“Whether our work leads to victory becomes irrelevant to us” Jeffrey Bilbro on the happy loser

I am not (yet) familiar with the work of Wendell Berry, though I think I am going to make it my business to be. Berry is the inspiration of this wonderful essay by Jeffery Bilbro . As Bilbro tweets:

This is one of those pieces that “read the whole thing” applies to, in spades. While Berry is obviously the inspiration for this piece, and quotes from him serve as the connective tissue of the argument, it is not really a piece “about” Berry:

Both sides claim that we cannot be happy or hopeful unless “we” are winning. And both sides tend to paint grim pictures of “American carnage” to show how much we are suffering and how badly we need to do something so that we can start winning.

But what if we turned our attention away from the latest indications of whether we’re winning or losing and instead focused on practicing good work where we are? It is in this vein that Wendell Berry speaks about the need to resist both optimism and pessimism. While these may seem like opposite postures, both stem from a fixation on metrics and quantities: I’m optimistic if I expect to win and pessimistic if I expect to lose. As Berry puts it, “Optimism and pessimism are based on the idea of how things are [going to] turn out.”

In one of those odd synchronous coincidences, I read Jean Giono’s “The Man Who Planted Trees” just last Friday, and here he pops up in this piece, in a quote from Berry.

Happiness is a great mental faculty. It happens. One of the best things I know about happiness is that some days I’m happy… I don’t have anything in particular to be happy about or happier than I was yesterday, but I’m happy. I read that the French novelist Jean Giono … said in 1954, 1954, “I’ve been happy for the last 30 or 40 years.” Well, you know what happened in the 30 or 40 years before 1954. I just love him for that… . That just turned me upside-down when I read that. Well, what a great thing that is. Suppose you’re supremely happy for just five minutes, that just destroys everybody who’s trying to sell you something to make you happy. How subversive. Let me tell you young people, it’s possible sometimes to go for a whole day and be happy and not buy a thing.

This article is not a call to quietist arms, so to speak:

Subversive happiness is not quietist or passive. Berry has himself participated in sit-ins and protests and has penned his share of manifestos, but he doesn’t rest his hopes on these tactics. Indeed, happiness provides a very different motivation for our work than does optimism or pessimism. Happiness leads us to do good work because it is good; because it brings joy; because it deserves our attention and energy.

Whether our work leads to victory becomes irrelevant to us.

This reminds me of the famous accounts of medieval craftsmen labouring over statuary which would stand hundreds of feet above them, and devoting as much attention to the backs of these statues as the faces. What Bilbro conveys to me – and which, I presume, is a main theme of Berry (though I better read him to be able to pontificate more!) is the sheer subversion – in the true, proper sense – of this stance on life. Reminds me too of a passage from “The Monks of Tibhirine: Faith, Love and Terror in Algeria”  by John W Kiser:

I also began to better understand why my exposure to the Trappist culture had a certain resonance for me. Simplicity is one reason. Doing less, not more, and doing those fewer things more intensely, are values in perpetual struggle in a world that is always offering more – more activities, more choices, more means of communication, things that distract and require decisions. Trappists have stripped their lives down to a simple triad of prayer, study and manual labour. They have made only one decision: to love and praise God in the  Trappist way

This monastic mission is a deeply subversive one. And it also reminded me of another recent read, Geoffrey Moorhouse’s , “Sun Dancing” about life on Skellig Michael, especially the story of the Culdee Aedh, whose extremism in the name of asceticism – which has disastrous results – is surely a manifestation of “winning” as a summum bonum  There are many many other examples – and perhaps this is an eternal human temptation rather than a specific feature of modernity – but it is one which the world of Likes and Retweets and Going Viral intensifies greatly.


More thoughts on forest bathing

I have posted before on “forest bathing”; the first post being perhaps a little over-critical of the potential for over-therapeutising what is essentially an attentive walk in the woods, the the second more celebratory.

Since then I have spent more time in the woods, both alone and with family. I suppose my initial resistance to the “forest bathing” concept was grounded in a fear that, as can often happen, an activity worthwhile for its own sake becomes taken over by purported health benefits.

Yet being aware of the concept of forest bathing – and the concomitant sense that This Is Good For You – hasn’t dimmed my enjoyment. Now I see forest bathing as less a “therapy” than a call to engagement in the world, and in the world of nature in particular. It is easy to be cynical about the whole concept of “nature” and “the natural” and every landscape in these islands (aside from some mountaintops and islands) has been profoundly, often decisively, shaped by humans. And yet, we tend to recognise “nature” easily. For me, increasingly nature is not the absence of human influence, but an arena whereby we are faced with the passage of the day, the seasons, the changing elements, without the filters and screenings of urbanity.

Photos from Lough Mohra Looped Walk route, Waterford

An eerie silence in the garden.

Early today I saw a rustle in the patch of grass in the middle of the garden, and a cat emerged, lethargically fleeing. Probably not coincidentally, there were far fewer birds in the garden today, at least at the times I was looking. I know there is always a lull in summer, but I had thought it was rather later (more “High Summer” which I think of as mid-July to mid-August, than midsummer, which I think of as now) but this seemed more than that. Presumably the increase in cover (by leaving areas strategically unmowed) as well as its various benefits, also provides more cover for my feline non-friends. And there is a strange air that Something Has Happened, that the birds are staying away… or perhaps it is the heavy weather. Or perhaps, some kind of projection?

There is is again, that fear of one’s own perceptions and intuitions when it comes to the natural world.

The Lonely Planet Guide to Experimental Travel. SAU Blog Sept 2005

I have always been irritated by the use of “tourist” and “touristy” as terms of abuse. Better the honest-to-goodness tourist than the self-righteous (and probably utterly deluded about “authenticity”) traveler, as I state below. Originally posted here, this is a book part of me was inclined to love and part of me was inclined to hate even before opening the cover. My inner curmudgeon and inner dreamer are perhaps never so clearly in conflict in anything else I have written.


My mixed feelings about surrealism (short version: a little goes a long way) are also evident. Overall, although the book itself is long gone from my personal library (loaned to someone and never sought back) I reckon that the prose style, from the excerpts I have preserved here, are what did it for me.



The Lonely Planet Guide to Experimental Travel
by Rachel Antony and Joel Henry
Pp 224. London: Lonely Planet, 2005
Paperback, £9.99

God bless the honest-to-goodness tourist! For there is something refreshing about simply going to Paris to see the Mona Lisa and the Eiffel Tower, or to New York to see the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State. There’s something repellent about the self-conscious “traveller”, boring one to death about their bus trip from Alice Springs, or even worse as a travelling companion – endlessly searching for an “authentic” place to eat, and rejecting all the perfectly attractive choices for failing to meet this criterion. Other people’s dreams, other people’s tales of intoxication and other people’s travel tales – the three greatest sources of boredom in the modern world.

Of course, there are genuine travellers who should not have their reputations besmirched by association with the poseurs and bores. There are travellers for whom respect for other cultures is not a mere cliché, and travel is not an ostentatious gesture of difference but a genuine imperative. Therefore I will refer to the “traveller” in inverted commas throughout, to distinguish this type from the worthier form of traveller. The “traveller” is the Pharisee of the modern religion of tourism.

Alex Garland’s The Beach became a staple part of the backpacking experience. A book that is essentially about the futility of the backpacking quest for the authentic, for the perfect escape – and what’s more, is about how this search destroys what it sets out to find – became part of the tool kit, so to speak. Backpacking has become a victim of its own success. The gap year in Australia has become such a cliché that I would recommend to young readers who wish to “find themselves” that they stay at home and go straight to college or work in the bank or something. Thailand, and gradually the rest of South East Asia, has become a standard summer holiday destination.

Like the artist or writer who prizes “originality” above all else, the “traveller” must work hard at avoiding the snare of tourism. Lonely Planet have become one of the more lasting (for The Beach‘s vogue seems to have gone) staples of the backpacker set. Indeed, someone I know pours scorn on the Lonely Planetification of the world, and in Australia it rapidly becomes irritating to see every gap year and year out person toting around the same fat Lonely Planetguide. Somewhat unfair to a perfectly adequate, although rather worthy, series of guidebooks.

Lonely Planet, cleverly enough, have co-opted one of the movements that inevitably have sprung up contrariwise to its Weltanschauung. In 1990, Joel Henry, who bears a certain resemblance to a milder looking version of his fellow countryman and veteran trasher of McDonaldses Jóse Bové, founded Latrouex (Laboratory of Experimental Travel) in Strasbourg. As Henry whimsically notes:

We happened to be on board a barge-cum-restaurant with the fateful name of the Why Not?, and were talking about the approaching summer holidays. We were joking about the role of the tourist we were soon going to have to adopt once again, willing victims of the tourism industry’s conveyor belt. Devotees of games that we were, we began to imagine amusing variations on the themes typically thrown up by tour operators. Somewhere between the fruit platter and the cheese, we began to sketch out what would become Latrouex’s founding experiment.Our initial experiment inverted the idea of the guided tour group by inviting whoever wished to come along on a visit to a foreign town, with the twist that each person would make their journey not as a group, but under their own steam. We chose Zurich, in Switzerland, a city that none of us had previously visited. As part of their mission, participants had to visit the city conscientiously, taking full advantage of whatever touristic, cultural and gastronomic treasures it had to offer..

Sounds exciting, non? However in case you’re thinking Latourex’s founding experiment sounds suspiciously like honest-to-goodness tourism:

They were also required to make a literary – or even artistic – contribution, consisting of a brief description of their travels written on the back of a postcard, bought from a souvenir stall.

Radical. Over time, the Latrourexians embarked on somewhat more interesting adventures – developing the various games featured inThe Lonely Planet Guide to Experimental Travel. They are perfectly aware that they are not really innovators – acknowledging their debt to the Surrealists, Situationists, Fluxus, and Oulipo, amongst other–ists and groups sounding like laxatives. The Oulipo author Harry Mathews, in his recent My Life in CIA, describes something very similar to the Latourex concept.

Now I’m usually a sucker for these kind of things. There’s something attractive about the Latourex concept, something of the Chesterton of The Club of Queer Trades and his other, sunny fictions touched more by buoyancy than nightmare. And who has not spent some time playing Exquisite Cadavers, the Surrealist game which involves writing a sentence or paragraph, folding the page to hide all but the final words, passing it to a companion who does the same and passing the paper on, thus ultimately creating a jolly little tale?

Surrealism is an oddly unproductive set of techniques. The initial rush of novelty and amusement at the odd combinations thrown up by Exquisite Cadavers fairly quickly gives way to boredom. The avant-garde, ironically, has barely changed throughout the last century. There is simultaneously something very dated and very timeless about experiments in automatic writing, group writing, and the rest. On the one hand, nothing is as dated as yesterday’s cutting-edge, as a quick look at any Sixties “experimental” movie will confirm.

On the other, surrealist techniques, based as they are on perpetual goading of convention, are extremely easy to apply in any subsequent era. Conceptual art has evolved very little from Marcel Duchamp’s urinal – a gesture that could be repeated today and seem just as “relevant”, “shocking” and, well, boring. Equally, poems using the “cut up technique” are as possible – and just as uninteresting – today.

This is all testament to the essential sterility of Surrealism in art and literature. The Lonely Planet Guide to Experimental Travel is testament to its strange ability to drain such a promisingly entertaining premise of any entertainment. The meat of the book consists of descriptions of forty “Experiments”. Each experiment is described on two pages, although most descriptions are really very brief and padded out with elaborate design. For instance:

BLIND MANS BLUFF TRAVELHYPOTHESIS: Explore and experience a new place without seeing it.

APPARATUS: A friend to guide you and a blindfolding mechanism of some kind.

METHOD: Spend 24 hours blindfolded in a new location.

The author’s describe this as “an extreme form of Experimental Travel and not recommended for amateurs”. Certainly not one for Baghdad, unless you want to save the hostage-takers a certain amount of bother. Another example:

BARMAN’S KNOCKHYPOTHESIS: Find the area’s best drinking spots (and drinks) by following the advice of a local expert.

APPARATUS: Dutch courage, a map and a friendly face may also be of use.

METHOD: Go to your favourite pub and order your favourite drink. Ask the barperson [sic] where their favourite pub is and what they drink there. Go there and order their recommended drink, and then repeat the exercise with whoever serves you, and so on.

Note: participants would be well advised not to attempt the experiment on an empty stomach, nor to repeat it ad nauseam.

We wouldn’t want things to get too experimental, would we? After the description of each experiment, there follows the more irritating segment, the “Laboratory Results”. The Lonely Planet empire managed to recruit various punters to play each game, and to contribute an essay on their result. Tom, who played Barman’s Knock in London, dolefully reported:

We were served by Jonny, possibly Spanish, who directed us (rather unimaginatively, we thought) to the Fine Line chain pub. In the Fine Line we dutifully ordered vodka and Red Bull, and tried to avoid watching the last-ever episode of Friends on the big screen.

Could any two sentences sum up the less attractive side of the “traveller, not tourist” mentality? Such are the risks of Experimental Tourism for a “traveller”; one might end up watching a popular sit-com in a popular chain pub! Greater love hath no man. Most of the “Laboratory Results” are in a similar vein, purring with self-satisfaction and managing to make the games sound less than thrilling.

So, how was it for me? The first one I tried was Literary Tourism:

Hypothesis: Travel around the world via a bookshelf.Apparatus: You will need a bookshelf containing books, plus a pen and paper to keep track of your journey.

Method: Choose a book from the bookshelf and commence reading. Continue reading until a foreign country is mentioned in the text. Then choose a second book that’s somehow related to the country and begin reading again. Repeat until you have either returned to your point of origin or have completed one circumnavigation of the globe.

I discovered that I own far too few books on China, in fact rather embarrassingly only Ian Buruma’s Bad Elements. Walking around Dublin lent itself to Alternating Travel:

HYPOTHESIS: Discover your own or a foreign town by following alternating travel directions.APPARATUS: The ability to tell your left from your right.

METHOD: Leave your home on foot. Take the first road on the right, then the next on the left, then the next on the right, then the next on the left, and so on. Carry on until something – a no-man’s land, a building or a stretch of water – blocks your path and you can go no further.

This did reveal a hidden Dublin – however it turned out to be the same dead-end of hidden Dublin each time. Exquisite Corpse Gadabout, the book’s travel version of Exquisite Cadavers, did throw up some interesting outings. In theory. Will my bunch of friends and I ever really go to the Dublin Port oil refinery for a picnic wearing evening dress and carrying umbrellas, or play Twister outside the American Embassy carrying flowers and wearing wellington boots?

There’s a money for old rope quality to this book. The “games” that are of any real interest can be summed up thus:

Lose yourself in a city – any city. Do something unexpected. Wander around randomly. Or use some kind of algorithm – like taking alternate left-right turns – to wander around.

Leave out the “Laboratory Results” and the whimsical design (reminiscent of McSweeney’s and The Baffler) and the most stimulating thing about the books – the games themselves – would take up a sub-2000 word feature in a newspaper.

Reading through a book which I bought impulsively, and with a certain amount of expectation (as I said, I’m a sucker for this kind of thing), was saddening. I began to realise what made this seem less like the glorious Chestertonian adventure and more like, well, the dogged approach of the “traveller”. A book which tells you how to have a glorious, whimsical adventure will fail by definition. If only Latourex had remained forever obscure, and resisted the temptation to expose itself in the Lonely Planet universe! Bound in hard covers with prim little essays by “Experimental Tourists” it seems a very pallid and pointless series of undertaking.

There is one game featured whose conception genuinely impressed me, and indeed made me wish that I had the most important prerequisite to take part.

ERO TOURISMHYPOTHESIS: Discover a city while looking for love.

APPARATUS: A partner (lover or friend) and a destination

METHOD: Arrange to take a holiday with your partner. Travel there separately by different means and don’t arrange a meeting time or place. Now look for each other.

Now isn’t that sweet. I guess you’d have to be pretty sure of your lover though…

Robert MacFarlane’s “Landmarks” and the literature of nature

I should love Robert MacFarlane’s “Landmarks”, but it is proving strangely difficult to get through. Normally I reserve any kind of reviewing judgment on books until I have completely finished them; but in this case, it is proving something of a chapter by chapter slog. I enjoyed “Mountains of the Mind” and the other bits and pieces of MacFarlane I have read over the years (particularly this ) I also had found one of the other supposed classics of New Nature Writing, Helen McDonald’s H for Hawk, almost unreadable.

“Landmarks” isn’t unreadable, but strangely plodding. Chapters on nature writers – Nan Shepherd, Roger Deakin, J.A. Baker – alternate with a catalogue of terms for landscape from around Britain (broadly defined!) in English, Scots Gaelic, Irish and various dialects. I admire MacFarlane’s work in cataloguing these vanishing terms, and I for one do not need to be persuaded of their value. Of course, a catalogue is a catalogue, and these sections are admirable rather than engaging.

Macfarlane does tend towards a certain armchair psychologising of his literary subjects; we read that Baker’s physical infirmities drove him to identify with the soaring, blade-sharp elegance of the peregrine. This may be so, but serves to somewhat undermine Baker’s achievement.

I had read Dominic Green’s piece on the “New Nature Writing” which crystallised some of my thoughts on the genre, partly by distilling much in a handy package, and also acting as a foil to some of my more Romantic inclinations. Green finds much of the New Nature Writing is Writing About Writing:


Since my family shed their rags, I am now mostly white, very middle-class, and usually English enough, in a Jewish kind of way. Last summer, I stayed with friends in a decommissioned vicarage outside Oxford. At tea, we talked about Henry James against a timeless backdrop of sheep and rusting agricultural equipment. At home in my Hebraic urban fastness, I enjoy nothing more than a good book about books. But when it comes to the country, I am with Karl Marx. Urbanization liberated us from “the idiocy of rural life.”


There is an (inevitable?) elegaic aspect to the entire Nature Writing enterprise, as Green writes:

The only way to have rural life without the idiocy is to take your library with you, as Waugh did when he set up at Stinchcombe. This, metaphorically speaking, is what Robert Macfarlane has done—and what the New Nature cohort are doing. They are doing it as well as it can be done, under the circumstances. But there is no way back to the old ways, for good or bad. It is a hundred years since Yeats, having pared back his style after wintering with Pound in the Hundred-Acre Wood, wrote that “Old England is dying.” Today, Ashdown is a stop on the high-speed Channel Tunnel Rail Link. As the nature writers say, the English are up a creek without a paddle.


Green also has a put-down for one of Macfarlane’s more fanciful sorties:


“It is kind of Macfarlane to write that loanwords from “Chinese, Urdu, Korean, Portuguese, and Yiddish are right now being used to describe the landscapes of Britain and Ireland.” But I don’t believe him. I wonder whether he really believes it, either.”

Perhaps there is too much reverence in MacFarlane’s account of his great predecessors. Perhaps, too, the concern with Englishness and Britishness that pervades these works, the placing of nature writing within the various traditions that MacFarlane identifies, is somewhat alienating.
For something is missing from both Dominic Green’s picture and the New Nature Writing. As I previously wrote in a comment on the Dabbler blog:

While I enjoyed Green’s essay (and particularly his observations that so much of contemporary “nature writing” is actually writing about nature writing, I do find that there is something missing in this oft-held view that nature and wildness are things we only learnt to recognise, let alone appreciate in late modernity, and in Green (and others) relentless harping on the class and power elements of nature writing (I’m not denying that they are there) to the exclusion of something more mysterious, more elemental. There is so much said and written about “the Other”, when one of the greatest Others of human existence is the Other of the natural world, and particular the conciousness of the other living things around us. Finding this mysterious and worthy of exploration is not necessarily the same thing as blindly celebrating it in some human-hating way.

The context of this comment is Brit’s Dabbler diary in which he comments:


Everyone should have one saintly nemesis. Christopher Hitchens had Mother Theresa, I’ve got Sir David Attenborough. The Hunt (Sunday, 9pm BBC One): what a load of rubbish. One Star. Its a Time-Wasting Place etc.

Well of course the camerawork is amazing, yada yada yada. But I can’t get with Attenborough’s bassackwards, borderline evil view of existence. St David, remember, is patron of an organisation dedicated to reducing the numbers of humans on the planet and who has described our species as ‘a plague on earth’. Other historical figures have been criticised for that kind of attitude.

His documentaries are polite works of fiction, ascribing dubious anthropological virtues to nature (beauty, harmony, purity) while ignoring the obvious overriding one: meaningless cruelty. His editors tease us with several fruitless chases, and then when the arctic fox finally gets the bunny, we pull away from the beautiful, pure, harmonious shots of munched guts and get a bit of David apologetically explaining that the wee arctic fox cubs would otherwise starve in the long winter.

Beautiful? Harmonious? Circle of effing life? Doesn’t Attenborough even watch his own programmes? Nature, as I have argued before, is irredeemably horrible and man is the only creature worth a damn. Nature can go to… No, hang on, I’ve got it… of course!

Nature is Hell.

Brit is referring to Attenborough’s links to Population Matters as discussed in another Dabbler piece:

The ultimate failure of Malthus and Ehrlich is a lack of faith in humans. Of course we’re capable of horror but if you want to find kindness anywhere on the planet you’ll need to turn to your own species. And your natural wonders are all very well but don’t forget the Sistine Chapel, the works of Shakespeare and Beethoven, St Paul’s Cathedral (when you can get the anti-capitalists out of the way of it), rock ‘n’ roll and The Dabbler. And Frozen Planet, a fine piece of human romanticism. Glaciers do have great beauty, especially in artificial, computer-enhanced high definition, but only people can see it. Don’t wish us away too soon, David.

This essay by Mark Cocker in the New Statesman perhaps captures why I am resistant to both Macfarlane and Helen McDonald’s H for Hawk. There’s a tameness, a sense of not just nature writing but nature itself being a branch of literature.

On top of this, there is a thread of concern with Britishness and more specifically Englishness running through this literature. I am generally suspicious of attempts to overly identify Irish conditions as unique and separate from those elsewhere. Our media and cultural life tends to a certain literal insularity, which is understandable and I suppose literally trueI don’t believe in Irish exceptionalism, and clearly the nations on these islands have a deeply interweaved natural  as well as cultural and political history. Just as Ireland’s industrial heritage is oft-ignored for post colonial reasons (already the 1916 centenary seems to be taking an awful lot of the historical oxygen out of the room) , our natural history heritage is somewhat ignored in a wider cultural context. I posted here about Knockroe Passage Tomb which I am confident would be widely celebrated in the UK; here it is simply down a muddy lane, without benefit of signpost. I am not necessarily condemning this, and indeed there is something positive about how one often sees megaliths and towerhouses and other structures as part of working fields, or cheek by jowl with farm buildings, rather than being hived off as “heritage.”


One of the most formidable challenges to any writer (or any artist) is writing about nature in a way that balances the inevitable, inescapable human subjectivity of the experience with the raw, alien otherness of other species. I am impressed with the authors Macfarlane cites, especially Baker, and their keen, intense attempts to bridge this gap.

“The Gap in The Curtain”, John Buchan


Inspired by this post on The Dabbler , I purchased the slightly incongruously named Sir Edward Leithen Megapack a while back. I was using the comments section of the same Dabbler post to update an indifferent world on my progress:


Followed your advice and picked up one of the Kindle “megapacks” of Sir Edward stories. With delight I discovered that within “The Power-House” there lies a quote which I knew was Buchan’s but never knew the original source (or context) – the one about the “sheet of glass” between civilization and barbarism. Like many of the oft-quoted Wilde aphorisms about art and decadence and so forth, it is actually spoken by the villain of the work.

Reading through “John McNab” currently, an enjoyable example of what is now surely a near defunct genre (though naturally there must be a niche of self publishing devoted to it) – the huntin’, shootin’, fishin’ novel. Recently I read Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac, a pivotal work of literary environmentalism (from 1948) I am told, and was struck by how unselfconciously Leopold shoots this and that (with a certain amount of philosophising, but not with moral agonising) and refers to the “sportsman” (ie hunter) without automatic moral revulsion.

The lack of comments didn’t stop me persisting:

“The Dancing Floor” is next in my megapack, and just read it through – a good sense of the book can be gleaned from this review: http://www.vintagenovels.com/2012/09/the-dancing-floor-by-john-buchan.html – it is a rather extraordinary cross between a fictive Golden Bough and a sort of proto-Wicker Man. “John McNab” reads rather like a hearty reassertion of the values of huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’ after the Great War, but “The Dancing Floor” is close to an exercise in the sort of mysticism that was also a popular reaction to the war – cf the spiritualism of Conan Doyle, the fairy photos championed by Conan Doyle, the [mystical type thing] of Conan Doyle etc.

The comments section on The Dabbler is now closed, so my further Leithen thoughts are now only available here. The Gap in the Curtain is the next Leithen novel. Once again, Sir Edward is struck by ennui and overwork. This was also the case for him at the outset of John McNab, and reminded me of Richard Hannay at the beginning of The Thirty-Nine Steps:

I returned from the City about three o’clock on that May afternoon pretty well disgusted with life. I had been three months in the Old Country, and was fed up with it. If anyone had told me a year ago that I would have been feeling like that I should have laughed at him; but there was the fact. The weather made me liverish, the talk of the ordinary Englishman made me sick. I couldn’t get enough exercise, and the amusements of London seemed as flat as soda-water that has been standing in the sun. ‘Richard Hannay,’ I kept telling myself, ‘you have got into the wrong ditch, my friend, and you had better climb out.’


At a country house weekend, he and some similarly afflicted companions agree to subject themselves to an experiment by a Professor Moe, a Scandinavian physicist whose reputation is puffed as a sort of Einstein. Moe is developing a theory of time and subjects his subjects to a series of psychological experiments intended to enable them to see a page of The Times a year in advance.

The novel has a blend of quasi-mysticism and hard-headed worldliness that makes it something in between the two previous Sir Edward novels. Leithen himself steps back from the experiment just before the decisive moment, but four of his companions have firm visions of The Times. Two have worldly, career-focused visions, while two foresee the announcement of their own death. Moe himself dies at the climactic moment of the experiment.

Buchan’s own experience of the world of business and politics come to the fore in the following two sections – the visionaries pursue the consequences of their vision, but as anyone who recalls Birnam Wood and Dunsinane, or indeed almost any literary prediction, could tell them, foreknowledge is not always fore-wisdom. This is even more the case for the two visionaries whose own death seemed foretold.

In The Dancing Floor there is a quote which I previously used in a blog post  on the Great War:

There has been a good deal of nonsense talked about the horror of war memories and the passionate desire to bury them. The vocal people were apt to be damaged sensitives, who were scarcely typical of the average man. There were horrors enough, God knows, but in most people’s recollections these were overlaid by the fierce interest and excitement, even by the comedy of it. At any rate that was the case with most of my friends, and it was certainly the case with me.


Another Dancing Floor quote is also to the point:

You remember that curious summer of 1919 when everybody was feverishly trying to forget the war. They were crazy days, when nobody was quite himself. Politicians talked and writers wrote clotted nonsense, statesmen chased their tails, the working man wanted to double his wages and halve his working hours at a time when the world was bankrupt, youth tried to make up for the four years of natural pleasure of which it had been cheated, and there was a general loosening of screws and a rise in temperature.

The effects seem to have gone beyond the summer of 1919 – possibly indeed they are still with us. Sir Edward Leithin – initially seeming so solid, so Tory-ish – has a mental world characteristic of this kind of restless seeking. Of course, the restlessness of Hannay was in a pre-war setting in a book written during, rather than after the War. And ennui is far from a unique condition of the 20th and 21st centuries. Nevertheless, The Gap in the Curtain seems to capture something of the post WWI era (which we still live in, of course) with its mix of mystic yearning and hard-headedness, thrill-seeking and longing for certainty.


Five years have past; five summers, with the length
      Of five long winters! and again I hear
      These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs
      With a soft inland murmur.--Once again
      Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,
      That on a wild secluded scene impress
      Thoughts of more deep seclusion; and connect
      The landscape with the quiet of the sky.
      The day is come when I again repose
      Here, under this dark sycamore, and view                       
      These plots of cottage-ground, these orchard-tufts,
      Which at this season, with their unripe fruits,
      Are clad in one green hue, and lose themselves
      'Mid groves and copses. Once again I see
      These hedge-rows, hardly hedge-rows, little lines
      Of sportive wood run wild: these pastoral farms,
      Green to the very door; and wreaths of smoke
      Sent up, in silence, from among the trees!
      With some uncertain notice, as might seem
      Of vagrant dwellers in the houseless woods,                    
      Or of some Hermit's cave, where by his fire
      The Hermit sits alone.
                              These beauteous forms,
      Through a long absence, have not been to me
      As is a landscape to a blind man's eye:
      But oft, in lonely rooms, and 'mid the din
      Of towns and cities, I have owed to them
      In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
      Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;
      And passing even into my purer mind,
      With tranquil restoration:--feelings too                     
      Of unremembered pleasure: such, perhaps,
      As have no slight or trivial influence
      On that best portion of a good man's life,
      His little, nameless, unremembered, acts
      Of kindness and of love. Nor less, I trust,
      To them I may have owed another gift,
      Of aspect more sublime; that blessed mood,
      In which the burthen of the mystery,
      In which the heavy and the weary weight
      Of all this unintelligible world,                            
      Is lightened:--that serene and blessed mood,
      In which the affections gently lead us on,--
      Until, the breath of this corporeal frame
      And even the motion of our human blood
      Almost suspended, we are laid asleep
      In body, and become a living soul:
      While with an eye made quiet by the power
      Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
      We see into the life of things.
                                       If this
      Be but a vain belief, yet, oh! how oft--                     
      In darkness and amid the many shapes
      Of joyless daylight; when the fretful stir
      Unprofitable, and the fever of the world,
      Have hung upon the beatings of my heart--
      How oft, in spirit, have I turned to thee,
      O sylvan Wye! thou wanderer thro' the woods,
      How often has my spirit turned to thee!
        And now, with gleams of half-extinguished thought,
      With many recognitions dim and faint,
      And somewhat of a sad perplexity,                            
      The picture of the mind revives again:
      While here I stand, not only with the sense
      Of present pleasure, but with pleasing thoughts
      That in this moment there is life and food
      For future years. And so I dare to hope,
      Though changed, no doubt, from what I was when first
      I came among these hills; when like a roe
      I bounded o'er the mountains, by the sides
      Of the deep rivers, and the lonely streams,
      Wherever nature led: more like a man                         
      Flying from something that he dreads, than one
      Who sought the thing he loved. For nature then
      (The coarser pleasures of my boyish days,
      And their glad animal movements all gone by)
      To me was all in all.--I cannot paint
      What then I was. The sounding cataract
      Haunted me like a passion: the tall rock,
      The mountain, and the deep and gloomy wood,
      Their colours and their forms, were then to me
      An appetite; a feeling and a love,                           
      That had no need of a remoter charm,
      By thought supplied, nor any interest
      Unborrowed from the eye.--That time is past,
      And all its aching joys are now no more,
      And all its dizzy raptures. Not for this
      Faint I, nor mourn nor murmur, other gifts
      Have followed; for such loss, I would believe,
      Abundant recompence. For I have learned
      To look on nature, not as in the hour
      Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes                 
      The still, sad music of humanity,
      Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power
      To chasten and subdue. And I have felt
      A presence that disturbs me with the joy
      Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
      Of something far more deeply interfused,
      Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
      And the round ocean and the living air,
      And the blue sky, and in the mind of man;
      A motion and a spirit, that impels                           
      All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
      And rolls through all things. Therefore am I still
      A lover of the meadows and the woods,
      And mountains; and of all that we behold
      From this green earth; of all the mighty world
      Of eye, and ear,--both what they half create,
      And what perceive; well pleased to recognise
      In nature and the language of the sense,
      The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,
      The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul                
      Of all my moral being.
                              Nor perchance,
      If I were not thus taught, should I the more
      Suffer my genial spirits to decay:
      For thou art with me here upon the banks
      Of this fair river; thou my dearest Friend,
      My dear, dear Friend; and in thy voice I catch
      The language of my former heart, and read
      My former pleasures in the shooting lights
      Of thy wild eyes. Oh! yet a little while
      May I behold in thee what I was once,                       
      My dear, dear Sister! and this prayer I make,
      Knowing that Nature never did betray
      The heart that loved her; 'tis her privilege,
      Through all the years of this our life, to lead
      From joy to joy: for she can so inform
      The mind that is within us, so impress
      With quietness and beauty, and so feed
      With lofty thoughts, that neither evil tongues,
      Rash judgments, nor the sneers of selfish men,
      Nor greetings where no kindness is, nor all                    130
      The dreary intercourse of daily life,
      Shall e'er prevail against us, or disturb
      Our cheerful faith, that all which we behold
      Is full of blessings. Therefore let the moon
      Shine on thee in thy solitary walk;
      And let the misty mountain-winds be free
      To blow against thee: and, in after years,
      When these wild ecstasies shall be matured
      Into a sober pleasure; when thy mind
      Shall be a mansion for all lovely forms,                       140
      Thy memory be as a dwelling-place
      For all sweet sounds and harmonies; oh! then,
      If solitude, or fear, or pain, or grief,
      Should be thy portion, with what healing thoughts
      Of tender joy wilt thou remember me,
      And these my exhortations! Nor, perchance--
      If I should be where I no more can hear
      Thy voice, nor catch from thy wild eyes these gleams
      Of past existence--wilt thou then forget
      That on the banks of this delightful stream                    150
      We stood together; and that I, so long
      A worshipper of Nature, hither came
      Unwearied in that service: rather say
      With warmer love--oh! with far deeper zeal
      Of holier love. Nor wilt thou then forget,
      That after many wanderings, many years
      Of absence, these steep woods and lofty cliffs,
      And this green pastoral landscape, were to me
      More dear, both for themselves and for thy sake!