This is my 800th post – Gosh! That means that in my four and a half years of blogging I’ve posted around 177 times per year. It also works out that I’ve averaged a post every other day – which frankly astounds me! Anyway it is entirely appropriate that my 800th post should be a book review:-
Pub Walks in Underhill Country by Nat Segnit
Sub-titled A novel in fifteen rambles, this book is an uniquely British, black comedy, that at first glance you could mistake for a proper handbook for ramblers who like a good pint.
Upon opening it, you’ll see that it really does contain fifteen rambles – featuring actual places mostly around the Cotswolds, and the Brecon Beacons in Wales, but venturing abroad too. I have no idea whether the routes of the rambles actually work, as I imagine that ‘all names have been changed’. However, they all give the appearance of being totally true. Each walk is complete with maps, nature notes, architectural details, literary references, footnotes and, of course, the all-important tasting notes of the pints of nectar that await the weary rambler at the end of each trail…
… three and a half pints of Wickwar’s moreish Cotswold Way (4.2%), whose upfront maltiness followed by figgy, pruney notes reminiscent of Moroccan tagines, only added to its intense drinkability.
In a meta-fictional opening touch, Nat Segnit introduces Graham Underhill, the author of the pub walks book, tells us how he disappeared one day, and describing how “as a ‘psycho-geographer’, a cartographer of human consciousness in the exalted tradition of Roger Deakin, Richard Mabey and Robert MacFarlane – the three R’s as Graham like to call them – that Underhill deserves to be plucked from obscurity.” That premise, naturally, sets the bar impossibly high, and we know from the start that Underhill will be undermined in trying to emulate his heroes.
Then it’s into the rambles, which start off very seriously, and you start to wonder if this is it, when Graham introduces a personal touch to the text and tells us about when he met and later married his second wife, Sunita. Their relationship plays out throughout the novel; theirs is a marriage not destined to be made in heaven, but the besotted Graham can only view his beautiful Bengali bride through rose-tinted glasses. In his late forties, Graham is much older than his wife …
At thirty-three, Sunita’s ‘body clock’ was ticking, and quite apart from the fact that mine might well definitively have tocked, to have brought up the subject of children so casually was a mistake I had the opportunity to regret at my leisure, sitting outside the Rotunda banned from so much as giving her a call.
Graham doesn’t really understand women so much as worship them. He had problems with his first wife, Anne, too – we’ll hear about these later. Right from the start though, we sense that Sunita is playing him. We sympathise, but because of Graham’s pomposity, and self-absorption that reminded me totally of Adrian Mole or TV’s Alan Partridge, we also find him a figure of ridicule.
Sun slipped through the branches of the lay-by’s sessile oaks, coaxing wisps of vapour from the tarmac, ghosts of the rain that had until its abrupt cessation fallen steadily since we crossed the border into Wales. Not three feet from the Prius’s steaming bonnet a small, copper-breasted bird landed on a branch, cocked its neckless head and, as if to greet us, called veest!
‘Brambling,’ I conjectured, but at this point Sunita had turned onto her knees to reach the two-compartment picnic cooler on the back seat, and the impulse to ornithological speculation somewhat dwindled in me. Reclining in our seats we gazed up at the voluptuous skyline, lost for words as we speared our Bengali specialities from the Snap’n’Lock food containers nestled stably in our laps.
I did love Underhill’s flowery verbosity and ever the pedant, his obsessive attention to detail but, with 260 pages of this dense text, I did struggle in the middle sections. I kept reading though, as I wanted to find out what happened to Graham, finding that I did care about him enough to finish the book. The story does indeed take some unexpected turns, so I’m very glad I stuck with it. I can’t recount the number of times that I either wanted to shake some sense into him, or tell him to shut up though!
Last spring, I was lucky to hear the author, (Segnit, not Underhill!), read from this novel at the Penguin Blogger’s Night, (bravely in front of Robert MacFarlane as it happens), the part he read featuring one of Graham and Sunita’s spats, was hilarious.
This is a very funny novel, darkly comic throughout, but an air of farce and slapstick bubbles just under the surface, popping up now and then to make you laugh out loud. It is so different, that even if I found the middle a little stretched, I really enjoyed it. (8/10)
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I received a copy from the publisher – thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Pub Walks in Underhill Country by Nat Segnit, Penguin paperback.