Setting sail on a Celtic odyssey


Rob Penn

Sceptre, 14.99

CALL it mid-life crisis, call it a genetic epiphany, but whatever it was that 30-something writer Rob Penn underwent, it has produced a contender for the most entertaining travelogue cum rite of passage book of the year.

The genesis of Penn’s debut came high on Welsh mountain Cader Idris as he relived a hellish childhood trek forced upon him by his father. He asked himself: is there such a thing as a Celt?

Born in Birmingham to an English father and a Manx mother, Penn grew up on the Isle of Man but spends much of his time moving between London and Wales, where he now lives. This detail is important because it allowed Penn to take a life-changing decision that flowed inexorably from his initial question: he decided to become a Celt.

Clearly a man prone to excess, for Penn this meant assuming an alter ego, Ned Clegue, and becoming a wandering Celtic poet. Starting at Edinburgh’s Beltane Festival, he travels the Celtic fringe - Scotland, Wales, Ireland, the Isle of Man, Cornwall and Brittany - absorbing Celtic culture and impromptu recitals of poetry that fuses English and the various Celtic languages, including Manx. This involves a lot of drinking. The book reeks of bevy, but then what better way to peer into the Celtic soul?

It is difficult not to sympathise with Penn’s long-suffering and heavily pregnant wife, but her pain is our gain, since Penn has a wonderfully dry, self-deprecating sense of humour which allows him to explore complex issues without ever becoming glib or boring.

Reading this entertaining book is education by osmosis; a wealth of enlightening information is cunningly concealed among a welter of whisky and Guinness-fuelled anecdotes from a cultural landscape that most of us would recognise but could never claim to truly know (although it was a bit disconcerting to find that one of the central characters was a hard-drinking Teuchter barman I knew of old).

It is impossible not to admire Penn’s chutzpah or his quirky take on life. He has stuffed Kerouac and Bryson in his literary blender, spiced them liberally with out-takes from Faking It, some Celtic mist, a ton of Gaelic blether and an unhealthy dose of whisky, and then pressed the "on" switch.

If ever there was a book that proved the old maxim that the journey is more important than arriving at your destination, this is it.

As he wanders Celtic pubs and festivals performing his poetry, Penn draws all manner of interesting conclusions on his central theme - what defining characteristics, except anti-Englishness, unite the disparate Celtic communities hugging Europe’s north-west fringe?

But by the end we are just as interested in the writer’s own personal journey of exploration. That he is able to elicit our empathy without ever obviously trying to do so underlines the deftness with which Penn has executed this Celtic odyssey.