The Marches by Rory Stewart, Border Walks with My Father
published by Jonathan Cape
ISBN 978-0-224-09768-0, £18.99 hardback
published in Country Life, November 16th, 2016
The Marches is a travel book with a mission: to walk and write the frontier of England and Scotland. It was written by the polymath Rory Stewart; acclaimed travel-writer, visiting Professor, Afghan aid-worker, M.P., television presenter and government minister. He is also wise enough to want to learn through his fee; to walk himself into an understanding, through chance conversation and encounters which no amount of press briefings, photo calls and conferences will give you.
Rory is an innate Unionist, at home in Perthshire and his Penrith constituency and equally proud of the very different cities of Edinburgh and London. He is the product of three generations of expatriate Scots, who were outsiders all over the world, not just in the British Isles. So with the same sense of adventure and keen-eyed intelligence with which he reported on Afghanistan and southern Iraq, he set out to examine the differences between England and Scotland, to observe on the ground whether there is anyone who feels convincingly British anymore. He also wants to test out his concept of ‘Middleland’, a place formed from the two tough border regions of England and Scotland. It is a fascinating quest into the nature of the British, going back to the days when we were the illiterate head-hunting savages, disdaining the superior cultural advancement offered by the Roman legions in order to maintain our freedoms. Rejecting an enlightened civilization, we remained covered in animal tattoos, smeared in mud and packed into our own dark, dank, smoky round huts.
The limit of the Roman state is now our beloved Hadrian Wall coast to coast path. It followed no ethnic, linguistic, tribal or geographical frontier, unlike such natural dividing lines as the Highland Line, the Clyde-Forth valley or the Mersey-Humber. But 20,000 men moved twenty million cut stones over a decade to make a military zone of exclusion - eighty miles long by half a mile wide. Eight hundred years later it was also used by the Normans to define their even more vicious killing zone, anchored by their two strongholds of Carlisle and Newcastle, built over Roman forts.
The population of Middleland was made up of Britons (the Cumbrian-Welsh and in the Kingdom of Strathclyde) living alongside Anglo-Saxon Northumbrians and Norse settlers. They shared an interest in sheep and cattle, but otherwise worshipped different gods in different tongues in different valleys. Centuries later these peoples came together through shared traditions of reiver raiding and violent blood-vengeance feuds. Curiously the two Border-lands would grow apart in the peace established by the Union of the Crowns in the 17th century, divided by two different legal traditions. Today Rory finds the land no longer in the hands of indigenous native farmers, but increasingly divided between factory farms and national parks, the gaps filled in with a spreading suburbia of retirement villages and tourist-friendly infrastructure.
Fortunately this depressing contemporary reality is shot through by the pathos and humour of a secondary quest. For Rory also uses his Border quest to complete a last voyage around his father, a charismatic Cold War warrior who rose to become deputy-head of one of our secret services. Brian Stewart is revealed to be a loving and affectionate father, interested, dependable and ever animated. He was also a brilliant linguist, a womanizer and a war-hero who helped crush the Communist Chinese insurgency in Malaya. He is also old school, taking his secrets with him to the grave. He is loyal to no-one but the Queen, proud of his regiment (The Black Watch) but disdainful of his own father and an indifferent democrat. It is like meeting James Bond in old age, dressed in a tartan kilt and planting trees, but still only really interested in the exercise of power and the execution of a successful mission.
As a collective portrait of both father and homeland, The Marches is a deeply moving, honest and loving portrait, even if Britain and Brian are seldom what they seem.
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by Barnaby Rogerson