‘I am haunted by waters.’ Olivia Laing begins in her travelogue-come-historical musing To The River. ‘It may be that I’m too dry in myself, too English, or it may be simply that I’m susceptible to beauty, but I do not feel truly at ease on this earth unless there’s a river nearby.’. It is a sentiment many, I’m sure, can identify with and one expanded with grace in Laing’s wonderful book.
To The River follows Laing’s own journey along the River Ouse, a river made famous by the death of Virginia Woolf and, in much earlier days, the Battle of Lewes fought between King Henry III and Simon de Montfort. Following both the physical tracks of the Ouse and the tracks of Laing’s own musings, the book focuses heavily on the life and writings of Woolf and has seeded in me an unexpected interest which has turned me towards a reading of her diaries. As Laing shows, Woolf was a fascinating woman who leaves more to be remembered than pockets weighed down with stones and a few difficult but brilliant novels.
Laing’s story begins at the source, her own motivation for the journey. A bad break up and the loss of her job turn her mind towards a restorative journey, and as she identifies at the beginning the path to her ease is alongside a river. So she decides to walk the Ouse Way, a journey that will take a week or so. Along the way Laing reflects on many different things, all connected in some way with the river itself or rivers in general. She tells the story of Mary Anning and Gideon Mantell, early palaeontologists who discovered the first iguanodon and ichthyosaurus skeletons though neither, initially, received the recognition these discoveries deserved. She reflects on the sad story of Kenneth Graeme, writer of Wind in the Willows who too bore a fondness towards rivers. There are legends like those of Cherry of Zennor, and the Greek hero Odysseus, both of whom travelled into underworlds through the mediating waters of a river. In this way Laing reveals both the past and present of the river, and both mans’ impact upon it and its impact upon man. The river rushes towards its end, to its inevitable absorption by the sea, and yet remains the same, continuing to refill and renew itself.
There is more, much more, and too much to detail here. What is wonderful about this book by Laing is how much is covered, how her mind wanders and associates and draws in so many stories and ideas that in some way link to the river. Besides the outward looking, searching nature of Laing’s mind, she also has a wonderful way with words and the sheer poetry of her writing means it is both mesmerising and simultaneously hard to take in. It is important to note, you understand, that I say this not as a criticism but as sincere praise: in this way the book meanders like a river, reflecting what is outside and revealing, in its clear waters, what is within. And it is beautiful and mesmerising. Like here:
‘The track to Piddinghoe led past Deans Farm before breaking uphill across the dry chalk bed of a winterbourne. I climbed past tussocky banks of wild thyme stitched with yellow crossword and the pale flowers of heath bedstraw. Selfheal and birdsfoot trefoil, which as children we called bacon and eggs, were also growing to profusion, and between them the bees moved in their drunken drifts.’
It is a book with a very meditative quality to it, which yet reveals the intelligence behind it. I finished reading this with a heavy respect for Laing and her curious, explorative mind, the journey it took me on and how much I learned along the way. It made me realise, for example, how commonplace it is to think in fluidic terms. On reading the book I found myself wishing to immerse myself in the writings of Virginia Woolf, but perhaps realising that in truth I would only ever skim the surface. Similarly Laing’s book is awash with watery metaphors, revealing the way in which we rely upon the waters to wash our cares away and flood us with light and clear hope.
To The River is a wonderful book and one which I would like to read again and again, and know that I could do so easily. I feel lightened after reading it, unburdened from the ordinary troubles of my everyday life and instead I find myself wondering about that great old forest the Andredesleage, the curious properties of pollen and the way in which man has shaped the very landscape which we feel most wild permanently scarring our past and present. It is everything great non-fiction writing should be.