Cycling home from the station last night, I kept interrupting my journey to pick fat blackberries. They were delicious, and I was hungry. And the pleasure of foraging is intense – found food feels like a prize. It is fun feeling resourceful, and the food is good for you. I stood by a hazel tree, cracking its nuts with my teeth (sorry mum), my fingers purple and pricked from the blackberries, a wild hop curling its flowers through the hedge. A breeze blew into my face, carrying a hint of hay and dung. I could hear a tractor moving bales nearby. A tangerine sky ran away from me over the Plain towards Salisbury.
I felt elated by the intense pleasure of the moment, and by my luck to belong in this place. Two hours before I had sat at my desk in West London, now I stood on the edge of an English wilderness. Nearby my children were asleep under a mossy but waterproof thatched roof. Tomorrow I would return to London, and in the evening fast train back to Wiltshire and an evening at the pub followed by a moonlit cycle ride home.
As my hands returned to the blackberries, and my mouth watered, I thought of Cormac McArthy’s The Road (Picador, 2007), which I had just finished reading for the second time. I bought the novel one lunchtime in January 2010, and I read it compulsively through the afternoon, finishing it on the train back to Wiltshire. I drove home in a state of numbed disbelief and relief and strange passion, walked upstairs and kissed my two sleeping boys. I sat by my eldest boy’s bed and stroked his hair and thought about what it meant to be a father. No other book has ever moved me as much.
If you haven’t read it, please try. It is chilling and heart wearing but deeply, deeply rewarding. It allows you to glimpse the other side of civilisation, and the prospect is horrifying: life that is endured, not lived. Man as scavenger and survivor. No light, warmth, games, trains, leisure of any kind. Just a constant motion towards the next mean feed, the night’s shelter. A world of grey and black, utterly cold. But man’s secret and grace runs through the novel, and at its end the fire of life is burning a little brighter. One closes the book grateful – for the promise held on the last pages, and because one can close the book, and leave its darkness and return to a reality which feels richly blessed.
Here are some some random notes I made shortly after my first reading. Please don’t read them if you want to read the book – just get a copy and set off along the blacktop.