I Belong Here by Anita Sethi

I Belong Here cover

I Belong Here by Anita Sethi is subtitled A Journey Along the Backbone of Britain and is due to be published on the 29th of April 2021 (Bloomsbury) and as it’s tagged ‘Outdoors and Nature.’ I was a bit disappointed that the first fifth of the book the author concentrated on writing about a horrendous experience she had while travelling on the Trans Pennine railway line when she was racially abused at great length by a fellow passenger. Luckily she was able to film some of it on her phone, and she also had good support from the railway staff. This culminated in the perpetrator being taken off the train and handcuffed. Eventually he pled guilty, but the experience haunted/haunts Anita and she keeps returning to the subject throughout the book. This isn’t surprising as the man had threatened to set her on fire. If you live in the UK you’ll probably remeber the case being on the news. I hope writing this book was a cathartic experience for her.

I can only imagine how annoying it must be when people keep asking you where you come from because you have brown skin, as if generations of brown and black skinned people haven’t been born in Britain. When Anita Sethi met Prince Charles he asked her where she came from and when she replied Manchester he said – you don’t look like you come from Manchester. Proving that Charles is indeed his father’s son. To be fair though, I bet that if I ever met him he would have had to make some sort of remark about me having red hair! That’s just another thing that can rile up strange people, as can a Scottish accent as I know myself, having been made to feel very unwelcome by some people while living in the south of England – or even just visiting England. Brexit has definitely emboldened bigots.

I had been under the impression that this was a book about nature and hill walking but that part of the book seemed like a long time in coming, which I found quite frustrating, but when the nature writing began I was impressed by it, and I hope she writes more in that vein. Her descriptions of rock formations and water ‘forces’ as waterfalls are called in ‘the north’ (of England) made me take note of the places she visited with a view to following in her footsteps, when we’re allowed to travel again – if I’m not too old by then!

The author does go off at tangents at times so there are a lot of subjects covered in the book, including grief – after the unexpected death of her friend who was only 28. She writes about the etymology of some words which I always find interesting, immigration and the Windrush scandal, mental health and ‘forest bathing’ – to name just a few subjects.

All in all I enjoyed being in Anita Sethi’s company most of the time, and meeting the people she had had conversations with along the way. I would have preferred less of the angst and more of the nature though.

I was sent this ebook by Bloomsbury for review via Netgalley.

To the River by Olivia Laing

To the River cover

To the River by Olivia Laing is about a journey along the length of the River Ouse in Sussex. The Ouse is of course the river that Virginia Woolf drowned herself in in 1941. I believe Laing wrote that the Ouse is 42 miles long, but not all of it is accessible by walkers. I wanted to know exactly how long she had walked but perhaps she never worked it out.

I don’t know what I really expected of this book but I found it to be a bit of a disappointment. I began by enjoying the meandering of the author’s mind, never knowing which subject might come up next. There’s geography and history, odd snippets of information such as that “the silver-leaved tormentil can both stem the flow of blood and dye leather red.” She carried out her walk during mid-summer so the fields were full of wild flowers and she wrote multiple lists of flowers that she had seen, which is fine if you know the flowers. Some more in-depth descriptions would have been useful for those who aren’t so well-versed in wild flowers. She wrote about The Piltdown Forgery, Shakespeare, Alice in Wonderland, The Wind in the Willows – all sorts, she’s definitely eclectic, but ultimately for me – as a person who loves rivers – there just wasn’t enough in it about the Ouse. Also the author felt the need to tell us about the dead animals that she stumbled across and even sought out (by smell) along the way – bizarre.

The reason for Laing embarking on this project was her reaction to the end of a relationship and thoughts of Matthew kept popping up. Apparently neither of them could agree to live outwith their own counties. Eventually Matthew went back to his beloved Yorkshire, but really it would have been better if he had never made an appearance in the book as it all seemed rather pathetic, with the author weeping down the phone to him which must have made him think that he had made a good move.

I believe this was Olivia Laing’s first attempt at writing a nature book and it might be something that she has improved on and other readers have loved it. The Sunday Times said: ‘A beautifully written meditation on landscape.’