I’ve just spent a week or so in the company of Scottish essayist and poet Kathleen Jamie. It began last summer when I heard her reading extracts from her latest collection of essays, Sightlines, on Book of the Week. I liked what I heard and promised myself that I’d read the book when it appeared in paperback. A couple of weeks ago I did, and then immediately moved on to her previous collection, Findings. After that, totally impressed, I moved on to her first book Among Muslims and her latest poetry collection, The Overhaul.
Findings and Sightlines are both published by Sort Of Books but it’s not easy to define what sort of books they are. Jamie herself has said that there doesn’t seem to be a term that captures the disparate topics that she ranges over in these essays. In Sightlines, in the very fine ‘Pathologies’ she ponders the meaning of ‘nature’, exploring the landscape of cells through a hospital microscope not long after she had sat by her dying mother’s bedside waiting for ‘nature to take its course’ and wondering what the phrase really means.
Kathleen Jamie isn’t one to be seduced by romantic or lyrical evocations of ‘nature’ or the wild. Back in 2007, she wrote a refreshingly astringent review of Robert MacFarlane’s Wild Places for the London Review of Books in which she stated what might be deemed the underlying philosophy of Findings and Sightlines:
Waiting to be discovered is a wildness which is smaller, darker, more complex and interesting, not a place to stride over but a force requiring constant negotiation. A lifelong negotiation at that: to give birth is to be in a wild place, so is to struggle with pneumonia. If you can look down a gryke, you can look down a microscope, and marvel at the wildness of the processes of our own bodies, the wildness of disease. There is Ben Nevis, there is smallpox. One wild worth protecting, one worth eradicating. And in the end, we won’t have to go out to find the wild, because the wild will come for us. Then, I guess, someone will scatter our ashes on a mountaintop, and someone else will complain.
Her clear-eyed stance was apparent elsewhere in that review:
There’s nothing wild in this country: every square inch of it is ‘owned’, much has seen centuries of bitter dispute; the whole landscape is man-made, deforested, drained, burned for grouse moor, long cleared of its peasants or abandoned by them. It’s turned into prairie, or designated by this or that acronym; it’s subject to planning regulations and management plans. It’s shot over by royalty, flown over by the RAF, or trampled underfoot in the wind-farm gold-rush. Of course there are animals and birds, which look wild and free, but you may be sure they’ve been counted, ringed maybe, even radio-tagged, and all for good scientific reasons. And if we do find a Wild Place, we can prance about there knowing that no bears or wolves will appear over the bluff, because we disposed of the top predators centuries ago, and if we do come unstuck there’s a fair chance that, like the man on Ben Nevis, we’ll get a mobile signal, and be rescued.
Wild is a word like ‘soul’. Such a thing may not exist, but we want it, and we know what we mean when we talk about it. And yes, we’re drifting here towards the religious. When we want to scatter someone’s ashes in a wild place, we know the kind of place we’re looking for. Further: we know what the wild is because we’re making small acts of reparation towards it. It’s noble to reintroduce species once persecuted into extinction, albeit as part of a management plan. Once reintroduced, though, they might show signs of being a bit self-willed: white-tailed eagles have an eight-foot wingspan. Recently, one took a flight round the Asda car park in Dunfermline. People were so alarmed they called the police.
The white-tailed eagle in the Asda car park alarming shoppers into phoning the police is typical of the shrewd and telling observations to be found in Jamie’s essays. They often begin with an autobiographical recollection – in ‘The Woman In the Field’ it’s the memory of leaving school at seventeen and spending the summer working as a volunteer on an archaeological dig in the Perthshire hills. The dull routine of scraping and digging is dramatically interrupted by the unearthing of a Bronze Age coffin containing the body of a woman and a baby, buried together on the wing of a swan. A mobile crane has to be brought in to lift the coffin’s great stone lid. Just at the moment that crane began to lift the capstone, the sky darkens and there is a great clap of thunder. The following winter, with the opening of the coffin lingering on her mind, Jamie wrote her first small poem. She was eighteen, and with exams no success, ideas of trying for university had been dashed. But, she writes, ‘you could sign on the dole’:
You could hide among the swelling numbers of genuinely unemployed, and claim a little money each week. That’s what people did: artists, diggers, mountaineers, would-be poets and musicians, anarchists and feminists. Anyone for whom the threat of a job, of conformity, felt like death.
The opening of the coffin, with its accompanying thunderclap, had been thrilling and transgressive. She discovers that, in its own quiet way, poetry is like excavating treasure buried beneath layers:
The weight and heft of a word, the play of sounds, the sense of carefully revealing something authentic, an artefact which didn’t always display ‘meaning’, but which was a true expression of – what? – a self, conciousness.
Jamie’s prose is finely-crafted and sometimes verges on poetic. At the same time, there is a matter of fact groundedness, rooted in the humdrum ‘here and now’ of kids, house and home. Sometimes, though, she has to break away: sailing to far-flung, remote Scottish islands like uninhabited St Kilda and Rona, the subject of the finest essay in this collection. It’s an account of time spent on the island one summer with two companions: Stuart, a naturalist who is counting the numbers of Leach’s Petrels, and Jill, an archaeologist documenting the remains of a long-abandoned village. It’s a wonderful piece in the unclassifiable Jamie mode: part nature writing, part travel, part environmental and philosophical meditation. Its highpoint comes with a vivid account of the sudden arrival of four killer whales, ‘scary, beautiful animals’, that circle the island:
Out of the shifting sea, the witless sky, out of the ambivalent world had come terrible certainty: a natural law, laid down in black and white, but mystery, too.
The shortest piece in Sightlines is a crystalline essay on how, at this time of year, there comes a sudden sense that ‘the light is back’. In ‘Light’ she writes:
Every year,in the third week of February, there is a day, or, more usually, a run of days, when one can say for sure that the light is back. Some juncture has been reached, and the light spills into the world from a sun suddenly higher in the sky. Today, a Sunday, is such a day, though the trees are still stark and without leaves; the grasses are dry and winter-beaten.
The sun is still low in the sky, even at noon, hanging over the hills southwest. Its light spills out of the southwest, the same direction as the wind: both sunlight and wind arrive together out of the same airt, an invasion of light and air out of a sky of quickly moving clouds, working together as a swift team. The wind lifts the grasses and moves the thin branches of the leafless trees and the sun shines on them, in one movement’ so light and air are as one, two aspects of the same entity. The light is razor-like, edging grasses and twigs of the willow and apple trees and birch. The garden is all left-leaning filaments of light, such as you see on cobwebs, mostly, too hard to be called a sparkle, too metallic, but the whole garden’s being given a brisk spring-clean. Where there are leaves, such as the holly 200 yards away, the wind lifts the leaves and the sun sweeps underneath. All moving because of the fresh wind.
Now the town’s jackdaws are all up in a crowd, revel ling in the wind, chack-chacking at each other. And I hear a girl’s voice, one of my daughter’s friends, one of the four girls playing in the garden. She makes a call poised just between play and fear. What are they playing? Hide and seek? No matter. It pleases me that my daughter says they are ‘playing in the garden’, because they’re eleven years old; another year or two and they wouldn’t admit to ‘playing’ at all, and for a while the garden will have no appeal, because everything they want will be elsewhere. For a few years they’ll enter a dark mirror-tunnel whose sides reflect only themselves. The girls themselves can’t be seen, obscured by trees and that edgy, breezy light. The year has turned. Filaments and metallic ribbons of wind-blown light, just for an hour, but enough.
Sightlines garnered a host of positive reviews when it was published last year. Doug Johnstone reviewing it for the Independent wrote:
She is a deep thinker on the human condition and nature, and especially the relationship between the two. There is a refreshing lack of romanticism here; a realistic down-to-earthness that grounds her prose and makes it all the more accessible.
While Adam Nicolson in the Telegraph wrote of Jamie ‘coming to moments of poetic precision and acuity, but always set in a frame of ordinariness’:
The whole book is an experiment in honesty, a refusal to romanticise in a Vaseline-on-the-lens way. “I sail on the surface of understanding, a flicker here, a silence there,” she says, and all the time circles around the agonised status of what “nature” actually is. What does that word mean? What is nature? Everything we are? Or everything we are not? And do those two questions ever connect?
She refuses to find any answers and as a result the book plays a subtle line between enchantment and disenchantment, between believing in nature and distrusting it. The book is suffused with a kind of tenderness, but she can also be funny, in an understated and melancholy way. In the museum in Bergen, full of the hunted, killed and flenched skeletons of dead whales, there are, “on a central pillar, neatly painted in Norwegian and English, the words ‘Do not touch the animals’, but it was a bit late for that”.
And for all her scepticism about empty responses to the natural, she does not fight shy of the heroic. The climax of the book, and its most sustained performance, is the account of two weeks spent on Rona, the green island 40 miles north of the northern tip of Lewis, where she was counting Leach’s petrels and one day met a gang of killer whales, whose brutal, raging arrival at her oasis sears off the page like a knife. I don’t think I have ever read a passage which transcribes so exactly the deep unsettling weirdness of the wild.
I worked my way back, then, to Findings, her first collection of essays published in 2005. In the piece which gives the collection its title, Jamie is frustrated by an easterly wind from her objective of landfall on St Kilda. Instead the skipper of the yacht in which she’s sailing deposits her on one of the Monach Islands. She’s never even heard of them before, never set foot in a yacht before, ‘never sailed the sea in anything smaller than a CalMac ferry’.
‘I hacked off the gannet’s head with a penknife, which turned into one of those jobs you wish you’d never started.’ That’s the arresting opening sentence of this piece whose theme is the random objects we find in ‘wild’ places. Lying on her back by a small loch she notices a stand of flag irises, a white plastic tub trapped among their stems. ‘The islands are a 21st century midden of aerosols and plastic bottles’, she observes, and muses on the things that she and the rest of her party had picked up along the shore, things they valued enough to keep. Apart from the gannet skull washed clean by the sea, she had kept two pale sticks (‘like the first man and the first woman’), an orb of quartz bits of a crashed aeroplane and pieces of whalebone. ‘It seemed that what we chose to take were not the things that endured, but those that had been transformed by death or weather’.
She is still lying there ‘thinking these idle thoughts’ when a shepherd appears on a quad bike. He’s been alone on the island for seventeen days, and he’s collecting driftwood from along the strandline for his fire. Jamie asks him about the great number of creel-markers and buoys strewn across the islands. he answers:
‘They are without value. I have told the fishermen there are plenty here, but they say they are without value. If they were of any value,’ he laughed, ‘they would be gone.’
In another essay, Jamie watches, with a small crowd of spectators, salmon making desperate attempts to leap falls on the Braan river, every huge effort met with cries as if in recognition of the nobility and heroism displayed. Only later does she discover that the salmons’ way upstream to their breeding waters has been blocked – in the interests of new salmon hatcheries further upstream. This provokes the characteristically wry thought that what the spectators at the falls were seeing was not the survival of the fittest, but ‘the survival of the ones who give it up as a bad job and settle someplace quiet. A small life in the suburbs. Salmon wisdom’. But also another thought – and a question:
They say the day is coming – it may already be here – when there will be no wild creatures. That is, when no species on the planet will be able to further itself without reference or negotiation with us. When our intervention or restraint will be a factor in their continued existence. Every creature: salmon, sand martins, seals, flies. What does this matter?
In one essay, Jamie journeys to the island of Coll to hear the call of a bird that, in the time of Constable and Clare, could be heard in every county of this land: the corncrake, Latin name Crex-crex, a perfect onomatopoeic rendition of its rasping call. In another, she notices cobwebs hanging from the gutter of her house. In the room behind, her husband is gravely ill. These essays were written during a traumatic period for herself and her family. Her mother is incapacitated by a stroke, her husband’s life threatened by a strange complication of pneumonia, the illness that devastates the lungs’ alveoli – that branching mesh that gives us breath, and that, if spread out, would cover an area the size of a tennis court with a fine, fine cobweb.
These alarms, these thoughts are interwoven with accounts of small journeys, explorations, and experiences from her life: scanning the Edinburgh skyline with a telescope to discover the unseen architecture of weather-vanes, steeples, spires and cupolas; or watching peregrines nesting near her home. Jamie is always alive to her surroundings and the human connections with the natural world:
Between the laundry and the fetching kids from school, that’s how birds enter my life. I listen. During a lull in the traffic: oyster-catchers; in the school-playground, sparrows.
In another finely-written piece, Jamie walks out along the cliffs near her home one Sunday. A sign at the gate leading onto the coast path reads, ‘Please avoid disturbing the Sabbath’. She wonders if she can ever reconcile herself to the dreary silence and restrictions of the Sabbath she’d known as a child. Another day she notices that the local shops have notices saying they will observe a minute’s silence on the anniversary of September 11th. She recalls a friend scornfully commenting that there would never be a minute’s silence for the many more children who had died in Africa on that September morning alone – because they had no clean water. This leads Jamie to wonder whether,
if we join up all these minutes we are beginning secularly to observe, we could string them together in a new kind of Sabbath, where there are no men in black blighting our lives with their notions of sin, no chaining up the children’s swings for the Lord’s day. I mean a contemplative time, a time reserved to reflect. Perhaps we would feel less imperilled.
Amen to that.
In November 2001, ten Pakistani men suddenly appeared in Kathleen Jamie’s Scottish home town. They are on a peace walk, a pharmacist, a draper, a glass merchant, a town mayor, a businessman, a teacher and a student of economics. Jamie remembers the welcome and hospitality she received when she travelled, a woman alone, in Pakistan’s Northern Areas in the early 1990s and invites them back to hers.
This is the scene-setting opening of the new edition of Jamie’s account of her time travelling alone and living among the Shia Muslims in the mountainous region wedged between Afghanistan, India and China. and one of the most volatile borderlands in the world. Originally published as The Golden Peak, for this edition – now entitled Among Muslims: Meetings at the Frontiers of Pakistan – Kathleen Jamie returned to Pakistan and adds a new preface and afterword.
Among Muslims is a rare thing – an account of a privileged westerner’s travels among a people with a different culture, lifestyle and beliefs and having only limited access to the essentials of life that is sympathetic, non-judgemental – and, above all, superbly written. There was one crucial sense in which Jamie was privileged - as a single woman travelling alone she was able to slip into the role of ‘honorary man’ and have long conversations about history, politics or religion with men in bars or offices, as well as being invited into homes to spend time with purdah-observing women.
In her account of her travels, Kathleen Jamie displays a natural empathy and curiosity without preconceptions. She approaches the lives of those she meets from the standpoint of own Scottish upbringing: its puritanism and strict observance of the Sabbath mean that she can readily empathise with the lifestyle of her Shia Muslim hosts. She successfully treads a fine line, avoiding being an apologist for any way of life or holding back from critical observations about aspects of the culture she is moving in. When one man asks the question that they all ask – about travelling alone – she responds:
I told him I was torn between staying with Westerners, in purdah, safety and seclusion. I can’t fully denounce purdah because we do it ourselves, we go in gangs everywhere and keep ourselves separate, in a little cultural bubble.
Jamie writes beautifully about the bleak and mountainous landscape, and of the people who unreservedly take her in, offering her food and accommodation despite living a hand to mouth existence. Her observations on the economic and cultural impact of tourism on the communities she spends time with are probing and perceptive: nearly twenty years ago new roads are pushing their way towards mountain villages, changing lives forever. Men gain employment as guides to groups of trekkers who head into the Himalayas strewing the villages with plastic water bottles as they pass, camping in a village graveyard, and scandalising the locals with their behaviour and immodest clothing. She questions the Western assumption that increased tourism will bring increased freedom, noting that in the villages women are often kept behind even more firmly behind closed doors. But she also gives voice to those who welcome the opportunities that tourism brings:
‘USA, Saudi have! Why not Hunza people? Hotel-building is self-help. We need money.’
‘And if you make a lot of money, Ghulam, what would you do with it?’
‘I would go to Karachi, maybe Europe, to get treatment for my arm.’
In one of the most eloquent pieces of travel writing that I have read, Jamie follows a dusty track winding through mountain villages to the head of a valley where, amidst gardens full of trees laden with mulberries and plums, she finds a magical Tibetan palace, complete with princess. She is led by the princess and her brother, Arif, to the roof of the three hundred year-old palace:
I stood between earth and sky, and looked round. I couldn’t breathe for wonder. I’d climbed a ladder without rungs and squeezed through an old trap door, and so clambered into heaven. Behind us the rockfaces of the mountains rose to remote and jagged summits, and before us fell a cornucopia: the villages of Khapalu. They tumbled in golden terraces and green trees down to the banks of the great river. On all sides mountains bound our vision. The sky was intensely blue. Though all that Alison [a Scottish nurse working at a health centre run by Christian missionaries which she has just visited] knew was also true – that in the exquisite yellow fields, and among the groaning fruit trees and under the roofs of all the little houses I could see, there were people ignorant, sorrowful, superstitious and brutalised – it was a proper kingdom. I’d opened a book of fairy stories, and found a way in.
‘Well?’Arif called. He had clambered on to a rickety wooden skylight. ‘Oh, it’s . . . wonderful! Wonderful’ The three young bloods took up the cry, and whirled like dervishes around the roof calling, ‘Wonderful! Wonderful! Wonderful!’From her garden far below, the princess waved.
When Jamie returns ten years later, in a much-changed world, it is with a companion and with her shalwar kameez pulled closer to her face. But despite the tension of the times, she is remembered and welcomed wholeheartedly:
We sat around the oil-heater, with a kettle on top, and told about our lives, the lives of women with families. We had young children and frail, elderly relatives, and jobs. That’s what ten years had done; turned us from Shia girls and Western girls into grown women – mothers and daughters, wives and teachers.
Among Muslims is a superbly-written account that gently probes at questions concerning the nature of freedom (and in particular, the freedom of women), religious values and the impact of development on the lives of the people that Jamie encountered:
What do people want? A sewerage system. Peaceable, open borders, that accord with the land. A language, and a culture, rose bushes. A professional job – for every job advertised in Gilgit, 100 young women apply. Peace. Where can one go for peace? Some help around the house. A decent tourist season. They asked me if they would lose their jobs, if the hotel closed, others have lost their jobs. That is fifteen families. I told them I would sooner sell my land. Schoolbooks. A husband, and a necklace of lapiz to wear when he arrives. A farm of one’s own. That pretty widow at the end of the valley. Free iodised salt. A cure for grey hair. A baby. To go home. I pray to fill my stomach! A house among the mountains, beside the river: For the first two nights, I hear only the river, then it becomes inside me, like my heart …
Kathleen Jamie’s most recent book is her ninth collection of poetry, The Overhaul. As in the prose collections, Jamie positions herself in, not apart from, the natural world. The title poem ostensibly concerns a beached boat awaiting repair, but midway the camera eye pulls back to give a wider view inland from the shore where quotidian life goes on: a road runs, washing flaps and the school bus calls. Meanwhile, in the other direction, ‘little wavelets leap/less than a stone’s throw’ from the boat. It can’t be easy, hauled out above the tideline:
Look – it’s the Lively,
hauled out above the tideline
up on a trailer with two
flat tyres. What –
14 foot? Clinker‐built
and chained by the stern
to a pile of granite blocks,
but with a bow
still pointed westward
down the long voe,
down toward the ocean,
where the business is.
Inland from the shore
a road runs, for the crofts
scattered on the hill
where washing flaps,
and the school bus calls
and once a week or so
the mobile library;
but see how this
duck‐egg green keel’s
how the stem, taller
‐ like a film star ‐
than you’d imagine,
is raked to hold steady
if a swell picks up
and everyone gets scared…
No, it can’t be easy,
when the only spray to touch
your boards all summer
is flowers of scentless mayweed;
when little wavelets leap
less than a stone’s throw
with your good name
written all over them –
but hey, Lively,
it’s a time‐of‐life thing,
it’s a waiting game –
On Caught By the River, Will Burns commented:
This is a beautiful book, shunning both whimsy and sentimentality, because at its core are concerns that become more powerful than mere pastoral elegy. There is a real sense of human mortality here, of frailty and of loss. The poems ask questions of how we live amongst so much other life …
That sense of being part of, not separate from, the natural world is very apparent in the book’s closing poem, ‘Even the Raven’:
The grey storm passes
a storm the sea wakes from
then soon forgets . . .
surf plumes at the rocks -
wave after wave, each
drawing its own long fetch
- and the hills across the firth -
golden, as the cloud lifts – yes
it’s here, everything
you wanted, everything
you insisted on -
Even the raven,
his old crocked voice
asks you what you’re waiting for
- Kathleen Jamie: a life in writing (Guardian)
- Kathleen Jamie’s Darkness and Light (Guardian)
- In the nature of things: excellent extended interview and profile (Guardian)
- Kathleen Jamie: The SRB Interview: informative and entertaining interview ranging over her poetry and prose
- Kathleen Jamie: The Tree House
- Kathleen Jamie: The Dash
- Kathleen Jamie: Ospreys