Here are three tales. The first: I’m currently reading Robert Macfarlane’s best-seller, The Old Ways. It’s a hard book to describe but essentially it sets out his thoughts on how we shape landscape and it shapes us, as he follows pilgrimage paths, sea-roads, prehistoric trackways and ancient rights of way in England, Scotland, Spain, Palestine and China.
I’m struck as much by his luminous gift for language as by the stories of his pedestrian (though far from pedestrian) journeys. He summons arresting imagery and metaphor with an apparent flick of the wrist, while leading one into wild corners of countryside and obscure crevices of history so vividly that one feels one is walking in his shoes.
Last night before going to sleep I was walking with him along the South Downs ridgeway. Early one evening he reaches a hilltop crowned by the remains of a well-known circle of beech trees, planted in the late 18th century and later mostly blown down in the gale of 1987. Sleeping outdoors is a feature of all his journeys and he decides to bed down there for the night.
He is woken in the darkness by a scream, which he thinks at first may be that of a bird or animal. When it comes again he realises it’s human, but issuing from the level of the treetops. Soon he hears not one but two separate voices, both uttering screams and both moving round the circle of trees, one clockwise, the other anti-clockwise, to converge on where he is lying. He remains terrified on his sleeping mat in the dark, waiting for the screams to stop. Eventually they do. Later he learns that the hilltop, the site of both Bronze and Iron Age forts, as well as a Roman temple, is one of the most haunted places in Sussex.
The second: last week I unexpectedly received a copy in the post of novelist James Robertson’s latest book, 365 Stories, in which he tells a story for every day of the year, each one of 365 words in length. I was amazed and delighted to find that one of the stories is dedicated to me.
I had written here some time ago about what I thought did and didn’t make a story, concluding that in a story something has to happen, something has to change. James takes this theme to the limit and beyond, thus: a boy goes to the shops to buy milk, but on the way back he is abducted by little folk and enslaved for seven years beneath a fairy hill. Eventually set free, he returns to find his parents have not noticed his absence. To them he has been gone but a few minutes. Yet the milk in the carton is shrunken and solid like cheese.
The third: many years ago I was staying in the Cathar country of Languedoc. I went for a walk at dusk. A long poplar-lined country road stretched ahead of me, leading towards a pass in the hills. I had not gone far when I saw what I thought was a large dog padding down the road towards me. As we drew closer I became more and more convinced that it was not a dog but a wolf. Curiously untroubled, I kept walking and when we were a stone’s throw apart the creature stepped off the road and vanished into the undergrowth.
I told my hosts what had happened and they remarked that the symbol of the ancient rulers of this land was a wolf. Further, that the pass in the hills at the end of the road was the Col du Loup. And later I was reminded of a French expression for the failing light at dusk:
‘Entre chien et loup.’
What is one to make of such things?