book reviews by Althea

*** The Marches: A Borderland Journey Between England and Scotland – Rory Stewart

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The Marches: A Borderland Journey Between England and Scotland
The Marches: A Borderland Journey Between England and Scotland by Rory Stewart

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’ve previously read both Stewart’s “The Places In Between” and “Prince of the Marshes.” I found both books to be illuminating and informational, as well as engaging. I felt that they really gave me an insight into the situations and cultures of Afghanistan and Iraq, respectively.

However I have to say that I don’t feel that Stewart’s change of focus in ‘The Marches’ works as well. Unfortunately, it also lessened, to a degree, my personal respect for the author.

The first problem, perhaps, is that this is very clearly the product of: “I’m setting out to write another book,” rather than, “These experiences and thoughts I’ve had demand the writing of a book.” It is admitted, several times in the text, that the author is having trouble getting that book together, and it shows.

The concept is: Since Stewart’s “walks” across the Middle East were so productive, why not apply that modus operandi to his home, and walk across the border of England and Scotland, meeting people along the way and getting a sense of the people and culture(s)? The initial idea is to walk along Hadrian’s Wall with his father, gleaning oral history from the older gentleman. Unfortunately, his dad was too elderly for the endeavor, and passed away before the book was completed. This means that the book ends up being sort of part memorial elegy to his dad, part historical musing on the history of the Border countries, and a large part complaining and disdainful jabs with a political edge regarding most of the people encountered along the journey.

The memorial part is nicely done, but honestly probably not of that much interest to most people who did not know the man (who does not come off as a particularly admirable person, though the familial love clearly shines through.)

I very much liked the idea of discovering ‘hidden’ bits of history in each town and obscure archaeological site. That aspect is the best of the book. There are many tidbits of information here which, for me, made the piece worth reading.

However, the third part – the attitude – was a huge disappointment to me. In Stewart’s previous writing, he seemed very sympathetic yet fair-mindedly critical regarding all the people he came across. Here, his attitude reflects that of the book project itself: he had a preconceived notion of what he wanted to find and do, and is resistant and frustrated when the reality doesn’t match those preconceived notions. Stewart has a ridiculously romanticized notion of rural British life, and is practically angry when he discovers that rural English folks and Scots are, well, modern people, concerned with their daily lives without secretly harboring old tales and traditions. Those who do love the old tales and traditions repeatedly come under fire from him for being inauthentic and inaccurate (this may be true, but one would think we could appreciate the passion and love these people have, regardless.)
A bizarre and insistent love of the quaint picture-postcard idea of British life repeatedly crops up, along with an adulation of sheep-farming. Farms and agriculture are regarded as a pinnacle of civilization, and the fight of Man against Nature in order to farm is granted a heroic stature. Environmentalists’ effort to create nature preserves and let areas revert to a wild state repeatedly come under fire, because this would be at the expense of FARMS! Can’t have that! These bits – and others – show a shocking inability for the author to be willing to listen, learn, or admit that anyone might know more about an issue than he does. After all, his ANCESTRAL ESTATE is here! This attitude is disturbing, considering that Stewart is currently Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (which shows why people keep insistently trying to explain things to him.) Overdevelopment of rural areas is certainly a valid concern, but when a major part of the ending of the book is a plaintive lament that a housing development will leave the aforementioned ancestral estate with ONLY a SQUARE MILE of property around it, and he just won’t be able to remain on the family lands because that will just be so *dreadfully crowded*, he comes off as simply the worst sort of blindly, selfishly entitled aristocrat, genuinely out of touch with the concerns of the average citizen. Which is genuinely disappointing.

Many thanks to HMH and NetGalley for the opportunity to read. As always, my opinions are solely my own.

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