Do you always take a book when travelling? I do, although outdoor adventure books rarely make the packing list or get reviewed: I keep them for inspiration for when I’m stuck in the daily grind. So why this book? And could it be next on your Kindle or stuffed in your daysack?
Choosing a travel book is never easy. I’m not a fan of suffer fest stories nor of privileged, bumbling failure fests. This led me to review My Midsummer Morning: Rediscovering a Life of Adventure by Alastair Humphreys who I’ve always thought a more regular fella.
I really didn’t like it at first – well, that’s honesty for you. Re-tracing a journey from 75 years ago whilst playing a violin. It just didn’t grab me. More than that, I didn’t care much for his writing style: too many short sentences devised to match our shortening attention span. A bit like this. Or like this. Really short.
Furthermore, I found it self-indulgent. At first there was little mention of his family and it was all too nostalgic for my taste. Was this another privileged explorer? And the violin, arguably the most marmite of instruments.
I couldn’t get into it.
And then he did. Al dug right into his struggle with modern life and fatherhood, scratching his way around some dark corners of his own mental health. On his new domesticated life, he reflects:
“Over the years, it ate away at my soul, leaving a void filled with bitterness and despair. I worried whether I would ever rid myself of it”
From here it opened up. It wasn’t just that I felt closer to him, it was as if he could open up the writing too. For me outdoor adventure books need to bring more than just tales of wild achievements and Al provides this depth, something I feel other authors can miss.
Laurie Lee (Cider with Rosie) left home in 1934 to walk from Slad in Gloucestershire to London. With a violin to help him earn his rations he then went to Spain and tramped from Galicia in the north to Malaga in the south. In 1965 Laurie Lee published As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning all about his journey.
Inspired by this low-fi, slow adventure Al heads off to do the same. There is a twist though: he can’t play the violin! But what Al can do is to write really well:
“Spain has a drugged afternoon listlessness, minutes and hours creeping by, oceans of glare beyond islands of shade.”
He spiked my memories of wandering wild in Picos de Europa. By the time Al had headed out from Vigo in Northern Spain, he had taken me with him. I was getting into this.
I also liked his absolutism: he has to busk enough money or the adventure just can’t happen.
The comforting aroma of fresh baked bread teases his hungry belly; he squeezes everything he can from a discarded ketchup sachet and snaffles a lost sweet off the floor.
What you get is a closer look at human nature; English public awkwardness; the charm of tiny, remote Spanish villages and an exploration of simple travel.
If you long for the feeling of freedom when, for a moment, you are the only person on the road, you’ll enjoy this. And far from escaping life’s complexities, Al digs into some which many of us struggle with.
More recently known for his micro-adventures, Alastair’s background is firmly routed in major global adventures and challenges, including Canoeing the Yukon and rowing the Atlantic. He’s one of National Geographic’s Adventurers of the Year and a widely acclaimed public speaker.
If you prefer outdoor adventure books that are less about the achievement and more about the experience, it’s a great read. Yes. Alastair, I take it all back. Apart from the violin. Still can’t get with the violin.
My Midsummer Morning: Rediscovering a Life of Adventure is available from Alastair Humphrey’s online shop. He’s currently got an offer where you can get a free copy of his book ‘Ten Lessons From the Road’.