Wednesday, 20 March 2013

A Single Swallow - Horatio Clare

I haven't read any nature writing for several months, so a couple of weeks ago I headed to the 590s section of the library to see what I could find.

I stumbled across A Single Swallow and was immediately attracted by it's colourful, orange, green and blue dust jacket and the vague feeling that I would like to read something about birds. I had a quick flick through and could see that it was a travel book, but seeing as the hook for Horatio Clare's journey was to follow swallows from their winter migration grounds in South Africa back to Wales, I thought that the book would focus extensively on swallows - migration patterns, physiology, mating behaviour, etc. Obviously, the cataloguer was having a bit of an off-day, as A Single Swallow is clearly travel writing (it even says 'travel writing' on the back, next to the bar code). Having said that, the author displays his interest in the natural world with really beautiful and perceptive descriptions of: sky, land, river, trees and animals.

The first chapter, which describes the starting point of his journey in South Africa, focuses quite heavily on the birds, so it wasn't until I had read a bit further that I realised that this wasn't the sort of book I was hoping to read. I continued on for two reasons: a) travel writing is one of my favourite genres, so I thought I would probably enjoy it anyway, and, b) the language was wonderfully lyrical and so vivid that I kept stopping to read sentences out loud.

One of the figures of speech which kept jumping out at me was the author's liberal use of alliteration - "The light is peculiar, melted pewter and there is a penumbra around the sun." My favourite snippet described travelling along a river and keeping close to the bank, "we stuck to the steep-shelving shore, no more than a foot into the flow". His description doesn't feel forced to me, at all, and out of all the other ways he could have described this simple action, this repetition of st-, st-, sh-, sh-, f- f- made me declaim this sentence out loud about four times. The necessity to stop, at intervals, and sing snippets of the text, meant that this book took me much longer than average to finish. 

I also found the author's use of simile and metaphor refreshingly inventive. For example, in describing the dangers of choosing a window seat next to the metal frame of an overfilled bus, he says, "I will collect a fat bar code of bruises down my right side."

The first two thirds of the book that dealt with sub-Saharan Africa were enjoyable, but after Algiers the book started to go down hill for me, reaching the depths when the author suffers an episode of melancholy in Gibraltar and chucks his rucksack (containing all his supplies, notebooks and souvenirs) into the sea from the top of a cliff. He then proceeds to discard his wallet and passport en route to Madrid. This last section of the book was mainly about 'the journey' rather than travel. On return to England and in trying to make sense of his journey and readjustment to British life, he says,
"And because I am a romantic, and because perhaps I really had been knocked sideways by the journey, I imagined that what had happened to me would be met with universal rejoicing by my family. It was not."
I found it easier to understand his journey as a whole, both pre- and post his manic episode/period of enlightenment, by changing the lower case r of "romantic" to Romantic.

Was this book the best travel memoir I have ever read? No. But, Horatio Clare's writing is enjoyable enough  for me to consider picking up another one of his books in the future.

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