I’m reading The Marches by Rory Stewart. It is an account of his relationship with his father growing up in the Far East.
Well, not exactly, because it describes a walk along Hadrian’s Wall with his eighty-nine year old father. “Honestly, Christopher, you’re so annoying, it’s about a walk from his cottage in Cumbria to his parents’ house in Crieff, Perthshire.” (That was me talking to myself as old folk tend to.) It’s not about that either; it analyses the complex history of the Borders from pre-history until the 21st century. It is about the countryside and how it has evolved. It is a series of interviews with people living and working in the area. Rory is well able to deploy such a diverse pallet of colour and is the local MP to boot.
If it was only about one of these themes the book might be as dull as the ditchwater through which he often wades. However, it is a delight with a surprise on every page. I enjoyed reading about his chat with Barry Todhunter, the huntsman of the Blencathra, and memories of his predecessor, Johnnie Richardson, who was in charge when I went out with them. The Blencathra is a fell pack that used to hunt foxes on foot, its most illustrious huntsman being John Peel. These days the hounds follow a trail unless they get diverted by a fox.
He is told over dinner by a woman of “trying to get an English archaeologist – who wore a watch-chain and a three piece suit – out of an Afghan jail”. He is not named by Rory but is Dr Ralph Pinder-Wilson. I was lucky to be introduced to him in 2008 shortly before I visited Afghanistan (but not its prisons). He was seconded to Kabul from the British Museum. Whether he did much wrong or not I don’t know; not the sort of question you ask a respectable, well-dressed old man over dinner in a Persian restaurant in Kensington.
As I’m only about two thirds through, it may digress into other channels. So far I am enchanted by his erudition and research presented with a light touch. However, I don’t envy him his walk. It rains incessantly and the prospect of pitching a tent on Blencathra in driving rain at 3.00 am fills me with horror. Frankly, if it was written by anybody else I’d take it with a pinch of salt but Rory is tough.