Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Review: Memoirs of a Fellwanderer

Back in 2006, Lisa and I walked Alfred Wainwright's Coast to Coast walk, still by far the best long walk I've done, and certainly the most romantic. When I first read Wainwright's book describing the walk, I thought the place must have been amazingly beautiful to have someone devote so much time to doing the book: every page was hand-written, and hand-drawn. The text was right-justified by hand! Imagine my amazement when I read in Memoirs of a Fellwanderer that he had gotten started without justifying the text and then threw out the first hundred pages after a year's work to start over so he could hand-justify the text without hyphens!

One of my friends once accused me of being far more in love with places of natural beauty than I ever was with any woman. All I can say is that he needs to read this book, because Wainwright's memoir truly does describe a man who was obsessed and delighted by the Lake District and the Highlands of Scotland, to the point of (1) reorganizing his career so he could live in Kendal so he could have time to explore the fells on weekends (2) treating his relationships with women in terms of how they would help him achieve his goals of wandering in the mountains. In the foreward, his second wife wrote:
After one or two sorties to the Pennine Way when I was left to my own devices between the dropping off and the picking up, I had the temerity to ask if I could accompany him. He looked surprised, was silent for a few seconds and then said I could if I didn't talk!
He even mentions that the big feature of his second wedding was that his wife had a car! His first wife barely got 2 sentences in the memoir. Yet when he writes about the fells (one of the chapters is titled, A love-letter to the fells), this is what he says:
Words are inadequate to express and explain the emotion impact the fells had on me. During the making of the books they dominated my thoughts. They held me in chains... I was living a double life. I was completely dedicated to the books and spent every available moment on them... Domestic relationships withered and died... On a day when I didn't have to wear a collar and tie I was a boy again. If I was heading for the hills, and not the office, I could set forth singing, not audibly, heaven forbid; just in my heart. I was off to where the sheep were real, not human.
Of interest to those who are self-publishers, Alfred Wainwright was a self-publisher as well. He did so for two reasons. One was that he couldn't bear the idea of rejection, and decided (probably rightly) that no existing publisher would look at his work and understand what they were, and would demand changes rather than printing it in entirety as he wanted done. The second was control: he really did not care about making money, but wanted his books exactly the way he wanted it.

As his fame wore on, he took to more and more extreme circumstances under-which he would try to avoid people. He started hiking at dusk, and would spend the nights on the mountains pacing back and forth, since sleeping was impossible. He would then hike back down in mid-morning when the hikers would start to show up. He would even lie to people who recognized him, denying that he was Alfred Wainwright.

If his ornery nature was all there was, I would not recommend this book. But what comes through in this book, page after page, illustration after illustration (yes, the book is lavishly illustrated with his famous ink-drawings, frequently accompanied with the photographs he took while walking) is his love of nature and his dedication to the art of walking and solitude. The book is a quick read: I picked it up this morning and finished reading it 2 hours later, but the illustrations will haunt you and draw you back to the book again and again. Certainly looking over this book has made me want to visit the Lake District again!

Needless to say, I highly recommend this book, and am glad I made an exception to my "no paper books" rule to acquire this book. It's not easily found, and wasn't available at my local library, but I think once you see the ink illustrations you will agree that it is well worth owning the book. If you are a hiker or outdoors person, you really owe it to yourself to read what it's like to be a consummate nature lover.
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