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Encounters with Boot of ‘The Beast’

I’ve had a couple of reminders recently of William Boot. Boot, you might know, even if you haven’t read Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, is the nature writer who, owing to a case of mistaken identity, is sent off to be a war correspondent. The first reminder came in Ground Work: Writings on Places and People (Jonathan Cape), an excellent new anthology edited by Tim Dee. One of Dee’s contributors, Adam Thorpe, writes of a potholed  track he used to play on as a child:

“My adventuring seas were a mundane puddle. ‘Puddle’ sounds diminutive, too like ‘piddle’; the language lacks a word for something bigger, unless we revive ‘plash’. My plash filled the chasm of an exaggerated rut…”

  Boot’s most famous line, of course, was: “Feather-footed through the plashy fen passes the questing vole…” It’s a line nodded to constantly on social media by Sam Leith, literary editor of The Spectator, whose Twitter handle is @questingvole.

  The other reminder of the unworldly Boot came when I was given one of the risk-assessment forms that media organisations (or their insurers) insist these days that travel writers complete before going off on a trip. Now, health-and-safety people get a bad rap on the basis that they’re humourless. This form suggests otherwise. It suggests the compiler had not only read Scoop but had slipped in a little homage. It has the kind of instructions that would be indispensable to a contributor who doesn’t get up to town to often. It says, among other things: 

  When using trains or buses they [journalists] will check the front of the vehicle for the journey information to ensure they do not board the wrong one. 
  Journalists will ensure they do not step too close to the platform edge when waiting for the train and will mind any gap between the platform and the train when boarding.

It’s all happening in the village

In a letter to her niece Anna in September 1814, offering tips on writing novels, Jane Austen declared: “3 or 4 families in a country village is the very thing to work on.” Villages and families and notions about what constitutes both have changed a bit since Austen’s day, but the advice still holds good.  In the Review section of The Guardian at the weekend, Xan Brooks showed how writers for stage and screen as well as novelists are currently being drawn to the village, “retreading old ground to uncover fresh stories”. Among those he mentions are Mackenzie Crook with his television sitcom about treasure hunters, Detectorists, in which there’s gentle soul-searching as well as soil-shifting, and Jon McGregor’s Costa Prize-winning Reservoir 13, which I’ve already recommended.

Banville’s (and Rosenblatt’s) Dublin

John Banville’s Time Pieces: A Dublin Memoir (published in Ireland two years ago) has just appeared in the United States. It’s reviewed glowingly in The New York Times by Roger Rosenblatt, who himself lived in Dublin in the mid-1960s. It’s a “delicious” book, he says, one that, “while offering a handful of interesting facts about Dublin, is more about moods and states of mind and how they shape, even create, the so-called real world”. The New York Times also links to a piece from its back pages, in which Banville (in 2004) reflects on youthful encounters with Dublin and Joyce’s Ulysses.

Life on the edge

The first episode in the second series of the BBC’s Earth’s Natural Wonders didn’t have the freshest of voice-overs (“dizzying array”, “race against time”, “needle in a haystack”), but it did have striking footage of people living at the extremes, from an Inuit granny in the Canadian Arctic, foraging for mussels beneath sea ice, to an Australian cowboy in Queensland, mustering cattle in the blistering bush with a low-flying helicopter. The second episode, focusing on relationships between people and animals, and including the Nenets of northern Siberia and their reindeer herds, will be screened at 9pm on Wednesday on BBC 1.

How Dublin made Sebastian Barry

Sebastian Barry, who was this week named Laureate for Irish Fiction, is the latest contributor to a “Made in…” series in the redesigned Review section of The Guardian, in which writers reflect on how childhood places have shaped them and their work. “There is no corner or street of Dublin,” he says, “that does not trail or flutter a memory.” Other contributors so far have been Jeanette Winterson on Accrington, Fiona Mozley on York and Julian Barnes on suburban London.

The rhythms of life in ‘Reservoir 13’

I’ve had little time to read fiction lately because I’ve been helping to judge the Stanford Dolman prize. One novel I have read — thanks to my younger daughter, who bought me it at Christmas from a wish list on a website that needs no plugging — is Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13 (4th Estate). I can’t recommend it highly enough. And I see from the author’s Twitter account that it’s out today in paperback.

  James Joyce once declared that “Literature deals with the ordinary; the unusual and extraordinary belong to journalism.” Reservoir 13 opens with a news story, the disappearance of a 13-year-old girl in the hills above an English village over the New Year break. The puzzle over her fate lends a quiet menace to the book, which is otherwise full of the life that doesn’t make news; with things that wouldn’t interest a reporter — except, maybe, the one living in the village who singlehandedly writes and edits and prints the Valley Echo. In Northern Ireland, where I grew up, I would come home from school and ask my mother if there was any news. Most often she would answer:  “Oh, nothin’ pass-remarkable.” Nothing worth passing remarks on. Nothing worth mentioning. McGregor, having opened with the stuff of tabloid headlines, makes compelling what shouldn’t be pass-remarkable. 

   Most of the characters in Reservoir 13 are not introduced; they appear in the story as we would happen upon them in the street if we lived in the village. The first is mentioned in passing almost, in relation to his ownership of livestock: “Jackson’s sheep had taken the fear [spooked by the search helicopter] and scattered through a broken gate, and he’d been up all hours bringing them back.” 

   A few pages later:
“Jess Hunter came over from the main house with a cup of tea…”
“One of the Jackson boys bucked a quad bike across the field and told the journalists to move.”

  As in life, so in fiction: some of these people are more memorable than others, but like a new arrival in the village you quickly figure out not only who’s who but what’s what. When you learn (or maybe that should be hear) early on that “the police held a press conference in the Gladstone”, you don’t need to be told what normally goes on there.

  Passages are written without paragraph breaks, dialogue without quotation marks, so that everything flows into everything else, everything connects: “The cement works were shut down to allow for a search. In a week the first snowdrops emerged along the verges past the cricket ground, while it seemed winter had yet a way to go.” There’s a rhythm about sentences in keeping with the rhythms of day and season and year. 

  While the missing girl is being searched for, everyday life goes on, as it must, so Reservoir 13 is about teenagers growing up and a farmer growing infirm; about an opportunistic young stud and a lonely old widower; about the blossoming of love and the breakdown of relationships; about the joys and the pains of parenthood; about success and failure. It’s about well-dressing too. Somehow, it captures routine while being far from routine. 

  It’s also — and that’s why I’m mentioning it on Deskbound Traveller —  powerfully evocative of place. That place has reservoirs and a river, a cricket ground and allotments, a quarry and cement works. Its location is vague — though it’s one subject to flooding and freezing and riven with cloughs. (In the acknowledgements, there’s mention of the Peak District.) The village is never named, yet somehow McGregor manages to make it singular and distinctive while being instantly familiar. 

  The book has already won the 2017 Costa Novel Award and been short-listed for the Goldsmiths Prize and long-listed for the Man Booker Prize. I hope the publishers have entered it, too, for the Ondaatje Prize of the Royal Society of Literature, which is for “a distinguished work of fiction, non-fiction or poetry evoking the spirit of a place”.

Danglers by the dozen

Some people collect vinyl records, some collect luggage tags, some collect ceramic bluebirds. I worked with a sub-editor years ago who used to collect danglers, emailing his latest find via the company message system around his colleagues in the office. Partly, no doubt, he was mindful that redundancies were coming in regular waves, and he might breast those waves by reminding his bosses how regularly he saved the writers and the newspaper from publishing scrambled sentences. Mainly, though, he was providing harmless entertainment for his colleagues. All of us enjoyed a dangler — but we also took care to ensure that danglers didn’t make it into print.

  They do now — all the time — in newspapers, in magazines and in reports, scripted and unscripted, on television and radio. There are more and more of them in books, too. Rare is the new book I’m sent that isn’t spattered with danglers, not just in proof but in the finished copy. A dangler, in case you need reminding, is a word or phrase that’s in the wrong place at the wrong time and ends up describing the wrong thing. I’m amassing quite a collection myself. Here are a few I’ve come across in the past few days: 

Lying on my back, the projector beam of the moonlight rattled into life on the canvas of the sail…

Without formal education, equality was an idea that I suspected had been put into my head and not theirs…

Making our way further from land, a longtail boat… came into sight.

With scurrying steps, his pale skin jumped out from where he kept safe distance…

  All of those came from one 200-page book.

  Many of the new titles I read, and most of those I review, are travel books. If a writer can’t guide me to the end of a sentence without getting lost, why should I stick with him or her to the end of a journey?

  A while ago, I reviewed a book that I’d enjoyed enormously apart from its profusion of danglers. The first two or three were funny, but a dangler in every chapter got irritating. I cited a few. After the review appeared, the writer emailed asking if I could direct him to the others I had spotted so that he could put them right for the paperback edition. He had a blind spot for danglers, he admitted. But why didn’t his editor and the proof-reader catch them? Danglers by the dozen might be excusable in unedited blogs, but they shouldn’t be acceptable in published books. 

  Mind you, if none of them got through, we’d be denied entertainment like this, my dangler of the past year:

Now 80 years old and straight-backed with a well-preened moustache, his manicured hands still looked strong enough to throttle a goat.

Abu Dhabi — where you can feel at home but not belong

Four-fifths of the population of the United Arab Emirates are classed as “foreigners”. So how do you find belonging in a place that will never permanently be home? Deepak Unnikrishnan ponders that question in a piece for the “Cities” strand on the website of The Guardian.


Deskbound Traveller is taking a break while its editor escapes from the desk.


Deskbound Traveller is taking a break while its editor escapes from the desk.