After the wettest winter since the world began, London newspapers – which is pretty much all the English papers, then, ‘the north’ being something that starts at Islington for them – are cheering the first signs of spring. Here in the not-so-wet North East we have almost been made to feel guilty for some months now, as we potter about in the t-shirt and jeans that comprise the average Northumberlander’s specialised winter gear. But in the last week or so we have rejoined the rest of the country in a tiny frenzy of blooming and budding. As promised, the NorthernReader Walking Book Club stepped out for the first time this week, and in amongst the book-lined pleasure path we made of ‘have you read?’ and ‘oh, I loved’, we had time to notice (as we paused to catch our breath – walking uphill and talking –one of us with the very smallest reader in a baby sling – you’d have been proud of us and I bet you’re wishing you’d come with us now, aren’t you?) – we had time to notice that lambs were skipping, catkins were doing some tail-shaking and the world was gently turning emerald green. We tucked into home-made cakes at St Oswald’s tearoom on Hadrian’s Wall before skittering down the fell to get back to the serious business of following up on all those lovely reading recommendations. Here are mine.
Walking above the sparkling North Tyne, which is England’s best salmon river, it was perhaps inevitable that some books about fishing came to mind. Paul Torday’s Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, of course: but have you read Luke Jennings’ Blood Knots? I’m not sure that I can recommend it highly enough. Beautifully written, it is the perfect example of the meditative and philosophical nature of fishing (or indeed walking – anything that gets you out there, perhaps). Jennings’ young life was shaped by two astonishingly brave men, his father (A Military Cross-earning hero of the Second World War) and Robert Nairac, whose posthumous George Cross recognises his almost unimaginable courage as an undercover special forces officer who was discovered, tortured and killed in a lonely field in Northern Ireland in the 1970s. Jennings manages to think aloud about both these men, and about his own upbringing in a vanishing England, in a way that never seems contrived or awkward. In return, I’m looking forward to reading At the Loch of the Green Corrie by Andrew Greig, which was recommended to me as we walked along the ridge, with views of the Pennines to the south and the Cheviots to the north (you see how this Walking Book Club works? Why would you want to sit in a frowsty room to talk books when you can have all this?). Greig was a friend of the great Scottish poet, Norman MacCaig, whose dying request to him was that he should make his way to a remote hill loch in the far north-west of Scotland and catch a brown trout in his memory. I am reliably informed that this is a book about life, not a book about fishing, and I can’t wait. The most delicious anthology of writing about fishing, by the way – although it predates both Jennings and Greig so I shall now have to hope for a new edition – is Jeremy Paxman’s Fish, Fishing and the Meaning of Life. And while we’re at it, we can re-read Arthur Ransome’s The Picts and the Martyrs for the valuable lessons in guddling trout.
Our adorable baby reader caused us all to bubble with fond memories of the stories either we or our own children had loved when truly tiny. The Very Hungry Caterpillar is already going down well, we learned, but we added Michael Rosen’s We’re Going on a Bear Hunt and Rod Campbell’s Dear Zoo and Oh Dear to the pile, together with CDs of Alan Bennett reading Winnie the Pooh and The Wind in the Willows.
And we talked about books of letters. I have to admit that I got fairly short shrift from KatePonders when I helpfully suggested she should read Les Liaisons Dangereuses in French (a mother has a duty never to give up). Wait till she clocks all fifteen hundred pages of Clarissa. CS Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, recently marvellously read on the radio by Simon Russell Beale, should be on everyone’s list: as should Lionel Shriver’s dark masterpiece, We Need to Talk About Kevin. I’m definitely going to read Dear Lupin, the letters Roger Mortimer wrote to his son Charlie; Dear Lumpy, his letters to his daughter Louise (and I don’t care what you say, no father should ever call his daughter Lumpy. Not ever. Even silently in his own head), and Dearest Jane, his letters to his elder daughter.
We were (of course) blessed with goodish weather for our inaugural walk. Well, alright, it was a bit misty and there was a hell of a gale, but it only rained when we were soaking up coffee and cake in the lovely tearooms. So I’m glad to say that no-one’s thoughts seemed to turn to Sun Shuyun’s The Long March, nor her Ten Thousand Miles without a Cloud. No-one broke out into a few bars of ‘Climb Every Mountain’– though I’m sure they’d have been lovely if they did. Next month, we shall walk to the beat of the Hexham Book Festival.
PS Congratulations to our dear friends Dawn and Michael, who have just won the Countryside Alliance award for the North East for their lovely Bardon Mill Village Store and Tearoom. Hurray!