A short post-script to my trip report about the Ben Lawers Five last week. The day after that memorable Munro-bagging extravaganza, my editor Alex Roddie was launching his book The Farthest Shore at the Highland Bookshop in Fort William, just 90 minutes across Rannoch Moor from where we were staying in Killin.
Alex has edited all of my books since Seven Steps from Snowdon to Everest in 2015, but he’s better known to most people in the outdoor community for his work on magazines such as Sidetracked and The Great Outdoors (TGO). His writing features regularly in TGO and he is the current editor-in-chief of Sidetracked. He has also written guidebooks to long-distance hiking in the Alps and other parts of Europe.
Here are some photos of the book launch taken by Alex’s brother James, a professional photographer, including one of myself looking rather like Billy Bunter (I guess he must have used a wide-angle lens).
A few images from my book launch last night,
out into the world at @HighlandBks.
Thanks to everyone who attended. Images by @jroddiephoto.
Alex Roddie (@alex_roddie) September
The Farthest Shore is his first full-length travelogue and describes his full traverse (or ‘through-hike’ to use the official parlance) of the Cape Wrath Trail in north-west Scotland. He first hiked the trail in 2015 and can take some of the credit for popularising it with his subsequent articles in TGO.
He walked it again following the death of his father in February 2019 and The Farthest Shore describes this particular hike. His objective this time around, aside from experiencing the trail in contrasting winter conditions, was to seek solitude and see if his mental health could improve by avoiding the internet for a full month.
This is a highly thoughtful and personal book, dark and brooding in places, but with lighter, more down-to-earth moments that bring to life his experiences on the trail.
For example, the first 20 pages or so explore the death of his father in early 2019 and his addiction to social media. The writing is intimate, almost heart-rending, but then he starts his hike and there is a more pragmatic quality to the writing.
The first few days are dominated by a dodgy tent that he’s been given as a freebie to review. It has a single layer and pools of condensation form on the floor every night. His brother James arrives with a replacement. ‘I couldn’t wait to be rid of it’ are his parting words at the tent’s final appearance. Some of these passages are quite comical and will entertain those of us who’ve had similar experiences (of dodgy tents, if not having to review them). He doesn’t name the offending brand or model, but I’d love to read the review as it must have been a corker.
The book will also appeal to fans of nature writing. In many places the writing is poetic and lyrical. Inevitably, as Alex gets more involved with his walk, ordinary life drifts from his mind as he becomes a part of the landscape: ‘My mind felt like a different thing – no longer an algorithm or a shard of the machine, more like a river-washed stone’.
In keeping with modern nature writing, there are moments of mysticism. A dipper looks him in the eye then flies away. He feels sure the bird was trying to communicate with him, but he can’t understand what it wanted to tell him: ‘It slipped from my grasp like the quicksilver of the whispering rapids. I felt a momentary but devastating sense of failure, of a chance that would never come again – like a dream containing an entire lifespan that dissolves upon waking, leaving a profound sense of loss.’
If such lyricism doesn’t appeal to you, then the frequent dialogue with supporting characters brings a more human quality to the story. There is a hilarious sequence towards the end of the book as Alex approaches the haven of Sandwood Bay. His crusade to escape the internet fails spectacularly when he bumps into the internet’s love child, in the form of a full-on conspiracy theorist who kerb-crawls him in a vehicle.
There is something here for many different readers. Alex may not thank me for saying this but The Farthest Shore is not his first narrative book. He’s previously written two novels with mountain themes, one set in the Alps and the other in the Scottish Highlands. His career as an outdoor writer and editor then took off and he moved on to other things. He’s since taken these novels off the market because he no longer wishes to be associated with that style of writing.
The reason I’m mentioning this is because I was actually a fan of his novels. They were one of the reasons that I ended up hiring him as an editor (a decision I have not regretted) – I could see that he knew how to craft a good story, and he has brought this talent into The Farthest Shore.
More recently Alex’s writing has evolved again to focus more on nature writing. The various Covid lockdowns have meant he has spent more time observing nature around his home in Lincolnshire and writing about it. This evolution resulted in the following classic tweet, which nicely demonstrates why writers shouldn’t always listen to their readers.
Received an astonishing message from a reader
this morning: ‘What’s with your recent digressions
into nature, wildlife etc? I don’t follow you for that, I
follow you for the outdoors. Please return to writing about outdoor
— Alex Roddie (@alex_roddie) January
Of course, the reader’s feedback sounds absurd – nature is the essence of the outdoors – but in his defence (I assume the reader is a man), I can see where he’s coming from. Modern nature writing can be somewhat esoteric and requires a certain imagination. This is something I’m not so strong on myself. When I joined Robert Macfarlane’s reading group about Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain, much of the writing and subsequent conversation went straight over my head. I missed a lot of things that other readers could see, and even when I had them pointed out, they seemed a bit obscure to me. Yet I could clearly see that many participants in that group were on the same wavelength and fully appreciative.
Happily, The Farthest Shore has the best of both (nature and the outdoors). There is evocative nature writing, and there are more accessible sections about life on the trail with elements of humour in the parts with dialogue. It may be Alex’s first full-length travel book, but it has a maturity of writing that exceeds most debuts. It promises much for the future. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I found it highly readable with moments of true profundity. Most of all, it made me yearn for the hills of north-west Scotland. I’m sure many of you will enjoy it too.