Thursday, 9 February 2012

To The River by Olivia Laing

The River Ouse looms large in Olivia Laing's life, and like so many of us she navigates towards the familiar when she finds herself in the middle of a 'minor crisis'; deciding to walk the course of the river from it's source to the sea as the year ticks past the changing-time of midsummer. 

Solvitur ambulando, is the Latin phrase - it is solved by walking, and Laing sets out on this forty-two mile pilgrimage with this foremost in her mind.

What follows is a tale of journeys, several journeys. Each meanders around the other, flowing like tributaries, following their own winding path to the river that is the whole. The past flows into the present, and slides dreamily on into the future - the author absorbed by her surroundings in such a way that other people are inconsequential - half-heard conversations harsh in their profanity clash markedly with the softness of the beautifully observed landscape. 

She reflects on the futility of man holding back the tides with ill-judged plans to restrict the freedom and flow of the river, and how doing so clogs up the sewers and floods the modern towns with shit - a metaphor maybe for the way modern life clogs our freedom of thought and expression - leaving it to run unencumbered allows it occasionally to overflow; the indescribable beauty of which is left to Virginia Woolf herself to reflect upon. 

The title of the book itself draws heavily from Woolf's own To The Lighthouse with Virginia and Leonard Woolf casting their long shadows over the text; for this is the place they lived, loved and eventually died. Woolf was famously consumed by the very river she loved, and Laing returns to the couple over and again, as her writing tumbles out; thoughts and emotions flowing now fast, now slow, like the changing pace of the tidal river itself.

Only someone who has walked for long periods in solitude could connect with Laing's outpouring of thought; words collide and seemingly unrelated and disjointed topics flow into each other, beautifully and seamlessly joining the apparently unrelated in an almost subconscious flood of wonderfully descriptive language. Laing manages to convey this perfectly.

There is also some reflection on the impermanence of man, that no matter what the expense, or the how great the effort;  no matter the course of our journey we are here for only a tick of the clock. Man and everything he creates reduces eventually to nature, weeds recolonise, walls fall down and all man's marks are consumed by that he tries to tame.

Laing's background in herbalism is evident as she effortlessly names every plant in the hedgerows and verges in a manner that suggests it is done with the merest of glances as she passes through; in that easy way that those confident in their environment do as they move through the landscape.

There is a certain melancholy, as there always is at a time of change, and a sense of loneliness and solitude; but as the river quickens towards the sea, its route now fixed and straightened so Laing's solitude becomes almost joyous. The recounted memories move from the regret of not taking a house with her then love, Matthew; through a separation of her parents so complete she is almost unable to imagine them together to recalling a friend singing in the beauty of Southease church. 

As she crashes into Newhaven ugly modernity litters the roadsides, and the freedom of the Downs, however neat and parcelled off they may be, is replaced by the fear of the hemmed in urban pathway. The restriction of vision created by high hedges and ugly council estates forces Laing to break into a brief run, as if the restriction itself is too much to bear after the freedom of the prior days walking. Once free of Newhaven again and back in the open she describes herself as 'as purely happy as I have ever been'. 

Had this been a walking guide to the Ouse I would have dropped it like a hot coal, but it's so far removed from that. I know this path well, but I also know the journey Laing takes to the freedom of the hills, and unrestricted thought, where the fragile joy can be snatched away by the presence of other souls. 

Laing comes across as a bright, reflective author, with an intelligent and reflective personality, the kind of complex character that would make a walk interesting. I wonder if she's done the Arun yet.

To The River takes it's place alongside Mabey, Baker and Jeffries as a classic of a genre of writing about a place I call the 'edgelands', that place that is neither wild nor urban but somewhere in between. But this is not a book about natural history, or wildlife, it is a book about just "being"; and gorgeous it is too.

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