Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Some Lakeland Lit. . .

It's impossible when travelling around England not to be completely enthralled by the landscape and to revel in reading the literary heritage and inspiration that accompanies it. There's a lovely bookstore in Grasmere called Sam Read and no fewer than three indie bookshops in Ambleside, and while I already have a huge list of books I want to read about the Lake District, I couldn't resist picking up a few more titles on my recent vacation.

All Quiet on the Orient Express by Magnus Mills is a strange little novel that would make a great indie film. Set in a small town in the Lake District in the autumn months after the peak tourist season, it's the story of the narrator, (I don't think we ever learn his name) who is a bit of a laid-back loner. He's been camping in the region prior to a planned trip to India but when he's offered some part-time odd jobs and some accomodation with hot water,  his date of departure keeps getting postponed. Meanwhile he tries to make friends with the quirky and aloof villagers in the hierarchical pub with mixed results, becoming a reluctant and unsuspecting colluder with his landlord Mr Parker, in some disturbing plans for his future. Procrastination,  indecision and lethagy take on a sinister undertones in this odd black comedy about inertia and the outsider and I cringed (in a good way) at the perhaps inevitable ending.   The review blurbs on the jacket made me laugh, describing it as a "bit like the Coen Brothers directing an Alan Bennett play" and placing Mills in the literary slot "between Albert Camus and Enid Blyton."  They are not far off. If I have one quibble, it's that it didn't really evoke the Lake District for me; it could have been set in any rural town, almost anywhere in the world.

Fortunately the other two books I bought are completely immersed in the landscape of Lakeland. I'm in the middle of reading them both and am enjoying them immensely.  I really wanted a good non-fiction read beyond the Wainwright guides and Hunter Davies' A Walk Around the Lakes: A Visit to Britain's Lake District fits the bill perfectly, written as it is by a walker who also relishes the literary connections in the area. Though originally published in 1979, the writing still feels relevant and fresh. Davies alternates chapters between his own walks around each of the lakes, describing the beauty and the history of the area, with a biographical chapter on Wordsworth and his deep connections with the many places he lived in and wrote about.  I'm enjoying the interviews with the locals, both people whose families have lived there for generations, along with newcomers who never want to leave (some of them would fit quite nicely into the Magnus Mills novel) and also learning more about other writers who lived in the area such as Beatrix Potter who I didn't know was also a renowned breeder of Herdy sheep. This book is adding to my list of places to visit, including Brantwood, John Ruskin's house.
Something a bit more meaty, and definitely more evocative of the area is Hugh Walpole's Herries saga. I've bought the first two volumes, Rogue Herries and Judith Paris and am halfway through the first. It's an absorbing read, part Thomas Hardy, part Sir Walter Scott, about a family that settles in the wild Borrowdale Valley in the mid-eighteenth century following their subsequent descendents up to the twentieth century. The books were published in the 1930s and though I'd certainly heard of Walpole in connection with his friendship with Virginia Woolf, I've never read him.  Today, Borrowdale is one of the loveliest valleys to walk in but the descriptions that Walpole gives, while celebrating the majesty of the fells surrounding it, also terrify with the stormy and ever changing weather.  Yet it's the desolate landscape that draws the violent and passionate patriarch, Francis Herries, to uproot his family (and mistress) to the area, and through the eyes of this "rogue"  and his young son David, it becomes a place where nature mixes with the mystical.  Francis's disapproving brother lives a more conventional life with his family in Keswick and I gather the tension between the two will develop as the story continues.  For now, it's proving to be a great summer read and I've completely succumbed to its huge narrative sweep. I have to parcel the reading out though as I don't know when I'll next get to Ambleside to purchase the final two volumes (I want to buy them from the bookstores where I first stumbled across them) and I think it's going to be addictive.

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