Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Robert Macfarlane on walking, writing and judging the 2013 Man Booker Prize

Robert Macfarlane - The Old Ways
Imagine putting your coat on, opening the front door, closing it behind you and turning the key (you may not have to imagine the last bit if you have a door that locks itself, in which case I deeply envy you). You begin strolling along the pavement to a little field path and decide to keep on walking - the sun is shining and there's only so much of Tim Wonnacott a man can take, so why not? It proves a wise decision, because eventually you end up in Spain, the West Bank and the Himalayas, rambling to your heart's content and meeting lots of lovely people en route. When you arrive back home five years later, you decide to write a book not simply on the journey per se, but on landscape's influence on the human condition. 

It may sound like a collective fantasy of the red sock brigade, but the above project belongs to author and Cambridge English lecturer Robert Macfarlane, whose 1,500-mile perambulation is documented in his most recent book, The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot. I sat down with the man himself to talk about walking, writing and being on the judging panel of the 2013 Man Booker Prize, two out of three of which I have direct experience of. No, that's right, I'm not much of a walker. 

Hello Robert. Perhaps I'm being dense, but it strikes me from reviews that The Old Ways is a little difficult to summarise. Would you mind having a go? 

Well, it's not an easy book to summarise, nor was it an easy book to write, but in its simplest form it's a book about setting off from home on foot and following the paths that open up in front of you. It's also about the people I met during five years of on-and-off walking and the landscapes these encounters took me across.

In a more metaphoric sense, The Old Ways became a book about how we make sense of ourselves using landscape and how walking has been a way, for thousands of years, of navigating the world - both literally and metaphorically.

So you did you really just set off from home and start walking, or did you have a route in mind? 

The walk took its own form, which as it unfolded was both its virtue and its difficulty. Path led to path; person led to person. The first walk was from my door which led to a little field path, which led to a Roman road, which led to a Neolithic track called the Icknield Way, and that opened out into this amazing network of old ways that crossed the globe.

Wow. How far did you end up going? 

I walked between 1,000 and 1,500 miles, which actually isn't very far over lots of years; it wasn't continuous. I went as far as the Himalayas, Spain and the West Bank in Palestine. It took me from familiar territories in England up to northern and north-west Scotland, areas I also know well, and on to sea - the oceans have their paths too - and then overseas.

What were the overseas links?

It was partly drawn by people. I went to the Himalayas with an extraordinary ecologist and an explorer, who's walked his knowledge into being. In Spain I was with an artist who's also a pilgrim - he's made an incredible library of the forest at his home in Madrid. They're both magical people and they took me to magical places. Both journeys were about pilgrimage and why we walk for spiritual purposes.

The Old Ways is your third book about landscape. Is it the final part of a trilogy also featuring Mountains of the Mind and The Wild Places

The books are a trilogy because they overlap in lots of ways - describing a descent from mountaintop to beaten path - and I suppose each grew out of the last. Now I've found myself writing a fourth book in a trilogy called Underland, exploring the planet's subterranean worlds and what lies beneath the surface. Landscape is one of those things; I can't tell where it's going to stop.

2013 is shaping up to a busy one, what with being on the judging panel for this year's Man Booker Prize. How many books do you have to get through?

We receive the first titles just before Christmas. There are around 130 to read in total, and all judges must read all the books by the time of the Booker longlist meeting. It's not far off one book a day; a total of approximately 40,000 pages. It's certainly keeping me in one place - as it stands I'm 22 books in. 

I've done it before and I don't remember it being exhausting, but somebody recently came up to me and said "You're judging the Man Booker again? When you finished last time you told me you were never going to read a contemporary novel again." And here I am reading another 130. I'm sure I'll hit the wall at some point, but let's just say I'm just glad I'm not judging the year Hilary Mantel releases the third in her loose trilogy [after Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies]. That jury will have it having over them.

1 comment:

  1. Wow what a great interview. Love the idea of the book its sounds like a fascinating read.