Isabel Allende and a country walk

I’d intended writing today about Isabel Allende’s latest novel, A Long Petal of the Sea. Mrs TD enjoyed it and passed it on to me. I was less enthusiastic.

The early section that’s set in the brutality of the Spanish Civil War is graphically done, but I’ve read similar stuff before, much of it better. Then we follow the central couple, who’ve survived defeat of the Republican side for which they were fighting, and entered on a marriage of convenience to facilitate their exile to Chile in an emigrant ship, the Winnipeg, a sort of socialist Windrush organised by the Chilean diplomat-poet, Pablo Neruda.

The novel goes on too long for my taste – five or six more decades of the couple’s lives. They have affairs, grow closer. I found the research that Allende had obviously done too obtrusive. All that socio-political history gives the narrative a stilted feel, and the tone is occasionally preachy.


So instead I’ll write about what else is going on. As we enter the first week of more-or-less isolation, (the British govt can always be relied on to be decisive and clear) the reality of being confined to the house is kicking in. We are allowed out once a day to exercise, or to shop for essentials, provided we maintain a social distance of at least two metres. It’s amazing how many people seem still not to realise how crucial this is.

Fortunately we have a PM with the resolute, dependable character to steer a frightened nation through this crisis. Yeah, that’s irony again. As the numbers of cases and deaths start to rise exponentially here in the UK, scarily like the curves seen in Italy and Spain a couple of weeks ago, it looks certain that the situation will get much worse.

Land rover reclaimed by natureStill, the spring sunshine has finally arrived after what seems six months of rain. I went on a solo walk this morning in the remote country lanes by my house. Saw just a handful of people, so no problems maintaining that distance.

About half a mile up the road is this strange sight: an ancient Land Rover that’s slowly been reclaimed by nature.

River fordA little further along, the river Kenwyn at the valley bottom flows over the road in a ford. The light dappling through the trees, where the buds are just starting to burst, was lovely.

Along the way I passed the church where my sister-in-law was married. It has a fine lych-gate – that rather macabre structure where, years ago, a funeral cortege would pause. The church is dedicated to St Keyne.

Kenwyn church

She was a fifth-century holy woman, daughter of a Welsh king, who was said to have travelled extensively through South Wales before crossing into Cornwall, where she became a hermit. The only surviving account of her life is in John of Tynemouth’s 14C Sanctilogium, and it’s far from reliable. Like much hagiography. It’s designed to edify, not provide accurate history. The village of St Keyne, in the east of Cornwall near Liskeard, is named after her.

A mile or so down the road the valley opens up – it’s hilly everywhere in this county – and the Rural landscape landscape seemed to be basking in the rare warmth and sunshine. I tried to record a bullfinch that was singing its heart out in a tree beside the road, but by the time I’d got my phone out and found the voice recorder, he’d developed stage fright and fallen silent.

Further along the road  I came upon a man standing staring into the trees. I greeted him. ‘He’s keeping the social distance of two metres,’ he said. ‘A squirrel. We’re having a stand-off.’

I told him they’re not my favourite rodent: a family that lives in a  tree by my house ate every one of the crocuses we only planted in the early autumn. They waited until they flowered, for some reason; maybe then they taste better.

PrimrosesThere were spring flowers everywhere, including some delicate violets, and this lovely cluster of primroses.

So the times might be rough, but nature has a way of lifting the spirits. If anything good can come out of this CV-19 crisis, it might be the ways that nature is re-asserting itself as pollution and human plunder almost ceases. Cormorants and fish swimming in the limpid canals of Venice; animals not being run over on formerly busy roads that are now like rivers of tarmac.

29 thoughts on “Isabel Allende and a country walk

  1. Youch. I think you might want to rethink the title Simon. I at first thought Allende was sick! That may be just me.

    Not a big Allende fan. I think her public footprint overshadows the objective quality of her novels. I think someone like Penelope Fitzgerald is a much greater artist, especially in terms of lasting for the ages.

  2. Great photos of the Cornish countryside. I recently read ‘the long petal … and then the Japanese Lover, although I sort of enjoyed them, I did find both novels rather turgid, you do feel as if your in a lecture and the story gets lost. Great post tho – thanks for something uplifting in these strange times

  3. Thanks for sharing such lovely images Simon. Nature is a consolation at the moment and you’re lucky to have so much of it to hand. As for Allende, I’ve not read her but I know what you mean about a book showing too clearly the research the author as done. When something is obviously sprinkled with references to show how much the author knows it annoys me!

  4. Hi, Simon. Glad you could get same nature “healing.” I have to be o.k. with the squirrels here, or my dog would be very unhappy.

    I don’t know if I’d be willing to swap our national leader for yours (it’s a hard choice), but, man, sometimes it’s tempting. Fortunately, I live in California, so we’ve been under “lockdown” for about two weeks now. I hope to Og we’re flattening our curve. I’ve had a cough for about that same amount of time. It doesn’t seem to be getting worse, so I don’t know if I should wish I actually had COVID19 (and am developing immunity) or that I just have normal allergies or a Spring cold. Scary times.

    • I was going to wear headphones on the walk and listen to a book podcast, but decided not to, so I could tune in to the moment. I listened to the birdsong (and croaks of the corvids), early bees buzzing, occasional dog barking. I looked at the hedgerows, just beginning to burst into life. The sky was annunciation blue (ok, a day late). If you’re a couple of weeks ahead in the trajectory of this horrible curve, then I also hope you’re coming out the other side. So sorry to hear of your symptoms – must be terrifying to think you have the infection. From what I’ve read, you’d have worsened by now, unless you have as you suggest developed immunity. I hope to your Og that’s the case. Here last night at 8pm we had our first national round of applause for the health service and other caring services. I live in a quiet suburb of a small city, so didn’t think anyone would bother: I was wrong. All around were the sounds of clapping, whooping, people banging saucepans. It was very moving. Let me know here or on the contact email address how you’re doing, Paula. My very best wishes.

      • Thank you, Simon. A virtual hug is all we can do these days! I would love to join you on your walks, but I’d have to leave the dog (Max) at home. He loves to charge the crows. Bad dog!

        I vacillate between fear and resignation. But, yes, I would think if it were going to be a case requiring hospitalization, I’d be worse by now. What can one do? Enjoy what you can.

        I love the idea of the round of applause! A clever way to draw people “together” without physical contact. My best wishes to you and yours, too.

        • My dog used to ignore most wildlife – she wasn’t the bravest of souls. I once met a man whose spaniel used to walk along with his nose pointed skywards. He was looking up for squirrels, his owner explained. That round of applause last night was really moving. Like the internet, it’s a way of knowing and showing we’re a community, even if we can’t get physically close. Best wishes to you too, Paula.

  5. P.S. I meant to thank you for explaining what a lychgate was. I’ve come across the term in books and TV/movies and never bothered to see if it had a specific purpose or meaning. I just though it was a fancy name for an entrance to a churchyard.

    • I didn’t elaborate, given the rather morbid topic; it didn’t seem appropriate while we all feel our own precarious mortality so keenly. It was the platform on which a corpse was rested (OE for corpse) while awaiting the funeral service; the roof protected it from the weather. There were seats and spaces for those carrying out the vigil. Many English churches date from the medieval period and have such a structure.

      • Aw, yes, I can see why you didn’t elaborate. Interesting. And given the climate there, I can see why covered areas are necessary. I’m currently reading a biography of Thomas Malory, and the author (Hardyment?) mentioned the porch structure at the entrance to the church itself, that was used during a baptism ceremony. The party stopped outside the church and and prayed any demons out of the baby before they entered the church, and it needed to be covered in case of inclement weather.

        • Church architecture is interesting. Gargoyles. Rood screens. I attended a catholic service in St Jean pied de Port in the Pyrenees one Christmas with some Basque friends. The congregation were segregated: males one side, females the other. No chance of prurient demons entering.

  6. Well, this is lovely. I’m enjoying my daily walk with Amber, and since we’re in the suburbs of Melbourne I don’t have gorgeous photos to share, but I do have a lovely story…
    Yesterday, keeping our distance as always, I came across a face I didn’t know, hard at work tidying up a very neglected nature strip. (For those who don’t know, Australian cities often feature this strip, which sits between the pavement and the road, and is planted with a street tree and variations of lawn, grass, ground cover plants or weeds depending on the enthusiasm of the household responsible for the nature strip.) So we had a socially distant chat, and it turns out that new people in the street parallel to mine offered to help the elderly Filipina (who lives alone) with the weeds, and when she, (Tamara) found the job was a bit beyond her she sent out an SOS through our ‘Golden Triangle’ Facebook Group, and a fellow from down the road turned up with all kinds of gardening gear and they helped out together.
    Isn’t that marvellous!
    PS I’ve never got on with Isobel Allende.

    • Lisa: what a lovely story, fair warms the heart. There have been small incidents of kindness and solidarity like that here in the UK, though sadly some more of the other kind. This crisis is bringing out the best and worst in people. Like the hoarding and shelf-stripping in the shops. It’s now almost impossible to get fresh fruit or veg. I can see why you might not get on with IA. I don’t think I’ll be revisiting her work. But my daughter-in-law is Chilean, and we visited her family there four Christmases ago, so feel a kind of affinity with the place and its people now. Same with Spain: our son lives in Catalunya with his Chilean wife and two little boys – we visit several times a year – or used to. Should be in Madrid now! Our flight was yesterday (but of course wasn’t). I worked in San Sebastián for best part of a year some time ago, and love the Basque country. I don’t think we have those nature strips here, but our local council last year introduced wild flower ‘meadows’ in the central reservations of the main roads. So now they’re just beginning to burst into flower: daisies initially, then poppies and all kinds of multicoloured plants. makes the middle of a busy road a beautiful haven.

  7. Loving the images. I take a photo a day and have done for years; when I was on my Walk on Tuesday I saw a running friend who shouted over that they really cheer her up, so I am now making an effort to get some really good nature and landscape images. I wouldn’t fancy that Allende, but I’ve never been that keen to be honest. Having the research bulge through is a no-no, too. Take care and keep well!

    • Liz: what a great idea, a photo a day. Reminds me of the character who does this in NYC in the Paul Auster-scripted film Smoke. Harvey Keitel’s character Auggie takes a picture of his tobacco store corner every day at the same time. This becomes an important plot device. I daresay the running is also a way of lifting the spirits. I’m not a runner, but I love walking in the country – we’re not allowed to drive to the beaches any more, and they’re just too far to walk from here in Truro. Do take care to keep your distance when out exercising; it’s weird, isn’t it, behaving as if we’re in Defoe’s plague city, shunning people we’d normally gravitate towards.

      • Yes! One of my neighbors last week asked if she could pick up some groceries for us because she was going. We were o.k. at the time, but I asked about her dog because I hadn’t seen him for a little while. He was a gorgeous, very sweet Doberman. I loved to pet him because I didn’t have to bend over so far (or at all) as I have to do with my dachshund! And she said Urs had died and started to cry. I wanted to hug her, but couldn’t. I felt really bad. Makes me cry now thinking about it. We lost our old dog last summer so I know how difficult it is.

        • Mrs TD found a local farm shop today that we’ve patronised in person in the past was offering a pay-and-collect service. We put in an order over the phone, and asked our elderly neighbour if she wanted to do the same. She did. We picked up our own fresh fruit, veg (and gin), plus her order. Left it by her door. She lost her husband late last year, and misses him badly. They used to visit the same shop, after touring the gardens next to it. Sad story of the dog. We still miss our much-loved dog, who died some ten years ago, but still feel her presence with us on the walks we used to do with her. Even tonight, walking through the churchyard, we noted the water trough she used to love jumping into. We’ve never been able to get another one. Meanwhile, take care of yourself, Paula.

      • I have since had to give up running. A local friend’s mum passed away of Covid-19 at the weekend and it shocked me into considering if I had really managed to keep my proper distance (I have been so so careful, running into the road, etc. to avoid people but sometimes you do get trapped). So I sadly decided no more. I have been walking a bit but again got trapped between a woman who suddenly leapt out of a car and a brick wall today so will be reconsidering (I was out at 6.30 am!) My fault for living in a busy suburb of a huge city, and having it come so close does give one a jolt.

        • Liz: I’m sorry to hear that – you must miss it terribly. I must say I’ve seen no end of people out walking who still stroll down the middle of the road as we pass on our country walks, making no attempt to keep distant. Do they not know what’s going on, or not care? Same goes, I’m afraid, for some of the runners and cyclists we’ve encountered; they seem to think the open air will protect them and us. It’s pretty sobering when you hear of someone you know who’s succumbed to the virus. We just heard today that a close work colleague and friend has just tested positive. It’s about three weeks since we sat round a table together, working, so we assume we’d have shown signs of infection by now, but are both ok. But we continue to keep as isolated as we can. No supermarkets. At least the sun was shining beautifully this morning when we went for our country walk. Fortunately no thoughtless women sprang out on us, but two adolescent red deer leapt into the road just in front of us and ran off across the field opposite…lovely sight. They may well feature in a blog post I’m intending writing shortly. I hope you’re able to keep taking some outdoor exercise. It’s important to get some fresh air and stretch the legs.

  8. Hi Simon, that church is just down the road from me, as is (I think) the ford pictured. Is it Newmills? The beautiful weather is well-timed, at least. Don’t think I’ll rush to start reading Allende, then! Keep well.

    • Rebecca: nice to hear from you. Yes, that ford is at New Mills – less full than it was a month or so ago! The weather has been glorious, hasn’t it. Just back from a walk around the churchyard at Kenwyn and down towards Idless, back through Epiphany House grounds. How fortunate we are to live so near to such beauty. Might post a bit more about it tomorrow. The Allende is ok, just too much of it.

  9. I can’t say I was a fan of the Allende I read.

    I hope you and your family are safe and healthy.
    Thanks for the lovely pictures.

    Here we’re not allowed to walk farther than 1km from our home. I’m thankful for our little garden and the sunny days.

    • Thanks, Emma, all fine here. I’m pleased you liked the pictures- there’s some lovely countryside in walking distance of my house, but I’d hate to be confined to 1km. We walk about 8 km each day!

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