January 2004

James Purdon


An Interview with Robert Macfarlane

At one point, considering what he’s just said to me, Robert Macfarlane looks mortified: ‘That all sounds incredibly pompous.’ He reconsiders. ‘No. No. Sorry. I have a low pomposity threshold. I mean these things, so if they sound pompous…’ You would think that, having won the Guardian First Book Award, for Mountains of the Mind, Macfarlane would have an excuse for raising that pomposity threshold. Not that he shows any signs of doing so. The book, a personal and cultural history of the experience of mountains and mountaineering, has attracted a fair amount of critical praise since its publication last year, attracting adjectives like ‘elegant’, ‘magnificent’ and, perhaps most to the author’s liking, ‘genre-busting’.

His Cambridge office looks over Parker’s Piece, a huge expanse of green in the middle of the city. When I visit him for this interview, well into December, the Piece is layered in frost and grimy mist, and he pours coffee from a makeshift filter stuck inside a teapot. He’s just finished a term’s teaching after returning from paternity leave. The interviews with the British literary press, he notes, have ‘slowed up’, but another round -- with hopeful University candidates -- is just beginning. Indoors, we talked about some of his depictions of the outdoors, his first book, his next book, and the strange world of literary awards.

You seem to have an amazing sense of timing. I just saw a trailer for the movie version of [Joe Simpson’s mountaineering memoir] Touching the Void in the Arts Picture House across the road.

Well, it’s been a mountain year, what with the Everest anniversary in May. But it’s always a mountain year, I mean, there’s just millions of people who are interested in mountains.

The Guardian even called you ‘Mountain Man’ in the award announcement. But the book itself doesn’t seem to quite fit into ‘mountaineering writing’ as a tradition.

Mountaineering writing tends to cleave into what I’d call the epic, and the tragic. I suppose those are the two. There’s the great story of the expedition which takes months to accomplish and succeeds in climbing a very high remote peak. That’s the epic. Then there’s the tragic… the tragic is obviously the death story, and there are plenty of those in mountaineering history.

But I wanted to write a book about the reasons why people went to mountains. Lots of books had been written about this before, but it seemed to me they all dealt in names and facts and heights: this person climbed that mountain by this ridge on that day. It was a kind of calendrical, or almanac-y. An almanac. But causality can’t be described by an almanac, I suppose. So I wanted to write something about why people went. And it seemed to me they went because of images and emotions and ideas and metaphors -- and all the things that inhabit our brains and drive us to do stuff. And that’s particularly true of mountains -- any emotional relationship we have with them is one that we’ve dreamt up. I wanted to write a history of that dreaming.

Mountains of the Mind manages it, with those two distinct voices side by side -- the personal and the intellectual, or cultural.

I didn’t know if they would sit together. I always thought maybe there were too many types of writing in the book. Or competing voices that didn’t seem they could be from the same person -- so that one person would have to be putting the other voice on. I thought it might ring untrue. It has, for a few people. But for the majority of people it seems not to have done; the voices seem to have counterpointed each other.

It’s a book not just about mountains, but also about how history works: why is it that people go into the wild, and escape nurturing, and experience things in a primary way? The ‘wild places’ are often in children’s literature. They’re not just geographical spaces. They’re also where kids go where they read. Tolkein. Narnia. Sendak. Wind in the Willows, the Wild Wood… The way you read landscapes and interpret them is a function of what you carry into them with you, and of cultural tradition. I think that happens in every sphere of life. But I think in mountains that that disjunction between the imagined and the real becomes very visible. People die because they mistake the imagined for the real.

You don’t have to go very high or very far to find somewhere you can hurt yourself on a mountain. But this feeling wells up in you; this desire to be somewhere high, somewhere cold, somewhere beautiful, somewhere sunlit, somewhere that isn’t a city.

You describe that feeling very well: am I right in thinking that your next book will be more about the idea of wilderness, or wildness?

Well, I think I’ve said all I have to say about Mountains, so I probably won’t write much about them again. I am very interested in this very diverse tradition that can be bracketed as ‘nature writing’. I think it’s actually in that field, so to speak, that some of the most interesting and exciting inventiveness is going on in terms of non-fiction writing. Fiction and non-fiction have seeped into each other so much in the last twenty or thirty years. There are a lot of books that work on the borderland between those two domains -- I’m trying to think if I can work a financial metaphor here -- they evade the tax that is placed on straight nonfiction and straight fiction. They… benefit. And I also think it shows a way out for travel writing which, in Britain at least, has devolved into either the clowny-comedic, or the very pensionable mode of the liberal humanist chappie who goes to a foreign country and says what he thinks of it to other liberal humanist chappies.

And that’s really shackled travel writing, and it’s become a much-scorned kind of writing. But what’s really reviving it is a sense of what the interfusion of other genres or interests into it can do. Whether that be history, or memory, or the natural world. I don’t think it’s a strait-jacket, but…

I know you admire W.G. Sebald’s writing, which some would say really promoted that kind of interfusion.

I can see what might be deeply wrong with Sebald, but I also find myself more affected by him than by almost any other writer I’ve read recently. I’ve learned a lot from him. Not that I’m suggesting that I’m in any way near his league. Sebald purified a way of writing about spaces. And they didn’t have to be wild and uninhabited places.

The first point of travel writing is to make the familiar strange and the strange familiar. And Sebald did that brilliantly; he was irenic. That’s what we do in dreams; we connect things in unexpected ways. He’s not an historian, he’s not an archivist, he’s not an anecdotalist. I know a lot of young writers who are very interested in what he did, and are trying to see if that type of hybridization leading to a new species can be used in other ways. The trouble with Sebald is that he can sound like a portentous old sod at times, too interested in death and the omen.

But he wrote about a kind of decaying Britain; about towns and suburbs and rolling countryside more often than wild places.

It’s often said that Britain has no wilderness. I think Britain has got some absolutely extraordinary places. Britain was still being explored in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. There are exploration stories. In 1692 the first sort of mainland expedition made its way out to St. Kilda [the remotest islands of Scotland’s Outer Hebrides]. No trees have ever grown on St. Kilda. and they brought a load of islanders back to the mainland. And these people met a tree for the first time -- and they just stood there and worshipped at it. And, similarly, the mainlanders who’d gone over found that all the vegetation had been kind of beaten flat by the wind and was no higher than shin level, but they looked more closely at the vegetation and realized that these were trees -- they were just incredibly stunted trees -- and that they were actually walking around on top of a forest. It was just a forest that was half a foot high. I still think it’s possible to be amazed about Britain – at least, I am.

So where would you propose to find wilderness for the book you’re considering writing?

Up in the mountains, underground, offshore, in rivers on moors, in marshes. Romney Marsh is one of the strangest places in Britain, and that’s deep in the southeast, which is one of the most overbuilt areas. But this would be a book purely about Britain, which my agents wouldn’t be so delighted with. But I think it’s more important to write a book that one feels.

Now that you’ve won the Guardian First Book Award, you’re in the company of people like John Banville, Peter Ackroyd, Jim Crace, J G Ballard. How has that affected you?

These are some of the writers I really rate. Just to be in any sort of dynasty that involves them feels great. I don’t know. It’s funny, but I don’t know quite what it’s done.

Mountains of the Mind is only the second non-fiction book to have won the award. Does that put you in more danger of pigeon-holing?

By that you mean, will I be able to write fiction?

I mean, does it restrict you more than winning an award with a work of fiction?

I was going to write a novel, actually, until the Guardian Prize came along. I was thinking, I’ll write a novel. I know what I want to say. I know where I want it to be set. And now the Award has come along, and I sort of thought, no, I may be part of a very interesting and exciting… a small part of a new, hybridized type of writing that’s emerging now, and I’d like to carry on working on that and developing that.

Presumably, there have been other nice things happening as a result of the publicity increase…

Hundreds of strange letters.

I got one from a man which began, ‘My dogs told me I had to write to you…’. And then it was written in some kind of eco-gabble. And it signed off, ‘Yours Sincerely, Mike and Polly. Woof Woof’. I got two postcards from Redmond O’Hanlon. One was of a hole that he’d dug in forty tons of horse manure. And of his Renault Clio -- or Renault Clitoris, as he referred to it on the postcard -- which he’d filled with ton after ton of this manure. He was writing a book on Britain’s wild places, as I discovered, slightly to my chagrin. I was writing to ask him what he was doing about that, and he wrote a fabulously zany and encouraging letter in response, saying ‘Go for it! Write your book now!’ I’ve had lots of offers of television presenting work. And books. And lectures. And columns…

The book itself is going to be turned into a 30-minute film by the BBC, with me crunching over some snow. I asked if the budget stretched to the Himalayas, but it doesn’t, apparently. So it’s Scotland, or the Alps. And Channel Four want me to present a series on wilderness and its origins as a kind of sanctuary which (if it were made well) could be a landmark series, and (if it were made badly) could be staggeringly, awfully humiliating. Somebody else wants me to present a series on science and literature.

I’m not writing at the moment, to be honest. I’m teaching, and being a dad, and moving house. I’m teeing up a lot of projects at the moment. If I do this wilderness project, it’ll take me a year, maybe two years, to research it. A year to write it, a year to publish it: that’s four years hence. The book came out 9 months ago. That’s 5 years from book to book … but that’s no bad thing. I think overproduction is a great literary sin of our highly marketized literary world. But, at the same time, readers’ memories are not elephantine. At the moment, I’m judging the Encore Prize. That’s 56 second novels to read, and I’ve got until March. That’s enough for now.

Does the Guardian still give an endowment for education as part of the prize?

Well, apparently not -- they say they never did. I wanted to give a thousand pounds to a school in Nepal, which would have transformed it as an educational establishment. I may give £1000 of the prize money -- it seems like a way to pay back.

A lot of the outdoor writers who are so good, who do so well, are very involved in wilderness politics. There’s this funny gap between the way I live my life, in a city, and what I write about, what I’m interested in, the issues.

And you’re not planning on becoming a co-opted eco-warrior.

I’m going to have to take care. It’s a very difficult path to tread -- not to look like, or be, a kind of woozy elegist for nature, or a Tory landlover. Both of which I think I’m in danger of being. Not that I have anything against Tory landlovers.