John Armstrong’s “Conditions of Love: the Philosophy of Intimacy”

I’m not sure how it started – it’s not our usual 11 am fare – but during a coffee break at work last week a new colleague of mine started talking about a book he’d once read about love. As we wandered back to our desks he said that love changes from culture to culture, and that it has assumed a dangerous importance in modern life: we fetishize it, and believe we cannot truly be happy until we have found “the one.”

I immediately ordered a copy of the book he’d been talking about – Conditions of Love: the Philosophy of Intimacy by John Armstrong. It’s a short volume – only 160 pages – but it covers a lot of extremely interesting ground, and is a wonderful antidote to the way in which our culture does indeed put the first blaze of adoration on a pedestal; often relegating long-term, mature love to a much lower status in the process.

There’s so much here to think about. Rather like How to Live: Or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer by Sarah Bakewell, which explains various schools of philosophy in a highly entertaining and accessible way, Armstrong looks at examples taken from (amongst others) Tolstoy; Plato; Stendhal; Freud; and Shakespeare to explore the many faces of love, and its importance within Western culture. Aristotle tells us we must be virtuous to be loved, for example, whereas St. Paul tells us we must look for the good in people concealed by their failings. Stendhal tells us that a lover’s imagination crystallises the object of his affection, transforming her into an unreal ideal. Psychoanalysts have told us that our childhood relationships with our parents predetermine our relationships with our lovers, and that we can therefore be guilty of tracking childhood trauma into adult relationships. What I found most interesting, however, was the idea of responsibility that runs throughout the book.

One the problems with believing that there is one person out there who is destined for us (as Plato would have it) is that, as Armstrong wryly points out, it turns love into a treasure hunt. Love is not something which happens to us when we stumble across our perfect mate; nobody is perfect, and love has to be earned and worked for. And that is what romantic literature can sometimes entice us to forget – real love isn’t frozen forever at the point at which we first fall for someone, and it isn’t a right. As the weeks, months and years pass, love grows up with us – it is not, in Armstrong’s words, “a kind of garment which merely goes on top of, and does not in any way change, the inner person.” It takes work – a combination of all of those things championed by love’s literary mouthpieces – and it can’t feel the same forever, because we don’t stay a certain way for the duration of our lives. I particularly enjoyed his description of katabasis in this context (which I’ve now learnt means a descent of some kind):

“In the moment of katabasis we come down from the ordinary plateau of indifference, we recognize the dark background of existence – its loneliness, disappointment, fragility – and from here we see clearly just how much we really need (like the emerging melody) the hesitant tenderness of another person.”

If you have loved the same person for many years, and been loved in return, those small moments of “hesitant tenderness” might be as precious as the first flush of infatuation when you met.

It’s also very funny: John Armstrong is brilliant at poking fun at our lofty romantic ideals.

“We desire the perfect counterpart of our soul, the person who will always understand and respond. All we can actually get is someone who is, intermittently, pretty sympathetic and fairly interested and understanding – provided they have not had a hard day.”

That’s not to say he’s cynical, though. As a die-hard romantic, the two things I took away from this are that first, love is not properly personified by youthful passion. It is a fundamental need which somehow needs to find its place in our humdrum lives and changing moods; and that often isn’t very easy, because human beings are a mass of tensions and “closeness always brings us face to face with something other than we expected.” When Catullus said “odi et amo”, he was right on the money – and as such the hard-won love which has lasted through the years, no matter how many times it has had to transform itself to survive, is a very special thing indeed and should be celebrated. Secondly, love is an achievement, something you earn through cultivating your own best qualities. It doesn’t just happen to you, and it won’t feel the same forever – which isn’t a tragedy, or a diminishing of Keats’ “bright star”, it’s just a quiet inevitability.

Finally, just as an aside if you haven’t read Don Paterson’s poem, Poetry: A Version of Antonio Machado (which I came across in my 2015 Faber & Faber Poetry Diary), I’d certainly recommend it – especially in the context of what Armstrong is saying here. He beautifully expresses the fact that love poems tend to speak of “the atom” of love rather than its “later heat”, and closes with the lines:

Beneath the blue oblivious sky, the water
sings of nothing, not your name, not mine.

That feels like a fitting conclusion to a book which ends by saying that the search for love shouldn’t be motivated by vanity; instead “we might make a loving from a loveless life – if only we can find the right sort of talk.”

“Why Big Fierce Animals Are Rare” by Paul Colinvaux

My reading so far this year has taken me on a path through Patrick Leigh Fermor; Nick Wood; Laurie Lee; Naomi Klein; George Monbiot; and now Paul Colinvaux. It feels very much as though I have been approaching the science of conservationism and climate change backwards – the beautiful, nostalgic lyricism of PLF and Laurie Lee reminded me of just how much pleasure I take in being outside, walking through beautiful places. Naomi Klein jolted me into recognising how truly under threat that natural world is (not to mention our way of life), and George Monbiot stepped in when I was feeling helpless and nihilistic about it all, and introduced a much-needed sense of thrilling hope.

I’m sure that a lot of people have finished This Changes Everything and looked about them, frantically wondering what on earth they can do about it. I’ve spent the past few months trying to work out what to do with all of this new information. Should I try to learn about environmental law? Volunteer? Curb my consumerism (like some kind of activist Larry David)? So far, the answer has been an attempt to combine all of those things – and most recently, I’ve decided that I need to try to go back to first principles. If I really want to engage in this conversation, I know that I need to educate myself – it’s not enough just to agree with newspaper articles and books telling me that we need to divest/ avoid fracking/ stop exploiting fossil fuels/ rewild where possible as a way of injecting a bit of balance into our environment. I need to take my daydreaming, novel-loving brain and try to get it to understand something about the science.

I hope to study Biology A-level as soon as the new curriculum has settled down and its possible to do that via distance learning, and in the meantime, I’ve signed up to do an Environmental Studies A-level over the next two years (which seems like a really good idea now, but I’m sure will feel daft when I find myself in an exam hall next summer, clasping a sweaty fountain pen and trying to remember whatever silly mnemonic unlocks my revision notes). For now, a very clever scientist I know recommended Why Big Fierce Animals Are Rare, and I have absolutely loved it.

Colinvaux’s book is essentially a series of essays which answer questions like “Why the Sea is Blue”, and “Why There Are So Many Species”; one of which is the excellently named, “The Curious Incident of the Lake in the Now Time.” Each essay is a perfect little capsule of information, clearly explained, beautifully written, and never intimidating. Big animals are so rare, he tells us, because they are limited by the supply of energy which is able to flow from the sun, through the food chain and ultimately to our largest, rarest predators. The sea is blue because only blue light is able to make the journey from the surface to the depths and black, and because there are not enough plants to make it green. The territoriality of yellowhammer birds enables pairs to establish a kind of marriage contract, and the problem with burning fossil fuels is that we are releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere more quickly than the sea can absorb it. It is full of fascinating nuggets of information which are thoroughly and most entertainingly explained, and he ends with a compelling (if rather alarming) description of the evolution of mankind and the fall of empires.

One of things I found most intriguing about the book is that it was first published in 1980 – a time when climate change theories were still relatively nascent (at least in the public consciousness). What is so interesting, and in fact so frightening, is to read passages like this, and to realise that almost nothing has been done about it during my entire lifetime:

“We are embarked on the most colossal ecological experiment of all time; doubling the concentration in the atmosphere of an entire planet of one of its most important gases; and we really have little idea of what might happen.”

A hundred pages later, he talks about the Alaskan pipeline: “I happen to think that the Alaskan pipeline is a disaster to the American heritage, both for the aesthetic damage it does to the last wilderness and for the encouragement it gives to the continued misuse of fuel reserves.”

It is precisely the argument being rehearsed now over the Keystone Pipeline (although of course there is now a great deal more urgency, because we have done nothing to reduce our consumption of fossil fuels over the last thirty five years). I don’t mean to misrepresent Colinvaux here, or to invest these quotes with an agenda – he is not an environmental campaigner and presents these facts with an academic’s eye, not as a call to arms. (It would be fascinating to hear him speak on these subjects in 2015.) But it is so interesting for an amateur like me to find the roots of current, popular science in this collection of essays – I very much had Feral in mind when I was reading the chapter called “The Succession Affair”, for example.

Paul Colinvaux’s personality informs ever page, and the science is presented with compelling conviction; he must be a very inspiring teacher. If you have any interest in the natural world, then I cannot recommend this highly enough.

(Postscript: I loved Carolyn Scrace’s cover illustration for the Penguin 1990 edition. Perfect.)

The Decline of Pacific Sardines

Longreads

“We believe the harm has been irreparable and will already have ramifications for decades to come,” [Geoffrey] Shester said. “We’ve basically reduced the carrying capacity of the ecosystem to support the populations of other species that depend on sardines. The more fish we take, the more it is going to make that situation even worse.”

Sardines are mostly sold for bait. The fish are generally frozen in big blocks for use in commercial long-line fishing and for feed at Australian and Japanese blue fin tuna farms. There are some efforts, including among local Indian tribes, to promote it as a healthy local delicacy.

Peter Fimrite writing in the San Francisco Chronicle in April, about the Pacific sardine’s population decline, and cancelling the West Coast commercial sardine season.

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‘Left of the Bang’ by Claire Lowdon

Left of the bang: a military term for the build-up to an explosion. On a left-right time line, preparation and prevention are left of the bang; right of the bang refers to the aftermath.’

In her highly accomplished first novel, Claire Lowdon tells the story of a quartet of twenty-something Londoners trying to work their way through disastrous sex, brittle relationships, and a realization of their own failings. There is Tamsin, the musician realizing that she will never be great and who is still deeply scarred by the fact that she saw her father kissing another woman when she was a little girl. Tamsin is in a relationship with Callum, a kind, multi-talented history teacher from Glasgow who suffers from various sexual problems, which darken and escalate as the novel progresses. Callum lives with Leah, a beautiful and aloof young woman with an eating disorder, painful eczema, mania for minimalism and sexual problems of her own. And finally Chris, the bantering army officer who strives to be chivalrous and heroic, and whose aborted romantic encounter with Tamsin when they were teenagers has since led him to fixate on her as a a vision of purity, beauty and perfect womanhood.

This is a very difficult novel to pin down – it is satirical, incredibly funny, dark, honest and in places very sad; many things at once without obviously sitting in a genre. The characters themselves are a carefully-balanced blend of what you might expect from their age and environment – they are so recognizable to anyone of my generation who has spent time in London, yet at the same time almost hyper-real, exaggerated just enough to be alienating and therefore ripe for teasing. It’s a tricky balance to strike, and Claire Lowdon does it with ease.

First, the comedy. I am the same age as the author and spent most of my twenties in London, so found myself chuckling frequently in recognition (and, yes, some shame) at her skewering of a twenty-five year old’s attempts at sophistication. I’m sure that I, like so many of my contemporaries, have described Gordon’s wine bar to friends as “a real gem of a place”, as though initiating someone into a well-kept secret. I’ve spent nights in the seedy armpit of Inferno’s night-club in Clapham, and have been to parties where people have told me about their start-up company which supposedly ‘un-clutters peoples’ lives and helps them achieve minimalism’. I know for sure that I was guilty of rattling on about it when the first intake of university students who were born in the nineties appeared, as well as the fact that I once owned a pager in the dark ages before mobiles. Lowdon handles this brilliantly, though – not with an eye-rolling “weren’t we crass” sort of satire – she simply puts the words in the mouth of her characters, and lets you take from them what you will. For me, as I say, it was a delighted recognition, but the humour is by no means restricted to in-jokes for former Londoners (precisely the sort of thing which would have been sent up here). It really comes from her very astute observations – anyone who has ever been twenty-something and trying to turn themselves into a functioning, socially acceptable adult will find plenty to enjoy in that respect.

Those powers of observation, incidentally, are also used to wonderful lyrical effect here. I loved the image of a “histrionic tableau” of tulips and, on the opening page, a “bleeding toenail, open like a birthday card.” The narrative voice is almost a character of its own here – commenting, qualifying behaviour or offering insights, imbuing the story with shrewd intelligence and style. It is so assured, and full of poise – the author’s credentials as a reviewer and editor are writ large in her own novel.

And then the creeping sense of doom as the novel progresses. The characters are likeable enough to be engaging, but I don’t think the intention is that the reader will champion them. They are often vain, selfish and self-serving – in the way we would probably all be, to an extent, if our internal monologues were unveiled to an audience – but it is taken a step further, and at points each of them does something repellent. And that, I think, is one of the most powerful things about this novel. Armies of us career about cities in our early twenties, drinking too much, behaving irresponsibly, perhaps realizing that our fledgling careers are not what we thought they would be. There might have been moments when you woke up on a Sunday morning on a friend’s sofa, having lost your keys; and although you felt terrible, you were sure that you’d dodged a bullet. Perhaps the catastrophe hadn’t been entirely averted – maybe you behaved very badly, or argued with a boyfriend – but with the immortality of youth and the help of bread and ibuprofen, you were sure that no lasting damage has been done; you’d grow up eventually. In Left of the Bang, however, actions have consequences and the characters aren’t given a grace period – whatever your age some mistakes are life-altering, and the choices we make really do ripple through the years. It’s a sobering thought, and a timely one, given that we can sanitize so much of our public persona via social media now. Act as PR gurus for our own lives, as I once heard someone put it.  Some things, unfortunately, can’t be fixed by untagging a photo, and being young doesn’t absolve you from your sins.

I don’t generally read anything which is so recognizably about my own time (or at least my recent past) – but I yomped through this over the weekend. It is a fascinating, sometimes difficult, and finely wrought portrait of the children of the 1980s. What a debut.

“The Mystery of a Butcher’s Shop” by Gladys Mitchell

I read about The Mystery of a Butcher’s Shop on this excellent blog (https://bookssnob.wordpress.com/), and decided that I had to give it a go; after all, anything that is described as being “Superbly odd” on the dust-cover must be worth investigating.

As it happens, the Independent were right on the money here – this is a delightfully loopy novel, which somehow (bearing in mind that it was first published in 1930) manages to combine an Agatha Christie-style mystery with the sinister nuttiness of the League of Gentlemen. The premise is a simple one – a caddish young man called Rupert Sethleigh disappears from his home in the excellently-named Wandles Parva, shortly after which a dismembered body is found in the local butcher’s shop, sans head. The body, the police assume, must belong to the dissolute Rupert, and a roll-call of likely murderers is drawn up. The highly unusual and aged local psychoanalyst Mrs Bradley soon enters the fray, cackling her way through a series of cryptic interviews with her neighbours as she pieces together the extraordinary clues – which include a sacrificial stone; a boiled skull; a stuffed trout; a bloody suitcase; and a note saying ‘a present from Grimsby.’

In essence it is a mad romp through a very English village – so mad that by the end I must confess that I had slightly lost my grip on the slippery eel of a plot. Not that it mattered in the least – unlike a Miss Marple novel, which winches up the tension with a masterly story-line, I’d say the fun here lies more with the colourful language and kooky characters. I became extremely fond of Aubrey Harringay, for example, the precocious school-boy who deploys excellent phrases such as, “Cheese it, you stiff!” and “Stafford Major called me a bug-hunting stinker last term!” His mother, Mrs Bryce Harringay, a free-loading battle-axe who is dead set on her son having an illustrious career in politics, uses capitalisations in a way E.M. Delafield would surely be proud of – there are “Various Lies”; “Untruthful Explanations”; “Sheer Barbarity”; and “Terrible Things” – you can hear the operatic emphases whenever she opens her mouth. There is also a kleptomaniac vicar, a libidinous doctor, and one theatrical character who stalks through the novel dressed variously as a clergyman or Robin Hood. Mad as a bag of cats.

Adding to the fun is the fact that Gladys Mitchell was clearly a very fine writer – known to Philip Larkin as “The Great Gladys”, her bio in this edition explains that, ‘She studied the works of Sigmund Freud and attributed her interest in witchcraft to the influence of her friend, the detective novelist Helen Simpson.’ What an introduction. She has a fine line in Oscar Wilde-ish one-liners (‘“Father hasn’t any morals. He’s a clergyman.”’), dead-pan narration (‘“Then you et un up,” he replied pithily.’), and exquisite description (‘The leg, shapely, well gaitered, neat, and infinitely episcopal, satisfied his anxious scrutiny.’) In her more serious moments, she is extremely good at putting her finger on a particular sensation – ‘The place looked lonely, not with the loneliness and charm of quiet solitude, not even with the loneliness of death, but awesome with the loneliness of living things whose thoughts were not as hers.’). It also has one of the best openings I can remember having read in a while – managing to incorporate both the universal loathing of the beginning of the week, and my favourite of A.A. Milne’s poems:

‘It was Monday. Little requires to be said about such a day.
Charles James Sinclair Redsey, who, like Mr Milne’s Master Morrison, was commonly known as Jim, sat on the arm of one of the stout, handsome, leather-covered armchairs in the library of the Manor House at Wandles Parva, and kicked the edge of the sheepskin rug.’

If you are looking for a fun, eccentric, highly entertaining read to dip into this summer whilst you are watching cricket or drinking Pimm’s, this will do the job admirably. I could spend a very happy few weeks skipping between Mrs Bradley and Gervase Fen – what a fine Oxford vintage.

Gladys Mitchell

“Patricia Brent, Spinster” by Herbert George Jenkins

Herbert George Jenkins, interestingly one of P.G Wodehouse’s early publishers, was a very fine writer indeed. Whilst he was perhaps most famous for his characters Mr Joseph Bindle and Detective Malcolm Sage, Patricia Brent is certainly worthy of great affection.

Patricia is a twenty-four year old “spinster” living in a boarding house in London during the first world war, and working as secretary to a lacklustre politician. Possessed of a quick wit, warm heart, and highly developed sense of pride, she overhears some of her house-mates discussing her unmarried status with something approaching scorn, and immediately decides to take action. In a moment of rebellion against her mundane circumstances Patricia informs the guests of Galvin House that far from being a spinster she is in fact engaged to a Major Brown of the British Army, and that she will be dining with him the following night. Unfortunately she divulges the location of her rendezvous in the midst of her lie and when she arrives at the restaurant the next evening with the intention of having a quiet dinner alone, discovers to her horror that she has been followed by some of her more enterprising companions. Panicked, and desperate not to become an object of ridicule, she spots a soldier sitting alone and slips down into the chair opposite him. She urgently explains her predicament to the serendipitously-named Lieutenant-Colonel Bowen, who is much amused by the predicament and very taken by Miss Brent. They spend a wonderful evening together, and inevitably the young hero falls in love.

Unfortunately for Peter, who turns out to be both a decorated war hero and a Lord, Patricia is appalled by her behaviour and assumes that the man who has begun courting her in earnest thinks she must either be a floozy or a laughing stock. Her pride threatens to be an insurmountable barrier to their union, and it is only with the help of his enchanting sister Tanagra; Patricia’s closest friend, Mr Triggs; and an injured soldier called Godfrey that there is any hope of success.

This is, first and foremost, an absolutely charming, vivacious love-story. Full of wit and affection, Jenkins’ novel is peopled by a host of finely-drawn characters. Patricia has something of the Elizabeth Bennett about her, and shades of Flora Poste – she is a very intelligent woman who finds herself in the wrong circumstances, and though she is clearly much taken by Peter, refuses to relinquish either her self-respect or independence by returning his love. Peter is utterly charming throughout – kind, intelligent and almost unfailingly cheerful, he pursues Patricia with unabashed eagerness and accepts her rejections with sweet confusion. His sister Tanagra is everything you want from a young aristocrat in a romantic comedy – charming, slightly mad, a young woman who would have been perfectly at home amongst the Mitfords.

Jenkins also employs a wonderfully kooky turn of phrase, which is very much of its time – there are jokes about “a multitude of shins”; women are “as unreasonable as income tax”; Miss Wangle is “acid of speech and barren of pity”, and Patricia’s aunt is “Material, practical, level-headed, victorious, she would strip romance from a legend, or glamour from a myth.” There is the odd flash of contemporary sexism, of course – HGJ seems convinced that women are unable to experience introspection, for some reason, and much is made of the fact that one “cannot reason with a woman” – but it is good-natured, and much belied by the gumption of his heroine.

There is also a depth of meaning which is unusual in this kind of a novel. This is not just the sort of romp which might have flowed from Earl Derr Biggers’ pen; “Patricia Brent, Spinster” is set during the war, and does not sugar-coat it. Peter’s family home has been given over to convalescent, shell-shocked soldiers, and Peter and Tanagra’s great friend, the enigmatic Godfrey Elton, is recovering form an unnamed injury. There is also a keen sense of the importance of what is at stake here – as Tanagra says at one point, “happiness is not a thing to be taken lightly.” Many women of Patricia’s generation did indeed find themselves unmarried or widowed as a result of the war, and HGJ seems keenly aware of that – indeed, a sort of quiet sadness shadows the story, until you feel at points it does indeed teeter between a happy ending and a gaping “Quartet in Autumn” loneliness. By the last page, I must confess, I almost shed a tear. It is a wonderful story, and absolutely deserves to be brought back into print.

Patricia Brent, Spinster

Matsuo Basho, “The Narrow Road to the Deep North”

When Neil and I were in Scotland with his parents earlier this year, we all decided to go for what we thought would be an easy afternoon walk. We hadn’t eaten lunch and were fairly wet after a morning’s expedition down to the river to look for jumping salmon, but we had had a pint which we optimistically thought would tide us over. We set off in pairs, and expected to be no more than an hour or so.

Before long Neil and I found ourselves edging around a steep hill-face, clinging on to the heather for support as the wind began to pick up. We thought his parents would probably turn back when they saw how the path narrowed, but neither of us had any signal on our phones and we couldn’t see them, so we decided to push on and call them when we got to the end. We kept moving, but soon realised that the steep track was indicative of the difficulty of the entire route – the terrain was boggy, and we found ourselves dragging our legs through the deep, sucking mud as the rain began to fall more heavily.

After an hour or so or this kind of walking my breathing started to become ragged, and my muscles turned to jelly – I recognised the signs from my marathon training a couple of years ago, but I had never set out on a run without anything in the tank so had never hit the wall quite like this before. Neil took my hand and guided me through the hills, trying to find our path on our ropey map. We seemed to be walking for hours before finally scrambling down the steep rocks to the road below – I was still struggling to breath, and half-laughing half-crying at the ridiculous sounds I was making. Neil was heroic – completely calm throughout, even though he was worried about his parents (we still couldn’t find any signal). At points he was almost carrying me. Eventually, after about four hours, we reached the point where we thought they might be waiting for us. There were no cars in sight, the rain was thudding down, and the light was beginning to fade. Neil left me next to the village’s wooden notice-board and loped off towards the main road up the hill, in search of the car or signal. I stared down at my feet, trying to ignore the cold, and the creeping fear that he might not come back.

After about twenty minutes of this, a car pulled up next to me – it wasn’t Neil’s parents, but he’d managed to find a lovely Scottish lady at the top of the hill who’d been out checking on her sheep. She thrust a bag of chocolate biscuits into my hands and drove us to the beginning of our walk, where we hoped they would be waiting for us. Again there was no sign of them, and the lady needed to get back to her animals. So we found ourselves standing in the rain once more, trying to work out what our next move should be. Neil was very worried about his mum and dad – we didn’t know how far they’d got on the walk, and knew they’d be so concerned that they hadn’t heard from us – but he didn’t show it. Instead he put me in an abandoned phone-box to try to keep me out of rain and set off once more, trying to find some signal or a sign of the car. I stamped my feet in the puddles at the bottom of the leaking box and tried not to look at the solitary man’s glove which was floating about next to me – always a fairly sinister sight. Eventually I saw head-lights – Neil had found them, and his mum came bursting out of the car to hug me. I think I promptly burst into tears – it had been a very humbling few hours! My body never really lets me down, and I generally like to think of myself as being pretty hardy and independent. It therefore came as a shock to find that I was incapable of looking after myself, and completely reliant on Neil – and also to feel very safe at the same time. I knew he’d look after me, and I also knew I needed him too – quite a heady combination for someone who generally aims for Boudicca rather than Barbara Cartland.

On the way back to our cottage for hot baths and large whiskies, we stopped off at the local YMCA. Neil’s parents had told them we were missing, and they were poised and ready to call mountain rescue if we hadn’t shown up in the next half an hour. Neil and his dad ran in to let them know we were safe, and when Neil got back into the car he handed me a chocolate bar and a copy of “The Narrow Road to the Deep North“, which he’d bought from the YMCA’s reception.

Which is a long-winded way of saying that our copy of this book has a fairly dramatic back-story!

I found the context for Basho’s work, which combines prose and a series of haiku, completely fascinating. In the late seventeenth century he set off on a walk through northern Japan, as a way of trying to combat his melancholy and to reach some kind of poetic truth. It was a very dangerous thing to do – these roads were not walked to pleasure – and the area of northern Japan he decided to explore was essentially synonymous with the wild.

There is an elegant simplicity to Basho’s text – through the prose and poetry he offers a series of vignettes rather than a story – and I understand from Nobuyuki Yuasa’s introduction that the verse would be full of symbolism. To me, as someone reading the text in translation and with an alien ear, the most appealing thing about it is the visual detail rather than the symbolic meaning, which I fear went over my head. I got the sense that this is one of those texts which it is difficult to appreciate fully in another language, but the sentiment is beautiful. I love the image of a man setting out for the wilderness, worlds away from the England which was going through the Glorious Revolution, as a tonic to sadness. The poetry is so vivid that you feel as though you are looking at the scene through Basho’s eyes – until he blinks, and its gone.

Over the darkened sea,

Only the voice of a flying duck

Is visible – in soft white.

He is part of the great, walking, writing tradition – from Dante’s journey through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven in search of God to Cheryl Strayed walking through her grief, it is, it seems, a universal impulse. As the postscript says so beautifully, “There are also times when we feel like taking to the road ourselves, seizing the raincoat lying near by, or times when we feel like sitting down till our legs take root, enjoying the scene we picture before our eyes. Such is the beauty of this little book that it can be compared to the pearls which are said to made by the weeping mermaids in the far-off sea.”

Basho 2

Basho portrait by Hokusai (ca 1840)