Tag Archives: Robert Macfarlane

Underland by Robert Macfarlane review – a dazzling journey into deep time

Limousis caves in Languedoc-Roussillon, France. Photograph: Alamy

Robert Macfarlane has done a lot to keep Paddy’s name and writing style alive and current. His new book, Underland: A Deep Time Journey, is one that offers a new perspective on the human impact on our planet, is receiving rave reviews.

By William Dalrymple

First published in The Guardian.

Stories of human journeys into the Underworld are as old as literature itself. But few of them are happy tales. Old Babylonian cuneiform tablets recording the Epic of Gilgamesh were first incised around 1800BC. These tell of the Sumerian hero Enkidu who reappeared from a long imprisonment underground in the Netherworld, during which he had to sail through storms of hailstones that struck him like “hammers”, and surfed waves that attacked his boat like “butting turtles”. Gilgamesh questions him: “Did you see my little stillborn children who never knew existence?” “I saw them,” answers Enkidu.

Similar journeys end as darkly for Orpheus, Hercules and Aeneas as they do for their direct counterparts in Finnish, Inuit, Aztec, Mayan and Hindu mythology. In Greek mythology tales of haunting journeys down the rivers of the dead are sufficiently common that they have their own collective noun: katabasis. But for every Theseus who enters the labyrinthine darkness of the Underland to triumph against the Minotaur there are many more Eurydices who never return. Such fears, Robert Macfarlane points out, are embedded deep in our language where “height is celebrated but depth is despised. To be ‘uplifted’ is preferable to being ‘depressed’ or ‘pulled down’.”

There is throughout a transcendent beauty to Macfarlane’s prose, and occasional moments of epiphany and even ecstasy – such as when, somewhere below Trieste, he abseils “into an immense rotunda of stone, cut by a buried river and filled with dunes of black sand”. Nevertheless, his journeys deep into the earth “far from the human realm”, are usually melancholic and claustrophobic, and are occasionally properly frightening.

Some of this comes from the danger and difficulty inherent in underground journeys. In a cave system in the Mendips, a rope thrown down as an escape route becomes entangled behind the belay boulder; only the necessity to regain the surface forces Macfarlane to risk his life climbing up it. Under Paris, he nearly becomes stuck in a narrow vertical shaft as “the stone that encases me, the stone that is measuring me up like a coffin, starts to vibrate … The thought of continuing is atrocious. The thought of reversing is even worse. Then the top of my head bumps against something soft … ”

As in his first book, Mountains of the Mind, Macfarlane remains obsessed by the fear and fascination generated in the human heart by extreme landscapes, and he clearly savours the adrenaline rush – what Al Alvarez calls, in his classic essay on climbing and fear, “feeding the rat”. “I have rarely felt as far from the human realm,” Macfarlane writes, “as when only 10 metres below it, held in the shining jaws of a limestone bedding plane first formed on the floor of a warm Cretaceous sea.”

When not getting stuck himself, he regales us with tales of some of those who never returned: in the Mendips we hear “a story that some people in the Peak District do not like to discuss, sixty years on”, of the caver Neil Moss who became wedged in a limestone shaft and, despite a countrywide rescue effort, suffocated before he could be hauled out; he was later “sealed by cement in the fissure that had killed him”. In Italy we are told of “the fallen angel of French speleology”, Marcel Loubens, who winches himself into an abyss only to have his belt clip snap. His injuries, “a broken spine and a fractured skull”, are so severe that he dies in the dark, 36 hours later.

But as always with Macfarlane’s books, the tales of adventures are only a takeoff point for discussions of deeper concerns: the relationship between man and landscape, the instability of time and place, and perhaps above all, the fragility of all we are and all we create. These are concerns that run like dark seams of glittering ore throughout his writing, across several successive books. In his early masterwork The Wild Places he wrote how “the wild prefaced us, and it will outlive us. Human cultures will pass, given time, of which there is sufficiency. The ivy will snake and unrig our flats and terraces, as it scattered the Roman villas. The sand will drift into our business parks, as it drifted into the brochs of the Iron Age. Our roads will lapse into the land.”

This idea is developed at much greater length in Underland: A Deep Time Journey, as premonitions of our present apocalyptic Anthropocene close in around Macfarlane like the shades of Hades around the backward-looking Orpheus. For this book is also about man’s almost incidental place in the world when seen from the perspective of geological time. It is above all a journey into darkness, and the omens are not good. The climatic consequences of human actions are now, he believes, beyond our control. One hundred thousand years ago, three river systems ran across the Sahara. In around 5bn years “the Earth will fall dark when the sun exhausts its fuel”.

A 50m-deep sinkhole in the Nizhny Novgorod region of Russia. Photograph: Tass

A 50m-deep sinkhole in the Nizhny Novgorod region of Russia. Photograph: Tass

In between these two markers, the signs of our own self-destruction are becoming ever more evident. Philip Larkin thought that what will survive of us is love. Macfarlane is more pessimistic. What will really succeed us, he fears is “plastic, swine bones and lead-207, the stable isotope at the end of the uranium-235 decay chain”. “What does human behaviour matter,” he asks, “when Homo sapiens will have disappeared from Earth in the blink of a geological eye? Viewed from the perspective of deserts or oceans, morality looks absurd, crushed to irrelevance. A flat ontology entices: all life is equally insignificant in the face of our eventual ruin.”

Early in the book we visit a laboratory under the Whitby coast where scientists study the traces of dark matter formed at the birth of the universe. Later we ascend from the forests of the Carboniferous period to the wastelands of the Anthropocene. The final sections concern Macfarlane’s visit to what is to supposed to be the most secure place on Earth – beneath Olkiluoto Island on the Bothnian sea off Finland, where nuclear waste will be buried until it becomes safe at the end of its half-life, millions of years from now. Here we catch a glimpse of our “nuclear futures of an Anthropocene-to-come” where “the timescale of the hazard is such that those responsible for entombing this waste must now face the question of how to communicate its danger to the distant future. This is a risk that will outlast not only the life of its makers but perhaps the species of its makers.” After this last quest is completed, the final pages of Underland record the author’s return home, where he takes his young son in his arms and holds him close, as if to protect him from the gathering shades he has learned to converse with and which he cannot now un-see. It is a moving end to a most unsettling quest.

Underland: A Deep Time Journey is, as its title suggests, “a book about burial and unburial and deep time”, “the awful darkness inside the world”, “of descents made in search of knowledge”, to study the places where “we have long placed that which we fear and wish to lose, and that which we love and wish to save”. If fear is a constant companion on such journeys, for the reader at home there are many pleasures, most notably the armchair exploration of a far more benign landscape: the interior of Macfarlane’s magnificently well-furnished mind. For the darkly tangled path this book takes through the labyrinth of history and memory, literature and landscape, high-flown prose and underworldly observation are illuminated by Macfarlane’s inventive way with language. At its best, this has an epic, incantatory quality. There is a rare gift at work here: chiselled prose of such beauty that it can, on occasion, illuminate the darkness below ground as startlingly as a Verey light sent up into the vaults of one of Macfarlane’s subterranean stalactite cathedrals.

Like WG Sebald, another teacher of literature, Macfarlane brings the full weight of his erudition to the table. He quotes a dazzling range of poets and novelists and great galaxies of writers on geology, archaeology, mythology, morphology and glaciology, as well as on nuclear science, “dark matter” physics and art history. We swing from the thoughts of Rainer Maria Rilke on the Orpheus myth to the latest discoveries about “hyphae” – “the superfine threads fungi send out through the soil” – then move from learned opinions on Neanderthal rock art dating from around 65,000BC to Sir Thomas Browne (a particularly Sebaldian moment) to HG Wells, Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino and Cormac McCarthy.

Underland: A Deep Time Journey is, unquestionably, his magnum opus, a work that has taken him nearly 10 years to complete. Though darker than his earlier books, it is as rich as anything he has ever written, blessed with the scholarship of Sebald, the stylistic felicity of Bruce Chatwin and the vocabulary and syntax of Patrick Leigh Fermor. It contains the summation of his most important ideas.

Nearly 40 years ago, the critic Paul Fussell wrote that with The Road to Oxiana, Robert Byron had done for the travel book what James Joyce did for the novel with Ulysses. This is the flame that Macfarlane has now carried into a new century. With Underland he has written one of the most ambitious works of narrative non-fiction of our age, a new Road to Oxiana for the dwindling twilight of the Anthropocene.

Buy Underland: A Deep Time Journey here.

Robert Macfarlane reads from ‘The Gifts of Reading’

Robert Macfarlane is a splendid writer, and a great admirer of Paddy. His books are always worth reading. His latest, Underland: A Deep Time Journey is published today.

But I wanted to highlight a little known work of his. Called The Gifts of Reading. This essay is a joy in itself celebrating the enjoyment of reading and inspired by Macfarlane receiving a copy of a Time of Gifts as a gift. This little pocket sized book is an ideal little present for those you love, just to show that you care and wish them to share in your joy of the gift of reading. The Gifts of Reading

Robert Macfarlane: When I first read ‘A Time of Gifts’ I felt it in my feet. It spoke to my soles . . .

On 9th December 1933, Paddy set out on the journey that would change his life, and those of many others. Today we have Robert Macfarlane and his reaction when first he picked up A Time of Gifts. 

Leave thy home, O youth, and seek out alien shores . . . Robert Macfarlane reads Petronius

One of the first things Patrick Leigh Fermor is given in A Time of Gifts is a book: the first volume of the Loeb edition of Horace. His mother (‘she was an enormous reader’) bought it for him as a farewell present, and on its flyleaf she wrote the prose translation of an exquisite short poem by Petronius, which could hardly have been more appropriate as a valediction to her son, or indeed to anyone setting out on a voyage into adulthood:

Leave thy home, O youth, and seek out alien shores . . . Yield not to misfortune: the far-off Danube shall know thee, the cold North-wind and the untroubled kingdom of Canopus and the men who gaze on the new birth of Phoebus or upon his setting

The journey of A Time of Gifts is set going by the gift of a book—and it is a book that has in turn set going many journeys. The edition of A Time of Gifts that Don gave me that day in Cambridge had as its cover a beautiful painting by John Craxton, commissioned specially for the book, and clearly alluding to Petronius’s poem. It shows a young man standing on snowy high ground, puttees on his ankles and a walking stick in his right hand, looking eastwards to where the sun is rising orange over icy mountains, from which runs a mighty river. Black crows fly stark against white trees: there is a sense of huge possibility to the day ahead and to the land beyond.

Extract from The Gifts of Reading , Robert Macfarlane. First published in Slightly Foxed Quarterly. Continue reading

Robert Macfarlane on The Old Ways

Old WaysThe author of The Old Ways discusses some of the problems for any walker-writer such as how to spring surprises along the way, and how not to give your reader blisters.

by Robert Macfarlane

First published in the Guardian Book Club, 1 August 2014

“All I know is that at the very early stage of a book’s development”, wrote Vladimir Nabokov, “I get this urge to gather bits of straw and fluff, and eat pebbles.” Like Nabokov, I’m a pebble-eater and a straw-gatherer: my books begin as gleaned images, fragment-phrases and half-thoughts, scribbled on to file-cards or jotted in journals.

Tracking back to the earliest entries for what became The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, from 2006, I find hundreds of these “pebbles”. Some are barely recognisable (“Dew ponds, ash frails, thin trails”), and others plain weird (“sunset as spillage; junk light of dusk”). Huh? Some mark the start of paths that never got followed: “Go see the bronze dragons in the Forbidden City; take Schiller along.” Why? Others now seem like fingerposts pointing in the right direction: “Dreamtracks and trespass; rites of way and rights of way.” “Each path to be told as a story, each story a path, leave cairns in the language as you go.”

That last line is pretty much The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot in miniature, though it would take another five years and 1,000 miles on foot for it to grow into a book. In that time I followed many different paths: Neolithic tracks on the chalk of southern England, pilgrim trails to a holy mountain in the winter Himalayas, a branch-line of the Camino in Spain, a tidal path into a mirror-world off the Essex coast and routes through the disputed territories of the occupied West Bank.

Because paths are places of encounter and company, I met scores of other walkers as I went: botanists, activists, archaeologists, poets, mapmakers – and everyday folk out with their dogs, taking a break. One early reviewer noted: “Macfarlane doesn’t seem to meet any dickheads.” Well I did meet them, several of them – but I didn’t find them interesting enough to write about. I had plenty to say as it was: songlines and pilgrimage, ghosts and memory, trespass and access, birdsong and light, the shimmer of detail … The book became an exploration of how paths run through people as well as places, and how landscape shapes – scapes – us both in the moment and in memory.

Walking is a repetitive activity. You put one damn foot after the other – and that’s what makes the walk. It’s often tiring and it’s sometimes boring. This poses a primary problem for any walker-writer: how to spring surprise along the way, how not to give your reader blisters. I wanted style to solve that problem. So I set out to devise a form that enacted its subject: to make a patterned book of path-crossings, full of echoes and back-glances, doubles and shadows. A book of many ways, then, through which readers might pick different routes. I also tried to leave those cairns as I went: guiding alignments of image, word and incident that only became visible at certain places along the journey.

I became obsessed with prose rhythm (Nabokov’s influence again). At one point I wanted to write each chapter with a different base-rhythm, a poetic foot (iamb, trochee, dactyl) that would tap its tempo through it. That ambition defeated me in the end (surely for the good) though I continued to scribble scansion marks above my sentences, revising some of them dozens of times to get the rhythms right on the ear. One chapter describes sailing old open boats along the sea-roads around the Outer Hebrides. Rhythm was crucial here to represent the sea’s own measures: the rolling whale-back swells that lofted us towards Sula Sgeir, 40 miles out into the north Atlantic; and the unforgettable experience of being in mid-Minch at the turn of tide: billions of tonnes of water pausing, trembling, unsure of their obligations – before starting the long slop back north.

“It’s hard to create a path on your own”, I note early on, and The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot accompanies other writers and artists as it goes, both dead (Edward Thomas, Nan Shepherd, Patrick Leigh Fermor) and alive (Ian Stephen, Raja Shehadeh, Steve Dilworth). The best contemporary non-fiction seems to me as formally intricate and experimental as any fiction, and among the books I kept close to hand while writing were the essays of John Jeremiah Sullivan, Rebecca Solnit and David Foster Wallace, the reportage of Katherine Boo, John McPhee and William T Vollmann, and the travelogues of Barry Lopez, William Dalrymple and Iain Sinclair. When energy was ebbing, I turned to the dark glitter of John Banville, or the baroque visions of Cormac McCarthy.

The book has lived some strange afterlives since it was published two years ago, and its paths have led me in unexpected directions and to fresh collaborations. One of the best things about being a writer is hearing from readers: a reminder that the artefact over which you privately labour for years goes into the world and – if you’re lucky – finds its way into the imaginations of others. Not all of these communications are kindly. “Robert Macfarlane, you are a charisma-free zone,” declared someone recently. But then a day or two later someone else got generously in touch: “Your writing gives me an erection of the heart!” I guess you can’t please all of the people all of the time.

Buy the book: The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot

A Pilgrimage Through Paddy’s London

Rake’s progress: Leigh Fermor set out from his rooms in Shepherd Market for Constantinople in 1933

And we’re off. This is the Patrick Leigh Fermor Tribute Walk, a bit of a Magical Mayfair Mystery Tour or even, as I prefer, a Paddy Pilgrimage: a literary procession in honour of the late warrior-writer through the London he knew during the course of an enviably long and dazzlingly adventurous life.

By Justin Marozzi.

First published in Standpoint Magazine, December 2012.

We have gathered at Heywood Hill, the venerable Curzon Street bookshop where Paddy, as he was always known to friends and fans, had an account for decades. The pilgrims are a caravan of travel writers and publishers, friends, acolytes, devotees and disciples, for such is the admiration—shading into unadulterated hero worship in some quarters—for a man considered one of the great prose stylists of the 20th century. Our group includes the travel writers Colin Thubron, Sara Wheeler, Anthony Sattin, Jason Elliot and Robert Macfarlane, the writers and historians Jason Goodwin and Fergus Fleming, publishers Roland Philipps and Barnaby Rogerson (in a tangerine linen suit), Mark Amory of the Spectator, an exuberant throng expertly marshalled by Paddy’s biographer Artemis Cooper.

It is not surprising that a man who wrote like an angel, fought like a knight and had beautiful women swooning at his feet for most of his adult life should attract such a following and such affection. Few men can claim to have walked across a continent, fallen in love with a princess, kidnapped a German general, joined a Greek cavalry charge and written a string of masterpieces.

“Patrick Leigh Fermor, the man, could have sprung from the pages of Cervantes or Homer, and we revere him at Heywood Hill for his courage, style and beautiful manners,” says Nicky Dunne, chairman of the bookshop, who dreamt up this expedition.

Paddy lived above the shop briefly in 1947 with Joan, his future wife. In 1965, horrified to have discovered how Communism had destroyed so many of his friends in the Europe he had walked across in 1933-34—”disaster overtook them all”—he set up an account at Heywood Hill for the great love of his youth, the Byzantine princess and artist Balasha Cantacuzene. “He couldn’t do much but he could make sure that at least she was never without good books,” says Cooper.

Our unruly, traffic-blocking gaggle spills out onto Curzon Street to the astonishment of passers-by—30 men and women sporting bright blue earpieces is a curious sight—and ducks into Shepherd Market to our next stop, 28 Market Street: four square windows above the “PLUS NEWS” newsagent. Having been kicked out of almost every school he had attended, Paddy washed up here as a restless 18-year-old with literary longings and a diminutive allowance. His long-suffering landlady, assaulted by endless revelry, was Miss Beatrice Stewart, an artist’s model who had sat for Sargent and Augustus John and was later immortalised in bronze as the Angel of Peace in Adrian Jones’s Quadriga of War on the Wellington Arch at Hyde Park Corner. “I can never pass the top of Constitution Hill without thinking of her and gazing up at the winged and wreath-bearing goddess sailing across the sky,” Paddy wrote in a typical flight of fancy.

“This is where the great walk began,” Cooper explains. “He’s lurching between high spirits and utter despair, filled with self-loathing, going to endless parties, ‘drowning hangovers like kittens’. His father wants him to get a job but Paddy thinks a career is life imprisonment. He’s uninstitutionalisable. All he wants to do is write.”

Hightailing it out of this Rake’s Progress, Paddy walked from the Hook of Holland through Nazi Germany to Constantinople. It took him over a year from 1933-34, much of it spent “in a coma of happiness” recounted decades later in the spellbinding prose of A Time of Gifts (1977) and Between the Woods and the Water (1986). Our little saunter is less than a mile in more than an hour. Yet what we may lack in schloss-hopping mileage and accumulated time, we make up for in rowdiness and delight. This could be a lesser-known ecclesiastical ritual of the Eastern Church, the Adoration of the Paddy. And we all know it will end, as it should, with wine.

We head towards Berkeley Square on roads slick with rain. “Paddy was my earliest model of a travel writer: brave, curious, cultivated and a marvellously gifted stylist,” says Thubron, president of the Royal Society of Literature. “It’s strange to be walking commemoratively through a world that’s not usually associated with him—not the Greece or Eastern Europe which all his readers know, but the London—still pouring rain—from which he set out 80 years ago.”

Friends and admirers of Patrick Leigh Fermor outside Heywood Hill, his favourite bookshop, in London’s Shepherd Market

Friends of Patrick Leigh Fermor outside Heywood Hill, his favourite bookshop, in London’s Shepherd Market

Here we are a stone’s throw from The Running Horse pub on Davies Street, from where Paddy briefly and rather successfully sold silk stockings as an impecunious teenager. Invited to share his tips with his fellow salesmen one evening, he popped a stocking onto his hand and described its properties as though it were a condom. He was fired on the spot. “That was the last sales job he ever had,” says Cooper. One night in the summer of 1940, when the London skyline was thick with smoke and flames, Paddy entered Berkeley Square from Piccadilly. “The blaze of an explosion had revealed two sides of that sentimental quadrangle in a disordered wreckage of wood and stone,” he wrote. “Only one thing remained standing. Perched three stories high on a tottering pinnacle of rubble was a white marble privy, glowing shyly in this unaccustomed radiance.”

We beetle along to Lansdowne Row, where Cooper describes a literary catastrophe on neighbouring Stratton Street, once home to the Baroness d’Erlanger, a rich and eccentric artist: “I think she had a bit of a crush on him.” Everyone did. In 1937 or 1938, Paddy left two trunks here full of papers connected with his trans-Europe tramp—every letter, diary and early draft. The Baroness moved home, put Paddy’s trunks into storage at the Harrods Depository, only for Harrods to sell them off years later because Paddy had forgotten to pay the storage charge. He had lost everything. There is a collective writerly wince. “Paddy said the pain used to ache ‘like an old wound in wet weather’, but I think it was the best thing that ever happened to him,” says Cooper. “It sort of set him free, allowing him to remember with advantage.”

To 50 Albemarle Street, former HQ for John Murray publishers, a powerhouse of British writers from Byron, Darwin and Disraeli to Walter Scott, Conan Doyle and Paddy. “Jock Murray was the best publisher and editor Paddy could have hoped for,” says Cooper. “In the days before agents he was also Paddy’s banker, therapist, PR consultant, book-finder and poste restante.”

Picking up the pace now like horses heading home—drinks at the Travellers Club await—we stride magnificently down Jermyn Street. One imagines Paddy, sartorially something of a peacock, thoroughly at home here.

“Oh God, absolutely!” Cooper says, laughing. “Hats from Lock, shoes from Lobb, Savile Row suits. He loved all these shops. Paddy adored clothes. In all his books the costumes of men and women are described in extraordinary detail. I’ve walked along Jermyn Street with him, striding along with his cane with that lovely flick upwards before putting it down. If you didn’t know, you’d think he’d never left the Home Counties.”

Into the final furlong and past the Cavendish Hotel, an unlovely blend of underground car-park and drive-through fast-food forecourt. “Here he met the tail end of the Bright Young Things, a decade after all those parties that had scandalised society.” Alistair Graham, Jennifer Fry, Eddie Gathorne-Hardy, Mark Ogilvie-Grant . . . and Elizabeth Pelly, to whom Paddy lost his virginity.

“They’re a revelation to him. Godlike and irresistible. Suddenly he feels he’s met kindred spirits.” He didn’t meet Evelyn Waugh at the Cavendish because Waugh was banned. Mrs Rosa Lewis, the owner, did not find her portrayal as Mrs Crump in Vile Bodies amusing. “If I get my ‘ands on that Mr Woo-agh,” she told Paddy, “I’ll cut ‘is winkle orff!”

Through St James’s Square and we’re almost trotting into Pall Mall, from where it is a hop, skip and jump up the 11 steps into the Travellers Club, whose bar Paddy did more than most to prop up—together with those of White’s, Pratt’s, the Beefsteak and the Special Forces Club—during 66 years as a member. In 1950, the Club Secretary reported to the House Committee that the nomadically careless Paddy owed “over £100 for storage, if by-law 6 were to be strictly enforced”.

There is an inescapable whiff of glamour and adventure at the launch party. A light sprinkling of aristocracy, a smattering of bohemian scruff, the sparkle of beautiful women, sumptuously suited grandees, suggestions of espionage, the straight-backed swagger of military top brass.

Paddy was a prodigious drinker. He once wrote of retsina: “One of its secrets is drinking it with unstinted abundance. It seems to have an alliance with the air in the promotion of well-being. Many people think that it bestows the gift of bodily health as well; a belief I accept at once without further scrutiny.”

The evening dissolves into high spirits, laughter and torrents of wine. The hommage is complete.

Related articles:

Patrick Leigh Fermor’s ‘magical’ tour

Marathon man – Justin Marozzi interviews Paddy and drinks quite a lot of retsina.