Robert McFarlane is an author that I was bound to get to fairly rapidly when I started reading books about landscape (see previous posts). Whether I was right to start with his latest, Landmarks, or not, remains to be seen. It was a fascinating read in many ways, but perhaps didn’t quite live up to the blurb (and while he writes very well, I’m not sure I’m going with the John Banville quote on the cover that says his prose style will make novelists ‘burn with envy’. Then again, Banville’s a novelist, and I’m not.).
This is probably more about my expectations than McFarlane’s book, which once I’d settled into it did introduce me to a group of key nature writers and encourage me to explore them, especially Jacquetta Hawkes, Nan Shepherd, Roger Deakin and J.A Baker, as well as reintroducing me to old favourites Richard Jefferies and Henry Williamson. These are the ‘landmarks’ of the book’s title, and that I suppose was my problem, as I was expecting a book about the land itself, rather than a guide to other books about the land. On that level it works brilliantly, but I kept wanting McFarlane to stay with whatever he was looking at (the Cairngorms, birds of prey, waterways and so on) for a bit longer and give me some more of his own insights. This, I think, is unfair of me. This is essentially a book of essays on McFarlane’s key influences, and that’s a role it fulfils very well.
A major component of the book is the glossaries. These are collections of words relating to landscape collated by McFarlane on his travels and from submissions by acquaintances. They’re loosely grouped by topic area and are not in any way systematic. While McFarlane makes no bones about that, it caused a bit of a problem for me. Each word has a brief explanation but they’re essentially without context. Some are regional or dialect and some are different languages but there’s no sense of etymology or of how they might be used in speech. For example, he lists the Cornish root word mena (a hill or high point) which I’m certainly aware of being used in place-names, such as Menabilly (the home of Daphne du Maurier). But as a child in Cornwall I never heard anyone say they were off for a walk ‘up the mena’. Maybe that’s just because it wasn’t used in my part of Cornwall, but my point is that the glossary doesn’t help me with where and how it might be used. Again, perhaps I’m being unfair here as a detailed etymology is clearly not the purpose of the book, but it left me feeling slightly cheated. Where John R. Stilgoe leads us gently through the development of landscape words and terms, McFarlane throws them at us and leaves us to make of them what we will.
I enjoyed this book. But it leaves me with a strangely incomplete feeling. Perhaps that’s the point. Perhaps I should just get out there and complete the story myself by reading the landmark authors, experiencing the places and hearing the words for myself. Perhaps I will. Perhaps I’ll also find more of what I’m looking for in McFarlane’s other books. Reading this one has certainly left me keen to read more of his work. It’s just that this one, for me, is a bit of curate’s egg. For balance though, you should read the review of a proper critic, Horatio Clare, who loved it.
To end on a good note though, without reading this book I might not have discovered the existence of The Pebbles on the Beach by Clarence Ellis, which is going with me on my next trip home to Cornwall…