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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

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