Friday, 6 January 2017

Christopher Somerville's 'The January Man'...Reviewed

Travel writer Christopher Sommerville, is best known for his walking features in newspapers like The Times and his fairly extensive catalogue of walking guidebooks and coffee table tomes. However, The January Man is something of a departure in that it is a highly personal account of a walking year which uses the well known folk song which gives the book its title, as a key which holds together the walking narrative with a highly personal account of his, at times, difficult relationship with his father.

From the breaking year when ‘The January Man, he walks abroad in woollen coat and boots of leather’ to dark December when ‘December man looks through the snow to let eleven brothers know, they’re all a little older’, the author wanders across the landscapes and timescapes of his life to bring places and the living and the dead into focus. His travels take in those areas which lend themselves to Dave Goulder's seasonal song cycle. From the sombre grey flood plains of his childhood haunts on the River Severn to the high sheep country of Nidderdale in the north east of England; From the dramatic guano crusted cliffs of  Shetland to the mythical woodland of Sherwood Forest,the author brings to life each region’s unique history,its wildlife,the topographical lie of the land and the independently minded people who inhabit these often remote backwaters.

The author wanderings reveal a timeless landscape where old habits and traditions die hard and where he can often find himself face to face with old ghosts. Not least in the form of his late father, John Sommerville, who while he was alive spent most of his life hidden behind a veil of secrecy. Being in the employ of  the British intelligence and security services at GCHQ in Cheltenham where he was a senior operations manager. As a conscientious ‘spook’, his father never spoke of his work and remained a somewhat aloof and detached figure throughout his working life until after retirement, when the author and his newly liberated pater saw their relationship grow closer through their mutual love of walking.

Christopher Sommerville: Photo CS
Switching between personal accounts of his late flowering relationship with his father to contemporary wanderings ten years after his death, the author’s adventures shift seamlessly between that lost country, the past, to link in with the present where absence and the wisdom and understanding which often springs from experience, helps heal old wounds and raw emotional scars. Outside of this highly personal realm, the author never loses sight of the people and the places who inhabit the here and now, despite often touching base with the past and introducing the reader to those historical and cultural elements which helped shape the present. Bringing to life the local characters and the common folk who are inevitably fiercely proud of their region, and who remain suspicious of those individuals, organisations and political forces which threaten their identity and way of life.

Amongst these landscapes which vary from the spectacular to the mundane, and from the conversations he has with ‘the natives’, the author offers his own philosophical musings  which draw on his childhood memories and recent experiences. Even within the authors lifetime, the land and the people’s relationship to it has changed immeasurably. Yet some things appear fixed and preserved is aspic. Not least as witnessed in the books final chapter which sees the author in a traditional English pub twixt Wiltshire and Dorset, acting out the role of a Mummer..... Mummers' Plays are folk plays performed by troupes of amateur actors, traditionally all male, known as mummers or guisers (also by local names such as rhymers, pace-eggers, soulers, tipteerers, wrenboys, galoshins and guisers). It refers particularly to a play in which a number of characters are called on stage, two of whom engage in a combat, the loser being revived by a Doctor character. This play is sometimes found associated with a sword dance though both also exist in Britain independently.: Wikipedia)

Here in the green rural rides of the prosperous South-as is the case throughout the regions and nations of the UK- the old and the new are melded in a timeless ritual.

If The January Man captures anything, it is the ever changing nature of the natural environment within which we live, yet the powerful emotional forces which tie us to these places. Whatever the era, whatever the political climate, there is a thread of human experience and a spiritual dimension to these experiences which spans the generations and holds those who live in the countryside, in a timeless green maw.

The January man, he walks the road in woollen coat and boots of leather.
The February man still wipes the snow from off his hair and blows his hands.
The man of March he sees the Spring and wonders what the year will bring
And hopes for better weather.

Through April rain the man goes down to watch the birds come in to share the summer.
The man of May stands very still watching the children dance away the day.
In June the man inside the man is young and wants to lend a hand
And grins at each newcomer.

And in July the man in cotton shirt, he sits and thinks on being idle.
The August man in thousands takes the road to watch the sea and find the sun.
September man is standing near to saddle up and lead the year
And Autumn is his bridle.

And the man of new October takes the reins and early frost is on his shoulder.
The poor November man sees fire and wind and mist and rain and Winter air.
December man looks through the snow to let eleven brothers know
They're all a little older.

And the January man comes round again in woollen coat and boots of leather
To take another turn and walk along the icy road he knows so well.
The January man is here for starting each and every year
Along the way for ever.

The January Man: Dave Goulder

The January Man is published by Penguin and is available from 12th January

John Appleby: 2017