Book Review – The Old Ways, Robert Macfarlane

The Old Ways

The Old Ways – Robert Macfarlane

The jury is still out on Mr Macfarlane. Despite being lauded as one of the best nature writers of his generation, then I find it hard to fall in love with his style of writing.

I feel I should rate him, after, all Roger Deakin thought so highly of him he made him his literary executor and I applaud the way in which he has raised the profile of my much maligned home county of Essex, praising the desolate beauty of its coastline and the iconic Englishness of it’s seaside resorts, but, unlike Roger Deakin, Macfarlane’s writing just seems to lack the human touch or possibly a sense of humour, it is all so very, very clever and earnest.

Walking the Old Ways with him, while reading his book, felt, at times, a hard slog. Wading through a treacle of endless metaphor’s, scrabbling through geological terms. The fact that the book needs a 9 page glossary to help you understand it, says it all. It seems that, at times, Robert Macfarlane looses his way. Is he an academic or a literary writer? and , if he is a such a great writer, why does it feel as if he is trying so very hard to impress us with his knowledge? At times it just seems as if he is trying too hard, when he loosens up towards the end of the book he gets so much better.

I loved his stories of seeing a panther on the road at night after a long days walking in the snow or his experiences of ghostly presences at Chanctonbury Ring. He retold these events with admirably little fanfare and a dryness of style which made them believable and left you wanting more. Where this book really seemed to excel was when Macfarlane forgot himself and told the stories of others, particularly his account of the war experiences of Edward Thomas, then I became lost in the story and the writing, no longer fighting through cleverness but immersed in the landscape and the life of another.

The Old Ways has been praised to the hilt by many and was a surprise top ten bestseller. If you are at all interested in nature writing then it is a book to read just make sure you are prepared for some heavy walking.

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10 thoughts on “Book Review – The Old Ways, Robert Macfarlane

  1. I’ve often found the overuse of cleverness to get in the way of an authors intent. For me, it’s as though pages worth of writing could have been stripped away, and a riveting narrative would be all that is left.

    • Yes, Yes, I agree. it just seemed to me that he went on and on about geology and then gave a really tight account of seeing a panther. Who wants to read about flint when they can read about a great big cat?

  2. I have very mixed feelings about this book. I read it because I am interested in old paths and also because I wanted to see what all the fuss was about Macfarlane. I expected a lot, which was probably not a good thing. In the event, I found the book rather disappointing. I didn’t like some of the language; I remember having a discussion with someone who liked it and saying I found some of the language to be too “strong”, as you say, too many metaphors etc. I also didn’t find myself being drawn in to the narrative and I feel I should have done. It is something to do with his style which I find rather impersonal. Many authors would have reacted more or shown more personal involvement in some of the events he experienced or the wildlife he encountered.

    I should add that my wife liked the book a lot. She felt she was being taken on walks with a very interesting guide.

  3. Thanks for sending this link through. I think the third para could be written with Macfarlane in mind, not that I am so terribly down on the chap, but it is nice to know that other’s see that, ‘all that glitters is not gold.’ I like the sound of Phillip Marsden’s book particularly the observations on working with your hands.

  4. I agree with these comments. Reading ‘The Old Ways’ felt like a reading ‘text-book’ with education rather than inspiration the outcome.
    ‘Holloway’ (by R Macfarlane)- is both more focussed & more imaginative. It is everything ‘The Old Ways’ isn’t, and a powerful testament to his dear beloved R Deakin. In it, the landscape he writes about is not just matter nor merely nature, but rather it ‘enjoys a luminosity’. Throughout the 38 pages, you feel the author’s presence; he expresses infinitely more than in all of ‘The Old Ways’.
    It’s a delight to re-read, and recommend the ‘jury’ take this work into account before reaching a final verdict.

  5. Hi Simon, I thought you would be interested in this debate over Mr Macfarlane (especially as you leant me the book) you will just have to lend me ‘Holloway’ as well so I can see what I think.

  6. Yes, I have. I love the Kathleen Jaimie quote, very funny. It’s true you would think we were all living in some blissful 1920’s idyll the way some of these writers view the countryside through blinkers, waxing lyrical about areas of outstanding natural beauty and ignoring the destruction on the borders.

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