Identity and the land
BookPage Top Pick in Nonfiction, December 2016
If you’re thinking about building a very big wall, why not start by reading Rory Stewart’s captivating new book, The Marches: A Borderland Journey between England and Scotland. In its first section, Stewart describes walking—occasionally accompanied by his then 89-year-old father—along Hadrian’s Wall, which the Romans built in Northern England to keep out the barbarians. A student of the wall’s history, Stewart knows that it was for centuries garrisoned by a remarkably diverse set of soldiers and their families, including “Tigris barge-men from Iraq.” What, then, does it really mean to be a Briton, a Scot or an Englishman?
At the time of Stewart’s first walk along the thousand-mile length of the border, Scotland was about to hold a referendum on whether to leave the United Kingdom. A vote to leave would mean that Stewart, recently elected to Parliament from a district in Northern England, and his father, Brian, a proud Scottish Highlander who has spent his career working for the British Empire, would live in different nations.
The meaning and history of borders and national identities is something he ponders during a longer walk recounted in the second section of the book. Stewart, who wrote about his 2002 walk across Afghanistan in the brilliant bestseller The Places in Between, has complicated, sometimes contradictory experiences, all framed by encounters with people who live in the Marches. He longs for the bucolic landscapes described by Wordsworth and is disillusioned by the wilder landscapes that environmentalists have succeeded in restoring. Which of these is the real English landscape? It seems to depend on when you start your timeline.
Time is one of the chief concerns of the third and final section of the book, because at 93 years of age, Stewart’s father is dying. Stewart writes movingly and honestly about his father, who was 50 when Rory was born but possessed a remarkable vigor and a keen interest in his son that readers will feel throughout the narrative. It’s a fitting end to this powerful exploration of personal and national lineages and landscapes.
This article was originally published in the December 2016 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.