The January Man
Christopher Somerville (Doubleday, £14.99)
The January Man is a book that makes you want to pull on your boots, grab a map and get out there. Christopher Somerville makes even the most gentle stroll appealing and his pitch-perfect descriptions of the scenery, wildlife and cultural history of his walks are irresistible.
He has the enviable power of noticing and describing details so beautifully: the subtle, but once captured so distinct, variations of yellow in spring flowers; the way a kingfisher’s garb—iridescent blue and copper in the sunshine, green and brown in the shadows— gives it the power of discretion; and the awkwardness of the clunky and curiously nervous pink-footed geese he stalks in Norfolk’s flatlands.
Constructed around Dave Goulder’s song, January Man, each chapter describes a month in which Mr Somerville walks the countryside and observes the changing landscape around him. His journeys take him from the West Country, riddled with poignant reminders of his childhood, to the varied landscapes of Britain, among them the Lakes, Dales, Northumberland and Lincolnshire, following long distance paths such as the Pennine Way, Severn Way, Robin Hood’s Way and the ancient Harroway across the chalklands of Wiltshire.
His apogee is the far distant Foula in the Shetlands, where, on Midsummer’s Day, it doesn’t get dark and it certainly doesn’t get warm.
There’s more, too, because alongside these walks and reflections on the changing year is the author’s father, initially a shadowy presence who reveals little about himself but his stiff, upper, English lip. However, as the months go by and the narrative unfolds, we start to get to know his character and his powerful legacy to his son.
Yes, painful feet, but, more importantly, a true love of the countryside, of legend, architecture, history and—gently teased out over a pint after a hard day’s walk—the hints of dreadful wartime experiences.
This is a gentle, thoughtful narrative about the nature of relationships in which there is no big ‘reveal’, no denouement and no crisis, but a gently powerful love, opened up through the mutual experience of the power of place, enjoyed on foot. Fiona Reynolds