Underland: A Deep time Journey, Robert Macfarlane’s magnum opus, is a work that has taken him nearly 10 years to complete. Though darker than his earlier books, it is as rich as anything he has ever written, blessed with the scholarship of Sebald, the stylistic felicity of Bruce Chatwin and the vocabulary and syntax of Patrick Leigh Fermor. As always with Macfarlane’s books, the tales of his adventures underground are only a takeoff point for discussions of deeper concerns: the relationship between man and landscape, the instability of time and place and, perhaps above all, the fragility of all we are and all we create. These are concerns that run like dark seams of glittering ore throughout his writing, across several successive books, but here premonitions of our present apocalyptic Anthropocene close in around Macfarlane like the shades of Hades around the backward-looking Orpheus. For this book is also about man’s almost incidental place in the world when seen from the perspective of geological time. It is above all a journey into darkness, and the omens are not good.
Peter Moore’s Endeavour: The Ship and the Attitude that Changed the World plunged me headlong into a very different world: the story of the humble Whitby coal collier, which in the 1770’s became famous as the ship, which took Captain Cook on his voyages to Australia and around the South Seas. Moore is a dazzling new arrival on the scene: a witty, intelligent and hugely entertaining historian whose prose can convey with alluring immediacy ‘the groan of oak timbers and the straining of sailcloth’. He allows you to recreate in your mind exactly what it must have been like to be on board such a voyage, but best of all are his pen-portraits of the men on board, especially the dashingly, pioneering botanist, Sir Joseph Banks, working with Linnaean rigour ‘on the very borderlines of human knowledge’.
I am no boatie, but it was another wonderful seaborne journey that closed my reading year. In The Summer Isles: A Voyage of the Imagination the brilliant English stylist, Philip Marsden, boarded an old wooden sloop and plotted a course north from his home in Cornwall up the West coast of Britain and Ireland to the Summer Isles, a small archipelago north of Scotland. It is one of the most brilliant, imaginative and alluring travel books I have read for a long, long time.
Only Macfarlane can equal Marsden as a contemporary master of travel writing and descriptive prose.