Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Suffolk & Norfolk — A book by M. R. James

A perambulation of the two counties with notices of their history and their ancient buildings, by M. R. James. O.M., LITT.D., F.B.A., F.S.A. Provost of Eton.

In compiling this book I have made use largely of my own notes, taken at various times during the last fifty years, and considerably supplemented for the present purpose. But I do not pretend not to have drawn upon other people’s work.

Guide-books, in particular the Little Guides, have been most useful and the Transactions of the Archaeological Societies of the two counties, though these I have not consulted as much as I might have done.

My debts to Blomefield’s Norfolk and to Clement Ingleby’s Supplement thereto are evident; but a very special acknowledgement is due to Mr. H. R. Barker, of the Bury Museum, for his excellent gazetteer, as it may be called, of Suffolk, published at Bury in 1907-9 in two divisions, for West and East Suffolk; it contains photographs of every church in the county, and a succinct description of each parish. It has been invaluable to me, and often have I wished that someone in Norfolk had carried out a similar survey of that county.

Other books that have helped me find mention in my text: there, too, I have tried to show my consciousness that much is wanting. Still, I believe that there are an appreciable number of facts newly recorded, and many newly brought together here. I have many early associations which endear these two great counties to me, and the attempt to expound some of their manifold attractions to those who live in them and those who visit them has been a very pleasant task.

- M.R. James, Eton College, February 1930.

Further information here, here & here.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Journey Through Britain - A book by John Hillaby & Tim Stephens

John Hillaby (July 24, 1917 - October 10, 1996), British travel writer and explorer, died at the aged of 79.

Hillaby was the son of a Yorkshire printer. He was educated at Woodhouse Grove School, Leeds. He embarked on a career in journalism, interrupted by service in the Second World War. After the war he worked for the Manchester Guardian, the New York Times and the New Scientist.

He published his first book, Within the Stream, in 1949. His real impact on the literary scene came in 1964, when he published Journey to the Jade Sea, an account of his 1,000 mile walk with a camel train through northern Kenya to Lake Turkana. The book set the pattern for his later books, Journey Through Britain (1968), an account of his walk from Land's End to John o' Groats, Journey Through Europe (1972) and Journey Through Love (1976).

His earlier journeys were always alone, but after he married Kathleen Burton (also a great walker) in 1981 the two travelled together. She featured in his later books, Journey Home (1983), John Hillaby's Yorkshire (1986), John Hillaby's London (1987) and Journey to the Gods (1991).

From his writing, I imagine that John Hillaby would make the perfect walking companion. He is well spoken and straightforward, learned and curious. He has a gentle sensitivity for his surroundings and a taste for adventure, coupled with the honesty to admit to fatigue, self-doubt, and crankiness. He has all the qualities that would intensify the pleasure of a walk while remaining erringly human, and humble enough to acknowledge the fact.

His prose style carries a marvelous economy, where even passages that attain considerable lyricism read as unassuming reactions, the simplest means of conveying the extraordinary:

"Tremendous landslides have choked the floor of the glen with large, irregular blocks of rock that glint with mica. No trees. No grass. Only rocks sculptured by fire and ice. In places they are piled high, one above the other in chaotic architectural form as though, during a violent spasm, a cathedral had collapsed. This is Glen Dessary, a rift in the edge of Lochaber. 'Daysary', the sheep-gatherers say, lingering on that last syllable of desolation, as though it betokened the end of the world".

Passages like this one are intermingled with down-to-earth narrative, digressions on regional dialects or pre-historic civilizations, and descriptions of the geological and biological landscape whose matter-of-factness belie Hillaby's well-studied and sensitive eye. The various elements are thrown together with a casual ease that gives the book a gentle rhythm, like a boat rocking on the swell:

Walk walk walk description walk walk digression walk walk moment-of-heartbreaking-beauty walk walk digression walk walk description walk walk walk. The rhythm is infectious, hypnotic. The book is so simple, and yet so beautiful, so hard to put down.

Photographs by Tim Stephens (Folio Society).

Despite Hillaby's distinctive voice, he retains a sense of objectivity through humility.

He passes his knowledge on to us as a casual guide, remarking on matters of interest as if he were commenting on the weather, and suggesting further reading like a friend pulling books off his shelf for our perusal.

And yet, there is no pretense to omniscience: we sense that he is learning this stuff as he goes along, and that we could too, should we so choose.

Likewise with the logistics of the hike itself. Things go wrong for Hillaby quite frequently, and while his misfortunes sometimes become a source of humor, he isn't ashamed to tell us that sometimes he is miserable, sometimes he doubts himself, sometimes he is tempted to accept the offer of a ride. But these confessions never take on the form of bravado: if anything, Hillaby understates the challenges he faces. There is no doubt that the hike is difficult, but he isn't so boastful as to complain about his hardship.

Modern travel literature generally aims at simplicity, with the naïve humor of misadventure jovially thrown in. Hillaby's account is one of the masterpieces of the genre, achieving sublime effects without a trace of pretension. He puts to shame the derring-do and studied humor of the Bill Brysons of travel literature, whose ego and forced bombast leaps out of every page. Hillaby doesn't force the excitement of his adventure on us but rather gently narrates, allowing us to discover the excitement for ourselves.
- David Egan.

Further information here, here & here.