Footnotes – A Journey Round Britain in the Company of Great Writers by Peter Fiennes

Fiennes, Peter - Footnotes

If you read my last blog you might remember I suggested the literary tourists among you might consider visiting the Mauritshuis art museum, The Hague, to check out Carel Fabritius’s The Goldfinch and Johannes Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, paintings which inspired novels by Donna Tartt and Tracey Chevalier respectively.

I have succumbed to a bit a literary tourism myself, as Hubby will testify, having dragged him to Howarth to sit under the Wuthering Heights tree, Lyme Regis to walk along the famous Cobb (Persuasion and The French Lieutenant’s Woman), and even to the ruins of ancient Carthage (is it normal to stand on a cliff and try to imagine Dido watching Aeneas sail away)?

At the time of writing, the UK is still more or less in lock-down, and tourism, literary or otherwise, feels like it belongs to another life. But there’s still pleasure to be had from experiencing new places vicariously and it’s always fun to think about where I might like to go in future, when life returns to some kind of normal. Footnotes appealed on both counts.

Peter Fiennes (no relation to the explorer Ranulph Fiennes nor to the actor-brothers Ralph and Joseph) takes the title for his book from Margaret Atwood’s novel Cat’s Eye: “…post this, post that. Everything is post these days, as if we’re all just a footnote to something earlier that was real enough to have a name of its own”.

But of course we ARE all “post” something, something or someone has always been before.  “Do certain places hold human memories?  Is there a way for us to open up to those memories and connect to the essence of a rock, or a holy spring, or a landscape?” Fiennes poses the question in chapter 3, when he’s in Cornwall following in the footsteps of Wilkie Collins (1850) and Ithell Colquhoun (1950) – apparently she was a surrealist artist and “visionary” author.

Fiennes, by his own admission, selects writers to suit the book’s premise, which is to “bring modern Britain into focus by peering through the lens of past writers” by travelling around Britain “without leaving any gaps…without straying from their recorded paths…the journey should unspool in one continuous loop”. This makes for a fairly idiosyncratic selection, including writers that are not particularly famous (Ithell Colquhorn, Celia Fiennes, Gerald of Wales) or not usually regarded as “great” (Enid Blyton).

In one sense, though, the writers are beside the point. True, the book is partly a biography of each writer but Fiennes is a naturalist at heart – his previous book, Oak and Ash and Thorn, won Guardian best Nature Book of the Year in 2017. The conservationists’ theory of “shifting baseline syndrome” recurs throughout the book: if “as every generation passes, our understanding of what is ‘normal’ moves, without us realising it….how do we know whether life is getting better, or worse?”.

In other words, “we have to find a way to put a value on things that are currently regarded as worthless or taken for granted…food, clean air, water, shelter, friendship, love…the impossible but undeniable interconnectedness of every living thing…the rocks and rivers, mountains and stars”.

Is it fanciful to talk about connectedness with rocks and rivers? For my own part, I’d say not. (Because why else would I be seeking out the Cobb or the Wuthering Tree, or a cliff near the ruins of Ancient Carthage, if not to try to “connect to the essence” of those landscapes.)

If this is starting to sound a bit hippy-dippy or preachy or both, it’s really not (trust me). Footnotes is crammed with interesting facts. As well as being a mini-biography and travelogue, Fiennes throws social history into the mix (the Jarrow March, Highland clearances, and the drive to recruit Welshmen to fight in the Crusades all make an appearance). And if you like your facts with a pinch of humour, the penultimate chapter involves a fantasy dinner party attended by all 12~ writers, which includes a seating plan and after dinner party-pieces (“Enid should sit next to Dickens. She will be thrilled to see some of his magic tricks and he’ll enjoy the Whoppee cushion she has brought with her…At the end of the meal…Dr Johnson will demonstrate his celebrated impersonation of a kangaroo..”).  Why didn’t they tell us this stuff at school?

I’m not sure it quite lives up to being a “meditation on British identity” as it says on the book jacket – but that seems a lot to hang on any book. I’d say it’s simply (as Fiennes says in the preface) “a lot of fun, following this opinionated band of writers around Britain.”  If you read Footnotes in that spirit, you won’t be disappointed.

Rating: ** Worth reading

~ In a tribute to the title, I thought I’d give the full list of writers and routes in a footnote. In chapter order they are: Enid Blyton (Sawnage and Isle of Purbeck); Wilkie Collins (Plymouth to Lamorna Cove); Wilkie Collins/Ithell Colquhorn (Lamorna Cove to Launceston); Celia Fiennes (Launceston to Hereford); Gerald of Wales (South and Central Wales); Edith Somerville and Violet ‘Martin’ Ross (Welshpool to Chester); J B Priestley and Beryl Bainbridge (Birmingham to Liverpool); Charles Dickens and Wilkie Colliins (Cumberland to Doncaster); Samuel Johnson and James Boswell (Edinburgh to Skye and back); J B Priestley and Beryl Bainbridge (Tyneside to Lincoln and London); Charles Dickens (Gad’s Hill to Westminster Abbey).

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