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  • Writer's pictureDavid Mathews

Three terrific storytellers

More summer reading for you in your deckchair or on your yacht. Three titles: two offbeat books and a gem. I have to tell someone about them.

One tells the bloody history of a corner of southwest France. The second dashes across the northern hemisphere in search of out-of-the-way cabins, the kind of refuge that you reach, dead beat and despairing, just as you are about to give up on the day – or on life.

The third title, the gem? I’ll tell you in a moment. Patience.

Colin Duncan Taylor’s Lauragais and Dan Richards’s Outpost are yarns, stories related in a personal, artful way. Conventional writing advice tells you to keep out of the narrative, to be invisible, but try telling that to Colin and Dan. Each is present throughout, your mate in the pub yacking to you over a pint about his adventures.

The countryside of the Lauragais straddles the Canal du Midi and the Montagne Noire south east of Toulouse. Colin is a keen cyclist and a sociable soul, and has walked, ridden and interviewed his way into a past speckled with pastel (that’s woad to us Brits), cassoulet, windmills and pigeonniers, and knee-deep in gore – Cathars, crusaders, Protestants and Catholics killing and dying in the Albigensian Crusades and the French wars of religion. As a style of history-telling, Colin’s conversations with locals in the know caught me out at first, but his enthusiasm and the voices of his interviewees lighten the scholarship, and you want to know what he finds out next.

It’s a treat to learn more about events you thought you knew, those battles and campaigns and the peaceful industry of the area. Places too. I was particularly taken with Colin’s climb to a belvedere. I am familiar with the valley over which it looks, but I had no idea that such a watchful guardian stood there.

And why not see for yourself? Come on, Lauragais makes a terrific guide. Head from Toulouse into the Tarn or the Aude. Find a field of wheat rippling in the breeze and imagine the awfulness of the day on which thousands of men of one religious persuasion ambushed and slaughtered thousands of a marginally different one. The narcissism of small differences doesn’t quite cover it.

Dan Richards travels a good deal further than Colin. He finds his way to remote, rough lodgings in Utah, in Japan, in Scotland, France, Iceland. Okay, a temple and a lighthouse are thrown in, but all Dan’s outposts are termini beyond which be dragons or terrae incognitae, topographically or in the mind. Places where folk have sheltered from the weather and looked back at where they came from.

I ran into Dan the other day, heading down the road on his way to the Montreux Jazz Festival. He probably got there okay, but no guarantee, for his journey planning seems, shall we say, inexact, and he tends to rely on encounters with strangers and the occasional old friend to get to his destination. But in his hands such semi-preparation makes for joyful reading.

How come, this quest of Dan's? Ultimately because Tim, his father, once brought back from the Arctic the pelvis of a polar bear. I’ll leave that with you.

And, wonderfully, Outpost triggers interest beyond Dan’s erratic travels. Highlights for me: Simon Starling’s Shedboatshed (Turner Prize 2005) and that third book I alluded to at the top of the page, Train Dreams by Denis Johnson. I can’t remember the last time I read a book and went straight back to the start and read it again. Poems, yes of course; other people’s short stories too. But a novel?

All too often your average novel starts to niggle me round about page 147 or so. Needs a damn good edit. Do I need a mood or the weather or a setting described AGAIN? And don’t start me on adverbs. But, boy oh boy, Denis Johnson is a master of getting to the point – a master of the point itself, you might say. His story of Robert Grainier’s life of toil in the forests of northern Idaho has you holding your breath amid the trees. Johnson’s writing is spare. It has not a word out of place. It is beautiful. Take how Johnson manages to bestow dignity on his subject simply by the use of his name. There is no Rob or Robby or Bob. Robert Grainier remains Robert to everyone he encounters. That’s worth a thousand words of description of how the man is perceived by others. I’m so jealous.

Lauragais – Steeped in History, Soaked in Blood. Colin Duncan Taylor, Troubador, 2018

Outpost – a journey to the wild ends of the earth. Dan Richards, Canongate, 2019

Train Dreams. Denis Johnson, Granta, 2012

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