A quiet day after a really busy end to June and start of July. What with the heat and the shocks at Wimbledon it is surprising to have got any reading done at all!
Maybe because it is summer, or some other reason, all the books I have read recently have been about travel. So where to start? The best known author, the most enjoyable book or the most surprising?
If you haven’t read anything by Oliver Sacks before, then this is probably not the best place to start. This book is his first straightforward autobiography. A Leg to Stand On, which came out after his best selling book The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, though actually written before, is also autobiographical, it tells of a terrible accident that he had in Norway, when he ignored the warning about a bull, made a too hasty exit chased by said bovine and seriously injured his leg. Only the providential arrival of a hunter and his companion saved his life; that and his own determination to get off the mountain side in spite of the hideous pain. His very first book Awakenings was a slow burner, though eventually became more widely known after it was made into a film with Robert de Niro and Robin Williams.
Oliver Sacks is a compelling writer. He is a clinician in real life, specialising in unusual mental conditions, like encephalitis lethargica, a sleeping sickness that had suddenly appeared in the 1920s and which trapped its victims in profound Parkinsonian states, sometimes for decades. Although Oliver Sacks only started studying and treating these patients in 1966, many of them had been trapped for years, abandoned by family and the medical profession in a hospital until he decided to try dopamine on them. L-dopa was a new drug which showed promising results in patients with Parkinson’s, so Oliver Sacks decided he would do a blind trial on these patients; rather against the advice of persons more senior to him in the hospital. Awakenings, which followed a television documentary, is the story of these patients and their partial recovery. Both his other well known books are about disassociative states of mind. In A Leg to Stand On, he describes quite graphically his “diagnosis and treatment” of his damaged leg, and how he took a dislike to the leg which he could not relate to his own leg. But in spite of the oddness of the subject, it is a page turner. Dr Sacks has a facility with words, an novelist’s capacity for imaginativity, (not sure if there is such a word) and a humanity that makes even his clinical observations profoundly moving. One would long to be his patient if only he was not so committed to the “other” in medicine. Truly, one would not willing change places with his patients’ conditions.
One the Move is Oliver Sacks’ autobiography, covering his awareness of his sexual nature, his Jewishness and his childhood – loving parents, both medics, and clever brothers. His sense that he was in some way a failure. So from England, Hampstead in fact, he moves to America and although he never succeeds in finding that life time partner until late in life, this is a marvellously happy and uplifting book. Brilliantly conveying the breadth and depth of his humanity, humour and generosity of spirit at the same time sounding surprised and humbled at himself as he writes.
Another book, centred on Hampstead, is Amit Chaudhuri‘s new novel Odysseus Abroad. Set on a single day, when the narrator walks over to Belsize Park to visit his uncle, it ranges across continents as he considers how and why and whom it was that made this the location for Bangladeshis to have settled in small but persistent numbers. His parents, uncles and aunts and lots of neighbours. Ananda is a lonely student and Radesh is a lonely survivor, the two of them wander between cafés and restaurants, their conversations and thoughts ranging over literature – the world’s debt to Rabindranath Tagore – and the classics that Ananda needs to read for his English Degree, the uncle over-tipping to an embarrassing degree. Ananda is stuck, like so many others, on James Joyce…thus, the disillusioned student/poet and his virginal, ravaged but magnificent uncle grumble, argue and discuss the world, while wandering through the streets in north west London from Belsize Park up past the Royal Free Hospital to the corner of Hampstead Heath, to eat some unappetising pastries – it is a marvellous evocation of the seediness of some parts of the city, the petrol fumes and the heat, the exigencies of multiple occupancy in houses that were once grand and are now split into inadequate flatlets. The London curry houses that proliferate and serve sorry representations of saag gosht, chicken jalfrezi, daal, pilau rice and other delicacies that are nowhere near their originals. Still, this is an entertaining and insightful book.
The final volume in this trilogy is a gem. Totally unexpected, delightful and unassuming. Like a Tramp, Like a Pilgrim is the journal of a walk along the Via Francigena made by Harry Bucknall, one time military boss, now author. The Pilgrims’ Way in England, from London to Canterbury is only the start of this one thousand mile walk, plus a few. Harry starts his pilgrimage from Childe Okeford adding just over one hundred miles to his journey, which he starts very properly with a blessing from his parish, and another from the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral by no less a person than The Canon Chancellor, The Reverend Mark Oakley. So onward Christian soldier, only he isn’t…specifically religious that is. Harry has a marvellous insouciance towards the long journey ahead, taking time to notice the blackbird singing and the hedgerow flowers. Along the way, he digresses to stay with friends, to party and to capture life in its fullness, though not flippantly and specifically not as a tourist. Following an ancient route through England and France and through Italy to Rome, he engages with other pilgrims, experiences extreme loneliness and also comfort, the kindness of strangers and the welcome of friends, the protection of angels (?), chance meetings with old army companions…the variety and the adventures are numerous, often spine-chilling and nearly always delightful.
I took ages to pick this book up. I was given it for Christmas, signed by the author and presented by a mutual friend and it loitered in the ‘must read’ pile, swallowed by other books that I have been waiting to read. I just loved this book: the perfect companion for the sedentary who can live the pilgrim’s life in the mind; for the active who are wondering where to go next; for the pilgrim who has done the Camino de Santiago and wants another reflective walk and especially for the lost whose passage through life has been an unending, unsatisfied pursuit of the trivial and who wakes up one morning wondering what it was all for.