Monday, 16 August 2010

Dabbler Country - The Perfect Bedside Book?

Dabbler Country is The Dabbler's outdoorsy column.

Today, Nige finds the nature-noter's perfect book...

I think I've found the perfect bedside book, at least for those of us of an outdoor-loving disposition. It came to me via my Derbyshire cousin, who found it - of course - on the shelves of the Magic Bookshop. It is Country Matters: Selected writings 1974-1999 by Richard Mabey, a collection of short pieces of a perfect length for the day's last dose of literary pleasure and - what? - 'natural philosophy' is perhaps the best term. Mabey ranges over subjects and places as diverse as Yarmouth (in winter) and the Yorkshire Dales, the Camargue and the Burren, Don McCullin's photos and Keats's Ode to a Nightingale, the TV series Living In The Past and Madeleine Pinault's The Painter as Naturalist - but always the strongest thing is Mabey's quietly observant, thoughtful, appreciative sense of place. Always he has something interesting to say, some unexpected insight that is entirely his, and always he writes well, though never in any way drawing attention to himself in a 'literary' manner. This is by origin journalism, not literature - but (as is often the way with the best journalism) it is a whole heap better than much writing that passes itself of as literature.

The other night I happened on a short piece from 1988 called A Walk Around The Block (it first appeared in John Hillaby's Walking In Britain). A defence of walking - purposeless 'sauntering' - for its own sake, it quite took the words out of my mouth. Complaining of how walking has been hijacked by the sponsored hike, the mass marathon, the therapeutic claims of the health industry and the needless elaborations of consumerised hobbyism, he laments that 'Going for a stroll, one of the most civilised of pleasures precisely because it can be indulged in for its own sake, is now expected to do something, either for you or the world.' Mabey goes on to mount a pithy heartfelt defence of strolling for its own sake, enlisting along the way Samuel Johnson, George Borrow, Hazlitt and Thoreau - who always found himself sauntering towards the Southwest 'where the earth seems more unexhausted and richer' - with experiences of his own first strolls in places newly arrived at (always the most magical). He then considers the importance of the 'home patch', taking us briefly through the healing 'ritualistic' walks that root him where he is. Do styles of walking, he wonders, find their way directly into the style of written accounts? A thought which takes him off via W.H. Hudson, Richard Jefferies, John Clare, John Cowper Powys and Bunyan, before arriving at 'the patron poet of strollers', William Cowper, with whom (and with ten lines from The Task) Mabey ends this richly rewarding essay - just one of the many treasures in this satisfyingly large bedside book. If you spot it anywhere, buy it.

The Dabbler alas can't seem to find 'Country Matters' on Amazon for a penny or any other amount, but there are other Mabey works to be had. If you know where to find it, do let us know in the comments.


  1. You can find Country Matters at for as little as £3.45 plus postage. More than 1p, true...

  2. also available, used, at Alibris and Biblio

    Great review Nige, I love this kind of book - to the point where I feel that I actually read too many of them! But I will definately add this one to my overfull 'natural philosophy' shelf

  3. Natural philosophy sounds indulgently slow and appealing, as does the book. When will the iPod wearing, jogging generation realise just how much they're missing out on?

    Walking and writing styles - and the smooth and sophisticated manner of a cravat wearer ... hmmm Ministry of Stylish Walks methinks.