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Robert Macfarlane - Ways of seeing

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4 September 2013

Acclaimed travel writer Robert Macfarlane, author of The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, speaks to Freddie Reynolds about words and walks.

(Lead image of Robert Macfarlane walking the Broomway by David Quentin)

The Old Ways by Robert MacfarlaneThere's a midsummer heat wave causing havoc with London when I meet Robert Macfarlane. We decide to meet at the café at the National Portrait Gallery. It's cool, underground.

And it's a fitting location. Recently Granta magazine had published a short piece of Macfarlane's entitled Underland. It's a result of his recent explorations into the underworld of caves and subterranea, the subject of his next book, which follows the 'loose trilogy' that includes Mountains of the Mind, The Wild Places and The Old Ways

In the last decade he's descended steadily from mountains to Downs, Holloways to tidal paths. In one of the most enchanting chapters of The Old Ways, he reaches sea level, tacking along sea roads in the Outer Hebrides with a poet and sailor called Ian.

So you could say that exploring the underworld is a logical progression, even if he hadn't planned it that way.

"I didn't think I was going to write any of the books that came after Mountains," he admits after we find a table beneath the glass ceiling of the café, tourists feeling the heat above us. "But each one grew out of the last.

"With The Wild Places it was a feeling - a knowing - of what wildness meant to me. Byron says 'to me all mountains are a feeling'. Wilderness is a sensation and a very powerful one. Combine that with all these reports of the death of the wild in Britain and Ireland and I just wanted to see how true they were.

"And over the course of that book I move from nature and the old wild to civilisation, to cities, to more modern compromised nature and out of that came The Old Ways and this little book called Holloway. And out of these sunken paths..." he rests two fingers on the issue of Granta lying on the table. "When I look back, it all makes perfect sense, but at the time it's just not as clear as that."

Holloway is a collaboration between Macfarlane, Dan Richards and the illustrator Stanley Donwood. It's made up of small vignettes, memories, moments, each poetic, precise. He'd first visited the holloways of south Dorset with his friend Roger Deakin who died in 2006 and to whose memory Holloway is dedicated.

 "I'm not even sure we thought that we'd make a book", he says of the project. "We just thought we'd head down and spend a night or two out, drink some cider and see what came of it. It really has been a one thing led to another experience and we never knew that the first journey would lead to the second and the second would lead to the book. And that seems totally in keeping with the surprise and the concealment that characterises that place."

Allowing things to run their course has been a theme in Macfarlane's writing life. When writing The Old Ways he set out on the Ickneild Way and "just kind of waited to see what would happen." He says that is was only afterwards that he realised that this was wholly in keeping with the books subject:

"The path is really the oldest metaphor for life that we have. And so I decided to let the book have its own way. But the result is geographically disparate, which I hope is bound together by its metaphors and its images and its preoccupations."

Allowing things to take their own path has opened him up to collaborations, as with Holloway, or with his friend and photographer David Quentin with whom he walked the Broomway.

"I love collaborating," he says enthusiastically. "There's a sort of weird, intense, monomaniacal loneliness to being a writer, which is why it suits control freaks so incredibly well because you are the sole proprietor and king of your sentence and I do love that aspect of just obsessive writing and rewriting. But collaboration obviously changes all that and it brings so much with it. And because I have the artistic talent of a sausage, when I'm working with visual artists I'm just staggered. When I've collaborated with cameramen in television work, to me they are just absolute artists.

"With The Old Ways I wanted to write a very peopled and convivial book, because paths are made by lots of people - they're multiply authored as it were - and they're places of friendship and meeting and encounter and conversation."

Even brief encounters and conversations are strong and apt and memorable in Macfarlane's writing. But it's his ability to vividly recall the landscapes he's travelled, which is most impressive. The influence of British artists including Paul Nash and Richard Long are obviously important, and he speaks of them as readily as he does J A Baker and Edward Thomas, two of his literary heroes.

"We don't register landscape verbally, because what is verbal about light? It exists as a temperature and as a phenomenon and language is always going to fall short of those aspects, but there are ways of recording it.

"In the chapter about Broomway in The Old Ways, I tried to develop a slightly new syntax because the Broomway is all about reflection and we were there, standing on a mirror. So I started to create these sort of hinge compounds and palindromes that emerged out of themselves - I effectively tried to write a sort of mirror language.

"I don't think it works quite as successfully with Underland, but because it's all about flow and about a space with no corners where everything morphs into everything else erosively and topologically, I wanted to get rid of punctuation and I was trying to write phrases where each word sort of flows out of the next."

Which weaves together his two great interests: landscape and literature. A week after meeting him he's announcing the shortlist for the Man Booker in his role as Chair.

And William Dalrymple has referred to him as the 'new champion' of British travel writing. Does he see himself as a travel writer?

"I think I do," he says with a glint of hesitation. "I'm interested in place and movement through it and our relationship with it and that's kind of what travel is really. But if I was to be more finicky I'd probably find myself somewhere at the convergence at the tradition of writing about nature and the condition that brings with it - image, knowledge, precision - and then the travel writing tradition of Paddy Leigh Fermor and Bruce Chatwin. I'm not saying I'm fit to be mentioned in the same breath as these people, it's just that they are inspirations to me.

"Travel writing, like any durable form, changes shape and flexes; it has folded itself in with natural history and nature and place. I always boringly look at the 12 months when A Time of Gifts, In Patagonia, Coming into the Country, The Living Mountain and the Snow Leopard all came out and think wow! But actually you look back and you've got Paddy Leigh Fermor writing his memorious complex stuff, Chatwin writing his legendary elliptical stuff, Nan Shepard publishing a 30 year book about a single place, Materson on a spiritual Zen voyage into the Himalayas and John McFee writing this kind of ethnographic study of the Arctic. And if you look at that great year for travel writing you think that, well actually, it was as various then as it is now."

Macfarlane's own writing in The Old Ways doesn't suggest a sense of nostalgia for a time past - a rare thing for a book so deeply rooted in history and environment, especially with a major focus on the British Isles. He grips the modern day, revels in the 'undiscovered country of the nearby' and continually refers to the importance of depth of landscape, not just its width.

"I was anxious verging on paranoid all the way through that the book not become a voyage down memory lane, especially with the title The Old Ways and that double, slightly John Major-ish tang to it," he says. "And that's why we had a Richard Long on the hardback and a sans serif font and the neon green and then why we got Stanley to do the paperback.

"We need to think about place as something that we have to be connected to in a complex enriching way. I wanted it to feel like a book in which all sorts of pasts are simultaneously alive."

Traveller magazine cover image

Article originally published in

Traveller magazine

Vol 43, No 3, 2013

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