Nature saves us all: Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun

Old Man of Hoy in Orkney Islands, from scotlandinfo.eu
Old Man of Hoy in Orkney Islands, from scotlandinfo.eu

Memoir is a genre that is not immediately appealing to me. Unless it’s a thoughtful autobiography of an artist or writer whom I admire, and therefore at least partly about the struggle of creativity, it just feels too self-indulgent or egocentric a project. So it’s a bit hit and miss whether I will enjoy reading one or not.

For instance, Romain Gary’s pseudo-memoir La promesse de l’aube was wonderful, even when I could see the ways in which the author was manipulating our emotions and exaggerating some scenes (or perhaps fictionalising them) for the maximum benefit and enjoyment of us readers. However, Ariel Gore’s Atlas of the Human Heart infuriated me, and I don’t think it was because of a gender division of the topics addressed, i.e. men go to war and are therefore interesting, while women drink and sleep around and are therefore dull. On the contrary, it’s usually the women I usually find more interesting, but not in that particular case. I think it was because the focus was not on the readers, but very much on the author/narrator.

Then there are the books which weave nature observations and personal narrative, harking back to the great Romantic tradition of philosophising about nature and how humans relate to it (or how the urban environment encroaches upon it and changes us humans). This is where you might find allusions whooshing over your head, but also the occasional tangential riffs and unusual erudite connections which will gladden your heart and make you feel smart. Two books which I heartily recommend in this respect are: Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City and Melissa Harrison’s Rain: Four Walks in the English Weather.

outrunWhere does Amy Liptrot’s tale of alcoholism and life spinning out of control fit in? It’s a strange beast, straddling the two sub-genres – memoir of self-destruction and nature writing. After a hedonistic lifestyle in London, almost but never quite successful in finding work, housing, relationships, the authors spirals into alcoholism and ultimately finds redemption by returning to her home in the wilderness and isolation of the Orkneys. It was largely the nature writing which appealed to me. Confessional writing is so prevalent nowadays and praised as ‘brave, raw, visceral’ and all those other adjectives, but it can come across as self-absorbed and repetitive. So my advice would be: do not read this book all in one go (as I did while tending my sickbed), but just dip into it a chapter at a time, sipping it cautiously like tea which is in danger of scalding you or ice-cream which could freeze you. Because it blows now hot, now cold, and I was often not quite sure if I loved it or thought it merely average.

The nature/lost soul  parallels and the rebuilding of self can feel a little forced or obvious at times:

I’m repairing these dykes at the same time as I’m putting myself back together. I am building my defences, and each time I don’t take a drink when I feel like it, I am strengthening new pathways in my brain. I have to break the walls down a bit more before I can start to build them up again. I have to work with the stones I’ve got and can’t spend too long worrying if I’m making the perfect wall. I just have to get on with placing stones.

Yet there is an artless charm and wonder in this rediscovery of nature that is very hard to resist. There are quiet observations about lambing or bird-counting which refuse to sentimentalise life in welly boots. There is a bemused sense of ‘how did I get here from my passion for all things trendy and urban?’.

I never saw myself as, and resist becoming, the wholesome ‘outdoors’ type. But the things I experience keep dragging me in. There are moments that thrill and glow: the few seconds a silver male hen harrier flies beside my car one afternoon; the porpoise surfacing around our small boat; the wonderful sight of a herd of cattle let out on grass after a winter indoors, skipping and jumping, tails straight up to the sky with joy.

The flatness and trelessness of the Orkney Islands, from offshorewind.biz
The flatness and the treeless-ness of the Orkney Islands, from offshorewind.biz

These are the kind of moments I remember from my childhood spent in a very under-developed countryside, probably far more backward (though less remote) than the Orkneys. They illustrate joys which become greater in post-event storytelling, when you forget about most of the hardship. But it never fails to amuse me how popular nature writing is in Britain, which has so few truly rural, undeveloped areas left (there are far more isolated villages and communities in France, for instance). Amy is seldom far away from the nearest internet connection, tweeting or posting images of seals and chatting to her London friends on Skype. Yet she and her readers hanker for reconnection with nature, both in its beauty and roughness – perhaps a nostalgia for a bygone age and unspoilt world.

The Merry Dancers, photo credit to Sian Thom at sianthom.blogspot.com
The Merry Dancers, photo credit to Sian Thom at sianthom.blogspot.com

Despite these quibbles, I did quite enjoy the book. The exhilaration of certain passages is infectious, such as this one describing the Northern Lights (known locally as the Merry Dancers):

I let me eyes adjust to the dark for the time it takes to smoke one cigarette then say, ‘Bloody hell’, out loud. In the past I have seen a greenish-tinged, gently glowing arc, low across the north, but tonight the whole sky is alive with shapes: white ‘searchlights’ beaming from behind the horizon, dancing waves directly above and slowly, thrillingly, blood red blooms. It’s brighter than a full moon and the birds, curlews and geese, are noisier than they usually are at this time of night, awakened by a false dawn. There is static in the air and it’s an unusual kind of light, the eerie glow of a floodlit stadium or a picnic eaten in car headlights.

Nevertheless, I can’t help feeling that a shorter book (or a series of essays) would have been just as good.

 

My Life Isn’t Open to Revision

This essay was written a while back for an online journal written by and for mothers. I think it was probably not quite upbeat enough about combining motherhood and creativity. Suffice it to say, it was not published, so I thought I might as well make it available here. Although, in the meantime, as I am reading Andrew Solomon’s ‘Far from the Tree’ about families who have faced real challenges in raising their (deaf, autistic, schizophrenic, transgender etc.) children, I feel terrible guilt about being a whiney spoilt brat who has never encountered real hardship. And that’s why I’m not really made to write creative non-fiction or memoirs. Fiction is much more fun (and less painful).

A few years ago, through no effort of my own, I became a ‘lady of leisure’. I’d resigned my job to follow my husband abroad and when we returned to Britain 18 months later in the summer of 2008, the job market was unrecognizable. I became a ravenous hunter, with 50+ versions of my CV to fit all occasions. In-between the rejections and the fortnightly humiliation of signing on at the Job Centre, I strove to become the best possible mother to my two sons. I may not previously have had time for toddler-aided bake-offs or 100 creative uses for wrapping paper, but now was the time to build all those cherished memories. For which I lacked talent, but made up through sheer force of will. In my remaining leisure time, I would also pick up and dust down that long-neglected passion of mine: writing.

Our minds play tricks on us: allowing us to pile so much upon ourselves, yet fiddling with the knobs on our measuring capacities. So we say: ‘More, more! It is too light still, not enough!’ even as we sink into the morass of multiple roles, none of which we fully own, none of which we play to perfection.

motorwaySo full-time and full-on was my life, that I used to do the weekly shop late at night at the 24 hour supermarket, once the children were tucked in bed. I would toss things into the trolley on autopilot, load the car and speed off home. One night, instead of turning right at the motorway junction, I paused.  On the left, a sign beckoned.

‘London’, it said.

‘Freedom’, I read through tear-soaked eyes. ‘Creativity. Endless possibility.’

The urge to turn left and never look back was so great, it frightened me.  Who can resist the siren call of simplifying your life, of escaping the chaos, of devoting yourself to a single pursuit far greater than yourself?

How had my life got so messy and overwhelming? You see, at my back I always hear Time’s winged chariot… In my case, this manifests itself as the deep-throated relentless chime of a grandfather clock in the darkened hall of my conscience. One lifespan is not enough for all the beings I am, for all that I could be. I want to accumulate blindly, wildly: experiences, skins, memories, loved ones. Never possessions.

www.cyprusscene.com
Discarded snakeskin, http://www.cyprusscene.com

The problem is not the trying everything, it’s the hoarding thereafter. I can never let go. Imperfection hurts me like a blunt saw. One of my skins dropped by the wayside is a tragedy. I not only want to be, I also want to be good at it.  It overwhelms me at times, the cacophony of demands. It threatens all that is good, kind or creative in me.  So you can understand why I sat mesmerized at that junction.

I turned right. And I’ve never, ever allowed myself to question that decision.

I am far from that place now.  Physically and mentally. Yet it frightens me still. How there is always a disconnect between the life we feel we were meant to live and the one we actually have. How easy it is to err on the side of discontent. How the sinuous murmurs of temptation can slither its way into our hearts and convince us that single-minded perfection is attainable and that its costs are bearable, ‘if only’ and ‘when this is over’.

Running Home

P1010699The mountains are closing in today.

On a clear day, just after a drop in temperature, they open up as endless as your life seems in childhood. On a day like this, when clouds display a full arsenal of grays, when rain is announced every few minutes, the mountains seem closer.  Too close.  They press against you, crush you, lock you in. You begin to understand the danger of the Alps. Ominous is a word created for that brief silence before the storm breaks.

So you start running. Mud, pebbles, asphalt: the terrain varies and so do your steps. What you cannot get used to is the running between borders.  After a lifetime of being punished for your nationality, of not being allowed in or out of countries, it is such a thrill to be able to weave your way in and out of France and Switzerland. A grey, moss-covered border stone dating from the 1870s is your only witness.

You moved to the area unwillingly the first time round. You had to give up a good job, family and friends, a good-sized house in the process of being slowly renovated, the language of your comfort. The children were fully dependent on you that first time, each day was a struggle with unfamiliarity. You couldn’t wait to get back ‘home’.

MountainsBut home had moved on, as had you. You found yourself struggling to fit in. You were still the alien, perhaps even more so with your new-found love for croissants and small coffees. You missed the extreme landscapes, the seasons. You remembered breathing in air so fresh that it rushed straight to your lungs in unadulterated delight.

Life has a way of playing with your emotions. Just when you are settled in again, when you have arranged your memories in a neatly labelled box to be put up in the attic, it is time to resurrect them.  You are going back to the space on the border for a second time. But this time it’s all different again. The children are older, your French is better. You continue working, but you are determined to make each minute in this wonderful location count. You are not going to leave this area again, regretting all that you didn’t do and see.

Home is a word you have bandied about far too often in your existence. You’ve believed you were at home in many places, with many people, but have you ever fully understood it? 

GrapesCould this be home now? You hardly dare to hope.

Yet there is a lilt in your peasant soul as you run through the fields, worrying about the harvest. 

The peaks and valleys, now green and pleasant, now eerily bare, mirror your own innerscapes. You surprise yourself with the sudden onset of storms, but you recognise a twin spirit.

If you weren’t so marked by years of taunting, you might almost think you are communing with nature.

Whether this is home or not, this is the best of you. Use this time wisely. Write it all down.