An old Latin proverb holds that “It is solved by walking” and British author Rory Stewart would undoubtedly agree. In 2006, Stewart wrote "The Places in Between,” the story of a 1,000-mile walk he took across war-torn Afghanistan in 2002 in an effort to better understand the country and its challenges. In his latest undertaking, The Marches: A Borderline Journey Between England and Scotland, he travels much closer to home and contemplates regional history and the similarities and differences between Scottish and British identity. Running through the book is a description of Stewart’s relationship with his father as the older man, while still hardy, nears the end of his life.
“The Marches” is divided into three sections. The first recounts Stewart’s plan to walk the length of Hadrian’s Wall, accompanied part of the way by his father in 2011. Begun by the Roman emperor Hadrian after he came to power in 117 AD, the wall was the northern boundary of the Roman Empire in England and runs for nearly 75 miles from the North Sea to the Irish Sea. Along the way Stewart contemplates how national identify changes in occupied lands and wonders about the likely success and permanence of efforts to subdue and control native populations, whether in 2nd-century Britain or 21st-century Afghanistan.
The next year and shortly before the referendum on Scottish independence, Stewart walks some 400 miles from his home in England to his father’s house in Scotland. He crosses the border between the two counties – an area of enormous biodiversity that he calls “the Middleland” – eight times and investigates the many long vanished civilizations that once inhabited this part of the British Isles. Throughout the journey, Stewart demonstrates a deep historical understanding of the land and describes the flora and fauna that he encounters with the precision of a botanist.
But he is disappointed in his effort to understand the differences in national identify that characterize the residents of this open and unmarked border. To his surprise, he concludes that modern Britain is “bewilderingly mobile, … thin in identity, … unconcerned with history, [and] severed from its deeper past.” Later he confides that he “was bewildered” by the people he met along the borders and the ways in which they thought about the landscape they inhabited.
The last part of the book chronicles the end of his father’s life. There is less walking here but rather a tender portrait of an elderly parent’s final days. Brian Stewart was, in his son’s words, almost “a cliché of the British establishment” – having been public school and Oxford-educated, a military officer in the legendary “Black Watch,” and a lifelong British colonial administrator and, it appears, spy. But the picture he paints is far more personal: of a loving and gentle father who worshipped his son. And, though Stewart clearly reciprocated his father’s feelings, he, like countless others, wonders if he made the right decision when he discontinued medical treatment and let his father die quietly.
In addition to being a successful author, Rory Stewart is a member of Parliament and currently serves as a Minister of State at the Department for International Development in prime minister Theresa May’s Conservative government. Woven throughout the book are deep and careful reflections on the relationship between government and the people it serves. The author deftly connects the historical lessons from his travels to the current international environment. He concludes, for example, that the Roman occupation of Britain was “considerably more brutal than that of the US-British coalition in Afghanistan.” He posits that Hadrian’s Wall was “extravagant and excessive” and that the project “required more stone and labour than the pyramids.” Finally, he realizes that the “the very existence of the wall and its forts signified failure” and that not even the massive construction and huge number of troops stationed along the border were enough to pacify the area.
Stewart is a careful and thoughtful observer. He acknowledges that he is not really sure why he goes on long walks, but speculates that he does it because “I believe walks are miracles – which can let me learn, like nothing else, about a nation, or myself – helping me solve disappointments, personal and political.” So he doesn’t just stroll across the landscape, he thinks deeply about it, engages local residents in extensive conversations, and challenges himself to connect what he sees and learns with the issues and challenges of the day. Some of the places he visits are obscure and the level of detail is, at times, more extensive than necessary. But this reflects Stewart’s desire to engage completely with the environment he encounters.
Perhaps surprisingly for a travelogue, the book is oddly timely. The United Kingdom’s “Brexit” decision coupled with America’s bitter, divisive 2016 presidential election dramatized the dispiriting and deep divisions in both countries. Far too many highly partisan politicians on both sides of the Atlantic seek tactical political advantages and favor short-term solutions when confronted by problems whose solutions require insight and a long perspective.
Stewart, by contrast, is a politician who thinks long and hard about his public responsibilities and uses the past to better understand the present. Even if one disagrees with the insights he offers and conclusions he draws, such an extended and purposeful effort to better comprehend and confront public challenges is notable and praiseworthy. One wishes that more politicians would take long walks and think deeply about what they see and what it means for our collective well-being.