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Landscape by Keith Ratcliffe  
© 2009

Short & sweet

I have always liked reading essays – some put it down to a natural impatience – but that is not the case as I have also wrestled with the density and volume in my reading. I think that what I admire is the craft of the good essay writers who squeeze greatness into a small package. Whether the greatness is passion, observation, portraiture or beauty does not matter and three of my favourite essayists illustrate all these features.

As a climber I read Jim Perrin’s columns in many magazines and recognised that there was a depth to his writing that went beyond the simple descriptive writing of other contributors. His series of encounters with the leading figures in climbing – they are more than interviews – formed superb portraits of his subjects that were not always complimentary though always incisive and respectful. His style seemed to mirror the subject’s character – from the clown-like Johnny Dawes to the managerial Chris Bonington they all capture the essence of the person. His three collections have been read many times and he really seems to hit his stride when he writes on Welsh issues – I have been told that to really appreciate them you need to read them in the native language but even in translation they reach deep levels. ‘Spirits of Place’ is a fine piece of work being entirely dedicated to his beloved language, culture & country. He is nowadays a contributor to the only newspaper column that I read online, Country Diary in the Guardian, and his items never fail to challenge or inspire.

Bryn Cader Faner

Which connects directly with the acknowledged father of that column – Harry Griffin. He contributed to the column for 53 years and his grounding in journalism made him the master craftsman of the short piece of work that hit the point unerringly. Not only that he did it every other week to a tight schedule yet combined his writing with a full life as a reporter, climber, walker and countryman. His acute observations of simple rural events are the basis of his essays and though he ranged far and wide his greatest love was the Lake District and he captures its essence in every tale. He caught oddities like the flying saucer seen by one of his friends and he wrote about the mundane aspects such as breaking in a new pair of boots – but even then the mundane was never boring. His last diary was written a few days before he died yet it is the work of someone who still has much to do and see. It may refer to past events but it is written with a joy for life in the hills.

Ullswater dawn

That same joy for walking is shared by my last essayist whom I only discovered recently through a chance encounter in a second hand bookshop. ‘The road to Rannoch & the Summer Isles’ by T Ratcliffe Barnett caught my attention because of the name  - I later learned that the double surname resulted from his appending his wife’s surname to his own. The books – there are at least 5 volumes that I have located - are collections from items in The Scotsman & other Scottish newspapers and his pieces describe journeys around the country often visiting religious relics that he has unearthed & researched. His writing is naïve & simplistic, often returning to similar themes of spiritual uplift from encounters with the elements, nature & the landscape. I was not surprised to discover that he was a minister in Edinburgh and indeed as a chaplain at a sanatorium for Great War soldiers he became friends with Wilfred Owen. His great love is the life of the ‘gangrel’ out on the road ‘tramping’ the by ways in the company of fellow tramps with whom he often shares an impromptu brew by the roadside – ‘drumming up’. He seems to have enjoyed long summer breaks when he would walk for weeks or sail in the Western Isles all the time collecting material for his tales. His writing is full of geographical locations so one thing I have found is that is essential to have an OS map handy for following the wanderings of this fascinating master of observation & discovery.

These three very different people span a century of writing and all have in some way contributed to this Landscape item on my website – the idea first came from Country Diary - though I fear it will not be able to emulate the 53 year stint of Harry Griffin – there is just so much to do and time is not unlimited!

© Keith Ratcliffe
March 2009

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