Category Archives: Books and Walking

I Belong Here by Anita Sethi 

I thought about this book earlier today as I was on my morning walk with the dog. It was rather an overcast day in south Devon, the kind where you can’t tell whether it is raining or not. I picked a favourite route, through woodland along a riverbank for about a mile and a half. It was quite muddy underfoot, especially in places where the path isn’t well drained. The fallen leaves are beginning to rot and can be quite slippery. In these woods we see many primroses later in the year, and wild garlic (ransoms). Today there were no wildflowers. I had to make do with the sight of snowdrops in the hedges of the lane on my way out of my village.

I love walking this route. It is always changing. When I first discovered it, I had no dog, and it was not well walked. You rarely met anyone. Since Covid we meet plenty of dog walkers. As people in Devon do, we greet each other and pass on. The river has a strange name: the Lemon. I haven’t been able to establish where it rises, but it collects the water from many hillsides and eventually joins the Teign just before that river widens into its estuary. 

The river undermines trees all the time, and those on the banks often fall. Some create barriers across the path; some create bridges across the narrow river; others lie where they have fallen. But one that I previously relied on for a seat has been removed. It was perfect for sitting and watching the dog leaping into the water, so I had to find another. The dog loves swimming, even in January. She has an absorbing hobby: collecting stones from the bed of the river and taking them away onto the dry bank. I can sit until I feel the cold, watching her leap into the water and emerging after some bottom exploration with a huge wet stone. I don’t know why she does this. She did it yesterday at the beach as well.

Walking with the dog, rain or shine, twice a week has been part of my life for about five years. Even before I moved down to Devon from London I would frequently go out on my own. I have walked around the LOOP (the London Outer Orbital Route, which encircles London without going beyond the M25). It took two years to complete all the segments, but I understood London and its edges so much better when I had completed it.

With my friend Sarah I have also walked the Thames Path, from the source of the river near a patch of snowdrops in a soggy field in Gloucestershire to the Thames Barrier. That was in about 15 stages. Given that we were following the route of one of England’s greatest rivers, I am not quite sure how we got lost on one section. Our current walking and musing often takes place high above the Vale of Pewsey, in the area of Salisbury Plain – think white horse of Westbury and Eric Ravillious.

Walking is a such a good activity, on your own, with a dog or with other people. It puts one in touch with the landscape, especially a familiar landscape when one can notice the small changes of the seasons or the topography. And it is an excellent social activity, bringing people together, creating shared experiences, providing opportunity for interaction, reflection and quiet togetherness. 

As I walked this morning I noticed a new perspective on a ridge, and how some foresters had been clearing some of the scrub and hedge material that had previously hidden the river along sections of the path. I considered as I walked, the notion of belonging to a place. This summer it will be eleven years since I moved to this part of the world. I have walked some part of it every week. Do I belong? How does walking help me to belong?

I Belong Here: a journey along the backbone of Britain

This book was a Christmas present from the previously-mentioned Sarah.  Thank you Sarah!

Anita Sethi experienced nasty racial abuse on a train in the north of England. She reported it to the train officials and the man was prosecuted and found guilty. Upset by the incident and previous experiences of racism and sexism, she seeks to gain equilibrium through hiking in the north, specifically the Pennines as she was born and brought up in Manchester. Some of this walking she does alone, sometimes she has some support.

Having been told to ‘go back where you belong’ she asks the question, where do I belong, and how do I know. She considers the experiences of Black people in the countryside, of women walking alone, of the meaning of belonging. Along the way she meets people, talks with them, is rescued and helped by them. She considers literature of walking. I especially enjoyed her descriptions of the geology of the areas she walked in, including Hadrian’s Wall. This is a fusion of memoir and nature writing, justly popular and prize-winning.

Of course she belongs. I do too. Belonging is not in the gift of White male racists. Belonging is a function of living.

I Belong Here: a journey along the backbone of Britain by Anita Sethi, published in 2021 by Bloomsbury. 320pp

Shortlisted for the Wainwright Prize for nature writing in 2021 and winner of the Books Are My Bag Readers’ Non-Fiction Award 2021.

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The Adventures of Elizabeth in Rügen by Elizabeth von Arnim

In 1901 the writer, Elizabeth von Arnim, made a visit to the island of Rügen, the largest German island which lies in the Baltic. She had visited before and was equipped with maps and guidebook and a friend. They brought along a carriage with four horses, maids and baggage. Nothing much happened on the trip, although Elizabeth had hoped it would prove the basis of her next book. She had published Elizabeth and her German Garden to some acclaim in 1898. Undaunted by the lack of adventures she chose to invent some, along with a cast of truly awful characters, and sometimes pay lip service to the idea she was writing her own visitor’s guide. 

The Adventures of Elizabeth in Rügen

Rügen is an island off the Pomeranian coast, renowned for its sandy beaches (and jelly fish apparently). In the novel, the guidebook she found in the library quickly proves to be inadequate for Elizabeth’s requirements, and after a few misdirections and silences Elizabeth takes pleasure in doing the opposite of what it suggests. She is enjoying the freedom to choose what to do and where to go. However events interrupt her idyll and her adventures take a different form.

She is a writer with a sense of the dramatic as well as the absurd, and we are invited from the outset to enjoy the vagaries of her trip. It begins when her carriage barely fits into the ferry across to the island but takes a turn for the worse when their young coachman, August, does not notice that his two passengers, Elizabeth and her maid Gertrud, have alighted. He has been warned not to turn around to look at the women, and so he travels on and on without them. When they finally catch up with him a challenge comes from one of the bystanders as he tells his story.

The crowd waited breathlessly. ‘I turned round,’ continued August, ‘and I saw nothing.’
‘But you said you would never forget what you saw,’ objected a dissatisfied-looking man.
‘Never, never shall I forget it.’
‘Yet you saw nothing at all.’
‘Nothing, nothing. Never will I forget it.’
‘If you saw nothing you cannot forget it,’ persisted the dissatisfied man. (31-2)

Such conundrums and frustrations follow Elizabeth on her adventures. Soon after this inauspicious beginning Elizabeth goes swimming and enters the cold water more or less on top of another woman who turns out to be her cousin Charlotte ‘whom I had not seen for ten years’. Charlotte’s marital situation drives the plot: she married an eminent English professor, much older than herself. She now wants to free herself from him and has left him to promote the cause of women. Actually she appears to be promoting the cause of Charlotte and overlooks other women and has no time at all to consider the servant class, such as the long-suffering Gertrud. The women continue the trip around the island together.

Not long after this Elizabeth’s path crosses the professor’s. He is looking for his wife, but quite happy to be distracted by any women he meets. He is, in truth, a bit of a lech. When Charlotte departs, Elizabeth and the professor give chase, and Elizabeth contrives a plan to bring them together.

Everywhere they go they meet Ambrose (Bosy) and his mother Mrs Harvey-Browne. Bosy is a good-looking young man, but he pays no attention to what anyone says but himself. His mother, however, is horrendous, and Elizabeth tries to avoid the pair on her travels. Mrs Harvey-Browne is the wife of an Anglican bishop and expects to be treated as a person of some status. It has not dawned on her that there would be little understanding of her status on the island as the Germans do not have bishops, and furthermore her status is acquired by connection rather in her own right. Sadly she is often mistaken, for example, refusing to engage with the professor, when they first met, as she mistakes him for a tramp. But worse, she is determined to be critical of everything – landscape, language, service, food, transport, the weather … 

Her negativity puts Elizabeth’s character into relief. Elizabeth is witty, funny and resourceful, prepared to see the best in everyone, to help them, and to enjoy the adventures on Rügen. All is chaos and good humour from her side, but indignation, crossness and self-absorption from the others.

Rügen is clearly a beautiful island with exquisite views and beaches as well as bracing sea bathing and dense forests. I read a second-hand copy of this novel but I don’t recall where I bought it. I was delighted to find a postcard tucked in its pages, showing a watercolour of the church in Bobbin, featured on Elizabeth’s journey (246-249). The artists is W Teich.

Here are links to other posts on Bookword featuring novels by Elizabeth von Arnim:

Expiation by Elizabeth von Arnim (August 2021)

Father by Elizabeth von Arnim (July 2021)

Mr Skeffington by Elizabeth von Arnim (November 2020)

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim (August 2017)

The Adventures of Elizabeth in Rügen: by the author of Elizabeth and her German Garden by Elizabeth von Arnim, first published in 1904. It was reissued by Virago in 1990 with an introduction by Penelope Mortimer. 199pp 

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Grove by Esther Kinsky

I had never heard of a ‘field novel’ before, but I had read River by Esther Kinsky. I loved that book, for it mostly concerned the River Lea in East London, a river I knew well as it was the nearest to my home of 35 years. I decided to read Grove because I was confident in Esther Kinsky’s ability to describe landscape and people’s relationship to it. My confidence was well placed, and I also found a deep meditation and exploration of the experience of grief.

Grove: a field novel

It seems a very autobiographical book. The funeral of the narrator’s partner ‘M’ took place two months before she travelled to Italy, to a small village Olevano near Rome, to decide or find out ‘how for the next three months to force my life into a new order that would let me survive the unexpected unknown’. (23)

She records three sets of journeys to Italy: this one following her bereavement; journeys with her family, arranged by her father, in her childhood; staying one the salt flats of the Po River valley sometime later.

I tetti di Olevano Romano by Pietro Scerrato via WikiCommons

The novel is suffused with the tension between death and life: especially the material manifestations of them. She is frequently interested in cemeteries and their post-funeral rituals. Cemeteries are so much part of village and town life, and as she looks around the areas where she stays, she visited them and describes them to us.

It is winter, evening comes early. When darkness falls, the old village of Olevano lies in the yellow warmth of streetlights. Along the road to Bellegra and throughout the new settlements on the northern side, stretches a labyrinth of dazzling white lamps. Above on the hillside the cemetery hovers in the glow of countless perpetually burning small lights, which glimmer before the gravestones, lined up on the ledges in front of the sepulchres, When the night is very dark the cemetery, illuminated by lux perpetuae, hangs like an island in the night. The island of the morti above the valley of the vii. (19)

In Olevano she seems passive in the winter landscape, looking out across the valley, walking to the cemetery and to the village every day. She appears to interact with nobody. We have no explanation of why she is staying in this village, in this house. She travels around the valley, visiting places she can see, and with no apparent purpose but to be there. Absence suffuses her descriptions.

In the central section she focuses on the visits to Italy, from their Rhineland home, organised by her father. Her father loved Italy, for the museums, the blue of Fra Angelico’s paintings, the seaside and for the wildlife they came across. Her father liked to lecture her, and her brother, about these things. Eels and snakes are a frequent topic. This section too is concerned with death, including the death of her father. 

In Rome they visit a cemetery:

Eventually the wind abated. Beneath a white sky, which the sunshine filtered into a uniformly soft brightness, we visited the grave of John Keats. The cemetery was full of cats, which rambled about the graves, rubbed against our legs. At John Keats’s grave cats had a good chance of finding affection. Near the entrance, placed between pruned cypress trees, were small plates, as if set out for a society of dwarves, an elderly woman came over with a pot of food scraps and distributed them onto the plates, which already thronged with cats. Next to the cemetery a sharp pyramid protruded above the traffic, and angular sign that seemed to refer to this island of the dead, lying here surrounded by the swells of the city. A Roman general had the pyramid erected as his tomb, perhaps consumed by a yearning for the sands of Egypt where despite his warrior trappings, he had been a different person than he was here in Rome, where his eyes were inevitably drawn, day after day, to sombre clusters of dark parasol pines. (179-80)

Finally in the third section she is in the Po Valley, on the flat lands, the salt plain, watching birds – flamingos, heron, egrets – and the people who live in this marginal and declining area. 

I had ended up here [Valli di Cimacchio] by accident, in an accommodation with a view to a half-wilted potted pine tree, reeds, willow bushes, and ample sky. Far from the coastal road, inland of the deserted seaside resorts. The owners had given up all hope for a livelihood – a slight bitterness hung in the air, a melancholy astonishment that the desolation of the seaside destinations and view to the emptiness of salt pans in winter could leave the viewer overwhelmed not only by doubt. (226-7)

The trucks trundle passed, endlessly, to and from the big towns. Eventually she finds her way back. She has become more active in her life, engaging with the people who she meets. Her tension between life and death is eventually resolved, or at least understood and accommodated. Grief in the end is absence, and a matter of living with death.

She has moved from being an observer to being a more active participant in the landscapes she finds.

 You can find the link to my post on her novel River (2018) from April 2019 here.

Grove: a field novel by Esther Kinsky, first published in German in 2018. The English translation by Caroline Schmidt was published by Fitzcarraldo in 2021.  277pp

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Refugee Tales IV Edited by David Herd & Anna Pincus

How can we still be here, after 70 years?

On 28th July 1951 26 countries signed the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.

Why do we have to continue arguing against the expulsion and return of refugees when it is counter to the terms of the Convention? 

The Convention states

Article 23: Prohibition of expulsion or return (‘refoulement’)
1. No Contracting State shall expel or return (‘refouler’) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.

Why do we have to continue arguing that indefinite detention is illegal, against human rights and inhumane and contrary to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?

Article 9
No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile. (the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948).

How much longer will we have to walk, and talk, and tell the stories, retell the stories of refugees?

Refugee Tales IV

In this volume there are 14 stories, many detailing the spread of indefinite detention in other countries. Contributions are made by detainees as well as by Shami Chakrabarti, Robert Macfarlane, Bidisha, Rachel Seiffert, Dina Nayeri, Philippe Sands and Christy Lefteri. 

These are stories of refugees’ experiences of seeking asylum, mostly about young men, shunted around the system, escaping only to be caught again in the endless battle to gain accepted status. Lives are wasted. Time spent studying is wasted. Conditions for living are terrible. Spirits are dashed. Help is well-meaning but often inadequate against the mysteries and convolutions of the legal processes. Each story is distressing in its own way. Each story reveals a small part of the system that makes up the hostile environment.

From the Advocate’s Tale

Put yourself in the shoes of those people fleeing their home, seeking refuge here in the United Kingdom, or in neighbouring countries. Once you made it here you would expect to receive some sort of help or protection, right? Well, in my case it was the opposite. My experience in detention was worse than I can describe. (122)

It is a terrible waste of people’s lives to be in indefinite detention. The accumulation within the four volumes of Refugee Tales is a terrible indictment of UK policy. Refugees have to wait, and wait some more, and are not allowed to work, or to be useful members of their community. It is difficult to promote their case, to access legal help, to access and help. And at any moment they might be released or put on a flight back to the country which tried to kill them.

It takes a terrible toll on people’s mental health to be in indefinite detention. In the first place, there is the injustice of being imprisoned when they have done nothing wrong. Then they must endure being powerless to resist. But worse, much worse, is the uncertainty, of the wait, lack of knowledge of the twists and turns of asylum law and what their fate will be. Several refugees report that they suffered more in indefinite detention than from the events that forced them to flee their country.

And don’t let’s even mention how refugees have been abandoned to the coronavirus in the Napier Barracks, and how fear is being stoked about those who try to reach the UK across the English Channel, or against those who are dubbed economic migrants. Or the Nationalities and Borders Bill of 2021

This is not what a decent society should do. This is not what a country that signed up to the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugee and to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights should do.

And there are good people doing the right thing: rescuing people from drowning; welcoming refugees on arrival; providing material help; providing advice; and campaigning; collecting stories to share. 

Refugee TalesGatwick Detainees Welfare Group and Comma Press are doing the right thing. 

Yet here we are: still arguing against indefinite detention; still walking; still talking and telling stories. There’s only one thing for it: we must persist. We must work towards making the UK a place where refugees can ‘expect to receive some sort of help or protection’.

Refugee Tales IV Edited by David Herd & Anna Pincus published in 2021, by Comma Press. 161pp

Refugee Tales Edited by David Herd & Anna Pincus (February 2017)

Refugee Tales -2 Edited by David Herd & Anna Pincus (March 2018)

Refugee Tales III Edited by David Herd & Anna Pincus (June 2020)

Walking and crossing bridges for Refugee Tales in June 2020

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Bookword walks in Orkney

My friend Sarah has many good ideas. We have been friends for 40 years but as we live 180 miles apart we have not seen each other since October. Sarah suggested we do a virtual walk, somewhere where there was a route we could follow and visit interesting things along the way. We chose St Magnus’s Way in Orkney: the route is 55 miles long, begins in Egilsay and finishes in Kirkwall on Mainland, following a route themed on the saint’s life. 

So we began our walk on 1st March, spending a little time, virtually, at the bird sanctuary on the small island of Egilsay and looking up the story of the saint’s death, and at photos of his church. Then we followed a rocky path along the north cliffs of the Mainland arriving in Birsay after three days. The next bit of the route was a flat and straight road between some of the lochs that can be found all over Orkney. We arrived in Dounby on 7th March.

By this point my researches had roused in me a desire to visit Stromness (mostly because of the music, Farewell to Stromness by Peter Maxwell Davies which I play on the piano) but also because it has a reputation as a pretty town with a museum that contains a whale’s ear drum. And more than that, we both wanted to visit the Neolithic archaeology of the island, and St Magnus’s Way would not be taking that in. So we diverted to Skara Brae.

And here, my friends prepare yourselves, I sustained an injury by twisting my ankle and breaking it. I was not able to continue the walk. So we consulted on whether to give up, perhaps to start again later. And here was Sarah’s second brilliant idea: we should hunker down in a bothy and read books about Orkney until I was fit to continue.

So we did. We agreed to read Beside the Ocean of Time by the Orcadian poet George Mackay Brown. I ordered a copy of Outrun by Amy Liptrot for Sarah. And I reread the account by the Scottish poet, Kathleen Jamie, of a Neolithic village dig on the island of Westray, north of Mainland, in Surfacing.

Beside the Ocean of Time by George Mackay Brown 

Thorfinn Ragnarson is a dreamy boy who is unlikely to make anything of himself, according to the school teacher on Norday, a fictitious island in Orkney. His daydreams form the chapters of this book, taking us from the time, long before the Vikings to the death of the island after the Second World War. He explores the rivers of Eastern Europe, just misses the battle of Bannockburn, helps Bonnie Prince Charlie, and with the islanders outsmarts the press gangs of the 18th century.

The island’s unchanging nature, the families, the crofts handed down through countless generations, the myths and legends of the islanders, their history, their rituals and needs are all evoked. The death of the island is sudden and brutal. It is used as an aerodrome in Second World War, and crofts, land, animals and people are erased despite their long history.

Beside the Ocean of Time by George Mackay Brown, published in 1994 by Polygon books. 197pp. Shortlisted for the Booker Prize 1994.

The Outrun by Amy Liptrot

I can see why this memoir was much lauded when it was first published. The writing is very clear, very unemotional and very sharp. She does not ask you to be sorry for her, although she got herself into terrible difficulties.

The first part of this book describes how the author was plunged into alcoholism, out of control in Hackney in the ‘90s. Eventually she decides she has to sort herself out. She returns to her childhood home in Orkney and through working on her father’s farm, for the RSPB and living more or less in isolation on Papay island through the winter, she achieves two years of sobriety.

The book is full of beautiful descriptions of landscape, finding meaning in astronomy, bird life, farm life and the ways of the islanders. Change, seasons, people’s fallibilities, these are the backdrop to her story. That the farm is situated just north of Skara Brae where I was hunkered down, lends more details to our walk and our delay in the Neolithic village.

The Outrun by Amy Liptrot (2016) published by Canongate. 280pp. Shortlisted for the Wellcome and Wainwright Prizes in 2016.

Surfacing Kathleen Jamie

Kathleen Jamie is a Scottish poet. She also has a way of connecting archaeology with people’s lives in her essays. She writes with great calmness and humility about her visit to the site of an abandoned Yup’iq village in Alaska which is being gradually washed away by the Pacific Ocean as a result of rising sea levels.

She visits another archaeological site, this one a Neolithic village on the island of Westray, north of Mainland in Orkney. The Links of Noltland are in danger from lack of funding. The dig has found a large community, built over centuries from stone, recently uncovered by the winds. If funds run out the elements will destroy what remains of settlements built on the remains of the homes of previous generations. You can find the link to my post on Surfacing here.

Surfacing Kathleen Jamie, published in 2019 by Sort of books. 247pp

Now my ankle is good enough to make a slow progression towards The Ring of Brodgar, on its isthmus between two lochs: Stenness and Harray. We pass broch, tumuli, stone rings and cairns. This land has been occupied for perhaps 8000 years. Before the Vikings arrived, Neolithic and Bronze age peoples came and lived, farming and raising cattle, living among the seals, the migrating birds and on the edge of the sea. I move slowly with a stick and my friend for support.

And Sarah writes:

One of the most difficult aspects of the last year has been not walking with you Caroline. I value these days so much, for the sense of exploration and movement, and for the way we pace our talking along with our walking, sometimes offloading, sometimes musing, always laughing and learning.

So a virtual journey seemed like a good idea if it was all we could do. I’m not on the whole a great follower of travel guides, or reader of travel books, but we knew we needed a route where we could find views and terrain described. I must say though that it was photos and the BBC 4 archaeology programme that really captured my imagination at first, not the written word.  I quickly tired of St Magnus who seemed to have done not much to be sanctified and remembered so long. 

In a way your injury, forcing us to rest at Skara Brae, was a happy accident. Well, not happy obviously but a useful turn of events. I started to feel the wind, smell the sea and hear the birds right on the edge of this tiny island. Farewell to Stromness captures the excitement perfectly. Beside the Ocean of Time mostly disappointed me (I found the dreaming child so dull) but it does paint a picture of Orkney not as remote but as linked, through its widely-travelling inhabitants, to many world events and historical moments.

Mostly when I travel, not virtually but actually, I am interested in how people live in this place which is new to me. Literally how do they survive and thrive, and how do landscape and human behaviour interact here? What is important to them, and what isn’t? I am half way through The Outrun and although this is mainly the story of one woman’s journey into and eventually out of self-destruction, I’m appreciating a much broader impression of the physical and emotional context of life on Orkney. Sea and sky and land of course, and enviable familiarity with the sight and sound of so many different kinds of bird. But interwoven with all the natural beauty and the strong sense of community, grimmer pictures are painted of life for individuals and families: the smell of the ferry, the old freezer left to rust in the farmyard, her father’s caravan home, her job cleaning the accommodation for oil terminal staff, houses and farms left deserted and rotting away, boats breaking on rocks. It all feels very real and true, and quite different from a travel book.

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Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney

Manhattan – the last time I was there was in 1969. It was so unfamiliar to me when I picked up this novel that I had to relearn the names and order of the Avenues, and look up the position of some of the most famous landmarks. I also had to use a Google map to follow Lillian Boxfish’s path through the city. I am not surprised that Daunt Books published this, as a bookseller Daunt’s is associated with travel books and the novel is so strongly set in the city of New York. 

I remember New York as a lively city, full of excitement and strangeness. It was noisy and dirty and I imagined I would be back soon. This was my return. And it was such fun. Lillian Boxfish was an ideal walking companion, a flâneuse with class.

This is the 49th novel in the series championing older women in fiction in order to make them more visible. You can find the complete list of reviews and suggested books in the series here.

Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk

The book is set in 1984/5 beginning on New Year’s Eve. Finding herself alone on an evening which is typically celebrated in company, Lillian decides to take a walk. She has lived in Manhattan since 1921 and so now she walks first to her usual Italian restaurant, then to another in south Manhattan, then to a party in Chelsea and finally home. On the way she passes some landmarks of her life and we learn about her history.

The plot is tightly focused on Manhattan. Lillian does not stray further north than 42nd Street. The city has changed since she moved there in the 1920s: muggers, skyscrapers, the new World Trade Towers, loft conversions, Korean-run bodegas and so forth. We also get to reflect on how the city has continued to change since then.

Lillian Boxfish

Lillian is 84/5 and inspired by the real life Margaret Fishback. Like her inspiration,  Lillian has worked as a copywriter for Macy’s store, becoming rich and successful as a result of her poetic sales pitches. She also wrote books of guidance for young women and verse, often humorous, including for greetings cards when she lost her job at Macy’s. She was successful, she was well paid and had a lively social life. Unlike her contemporaries did not want to get married. But Lillian fell in love and married Max, and later became pregnant. 

Of course she lost her job when she became pregnant. This was the late 1930s. Her husband, being Italian-speaking, spent the war years away, and their lives were not the same on his return. They became less happy together and he was unfaithful. She descended into alcoholism, and an attempted suicide before being sent to a sanatorium and receiving electric shock treatment. 

By the time of this walk Max, her husband, had been dead for many years. His second wife is dying and her son Johnny lives with his own family away from the city in Maine. Her best friend also died a few years earlier. Her new friend is welcoming, but their shared interests are limited. She has no-one to share her New Year’s meal with.

Despite her isolation Lillian is a very sociable person, speaking to many strangers on her perambulation. She is also not your stereotypical elder, not scared of the city, even at night. When she meets a group of three muggers as she returns home, she stands up to them and a curious and successful bargain is struck. The incident reminds us of a conversation with her son early in the novel. He requested that she should not walk on the streets and reminded her about the Subway Vigilante who shot four young muggers when they asked him for five dollars. What if she had taken her grandsons on the subway? The people of New York are idolising him, she says.

‘I walk everywhere dearest,’ I say. And it’s true: I like the exercise, and the subway cars are graffitied with so much text it’s like being screamed at, like the voices inside my head and everyone else’s have manifested their yelling outside, ill-spelled with spray paint. ‘And we weren’t on that train. And he isn’t shooting elderly ladies and adorable tots.’
‘But guys like the guys he shot are everywhere. Hoods. Gangs. Toughs. Whatever you want to call them.’
‘I would not resist if young thugs approached me for money,’ I say. ‘I would acquiesce. I agree with Governor Cuomo that a vigilante spirit is dangerous. Rude, too.’
‘Rude?’ he says.
‘Yes Gian. Incivility is not incivility’s antidote. […] New Year is bigger than any mugger, the way it makes people feel. Being old is depressing. The Subway Vigilante is depressing. But I love it here, this big rotten apple. I’m near my old haunts, my sycamore trees, my trusty R.H. Macy’s.’ (11-12)

We can see she is a woman of considerable spirit, although her breakdown which we learn about half way through was so serious she needed shock treatment to recover. And we learn at the end of the book, she did not acquiesce to the muggers, but together they struck their own bargain. She’s a lively creature, who maintains her standards, especially of honesty and of engaging respectfully with others. 

The extract above also illustrates a feature of this book. The reader is given insight into her thoughts, which are often witty ripostes or reflections on the world as she sees it. We notice by this means the rich inner life she has cultivated for herself, that she has not been diminished by her experiences or by her age. She has loved many aspects of her life, and been as much in charge of it as she could be.  

Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney published in 2017. UK publisher is Daunt Books. 277pp

Recent posts in the Older Women in Fiction Series

Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout.

Frangipani House by Beryl Gilroy

The Old Woman and the River by Ismail Fahd Ismail

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Refugee Tales III

It’s Refugee Week 15th – 21st June 2020 and I am launching my Crossing 25 Bridges challenge to highlight the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group (GDWG) who since 2015 have been making an annual walk

in solidarity with refugees, asylum seekers and detainees.

In the manner of the Canterbury Tales, as they walk they tell stories, which are collected and published. Some refugees tell their own stories, and some are retold by accomplished writers. 

Human Rights?

The UK is the only country in Europe  that detains people indefinitely under immigration rules. For all kinds of reasons this is wrong. One reason is that it is contrary to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 

Article 9

No one shall be subjected to arbitrart arrest, detention or exile.
[Universal Declaration of Human Rights]

Refugee Tales III 

In the third volume of Refugee Tales, six stories are told by individual refugees in their own voice and 13 more are presented ‘as told to’ some notable authors such as Monica Ali, Roma Tearne, Patrick Gale, Ian Samson, Bernardine Evaristo, Gillian Slovo.

Tales are told by the stateless person, the orphan, the foster child, the father and the son and more. The people are identified by activities that we can all understand. 

A terrible picture emerges. Each person’s story has a brutal start in their country of origin. These stories are individual, often violent and involving betrayal, torture and always fear.

Once the refugees have arrived in the UK the themes coalesce into a horrific story of the obstacles to being granted asylum. They all involve indefinite detention.

For a moment pause and consider what it might mean to have left your country, often your family, your identity, your language, culture, food and history. There is likely to be trauma in that story. You arrive, looking for safety and find yourself met with a wall of disbelief, distrust, cruel and labyrinthine administrative and legal processes, and ever-changing personnel. And imprisonment, without apparent reason, often removed when signing on as required, and often released again with as little apparent cause. 

No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, or detention?

But more significant perhaps than the transgression of the UN Declaration is the inhumane aspects of this policy. Most people are aware of the Hostile Environment initiated by Theresa May when she was Home Secretary, in 2012. Fewer people are aware that it involves indefinite detention. More people need to be aware that refugees have few rights to benefits, or a job, and only to meagre accommodation and, until very recently only £5 a day to live off. The current Home Secretary raised it to £5.26p in early June.

Responding to Refugee Tales

I cried a lot, and then I got angry and then I decided to do something.

Here are some things to do:

• Buy and read one of the three collections of the Refugee Tales.

• Listen to what refugees have to say

You are not really going to listen. No one listens
You’re not really going to hear. No one hears.
But I will tell you my story anyway. I will tell you my story because you have asked to hear my story.
But that is all. You want my story from me. I do not want anything from you. […]
Now you have my story. And I still have nothing.
[From The Fisherman’s Tale as told to Ian Sansom]

  • Hear what refugees have to say, be a witness, enter the community that acknowledges these stories and these lives.

So I ask him, why does he want me or anyone else, to tell his story? Wouldn’t it be more powerful coming directly from him? His response is that he needs someone else to hear, a person outside the immediate experience, to acknowledge and record what happened to him and to those whose sufferings he heard and saw. He wants me to be his witness, not because his narrative requires verification, but because of the fact of hearing itself; because it signifies that in a world that so often seeks to deny and disbelieve such accounts, his story has been absorbed by a listening heart.
[From The Erased Person’s Tale as told to Jonathan Wittenberg]

  • Be a vigilant witness against evil and heartlessness and stand up for solidarity, beyond all seeming borders or nationality and creed. Jonathan Wittenberg knows the importance of this from researching the history of his own parents who were refugees from Nazism.

As I listen and record, I become a companion in defiance against the silence in which vicious regimes try to bury the knowledge of the crimes they have committed against the dead and disavow the living trauma of those who manage to survive them.
S needs me, us, to be allies. [From The Erased Person’s Tale as told to Jonathan Wittenberg]

  • Support my lockdown walk over 25 bridges in support of retelling the stories of flight and detention and the work of the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group.
  • Join in the weekend of online events with Refugee Tales –  3rd – 5th July – details on their website.

My Lockdown Walk with Refugee Tales

Staverton Bridge, Devon.

My walk this month will, as far as possible, cross 25 bridges. Some may be crossed twice. I hope to walk with friends and family, including remotely. The bridges will be photographed and I’ll put them on Twitter, Facebook and my Just Giving page.

You can donate to the Just Giving page  and the  here:

https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/caro-lodge

Anything from £1 to £100 will be welcome towards my target of £400

Refugee Tales III, Eds: David Herd & Anna Pincus (2019), published by Comma Press. 201pp

Other connected pages

Refugee TalesEds: David Herd & Anna Pincus: a post in February 2017 on Bookword about the first collection of tales. I was raising money for Freedom from Torture at the time.

Refugee Tales 2, Eds: David Herd & Anna Pincus: a post in April 2018 on Bookword about the second collection. 

Refugee Tales

Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group

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The Salt Path by Raynor Winn

You cannot have escaped the good reception this book has had, perhaps you’ve been told about it by someone who has read it, or noted it in a shortlist for a prize. It has some alluring ingredients: resilience in the face of bad fortune; it is set in that liminal seashore zone; betrayal, illness, walking, wild camping, beautiful landscapes and wildlife. 

With such ingredients it was sure to be successful and bring pleasure to many. My book group read it in September and discussed it a couple of weeks ago. It provoked lively discussion, which is our criterion for a good book. If you haven’t read it I can assure you that you will find something to please you in it.

The Salt Path

Raynor Winn and her husband Moth are in their 50s and have been living in Wales for many years on a freehold small farm. Their children have grown up, the farm and its land are taken from them in a court case which is presented as both unfair (the judgement) and a betrayal (by a former friend). They have no means, no financial security at all. And then Moth is diagnosed with a degenerative and terminal illness: CBD. What are they to do?

They decide to walk the South West coast path, from Minehead to Portland, and to camp along the way. The choice is pretty near random, based on a book: The South West Coast Path: From Minehead to South Haven Pointby Paddy Dillon, complete with OS maps and a waterproof cover. The choice of guidebook also determined the direct of their walk, even though it meant doing the toughest part first.

So they set out in late summer of 2013 and with a break in the winter living in a shed they were renovating they walked 600 miles in the next 10 months. They slept wild and ate as cheaply as possible, and therefore badly. And they hoped that by walking they would find a solution to their homelessness, their lack of income and the pressing problem of living with an approaching death. Walking is known to help clear the mind, but these two had such difficult daily experiences from the challenges of their walk that they were not able to spend much time thinking about or discussing their imponderable future. 

But they met these challenges with stamina, endurance, resilience and mutual support despite being preoccupied with the daily pursuit of food, a safe place to sleep and an occasional wash. They were resourceful in the face of having so little cash. A scene that gives real pleasure was set in St  Ives, and out of cash as usual Moth begins a loud recitation of Beowulf in Seamus Heaney’s translation and Raynor takes round the hat. They earn £28.03.

Other people cross their path or walk with them for a while. Few are aiming to go so far or are rough sleeping. Some are welcome company, a few are not. Some are generous too with warmth or food or a welcome. The landscape, especially the northern coast of Cornwall is impressive while also providing severe challenges. Early mornings, before many people are around, and while the shore birds are still feeding, and the air is fresh and clear, these are the good times.

They encounter strong prejudice against homeless people, and experience urban homelessness briefly in Plymouth and note the contrast with their coastal path existence.  

And they find that their love for each other is a strong as ever having been severely tested by the circumstances of their walk. They meet good luck and generosity having arrived at some decisions about their futures, and find permanent accommodation as easily a pretty feather or a pebble. 

What did the book group think?

All members of the group had enjoyed going on the emotional journey of The Salt Path with the writer. Some felt angry about what had happened to them and respected the couple’s positive response to such a dreadful position.

Much of the time while I was reading this book I wondered why we were being asked to applaud bonkers behaviour. Why on earth were they walking the coastal path? But in my book group it was suggested that a better question would be – why not? They had nothing better to do. 

And because we live close to the South West coastal path, and have all walked parts of it, we set to again to discuss what we had enjoyed about this compelling and moving book. One reader suggested that the best writing described the walking and the landscape and she was not so keen on the insertion of bits of local history. Another remarked that it was the author’s story, not so much the couple’s.

We all agreed on the pleasures of walking in the south west, and that walking is good for you and makes you feel good.

The Salt Path by Raynor Winn published in 2018 by Penguin. 275pp

The Sunday Times bestseller, Winner of the Royal Society of Literature Christopher Bland Prize & shortlisted for the 2018 Costa Biography Award & Wainwright Golden Beer Book Prize 2018

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Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss

I was right. This was the ideal book to take on a train journey. Sadly my return journey was delayed by four hours, and I had finished the book before my train finally arrived. For anyone who is interested in train services, I had been walking with a very good friend in the woods and along the escarpment north of Pewsey. Trains from Pewsey back to the South West were all either severely delayed or, more alarmingly, cancelled. A lovely walk, a great book, but waiting for hours on Pewsey station was not good.

Ghost Wallby Sarah Moss

It is the 80s. A family is spending their summer holiday re-enacting an Iron Age camp in Northumberland, along with a professor and three students. The story is narrated by 17-year-old Silvie (also called Sil). The holiday is the idea of Sil’s father, an autodidact and Iron Age enthusiast. It emerges that he has a rather simplistic idea of ancient history, seeing any invaders from the Romans onwards as pollutants of the pure British race. In other words he is more than a little xenophobic. Her father is a bus driver, and a very controlling man with a filthy temper if he thinks he is being mocked or patronised for his lack of formal education. He beats both wife and daughter. 

The re-enactors must consider what is authentic and how to manage an authentic Iron Age life in the 1980s.For example, they must forage for their food but can take a book with them to check for possible nourishment. They also catch skin and eat rabbits and fish. The local Spar store secretly provides more alluring foods.

Sylvia, the narrator, has a healthy response to the idea of authenticity and how history is created in the interests of those who retell it, such as her father. She is aware that history will always reflect the power structures and the concerns of the present. How, she wonders, did Iron Age women and girls manage their periods. 

The professor and Silvie’s father seek what they believe to be ever more authentic experiences and come up with the idea of the ghost wall. This is thought to have been a defensive wall with skulls of enemies on top to put fear into the hearts of any attackers. They make their own wall and use skulls they have found, such as from a cow or sheep, and the rabbit skulls.

And then they decide to re-enact the human sacrifice that is known about from the well-preserved remains of people in peat bogs. We have learned about a girl’s sacrifice in the novel’s prologue. According to the professor, the idea is to sacrifice something that is very precious.  Sil is aware of what her father will choose and as things begin to unravel the story moves towards its terrible climax.

Family Relationships

Sil’s family is toxic. Her father is abusive and violent, and both mother and child suffer from his whims and from his reaction to being humiliated or defied. The outcomes of his patriarchal attitudes are dark and dangerous.

Sil’s mother should make an effort to protect her, but she has given up any resistance. It is one of the students, Molly, who befriends and stands up for Sil. Molly represents the freedom that Sil anticipates when she leaves home. 

Silvie herself has all the self-consciousness of a young girl who has been kept apart from the world. In this passage she is explaining her name to the students on the first day.

So, said Dan, Silvie, what, short for Sylvia? Sulevia, I said. I was about to say, as I had been doing since I first started school, she was an Ancient British goddess, my dad chose it, but they were already exchanging glances. Sulevia’s a local deity, said Dan. Jim was talking about her the other day. Northumbrian goddess of springs and pools, co-opted by the Romans, said Molly.  […] Yeah, she said, OK but your dad’s not a historian, right, how did he know about her if you’re not local? I could feel myself turning red. He’s a bus driver, I said, history’s just a hobby, he wanted me to have a proper native British name. I saw glances again.  (18-9)

Reading this book

As I say, it is a short book, but written powerfully. The quotation above illustrates the momentum of the prose, uninterrupted by speech marks or line gaps. Maggie O’Farrell refers to this forward drive and is quoted on the front cover saying,

Ghost Wall  requires you to put your life on hold while you finish it. 

Sarah Moss has already shown her ability to tell the story of a young woman frightened from her own imagination and trapped where she can see no escape. I’m referring to Night Waking, published in 2011. A young woman spends the summer on an island with her two small children and finds herself deprived of sleep and immersed in the story of a dead baby and its mother. You can find my review of that novel here. Also recommended. 

Sarah Moss writes so well. Ghost Wall  made the long-list for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, but many readers were disappointed that it did not appear on the short-list. You can find both lists (and all previous winners) here.

I recommend it highly. 

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss, published in 2018 by Granta. 152pp

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River by Esther Kinsky

River is a novel with very little narrative. A woman comes to live in London. She was born by the Rhine, but while staying in Hackney she explores the River Lea. This novel is about location, where poverty and migration are characteristic features and feature the changing patterns of the riverbanks, the paths, the marshes, unspecified marginal areas. Location is the emphasis of this novel.

I read River for two reasons. First it was recommended by a writer friend, who always makes interesting recommendations. And second, it is about the River Lea that I knew well for 25 years as it bordered my home territory, provided places to walk and a place t mingle with the mixed population. There is a peculiar pleasure in knowing this location, the shops (EGG store), Springfield Park, Hackney Marshes and Abney Road Cemetery. Esther Kinsky sees them as she passes through, they illustrated my life while I lived in London.

Translated from the German by Iain Galbraith

River  by Esther Kinsky

The novel is made up of 37 chapters, all linked in some way to a river, not all the Lea, several in other parts of the world: Germany, Canada, India. Some readers, including me, are reminded of WG Sebald. It is not just the walking, although it is that, or the long sentences, that too, but the meditative quality in the content, the narration of incidents on or near the river. There are even grainy photographs in the text, which may or may not relate to the chapter.

The narrator, a woman, moves to a room in north London. She is escaping or evading something unspecified and spends her days walking the River Lea. This brings to mind other rivers, the Rhine, which she grew up beside, and rivers in Canada and India as well as Europe.

It seems her life is perpetually on the move, nothing resolved, no focus, only scraps of contacts with people who are marginal and ignored like herself, and she views things from the river, and from the edges of London.

I returned on the path that looped around the filter beds and led back to the river between open terrain and the electricity pylons standing by as ever like lost, harmless giants frozen to the flat land, slender, immobile and delicate, their six arms splayed out to no conceivable purpose underlining their defencelessness, or their perplexity over the question of which way they should go next. The more familiar I became with this flat world in the milky winter light, the more I thought of the pylons as parts of the landscape that by some strange quirk of nature had surged out of the ground featherless, hairless and leafless in time immemorial, honest custodians of this intermediate realm between firm ground and a deceptive alluvial flood plain that was underwashed by countless waters; they were fine-boned guardians of the void uttering nothing but their spidery buzz and hum, a rarefied, highly-pitched song that was only audible in pauses between clattering trains, and which attempted again and again to subvert the city beyond the Lea whenever it drew a deep breath to roar. (162)

I draw your attention to a feature of this paragraph – it contains only two sentences. And its subject matter is electricity pylons.

The chapter describing the narrator’s experiences on the Hooghly River, a distributary of the Ganges, is one of the most vivid of the book. Perhaps this is because there is more of a narrative than elsewhere in the book. Some of the novel is fantasy, like the craters that appear, and other episodes may well be based on events such as the narrator’s meeting with the gypsy woman.  But mostly the reader accompanies the narrator as she observes the uneventful, storyless lives, people waiting, just getting through the day: the man at the charity shop door, the woman in the EGG store, the King making his ritual flights with the birds, passers-by, people leaving only the slightest indications of being here.

This is a novel about locations and lives that move away from the mainstream, often ignored, forgotten, in inconvenient places.

Every river is a border; that was one of the lessons of my childhood. It informs our view of what is other, forcing us to stop in our tracks and take in the opposite side. (171)

Esther Kinsky

She was born in Germany in 1956, and lived for a while in London. She is a linguist and has made a living as a translator.

River  by Esther Kinsky, first published in German as Am Fluss in 2014, and in English by Fitzcarraldo in 2018. 359pp

Translated from the German by Iain Galbraith. Winner of an English Pen Award.

A completely different novel set in Dalston, Hackney, is Mr Loverman by Bernadine Evaristo.

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