Book review: Walking The Great North Line, by Robert Twigger

Robert Twigger’s ‘pilgrimage’, littered with bad puns and good suggestions, is firmly centred on an author who is far from self-centred, writes Stuart Kelly
Robert Twigger PIC: Tina Norris / ShutterstockRobert Twigger PIC: Tina Norris / Shutterstock
Robert Twigger PIC: Tina Norris / Shutterstock

There are some non-fiction books which are held together by the sheer force of the author’s personality alone. Robert Twigger’s new volume is one such. Its spine, both literally and metaphorically, is a walk from Christchurch in Dorset to the island of Lindisfarne in Northumberland, a more or less straight line at 1 degree 50 west along the major watershed of English rivers.

It takes in Stonehenge, Avebury, er, Birmingham and Hadrian’s Wall, along with numerous other Palaeolithic sites, such as Meon Hill, the Swastika Stone, the Twelve Apostle Stones and Thor’s Cave.

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But the spine has ribs, and the linear quest has plenty of room for diversions and serendipity. Among the topics Twigger wanders deliberately into are: church porches, shamanism, Rumi, land ownership, the connections between depression and urban living, water filtration, the 18th century poetry of Stephen Duck, the differences between soils where sheep, cattle and horses live, meteorites and their role in iron smelting, the virtues of the Pertex nylon Buffalo Special Forces top and the most efficacious way to deal with blisters.

Since Twigger has previously written about Japan, the Bedouin, the Himalayas and searching for massive pythons in South America, these all wend their way in as well, confirming the book’s epigraph from Kipling – “He who only England knows, knows not England.”

All this before we get to autobiography and family memoir. It takes a great deal of inherent panache and hard-won skill to co-ordinate all these aspects, which might otherwise have spun off into a centrifugal jumble. But, as he sagaciously warns: “Any diversion is welcome to the man with an open mind.”

What holds it together is a remarkable voice. This is not a term I usually use for praise, as it is mostly facile and means simply “style”. But here it seems applicable. Twigger, as he appears in the book, is both gleefully innocent and snarlingly cynical, a lover of bad jokes and Continental philosophy, the clown who is the butt of his own pratfalls and mishaps and yet a form of mentor or guide.

The “guide” part is particularly important, in that as well as having careful, line-and-ink precise descriptions of nature, the narrative is self-consciously constructed as a kind of guide. It’s a voice that can allow a discussion of route-finding to segue between simple and ancient practicalities and a tolerant disdain of GPS. For every epiphany – genuine epiphany, I would say, whether eldritch or beatific – there is rebarbative, closely observed anger at shooting moors, barbed wire enclosures, blocked rights of way, the use of the word “wild camping” (Twigger prefers “being a tramp” or “vagabondage”) and the “death cult of Monsanto”, whose products result in farming monocultures.

The guiding aspect of the book – I nearly typed scouting, but that does seem fair since Twigger himself invokes his “right funk” at the start as being apposite for “a Boy’s Own word for a Boy’s Own adventure” – are significant. There is genuine practical advice here, and I now know more, and am more interested in Pacerpoles than I ever thought I would be. But the knowledge of foraging and fire-lighting is accompanied by a moral and even spiritual dimension. On one hand, this is done as a kind of pedagogy; an urgency that children should be made aware of the natural world and to an extent resilient within it.

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But it is also about ritual, and trying to answer the perennial question “are you on a pilgrimage?” Which, to an extent, he assuredly is. There is a very touching passage about the churches in which he makes coffee in the porches, wanders around their hodge-podge of historical incident, and notes, somewhat wryly, he was never turned away from a church but frequently from a farm.

The narrative, as quest, pilgrimage, a “lighting out for the territories”, has that kind of arc between false starts, early setbacks, squabbles, glooms, derangements, enlightenments, strange reconciliations and hard-won wisdom. It is notable that, like Nan Shepherd, John Ruskin, Robert Macfarlane, or even that connoisseur of ale-houses and fine dining, GK Chesterton, Twigger concentrates on the material but for non-materialistic ends. In one of his brilliant / atrocious puns, which cuts to the quick about mental health and our relationship to a rather nebulous “Nature”, Twigger writes “there is no madness like nomadness”. A Holy Fool repeating dib dib dib until, like a mantra, it is meaningless and everything.

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I have chaired Robert Twigger at numerous literary festivals, and this book comes closest to that experience. After the first time, I soon came to realise that planning what I was going to ask was as pointless as sharpening butter. His mind goes everywhere, but a certain levity and self-deprecating humour is marbled throughout it. Self-deprecation seems quintessentially English and somehow a Zen Buddhist loss of self at one and the same time here. I doubt there will be published a book so manic and pensive, so cheerful, so able to polish your eyes to see things anew (why are most houses built around right angles rather than circles?)

Walking The Great North Line, by Robert Twigger, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £20

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