Francis Davis is Professor of Communities and Public Policy at the University of Birmingham and once walked the circumference of the Isle of Wight.
So rare a species are polymaths as politicians these days that one of the striking features of almost any article about Rory Stewart makes a nod to his T.E. Lawrence-like CV, the chances that he might have leapt from the pages of a John Buchan novel, or even that he ‘must be from another age’.
Indeed, while Winston Churchill, Denis Healey, and Henry Kissinger, to name but three, could range across military service, aesthetics, diplomacy, historical writing, photography, and high office, it seems that our contemporary commentariat find such co-locations of excellence in single individuals beyond comprehension.
Stewart’s new book, The Marches, marks him out not only as a writer but as a political force rooted in geographies so different to London as to shed new light on politics itself.
Stewart is a Scot whose family has lived in Perthshire for generations. His father, Brian, landed on the beaches of Normandy, taking a heavy leg injury, but fought on alongside the Geordies in his regiment to take out a stack of Panzer tanks before he was done.
Appointed to MI6 Brian Stewart ultimately became its Number Two, having served as the equivalent of ‘Q’ along the way. In retirement, he is active in the local community, in working the land, and as an author.
Throughout the pages of The Marches he emerges as his son’s conversation partner, both across generations and the geographies that comprise the British landscape between Perthshire and the Cumbrian constituency of Penrith and the Borders where the younger Stewart now lives with his young family.
The Marches is structured around three walks undertaken by the author totalling some six hundred miles: the first along the length of Hadrian’s Wall beginning in Newcastle upon Tyne; the second from Penrith in England to Crieff in Scotland; and the third through his father’s life, recent death, and burial at home.
In almost entirely white and Brexit-supporting Wigton, Stewart stays the night on a housing estate that is facing challenges of worklessness, low incomes, and other social risks. There are no sweeping judgments though about an ‘underclass’ or ‘dependency’ here, only an attentive recognition of aspiration as it is lived in so many communities.
For residents, the dream has not merely been to head South to make their way but rather, by more gradual degrees, to make one’s way across a lifetime to live in safer closes and roads on the same estate than those in which one started.
As Stewart’s walk proceeds – not least by wading across Solway Firth – farmers and small business owners, the landscape, varieties of livestock, and the histories of places and spaces emerge into view. Notably, faraway London barely merits a mention in a world where Newcastle, Carlisle, Berwick, Perthshire and Peebles are to the fore.
We discover Cumbria was once part of Scotland, that Stewart’s family while Scottish have Irish forbears, and that there are now more South Asians in Scotland than there are Gaelic speakers – and almost as many migrants from Eastern Europe.
Between Cumbria and Crieff they live in terrains contested for centuries by raid, by local kings, by farmers, and by their interaction with the elements, technology, and the seasons. Stewart is careful not simply to see the countryside as an artefact of the Romantic imagination but also to listen intently to those still working hard to sustain livelihoods in rural trades.
Cutting across the ideas and habits of place he elucidates a ‘Middle land’ which traverses the historically contested ‘border’ of what today we call England and Scotland and where Hadrian’s Wall is only a relatively recent invention.
This is a raft of territories, from where William Wallace was upon death quartered to the parts of Britain to reflect his Welsh ancestry and English links. It is a place also where the ‘sudden’ definition of legal boundaries at the ‘borders’ aided the creation of memories and narratives that shaped the communities to be found within them.
The parallel rise of ‘imagined’ communities in the international conflict zones in which Rory Stewart has served – not least those around the borders of Afghanistan – is not lost on him, nor the debris and geographical turmoil that former colonial powers leave behind upon their departure.
Stewart listens and hears. He observes and learns. He walks and dwells for a while. What emerges is an affirmation of human experience in all its historical, geographical, economic, and personal diversity far from polite metropolitan salons. A human experience bridging Scotland and England, town and country, rich and poor, those who have been shot at, sold something, grown something, or made something or done their best to do so – not to forget those without such opportunities.
Ultimately, what unfurls from these pages is not a ‘moonstruck’ adventurer passing by, nor an out-dated ethic or intellectual at play, but a serious politician, social critic, and practical ethnographer at work. As such The Marches is a book for walkers, for those who love the Borders, and for fathers seeking inspiration in their family responsibilities.
But at heart it is primarily a political work presenting a Conservative politician at ease with the communities that make up so many crucial aspects of British life; and above all able to walk – and communicate – between them and other communities and lives that in our modern nation might never otherwise collide.
If this is the polymath as politician, then we need more of them.