Grevel Lindop

Poet, biographer, critic, essayist and writer on just about everything

THE JANUARY MAN

I’ve just finished reading Christopher Somerville’s entertaining, vivid and thought-provoking book, The January Man. In outline, it’s an account of the year, month by month, describing a walk (or sometimes several walks) in a different part of the United Kingdom for every month.

Somerville is well known as the Times walking correspondent, so he’s ideally qualified to guide us, whether it’s on the Norfolk coast or the remote island of Foula in the Shetlands. But his book is about much more than walking.

Besides beautifully-written observations of nature – trees, birds, insects, fungi – as the seasons turn, the book explores Christopher Somerville’s many enthusiasms: it’s full of fascinating reflections on music and poetry, ecology and folklore, tall stories, old buildings, modern farming and a thousand other things. At one moment, Somerville is recreating a youthful hitchhiking expedition that took him and a friend all the way to Istanbul; the next, he’s recreating a long-gone country fair in Wiltshire, now almost forgotten but a few short generations ago so important that half a million sheep and 750 tons of hops were sold there annually, and cheese was traded by the ton.

As if that’s not enough, the book sketches – lightly and engagingly, in touches that build up month by month into a vivid portrait – memories of his father, a taciturn man who never spoke much about his quietly courageous war service, and even less about his top-secret work at GCHQ. Walking together on long-distance footpaths was, mostly, the closest father and son came to shared communication. It’s all perfectly judged: moving and fascinating without any sense of emotional overspill. Quite an achievement, and one that will touch a verse with many of us whose parents were from that emotionally-reticent generation.

Christopher’s website is at www.christophersomerville.co.uk – For a link to order the book, see foot of this page.

As a bonus, the book introduces us to Dave Goulder’s great folksong, ‘The January Man’, from which it takes its title. I can’t find Martin Carthy’s performance of that fine song (the version mentioned in the book) so I’ll put in a haunting version by the Albion Christmas Band with some charming if slightlky kitsch astrological imagery (no offence – as I wrote once in a poem about Mexico, in some contexts ‘kitsch is authenticity’!).

The January Man is definitely one of my books of the year: the perfect Christmas present for anyone who loves walking, or the countryside, or loves odd facts and surprising stories. Add a beautiful cover painting, and a link to download a free walking guide from Christopher Somerville’s website, and what more could you ask? I’m already realising how lazy I’ve been this year. The shortest day will soon be past; and then I swear I’ll lace up my boots and be on the move again. Thanks, Christopher!

One comment to “THE JANUARY MAN”

  • Thank you so much, Grevel, for a really wonderful and generous review from someone who writes so poetically themselves.

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