To the Island of Tides – Alistair Moffat

Non-fiction.

A pilgrimage, by its nature, is a personal journey of discovery as well as a geographical and historical trek. In To the Island of Tides, Alistair Moffat follows in the footsteps of Saint Cuthbert (634 – 687); monk, bishop and hermit. From the Scottish Borders to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, Moffat endures a broken rib and faces some deep familial sadness as he immerses himself in the life and times of this medieval holy man.

Written in a smooth and jaunty style, the book’s basic timeline mirrors Moffat’s route from his inland home to the sea, and Cuthbert’s intriguing life of politics and worship from birth to death. In the same way that this is not a continuous walk, rather an interrupted series of day trips with a week’s retreat towards the end, so there are many textual asides: lush scenic descriptions, divers detailed accounts of battles (Flodden et al), and involved analyses of Latin place names interspersed throughout. The writing shines when bringing the Lindisfarne Gospels and The Great Tapestry of Scotland to life.

This book is brimful of liturgical references, despite his oft mentioned atheism, and his own search for succour from painful public and private events is woven into the story in sometimes uncomfortable and exposing detail. Going to some lengths to get inside Cuthbert’s head and heart, he scrambles up shifting sand dunes and under barbed wire fences before seeming to find some peace through his first experience of solitary contemplation on Lindisfarne.

Author of some twenty books, Moffat’s The Hidden Ways (Canongate 2018) was a vehicle for sharing his excitement in uncovering lost paths, and he utilises the same dogged skills in To the Island of Tides. Quoting from eighth century primary sources, he steers a fine line between facts, storytelling, anecdote and conjecture – after all St Cuthbert lived a long time ago. This tome is well researched; part autobiography (his family and ancestors play a strong role), and part paean to the spirit of the unnoticed: “until the coming of the census in the middle of the nineteenth century, the voices of others are largely silent. The fields … seem .. to remember their people, those who tended them.”
This pilgrimage incorporates local lore and biblical references, touching self discovery and a Saint’s life. Above all it is a homage to the importance of family and of belonging.

Review originally published by The Wee Review.

Published by Canonngate Books August 2019

Matt Hopwood – book festival

Matt Hopwood was talking to Ryan Van Winkle at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, 18 Aug 2018.

Another sold out event at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, Matt Hopwood has walked long distance collecting love stories as he goes. A former teacher and a musician, he has the appearance of a road-hippie (or ‘Jesus’ as some wee ruffians shouted at him somewhere in Scotland) with long hair in a top knot and a tawny beard. He described himself as “going on this amazing pilgrimage all groovy and pure” when he first started seven years ago. Author of A Human Love Story – Journeys to the Heart, his dad was a Methodist minister and he has discovered that his way is all about love.

When walking he prevails on strangers to accommodate and feed him, and in return he does an equally precious thing, he listens to their accounts of love. This book is testament to his prodigious listening skills and admirable in his aim of building shared experience and compassion by publishing them in book and virtual form. “I hope the reader might think, ‘Ah, there’s someone else that thinks like me.’ That’s when we know we’re not alone.”

On being asked why he walks instead of driving for example, he answers, “What I’ve found is that you enter communities very gently when you walk. Walking allows you to walk into that presence”, quoting Martin Palmer another ‘son of a preacher man’, “’into that sense of sacred drift’.”

matt hopwood 2

The chair of this event is Ryan Van Winkle who then asks what happens after he has amassed the narratives, “You’re the shepherd of these texts. What is that responsibility like?” “I listen to the recordings and the first thing I do is take myself out, then the people emerge. It’s not really anything to do with me.” Not all the stories are in the public eye: “55% are for them (the storytellers) only. My recordings are a gift, offering that reflection for them to hear their own voice.” An audience member asks about giving advice. “I want to help them” Hopwood admits, “but early on I learned that I don’t know anything. I’m just here to learn.”

Hopwood is eloquent with words, energy and gesture; he’s quietly amusing, self-deprecating, and he tells a good story himself. On Van Winkle’s urging he tells us his story, and romantic it certainly is. He sits upright at the front of his seat, touches his heart, squeezes his nose (diagnostic area for the heart in Chinese Medicine!); he opens his palms and moves them from the centre of his chest towards us – the body speaking clearly of his desire for openness and connection through sharing. “This amazing person just kept allowing me to be” he said of his wife in the early stage of their relationship, and when the time came he was ready to offer that to others.

Van Winkle, his knee popping out of his jeans, allows himself to be admirably vulnerable and says: “When I am alone, isolated and reflect, my nerves appear above my skin. Is that why you set out on your own?” Hopwood explains: “I try to be in my body and the now”.  At times he struggles a little, searching for the right vocabulary because this is akin to therapeutic talk and he knows some aren’t familiar and most find it pretty tricky to talk about such matters. “If I’m not”, he continues, “I don’t meet anyone. Nothing happens. But when I still myself, then everything happens, people just sit down beside me.”

“All of my work is really about the guest and the stranger” reveals Hopwood (maybe he refers here to Camus’ short stories with those titles; the bible (see Romans); and Saint-Expuéry (Hopwood read a passage from ‘Letter to a Hostage’)) . He doesn’t elaborate much, but he does speak about the power of the smile, telling a prisoner’s tale for whom the daily smile of his cell mate constitutes love. “That is a sort of a welcome to the stranger”, he says. “The smile says ‘I see you, I recognise your humanity’” and it removes the need to “leave any part of me behind” when you cross a threshold. Usually, he explains, when we go somewhere, cross someone’s threshold, we choose to take part of us and leave the rest behind, it’s what we believe society requires for acceptance. Hopwood, on the other hand, seeks to “open out” to whoever someone is, to welcome the whole of them: “When it’s allowing, it’s love” (the antipathy of rejection and criticism). “It’s all about connection. I can allow myself to be – that’s love manifest.”

book festival