Doubling Back by Linda Cracknell
Linda Cracknell’s Doubling Back is the story of “ten paths trodden in memory”. The dual meaning of the subtitle is deliberate – some of the walks are routes Cracknell took in her youth while others are paths taken by those no longer with her, including her father, a keen mountaineer who died young. Whether strolling through the Cornish countryside or clinging to Alpine peaks, the book is about the connections between landscape, memory and identity.
Cracknell’s prose has always had a strong sense of place, from the harsh wilderness of the Caithness coastline in Call of the Undertow to hot muggy gardens in The Searching Glance, but in Doubling Back nature is no longer in service to the story. It is the story. As a reader of her work for years I could immediately tell there was something different about this book. Cracknell was clearly in familiar, comfortable territory, even while recounting times when she was physically far out of her comfort zone. There is the sense of a writer stretching into full suppleness, much the way a hiker does in the first few miles. There’s deep and subtle skill here. The reader can relax and trust the guide. Many of these walks are done in groups, some alongside animals, while few are solo missions. In each case the preoccupation is the relationship between the walker and the environment. As her mind skips from topic to topic, in one paragraph running from walking to Obama to a favourite library in Scotland to writing, her feet beat the path and it’s not long before the mountains and valleys are central again. Many writers of this kind of creative non-fiction live and write for the encounters with people, other walkers, locals and there are enlightening scenes with Kenyan women and Spanish olive grove workers, but this is a book for those of us who are secretly more alive when left to our own thoughts. Cracknell greets these people, is happy to see them but is soon on the path once more, interaction a break from the real journey. “Dialogue pattered on in my head… between my feet and the land… to me, not walking and not ever being alone would be to deny a part of myself.”
The routes taken, beginning with retracing her own teenage steps in Cornwall and ending with a familiar walk near her home in Aberfeldy, don’t just introduce us to a disparate variety of locales – Kenya, Spain, Switzerland, Norway – but build up a picture of the writer as a person. We are the sum total of the journeys we have taken and Doubling Back illustrates this perfectly. While walking a drovers’ track on Rannoch Moor for the first time, she comes across paths she walked years earlier, skirting a mountain she climbed with friends, the world at once familiar and unfamiliar. The places, the people, the influences are all connected through Cracknell. Thomas Hardy and Jessie Kesson, Arabic plumbing, a man escaping from the Nazis in 1944. These walks and these stories form a biography, a memoir with her at the centre connecting everything.
Then there are the paths not taken. Ever present is the father she tragically never met and the relationship that only existed through photos and accounts of his own mountaineering exploits. There are ghosts aplenty in the hills, figures from history, much loved writers, ex-partners and unborn children.
Because of this, Doubling Back becomes much more than a travel book, a book about walking and climbing. It’s a deeply moving examination of why we scale dangerous peaks and lose ourselves in desolate wilderness, why we squelch through peat bogs and move through the world with nothing but what we can carry. It’s the story of how all this movement is life, how these journeys create us. Humanity is perpetually in movement but sometimes we have to be alone, battered by wind and rain on a road used for centuries before we realise the deep connections we have with history. We don’t scale mountains because they are there, we do it because we are.
Doubling Back, Linda Cracknell
Freight Books, RRP £14.99, 256pp