Wednesday 29 March 2023

Walking round his father

Christopher Somerville [R staring at some folklore] has a nice gig if you can get it as The Walking Correspondent of The (London) Times. Being a scion of The Patriarchy must have helped to get a foot in the door there, but The Times would have turned him out if he hadn't been able to write with knowledge and insight about boots, lanes, hilltops and blustery weather. I don't take the Times, so I haven't read it since I was living in my parents' [who did take it] place[s] as a teenager. Through my childhood, every 18 months on average, my naval father would get a new posting which usually involved a new home for his family. It was what it was, and the destabilization has help craft me. There's no future in going what if? about the past.

No shade on Somerville for deciding to squeeze a few more walking miles from his life by writing books about it. I've just yomped through his The January Man; a Year of Walking Britain the conceit of which has the author re-viewing past walks (with his Dad) through the lens of his more recent encounters with people in remote places. This is what pretty much all books about landscape and walking do. I have had occasion to crit such books in the past: it's not a good idea to include every encounter. A good editor is key if the author wants to be considered for a Wainwright Prize. One of which was won by Dara McAnulty [bloboprev]. Another for Underland by Robert MacFarlane [bloboprev]. Somerville was shortlisted but didn't win in 2017. Jan Man is still an excellent example of the genre.

One of my points of engagement is that Somerville is cut from rather similar cloth to me. Like mine, Somerville's father had an intermittently bloody exciting WWII as a career naval officer. It took several decades and a few pints before Somerville Jr. heard the least peep from his father about what he'd seen and done. My brother went to visit our father in retirement, 50 years after the end of the war and they went off to the pub for a bonding pint while my mother prepared Sunday dinner back home [sometime the cliché is the lived experience]. As the sat in the pub, The Brother tried "In the war, like, were you ever scared" to which The Da responded "Harumph, look at the time; drink up, we'd better get back to your mother". Which was ridiculous because it lacked at least 30 minutes to 1300 hrs [± 2 mins] when lunch was started every day. Somerville Jr otoh secured an harrowing anecdote about evacuating bloody, soot-smeared British squaddies from a small harbor in Crete in May 1941. It was like Hemingway's On the Quai at Smyrna:

The Greeks were nice chaps too. When they evacuated
they had all their baggage animals they couldn't take off
with them so they just broke their forelegs and dumped them
into the shallow water. All those mules with their forelegs
broken pushed over into the shallow water. It was all a
pleasant business. My word yes a most pleasant business.

Each chapter in The January Man is pegged to a month, but the narrative loops back and forth through time and space often reflecting on how father and son settled into a relationship which could pass for love between two buttoned up Brits. Shared adversity in crappy weather and wild places eventually gave them some common ground to talk about . . . without getting too emotional, you know.

The January Man of the title is taken from a folk-song here sung by Steeleye Span. You might think that January Man is olde, anon, trad but it was conjured and written by a folkie called Dave Goulder in 1970 and has since become part of the English Folk Canon

No comments:

Post a Comment