn’t feel excessively, annoyingly staged, rather it heightens the eerie dreamy feeling that pervades the book.

Szerb sets up one situation especially self-consciously, pointing out its unlikeliness:

Erzsi’s sense of unreality grew and grew … It was as if everything had been prepared in advance. Of this Erzsi no longer had any doubt.

Erszi realises she’s been manipulated and set-up by her lover. At the heart of this scene, she has an intense moment of self-realisation:

She was sobbing, and horribly tired. This was the moment of truth, when a person sees the whole pattern of their life.

Szerb draws attention to people’s vulnerability to being manipulated into situations, while suggesting that they depend on this manipulation in order to realise a truth about themselves.

It is symptomatic of the whole novel – through a series of remarkable coincidences, Mihály comes to learn about himself. Reality has to become unreal in order to grasp the greater reality. In dreams you encounter more profound truths than in waking life. Szerb uses all his coincidences to give a dreamlike feeling to the book, thereby making it a means to tackle many big truths about the human condition, such as the urge to escape mundane life, the link between sex and death, and the power of nostalgia.

Journey by Moonlight was written in 1937, at a time when Europe’s future looked increasingly bleak. (It certainly proved to be so for Szerb, who died in a forced labour camp in 1945.) It is not so surprising then that it is preoccupied with the past. In many ways it is a love letter to ancient Italian cities, with their rich Roman, Etruscan and folk history (there’s a particularly intriguing bit about Gubbio’s doors of the dead). It is also a celebration of a time when people moved freely through Europe – Hungarians coming to Italy, going on to Paris, meeting Englishmen, Persians, Americans … Szerb catches the experience of travelling through Italy just before everything changed. Incidentally, Pushkin are just about to publish Szerb’s notes on his own travels through Italy, The Third Tower.

I suppose I’ve made Journey by Moonlight sound rather heavy-going, European and serious. It is, but it is also very very funny. It is a brilliant novel – dreamy, witty, picaresque, intelligent, wry … and impossible to sum up.

Nicholas Lezard and Paul Bailey will be talking about Antal Szerb to his translator Len Rix at the Daunt Books Festival (programme here) at 12 noon on Friday 28th March. It’s going to be amazing – unmissable for anyone who is a Szerb fan, and an inspiring introduction for those new to his work. You can book here, if you scroll down a bit.

For more on Szerb, here’s my post on his first novel, The Pendragon Legend.

Antal Szerb


River writing

June 3, 2013

To the River by Olivia LaingLast week, I was lucky enough to chair a talk about river writing. The speakers were Olivia Laing, who was talking about her beautiful book To the River (which I wrote about here), and Charles Rangeley-Wilson, who spoke about his fascinating search for a lost river, Silt Road. I really enjoyed listening to them discuss the many parallels in their experiences of these chalk streams – The Ouse and The (High Wycombe) Wye. Both wrote a great deal about fossils, love, death, and also stories.

These folk stories were some of my favourite moments of their books – amidst the lyrical nature writing and illuminating history – and seem to me to be perfect instances of landscape influencing imagination. Olivia told the story of Cherry of Zennor, which she came across in a collection of essays by Edward Thomas, who found it in the mid-nineteenth-century Popular Romances of the West of England. Charles wrote about a magical trout. I shall, briefly, fill you in on these tales:

Cherry of Zennor

Cherry, a sixteen-year-old girl, left her family in Cornwall to go into service. She was sitting on the Downs crying with homesickness, when a gentleman came towards her. He offered her a job working for him and looking after his son.

Cherry didn’t understand everything he said, for he spoke in a flowery way, but she decided to take the job.

They went together down a long sloping lane shaded with trees, so that the sun was barely visible. At length they came to a stream of clear dark water that ran across the road. Cherry didn’t know how she’d ford this brook, but the gentleman slipped an arm about her waist and scooped her up, so she wouldn’t wet her feet.

Every day, Cherry had to take his son to a spring in the garden, wash him, and anoint his eyes with ointment. She was told not to touch her own eyes with the ointment. Then she got on with the rest of the work – milking the cow and weeding the garden. Cherry felt suspicious of this ointment and so:

One morning… taking a crumb of ointment, she put it in her eye. How it burned! She ran to the stream to wash away the smarting and there she saw at the bottom of the water hundreds of little people dancing, and there was her master, as small as the others, dancing with them and kissing the ladies as they passed.

It’s not long before her faery master finds out she’s taken the ointment and sends her packing.

The magical trout

Silt RoadCharles Rangeley-Wilson recounts the story as told by a mysterious old lady to the early nineteenth-century Irish songwriter Samuel Lover. Here it is:

There was once a very long time ago, a beautiful young girl who lived in the castle by the lough. She was betrothed to a king’s son, but the story goes that the prince was murdered and thrown into the lough and that she went out of her mind, the poor, tender-hearted girl, and pined for him until at last, so it was thought, the fairies took her away. But then, this white trout appeared in the stream, though it had never been seen before, and there it has remained for years and years, longer than I can express, and beyond the memory of even the oldest hereabouts, until at last the people came to believe that the white trout was a fairy, and so it was treasured and no harm was ever done to it. None, that is, until a band of wicked soldiers came to these parts and laughed and gibed [at] the people for thinking like this and one of the soldiers said he would catch the trout and eat it for his supper. Well he caught it and took it home and the trout cried out when he pitched it into the frying pan, though it would not cook no matter which way he turned the fish or how hot he made the fire, until in exasperation the soldier lunged at the trout with a fork and there came a murdering screech such as you’ve never heard before and the trout jumped out of the pan and on to the floor and out of the spot where it fell rose up the most beautiful lady you’ve ever seen, all dressed in white with a band of gold in her hair and a stream of blood running down her arm. “Look where you cut me you villain,” said the girl. “Why did you not leave me watching out for my true love? For he is coming for me by the river, and if he comes while I am away and I miss him I’ll hunt you down for evermore, so long as grass grows and water runs.” And no sooner had she spoken than the girl vanished and there on the kitchen floor was the white trout and the soldier picked up the bleeding fish and rushed with it to the river. He ran and ran for fear her lover would come while she was away, and descending into this cavern he threw her back into the river and there she has stayed evermore and to this day the trout is marked with red spots where the fork pierced its side.

white trout

I hadn’t known that fairies and rivers were so closely linked. I love the thought of little fairies dancing and kissing each other in the stream. Perhaps that’s why the water feels so cool and tickly when you paddle in it.

Lore of the LandIntrigued by these stories, I went to my very reliable tome of English folklore, The Lore of the Land, to see if there were more tales about rivers and fairies. Endearingly there is no entry for ‘rivers’ in the index of The Lore of the Land, only:

river-spirits … see also mermaids, freshwater

The stories of river-spirits are sinister. The spirit of the River Dart called out ‘Jan Coo! Jan Coo!’ until Jan ran towards it, his friend powerless to stop him, and then Jan was never seen again. There is Peg Powler of the Tees:

one of the most formidable of the many river-spirits lurking in rivers and streams, waiting their chance to drown women and children.

Just as sad is the story of how the River Severn came to be named. The story is traced to the account given by Geoffrey of Monmouth (c.1136) – an old story indeed. An ancient legendery king, Locrine, fell in love with the beautiful Estrildis but was forced by his father to marry Gwendolen. Locrine still loved Estrildis so hid her in an underground chamber where he visited her in secret. This went on for seven years, during which time she bore him a daughter Sabrina. Eventually, Locrine deserted Gwendolen and raised Estrildis to be his queen. Gwendolen, understandably furious, gathered an army in Cornwall and in the ensuing battle Locrine was killed. Gwendolen resumed the throne and ordered that:

Estrildis and Sabrina her daugher be flung into the river that is now called Severn, issuing an edict throughout all Britain that the river should be called by the damsel’s name … whereby it cometh to pass that even to this day the river in the British tongue is called Sabren, which by corruption in other speech is called Severn.

Sad stories of rivers abound. I dutifully looked up freshwater mermaids, but found that they aren’t any more gentle than these river-spirits, and lurk in rivers, pits and pools to lure children beneath to their death.

I’m struck by the darkness felt in these stories, an unnatural sinister edge to the natural beauty of a river. Rivers give life but also bring death. Perhaps only something other-worldy can begin to explain the strange pull of a river, its magnetism that is strong enough to pull you out of this world altogether. Perhaps it was comforting to blame the many drownings on the fairies rather than natural force, or human error. Was Virginia Woolf lured by a mermaid or a river-spirit into the Ouse? I doubt that Leonard would have found comfort in this.

To me, these stories of ill-meaning river-spirits suggest the anarchy of a river, its stubborn wilfulness and refusal to be governed by man. Charles Rangeley-Wilson, whose book hopes for the re-emergence of the River Wye – now buried under a shopping mall – should take courage from these tales.

Midsummer’s Eve is just around the corner – a time when, legend has it, the gap narrows between human and fairy worlds. Beware the river-spirits and freshwater mermaids! It is also the time that Olivia Laing walked along the River Ouse for her book. Did she, like Shakespeare’s Hermia and Cherry of Zennor “see things with parted eye”?  At least she escaped the clutches of the fairies and mermaids and returned to tell her tales. I’d be quite happy for fairies to dance around my paddling feet, although I have to confess, I feel a little wary of getting too close to a river right now, just in case a mermaid were to pull me under. It is, for sure, at least a fine time to read about them.


Emily’s walking book club photos

February 28, 2013

I know it’s not officially time for a new post until Monday … but I was so thrilled with these pics of Emily’s walking book club, I thought I had to show them off right away!

Thanks so much to the lovely Andy Tyler, who took these photos on Sunday’s walk – when we were discussing The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald. Can you believe he came straight to Hampstead Heath from Gatwick, having just got back from Las Vegas?!  Apparently it was a little bit colder on the Heath than over there.

If you click on the photos it will make them much bigger…

Chatting our way up to the top of Parliament Hill.

Rewarding ourselves with hot chocolate and an amazing view.

The discussion continues.

Time for a little reading – the book was The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald, which I wrote about in Monday’s post.

Off we go, across the frozen ground.

We usually end up in twos and threes as we chat away about the book.

Gosh it was windy as we set off from Parliament Hill. That’s Highgate in the background.

Not sure why but this bleak beautiful picture makes me think of soldiers in the First World War… we were certainly battling the elements.

What an amazing tree!

All photos copyright Andy Tyler photography

The Icknield Way

February 4, 2013

A couple of years ago you could be forgiven for knowing Edward Thomas only as the poet who wrote ‘Adlestrop’. Recently, however, there’s been a huge Edward Thomas love-in, which has made it hard to avoid learning  more about this tragic figure. Thanks to some fantastic literary outpourings from Matthew Hollis, Robert Macfarlane and Nick Dear, chances are that now you know that before ‘Adlestrop’ and the Second World War, Edward Thomas was skint, desperately unhappy, great friends with Robert Frost, perfectly horrid to his wife and wrote masses of prose. (Well you do now, anyway.)

I’ve been intrigued by the thought of Thomas’ prose, now overlooked in favour of his poetry. So I got hold of a copy of The Icknield Way and prepared myself for a treat – here is a book by one of my favourite poets about walking, one of my favourite things. (Incidentally, I am terribly excited about Ramblings on Radio 4 this Thursday at 3pm, which is all about my Walking Book Club – do tune in!!)

Unfortunately, this isn’t quite the mellifluous book of nature writing for which I’d hoped. Edward Thomas wrote The Icknield Way in 1911, when he was ‘mentally and emotionally exhausted’, warns his biographer Matthew Hollis. A contemporary critic scolded, ‘A tired author too soon fatigues his reader.’

Indeed, there are passages which did send me to sleep, usually when Thomas is busy tediously marking out the route. He lists the place names, the milestones, and the turnings. Instead of the trees and flora being as poetic as Nan Shepherd’s spell-like incantations (see here for more on her book The Living Mountain), they are no more than labels and markers, a means for future walkers to find their way:

Just before the second milestone from Princes Risborough, in obedience to my map, I turned to the left and took the right-hand road at a fork. For a quarter mile this was a narrow chalky lane, having at its entrance a sycamore and a thatched cottage, and traveller’s joy all over its low hedge; but crossing a road from Great Missenden it became more important, hard and white, with a green border. I climbed up past the “Red Lion” at Whiteleaf, under Whiteleaf Hill, crossed the Wycombe road, and went down a hedged and rutty lane, laving the spire of Princes Risborough half a mile below on the right.

Here is Thomas, the orienteer, leaving specific instructions and directions to any who choose to follow in his weary footsteps. It’s hardly scintillating reading, in any case.

But while these passages were at best disappointing and at worst a drudge to read, The Icknield Way has its share of beautiful moments, dripping with poetry, thick with Thomas’ struggle to express something strange and mysterious without quite having found his medium.

Edward Thomas might have been exhausted when he wrote the book, but he was evidently still a morning person – far more so than my husband and I, who lie in bed grumbling for more sleep when our phone alarms beep their cacophony of hellish noise. In sharp contrast, it is often the morning passages when poetry is fresh on Thomas’ tongue:

The rooks had been talking in my sleep much too long before I started next day. Their voices and the blazing window-blind described the morning for me before I stirred… The long grasses were dewy cool, the trees lightly rustling and full of shadow, the sky of so soft a greyness that it seemed and impossible palace for a sun so gorgeous.

What a start to the day, full of light and freshness and happy beginning.

Thomas has a surprising knack for describing the people he meets along the way. I loved his encounter with a wild woman at a cottage, where he knocks to ask for water:

Just as I was turning to get water for myself a human being with black hair and wild eyes looked out of an upper window and hailed me with a kind of scream … She was a thin, hawk-faced woman, bare and brown to the breast, and with glittering blue eyes, and in her upper jaw three strong teeth.

They go on to have a bizarre conversation about living in the moon.

Later there is a ‘jaunty’ landlady, with a ‘skittish, falsetto laugh’, ‘anxious to tell me that much as she liked a country life she missed the gas and the bathroom of a London house.’ Often these encounters strain to be cheerful, such as when he offers observations on the jolly life of a country inn, but they are only a passing brightness, and Thomas’s dark mood soon catches up with him.

One of Thomas’s roadside encounters is particularly dark. He writes of meeting his ghostly double:

He was a lean, indefinite man; half his life lay behind him like a corpse, so he said, and half was before him like a ghost … He said that he had been digging all day in a heavy soil, often jarring the fork against immovable flints, lifting more often that not a weight of clay only just short of the limit of his strength. He had thought and thought until his brain could do nothing but remain aware of dull misery and the violent shocks of the hard work … He was stiff and yet unsatisfied with the result of his labour; he felt the dullness of his eyes; and no thing or person in the world or out of it came into his mind with any conscious delight or quickness; yet he still looked along the ridges of the hills from one end to the other, from star to star, without a thought save the sleeping, underlying one that he was growing old.

In moments like this, Thomas’s unhappiness and exhaustion with life become a beautiful means of conjuring something quite mysterious. He writes about darkness falling and the landscape fading and becoming indistinct, ‘slowly the solid world was whittled away’.

These moments in his journey when Edward Thomas confronts his misery and finds something eerie and mystical are very special. Towards the end of the book, there is a startling passage about listening to the fall of rain at night. Again he imagines ‘a ghostly double beside me’, this time muttering:

The all-night rain puts out summer like a torch. In the heavy, black rain falling straight from invisible, dark sky to invisible, dark earth the heat of summer is annihilated, the splendour is dead, the summer is gone. The midnight rain buries it away where it has buried all sound but its own.

Though I’d like to, I can’t quote the whole passage here, as it goes on for a few pages. It is such a troubling passage, a nihilistic meditation on not being part of nature, on surrendering everything to the dark rain. These pages will stay with me as indeed they stayed with Thomas, for he returned to them in his poem ‘Rain’:

Rain, midnight rain, nothing but the wild rain
On this bleak hut, and solitude, and me
Remembering again that I shall die
And neither hear the rain nor give it thanks
For washing me cleaner than I have been
Since I was born into this solitude.
Blessed are the dead that the rain rains upon:
But here I pray that none whom once I loved
Is dying to-night or lying still awake
Solitary, listening to the rain,
Either in pain or thus in sympathy
Helpless among the living and the dead,
Like a cold water among broken reeds,
Myriads of broken reeds all still and stiff,
Like me who have no love which this wild rain
Has not dissolved except the love of death,
If love it be towards what is perfect and
Cannot, the tempest tells me, disappoint.

The poem is a condensation of this troubling passage at the end of The Icknield Way. Indeed the line, ‘Blessed are the dead that the rain rains upon’ is lifted straight from it. That line must have haunted Edward Thomas as, perhaps, it haunted F. Scott Fitzgerald, who remembers it near the end of The Great Gatsby as ‘Blessed are the dead that the rain falls on.’

The Icknield Way is a strange struggle of a book. On the one hand Thomas obsesses with documenting the route, naming the towns, and listing the turnings, the birds, trees and wildflowers. But beneath this surface detail, the spirit of the book is deeply mysterious. As he says in his dedication,

I could not find a beginning or an end of the Icknield Way. It is thus a symbol of mortal things with their beginnings and ends always in immortal darkness. I wish the book had a little more of the mystery of the road about it…

I share his wish, for in those moments when the mystery of the road shines from the chalky path, it is a shimmering, remarkable book indeed.

Walking and Talking at Port Eliot

July 23, 2012

I have just returned from a glorious few days at Port Eliot festival in Cornwall. What a fun time we had! Beautiful landscape, inspiring talks, dancing-a-plenty – made all the better by being, for the most part, blessed with sunshine.

I was at Port Eliot to do my walking book club – which involves going for a walk and talking about a book.

In this instance, I did one walk for The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley and another for Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, both books that fitted in nicely with Port Eliot’s big house and beautiful grounds. Quite thrillingly Radio 4 were interested in the idea and broadcast a report on it on The World Tonight. Here it is – the piece about the walking book club is 37 minutes in.

It was probably because I was there to walk, but I found that walking greatly influenced my experience of the festival. As well as gleaning walkerish thoughts from Robert Macfarlane (barefoot on red sandstone is a winner) and Juliet Nicolson (her grandfather Harold Nicolson went on a rather more highbrow walking book club in France), I went on a literary walk with Duncan Minshull, who has edited a treasure trove of a book about walking. A group of us walked down a pretty path to a field golden with wheat, stopping every now and then for Duncan to read us a thought on walking from someone literary.

My favourite was a letter from Soren Kirkegaard to his sister-in-law:

Do not on any account cease to take pleasure in walking: I walk every day to preserve my well-being and walk away from every sickness; I have walked my best thoughts into existence, and I know of no thought so heavy that one cannot walk away from it.

Apparently she was something of a couch potato and he was trying to coax her into taking a little more exercise.

Duncan also pointed out how walks are often written into literature, as a writerly device. Think Elizabeth Bennett and Mr Darcy, for instance. Of course my mind was abuzz with thoughts about The Go-Between and Rebecca and yet, somewhat idiotically, I hadn’t yet stopped to think about how much walking goes on in them. Of course Leo is a prince of walkers, traipsing less and less merrily between Brandham Hall and Ted Burgess’ farm, carrying messages between Marian and Ted. There is also rather a good walk from the Hall to the Church. Leo trots alongside Marian, when he sees Trimingham approaching:

I felt compelled to say: “Triminham’s coming after us,” as if he were a disease, or a misfortune, or the police.

“Oh is he?” she said, and turned her head, but she didn’t call to him, or make a sign, and his pace slackened off, and when he did come abreast of us he passed us, to my great relief, with a smile, and joined the people who were walking in front.

Could Marian be any more tepid in her feelings towards Trimingham? Especially when compared to the passionate ‘Darling, darling, darling’ written to lowly farmer Ted. Trimingham comes across as every bit the noble gentleman, his pride may be wounded and yet he masks it with a smile. The marriage planned between Marian and Trimingham – her money for his title – is certainly one of convenience, not motivated by love or affection. All this conveyed in a walk.

Of course in Rebecca it is while walking with Maxim in the grounds of Manderley that the new Mrs de Winter first comes across Rebecca’s fateful boathouse. Maxim is furious with her for following the dog over there, and strides crossly up the hill, back to the house for tea, revealing that the boathouse is every bit as sinister as she fears.

Rather luckily there is a boathouse at Port Eliot, so for the Walking Book Club we wandered down there, paused in our discussion and regrouped. I thought it a good spot to read out Daphne du Maurier’s description of Rebecca’s boathouse, when the new Mrs de Winter first sees it on her walk.

We all collectively shivered in spite of the warm sunshine at the description of the ‘damp and chill’, ‘dark and oppressive’ boathouse, with its rat-nibbled sofas, cobwebs and ‘queer musty smell’.

We moved on, wandering along the estuary, wondering aloud whether or not Rebecca really is the villain that Maxim de Winter says she is.

Many of us found a new respect for Rebecca. Plenty of us found ourselves irritated beyond belief with the new Mrs de Winter. Someone said she was desperate to shake some sense into her. Maxim de Winter was accused of being vile and dreadful, although not without his attractions.

But my greatest surprise was hearing someone say that she quite liked Mrs Danvers. Oh, Mrs Danvers, ghoul of my nightmares! Feeling that I needed du Maurier’s own words to back up my case, I waited until we were gathered by the house before reading out a scene thick with horror, to my mind one of the most ghastly scenes in all of literature.

The ball is about to begin, and the new Mrs de Winter has overcome her habitual, irritating shyness to get dressed up, rather excitedly, after one of the family portraits … thanks to Mrs Danvers’ suggestion. Standing in the shadow of the house, it was easy to look up to the upper windows, and imagine the young new Mrs de Winter up there, giggling with her maid as she got dressed. Then she walked along the corridor and told the drummer to announce her. And then:

I came forward to the head of the stairs and stood there, smiling, my hat in my hand, like the girl in the picture. I waited for the clapping and laughter that would follow as I walked slowly down the stairs. Nobody clapped, nobody moved.

They all stared at me like dumb things. Beatrice uttered a little cry and put her hand to her mouth. I went on smiling, I put one hand on the banister.

“How do you do, Mr de Winter,” I said.

Maxim had not moved. He stared up at me, his glass in his hand. There was no colour in his face. It was ashen white. I saw Frank go to him as though he would speak, but Maxim shook him off. I hesitated, one foot already on the stairs. Something was wrong, they had not understood. Why was Maxim looking like that? Why did they all stand like dummies, like people in a trance?

It continues along these lines until …

Then I saw that the door leading to the west wing was open wide, and that someone was standing there.

It was Mrs Danvers. I shall never forget the expression on her face, loathsome, triumphant. The face of an exulting devil. She stood there smiling at me.

And then I ran from her, down the long narrow passage to my own room, tripping, stumbling over the flounces of my dress.

What a haunting piece of writing, and how wonderful to be haunted by it standing there, by the wall of a house that might as well have been Manderley itself.

The Wind in the Willows

April 18, 2012

Last week, I reread The Wind in the Willows, a childhood classic brought back to my attention by Olivia Laing’s mentioning it a few times in her beautiful book To the River (which I wrote about here). It is very much a book about life on ‘River Bank’, a happy idyllic life, full of boating expeditions and picnics.

In honour of the book, some friends and I set out at the weekend to walk around Cookham and Maidenhead, along the stretch of the Thames which is said to have inspired The Wind and the Willows. We even brought a picnic including some of Ratty’s favourite things:



We omitted the coldtongue. And added in cheese. And cake.

The stretch along the Thames was certainly beautiful, even if the river was in its current somewhat depleted state. It was easy to imagine animals larking around here, content in their pretty, secluded spot. We also walked through some beautiful woods, which at this time of year, with the leaves just pushing their way out, felt particularly lovely.

Although these beautiful woods, filled with greenish light and elegant lines of trees, weren’t the inspiration for Grahame’s ‘Wild Wood’. That wood, we passed to our left. It was fenced off, and looked a bit too scary to risk going in. Indeed, in the book, the Wild Wood is terrifying:

He penetrated to where the light was less, and the trees crouched nearer and nearer, and holes made ugly mouths at him on either side. Everything was very still now. The dusk advanced on him steadily, rapidly, gathering in behind and before; and the light seemed to be draining away like flood-water. Then the faces began. It was over his shoulder, and indistinctly, that he first thought he saw a face: a little evil wedge-shaped face, looking out at him from a hole. When he turned and confronted it, the thing has vanished … He passed another hole, and another, and another; and then – yes! – no! – yes! certainly a little narrow face, with hard eyes, had flashed up for an instant from a hole, and was gone … Then suddenly, as if it had been so all the time, every hold, far and near, and there were hundreds of them, seemed to possess its face, coming and going rapidly, all fixing on him glances of malice and hatred: all hard-eyed and evil and sharp.

This is one of the bits that Olivia Laing notices in To the River. She remembers it gave her ‘a creeping sense that the world was not always as pleasant as it seemed’.

The Wild Wood is somewhere one shouldn’t venture, Rat instructs Mole at the beginning, and as for the Wide World, beyond that – that is something never to be referred to again, it ‘doesn’t matter … I’m never going, nor you either, if you’ve got any sense at all.’ The idyll of River Bank, with its sunshine and picnics, is dependent on being separate from these dark, unknowable places, protected from the outside world.

Woods are places where strange things happen. Often things that can only happen in the dark. Think of Hansel and Gretel. Shakespeare used the idea in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, sending the lovers into the woods, where the magical mishaps can take place. Last night I watched Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes, where the nail-biting climax takes place once the train has been decoupled and then sent down a branch line deep into the woods.

Surely the most unnerving thing about the Wild Wood are the little narrow faces with their ‘hard eyes’. Their disembodiment is alien and threatening. Reading this, I was reminded of a deeply unnerving moment in Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Beginning of Spring. There’s a night walk far out into the woods, and then:

Dolly began to see on each side of her, among the thronging stems of the birch trees, what looked like human hands, moving to touch each other across the whiteness and blackness.

There’s the same horror and strangeness from only being able to see bits of things – hands, or faces, or eyes. It is as though the darkness and the woods have completely undone the wholeness of things, undermined the very foundation of reality.

Woods might be terrifying places, but they are also essential. The River Bank wouldn’t be such a paradise if there were no opposite force casting shade against its sunlight. People need a place for which they must summon every ounce of bravery in order to get through. When Rat goes off to rescue Mole, he:

strapped a belt round his waist, shoved a brace of pistols into it, took up a stout cudgel that stood in a corner of the hall and set off for the Wild Wood at a smart pace … Here and there wicked little faces popped out of holes, but vanished immediately at sight of the valorous animal, his pistols and the great ugly cudgel in his grasp.

Rat is called upon to be ‘valorous’, and Mole, although terrified, in some ways needs to go through the Wild Wood in order to prove himself. Later, when the weasels and stoats of the Wild Wood rise up and take over Toad Hall, the other animals bravely band together to throw them out.

In The Lady Vanishes, the two Englishmen Charters and Caldicott, only emerge from their cricket-obsessed bubble when they are in the woods and forced to confront the world outside. And, in The Beginning of Spring, it is only in the woods, in this strange unnerving scene, that we get an inkling of who the mysterious Lisa Ivanovna might be.

Woods force one to confront one’s fears, and be faced with the truth. No wonder they can engender such an ominous, threatening feeling. But yet, people normally get out the other side, and do so stronger and wiser. For us, happily, we got through the woods, sat on a meadow by the river bank and then feasted on our picnic. Until it began to rain.

Walking To the River

April 4, 2012

One of my most favourite things is going for a walk. I am at my happiest when strolling along – definitely not too fast or strenuously – looking at beautiful scenery, be it on Hampstead Heath, Hampshire, or Hackney Wick.

Aside from the views, one of the things I love most about walking is talking. I wrote about Matthew Hollis’s biography of Edward Thomas here, in which he wrote about Thomas and Frost’s habit of ‘talk-walking’. They’d go off into the fields and walk for hours, talking all the while, usually of poetry and other lofty things.

No doubt my own talk-walks are a little less high-brow than Edward Thomas’s. But I love the way that once one’s limbs are loosened, one’s tongue is loosened too. All sorts of things that one might normally struggle to talk about come bubbling up like water from a spring – and one babbles away quite easily.

Of course, if there’s no one for company on a walk, then babbling away to oneself looks at best eccentric. Virginia Woolf did it, striding through the Sussex countryside, stomping out the plots of novels, talking to herself all the way. I might hum to myself a little, but usually, if alone, the talking goes on in my head, my thoughts chattering away silently to themselves.

When I feel a bit stuck with my writing – when I get a horrid feeling like there’s a blockage in a key synoptic pathway in my brain – a walk usually sorts it out. Although, when I walk, my thoughts refuse to follow a straight trajectory and dart all over the place making nothing at all coherent, just a very satisfying scribble. It’s when I get home afterwards and sit down to write, that I find the scribble’s unlocked the blockage and I’ve leapt ahead. Phew.

I feel sure there must be plenty of women who walk and write. There’s Virginia Woolf for a start, and there’s also Olivia Laing, whose To the River is just out as an attractive paperback. But, with these exceptions, I really can’t think of any other women who write about walking.

It’s so peculiar! If you think of the big names in English nature-writing (aka walk-writing), they’re all men like Edward Thomas, Robert Macfarlane and Roger Deakin. Travel further afield and there’s Patrick Leigh Fermor, Norman Lewis and Laurie Lee. Where have all the women gone?

Well perhaps they just walked and talked or walked and thought, without writing it down afterwards. Perhaps we women don’t share the stereotypically ‘male’ impulse to spot and catalogue things obsessively, or perhaps we simply don’t have enough confidence in our walks to commit them to paper. Or perhaps I am just yet to find these elusive women walk-writers. I’d be grateful for any pointers, those of you who know something I don’t.

Well, I’m very pleased that Olivia Laing wrote about her walk along the River Ouse. She walks alone, letting her mind meander along all sorts of fascinating watery diversions. Among other things, we get a folklore tale of faeries, a good bit about the Styx, the tragic story behind The Wind in the Willows and there is the frequent tug of Virginia Woolf, who, of course, drowned herself in the Ouse.

I particularly like the way Olivia Laing doesn’t always pretend to be in a bucolic dream in the middle of nowhere. We are jolted back to the twenty-first century by having to cross an A-road, gobbling a curry for supper, or overhearing a filthy conversation in a pub car park. This is definitely the English countryside of today, which makes the moments of wildness all the more special. Our countryside is now cris-crossed by noisy roads, and our rivers, often as not, end in container ports, changed from meandering streams into ‘an industrial river, dark as oil, its surface opaque and unrevealing’.

But the rivers are still there and one can still find beauty in their surroundings, even if that beauty can be jagged and rather unexpected. Laing gives us both ‘the elder foaming with flowers the colour of Jersey cream’ and the sugared fennel seeds in the Indian restaurant, leaving ‘the ghost of aniseed … on the tip of my tongue like a word I knew but could not speak’.

It’s an intensely lyrical book, beautifully written about beautiful places. It’s a book that above all has made me want to put my shoes on and stride out towards a river. And I would never neglect to bring with an enormous and delicious picnic a la Kenneth Grahame’s Ratty:


Thanks Olivia for the reminder. Yum.

Dinosaurs at Dungeness

March 27, 2012

My husband and I got out of London and spent the weekend in Dungeness – a coincidence of a lucky break in the bookshop rota and six months of being married was too happy a thing to let pass us by.

It’s a strange place, Dungeness. The man in the hotel described it as ‘Mad Max country’. It certainly feels wild, unkempt, eerily disregarded and forgotten about. Old boats, shipping containers, and rusted winches strew the endless expanse of shingle beach; industrial flotsam left behind by the retreating sea. A nuclear power station gently hums, looming behind two lighthouses, which look almost like fairground rides.

The person most associated with Dungeness is the artist and filmmaker Derek Jarman, who moved there when suffering from AIDS. He eked out a strange garden from the inhospitable shingle, scrubby plants arranged around odd bits of flotsamed rusty metal. His house, Prospect Cottage, still stands, and you can walk right up into the garden, which is overlooked by a John Donne poem mounted on the side of his house. The poem is the beginning and end of ‘The Sun Rising’, setting a peculiarly hopeful scene of daybreak and beginning, given that Jarman’s life was drawing to its close.

But Derek Jarman and John Donne weren’t so much on my mind. Instead, as we wandered across this strange landscape, I kept thinking of Virginia Woolf. This was in part because I am reading Olivia Laing’s wonderful To the River (of which more in a future post), in part because Dungeness is just a short hop along the coast from Woolf’’s East Sussex, and in part thanks to the profusion of lighthouses. This, in spite of the fact that Woolf never, to my knowledge, went to Dungeness. I can’t see any mention of it in her letters or diaries, in any case. I’m not sure she would have liked it much. So bleak and strange the landscape.

But the feeling I got at Dungeness reminded me very much of a preoccupation in her last novel Between the Acts. At university, I always felt this was the novel that I understood the least, the one that I didn’t quite get, in which I couldn’t quite discover the genius that was, doubtless, there. When I’ve read it, read about it, and thought about it since, I’ve admired Woolf’s playfulness with words, the feeling of her listening to language as it is spoken, and her success in capturing that on the page.

But what I was drawn to at university was her preoccupation with prehistory. Time and again in Between the Acts the long-ago past is summoned and strangely conflated into the present day. Perhaps this is clearest near the beginning:

… [she] had spent the hours between three and five thinking of rhododendron forests in Piccadilly; when the entire continent, not then, she understood, divided by a channel, was all one; populated, she understood, by elephant-bodied, seal-necked, heaving, surging, slowly writhing, and, she supposed, barking monsters; the iguanodon, the mammoth, and the mastodon; from whom presumably, she thought, jerking the window open, we descend.

It took her five seconds in actual time, in mind time ever so much longer, to separate Grace herself, with blue china on a tray, from the leather-covered grunting monster who was about, as the door opened, to demolish a whole tree in the green steaming undergrowth of the primeval forest. Naturally, she jumped, as Grace put the tray down and said: ‘Good morning, Ma’am.’

I hope you don’t mind the long quotation, but it really is so tremendously clever, I couldn’t bring myself to cut it short. I love it when novelists bring dinosaurs into the equation. One of my favourite bits of Dickens is the opening of Bleak House, when ‘it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn-hill’. But back to Woolf. What the hell is she doing with time?!

First of all we are told quite clearly that the real time of the present are the two hours, ‘between three and five’. But she (who is, in fact, Mrs Swithin) uses those two hours to think of a strange prehistoric time, imagining it both in the large scale of continental geography and in the minute realisation of rhododendron forests in Piccadilly. The ‘monsters’ are really quite extraordinarily described – I like the way Woolf picks out their imagined movements: ‘heaving, surging, slowly writhing’, and then there’s the threat of violence, felt so often in Between the Acts, in ‘barking’. But this strange vision of the past is made relevant to the present. Here we are back in the moment, ‘jerking the window open’ and the link is openly stated: ‘we descend’ from the monsters.

On to more odd time stuff: there’s the ‘actual time’ of ‘five seconds’ contrasted with the ‘mind time’ of ‘ever so much longer’ and this time is used to try and separate this strange conflation of worlds: to distinguish Grace, the servant, from the monster of Mrs Swithin’s imaginings. The monster hasn’t been left behind in pre-history, he is still there and – now we get a flash of the future – ‘about, as the door opened, to demolish a whole tree’. This very clever episode is brought to a brilliant, bathetic close: Mrs Swithin jumps at the servant putting down the tray and wishing her good morning. The reality of mundane life is here. It is ‘morning’. The monsters of the past are gone.

But the monsters stay lurking close to the surface throughout Between the Acts. Again and again, we feel that time can conflate, that something that happened so long ago could burst through the surface of the present. Mrs Swithin says, later on, ‘Once there was no sea … no sea at all between us and the continent.’ Later, Giles kicks a stone ‘a flinty yellow stone, a sharp stone, edged as if cut by a savage for an arrow. A Barbaric stone; a pre-historic.’ History and pre-history are there, in the stones, in the landscape, literally, just below the surface.

No there weren’t any dinosaurs at Dungeness. But there was something about the feeling of abandonment there, something about the way the sea drifted ever outwards, exposing more and more shingle, rendering the boats and winches useless, that felt epic, connected to a bigger time scale than we can easily imagine.

Not far from Dungeness, we sought out the ‘Listening Ears’. These things, of which I’d never heard, but which the husband was determined to find, are extraordinary old concrete structures that were built to ‘listen’ to approaching aircraft and act as an early-warning system. They were built around the time of Woolf’s writing, in the twenties and thirties, but were swiftly rendered obsolete by the invention of radar.

You can only see the Listening Ears up close on special tours in the summer, so we climbed to the top of a shingle bank and looked at them in the distance across a vast moat. The husband threatened to swim over there.

The Listening Ears are magnificent and strange. More abandoned things. More relics of a time that’s past. More pieces of obsoletism. Looking at them there, standing huge amidst the scrub and gorse, they seemed impossibly ancient and indestructible. They looked so odd they could almost be Aztec. And I couldn’t help but imagine them in thousands of years’ time, overgrown with jungle – perhaps forests of rhododendron bushes. What would they think, whoever discovered them? Would they think they were methods of worship, of praying to the sky gods, ways to listen for omens in the wind? I felt as though time were conflating before my eyes, that something from the thirties could be from an ancient civilisation, and yet could also date us as an ancient civilisation.

Perhaps I can’t convey the feeling quite as elegantly as Woolf, but it was certainly very strange indeed.


August 15, 2011

‘Yes I remember Adlestrop.’

I was thrilled to have the opportunity to quote one of the few lines of poetry I can ever remember at a party a few years ago. I’d got chatting to a someone, and when I asked him where he was from, he said he was from a tiny village in the middle of nowhere, which no-one had ever heard of. Try me, I said. It’s called Adlestrop.

Yes, I do remember Adlestrop. I remember reading it at school and thinking it was an incredibly special poem. Not least, for the lovely name of the village, thick with consonants and countryside. But I can never remember much more of the poem, and so for years just that tantalising little phrase has been lurking at the back of my mind, making me wonder what could come next, what was it about that poem that made that first line so resonant.

So I was thrilled to see on the cover of the Guardian’s Review section a few weeks ago a piece by Matthew Hollis about the friendship between Edward Thomas – writer of ‘Adlestrop’ – and Robert Frost. This friendship is the subject of a new book by Hollis, Now All Roads Lead to France, which looks absolutely brilliant and has had widespread glowing reviews. I long to read it. But, unfortunately, I have so much to read right now, I fear I’ll have to wait for a few weeks.

I hate that feeling of not being able to read something when I want to. Of being stuck on something else, which one first has to finish. It’s a bit like wanting a huge slice of chocolate cake but only being on your smoked salmon starter – you’re enjoying what you’re eating at the moment, but, really, it’s never going to be as good as pudding and there’s a whole main course to get through too. Also, imagine if everyone else were already tucking into their chocolate cake. So not only is the anticipation agony, but you feel somewhat left behind, missing out on this treat on which everyone else is already gorging.

But, in an unusual stroke of luck, the good people at Faber have published a new collection of Edward Thomas’s poems – edited by Matthew Hollis – to tie in with the publication of Now All Roads Lead to France. And, while I might not have time right now to read the biography, one can always find time to read poetry.

Of course, the first poem to which I turned, in this lovely collection, was ‘Adlestrop’. And here the poem is in its entirety. (It’s in verses of four lines, which I can’t seem to get this silly formatting thing to do, sorry.):

Yes. I remember Adlestrop –

The name, because one afternoon

Of heat the express-train drew up there

Unwontedly. It was late June.

The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.

No one left and no one came

On the bare platform. What I saw

Was Adlestrop – only the name

And willows, willow-herb, and grass,

And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,

No whit less still and lonely fair

Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

And for that minute a blackbird sang

Close by, and round him, mistier,

Father and father, all the birds

Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

It’s a very beautiful poem. And this weekend was a rather good time for me to read it because on Sunday some friends and I went for a ten-mile walk in the countryside. We might not have been in Oxfordshire or Gloucestershire, so didn’t pass Adlestrop, but we walked around the impossibly pretty Dedham – Constable Country – which was just as green and beautiful.

Towards the end of the walk, when our route led us from Flatford to Manningtree, we walked for a couple of miles through quite astonishing flat wetlands. All around the path were long grasses and, in the background, rolling meadows, complete with ‘haycocks dry’.

I love those lines:

And willows, willow-herb, and grass,

And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,

The way Thomas lists everything gives the impression of a keen naturalist looking at the landscape, trying to document it, but feeling simultaneously overwhelmed by the beauty of it. There are willows, there willow-herb and grass, oh and look over there at the meadowsweet, and the haycocks! We saw some beautiful willow trees, and incredible poplars, and a long hawthorn hedge. It was the same feeling of – oh look at all of these incredible things! There was a pleasure in being able to recognise them, to tell the different trees and plants apart from each other – and then so much more pleasure at the abundance of it, at how it stretches out on all sides as far as one can see. It is the same feeling Thomas evokes with the birds: there is the beauty of one blackbird and then all the birds, ‘mistier’, stretching out beyond the horizon.

Unluckily, on our way home, our express train drew up unwontedly at Shenfield, a station which lacked the romance of Adlestrop. The air conditioning in our carriage was broken, so it certainly was an afternoon ‘of heat’. We were informed that due to a person who’d been hit by a train near Ilford our train would be terminating at Shenfield. Rather than the magical silence and stillness of Thomas’s Adlestrop, we disembarked on to the very crowded platform, then had to wait for half an hour outside Shenfield Tandoori for a taxi to take us to Upminster, where we could get the tube the rest of the way home. Adlestrop beats Shenfield hands down.

But all the rapturous nature stuff isn’t what got me hooked all those years ago, when I read it in my final year of school. I was definitely moved by the evocation of a perfect pocket of the English countryside, especially as the poem was written during the First World War. This is what we’re fighting for, Thomas seems to say, this peacefulness and harmony of nature, in such sharp contrast to the horrors of the trenches.

But what really got me, and what still gets me, is the feeling of a moment of stillness. It is a very special moment of not moving, of waiting, where everything feels so hyperreal it’s like a dream. And that feeling of being in-between, of coming from one place, about to go somewhere else, but in the meantime – just for a moment – waiting utterly still, is similar to the feeling at the end of school. It’s a time when everyone’s thinking about what will happen next, but nobody’s quite there yet. It’s a moment of realising that the current situation is coming to an end, which makes one all the more aware of it.

Life is full of those moments. Ends of one thing and beginnings of something else and a strangely quiet pause while the transition happens. And that feeling, for me, will always make me think:

Yes. I remember Adlestrop.

A yellow flag of freedom

July 4, 2011

It was raining on our first morning on the Hebridean island of Harris. On that same morning – and on each of the following – we ate the most enormous cooked breakfast, which meant that, in spite of the weather, we really had to go for a long walk.

So off we set, to a nearby mountain, where we were told there was a pretty walk which went past a broch (an iron-age structure) and which might be slightly sheltered from the rain.

It was definitely not even a tiny bit sheltered from the rain, or the wind, both of which grew stronger as the walk progressed. We’d just passed the broch when the weather became truly determined and began to drench us in strong gusts, which felt like standing too close to a dog vigorously shaking itself dry.

The fiancé decided that rather than turning back at this point – an hour or so into the walk – we should continue and walk around the entire mountain. ‘We’ve just got to get to there,’ he pointed vaguely into the clouded distance, ‘and then we’ll be able to cross over to the other side.’ This was said in a way that implied years of traversing the land.

We were standing ankle-deep in peat bog, climbing a steep slope, with only sheep for company. My toes were being given a cool bath inside my trainers. I had to go along with the fiancé, or risk betraying my feeble city-born roots, which make me severely anxious when climbing up peaty mountains in pouring rain, with clouds descending, and no sign of a path.

We continued in this fashion – him striding ahead, periodically stopping to wait for me, who was, rather pathetically, lagging behind. After another half hour, during which the weather only worsened, the terrain only grew steeper, and the mountain seemed to go on getting wider and wider, so that it seemed we’d never reach a point at which we could cross to the other side, I stamped my foot and insisted that we turn back.

The fiancé, fittingly sheepish, agreed, and back we went. By this point, my toes no longer felt happily bathed, but rather squelchy and wrinkly; my Barbour, I’d discovered, needed re-waxing as it was certainly not waterproof enough for the Scottish rain, and everything in the pockets – tissues, wallets, phones – was soaked through. I was mildly worried about getting an electric shock from my waterlogged Blackberry. I was more worried about the fiancé twisting an ankle and my somehow having to transport him back down the mountain. Knowing that I would definitely not be able to carry him, that no-one would be stupid enough to come on this walk in the rain, which was now torrential, I began to weigh up the likelihood of my being able to catch a sheep and use it as a mule. Unlikely, I’d just decided, when the fiancé said, ‘Ems, look at that!’

And there was an enormous bird of prey soaring through the air. It circled around us and then swooped down, landing on the mountain. It was incredible. We wondered if it were an eagle, but when we later told people the story, we were told that if one is in any doubt as to whether or not it is an eagle, then it almost certainly isn’t. Eagles are so big, you see – wingspans of two metres – that you would definitely know one if you saw one. But when we went on a (sunnier) walk a few days later, with an eagle expert, who pointed out eagles souring high overhead, the pattern of their flight looked so similar to that of the bird we saw in the rain that we began to think that our unusually close sighting really must have been of an eagle.

I think the fiancé was trying to cheer me up, or perhaps he was feeling rather apologetic for his miscalculation of the length of the walk. In any case, he kept on pointing things out. ‘Look at all those yellow flowers,’ he said.

‘Oh wow,’ I said, looking at the swathes of yellow flowers, their petals drooping open and the rain splashing off, while their leaves poked up sharply, almost like swords. ‘They’re yellow flag irises.’

And that moment was almost more special than seeing the eagle.

You see, while in Harris, I was reading Gavin Maxwell’s nature-writing classic Ring of Bright Water, in which he recounts his life in the remote Scottish highlands, looking after pet otters. It is rather an eccentric book and, at times, a very funny one too. But what he really excels at is describing his home, which he calls ‘Camusfeàrna’, the Bay of the Alders. In his preface he says that his invention of a name is ‘from no desire to create mystery’. He explains:

The name is of little consequence, for such bays and houses, empty and long disused, are scattered throughout the wild sea lochs of the Western Highlands and the Hebrides, and in the description of one the reader may perhaps find the likeness of others of which he has himself been fond, for these places are symbols. Symbols, for me and for many, of freedom.

I was of course aware that his poetic rendering of the landscape was akin to what I would see on Harris. Even the cover of the book looks remarkably similar to the breathtaking view from the beach by the hotel. But this flower, this patch of yellow amidst the rain-soaked bog of green grass and purplish heather, was immediately recognisable as something I’d read about the previous evening:

The leaves of the yellow flag iris that margin the burn and the shore form a forest of broad bayonets

These sharp leaves were indeed like ‘broad bayonets’ and the wide yellow petals formed the familiar shape of the purple iris. I found that I knew exactly what this flower was.

Reading Ring of Bright Water while staying in a place so similar to the one described was truly extraordinary. Sadly I didn’t see an otter – certainly not a tame pet one like those that Gavin Maxwell kept – but I did see seals, dolphins, eagles, ravens, gulls and gannets. And I saw the ‘bright water’ of the title – the way the sea gleamed silver even in the rain, due to the almost unearthly whiteish glare of such northern light.

I’m pleased to say that that was the worst of the weather, and future walks weren’t nearly as gruelling. Not even the one for which we walked through two miles of soaking peat bog before climbing up into a strange crater of a mountain. (The fiancé’s idea, once again.) I loved my stay in Harris, and am already longing to return. It was easy to see how Maxwell’s life amongst nature in a similarly isolated spot was in many ways a kind of paradise.

In any case, once I’d identified those yellow flag irises, and realised that, in spite of the horrid rain, we were actually in the magical place described so well in the book I was reading, the rest of the walk didn’t seem bad at all.