End to End _________________________________
The Book Guild
THE FOLLOWING note is included in the 2008 edition of the Middle Cottage handbook, which is provided to the guests in my Suffolk cottage - www.suffolkcottage.net.
The note appears in a section headed 'Books with local connections'. The three other books included in the same section are Unnatural Causes by P. D. James (set partly in Dunwich and Minsmere, a couple of miles from the cottage), The Bridge by Maggie Hemingway (a novel about the painter Philip Wilson Steer set in Walberswick), and Something Might Happen, a Southwold mystery novel which includes a seduction scene set in the secondhand bookshop in Westleton, about 400 yards from the cottage.
You may think that a book describing a walk from Land’s End to John O’Groats is a bit of a long shot to be included in a section of a Suffolk cottage handbook entitled ‘Books with local connections’. You might also feel that a 200-page book about an 1100-mile hike, written by a semi-retired insurance man who is neither an author nor a walker, is best left where it seems to belong – on the shelf.
But if you should have such thoughts I would venture to say you could be wrong on both counts. In the first place the local connection is, in my submission, solid. This is because the author has actually stayed here. Here in Middle Cottage that is. More impressively still, he and his wife Jane – who makes a couple of guest appearances in the book – were my very first guests in the cottage in the dim and distant days before it was rented out.
As you may by now have guessed, Steve owes his inclusion in this particular pantheon to the fact that he is a friend – an old friend from university days in Norwich. But that’s not to say I’ve abandoned the strict literary standards that have been applied here to P. D. James et al. It’s just that I would never have dreamed of reading a book about walking from Land’s End to John O’Groats otherwise. I’m glad I did. When most people say that a book is ‘unputdownable’ they are speaking figuratively. But for the fact I started reading Steve’s book at the eccentric hour of 2am and sleep seemed called for at some point, I think I’d have to say that it was literally unputdownable.
Of course part of the secret is the subject. If you write a book describing an immensely long walk from Cornwall to the most northerly tip of Scotland, then the story comes with a certain narrative tension built in. There’s a vicarious sense of achievement available to the reader, who wants to get to John O’Groats almost as much as the author does. There’s quite a lot of vicarious enjoyment to be had as well, whether of the many shades of green Steve observes on a spring day in South Devon, the mellow stone buildings of the Cotswold villages he passes through, or indeed, the ample cleavages of various barmaids, which seem to get more ample the further north we get.
But it’s the fact that Steve gets lost twice before he leaves Land’s End and then the way the story unfolds, with various characters coming to populate a book rich with incident and wry observation, which is most engaging. In the majority of cases these characters are introduced with generosity and enthusiasm as by a genial host at a party. Occasionally, when they do get a tongue-lashing – almost always for some mean-spirited act or disposition – it is well-merited and administered with moderation and good humour.
If you read End to End, it will almost certainly make you laugh out loud at various points and feel better for having gone on the journey. It may even have less predictable effects like inducing a mild fascination with the history of the Manchester Ship Canal or a strong convert’s conviction that the Bollin Valley Way, which actually goes under Manchester airport, really is a better route to Scotland than the Pennine Way which most End-to-End walkers opt for.
Of course there are moments of doubt and near-despair such as when the soles start to come off Steve’s walking boots as he’s nearing Glasgow and he reflects on the wisdom of leaving his reserve pair back in Norwich hundreds of miles away. How or whether this particular problem is solved, or whether our hero ever does manage to complete his 1100 mile walk is, of course, something I can’t reveal. For that would be like giving away the end of a whodunit. But since, talking of whodunits, P. D. James has been given the benefit of having the first paragraph of her book quoted in full, it’s only right that I should do the same for Steve. Here is the opening of End to End:
If you would like to read more, you should find End to End, like the other titles mentioned here, on the bureau bookshelves. ______________________________________