This review is not one I’ve been looking forward to writing, I have to confess. As I’ve hinted, I’ve been struggling to finish this book, and this is frustrating for a number of reasons: I came to the book with high expectations; it’s been very highly rated on blogs that I read; and I ended up pretty disgruntled about having in effect wasted several days on it. This will probably sound a somewhat harsh review, and I appreciate that the majority will probably not agree with me, but let me try to explain…
“The Old Ways” by Robert Macfarlane was published last year to rave reviews, and it’s the third in a series of books he’s written about his travels; and it might have helped if I’d read the first two, but I have seen it said that you don’t need to. It’s billed as a book about old paths, with Macfarlane wandering ancient tracks which criss-cross Britain, its waters and overseas continents – the blurb has that it combines natural history, cartology, geology, archaeology and literature. And thinking about it, maybe that statement should have flagged something up to me.
The book is divided into sections – Tracking, Following, Roaming etc – with each section having chapters with the title of the element which is focused upon – Chalk, Silt, Water and so on. Macfarlane starts by following old paths, but soon his narrative radiates off into a variety of directions, and we are discussing the works and life of Edward Thomas, ghosts, bronze age barrows, Morecambe whelk pickers, ancient history and the odd hint of the modern world. Alas, I quickly lost any connection I made with the author and his travels and as the book continued I had to struggle to keep reading it. The author is constantly dropping references to other walkers, writers, artists etc into the text, but in a very disconnected way, which is disorienting and I found it hard to stay with what he was saying. The writing is so elaborate that I actually found it hard to translate it into any kind of description and it got in the way. I didn’t like the writing style at all – he favours either short, clipped bursts of description which are irritating, or longer, wordy pieces that convey nothing. As one reviewer on Amazon put it, he needed to have “more love for the complete sentence”.
The trouble is, this book is as rambling and meandering as an old trail, and maybe that was the point. But it ends up being frustrating because of its lack of focus, and the language is just too florid – which is an unusual thing for me to say, because I’m a great fan of convoluted sentences! Some reviewers have commented on the fact that the book is so much about Macfarlane, but in itself I wouldn’t have found this a problem as most travel writing I’ve read is invested with the personality of the writer. However, I found a lack of connection – with the landscapes and seas, and with Macfarlane himself. Parts of the book worked beautifully, but too much of it didn’t, and too often Macfarlane lapsed into a series of staccato phrases to describe a place or event.
And despite all his endless pontificating, there did seem to be a lack of depth and detail. Comparisons are odious, they say, but I found myself constantly comparing TOW; most often with Iain Sinclair’s “London Orbital”, a book I read a year or two ago in which the author walked round the M25 in a number of journeys. This latter book is a dense, involving read, and did indeed send me off in search of other works; but Sinclair’s work itself was deep, coherent and thoughtful, with much more of a structure and purpose. LO restricted itself to a finite area – the M25 – and because of this its author was able to be detailed about his walks and what he experienced, and also about the things he encountered on the way and the tangents on which he went off. With TOW we get just a short paragraph or two on a particular side interest, and these can be scattered at different points of the book and are very surface level. And rather surprisingly, Macfarlane seems to venture little in the way of a personal opinion – does he feel strongly about the massacre of baby puffins? or the destruction of the natural world by the modern? or the fact that his book might affect the wilderness and tracks he writes about by encouraging more people to take to them? Any in-depth analysis seems to be missing from the book, and the actual sections of writing about the walking itself feel quite short and don’t give you much sense of walking alongside the author.
I think I’m quite a tolerant reader, and I have read *a lot* of books about walking and travelling – from George Borrow (much mentioned in TOW), through H.V. Morton, Gerald Brenan, Laurie Lee, Colin Thubron, Eric Newby and up to more modern walkers like Nicholas Crane. I’ve got a lot from all of these writers – different things from different books – but I’ve never struggled with one of their books like I did with this one. When I got to the chapter about Edward Thomas, I skipped it – whatever his merits, what has a whole chapter about the life and death of a poet (albeit one who was a great walker) got to do with a book that’s subtitled “A Journey on Foot”?
I really wanted to like this book, and there were parts of it I did – the luminous descriptions of the chalk pathways of the south; the walk over the glistening sands of Essex. But too much of TOW has sent me off to read other writers who have written better about walking the British Isles and I’m afraid Macfarlane just didn’t engage me enough. I think the bottom line for me is that Macfarlane just didn’t know whether he wanted to write a philosophical study of the art and history of walking, a record of his own walks, a biography of Edward Thomas or a book about all his artist friends. In the end, he combined them all into one mishmash which didn’t work for me.
(On a side note, and perhaps something that is nothing to do with the author, I had a couple of issues with the physical book itself. Firstly, a big pricey hardback of this nature could do with more illustrations than a dark and dingy photo printed at the beginning of each chapter on ordinary paper. Secondly, maps – although some of the travels that Macfarlane was making were mental as well as physical, maps showing locations would have been a bit essential in my view, for those of us who are a little geographically challenged, or indeed for readers from other countries who have no idea where somewhere like Foulness is. Yes, we can all look at an atlas or the Internet – but map(s) would have improved this book.)