After a whole bunch of fiction it is always good to take a breather and read some nonfiction. At least for the change of narrative pace.
The Marches, weirdly billed as travel writing, is part memoir, part biography, and part interview. The author, coming off a book where he walked through Afghanistan (referenced frequently) heads home to walk the border between Scotland and England. An area of contention since before the Romans planted a huge wall there, the Middlelands (as the author calls them) are rife with history and local flavor. Stewart goes off in search of identity. He brings along with him his father. An aging former military man with an incredible life who peppers his speech with the word ‘darling’ seemingly as often as possible.
If you wanted history: you got it. This book is full of things you never knew. Unless you’re more educated than me which is very probable. For instance, I never knew how global the soldiers the Romans put to guard Hadrian’s Wall. They literally were from the other side of the globe as far as these people were concerned. Beyond that, the vikings, how farmers built homes, the endless clash between English and the Scottish until essentially today, there’s a lot to cover and Stewart has the knowledge base to tell it.
Stewart’s aim for the book is where I get lost. I know he states it somewhere at the beginning. But he seems to bounce all over the place. He’s looking for people with a sense of history of where they belong, preferably folks who have been on the land for years and years. At the same time he makes clear that Scottish identity today is largely a product of fiction. i.e. they’re way more viking than Celt. He jumps from interview to interview with people he’s met, frustrated at each one of them and the reader is always wondering why. Even his own father, full of contradictions, frustrates Stewart with his acceptance of those contradictions. It swerves into holier than thou territory.
Coupled with a weird disdain for environmentalists, and clear sadness for the loss of farmland, makes for an off-putting read. It starts well. But then he starts walking in earnest, talking about the walk to talking about his father’s exploits as a younger man. There’s two books in here struggling to make themselves known, and neither of them succeeding.
I think someone who lives in England or Scotland would get a little more out of it.
2 out of 4 stars.