Holloway by Robert Macfarlane, Stanley Donwood and Dan Richards: Where does all this rhapsodising over badgers and briar get us?

Since Roger Deakin and Robert Macfarlane's success, it is now even possible to take an MA in “wild writing” at the University of Essex. Along with Mumford & Sons, The Great British Bake Off and real-ale microbreweries in Shoreditch, it feels like a sympto

Holloway
Robert Macfarlane, Stanley Donwood and Dan Richards
Faber & Faber, £14.99, 48pp

Sometimes, as I trail around Ikea in Edmonton, I think it would be rather nice to run away from modern life. I could build myself a little bothy on top of a mountain. I would spend my days foraging and, at night, instead of sitting in my flat listening to joyriders screeching down the road on stolen pizzadelivery mopeds, I could watch the stars.

Then I think . . . come on. It would be ever so damp. For idle dreamers like me, nature writing is the answer. Without having to leave my sofa, I have experienced the windy peak of Binn Chuanna and the Black Wood of Rannoch and revelled in words such as “moschatel” and “foot-querned” without needing to know what they mean.

The granddaddy of contemporary nature writing was the late Roger Deakin, a founder member of Friends of the Earth and author of Waterlog (1999), a witty and wonderful account of a year spent wild-swimming in Britain’s rivers, tarns and lochs. Robert Macfarlane was his friend and protégé and he has picked up where Deakin left off with a trilogy of books – Mountains of the Mind, The Wild Places and The Old Ways – that have been garlanded with prizes and critical praise.

In the wake of these two big fish swim many minnows; it is now even possible to take an MA in “wild writing” at the University of Essex. So popular has the genre become that, having been a fan, I am beginning to feel weary. Where does all this rhapsodising over badgers and briar get us? Along with Mumford & Sons, The Great British Bake Off and real-ale microbreweries in Shoreditch, it feels like a symptom of our collective nostalgia for a more wholesome age.

This general sense of disillusionment may have affected my response to Holloway, the latest book by Macfarlane, with the writer Dan Richards and the artist Stanley Donwood. In September 2011, the three men spent the night in a “holloway” or sunken path in Dorset. Macfarlane had discovered the place with Deakin in 2005 (this journey is documented in The Wild Places). They took with them “a hip flask, two penknives, matches & candles”, “a bottle of damson gin” and a book called Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household, in which the fugitive hero hides out in a holloway.

The book was first published by Quive-Smith, an imprint founded by the three authors, with a print run of 277. It is now being reissued by Faber. Donwood’s black and white drawings are lovingly reproduced in the Faber version but while Holloway might have worked as an art object (the original was painstakingly printed using an old-fashioned letter press), it now feels insubstantial. A cover price of £14.99 buys you less than 25 pages of text, several of which are simply abbreviated chunks of The Wild Places. It reads like a notebook of poetic and rather pretentious jottings: “No moon above the whispering fields, low service in the crosshatched apse and every outside sound an ambush. Amphidromic points of faith.”

Its greatest failing is its lack of humour. Deakin, in contrast, was a funny writer; he had a keen sense of the absurd and, as well as telling us about the wildlife he encountered, he was interested and amused by the other people he met. There is nothing wrong with escapism: it is lovely to read about beautiful places and wild adventures, especially when you are stuck in a slightly too small flat trying to assemble flat-pack furniture. But there is a danger in it, too, because no matter how long we hide in a hedge, the rubbishstrewn world will be waiting for us when we dare to peer out.

Woodland near Cheddar Gorge in Somerset. Photo: Matt Cardy/Getty Images.

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 27 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, You were the future once

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The Big Sick is well meaning, rather than groundbreaking

There’s a chemistry shortfall between the actors, and some limits to Kumail Nanjiani’s range.

When real romances are adapted for the screen by those involved, the process usually occurs after the flame has gone out. Woody Allen and Diane Keaton were just good friends by the time they made Annie Hall; Julie Delpy and Adam Goldberg had broken up long before they played lovers in 2 Days in Paris. The Big Sick, however, is based on the relationship between its lead actor, Kumail Nanjiani, and his wife, Emily V Gordon (played by Zoe Kazan), who wrote the script together. Their story, a loose retelling of real events, shifts the emphasis away from whether or not their love survived (we know it did) and on to how it endured in the face of unusual odds – with Emily lying comatose in hospital when they had scarcely got to know one another.

The director, Michael Showalter, is not a man scared of spelling out the obvious (during an argument between Kumail and Emily, a road sign behind them reads “Speed bump ahead”) but even he draws the line at putting The Smiths’s “Girlfriend in a Coma” on the soundtrack.

Kumail is a Pakistani comic on the lower rungs of the Chicago stand-up circuit. His family is trying to marry him off to a nice Muslim woman but Kumail is more interested in Emily, a graduate student in psychotherapy who heckles him at a gig one night. His family, given to openly disdaining any relatives with white partners, isn’t aware of her existence, but it hasn’t watched, as we have, the cutesy montage of their courtship.

The couple finish most of their dates with a joke about never seeing one another again. When Emily becomes ill and is placed in a medically induced coma, this running gag becomes unexpectedly resonant, along with Kumail’s choice of date movie: The Abominable Dr Phibes, in which Vincent Price takes revenge on the doctors who let his wife die in surgery. In a piece of timing that adds an extra tartness, Kumail and Emily have broken up shortly before she falls ill. Strictly speaking, they aren’t even in a relationship when Kumail first encounters Emily’s mother, Beth (Holly Hunter), and father, Terry (Ray Romano), at the hospital. Meet the Parents coincides unexpectedly with While You Were Sleeping. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner lurks in the background.

The estrangement might have been definitive were it not for the coma, though the film can’t quite bring itself to acknowledge the helpful part played in the couple’s relationship by a life-threatening medical emergency. In common with anything in which Judd Apatow has a hand (he gets a producing credit here), The Big Sick is in the business of reassurance. Emily mentions that she works with men convicted of domestic violence but the world of the film is one where harm is only ever inflicted inadvertently.

Discomfort surfaces in the two brief scenes that come closest to holding to account Nanjiani’s likeable, mildly neurotic persona. The tremendous Vella Lovell stands out as one of Kumail’s prospective brides, who upbraids him for his cowardice. And Emily rages at him over a perceived betrayal in a scene that would be more persuasive still if the pair seemed like actual lovers rather than just room-mates. There’s a chemistry shortfall between the actors as well as some limits to Nanjiani’s range, which extends from “genial” to “a bit cross”.

He also suffers from the problem, common to stand-ups who become actors, of not always knowing how to integrate material into characterisation. Seinfeld handled it well by showing Jerry getting caught out trying to sneak “bits” into casual conversation, but in The Big Sick the gags often sit on top of the action. The movie’s best joke is Kumail’s response when Terry, who has clearly never met a Muslim before, asks his opinion on 9/11. No man would ever say what he says to the parents of a woman he was hoping to win back, let alone whose life was hanging in the balance, and if we forgive him, it’s only because it’s an ingenious line. It is also one of the thousand or so reasons why The Big Sick is well meaning rather than groundbreaking, and why a Judd Apatow production will never be confused with a Preston Sturges one. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue