Wow, What a book #2

To continue with the 10 books that have most influenced my life.

My second choice is The Lord of the Rings, by J R R Tolkien.

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I suspect that very few readers are unaware of the story of The Lord of the Rings, having either read the book, seen the film, or both. And at this point, it might be a good idea to just make it clear that I am talking about the book here, and not the Peter Jackson films, or even the ill-fated attempt at animating the entire book in 1978, an attempt that got as far as the first book, and was, to be honest, rather dreadful. Let me content myself by just saying it was a bit ‘Disney’. I’m not that mad on the Peter Jackson films either, to be honest, but back to the book.

So, I’m not going into any great detail about the story, but, in a nutshell, it involves a quest to destroy a ring that gives great power to the wearer, but inevitably corrupts and destroys them. It’s maker, Sauron, is attempting to find it, and the free peoples of the world must not only keep it from him, for if he recovers it it he will then have power to enslave the entire world, but also take it to the fiery mountain, Mount Doom, where it had been forged, to cast it into the flames and destroy it.

Mount Doom is, inconveniently, inside Sauron’s heavily fortified and guarded kingdom.

Elves, dwarves, men, wizards, hobbits, orcs…you all know it, don’t you?

As readers, we are all different. Some of us like a plot that gallops along so fast that we can barely keep up, with writing that limits itself to the action and no more than the minimum descriptions necessary.

Others, like me, enjoy the scenery and the atmosphere of the described world almost as much as the plot itself – join the Slow Book Movement now! Just send a completed application form to…sorry, wrong place. Where was I? Oh yes, most readers like a mixture of the two, of course.

But as one of these Slow Readers, there is a massive amount in this book that appeals to me. When I read descriptions of the hobbits setting off to walk through woods and fields as the sun comes up through early autumn mists, I might have been reading a description of a morning when I had done just that whilst wild camping in the countryside in my part of England. I have always loved walking on footpaths and through fields and woods, and disliked roads and towns.

The countryside Tolkien described around the Shire – the home of the hobbits – might have been my countryside. there were chalk downs and woods and streams, even one or two names (for example Michel Delving) that could have been local.

There were other woodlands in the book, and if they were described as magical, then that was little more than I naturally felt about woodlands anyway. Aren’t they all magical?

And, on top of all that, there were mountains. Today, I love mountains! But I had never seen one at this point, and suddenly I wanted to go and climb one. There were inns and beer, adventure and song, friendship and dangers. What was not to like?

The whole book is really made up of three books, and the first book, which has always been my favourite, is the one which is mainly set in this land that I could almost identify. This was not the first fantasy book that I had read, but it was, and still is, the one whose descriptions have the greatest power to draw me in. It is the one that, to me, seems the most real.

All of this, with the themes of courage and friendship, self sacrifice and loyalty, and the message that good will eventually triumph over evil, come together in a mixture that is in just the right proportions to appeal to me.

But how has it actually influenced me?

For a start, when I began to write, everything that I wrote seemed to be influenced by that book. This was not actually a good thing, because other than The Lord of the Rings, I don’t really enjoy fantasy! But I wrote that way for a long while.

Today, though, what remains is the descriptive writing. I wonder whether I might otherwise have been a very different reader and writer, since before I read LOTR, I read mainly detective stories and adventure novels.

And I explored a lot of the Middle English literature that influenced Tolkien, from Beowulf to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which I suppose not too many people do today.

I visited mountains because of that book.

And a measure of how strong this appeal was (and remains) is that I have probably read the book about twenty times. The last but one time, though, was around twenty years ago. When I decided to re-read it last year, I did wonder whether I would be disappointed. I strongly suspected that I might have ‘grown out of it’.

I needn’t have worried.

I enjoyed it just as much as I ever had; I noticed one or two details I had either forgotten or never really noticed in the first place, and I found myself drawn in every bit as strongly as I had been before.

I loved it.

The Travel Bug Bit Me – part 2

There never seems to be a better time to set off on a journey, especially a walk, than first thing on an early autumn’s morning. It is late enough in the year to have a proper sparkling dew, usually covering cobwebs draped across bushes, and ideally there will be some bright sunshine, a hint of sharpness and the colours of leaves beginning to turn, berries in the hedgerows, and still an abundance of flowers. This is another hark back to my teenage years, I’m sure. It all seemed quite magical then, and it still does today.

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I suppose, at the time, it could be said that I had a head full of hobbits. Of my contemporaries at the time, those with itchy feet tended to be either those who read and re-read Kerouac’s ‘On the Road’, and those who did the same with ‘The Lord of the Rings’. I fell squarely into the second camp, never really discovering the appeal of Kerouac. I guess they were largely the crowd who enjoyed ‘Easy Rider’ and wanted to travel Route 66. Later, I read Laurie Lee’s ‘As I walked out one midsummer’s morning’ and found the same atmosphere there. I walked from the London suburbs, where I lived at the time, with a friend down to Hastings. On the way we stopped at a couple of youth hostels, and had a couple of nights wild camping in woods. And everything did seem magical, although apart from the distance in time, I do not know why this should have been. All of the fields and woods, hills and hedgerows, seemed somehow to fill my head and assume a greater importance than anything else in my life at that time. Otherwise I would hitch hike down to the coast, or the West Country, and this would satisfy my sense of adventure, never knowing where I would end up and forever feeling as though I was travelling through an undiscovered land.

I don’t think, as a teenager, that I was ever happier than when I was off for a long walk with friends, or even on my own. I still get that same sense of pleasure when I arrive at my destination after a day’s walking, whether it be the spot that I’ve chosen for my wild camp on a mountain side somewhere, or a bunkhouse or hostel on the edge of a village where I know I can stroll to a nearby pub for a meal and a few pints in the evening. My chosen destinations then tended to be youth hostels, and I remember an awful lot of them fondly, still today. I think that my favourite, then, must have been Land’s End. I wonder how many people now remember the awesome murals that they had over most of the walls, inspired, of course, by Tolkien! The days were spent, whilst strolling through lanes and along footpaths, learning to recognise wild flowers and trees, butterflies, but not so much the birds. Even in those days my eyesight was too poor for that!

‘Rambling’ is used extensively as an insult by many of the climbing fraternity, yet it means no more than long distance walking, at a fairly relaxed rate. My dictionary defines it as walking for pleasure, with or without a definite route. This would seem a fair definition, and includes hill walking, trail walking, any type of walking, in fact. I think that the intended barb is that it is ‘soft’, yet people who would think of themselves as ramblers include very elderly people whom I have observed galloping over the fells at a rate to put roughtie-toughtie young climbers to shame. Its popularity, at least in Britain, stems from the last century when it was taken up by factory and mill workers in the north of England, in particular, as a healthy and cheap form of sport and entertainment. There is a point, in fact, where it merges into climbing, having passed through the scrambling and mountaineering stages.

Is it a coincidence that it seems that most of the best trips that I’ve read about in books have been done by solo travellers? If they have not been strictly alone, then they are using porters or guides who have been employed specifically to help the explorer along his chosen route, rather than suddenly say ‘Ooh, no. I don’t fancy that anymore. Let’s go back now.’

 Most of my own distance walking has been done in my own company. This always has the advantage that I can decide when and where I travel, when to stop for a break, when to go off on a diversion to see a particularly interesting (to me) village or hill or something. I do often miss the company of others when I walk or travel, and enjoy it when I do get it. I find it good to travel with somebody for a while, and then to move on again by myself when we begin to disagree over the route, or want to move at a different rate (or politics or religion intervenes, of course!). I suppose that this is also not entirely disconnected with my love of solitude. When hill walking, especially, I almost resent meeting other people. Especially large groups. Amongst the list of things that I positively hate coming across in any wilderness area, such as discarded lunch wrappers, people bellowing into mobile phones (‘Yes, I’m on the summit, now!’ – do some people have these damn things surgically attached to their heads?), music, for God’s sake – why would anyone want to hike out somewhere remote, where the predominant sounds are bird calls and the wind in the grass, listening to a bloody i-pod? – comes the large group of walkers.

There is no logical reason why I should, and it is certainly not due to a feeling that they have no right to be there. I just crave solitude in those situations. If I was asked to name my favourite day out walking in the hills of Britain, I think that I would unhesitatingly mention a November’s day some years ago, when I walked the Carnedd Horseshoe in North Wales. This particular circular route starts at the village of Bethesda and heads up a gently rising valley onto a ridge until it reaches the mountain of Carnedd Dafydd, where you then amble up to the summit. From there, there is a ridge walk to Carnedd Llewelyn, a shorter ridge to Yr Elen, then gently back down to Bethesda. The day was unusually warm for November, with sunshine and a beautiful clear sky throughout. And although Carnedd Dafydd is the second highest mountain in Wales, after Snowdon, it sees far less traffic of human feet than most other parts of North Wales. Consequently, I had a day’s walking in one of the most beautiful parts of the world, in fantastic weather conditions, without meeting another soul. Perfect.

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I always used to do this with photos to make up panoramas – it’s a lot easier today!

Some people, although they would prefer to travel in company, choose ‘alone’ because they become good at doing ‘alone’.

I’ve heard it said, and frequently read it, that there is nowhere left on the planet to explore, anymore. I suppose that if what is meant by that is that there are no longer maps of whole countries or continents published that have ‘unexplored’ or ‘here be dragons’ printed over large, blank areas, then, yes, that is so. But if I go anywhere that I have not been to before, especially if I have read little or nothing about it, then I am exploring. I may not be contributing anything towards the sum total of human knowledge, but I am making discoveries for myself.

Thank heaven, though, that there are still areas of the Earth that are wildly beautiful and lawless, where outsiders, especially westerners, fear to tread, and life is cheap but the landscape is breathtaking.

Desert Island Books

There is a weekly program on BBC radio that has been running for almost seventy five years now, called Desert Island Discs. The format is that a well-known, or not so well-known, person is interviewed for forty five minutes on the premise that they are to be stranded on a desert island, and that they can take eight pieces of music with them, so which ones would they choose and why? They are also asked to select a favourite book and a luxury item, and are given the Bible and the complete works of Shakespeare. This, then, is my take on it, substituting books for pieces of music. The obvious advantage of this is that I don’t have to rescue a gramophone from the shipwreck as I crawl through the surf towards safety. The disadvantage becomes obvious just as soon as I look at our bookshelves or glance through my Goodreads lists. What not to take?

So, I bite the bullet. I think that I’ll do this in a kind of chronological order, and the first choice actually proves to be an easy one; it is The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame. I still have the copy that my father bought for me when I was seven, and this book was probably the first one that I read that had real substance. The story can still captivate me and although there is some surprisingly deep writing for a children’s book of the time (The chapter ‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn’, especially), there is an enchanting innocence flowing through the book, too.

The second book would be The Journey to the East, by Hermann Hesse. I discovered Hesse when I was eighteen and, having ploughed through the mountain of crime novels that we had in our household, this was the first modern ‘serious’ or ‘literary’ work that I had read by choice. At that time I had, of course, been introduced to works such as ‘Sons and Lovers’ and Shakespeare and Dickens, at school, but this was the first time that I had read a book that really seemed to resonate with my life. There are other works by Hesse that are better, and which I enjoy more, but this was probably the single work that changed the way that I read as an adult. A very short, but deceptively deep and complex book, the Journey to the East is ostensibly the story of a movement in Germany in the early years of the last century, based on spirituality and not a few drugs, and charting the spiritual progress of the narrator within this movement. It still has the power to speak to people today, and not just to old hippies!

The third book would be SeleFeatured imagected Poems by Yevgeny Yevtushenko. I picked up a copy of this second hand when I was really beginning to discover poetry, and was captivated by the long poem Zima Junction, in which he describes  a visit that he makes as an adult to his family home in the small Siberian town of the same name.  Descriptions of eccentric family, strawberry picking, meals and drinking, cart rides in rainstorms…by the end of the poem you feel that you know and understand the countryside and the society there. It is a poem that I continually go back to re-read.

The fourth book would be The Lord of the Rings, by J R R Tolkien. This is another book that I discovered in my late teens. All of my friends and acquaintances at that time were either devouring this book, or Jack Kerouac’s ‘On the Road’, and this happened to be the one that I picked up. And, having picked it up, I really did sit up reading it through the night, taking a short nap the following morning and then reading through to the end that evening. I don’t suppose I need to describe it to anyone, since the plot is known to most, either through the book or through the Peter Jackson movies. There is a tendency to denigrate the story in many quarters, yet I feel that this has a lot to do with the fact that elves and dragons are not to everyone’s grown up tastes. The story, though, is well constructed and true to its author’s created world. It is just a damned good page-turner, really.

I have to include a travel book in my list, since I read so many of them, and this is the hardest choice that I would have to make. However, the fifth book would be The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane. When it was released, there was so much praise for it from almost every reviewer who read it, that it seemed impossible that it could ever live up to the hype. But it does. It is a beautiful evocation of all sorts of ancient paths around the world, from Neolithic footprints in the sea to desert trails. It is also a book that should be embraced by anyone with sympathies for the slow book movement.

The sixth book is Devices and Desires by P D James. Although it is not the best murder mystery that I have ever read, or even, perhaps, her best, it was a surprise when I discovered it to find that there were more exciting ways to write in that genre than the ones that I had read before; Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy L Sayers and others. I read the first chapter and suddenly literary murder seemed dark and terrible, whereas before it always seemed a bit of a jolly game and an intellectual puzzle.

The seventh book is The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. One of those books that is technically written for young adults, it is a powerful, emotional rollercoaster of a read. As the Second World War looms, Liesel arrives at her foster home in a suburb of Munich. She has seen her brother die, and been left by her mother who can no longer care for her. Now she has a new family; the foul-mouthed Rosa and her husband Hans. As the family and their neighbours try to survive amidst the increasing horrors of the war, an unexpected visitor comes to stay – Max, a Jew fleeing the slaughter. Funny, sad, devastating and hopeful, often all at once, with a cast of characters you will fall in love with, the book builds to a very powerful climax.

The eighth book is To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. My choice has nothing whatsoever to do with the hype and hysteria currently surrounding the release of Go Set a Watchman, but is because I only got around to reading it this year, and found it to be far better than I had imagined it could ever be. And, talking of that hype, in Atticus Finch I discovered a literary hero.

My luxury would be unlimited reams of writing paper and pens. And the book? Uh, I think we’ve covered that one. Perhaps, since I’ve changed the pieces of music to books, I should substitute the choice of a piece of music for the book that the BBC guests choose, but then I’d be back to dragging that gramophone through the surf, and so I really can’t be bothered. It would only spoil the peace and quiet of the island.

‘Thank you, Mick.’

‘No, thank you, Kirsty.’