Real Hope For Dark Days

It’s a sore trial living in the UK at the moment. After three years of the shambolic Brexit debacle, in which zero progress has been made, we’re now forced to witness a leadership contest that showcases the most dismal collection of candidates – more of a police line-up than a beauty parade. Worst of all, Boris Johnson is supposed to win, which makes me feel like I’m living in a piece of Dadaist theatre except they tell me it’s really happening. How a man who has been sacked twice for lying, who caused chaos in the Foreign Office and wasted millions as Mayor of London, who basically has no principles and is known to be lazy, self-serving and ready to give up at the first obstacle can possibly become Prime Minister beggars belief. I mean, it’s not like we haven’t sat here laughing at Trump all this time. Anyway, enough. It’s just depressing to acknowledge what the plausible leaders of our country now look like.

It’s just as well, then, that books can offer genuine hope and solace. If you have inadvertently glanced at the online comments on the Guardian website lately and lost all hope in humanity, I have two books that will restore it. Growing Pains by Dr Mike Shooter and Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me by Kate Clanchy are both non-fiction accounts of lives spent helping children to find their best and most promising selves. Mike Shooter is a child psychiatrist in the NHS, Kate Clanchy teaches English in a multi-cultural comprehensive, and they have brought much joy and inspiration into our house lately, with narratives that are a patchwork of fascinating case histories.

Growing Pains is the story of Mike Shooter’s career listening to adolescents (and their families) in crisis. He begins the book with an honest account of his own depression and his early work in medicine. It’s one particular encounter, at 2am on a terminal ward that changes the course of his life. He is following the Senior Registrar – ‘aloof, taciturn, straight-backed’ – to check on a Mr Dobbs, who is dying of an aneurysm. They find, as one might expect, a terrified man.

Simon sat on his bed and asked him if he was frightened. Mr Dobbs nodded; he was beyond words. Then Simon, straight-laced, Simon, the man we thought more suited to a brigade of guards than patient care, took him in his arms and rocked him to and fro like a baby, while Mr Dobbs sobbed into his shoulder.’

The next morning, Simon is absent and Mike Shooter is asked if he’ll talk to Mr Dobbs instead. He is so afraid of the prospect that he goes to see the Dean of the Medical School instead, to tell him he’s quitting. But the Dean, a wise old soul, says no he isn’t; he’ll make a good doctor one day, but he’s depressed. ‘And the worse you feel about yourself, the harder you work to prove you’re wrong. You’ve been fighting against what you really feel for years. This was bound to happen. Mr Dobbs was just the final straw.’ The Dean arranges for him to see a psychiatrist, and over the course of the next few years, the treatment Mike Shooter receives makes him realise that this is the field he wants to dedicate himself to. The ability to ‘see beyond [the] patient’s symptoms to the human being behind them’ was the rule he wanted to follow.

Well by now you might be able to see beyond the words of this review to the readers behind them – the only problem we had with it was that it kept making Mr Litlove cry. And if Mr Litlove cries, then I cry, that’s just how it goes. I need to stress that these were not tears of sadness, but the more complicated throat-tightening tears of beauty and humanity. And I should also stress that this is not at all a manipulative book. Dr Shooter never dwells on any part of his story and in consequence the narrative was not harrowing, despite the subject matter. It was inspirational, in the most grounded and humane ways. One of the stories that stays with me still concerns another middle of the night emergency call that summons Dr Shooter to a household in crisis.  An eight-year-old child, Danny, is threatening to kill himself. When the doctor arrives, the child is on the landing, his pyjama cord around his neck, the other end tied to the banisters, and his desperate, angry, fearful parents are hypnotised by the situation. Mike Shooter’s response is to come in as if everything were normal, exclaim at the lateness of the hour and express a strong need for a cup of tea. He asks if Danny would like a snack before bedtime, and the spell of craziness is dispelled by the autopilot of ordinary hospitality. Everyone comes and sits around the tea tray in the middle of the living room where it becomes apparent that the man is the mother’s new partner whom Danny is rejecting and that ‘they all wanted to change things but didn’t know how to do it without tearing each other apart’ A problem with which I imagine we are all familiar, and where salvation can come so much more quickly with someone calm, kind and firm to help.

Kate Clanchy’s book also focusses on individual students as they struggle and triumph on the battlefield of education and the stories she tells are just as fascinating, whether it’s the way the word ‘gay’ has signified in classrooms across the years, or what the parents of excluded children are up against when they try to get their kids a fair educational deal. Kate is also a poet and her poetry club becomes one of the major features in her stories, as she finds it can be a real liberation for all kinds of children, including those who have English as a second language or who suffer from dyslexia. She tackles knotty subjects like selection in schools – both streaming in classes and the nightmare parents face when trying to decide what school to pick for their children. And she talks about the pleasures and pains of teaching English.

There are so many stories I love, I don’t know which to tell you about. But just off the top of my head, there’s Allen, a large, capable boy more suited to open spaces, but bright and interested in English literature. He was that mythical beast, an adolescent boy willing to talk about emotions, and as such he stimulated real class discussion. It just so happened that this class was one in which Kate could exercise her own judgement to some extent and choose the books that would best inspire her students (not something that happens these days). Twenty-five years later she looks him up on Linked-In and finds out that he runs an engineering business and is a self-made millionaire, He in turn remembers her lessons as a place where ‘I learned who I was.’ ‘English:’ Clanchy writes, ‘the lesson where you laugh about sex, and argue about war, and talk about jealousy. English: where you grow up.’ The problem is that English, like poetry, does not ‘WALT’ well. WALT stands for ‘We Are Learning To’ and has become the staple of ‘formative assessment’ which the government likes a lot. It comes from the best of motives, Clanchy explains, the desire to open up a learning process that might appear hidden or opaque. But what works well for a science lesson is altogether harder to pin down in the arts and humanities. The consequence has been that WALT dominates lesson plans and the non-WALT aspects of education, like artistic creativity and all that nebulous maturation process get left out of the curriculum.

The stories in both books inevitably bump up against politics because both authors are working on the cliff edge where the vulnerable and the economically-nonprofitable clash with government funding. But these are not polemical books. They are about thoughtful people who are really good at their jobs understanding the pressures on all sides and doing their best for children, however that shakes out. Listening to these books has made me think a lot about what’s wrong with the world today, and for my own part I think it boils down to an insufficient engagement with reality. I blame the media mostly, for their two-note grizzles of sentimentality and outrage, emotions that reliably sell papers, but which have made us all happy to be ignorant. It takes terrific courage to face the truth of our lives, and mostly we are invited to side step that reality and find someone else to blame. Or we end up letting ourselves be sold ideals of perfection and purity that are equally dangerous.

What I loved about these books is their authors’ readiness to talk about getting things wrong. Clanchy produces such an admirably nuanced description of Cheyenne, a poor working class child who spent her time pushing Kate’s middle-class buttons and stalking her children, whom Kate could not truly like. And I loved the story in which Mike Shooter is called to deal with a psychotic break in an adolescent who has been wrongly placed in the adult ward. Hassan escaped his nurses and ran around the grounds of the unit, talking in Somali and scooping mud and grass into his mouth. Shooter thought it possible that he was just terrified and involved in some kind of prayer ritual he didn’t understand, so he called the Somali elders from the community to come and advise him. After a few minutes they turned on him. asking how he dared call himself a doctor and telling him to get the boy some medication. It’s not about mistakes – if you’re a human being engaged in something you care about, you will be making mistakes. They are inevitable. What these stories show is that it’s about the process – the process of finding out what’s wrong and of learning and becoming more self-aware in consequence, possibly the most important process that we are called upon to practice on a regular basis and which we avoid and fumble and foul up out of embarrassed pride or some weird, punitive notion that it ‘shouldn’t happen.’

These have both been terrific books, loved and admired equally by myself and Mr Litlove. They have made us laugh and cry and feel deeply in touch with both the difficult business of growing up and the authentic hope embedded in the care of people like Mike Shooter and Kate Clanchy that we might actually make it. For they have a lot to teach adults too, as a quick glance around the political candidates for Tory party leader can tell us. They’ve made me want to have a completely different kind of identity politics, one in which gender, skin colour, race, religion, none of these thing matter, but where the identity is question is that of a grown-up and it’s an identity to which we all aspire.

Decades of capitalism have encouraged us to stay children with the goal of becoming spoiled children. I think it’s given us very complicated feelings about people who are able shamelessly to make a fool of themselves in public, and that sometimes such people can be used to assuage us about our insecurities. This is an indulgence – something that makes us feel better in the short-term but worse in the long-term. What we need is to admire the grown-up again, the sensible, grounded person who doesn’t make a fuss about things, but who won’t sit passive when they could offer help. The sort of person who, currently, says the wise, placatory thing on social media and is totally ignored. We need the kind of grown-up who has a strong moral compass and a great deal of compassion, who has emotional intelligence, self-awareness and the courage to look reality in the eye, even when it is ugly. The kind of grown-up who can sit with people in emotional distress and not make it about themselves. We need more Mike Shooters and Kate Clanchys, basically, and the fact that they have written these books shows that such people are out there, it’s just that we so rarely get to hear about them. For me they’ve been a properly optimistic antidote to everything going on in the news, and the embodiment of an aspiration that is as difficult as becoming rich and famous but infinitely more desirable.

 

 

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Blood Out of a Stoner

I don’t quite know why I’m writing this when I have completely lost faith in this kind of blog post, but Mr Litlove and I have discussed Stoner and its problems so much he said he’d be interested to see how it came out. So, for what it’s worth, these are the processes of thought that occurred to me over the course of the past couple of weeks, as Mr Litlove read John William’s novel, Stoner, to me, and the book turned out to be so very different to my expectations. All I knew about Stoner was that it had had a massive rediscovery somewhere around 2011 and been hailed as an unjustly forgotten masterpiece. I’d seen loads of rave reviews in which it was called beautiful, gentle, moving, sad. I was in no way prepared, then, for how much it would annoy me.

The story is indeed simple: William Stoner grows up on a farm in the Midwest of America, but when his father sends him to college to study agriculture, Stoner has a revelation and a change of heart. He falls in love with American literature and carries on at Columbia as a teacher for the rest of his working life. He makes a disastrous marriage to a neurotic harpy who seems determined to ruin any chance of domestic happiness, and he makes a dangerous enemy of a neurotic colleague who becomes Head of Department and impedes Stoner’s career progression.  Stoner remains stoic throughout these trials, maintaining his passion for literature, or maybe just putting one foot in front of the other, it’s hard to tell in John Williams’ masterly style which I came to think of as: don’t show and don’t tell.

For instance, Stoner’s epiphany and his conversion to literature come in a Shakespeare class in which he is asked the meaning of a sonnet. All Stoner can get out is ‘It means….’ in a sentence he simply cannot finish. And that is all we’ll ever hear about Stoner’s passion for literature. Mr Litlove felt that this was deeply unsatisfactory. He came to think that Stoner loved literature because work on the farm was so hard, so awful, and by comparison an English degree was a doddle. I didn’t think that; I could believe that Stoner loved literature, but I wondered then how Stoner could be so unable to articulate himself, despite that prolonged and profound study in how language is used to describe and shape life.

The real problem for me began with Stoner’s marriage. He falls in love with a young woman, Edith, who happens to be staying for a few weeks with relatives who are connected to the university. Stoner sees her and falls in love with her and then he lays siege to her. Their relationship is from the get-go awkward, embarrassed and without a trace of love. They aren’t even friends. But Stoner persists in desiring marriage and Edith seems to go along with it. Then we get to the honeymoon which is always going to be difficult with two innocent and stilted people. So far, so plausible, and we can all wonder how any of our ancestors managed life prior to the availability of the internet. Then Williams takes us right into the marriage bed:

When he returned Edith was in bed with the covers pulled up to her chin, her face turned upward, her eyes closed, a thin frown creasing her forehead… For several moments he lay with his desire, which had become an impersonal thing, belonging to himself alone. He spoke to Edith, as if to find a haven for what he felt; she did not answer. He put a hand upon her and felt beneath the thin cloth of her night-gown the flesh he had longed for. He moved his hand upon her; she did not stir; her frown deepened. Again he spoke, saying her name to silence; then he moved his body upon her, gentle in his clumsiness. When he touched the softness of her thighs she turned her head sharply away and lifted her arm to cover her eyes. She made no sound.’

And the next line is: ‘Afterward he lay beside her and spoke to her in the quietness of his love.’ Now John Williams can load up this passage with all the pity for Stoner that he wishes, and he can try to insist on his gentleness, but this is still a brutal act. He forces himself upon a deeply unwilling wife. As I had Mr Litlove right there to represent the male gender, I asked him what in pity’s sake made a man keep going under such dreadful circumstances,when every indication from his partner was bad?

‘Well,’ said Mr Litlove thoughtfully. ‘He’s been brought up on a farm and so he’s seen animals mating and that’s all he knows.’

‘Yes,’ i said, ‘but what about instincts? Surely he has some basic human instinct that this is NOT going well and that he ought to hold back, maybe even ask a few direct questions?’

‘Hmm,’ said Mr Litlove. ‘I guess it’s being brought up on a farm.’

So much for male insight. But as I realised that this was something that Mr Litlove didn’t understand either, I began to see an answer. Oh you can say this was a different era, when men and women didn’t have a clue and men’s conjugal rights were a thing of law. But it bothered me so, that ability of Stoner’s to persist against all odds, to keep going when he ought to try and have at least a full conversation with Edith first, on any topic, before attempting to have sex with her. And it occurred to me that intimacy was the missing factor here.

‘I said to Mr Litlove, ‘Isn’t it the case that men don’t need intimacy to have sex, whereas for a woman, sex without emotional intimacy is an insult, a violation.’

‘Oh yes,’ said Mr Litlove. ‘But after all, farmyard animals….’

In these few moments the full extent of men’s capacity for blindness to the quality of intimacy was brought home to me as never before. If they don’t need it, they don’t need to know they’re missing it, and so they may have no conception of it. So what happens next in the Stoner household? Does Stoner realise the error of his ways and attempt to get to know his wife as a whole human being? Of course not. He takes to having sex with her when she’s asleep and less resistant and he can almost pretend to himself that she quite likes it. By this point, I felt that whatever Edith might do to Stoner in the future, he deserved it.

Well, Edith decides she wants a child, but when Grace is born, she develops a kind of chronic fatigue that makes her unable to look after her. So poor old Stoner, thanks to his misunderstood, emotionally abandoned and sexually abused wife, has to work AND do the childcare. Outrageous, no? Not to mention the fate of most working mothers to this very day. A few years later, with Edith more or less recovered, and Stoner shut away in his study with Grace all the time he’s at home, Edith makes a bid to take back power of parenting. She does it in an ugly way, clearly intent on exerting the control over Grace that she has lost over her own body. Stoner has an attempt to talk to her, but by now a spell of atrophy has taken over Stoner’s common sense and the rule of ‘nothing can change’ has overwhelmed him. He fails to make Edith see reason and, fearing reprisals on the child, abandons them both to each other. If I’d been angry with Stoner before, now I was absolutely furious with him. If one parent has gone a bit crazy, you do not start abandoning your child to them because you lack the backbone and the moral fibre to stand up to their poor behaviour. But Stoner’s busy grizzling because he’s lost the space he used to research in and can’t write his book. Oh poor, kind, gentle Stoner! All he suffers!

But never fear, because no white male author will deprive his white male protagonist of what he really wants. Into Stoner’s life comes a mistress, Katherine Driscoll, a talented graduate student. Katherine is Stoner’s soulmate and wants lots of sex, which is great because then Stoner doesn’t have to learn anything about creating and maintaining relationships. They’re found out, of course, but Stoner carries on, seemingly unbothered by guilt, until his department nemesis is hellbent on causing trouble for Katherine. Now this is a shame because despite himself, Stoner is learning something about love: ‘he saw it as a human act of becoming, a condition that was invented and modified moment by moment and day by day, by the will and the intelligence and the heart.’ Now this is good stuff, hopeful and illuminating. This is a big step for mankind as represented by Stoner. But when it comes to it, and they either have to make a break for it together or split up, well, you can guess by now which Stoner chooses:

‘Because in the long run,’ Stoner said, ‘it isn’t Edith or even Grace, or the certainty of losing Grace, that keeps me here; it isn’t the scandal or the hurt to you or me; it isn’t the hardship we would have to go through, or even the loss of love we might have to face. It’s simply the destruction of ourselves, of what we do’

I’ve read this sentence many times now and I still don’t understand what Stoner means. Is he saying that they are too moral? Because that would be weird, given the public nature of the affair. Is he saying they wouldn’t get work? Because Katherine’s subsequent career refutes that. The only thing I can think of that really fits with Stoner’s behaviour is that he would have to accept change and loss, both things he has never done, except for that one moment at the start of the novel when he chose literature over the farm. It’s as if a rock has fallen in love with literature and this is so extraordinary that one can expect nothing more from it – any more would be blood out of a Stoner.

And there is nothing more to expect from Stoner. He suffers the loss of Katherine, he ages prematurely, he dies. I was left wondering to what extent we were meant to feel sorry for him. The narrative is full of compassion for Stoner, it portrays him as perpetually wronged, as being unfortunate and unlucky. But whenever I looked closely at that text, Stoner seemed to get exactly what he wanted. Throughout the novel he denies and rejects the possibility of change, choosing instead to remain with the comfy and familiar, and in doing so he denies happier lives to Edith, Grace and Katherine. And I wondered so much, oh so much, how come this novel had been so widely acclaimed in the 21st century when it is fundamentally the story of a would-be gentle man who doggedly perpetuates gender rancour?

The thing is, for me Stoner embodies white male privilege, and we endorse it if we feel sympathy for him. Stoner has been little more than adequate in everything he has done; do we really think he deserved more than he got? If Stoner’s is a sad, unjust life, then we must believe that he should be given rewards for minimal exertion, that he should not have to make sustained, prolonged effort for what is good in life, nor engage in complicated, difficult negotiations and compromises. Life is cruel, yes, but not especially so to Stoner, whose real tragedy lies in his overwhelming passivity and his inability to speak his emotional truth. Stoner has no curiosity about the emotional life of others – his own is a mystery to him – and so he has no idea of the care he might give, of the potential generosity of spirit he might embody. Instead he choses minimal responsibility and emotional cowardice, and this is what life looks like under the auspices of such choice.

 

The Adventures of Big Beery

Mr Litlove is a man who works in insidious ways, and so I can’t recall how he first brought up the topic of moving house. All I can remember is being in the middle of a discussion – well a fantasy session really – in which he was painting a picture of a wonderful house surrounded by land, in which he could have a bigger workshop with an apprentice and I could have a couple of artists’ studios and/or a writing retreat to hire out. Alongside our little artistic community there would be an orchard and a kitchen garden. I think Vaughn Williams may have been playing in the background. In any case, I was feeling enthusiastic and less mindful of the hellish process that is simultaneously buying and selling a house..

I last moved house twenty-one years ago and at the time I swore never again. There were very good reasons for this. I’m not sure what the situation is in other countries, but here in the UK, moving is something that only happens despite the caprice of the buyers and the best efforts of estate agents, house surveyors, land registry officials and conveyancing solicitors. It is wildly expensive and fraught at all stages with distrust and uncertainty. I had my eyes wide open and will no doubt come to regret it. But Mr Litlove reeled me in with a killer persuasive phrase. ‘We’re ready for a new chapter,’ he said. ‘We need one.’ And I knew what he meant.

Now I love my house and so I wasn’t quite ready to be fully on board until we’d found somewhere that was right. After six weeks of looking we did find somewhere that was pretty much right. That meant putting our own house on the market (whilst worrying that some other buyer would come along and snap up the one property we’d seen that we loved). And that meant removing 21 years’ worth of clutter and tidying places we hadn’t even looked at since we moved in. I have collecting genes in my family line, and Mr Litlove has hoarding genes in his; this was going to be a major operation.

Naturally the photographer was scheduled for the end of the hottest week of the hottest summer since records began. Mr Litlove and I toiled away, cleaning and scrubbing and throwing out, feeling boiled alive in our skins. Mr Litlove is so untidy that we have designated areas for him to inhabit in the house and most offered problems so complex and shaming that we simply closed the doors on them. Not an option for the utility room, however, whose counter tops I hadn’t seen in over a decade, thanks to Mr Litlove’s collection of tins containing useful half inches of leftover paint, the gardening equipment and woodworking tools that were vacationing in the house ‘en route’ to the workshop, and all the other bits and bobs he’d bought at Screwfix without yet using. But by the end of ‘Furnace Friday’ as the papers dubbed it, the utility room was so clear that it was almost aggressive in its nakedness. The whole house was unnatural in its tidiness. Then, when the photographer came. for the first time in more than six weeks it began to cloud over. A spattering of raindrops fell. The photographer dashed outside to shoot pictures of the garden and the front of the house and when I next looked out of the window it was on scenes that could have come from reportage of a typhoon in the West Indies. The village green was obscured by driving horizontal rain, the howling wind lashed the trees, and inside the house we ran around shutting all the windows and doors, forgetting alas, the skylight in the conservatory through which water poured. It was positively biblical.

Unsurprisingly, most of the photographs had to be done again. But it did give us a chance to see how the original set came out and to make some alterations. One obvious problem was in our son’s bedroom.  We have a photo of him, aged about eight, standing against his bed and hugging Goldie – his favourite bear – under his chin. Behind him towers a magnificent mountain of cuddly animals that dwarfs the two of them. He clearly inherited both the collecting and the hoarding genes as those cuddlies were still there, under his bed now rather than on it. I’d rather dreaded doing the cull as I feel tender about stuffed toys and don’t care to have their beady, accusatory eyes pinned upon me in silent reproach. Mr Litlove is ruthless, though, as I’d already witnessed from his own soft toys in his childhood bedroom, all individually bagged in plastic and stored in a cupboard like a furry kapok-stuffed version of the film Cocoon. We set about the holocaust using the movie principle: if they didn’t have a name or a back story, they were sent to the black bin bag. Our old cats liked to sleep under that bed and it became clear that coated in cat fur was also a criteria for disposal. Being lippy didn’t help. At one point Mr Litlove passed me a small, grubby chick which I binned. When he found what appeared to be the same chick a few minutes later he was completely nonplussed. ‘How did he escape out of the bag?’ he asked. I fished about in it and brought out an identical chick – evidently there were twins. Unfortunately one chick turned to the other at that moment and cheeped: ‘We’re surrounded by morons.’ Neither saw the light of day again.

Surviving that original cull, however, was Big Beery.  My son in his youth was a very enthusiastic car boot and jumble sale attendee.  One year on holiday with his cousins, they had been taken on foot – and therefore unwillingly, bitching and moaning the whole way – to a nearby car boot sale.

Once there, our son homed in on a huge, ugly, disreputable looking brown bear and insisted on buying him. As unlikely as it seems, his cousins also found a huge teddy (in better nick) and all three returned home with the bears slung over their shoulders, skipping and singing as they walked.

Big Beery & Lustleigh

Heading home from the car boot sale

 

This was the arrival of Big Beery, a bear who looked like all he needed was a hand of poker in one paw and three fingers of whiskey in a cloudy glass by the other.

Although he was always very tight-lipped about it, one look told you that he had definitely had a past, and it hadn’t been kind to his fur. When we hauled him out from under the bed, Mr Litlove acquired an expression of distaste, but I rooted for Big Beery. After all, he definitely had a back story and apart from anything else, he was way too big to fit in the bag.

When those photographs came back, however, all you could see, despite our best efforts, was a still-huge collection of cuddlies. There was going to have to be a director’s cut, and it was fairly obvious that Big Beery wasn’t going to make it.

‘But what are we going to do with him?’ I wondered.  The rest of the toys had been taken to the charity shop where they had been warily accepted. But no one in their right minds would take on Big Beery.  I just couldn’t bring myself to throw him away and a car boot sale with him as our lone stock was out of the question. We could have stuck him up in the loft but a bear of that age has his dignity and – who knew? – maybe his underworld contacts to come and get him out. In the end, we put him in the spare bedroom while we thought it over, Big Beery propped up on one side of the bed, dropping ash on the nightstand and cracking his knuckles nonchalantly from time to time. ‘We’ll come up with something,’ Mr Litlove said.

Of course, by the time the photographer was due again, Big Beery was still there. We flew back and forth past him, scooting the rising tide of objects out of sight. In the end, he was our last outstanding problem. ‘I’ve got it!’ i finally said. ‘Put him in my car.’ This was a satisfying conclusion. I could picture him, a chunky silhouette in the back seat, waiting for darkness to fall and his driver to come and take him to the wharf.

So the photographer came and the photos were re-taken and after a bit more hassle our house was finally on the market. And it was…. August. The deadest month of the year apart from December for selling houses. So this is where you find us, scarcely begun on the process and already doubting its feasibility. I feel like a small miracle has to occur to create the extraordinary synergy required.

I forgot about Big Beery until a few days ago when I was considering taking the car into town. ‘Where did you put him?’ I asked Mr Litlove. ‘Not in the driver’s seat, I hope?’ I was imagining the journey into town with Big Beery hanging out the passenger window and declaring ‘Just off to get some bear necessities, mate!’ at passers-by. Mr Litlove looked a tad shamefaced. ‘Actually,’ he said, ‘he’s in the boot.’ Big Beery was in the boot! I was shocked and a little apprehensive – what kind of state would he be in when we got him out? But then I thought about it, and in a strange way, the trunk of the car had a certain… appropriateness for him. But every time one of us drives out, I can’t help a scenario from forming in my mind in which we are pulled over by the police and invited to leave the vehicle while they search it.  ‘You appear to have the body of a bear from the criminal fraternity in your car, Madam,’ they will say. ‘Can you explain it?’ And as I look over their shoulders, Big Beery will catch my eye and send me a sly, disreputable wink.

The Last Wilderness

Nature writing is such an intriguing genre. It’s so quiet and unassuming in its PR that you might not expect it to have such an honorable and long-standing history (Thoreau, Peter Matthiesson, Nan Shephard, Barry Lopez, J. A. Baker) or the capacity to produce extraordinary narratives like Pilgrim at Tinkers Creek by Annie Dillard and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. To this day, it’s a powerful form of storytelling still, with contemporary superstars like Robert Macfarlane and Roger Deakin. And yet unlike just about every other storytelling medium – film, television, news media and books – it eschews sensationalism and melodrama. Given that our environment is in the midst of one of the toughest of wars with mankind ever, it could be forgiven for ramping up the drama content, but no, the books I read continue to speak in the most serene of voices. Perhaps that’s precisely the charm.

Neil Ansell is the author who got me into nature writing, and so a new book of his is always an event. I know absolutely nothing about nature. I can identify a horse chestnut tree, a willow, a silver birch and probably an oak. I can point out a blackbird and a robin and a pigeon. I have a back garden with some plants in it. That’s it for me. So I never thought I would fall head over heels for the nature genre; but then I read Neil Ansell’s account of living alone in the Welsh countryside for five years, Deep Country, and was bowled over. This is what reading is all about: the invitation into an unknown world made real and vivid and inhabitable by the skill of the writing. When his second book came out, Deer Island, I made sure to secure a review copy and absorbed it in the same kind of trance as before. And now with his third, The Last Wilderness, I tried to hold back a little and understand what it is about his writing that is unique to him, and why I find it so affecting. It’s really hard to put my finger on, but over the course of this review, I’ll try.

The Last Wilderness concerns five visits taken over the course of a single year to the Rough Bounds in the Northwest Highlands of Scotland, one of the few places in the British Isles to contain truly ancient wild land, almost untouched by human society.  Ansell travelled there first as a young man, just embarking on many years of rootless wandering, and he decided to revisit it now that those years may be coming to an end due to failing health. With each trip he explores a different part of the region, endures the changing seasons, battles his own body and allows the present moment to trigger a rich web of memories drawn from other travels in other times and places. What matters to him throughout his wanderings is the quality of experience.

I can see an animal in a zoo, up close and personal, and yet it feels as if it barely even counts, I can watch a television documentary, and gain an intimate insight into the private life of an animal, and yet it is no substitute for the real thing. Nothing can compare to the joy inspired by even a brief encounter with a scarce and beautiful wild animal in its natural element. It is not about what I have seen, it is about forging a momentary connection with the wild and finding a place in the world for my own wild heart.’

And forging a connection is something he continually does, often with unexpected results:

As I walked the path one scorching hot day, the air flexing in the rising heat, I saw a crow walking the path ahead of me. I kept expecting it to flush as I approached, but it never did; instead it hopped up and perched on top of my head. I felt strangely proud as I continued my way towards the harbour with my animated headdress. And then it drove its beak into the very top of my skull as if it was trying to crack a nut.’

There’s an exquisite attentiveness throughout the narrative , not just to animals but to landscape too:

An individual wood can have some intangible quality that makes it stand apart from all the other woods. This one somehow felt different from the other birch woods I had travelled through. The birch is part of a natural succession. It is quick to take hold, and it will usually be the first tree to grow on neglected land, before finally giving way to oak or whatever other tree forms the climax vegetation of the locality. Here, it was a permanent fixture. Nothing else would ever take its place; it was as though it had finally been able to step out of the shadows, out of its role as supporting act, and fulfil its true potential.’

And I also appreciated the attentiveness Ansell pays to his own authentic nature as it is shaped by his environment; the nomadic times in which ‘the shock of the new gives me an intensity of experience, a sudden depth of focus that will perhaps never be replicated’, and the settled times in which extended periods in one place allow him to ‘become gradually aware of how things are more subtle and complex than they first appeared, of how malleable and mutable is the world’. And as a person who can be entirely self-sufficient, there’s an insightful meditation on what it is to be solitary: ‘Empathy is not a zero sum game; caring about nature does not mean you care less about other people.’ The benefits of solitude are to be found in a kind of emptying out of the social ego, leading to a heightened state of sensory arousal, in which the relationship to the external world can strengthen and deepen.

If I quote extensively here, it’s because the voice feels so unusual to me in a clamouring, chattering world of rapid and mostly superficial thought. The Last Wilderness charts all manner of loss – loss of the virgin earth, untrodden and unspoiled by mankind, loss of so many species of animals, loss of Ansell’s hearing and loss of his confidence in his personal strength as he begins to suffer from an undiagnosed heart condition. But to my mind, the loss that is most striking, but which is noticeable in this book precisely because it contains so much of it, is loss of a certain state of mind. Ansell is an unusual man. He is solitary and contemplative, accepting and philosophical, non-competitive and non-materialistic, keen on simplicity but not on what is simplistic, and deeply respectful of the land and all it contains. He conjures up so much time in this book, slows down the reader’s mind, and shows us what can be accomplished with a mind that is wide open to everything in the vicinity. That state of mind is as much an endangered species as the mountain gorilla and the Siberian Tiger. Perhaps that’s why inhabiting it in a book feels very precious.