The Old Ways – Robert Macfarlane

25 February 2013
Author’s Note and Part 1 – Tracking
I’ve been trying to work out why I’m not enjoying this book . Walking for pleasure is something I’ve done all my life – my father used to take us out into the countryside almost as soon as we could walk – and Macfarlane gives us all sorts of information of the kind I usually find interesting. So why do I find it so tiresome to read?

It’s not as tiresome as Waterlog by Roger Deakin, a man who, with a sort of clunking inevitability, turns out to have been a friend of Macfarlane’s. But compared to a different book about walking in England, W G Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn… what? Macfarlane’s is a lesson in how not to do it elegantly, how to avoid the light touch. For a start, it’s so bloody writerly. Why refer to a midsummer walk – or was it midwinter? I forget – as ‘solstitial’? (I knew my spell-checker wouldn’t recognise it.) Why feel it necessary, time and time again, to offer those lists of his, like variants on the name of the Icknield Way or all the surface rocks encountered between Oldham and Grimsby – thirteen lines of prose, if you include the winning jokes about some of the names? He wouldn’t think of it as piling up words. For him it would be building a cairn.

Because doesn’t he love the mot juste, the literary turn of phrase? From a page picked at random: ‘The scent of dog-rose sweetened the air. A crow flopped from an ash-tree, its wings silver with sun.’ Sweetened? Flopped? Silver with sun? Give me a break. (I’m reminded of another writer in his 30s, Tan Twan Eng, who does an almost identical thing in a book I’m also reading just now, The Garden of Evening Mists. The resolute and perpetual avoidance of plain English seems fussy, and interrupts the flow of both narratives.) And Macfarlane loves the sound of his own voice. He likes walking, but he isn’t satisfied with that. He wants to talk us into believing that walking , especially along the eponymous ‘old ways’, holds some kind of significance. And guess who holds the key to it? Guess who is the high priest to show us why a walk isn’t just a walk, no sirree Bob.

What high priests need is a well-documented theology. So the walks that serve as a framework for the book become, well, the excuse for a lot of citations from the high priests who have gone before. Macfarlane, whilst seeming to celebrate the democracy of path-making – he even tells us the word for those unofficial paths that people make when they need them, ignoring the planners’ neatly delineated routes – brings in a lot of big guns. Palaeontologists, geologists, anthropologists, etymologists and the highest of high priests, the poets, are all there. For me the effect, despite all the interesting stuff that Macfarlane lobs at us, is a turn-off.

The problem is that instead of bringing me closer to the experience of walking as I know it, Macfarlane appears to be taking me away. No, that’s not it. What he’s doing is taking walking away from me. The structure is a series of real walks that he’s done, one per chapter, but don’t be fooled. Each walk becomes the scaffolding on which he can hang all his research and his quotations, turning the experience of walking into a pseudo-academic exercise. It isn’t genuinely academic, of course – in fact, the format demands that he should go off at tangents, mix poetry with science like an old-school polymath – but he’s commandeered something I’ve been doing for decades and turned it into something that clunks along as if it’s got metal boots on.

Should I tell you about what’s in the book? I’m sure I’ll get round to it… but not today.

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