Anne’s Good Reads – The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane

The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane


‘…it is about a road which begins many miles before I could come on its traces and ends miles beyond where I had to stop.’ Edward Thomas

I only became aware of author, Robert MacFarlane, this time last year when I read a review of The Old Ways by Roger Cox in the Scotsman newspaper. He’s certainly a writer I wish I’d heard of sooner.

Macfarlane is an award-winning travel writer and is a Fellow of Emmanuel College Cambridge. His writing is most definitely not of the guidebook variety. Rather it’s about where the human heart and soul meet the heart and soul of landscape. The author himself describes this book as the third in a ‘trilogy about landscape and the human heart’. (The other two being ‘The Wild Places’ and ‘Mountains of the Mind’). Travel for Macfarlane is as much a philosophical, inner journey as it is a physical and outward one. His writing reminds me of the work of Richard Mabey and Kathleen Jamie. His relationship with topography, and the natural environment in general, is reminiscent of John Muir.

My favourite form of exercise is walking. As well as the physical benefit there is also a mental/emotional one too. I know I do my best unforced, free thinking when I’m out walking. Just the act of striding out is usually enough to put problems in perspective, to offload stress and to unblock creativity.

And anyone who walks for recreation, who walks to clear their head, who walks to reconnect will relate to this book.

It is the story of walking a thousand miles. It’s divided into four sections – Tracking which consists of walks in England, Following where the walks are all in Scotland, Roaming in which the walks take place abroad and Homing which is back in England again.

The Old Ways of the title are the trails, tracks, holloways, drove roads, paths and causeways that humans have marked out throughout their existence on the planet. Some of these ways are still visible – others not (except to the trained eye).

His description of ‘footplinths’  – the result of the melting of loose snow around footprints which leaves a raised impression of a walkers earlier footfall through snow – is but one example of Macfarlane’s exceptional take on how we humans make our mark. Coming across his own ascending footprints whilst descending a mountain is, he says, ‘an encounter with altered traces of an earlier self’ and these ghostly marks are also like signs of ‘an inverted spectral presence striding through the solid earth like we stride through solid air’.

I loved the fact that in the index of places walked in Tel Aviv sits between Tarbert and Tomintoul. I also loved that one of the walks is in Palestine and that Macfarlane’s walking companion was Raja Shehadeh, whose book Occupation Diaries I reviewed here last week.

Other locations for Macfarlane’s  walks include the Cairngorms, the Western Isles, the Ridgeway in the south of England, Spain and Tibet. Along the way he refers to the writing of Nan Shepherd, the Scottish climber and writer and Edward Thomas, English poet, essayist and natural historian. He is accompanied on some of the walks by a variety of people whom he describes as pilgrims – artists, sailors, a geologist and mountaineers.

What links it all is Macfarlane’s sublime prose and his way of seeing the landscape. He describes a deep vertical connection that is experienced when walking – a connection through time and space from the earth’s core to the stratosphere and beyond – from ancient times to the present and into the future, from earliest humanity to our own modern lives. At times, reading this book you will move briskly – at others you will pause – backtrack -reflect and then move on – much like the walking of the way itself. It’s certainly a journey worth making.

‘The Old Ways’ is published by Hamish Hamilton and is available in bookshops and on Amazon.

Anne’s Good Reads – ‘The Occupation Diaries’ and ‘The Wall’

The Occupation Diaries by Raja Shehadeh

The Wall by William Sutcliffe

West Bank Barrier (Separating Wall)
West Bank Barrier (Separating Wall) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Two good reads for the price of one this week. One is non-fiction and the other is fiction. But they’re connected by setting and they complement each other beautifully.

Occ Diaries

I became aware of The Occupation Diaries when I read a review of it in the Observer newspaper whilst on the flight home from a visit to Israel-Palestine last year. It was quite a coincidence to read about a book that was set in the very place I’d just visited. It was my third visit to the country and I blogged about it here.  I was so impressed by the review that I bought the book as soon as I got home.

I was even more impressed by the book itself. Shehadeh’s writing certainly confirmed the impressions I’d formed during my visit. The book is made up of diary entries during a two year period from 2009 to 2011.

It chronicles events leading up to the Palestinian bid for statehood at the U.N. But it is far from dry. This a very personal account, Shehadeh gives a clear and detailed record of his everyday life and of the lives of his fellow Palestinians living on the West Bank. He states his annoyance, anger and frustration at the ignominies, inconveniences, injustices and dangers that they face on a daily basis. But he never rants or lectures and his words are all the more effective for that.

Readers get a vivid portrait of Palestinian life and history and gain a clearer understanding of the politics and issues that the citizens on both sides of this contested land have to deal with.

The standout section for me was Shehadeh’s poignant account of a visit to Nablus station. In it he tells how when he arrived there were about twenty passengers waiting for the train. He describes the atmosphere of excitement and anticipation as they await the train’s arrival. But when it does arrive at the platform, no-one can get on. The train is an image. It’s part of an art installation commemorating the station’s centenary. Nowadays, however, no-one uses it. There are no longer any trains linking Nablus to Jerusalem, Damascus, Amman or Cairo. No trains cross this isolated and hemmed in territory. Travel in and out of the West Bank is a tortuous and uncomfortable undertaking for the Palestinians. But, as Shehadeh says, the experience of seeing the image of the train let the observers go beyond their ‘dismal present’ and envisage a future of freedom and connection with all their neighbours.

I recommend this moving book to anyone who wants to gain an insight into this conflicted area. Shehadeh is a skilled writer and educator and  a quiet and honest activist.

The Wall

It was while I was reading the above book that my husband presented me with The Wall. It had been recommended by a colleague of his and he reckoned I might like it. He was right. This is a charming work of fiction and is also set in The West Bank.

The main character is a thirteen- year-old Israeli boy named Joshua. Joshua lives in the (fictional) town of Amarias. Amarias is an illegal Israeli settlement which is situated close to a checkpoint (based on the real one at Qalandia). Joshua, still grieving the death of his father – killed while doing reservist service in the Israeli army – lives with his mother and step-father. Joshua doesn’t get on with his overbearing step-father who bullies and controls both Joshua and Joshua’s mother. Joshua also hates Amarias – finding it too manicured, perfect and stifling.

The town is close to  a heavily fortified checkpoint in the wall which divides Israel form the occupied territories of the West Bank.

All Joshua knows of the territory beyond the wall is that it is there that ‘the enemy’ live. That is until the day he finds a tunnel under the wall and goes through it. Here he meets Leila and her family. Joshua finds a place that is truly another world to the one of Amarias. It is the first of several very tense and risky visits. On the other side of the wall, Joshua’s concepts of loyalty, identity and justice are all challenged.

It is the character of Joshua that gives this book its charm. He is naive. He has no vested interest. He’s not weighted by history, religion or politics. He sees the issues as simply unfair and unjust.

The book is a political fable which presents a political reality.  Looking through young Joshua’s eyes, we are reminded of the simple truth that there are two sides to every story. It’s a clash of innocence and experience.

In the end it’s a redemptive tale –  or at least it is for Joshua. There is hope for his future, hope that just maybe he’ll use what he’s learned to redeem and give hope to – even in a small way – people like his Palestinian friend, Leila.

I urge you to consider reading both the above books. They’re straight-forward and  informative and moving. More than that – they are full of dignity and life-affirming truth.

Both books are available in bookshops and on Amazon

The Occupation Diaries is published by Profile Books

The Wall is published by Bloomsbury