Travelling by Train

Trains

At train stations I always start dozens of imaginary journeys alongside my real one. Trains to loved places, places we have lived: always conjured up by names on the illuminated departure boards. Sometime even the mention of nothing more than the mention of a journey’s necessary midway point is enough: you can’t get to Windermere from the south without paying your respects to Lancaster on the way, so that small, provincial city’s name comes to stand for the whole of the wild Lake District. The same with Carlisle, when coming from the north: pay your dues at this border city’s red gates and you may safely pass to the south.

Some places are more potent, richer with past and potential journeys, than others. Peterborough stands for the whole of the East Coast mainline – York, Durham, Newcastle, Edinburgh. Each one keep a memory suspended in time’s vitrine: a couple waiting for a baby to arrive, a brother studying, a lover living, our latest home. I am reminded of E.M. Forster’s description of the emotional potency of London’s main stations:

‘she had strong feelings about the various railway termini. They are our gates to the glorious and the unknown.  Through them we pass out into adventure and sunshine, to them, alas! we return. In Paddington all ; Cornwall is latent and the remoter west; down the inclines of Liverpool Street lie fenlands and the illimitable Broads; Scotland is through the pylons of Euston; Wessex behind the poised chaos of Waterloo.’

I have always loved this passage, recalling in it the long New Year train trips to Cornwall with a boyfriend, trains taken home to Suffolk, the sleeper to Scotland which I was almost too young to properly remember. My first relationship was conducted through their spiders’ webs of rails: the late train to Newcastle after school on a Friday and then in reverse on Sunday, the rush to the west to visit his home and his family.

Stations come to me in dreams too. I spend dark hours waiting for trains that slip silently by without my ever being able to catch one. Like metal moths they evade the net of my sleep-slowed needs. I look at endless departure boards and can’t read a single letter of the destinations. The clocks’ hands move far faster than they ever do in life, minutes melting into hours. Time and again I am there on the platform, waiting for trains to places I know, but never climbing aboard.

On the real trains I do manage to catch, and I have never yet missed one myself, though have occasionally been thwarted by delayed connecting services, I slip into parallel time. Whatever the purpose of the train journey – leisure, pleasure, work – the time it takes to make it is a gift to myself. I can do whatever I like once I’m there.  I am purposefully engaged in getting somewhere, so I don’t have to do anything I don’t want to. I can read, or loll sleepily with my head cushioned against the window with a jumper, or write, or simply sit there. If I have a train picnic, a luxury I often allow myself in the form of packets of treats from Marks and Spencer, I have to eat it as soon as I get on the train, otherwise the knowledge of its presence won’t let me rest.

Ferries have the same effect on me as trains. I sometimes fall asleep, which can result in drooling and  stiff neck, but usually I bury myself in a book. Sometimes I listen to radio podcasts, or I write. I feel like this is time I can do anything in, because it is both productive (I am on my way) and completely free – I don’t subject myself to any internal guilt about what I do during this travel-time, it is simply time for me to spend as I like.

The Railway Station by William Powell Frith, RA. Signed and dated 1862. Royal Holloway, University of London..jpg

The Railway Station by William Powell Frith, RA (1862), Royal Holloway, University of London.

 

 

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Running For The Hills

Running for the hillsI love reading books when I’m sat in the place they are set in, mixing the pleasure of being transported to a different time whilst staying in the same geographic location. I feel like I’m slipping between the universe’s folds, watching a story play out in front of me somewhere between the time it happened in and now. Last month my husband and I were on holiday in the Welsh borders, and whilst he headed out to bag some hills I took myself off to Brecon to amuse myself in bookshops and cafes. It was strange day, the day after the UK’s referendum on its membership of the EU, and I found myself listening to the lilting Welsh accents around me to hear local reactions to the vote. After an hour or two pouring over the papers in the library and feeling cross, I hopped across the road to The Hours, a lovely little cafe bookshop with wooden beams and an upstairs full of secondhand books. My eyes soon alighted on a gem, a just-my-type of gem, Horatio Clare’s Running For The Hills (2006). A self-proclaimed ‘family story’, it follows the Clares as they struggle with, and settle in, to life on a Welsh farm in the 1970s and 1980s. I went downstairs to part with £3 for it,  but got lured in by delicious smells coming from the cafe’s kitchen, so settled down to read it over lunch – I didn’t end up paying until the food was long gone and I was several chapters in.

The Clares, well, Miss Williams and Mr Clare Senior as they are at the time, acquire the farm in the days of their courtship, bought by him for her as a symbol of their love and in response to her need for space to be outside of London. It’s bought at auction for £11,000, out-dated and wild and full of mice and romance. Jenny and Robert marry soon after, and two boys are born within a few years – heroically named Horatio and Alexander. The marriage begins to disintegrate under differences of personality, the pressures of depression and distance, and in the end it’s Jenny living there by herself with the boys shuttling between Wales and London. For all this domestic instability the book isn’t a depressing read: Jenny’s love of the landscape is beguiling and easy to share, and anyone who has every longed for the space and freedom of living up in the hills will share her affection of this little corner of Wales, hunkered down by the Black Mountains.

For me it was an especially delicious read, as a few days before we had walked to remote Llantony Priory and along the way had come across a couple of farmhouses high in the hills, one derelict and empty of human life, the other in the process of transformation from ruin to homstead. The former was a tiny cottage hiding away in the woods, smelling of mould and mice, the latter a great late mediaveal manor lying at the valley’s head, painted a warm butternut yellow. No doubt the Clare’s house lay somewhere between the two: habited but gently crumbling, returning to the earth decade by decade. P1010077

What is unusual about the story is that it is told in the third person, with Robert and Jenny at a slight remove, but that it also moves into the first person as Horatio becomes sentient: what were Jenny and Robert’s becomes ‘ours’, and ‘I’ appears. Clare has drawn directly from his parents’ letters and diaries, combining this source material with his own memories of childhood, and it must have been a curious process, moving between what you could remember doing, seeing and feeling and what your parents recorded as having happened at the time to construct a narrative. You might expect a certain amount of navel-gazing too, but Clare is too wise a storyteller for this, and keeps his audience enthralled in the haphazard world of a London family making a go of it on a Welsh hill farm. Although the Clares’ marriage fails, the farm falls further into disrepair, and money runs away like water, I finished the book with a strengthened desire to do it myself, to live remotely and farm a small piece of land.

Ceres Fife RCAHMSI’m making a small step in this direction later this month, moving from the bustle of Edinburgh to the rolling hills of Fife. We’ll be taking on the lease of a small cottage in the village of Ceres, and I can’t wait to have a garden to tend again and a kitchen bigger than a cupboard to cook in. The house (the middle one in the picture above) is older than most of the places we’ve lived in and we’ll have to walk over an ancient footbridge to get home each day. There’s no farm to tend, but I can’t wait to have space to roam in the evenings, and leave the omnipresent drone of cars and the wailing sirens behind. Edinburgh, you’ve been grand – but my heart’s in the country.

 

 

Expecting?

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Babies love knitwear…

I’ve never been pregnant, never tried to conceive a child. I’m at the age when friends and colleagues are having babies left, right and centre, but the furthest I’ve got down the road to furthering the species is to get married and agree that my husband and I want them ‘at some point’. Although I feel a lot more ready for the thought of bringing a child into the world than I did ten years ago – when the thought was ‘shit, having a baby would be the worst thing that could happen to me right now’ – I’m now at the ‘if it happened, we could cope’, but not yet at ‘shit, NOT having a baby would be worst thing that could happen.’ I’m a godmother to a dear girl, the daughter of a friend from school, and an inveterate ‘knitting auntie’, knocking up hats, mittens, bootees and jackets for each new arrival. But actually a mum myself? No, not yet.

Part of the reason for my lack of enthusiasm for the baby project is a lack of understanding about how it might make me think and feel, anxiety about how it might change the very me-ness of me. Sure, there are also the massive practical considerations of work and lifestyle and cost (has anyone ever told you how shitty parental pay and leave are in the UK?) but at least there’s some support from the state, and we both have jobs and savings and four grandparents-in-waiting. We have friends who have done it and so can tell us ‘don’t worry, it’s perfectly normal’ and who wouldn’t mind being howled at down the phone at silly o’clock. The species needs to do it and, after all, all of us have already been through it, albeit on the other end of things.

But a big stumbling block to overcome before I take the plunge is to try and work out how this massive life-changing thing could affect me. Not just physically – though there is that too – but how I think and feel and cope with the world. I guess that, in part, this is futile; people always tell me that you can’t imagine what it’s like until it’s happening to you. But I still want to try and work it out, and it’s almost impossible to do because there’s barely a book on the subject that isn’t just a handbook advice on folic acid, maternity pads and pelvic girdle pain. Did those words make you shiver? If so, you’re not alone – they made my skin prickle, and that just shows how culturally conditioned we are to finding the whole pregnancy and motherhood thing a little bit disgusting, something that we just don’t talk about before we’re on that giddy journey ourselves, hurtling into the future with nary a clue about what’s to come. Preparing for this journey I don’t want a car manual, I want a story about the place that I’m going to which reassures and excites and makes me feel like I could cope with the brave new world ahead.

ExpectingThank God for Chitra Ramaswamy. Her brand new book Expecting: The Inner Life of Pregnancy (Saraband, April 2016) is a magical yet practical and beautifully written monologue on pregnancy, from the pre-conception jitters to the miraculous but traumatic moment of birth. Each chapter follows a month of her own pregnancy but against a background of cultural and literary references from Sylvia Plath to Tolstoy. In fact, those two sources are pretty important, because there simply aren’t that many books, poems, plays, films or works of art which actually depict this most awesome and fundamental of human processes. As Ramaswamy questions:

‘What, then, is the riddle of pregnancy? How are we even to begin to understand it? To find the right metaphors? Or perhaps even to abandon them: to crack open the jar and spill the contents?’

Ramaswamy’s a journalist and the training shows: her research is thorough and wide-reaching, turning up gems in places we wouldn’t have looked as well as those we thought we knew. Some of the works she cites are obviously about childbearing: Margaret Attwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Kate Clanchy’s Newborn and Sharon Old’s poem ‘The Language of the Brag’ all take the stage. But others are more unexpected: Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain (1977) isn’t a book about pregnancy at all, but in it Ramaswamy finds surprising parallels between Shepherd’s mountain explorations and her own journey to motherhood. Take Shepherd’s description of water on the hills:

‘I have seen its birth […] and the more I gaze at that sure and remitting surge of water at the very top of the mountain, the more I am baffled.’

Ramaswamy feels the same about the miniature miracle occurring in the very midst of herself.

After the uncertainty of the first chapter, those first few weeks before most women even know they are pregnant, the references to other people’s experiences come thick and fast: Sylvia Plath’s 1959 poem ‘Metaphors’ (‘I’m a riddle in nine syllables’), Marcel Proust, Susan Sontag’s 1978 Illness as Metaphor, Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying, Alison Watt’s and Louise Bourgeois’ sculptures, Gustave Coubert’s 1866 painting The Origin of the World, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Hélène Cixous’ The Laugh of the Medusa, John Muir, Toni Morrison, Kathleen Jamie’s Jizzen, Voltaire, George Mackay Brown, Frida Kahlo, David Hume – it may be a daunting list, but Ramaswamy handles it with skillful lightness, marking each jolt of her journey with a fingerpost provided by someone else who has traversed humanity’s trail ahead of her. The very life-and-death-ness of her journey binds her to more than just other pregnant women, it also brings her into contact with people, places and narratives she hasn’t considered before.

There is also the quotidian normality, even familiarity, of this rarely-written-about subject. From the movements of the baby in her stomach to the contractions of birth, the feeling of joyous wellbeing in her sixth month to the protective nesting sensation she often experiences, the refrain is the same: ‘the most surprising part of all this was how unsurprising it felt’. For Ramaswamy discovers that her body is wiser and better prepared than her head, that this most primeval of functions is hard-wired into her very being. It doesn’t take her away from herself, it make her more herself, part of the humanity of humanity.

I cannot recommend Expecting highly enough. As someone who may take the path to motherhood in the coming years, it feels like a life-raft in a sea of uncertainty about pregnancy, helpful yet humorous, intimate yet universal. Not a car manual, but a true friend of a book, one that any person with the remotest to connection to the miracle of life could turn to again and again. I have no hesitation in placing on my personal ‘handbooks for life’ shelf, alongside Gwyneth Lewis’ Sunbathing in the Rain and Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun, Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book and Laurie Lee’s Cider with Rosie. All books to gladden my heart, steady my footsteps, and remind me to keep looking at the world with new eyes.

The Morville Hours

Each of us has the potential to hold a thousand different languages on the tip of our tongue. Even if we have nothing more than a smattering of schoolgirl French or the ability to order a glass of wine in Greek, within our mother tongue lie several hundred possible modes of language, each one individually special and specific.

The use of Latin plant names, unapologetically untranslated, in English represents straight-forward borrowing, words imported wholesale and their rules applied to each new hybrid as it emerges from the ground. But there are many more subtle tongues being spoken every day, ones flying so low under our daily radars that we probably don’t even think of them as languages. But in many ways they are: compare the cable and casting off of the knitter against the casting off and cable of a sailor, the builders’ kentledge against the printers’ colophon. The rosin and vibrato of a violinist, the anemometer and the quadrant of the geographer, the gomme and gouache of the painter. Each special skill offers the acolyte a shibboleth – how do real horticulturalists pronounce corymbs and guelder, proper teachers say Melpomene and Calliope? The hunter’s tack is a world away in meaning from the seamstresses’ word for the same, the language of the hack for the horse and the news hinting at the different universes inhabited by both. These idiolects of trades and interests can be both ancient and modern: ‘a bit of 2-by-4’ and an RSJ are immediately understood by a builder but may mystify a hairdresser, who would be more familiar with an upsweep and a fauxhawk.

morvilleThis is a fairly roundabout way of approaching Katherine Swift’s The Morville Hours, but the reason for doing so is because Swift is so astonishingly good at entwining the languages of gardener, builder, priest, beekeeper and a multitude of others into her narrative. The Morville Hours tells the story of Swift’s life and garden using the dual frameworks of the mediaeval book of hours on one hand and England’s traditional horticultural calendar on the other. Both are potentially off-putting subjects in their extreme specificity and almost complete irrelevance to our city-centred modern lives, but in Swift’s exquisite prose both become fascinating and beautiful in their complexity. I found that although I didn’t know what many of the words Swift used meant precisely – the list includes terce, none (pronounced to rhyme with ‘one’ and ‘stone’, not ‘bun’ and ‘fun’), achillea ptarmica, and a hundred other plant names. But it didn’t stop me understanding Swift’s story, and I didn’t mind not knowing as she made me feel that a world was opening up to me through these words, not shutting me out. The Morville Hours is a magical book in that it has the power to transport, translate and transmorgrify things of which I was completely ignorant into fascinating subjects that I just want to more and more about.

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Kellie Castle, Fife

It also made me long for the outdoors, for a life lived closer to the soil and the seeds. It made me miss my birthplace in the south of England, which was so much warmer and more verdant than the colder climes of Scotland. But it also inspired me to go on a visit: to Kellie Castle, a National Trust for Scotland property close to the Fife coast. Like the Dower House at Morville where Swift made her incredible garden, the Castle was home to what are known as ‘improving tenants’, people who live in a property but pay a lower rent because they have offered to improve the building or gardens on behalf of the owner. At Kellie the ‘improving’ family were the multi-talented Lorimers, best-kent among them sculptor Hew Lorimer (he who made the Lady of the Isles on South Uist and carved the seven allegorical figures on the front of the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh), architect Robert Lorimer and artist John Henry (J.H) Lorimer. Inside the house they sensitively restored the building and filled it with beautiful furniture, either of their own making or from the periods spanned by the house’s history. Outside they rebuilt the castle’s walled gardens and created beautiful spaces in which people could while away many a happy outdoor hour. Many of JH’s paintings perfectly capture the play of light on the buildings and grounds at Kellie, and below is one of my favourites – Happy Easter!

Sunlight in the South room

Sunlight in the South Room (c) The National Trust for Scotland, Kellie Castle & Garden; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Book Blogger Appreciation Week

OK, so I’m slightly late to the party with this one, as it’s already the end of Book Blogger Appreciation Week, rather than the beginning! But I’ve been ill for a large part of the week and before that had a particularly daft few days at work, so this is the first time I’ve had the space and inclination to take part. As usual with all things blog related, it was my good friend Billy-Bob over Stuck-in-a-Book who alerted me to this lovely initiative within the book blogging community.

For those of you who haven’t heard about it, Book Blogger Appreciation Week is an annual celebration of, well, people who blog about books, started by My Friend Amy 2008. In 2012 Amy bowed out of #BBAW (of course it has its own hashtag) and it is now run by the good ladies (Ana, Jenny, Heather, and Andi) over at Estella Society.  Each day during #BBAW there is a different theme or question for Book Bloggers to respond to, and there are also virtual book parties to join in with.

This is the first year I’ve been involved, and because I’m starting so late I thought I’d just combine the elements of #BBAW into one mega-post, rather than five smaller ones. Here goes…

Task 1: Introduce yourself by telling us about five books that represent you as a person or your interests/lifestyle

The land which makes liqueur from lemons...

1) Helena Attlee’s The Land Where Lemons Grow (2015)

Food AND travel? Two of my greatest passions are mesmerically combined in Helena Attlee’s beautiful prose which tells the history of Italian lemons with particular reference to the part they play in Mediterraenean culture and cuisine. I read this book in Sardinia, the perfect setting for a narrative which is soaked in sunshine and citrus. I reviewed it here: https://discriminatingbrevity.wordpress.com/2015/10/03/where-lemons-

2) Hannah Hauxwell: The Complete Story (1991)

As readers of this blog know well, I love life-writing which tells the stories ordinary lives, particularly those in rural settings. This combined auto/biography, which includes verbatim extracts from interviews with Hannah as well as Barry Cockroft’s own prose, first seduced me from the shelf of a charity shop in Shropshire and introduced me to Hannah Hauxwell’s remarkable (by 21st century standards; less so by 18th century ones) life in a remote Yorkshire dale. You can read more about it here: https://discriminatingbrevity.wordpress.com/2015/08/11/hannah-hauxwell/

I love wool on a cover, so I do3) Names the for Sea, Sarah Moss (2013)

As readers of my other blog Nordic Narratives will know, I have a long-running love affair with all things Nordic. Sarah Moss’s Names for the Sea describes her family’s move from Britain to Iceland in 2009 – 2010, and fuels my fantasties for living in Scandinavia one day. You can find out more about my response to it here: https://discriminatingbrevity.wordpress.com/2015/04/15/longing-to-name-the-

4) The Hedgerow Handbook, Adele Nozedar (2012)

I love foraging but don’t often get the chance to do it now I live in the city. However, even here I’ve managed to make elderberry cordial, just one of many delicious, healthy and easy recipes included in Adele Nozedar’s modern classic. An absolute must-have for anyone who likes picking berries, gathering nuts (in May or any other more suitable month), and generally being outdoors. Find out more about it here: https://discriminatingbrevity.wordpress.com/2014/10/03/reading-on-the-hoof/

5) The Outrun by Amy Liptrot (2016)

2016-01-27 23.09.59Nature writing combined with a tale of recovery from breakdown – two of my very favourite genres combined into a truly beautiful memoir of life in and between Orkney and London. Liptrot has been lauded as a new voice in the nature writing tradition, and I think her work has striking similarities to both Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain and Gwyneth Lewis’ Sunbathing in the Rain. It’s only just come out (January 2016) so if you can lay your hands on a copy then do, you really won’t be disappointed. You can read my review of it here: https://discriminatingbrevity.wordpress.com/2016/01/28/the-outrun-return-to-orkney

Task 2: Interview a Book Blogger.

Well this is going to be somewhat tricky, as I have left it later-than-late, so you’ll have to make do with 5 questions that I’ve asked myself. Solipsistic, moi?

Question 1) Where does your blog name come from?

The expression ‘discriminating brevity’ comes Sidney Lee’s In Principles of Biography (1911): Discriminating brevity is a law of the right biographic method.” – I’m probably far too sentimental and/or verbose to be truly discriminating or very brief, but I still really like the phrase. Discriminatingbrevity is actually this blog’s second incarnation: at first it was called Learning to Love Literature and was supposed to be a series of introductions to classic literature. Then I realised I wasn’t reading enough classic literature to write much about any of it, but I was reading a lot of biography, autobiography and life-writing. And so this blog came into being.

Question 2) What do you like best about blogging?

Monty and Sarah Don, The Jewel Garden

Monty and Sarah Don, The Jewel Garden

There are three things: connecting with other people, giving myself a reason to write more and a structure through which to do this, and getting feedback on my writing. The first has been completely magical and has largely been facilitated through Twitter: I had a great exchange with Amy Liptrot once I’d reviewed her book, and even went to meet her in person to get by book signed by her (this is by far and away the most starstruck thing I’ve ever done). In summer 2015 I reviewed Monty Don’s The Jewel Garden and was amazed to find he’d retweeted the link to my post, resulting in a record 345 views of that particular page. We also had a little chat about whether or not he was ever in a punk band – he wasn’t. Getting feedback on my writing: that part has been completely unexpected, and most often takes the form of my mother rinding me up to debate some aspect of my childhood memories..!

Question 3) What would you like to change about your blog?

I’d like to blog more often (and experiment more with memes, competitions and different styles of posts), connect more with other literary bloggers, and get better at coding so I can make it look prettier and not have occassional gaps and oddities popping up in peculiar places.

Question 4) How did you become a voracious reader? Did somebody inspire you?

Farm Cottage as we knew it

Our family home

Not particularly – both my parents always encouraged us to read, and took us to the library every Saturday to get new books, but neither of them reads obsessively. In fact, my Dad has only read a handful of fiction books in his life – the only ficiton book I can ever remember him enthusing about was Walter by David Cook. He has, however, read plenty of magazines and motorbike handbooks! My mother is a pretty omnivorous reader and the house always had a fairly eclectic stock of books, from Alexander McCall Smith to Jane Eyre and Asterix to Little House on the Prairie, though it was a bit light on the classics. When I got to univeresity and realised that some of my friends actually owned yards and yards of bookshelves double-stacked with Dickens, Dostoyevsky and Defoe I realised I had some serious catching up to do.

Question 5) Do you abandon books if they don’t please you?

Absolutely – I really struggle to make myself read something if I’m not enjoying it. However, I’m quite good about returning to a book that I haven’t been able to ‘get in to’ and giving it another chance. Case in point: Harry Potter, James Robertson, Laurence Durrell…

Task 3 – Blame a Blogger

‘Have you ever read a book because of a book blogger? Be it a good book or bad, bloggers recommend books every day of the year. Tell us all about the book or books you’ve read because of a book blogger and be sure to sure to spread the blame around.’

Tove JanssonThe main culprit for this for me is Stuck-in-a-Book. Not only does he recommend me books, he also posts them to me (this is because he is a real-world as a well as a virtual friend, he also runs book-giveaway competitions so you could receive one of his parcels of literary love too!) Although he didn’t introduce me to Tove Jansson, he has been someone with whom I can share my love of her, and he also furnished me with this rather nice copy of her biography. He is currently trying to tempt me with Katherine Mansfield, having brought me a book about someone writing about KM, and some original KM to start the new year. I will read some, but I have to say I’ve not started yet…

The Year of Living Danishly

Today’s review is of Helen Russell’s The Year of Living Danishly, published in 2015 by Icon Books. Perfectly timed to pique the interest of this generation of woolly jumper fanciers and Nordic Noir obsessives, Russell details her 2013 move to Denmark from London with her husband in the quest for a happier life. A magazine editor and journalist, she decides to go freelance and challenges herself to ‘live Danishly’ for a year, whilst her husband works for that iconic Danish toy company, Lego. Her book catalogues the journey of their new life together as they adjust to the Nordic work-life balance, freezing weather, and Scandinavian attitude towards baked goods. The baked goods bit is pretty important. It is a contemporary take on the age-old conundrum of being an ex-pat: would my life really be any better if I lived in a different country, or would it be infinitely harder and more difficult?

It is safe to say that I am pretty much this book’s ideal reader. In my early 30s, middle-class, working in a job which is intellectually stimulating but sometimes stressful, I frequently daydream about what it would be like to have more time in my life to do the things I love: hiking, reading, writing and spending time with my husband and friends. I live in a city which boasts two Swedish coffee shops within 10 minutes’ walk of my house, and I have just learned how to knit my own Scandi-style gloves: friends, be prepared to receive some Nordic knitwear from yours truly come Christmas.

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My Scandiknit handiwork..

My husband even works in a field which is ideally suited to living in Scandinavia: as a glaciologist, you gotta go where them glaciers are, and countries with a polar border have more than the average amount. In fact, he is currently considering a job in deepest darkest (and I really do mean darkest) Tromsø, so a book about upping sticks and moving to a new Nordic life is really, really up my alley. I couldn’t wait to find about how another blonde British women in her 30s, whose career is in the world of books and words, finds the transition between British and Scandinavian living in the early 21st century.

Russell’s writing style is chatty, gently humourous and very much belies her background in lifestyle journalism. Individual works of poetic beauty they may not be, but her sentences are highly readable and trip along merrily as Russell is amazed by immaculate Danish interiors, learns the life-affirming importance of mood lighting, and struggles with the unspoken rules of flag flying. I say unspoken, but Russell is actually presented with a typed and laminated set of guidelines by her neighbours when she accidentally contravenes the strict code of the Dannebrog. Her husband is depicted as the true Scandiophile, whilst Russell’s relationship with her adopted homeland alternates between self-deprecating British skepticism and giddy enthusiasm for its excellent pastries. She paints herself very much as the girl-next-door, worried about her weight and her lax approach to housekeeping and how she’s going to cope with the notorious Nordic winters. She’s likeable, pally and just the sort of person you’d love to have on hand to help you get through life in a strange new country.

20160208_202821As the title suggests, the book charts one calendar year in Russell’s life in Denmark. Each chapter ends with a summary of the things about ‘living Danishly’ that Russell has learned during that month. January is for ‘hygge and home’, hygge being that fashionably Danish concept of wood-fired candle-lit cosiness, during which we learn that Denmark is cold in January, owls are loud, and immigration is not for the faint-hearted. By June Russell’s in the middle of a hormonal three-to-six month nosedive on the culture shock curve, and it’s time for a cold hard look at Danish feminism. But twelve months after arriving, Russell and her husband decide to stay for another year and the book ends with a list of twelve excellent ways to ‘live Danishly’, wherever you lay your hat. Trust more, get hygge, use your body, make your home nice, streamline your options, be proud, value family, be equally respectful, play, and share.  These are the things that Russell identifies as being at the root of Danish happiness, and I have to say they make pretty attractive reading: I wanted to move to Norway more than ever after reading her book.

Russell also presents a beguiling possibility of earning a crust as a freelance writer living abroad. As someone who has been toying with the idea of taking her writing more seriously, it is reassuring to know that someone from a similar background can earn money and continue to work in their chosen field from abroad. Admittedly Russell’s experience is a lot more commercial than mine, but not only does she write lifestyle and comment pieces for a number of UK publications but she also – obviously – pens the book about her daily experiences. If she can do it, might I? Only time will tell…

Want a second opinion? Check out what PD Smith has to say about the book over at the Guardian.

Want to find about more about the current vogue for all things Nordic? Hop on over to AA Gill’s 2012 piece in Vanity Fair.

The Outrun – return to Orkney

Back at the end of the old year I received a sneaky proof copy of Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun. I love getting my paws on proof copies (I have three to date) with their banner forbidding resale, knowing that I’m one of only a handful of people who get to see a book this new. It’s a bit like seeing my god-daughter when she was only a few weeks old, or another friend’s baby at two days’ newly hatched, before anyone else has told me about what they are like and I can find out for myself entirely.

2016-01-27 23.09.59But now the book is out in the world and so I can talk about it. On paper it sounds like a bit of a misery memoir: girl comes back home to Orkney follow stint in rehab for alcoholism, trying to heal herself through writing and being close to nature. But Liptrot’s story is anything but miserable: she finds that her life is full of resonances that for years she was too busy to hear, but now echo to her from unexpected corners and reverberate through her new self. If this sounds rather dippy-hippy and saccharine, Liptrot’s writing isn’t that either, it’s bright and clear and incisive, like the clean blade of a knife. There’s an inherent danger to her story too. It is the tale of one living closer to the edge of the normal world than might be safe or comfortable.

The story begins when she meets her parents for the first time. Her father’s manic depression shapes the family’s life with its violence: he smashes windows, believes he can control the weather, and is periodically sectioned, as he is on the day Amy arrives into this world three weeks earlier than anticipated. The opening chapter describes the scene acted out beneath the whirring blades of an Orkney helicopter, a baby cradled in her mother’s arms in one wheelchair as her straight-jacketed father is brought out in another on his way to a mainland asylum. Liptrot’s prose gives nothing away and it is only in the closing words of the chapter that we realise that the two wheelchair-bound adults are her own parents, and this is the first of many dramatic and extreme events in her life.

As a teenager Liptrot longs to get away from something she sees falsely described as an island paradise, and in her 20s she moves to London. The city’s ‘hot pulse’ seems so far away from Orkney’s windswept emptiness that the two places feel like polar opposites: for the first half of the book the two appear in defiant contrast to each other. Liptrot goes clubbing several times a week, drinking heavily and ‘searching headlong for a good time’. But after Liptrot has reached her nadir, gone to rehab and returned to Orkney, similarities between the two creep into Liptrot’s writing. The noise of the waves crashing into the island reminds her of the roar of London’s traffic; the sea’s luminescence is like the neon of a night club. Her two worlds are deeply intertwined and represent not the two extremes of living that she thought they did, but different ways of engaging with the same reality.

The book’s title comes from an Orcadian field name, the outrun being the largest field at the top of farm where the ewes and their lambs graze in summer and where the Highland cattle overwinter. But to ‘out run’ something means to race away from it, to reach a safe place by being fleeter of foot than one’s pursuer. And there is a chase at the heart of the book, but perhaps not the one you’d expect.

2016-01-27 23.09.25The narratives of chased and chasing are familiar to me from another autobiography of alcoholism and depression, Gwyneth Lewis’ Sunbathing in the Rain. Both describe the out-of-control searching for something at the bottom of a bottle, the desperate efforts to escape from or to a place by being the drunken sailor on a tipsy ocean. But where as Lewis’ drinking is an attempt to outrun her own depression (and her mother’s), Liptrot’s seems to be an attempt to catch up with the violent mood swings of her father, to mimic the highest highs and terrible lows that shaped her childhood. She’s almost drinking to outrun him, not herself, to go higher and faster and giddier with each bottle.

I completely understand this drinking and behaving recklessly to make your moods match what you think they should be. Like Lewis and Liptrot, I too had a period of mental illness in my twenties – I was sectioned in a Japanese psychiatric hospital when I was 22, spending weeks living in the men’s ward there because the women’s ward was full. I couldn’t be trusted to fly back to Britain alone, but I wasn’t safe enough to look after myself. When I got home my parents were kind and concerned, encouraging me to visit old friends and work in small easy jobs like gardening. But for months I felt worse instead of better, drawn to the edge of station platforms and feeling like an enormous hole had opened up where my heart had once been. I couldn’t understand what I’d done to make me feel so bad, and so I tried to give myself reasons for feeling awful, so that there was some understandable correlation between my extreme emotions and my reality. I smashed up my mother’s bedroom, stole money from my parents, ran away from a kind friend’s family who offered to let me live with them in London whilst I did a journalism course, and stayed in hotels knowing that I had no money to pay for the room, leaving early before the receptionist took up her guard post by the front door. I would disappear overnight, travelling without train tickets to places I had no wish to go. After a few months of this, I felt like I had enough reasons to feel justifiably awful, and agreed to go to see a psychotherapist to talk about what had happened. It was only then that my life started to swim back into focus, and my feelings started to line up more closely with what was really happening to me.

In Lewis’ words, which I read obsessively during my own rehabilitation, I was ‘coming back to my senses’. This realisation that sanity lies close to one’s physical senses is shared with Liptrot, and I loved hearing about how her new sober world expanded beneath her finger tips, under her toes when she swims in the sea, above her ears and her eyes as the birds and the weather freewheel above her. She becomes fiercely observing of the natural world, working for the RSPB counting corncrakes and inhabiting a tiny pink cottage on the even remoter island of Papa Westray during the winter. Her senses are sharp and raw, but she can trust them, and she uses them to inch herself to her life. Her writing seems like an extension of those sensory experiences: natural, fascinating, and utterly keen.

 

Want to hear another opinion? Try Cathy Rentzenbrink over at The Pool, the Guardian’s review by Katharine Norbury, and the Scotman’s by Stuart Kelly. If you can’t get your hands on a copy of the book, you can listen to it being read by Tracy Wiles on BBC 4 Extra until the end of February. As well as reading the book, on 2nd February I’m going to hear Liptrot read from and talk about her book at Waterstone’s on Edinburgh’s Princes Street – she’s doing a tour up and down the country, so why not try and catch her if you can?