Review: Footnotes: A Journey Round Britain in the Company of Great Writers

Footnotes by Peter Fiennes (Oneworld)

In “Footnotes” Peter Fiennes journeys round Britain, from Cornwall to Skye, leaving no gaps in the journey, accompanied by  as diverse a set of writers as can be imagined; Enid Blyton and Gerald of Wales, Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Celia Fiennes, Beryl Bainbridge and J.B. Priestly,  Somerville and Ross, Boswell and Johnson.  

We join Peter on the Isle of Purbeck in Swanage, with Enid Blyton. After a slippery walk up the path from Swanage to Studland, to the exhilarating cliff top with its view of Old Harry Rocks, we are asked to imagine Enid revelling in the mayhem. She lived life with “passion and whirling energy” and “loved a thunderstorm” – I know this area well, and love it most when it’s a bit wild weather-wise, so I completely see where Enid is coming from.

Crucially the stormy difficulties of Enid Blyton’s own work and life are not ignored here in favour of a lovely travelogue. There is as much biographical backstory in this book for each writer as there is description of the journey itself, as well as Peter Fiennes own sections of memoir.  Biographies of place too – the natural beauty of Dorset and Cornwall, the complicated and violent politics of early Medieval Wales, poor old Bradford – one of my childhood haunts, it’s been through a lot, and this book includes a long extract from Priestley’s 1933 ‘English Journey’ about the value of the immigrant population to the city and its culture. 

We visit Devon and Cornwall [with Wilkie Collins (1850) and Ithell Colquohn (1950)] and inevitably rock up at Lands End where we also catch our first sight of Celia Fiennes, ancestor of the author. Lands End is much easier to find now than it was in 1850, when Wilkies Collins had to hire a guide,  or for Celia who did the same in 1698. Before we meet Celia properly in a later chapter [Launceston to Hereford] we hear she ‘drank some very good bottled ale’ before getting onto the rocks at Land’s End and ‘clamber’d over them as farre as safety permitted me’.

I couldn’t imagine Ithell Colquohn having a beer and a scramble.  A surrealist artist, writer and mystic Colquhoun, wanting seclusion, settled in Lamorna after the second world war; she was “one of the first prose writers to try and describe the deeper magic of a place”, an idea hugely interesting to me as a reader of so much of today’s writing about place and how we fit within it. I had never heard of her before but immediately went to look up more; a book which leads me on to other unexpected writers is always a welcome addition to my library.

This is a hugely entertaining read in which literature, memoir and observation are expertly woven together. Fiennes has a great sense of humour, quite dry and self deprecating. At Tintagel we find him in fear of the edge and the scary stairs “The best thing, I am imagining, is a time beyond this moment, when I’m safely back on the mainland, possibly under a duvet” followed by a paragraph which made me laugh loudly on the bus. I assume his visit was before the shiny new, but still very scary looking, footbridge opened at Tintagel.

A little further down the road I found Edith Somerville and Violet Martin Ross enormously engaging . I must admit that until now, and like most, I never knew they were women, my only experience of them being the 1990s Channel 4 adaptation of “The Irish RM”. Edith and Martin are an absolute HOOT. For example, just outside Dolgellau in sweltering heat “Edith [riding side-saddle as they did] had fashioned herself a hat out of bracken and a painting rag”. What a sight she must have been! It’s worth buying the book for this chapter alone, and of all the writers in here Edith and Violet/Martin are the one’s I’d love to go back in time and meet, maybe because they are so new to me and I expect they enjoyed a whiskey (they were probably much less intense than Ithell Colquohn too).

In Birmingham, with J.B. Priestly and Beryl Bainbridge, the Holiday Inn Express “…altogether more airless than anything Jack and Beryl could have booked or ever indeed desired” leads Peter to ask incredulously “Where would they even have smoked?” and is compelled to purchase his first pack of cigarettes in 27 years. Such is the power of the literary spirit guide that, throughout, it feels like our author is ‘with’ the writers, rather than ‘he took some notes and books along on a walk’. Fiennes makes these literary figures come alive. They could easily be the hiking companion, chatting away or gazing out to sea, waiting at the top of the hill or with a welcome drink in the pub, (more likely many drinks, and why not have a smoke too? in the case of Bainbridge and Priestley).

Fiennes is such as good writer that everything flows quite brilliantly along; this is almost like reading more than one book at once, and all the more enjoyable for it. Footnotes encourages the reader to experience places for themselves, and as they were fifty, two hundred years, or seven centuries ago. It reminds us that people don’t change much really, that we all carry our baggage with us. After reading this I immediately felt like putting on my boots, packing a bag and heading out with any of these writerly guides. I’m sure they would take me – as they took Peter Feinnes – on fascinating journeys.

Footnotes is published by Oneworld. Thanks to them for providing a review copy via NetGalley. Currently available in hardback, and in paperback from May 2020 (2020!!)

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