I used to read fiction to the exclusion of anything else; historical novels, detective novels, historical detective novels, science fiction and fantasy novels, the ‘literary’ kind of novel (whatever that loaded term means), novels that were published months, years or centuries ago. I’d give house room to pretty much any kind of ‘story book’, but I was never a reader of biography, autobiography or memoir, I preferred my people to be make believe – even if many of them were firmly rooted in a world very similar to my own.
I would, occasionally, have a brief foray into the memoir or diary section. I read Alan Bennett’s and Michael Palin’s diaries because I really love Alan Bennett and Michael Palin (who doesn’t!). I went Driving Over Lemons in the foothills of the Spanish sierra with Chris Stewart while in a holiday rental somewhere cold and foggy in the UK because, pre-Ereader, I hadn’t brought enough books. Then, this year, I found myself choosing to read memoirs over anything else.
It began with ‘The Outrun’, which I heard as a serialisation on Radio 4’s Book of the Week. By episode three I was so taken up with Amy Liptrot’s story I’d bought the book from Hive and asked for next day delivery. Liptrot’s is a story of recovering from addiction. She leaves a crazy London life (a lifestyle not unlike my own London times, though mine happened 15 years earlier) and returns to her home in Orkney to heal. This book is so honest and affecting I’ve read some parts of it over and over again.
The Outrun was shortlisted for (and won) the Wainwright Prize which “seeks to reward the best writing on the outdoors, nature and UK-based travel writing”. As I looked through this list I realised that, while these were ‘outdoors and nature’ books, they were much more than ‘books about nature and the outdoors’. Each one of them, as far as I could tell from the back jacket blurbs, were about lives being lived with nature. This was not because the writers were naturalists or farmers (though some of them were) but because, and this became apparent the more I read, ALL our lives are lived and affected by nature.
The book I expected to be least ‘memoir-like’, and which I’m still reading, is Robert Macfarlane’s ‘Landmarks’. This is a book about words and the landscape, but it is also about lives in the landscape. So far I’ve read about Nan Shepherd and the Cairngorms (I had never heard of Nan Shepherd before, she was a fascinating woman) and Roger Deakin, who I knew of through ‘Waterlog’ fame. MacFarlane’s writing is, I think, the most academic of all the shortlisted books (I’ve occasionally had to get the dictionary out!) but it just makes ‘Landmarks’ a book requiring a little more attention and concentration, which can be no bad thing.
I read James Rebanks’s ‘A Shepherd’s Life’ through the spring and Rob Cowen’s ‘Common Ground’ in early summer. Both are great books about feeling yourself to be part of a landscape. In Common Ground this happens over the course of a year when Cowen returns to Yorkshire after living in London for some years. He starts to explore a patch of common land – edge land – near his new home. The stories he tells about that are interwoven with those of his own life, particularly with becoming a father. It made me think, as I’m sure it has many readers, that you don’t have to go far to explore a wildish place, and maybe we should pay more attention to the scrappy bits of land near home, and our own personal relationship with them, as much as we do national parks and grand landscapes. James Rebanks story of his life as a shepherd in the Lake District – a very grand landscape – is of a man (and a family) ‘hefted’ to the land, rather like their sheep. It’s an insight into a completely different way of life to the one most of us live. It sounds like hard work to me, but Rebanks clearly loves it – and his sheep (often seen on Twitter) are beautiful.
The Moth Snowstorm, by Michael McCarthy, is a book about the joy nature can spark. He writes about a childhood trauma and how a love for the natural world emerge from it. It’s also a call to protect nature. it’s probably the most campaigning book of all the Wainwright shortlist, and some of the statistics and state sponsored environmental vandalism McCarthy writes about made me feel despair. His point through the book is that we cannot be fully human if we are separate from nature, we have always been – and continue to be – part of it, not apart from it.
The final ‘Wainwright book’ (as I’d now started to call them) I read was ‘The Fish Ladder’, by Katherine Norbury. By then I’d been to the prizegiving – in a very hot tent at Countryfile Live – and seen four of the shortlisted authors read from their books. I don’t know why I’d left this one to last, but Katherine Norbury’s reading sent me straight off to buy a copy. I found this difficult to put down, the story of Norbury’s search for her birth family, intertwined with her journeys to find river sources, was compelling. This is a book about so many things; rivers, motherhood, self discovery, poetry and mythology, I absolutely loved it.
My ‘Wainwright reading project’ has been a fascinating journey with interesting people through some beautiful landscapes and some sadly spoiled one. All of these books were so much more than I expected them to be. So I’d say, try a book you might not usually pick up, you never know where it’ll lead you. As well as learning loads of new words for peat, I’m currently in late 19th Century Oxfordshire with Flora Thompson, and I’ll follow that with a trip to New Jersey with The Boss. (Oh yes, I’m never only reading one book at once…).