I have planned a sequence of posts coming up about Robert Macfarlane's book The Old Ways to coincide with publication day next week, but I thought you would enjoy a preview with Fran's wonderful account of a trip to Charleston in Sussex last weekend to hear Robert in conversation with Ronald Blythe....and my thanks to Fran for this as always and of course the wonderful photos...
Saturday could not have been more perfect for going to hear Robert Macfarlane at Charleston Festival. Clear blue skies, hot sun and a fresh breeze.
Charleston was looking its flowery, Bloomsbury best.
The marquee for the events had been set up in Bloomsbury style.
The bookcases seen behind the chairs are photo blow ups on panels. Some of the old suitcases were painted Charleston style,and one planted up with wildflowers.....could start a new fashion. Inevitably the chairs were covered in Duncan Grant fabric. By the time midday arrived every seat was taken.
Olivia Laing led Ronald Blythe, a very sprightly 90 year old and Robert Macfarlane to their seats and introduced them to us. Despite Olivia annoucing that both would be reading excerpts from their books both Ronald and Robert declined. Instead both spoke freely on the influences they had had, the people and places which had inspired their work.
Ronald, who spoke first was delightful. He lives in a house, Bottengoms Farm which he inherited from his friend John Nash, brother of Paul, both war artists, but also painters of the countryside. Through the Nash's Ronald met many interesting artists and writers, especially members of the Bloomsbury set. He has written about Carrington, met Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant yet never, until Saturday, had he visited Charleston. He was delighted to finally see the house he has heard and read so much about...
"Certain places belong in our memories and yet we have not visited them".
It was he said, just as he had thought it would be, even the garden..
"very like my own, only tidier".
He went on to tell how houses such as his own and Charleston were so often rented by writers and artists, especially between the wars. They created colonies of creativity, cut off from the outside world, yet connecting with each other. I was struck that here was someone whose life was lived alongside those who we look on as WW1 artists and writers, a tangible link with the past.
Ronald talked of his daily discipline; writing in the morning, gardening in afternoon. Adding that many of these creative people he has known gardened too, but described themselves as "plantsmen" as he does. He is interested in music, worked with Benjamin Brittain at Aldeburgh, enjoys architecture and, he said:
" I have had a wonderful life, with so many friends. They come to see me and we give each other things and books, that is why my house is full of so many memories."
In his latest book At the Yeomans House he has written more of the people he has met, as well as the history of his house which dates back to Elizabethan times, but in a delightful, rambling sort of way, as though he is speaking to you. He looks at the latches and door handles wondering who has touched them over the centuries. He tells of how the barns would have been full of working horses, and the men who cared for them, of how land use has changed over the centuries, yet we have glimpses of it in the old buildings and their contents.
Then it was Robert Macfarlane's time to speak.
For those of you who have read The Wild Places you may recall the chapter "Holloway" where he tells of visiting old, hidden drovers roads in Dorset with Roger Deakin. It was that experience, where they felt in touch with the past so much that the idea for The Old Ways was born. "Where", Robert said, "time pleated itself".
He had returned to the droveway a year or so ago, some six or seven after his first visit and found traces he and Roger had left; where they had cut holly branches for sticks, in their own way adding to the history of the places.
He spoke of paths as communal places, and how they join one community to another, paths cross each other, as lives do, trails converge. Obviously he was speaking to an audience who have yet to read The Old Ways so he was explaining the ideas behind it. He mentioned and told a little of the last walk in the book, Print, as inter-tidal space is one which cannot be controlled.
At this point Olivia Laing started to ask both men questions. it was lovely to see that Robert always waited for Ronald to speak first. Robert had, he told us, visited Ronald whilst in the early stages of writing The Old Ways, returning some books he had borrowed several years before and both joked about library fines. It feels an almost father/son relationship between them.
Whilst discussing their differences; the way Ronald very much stays at home and people come to him whereas Robert goes in search of people to walk with in a variety of landscapes, Ronald told the story of Helen Thomas visiting Ivor Gurney when he was incarcerated in a lunatic asylum after suffering shell shock in WW1.
Briefly, Ivor Gurney was a young admirer of Edward Thomas as well as musician and composer in his own right. Ivor had met with Thomas in Gloucestershire before the war and they had walked together.
Helen, after Edward's death went to visit him, and was shocked at his state. Wondering how she could help she returned taking some of Edwards maps with her. Spread out on his bed she showed him the footpaths he had walked with Thomas. He suddenly became animated and "walked" the paths with his fingers, for a while less tortured by his state of mind.
Ronald also spoke of John Clare, and his lack of privacy as a working ploughman.
Both agreed they needed time alone, but also the stimulation of other artists and writers as well. Robert acknowledged how much he owed to all those people he has written of in The Old Ways for opening his eyes to the variety of paths and passages.
Robert was interesting on the subject of Edward Thomas. He was drawn to him through his poetry and writings, yet found a man who wished he was the man he wasn't. Although at times nature was a solace to him, at other times Thomas felt it was indifferent to his plight. It was not until he went into the army, and over to France that the burden of expectation left him. A topic familiar to those of us reading Matthew Hollis last year.
Ronald said that the experience of war influenced how artists saw the landscape. Artist's such as the Nash's were profoundly moved by the Western Front; birds still sang there and poppies flourished despite the devastation all around.
Robert spoke of absent landscapes such as those longed for by exiles, prisoners and refugees. Again this brought him back to Thomas who felt a familiarity in the chalk landscapes of Northern France, yet with out the pressures of home.
Questions from the audience included one about landscapes on and from the water. This drew in Olivia Laing whose book To the River tells of a six day walk she made down the length of the River Ouse in Sussex one summer. Robert talked about his Broomway walk as being neither land or water, and that rivers and glaciers are the oldest routes of all. Ronald said the landscape as seen from the river is different from when viewed from land.
In all the hour and half flashed by and soon I was one among many, for the tent was full, who joined the queue for Robert Macfarlane to sign my book. Plenty went straight to the bookstall and purchased a copy of The Old Ways.
Robert was easy to talk too, and delighted to meet a Team Old Ways member. He is so overjoyed that we have started to follow so many paths of our own, above all that we "got" the book. He said there is always some apprehension just before publication day, so the First Footings on Lynne's blog were a delight to him. Judging by the response at Charleston and in this weekend's press he need worry no more.
It was pretty hot by now and when he asked where I had walked recently, I told him I had been up on Firle Beacon [a mile or so away] the day before, early in the morning. Robert looked slightly wistful and said how he would love to get up there too.
Possibly not this week or so judging by his busy pre-publication schedule.