The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane

71wAwV28qpL I wanted so much to love this book. I tried. But it just wasn’t possible in the end. As a single volume it’s too diffuse, maybe. As a collection it’s too erratic and patchy. The cover artwork, by Stanley Donwood, is a green-and-white thing of great beauty and, as with Christmas dinner as a small boy, my eyes led me astray. The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane held the promise of nights under hedges, communing with chalk, dew underfoot, the open road. And in his defence there is quite a lot of that. It’s subtitled A Journey On Foot. But – he doesn’t even go on foot sometimes! For a couple of chapters, he SAILS! I hated Howard’s Way. I wanted walking! And, seduced by the Donwood cover, I wanted walking in Britain! The cover is indisputably British pastoral, but Macfarlane goes to Spain and China, for heaven’s sake. That’s a different sort of book from the one I wanted. More adventurous. Less cosy. There are pleasures in it, though. Macfarlane brilliantly illuminates the work of painter Eric Ravilious on a tour through Wiltshire and, while essentially a poet who happens to write about nature, he is happy to laugh at himself: another time, the first star of the evening turns out to be a late flight into Luton. At its best, The Old Ways comes on like W.G. Sebald’s The Rings Of Saturn, only without so many bits made up. And at times, his writing soars: ‘Out and on we walked, barefoot over and into the mirror-world.’ That is from the best chapter, about his promenade on the Broomway, an Essex path which curls out over mudflats, so a walker’s life is utterly dependent on knowledge of the tides. Allegedly the ‘deadliest’ path in Britain, it is ‘certainly the unearthliest path I have ever walked’. And Macfarlane does not tend to spend his time rambling through sunlit meadows, so we must suppose he knows. It’s rather good to know there’s somewhere quite so otherworldly in Essex. Loving bits of this book isn’t bad, I suppose. It’s my fault, not his. It is conceivable that I need to get a grip. That cover was lovely, though.

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