I was supposed to go back to work yesterday. Instead, I packed sandwiches and a book, and spent the day wandering along the gorgeous beach at Pakefield, Suffolk, as the skies changed from clear azure to bruised indigo and back. My employers have agreed to a month’s extension to my sabbatical, so I can spend the whole of August on the beach (er, writing).
Pakefield, south of Lowestoft, is an expanse of soft white sand drifted with blue and cream pebbles, flint and chalk from the crumbling cliffs. There are small terns nesting at the southern end of the beach, the adults hovering and peeping above their beach nests. At the foot of the cliffs are sand dunes, hillocks of sand like caster sugar interspersed with sage-green grasses and sea-cabbage. I curled myself up in a hollow, sheltered from the wind that was lifting mini-sand storms from the beach, and settled down to read.
Beach reading is always an indulgence. It seems right to go for a book that promises pure pleasure, rather than intellectual rigour or heartbreaking turmoil. On my way out of the caravan I’d grabbed Ben Aaronovitch’s Moon Over Soho, the follow-up to his charming The Rivers of London. I’m a sucker for any London-based fiction, and Aaronovitch’s combination of encyclopaedic knowledge about London with wit, strict police procedure and an intoxicating dose of magic hooked me immediately. Fantasy isn’t for everyone, and I steer well clear of the more whimsical end of the spectrum. But Aaronovitch mixes his magic so cleverly with a convincing contemporary London that my disbelief is suspended by page two. In fact you could hang a girder off my disbelief, it’s so firmly suspended.
What else would I recommend for the beach? If you like to find your lunch, rather than take it with you, try Richard Mabey’s Food For Free, the classic guide to foraging. There was plenty of sea beet at Pakefield to go with the sea cabbage, and lots of razor clams washing up on the shore, but I stuck to cheese and pickle sandwiches. I’ve enjoyed using it as an identification guide for the local plant life, but I’ve yet to cook from it.
On the thriller front, I’ve recently finished Yang-May Ooi’s Mind Game, a slow-burn thriller with a satisfyingly ambitious scope which climaxes with horrifying revelations. Anyone who remembers the Creuzfeldt Jakob (‘Mad Cow’) Disease scare of the 1990s will find it especially chilling. Yang-May is a friend of mine, but I’d not read her novels before. It’s always tricky reading a friend’s books – what if you don’t like it? – but happily I was soon engrossed, staying up late to find out what happens next. She’s a remarkably clever woman and I’m now dying to read her other novel, The Flame Tree.
Finally, the stand-out read of my summer has been Robert McFarlane’s The Old Ways. I don’t usually read travel writing, but then this is as far from the ‘I went somewhere exotic and had some amusing/scary/uplifting adventures’ genre as you can get. For a start, McFarlane’s journeys start right outside his front door, on a walk one snowy night that takes him onto one of England’s many ancient paths. You don’t need to go far to travel well.
But the point of reading this book is the language, the luminous poetry of his description of people and places, laced with a dry humour that stops it from feeling in any way pious. He takes in geology, history, myth, contemporary stories and jokes, to illuminate landscapes and journeys in a way I have never seen done before. I’m planning to read his previous book, The Wild Places. Before that, though, I’ll be digging out my hiking books and getting back out into the landscape, to look at my paths through new eyes.