The January Man by Christopher Somerville

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Reviewed by Judith Wilson

January Man Somerville

It was early January when I requested Christopher Somerville’s new walking book for review. I was simultaneously intrigued by its title, The January Man, and by its sub-title, A Year of Walking Britain. On the cusp of 2017, who wouldn’t relish the prospect of a 12-month exploration of the British Isles, with sparkling prose to be savoured on a rainy winter’s day?  But more importantly, I was drawn to Somerville’s secondary theme.  His book promises a thoughtful scrutiny of his late father, with whom he shared a passion for walking, and one son’s very personal attempt to understand a private man. John Somerville was exactly the kind of taciturn, mid-20th century father many baby boomers (myself included) have also tried to fathom.

Brilliantly, Somerville has woven this personal ‘journey’ through a densely packed, beautifully observed real pilgrimage, which takes the reader around the UK, from the island of Foula on the Shetland archipelago to Lyme Regis in the south, from Long Mynd, Shropshire, in the west, to the opposite Norfolk coast. Somerville, the walking correspondent for The Times for over 25 years, is a master of his craft: he writes lyrically yet the text is crammed with facts.  He also imbues his easy-to-read prose with a sense of humour. So when he’s longing, after a particularly challenging walk, to whip off uncomfortable boots and get ‘into some nice comfy trainers’, we feel his pain – and subsequent joy.

Appropriately, the ‘January’ chapter opens in flood-laden The Leigh, Gloucestershire, close to Somerville’s childhood home, where he reminisces over boyhood escapades with his longest-standing friend, Roo. By ‘April’ he’s in the Lake District on a stone-rubbled cart track, its mossy walls ‘footed in banks of violets and opposite-leaved golden saxifrage.’  And after a sunny ‘July’ navigating St Cuthbert’s Way, we’re in the woods of Sherwood Forest for ‘September’ where ‘fly algaric fungi rise in the gold and green leaf litter under the trees.’  We finish in ‘December’, walking up Cley Hill, Gloucestershire, during the annual Somerville family Boxing Day pilgrimage.

 I’m no wildlife expert (though I do love a breezy seashore or hilltop walk), but I was quite captivated by Somerville’s detailed research and observations.  His focus is broad.  It sweeps from the advent of lambing season beyond ‘the long slim valley of Nidderdale’, to the blue-legged avocets in Marshside, the Lancashire RSPB nature reserve, who ‘stalk the shallows of the lagoon’. Then there are the sugar-beet-eating pink-footed geese overwintering in Snettisham, and the joys of specific names for wildflowers on the island of Foula.  There’s plenty here to satisfy both the well-read nature lover and the casual armchair wanderer.  Often Somerville walks alone and sometimes with his wife, Jane. But his father is ever-present, recalled in snippets of memory. Father and son first began walking holidays when Somerville was a grumpy teenager; they continued when he was a 20-something teacher, and, towards the end, he took on the role of adult watching over his frail 80-year-old father.

For me, the book was at its most gripping when focusing on John Somerville, who, having enrolled at the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth, at 13, joined the Royal Navy and served in a destroyer during the Second World War.  Subsequently he worked for GCHQ in Cheltenham. Early on, we see the man through Somerville’s boyish eyes:

‘What do you do at the office, Daddy?

‘I’m a civil servant.

‘But what’s that?

‘It’s what I do at the office.’

As the book progresses, Somerville muses on his father’s extreme reluctance to talk about the war, and in bringing an adult focus to bear, eventually establishes a closer understanding of a highly driven, yet undemonstrative man.  But as well as being a tender exploration of father-son love, and the glories of nature on the British Isles, The January Man is also packed with history, myth, contemporary farming and ecological comment, and we meet intriguing characters along the way.  Some are from the past, such as the Victorian Reverend E Donald Carr, who walked the Shropshire hills in a blizzard (and subsequently wrote about it), and some are present-day, such as the father-and-son farmer duo on the Lincolnshire coast.   It’s a wonderful fusion of the personal, the instructional, and the spiritual.

If I had one criticism, it would be the absence of a photograph of Somerville’s father; having spent time in his company, I wanted to see the man behind the words.  I’m not embarrassed to say that the last page of the book brought tears to my eyes, as Somerville muses, on New Year’s Eve, about his ‘journey’ around the UK with his father on his mind.  ‘I have missed him and learned to love him better,’ he concludes.    The January Man is a fitting and thoughtful reflection, and one suspects John Somerville – spare with words and praise in his lifetime – would have been quietly delighted at his son’s tender tribute.

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Christopher Somerville, The January Man: A Year of Walking Britain (Doubleday, 2017). 978-0857523631, 384pp., hardback.

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