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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In Kid Gloves, the stories tumble out like washing from a machine

Adam Mars-Jones' has created a clever, stoical and cool account of caring for a dying father.

In bookish circles, it’s pretty commonplace these days to remark on the way in which the spirit of the Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard hangs over our literary culture – noxious gas or enlivening blast of ­oxygen, depending on your point of view. Nor would I be the first critic to point out the similarities between his prolixity and that of the British novelist Adam Mars-Jones. Reviewing Knausgaard’s My Struggle in the New Yorker, James Wood likened its style – “hundreds of pages of autopsied minutiae” – to that of Mars-Jones’s novels Pilcrow and Cedilla, the first two volumes in a thus far unfinished project in “micro-realism”. But originality be damned: I’m going to say it anyway. As I read Mars-Jones’s new memoir, Kid Gloves: a Voyage Round My Father, it was Knausgaard I thought of repeatedly. Mostly, this was because I simply couldn’t believe I was so fascinated by a book that was at times so very boring.

Mars-Jones is by far the more elegant writer of the two. He is also feline where Knausgaard is only wide-eyed. Nevertheless, they clamber (slowly and with many pauses to consider the view) over comparable territory. What, after all, is Knausgaard’s account of the effect of milk on a bowl of ­cereal compared to Mars-Jones’s disquisition on the subject of orange juice? The Norwegian’s reverie is the longer of the two but it is Mars-Jones who is the more triumphantly banal. “Shopping on a Monday I saw a wide variety of types of orange juice on display in a supermarket and bought large quantities,” he writes early on. I love that “Monday” – it’s so precise. But it also prompts the question: which supermarket, exactly, was he in? Was it the same “large branch of Sainsbury’s” where, three paragraphs later, we find him picking up a carton of buttermilk?

You will think that I am taking the piss. I’m not – or not entirely. For all its pedantic weirdness, Mars-Jones’s memoir, clotted and rich and true, does its job rather well. As the subtitle suggests, at its heart is his tricky relationship with Sir William Mars-Jones, the high court judge who died in 1999. A clever man but also a difficult one (having made a bit of a leap in terms of education and social class, he clung rather ardently to certain comforting reflexes), he is brought to life vividly by his son, who often simply replays their most frustrating conversations. In doing so, Mars-Jones, Jr also tells us something of himself. He comes over as a bit silly and fastidious but also as clever, stoical, kindly and, above all, ever cool in the face of provocation. In this light, his Pooterish digressions are just another symptom of his unnervingly temperate personality, his clinical even-handedness.

His memoir is oddly artless, the stories tumbling out, one after another, like washing pulled from a machine. An account of his father’s better-known cases (he prosecuted in the Moors murders trial) shades into a detour on soup-making; an analysis of Sir William’s retirement – he gravitated, his son writes, towards the state of “inanition” – takes us, almost slyly, to an explanation of why Mars-Jones tenderly associates Badedas with shingles (a friend who had yet to discover he had Aids, of which shingles can be a symptom, bathed in it).

The reader waits, and waits, for the big scene, for the moment when Mars-Jones tells his father, a regular kind of homophobe, that he is gay. But in a strange way (it does arrive eventually) this is beside the point. From the outset, we know that it was Adam, not his brothers, who looked after his widowed father in his last days, sharing his flat in Gray’s Inn Square; so we know already that an accommodation has been reached, however horrifying Pater’s reaction was at the time. (Mars-Jones, Sr suggested that his son could not possibly be gay because, as a boy, he played with himself during a film starring Jacqueline Bisset; more cruelly, he delegated his clerk to research the possibilities of testosterone treatment for his son.) In any case, there is a universality here: for which of us, gay or not, hasn’t trembled on hearing our mother say, down the line from home, the dread phrase “Dad would like a word”?

After his father’s death, Mars-Jones attempts to continue to live in his parents’ home, insisting that the inn will have to evict him if it wants him gone. When it does turf him out, he writes a piece for the Times in which he denounces its members – in ­effect, his parents’ friends and neighbours. Is this just the response of a more than usually broke freelance writer? Or is it that of a man in deep grief?

Perhaps it’s both. Mars-Jones tells us quite a bit about his parlous finances but relatively little of his feelings of abandonment. He was closer to his mother. It is more than 15 years since his father died. And yet, here it is, his book. Those Knausgaardian impulses of his – perhaps they’re just displacement for his loss, word-fill for a void so unfathomably big that it still takes him by surprise, even now. 

Kid Gloves: a Voyage Round My Father is available now from Particular Books (£16.99)

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism