Robert MacFarlane: The Old Ways

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Sometimes books have uncanny ways of linking up, almost as if they talk to each other, and during my last holiday this happened twice. In this book, that basically talks about walking, and that I bought because I liked the old fashioned cover and the topic, it happened through a story about the Orkneys. The book mainly talks about paths, walking them and the need to keep them open. In a chapter about the sea roads that linked northern Europe with its long coasts and many islands he talks about the hwael-weg, the whale-way in Old English, or the roads of the sea, where winds, currents and danger make paths that are invisible to us as its traffic leaves no trace. They were memorised by songs and tradition, by texts and maps, and they are to the experienced seafarer as visible as a road to us.

When me and some friends visited the Orkneys recently and stood before the Ring of Brodgar and the Stones of Stenness we asked ourselves the same questions as thousands of visitors before us: why here ? Why at the end of the world ? And why was this once an immense holy place far bigger and probably more important than we can imagine today. MacFarlane asks us to imagine us a map of Europe and the Atlantic Ocean. Now turn the picture into itself, make all land black and eradicate the places and the roads. Do the reverse with the water and indicate the searoads that lead from Norway, Shetland and Iceland to Europe. What's in the middle ? Right, the Orkneys. According to MacFarlane the Old World, with the north as a centre (we are talking about 5000 BC), developed centrifugal forces as it grew, with matter and culture spinning to the edges (America, France, Spain...). And suddenly it all made sense.

It was absolutely strange to sit in a mediterranean garden and read about this. It seemed as if this book was explaining to me about the previous one, filling in gaps I missed, and in my imagination they talked to each other. I was just a listener.

The book itself is fascinating with many beautiful stories. Sometimes it gets a bit pedantic, as if only a certain kind of people really count, but it had a profound effect on me. Back in Belgium I started walking again, in my own neighbourhood, and looking for paths, and sometimes it was to me as if I discovered a new world (having lived here for 14 years now), once literally within half a mile of my home. I will be forever grateful for this gift.  



Reading about a cold place...


I bought the book on purpose.

In the bookshop in Kirkwall it suddenly struck me that it would be special to read about the Orkneys when on holiday in the South of France, and Magnus, by George Mackay Brown, the most important writer and poet of the islands, seemed to me a good choice.

It was almost uncanny how the book seemed to radiate northern light and cold air when I was reading it, seated on the terrace of my caravan in Argeles-sur-mer, surrounded by palm trees, a glass of rosé in my hand and not even wearing a t-shirt (35°C in the shadow). It was almost a Harry Potter like experience and I swear that the whole time it actually felt cold and fresh to the touch.

Nobody but a man from the north could write a book like this. George Mackay Brown was born in Stromness, in Orkney, one of the islands to the north of Scotland, and died in 1996  He suffered from tuberculosis and this led to an increasingly reclusive life in his town of birth. He was a great writer and poet and they say this is his masterpiece (though I actually liked his Booker Prize shortlisted Beside the Ocean of Time more). It is a special book, as special as the islands of the orkneys themselves, but it is a powerful piece of literature, without a smile but with the harsh blue eyes of the Northman.



Since I spent two days on Orkney last june I am captivated by its atmosfere. It was a strange experience to walk in the white and cold sunlight of the North in june and experience the same sun, but yellow and hot and exuberant in the South. I still don't know what I liked most, but if I follow my feelings I don't think I am a man of sunshine and olive trees. I had a nice time under the shadow of the Pyrenees, but my heart longs for the wide open skies and chasing clouds of the North...


Liquid Memory

Why is wine unique in its relation to memory? Because it is the only animate vessel of both personal memory - that of the drinker (or maker) and the subjectivity of his experience and the memory of that subjectivity - and communal history. That is, it is communal to the extent that a wine is also the memory of the terroir, which the wine expresses as an evolving, active taste. As communal memory, it is above all an expression of place as a communal identity, the history of the civilization of that place and the history of the relationship to its nature (especially soil, subsoil, and microclimate).


However, precisely because neither terroir, nor nature, nor men are fixed, and because a wine itself is destined to be consumed - to vanish - a wine of terroir is by its nature, an ultimately indefinable, unquantifiable agent of memory. This is a curse for relentless rationalists, unrepentent pragmatists, and all the busy codifiers of this world, anxious for absolutes. And a blessing for the rest of us.

Jonathan Nossiter, Liquid Memory. Why Wine Matters., Atlantic Books, London.


Jonathan Nossiter, ex-sommelier, is the film director who was responsible for the quite controversial film Mondovino, a movie that, shame on me, I still have not watched completely (here is the trailer). But I have read the book, twice even, and through his meetings with chefs, winemakers and others, Jonathan creates a world full of interesting questions. It is clear that he is not a fan of Michel Rolland or Robert Parker, and he criticises lots of things happening in today's wineworld, but I find him at his best when he tells me what he loves. As he travels from vineyard to vineyard, from kitchen to kitchen and from wineshop to wineshop he opens bottles that make me shiver with desire, and this is nice, not because I can't afford them, but because every one of them shows a unique personality that I can not share.

It's a book for winelovers like I think winelovers should be: open for new and old experiences, with a free mindset and a reluctancy to accept what other people tell them. Just like some of my friends...

And suddenly I feel less like writing about wine and more like talking. Let's call mom and see what's for supper, and then make the big decision: her cave or my cave ?