Taking its overall structure from the lyrics of Dave Goulder’s folk song, ‘The January Man’, Christopher Somerville leads his reader on walks through the British Landscape, choosing his locations according to the seasons. Starting in January, ‘Oh the January Man, he walks abroad in woollen coat and boots of leather …’, he reunites with a boyhood friend to walk their old haunts near the Gloucestershire village they grew up in. The Severn is in full flood and the walkers ruminate on their memories of the place and the changes which have inevitably taken place,
‘Wandering round the churchyard before we start, I get a shock. Almost all the folk who peopled my childhood at The Leigh are here, neatly stretched out under headstones marked with information about themselves that I can scarcely credit.’
Somerville’s ability to bring a landscape to life is matched by his ability to make the past vivid – there’s a real sense of moving back in time to see the people of his childhood world in our own ‘skull cinema’ (Somerville’s term for the film-like sequences his mind creates on solitary walks),
‘At the run of the lane is the Fete Field, where once a year Mrs Paul and Mrs Poulton and Mrs Chandler bowled for a pig and guessed the weight of a super-solid fruit cake.’
And this sense of history at every turn continues throughout the year of walking. Other walkers of the past are here – notably Wainwright – and February’s walk provides us with details of Reverend E. Donald Carr’s heroic battle through a blizzard in 1865 as Somerville retraces his route over the Long Mynd in Shropshire. Elsewhere, we meet historical figures in their own landscapes: Fair Maid Lilliard, a young Scottish woman who sought revenge against the English for the killing of her loved ones in 1545 (July), the original ‘Michael Henchard’, and Peter Scott, son of the Arctic explorer and founder of the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust at Slimbridge (August) are among a rich cast.
The other walker at Somerville’s heels is his father, and he recounts both past routes they took together and the changing nature of their relationship. Having survived the war, and driven by a sense of duty to those who hadn’t, Somerville’s father worked at GCHQ, remaining tight-lipped about his role,
‘What do you do at the office, Daddy?’
‘I’m a civil servant.’
‘But what’s that?’
‘It’s what I do at the office.’
Somerville’s accounts of his relationship with his father are some of the most moving autobiographical moments of writing I’ve read. They form the second organising principle in the book, and provide an underlying coherence to the geographical ranging of his walks.
The walks themselves are full of brilliant detail, reminding me once again how woeful is my knowledge of our flora and fauna. One of the joys of reading this thriving genre (The January Man was shortlisted for the marvellous Wainwright Prize in 2017) is that such details and knowledge are being recorded afresh – so perhaps there’s hope for readers like me yet. Somerville is also a dryly humorous writer. Describing horses he passes on his November walk he notes that, ‘I love horses, provided they’re on the other side of a good stout fence.’
This light touch with his observations, together with the sheer detail of landscape and people, make this a very enjoyable read indeed. It also reminded me, in a particularly cold and wet February, that there are walks and warmer weather ahead!
Read Books for a Year, Part 2: Susan Hill’s Jacob’s Room is Full of Books here