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The Marches: A Borderland Journey between…
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The Marches: A Borderland Journey between England and Scotland

by Rory Stewart

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A book that perhaps did not turn out quite as the author expected, this is part travelogue of a long walk along and around Hadrian's Wall, also between Rory Stewart's Cumbria constituency and his family home near Crieff, musings about the Roman Empire and Scottish identity but, perhaps best of all and movingly, about his father in old age and upon his death. Although it is a bit of a guddle at times, it is a good and at times delightful book, a good read about history, identity and a strong father-son relationship. Rory Stewart clearly thinks widely and deeply and this is reflected in his writing. ( )
  DramMan | Jan 25, 2017 |
The Marches by Rory Stewart

The Marches is Rory Stewart's fourth book but it has much in common with his first book The Places In Between. The Marches defies easy classification as it is part travelogue, part history, and part narrative of a unique father/son relationship.

The Places in Between chronicles Stewart's hike across Afghanistan shortly after the fall of the Taliban. The book catapulted Stewart to fame. Stewart seems like a man from a different era, specifically that breed of explorers like Sir Richard Burton or Francis Younghusband who were not only explorers but poets, naturalists, statesmen and writers.

Following the success of The Places in Between, Stewart founded a non-profit in Kabul dedicated to teaching traditional Afghani crafts. He then joined the British diplomatic service following the 2003 invasion of Iraq and became a deputy governor of one of the southern provinces (the story of which forms the basis for his second and, in my opinion, best book The Prince of the Marshes. Following those exploits, Stewart taught at Harvard only to leave that position and run for Parliament. His first attempt was unsuccessful but he was elected in Penrith and the Border in 2009. In 2016, he became the Minister of State at the Department of International Development. It seems unlikely that his political career will end there but who knows. My hope is that he continues to write wonderful books.

The Marches, is similar to The Places in Between as it grows out of Stewart's decision to undertake two hikes through the border country between Scotland and England and then the Middlelands - a collection of former kingdoms, like the kingdom of Northumbria, that once sat between Scotland and England but were largely destroyed by the Norse invaders and ultimately absorbed into Scotland and England. The first walk runs along Hadrian's Wall and Stewart discusses the wall, its creation, and the impact that such a wall must have had on the people's both inside and outside the wall. Stewart starts out with the idea that walking the wall will help him understand the divisions between England and Scotland and the decisions driving a vote for Scottish independence.

The second walk, through the Middlelands, is more of a walk through a vanished world. While Stewart finds traces of Northumbria and similar kingdoms, much has been lost. Even more distressing is how few of the people that encounter the remnants in their daily lives understand the significance of the monuments and buildings.

Stewart makes it clear that he sets out on these walks to try and understand the land, its history, and the people - precisely what his walk through Afghanistan did. However, as Stewart describes, his plan collapses. The historical ties to the land that Stewart expects to find are largely gone. Many of the people inhabiting the land are more closely tied to far flung places around the globe. Scotland in particular comes across as an almost modern creation and that the kilts, the bagpipers and so on are more the stuff of Braveheart than any reflection of an actual culture. The few remnants of the true division between Scotland and England are largely unknown and forgotten by the nearby residents.

Throughout his walks, Stewart discusses his findings, his thoughts, and his frustrations with his elderly father. It takes awhile to fully develop but eventually it becomes clear that [The Marches] is as much about Stewart's relationship with his father as it is about the Middlelands and the Scottish/English border. This dialogue between father and son ultimately forms the core of the book and there are very interesting parallels between Stewart's observations about the modern border region and his father.

Stewart's father, Brian Stewart, is a walking embodiment of Empire. His career begins in the Second World War and the proceeds to various far flung diplomatic posts in Malaysia, Vietnam and Hong Kong where he rose to a very senior level in MI6. Brian Stewart took great pride in his Scottish heritage and insists on wearing tartans and teaching his son Scottish dancing. But like many of the people that Rory Stewart encounters in his walk, Brian Stewart's intense pride in his Scottish heritage is as much a personal creation as it is a reflection of any actual, inherited culture.

Stewart's work at trying to sort through his relationship with his father and his attempt to draw a common thread from history to his walks in the borderlands ultimately fails to come together. In the third section of the book, Brian Stewart grows increasingly frail and dies.

In less capable hands, the death of Brian Stewart and the failure to trace a single narrative for the borderlands would seem to make a failure of a book. But The Marches does not fail. Rather, it seems to come together with an acknowledgment that some of our truest stories are invented ones and that while we may crave stories that follow a straight line and finish with a satisfying denouement real life does not always oblige.

The Marches ends with a poignant description of Brian Stewart's funeral as his son asks the mourners to join in Scottish dancing in remembrance. Rory Stewart wryly acknowledges that the dance is a bastardized version of a dance from the French court and has little to do with the ancient Scottish highlands but yet it is fitting memorial to a man who prided himself on his Scottish heritage but lived a life more tied to Empire and the East than he ever was to Scotland.

The Marches is an engaging book that sticks with you after completion. However, the more I have thought about the book the more I feel like the reader would benefit from having read The Places in Between first as The Marches does much to expand on themes first raised by Stewart in the earlier book. Since The Place in Between is such an excellent book, a read or a re-read is well worth the time before diving into the The Marches. ( )
2 vote Oberon | Dec 5, 2016 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0544108884, Hardcover)

From the best-selling author of The Places in Between, “a flat-out masterpiece” (New York Times Book Review), an exploration of the Marches—the borderland between England and Scotland—and the people, history, and conflicts that have shaped it

In The Places in Between Rory Stewart walked through the most dangerous borderlands in the world. Now he walks along the border he calls home—where political turmoil and vivid lives have played out for centuries across a magnificent natural landscape—to tell the story of the Marches.

In his thousand-mile journey, Stewart sleeps on mountain ridges and in housing estates, in hostels and in farmhouses. Following lines of ancient neolithic standing stones, wading through floods and ruined fields, he walks Hadrian’s Wall with soldiers who have fought in Afghanistan, and visits the Buddhist monks who outnumber Christian monks in the Scottish countryside today. He melds the stories of the people he meets with the region’s political and economic history, tracing the creation of Scotland from ancient tribes to the independence referendum. And he discovers another country buried in history, a vanished Middleland: the lost kingdom of Cumbria.

With every step, Stewart reveals the force of myths and traditions and the endurance of ties that are woven into the fabric of the land itself. A meditation on deep history, the pull of national identity, and home, The Marches is a transporting work from a powerful and original writer.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:20:21 -0400)

Explores the landscape of the author's home on the borderland between England and Scotland--known as the Marches--and the history, people, and conflicts that have shaped it.

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