There are two books on the go at the moment, one for the day, at the kitchen table, the other at the bedside. Both are so good I have to tell you about them before even reaching the final chapters. They have that ability to take you elsewhere.
First up, from the kitchen table, is from John Baxter, he who I discovered as a guide to the backstreets of Paris. Brought up in deepest New South Wales, taking a job with the rail company as he knew it would get him out of town, he hails from the type of place where there is no book in the festive stocking, for there is already one in the house. His traipse round Paris unearthed a fine writer, with a catalogue of written works to his name. One of those, A Pound of Paper, tells of his life as a book collector, and subititled Confessions of a Book Addict, may not be for all.
However the fly leaf tells of a man living in a Paris penthouse with a library worth millions. He tells us how it came to be, and there’s much more to it than books. I’ll spare you more, for I have to tell you about the one on the bedside table. Suffice to say if I happen to be in Paris in a couple of weeks I really should contact Baxter and ask him to scribe a dedication on my first edition of his decade-old narrative among the barrow boys of Brick Lane and across the globe with Greene and Amis and many others. Ideally I’d like one of his personal Parisian tours, but a book signing, now that would be good enough.
But it is Otter Country that I really want to talk about today. For Miriam Darlington has penned a beauty. It is a book I opened from the back, keen to see the bibliography, those readings and sources that have been scoured in the writing of this one. I scan down, mentally preparing two lists; the second of works I’d like to see join the first on the shelf. There are sublime writers on view: Douglas Botting, whose daughter Anna reads the news; John Lister-Kaye and Robert Macfarlane, Maxwell and Willamson of course, and Kathleen Jamie. And there’s Barry Lopez and Kenneth Grahame, Kathleen Raine too, she who gave Maxwell his title and carried the curse that saw Mijbil’s tragic end, and many more.
Like Jamie, Miriam Darlington is primarily a poet, and that is evident in her prose where every word is carefully thought out and placed with precision. Photographs are not needed in Otter Country, though there are delightful sketches, for Darlington paints every scene perfectly.
She has the ability to transport you to other parts. Immediately I am reminded of the times I have glimpsed an otter in the wild. There was that day, on the banks of the Avon down by Chatelherault, between the railway viaduct and the old Cadzow Bridge. FirstBorn was old enough to dip a net in the water and to tell a stickleback from a baggy minnow. Little sister was far from being prodigal, and didn’t fall in. Granny was young enough to wander muddy river banks and get wet and muddy. And on the far bank, and it was a distance just a mile or two upstream from where the river flows into the Clyde, there was a movement; we both saw it. Never heard of otters here, not way back then; might have been a mink.
But on Jura it was otter; running along the wall between road and rocky shore, teasing and playing, immune to the appraoch of a car but disappearing as soon as the camera was found, leaving nothing but ripples on the surface and bubbles rising.
And close to home now is that same Avon, a bit more than a burn, less than a river. Feeding into it is the burn that passes at the foot of the hill, and there’s been an otter sighting in the last couple of years. In fact the man who saw it has just dropped by, interrupting these thoughts, but leaving a couple of bags of Bankend Bangers, from his own Tamworths. I’m minded that we need to do some otter watching.
Darlington introduces us to Jimmy Watt, still living in Glenelg, and to Terry Nutkins, so recently succumbing to his cancer. And immediately I’m back at Sandaig. For I too have made that trip down the hill through the trees, and I too have seen the first rays of morning sun put the bright onto that ring of water; and put a pebble down for Edal. And I too have sat for hours in that hide above the sound, glasses glued to the face and watched for movement and signs and been devoured by midges. It’s a book that I suspect Craig who runs the shop in Glenelg may just have on display, with other Maxwell related works, beside the local ales and the local drams to be taken over the sea to Skye. And I long to be back on Eilean Ban and that long room. The old lighthouse-keepers cottage would make the perfect writer’s retreat. One day.
But there is much more to Miriam Darlington’s trail round otter haunts than Gavin Maxwell. We’re in Tarka country and Cornwall and Wales too, where she tells of the land that was once farm and is now nature. She follows the trail and gives us an otter’s eye view; getting down and dirty, sniffing the spraint and inspecting the foodstuffs. You wouldn’t think a lutrine latrine could be interesting, but suddenly I want to get my wellies on and get out there.
She takes me to Fowey and I remember arriving there on the day of the festival; a day it seemed when the locals broke fast on scrumpy and devoured nothing else all day long, whilst dressed as if in Bedrock. It was a while before we took the ferry that day. It must be thirty years ago now, but like that first otter it seems like only yesterday.
There are times when I think that one of Laurence Broderick’s bronzes would look good by the bookcase; a good investment even. Much like an inscription on a book. I need to go now, for I think of Thesiger and two very different tales of travels with Marsh Arabs in terrain that exists no longer. Chahala.
And if you happen to be in Wigtown in the next couple of weeks – sod it, she’s on a different day to Tahir Shar, and I fear I’ll miss out on both.