Life throws challenges at all people, but some people purposefully seek them out. Between 2000 and 2002, Rory Stewart walked 6,000 miles from Turkey to Bangladesh. In 2003, as Iraq burned, he headed for Baghdad to search for a job.
Stewart went on to condense his experiences into two books — “The Places in Between” (2004), an account of his trek through Afghanistan, and “The Prince of the Marshes” (2006), about his nine months as deputy governor of an Iraqi province. Both books were as exceptional as the feats they described.
Stewart’s latest book sees the British politician and writer embracing adventure again and setting out on further travels, only this time with fewer hazards and on home turf. “The Marches” consists of two walks: one Stewart made along Hadrian’s Wall with his 89-year-old tartan-clad father, Brian, and another he made alone, from his cottage in Cumbria to his father’s house on the edge of the Scottish Highlands.
Each expedition allows Stewart to survey a diverse landscape, examine national history and identity, assess the state of the union and spend valuable time with his parent.
On the first walk, father and son follow the wall up hills, down dales and across rivers, passing ruined castles, Neolithic standing stones and the remains of Roman forts, military camps and burial grounds. Two types of conversation or meditation unfold. There are thoughts on landmarks and nature, ancient people and places and the influence of the past on the present, and there are wider, tangential discussions that tap into family history and tease out personal parallels.
Musings on the Roman Empire lead Brian — a relic from a John Buchan novel — to expound on his role in, and advocacy of, the British Empire; views on the Roman invasion trigger Stewart Junior’s recollections of Allied intervention in the Middle East.
Stewart’s second, solo, more demanding hike is enlivened by the locals and fellow travelers he encounters on the way, many of whom open up and share anecdotes or tales. After exploring the forgotten Middleland kingdom and then navigating the Borders, Stewart realizes there are more historical and cultural differences between latter-day England and Scotland than he had previously imagined.
Once again, Stewart proves to be a captivating tour guide. As he clocks up miles, he covers a range of topics, from Highland dancing to Border ballads, his childhood in Malaysia to his days in Parliament (or “the nuthouse”). He brings archaic languages and traditions vividly alive, wrestles with nationalism and nationhood and, in a poignant closing section, traces his father’s war years and last days.
In Stewart’s hands, a paragraph on drainage ditches is as mesmerizing as a concise lyrical appreciation of flora: “the electric brilliance of an emerging thistle.”
Beautiful, evocative and wise, “The Marches” highlights new truths about old countries and the unbreakable bond between a father and son.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
By: Rory Stewart.
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 354 pages, $27.