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On Trying to Keep Still By Jenny Diski

At rest with the reluctant traveller

By Tony Gould

Published: 07 April 2006


For someone whose sense of adventure is "as thin as a slice of prosciutto", gets herself into some strange situations - and none stranger than herding reindeer in the freezing forests of what the Finns call Lapland and the Sámis of northern Sweden don't. Not that she's herding; merely observing for a newspaper. Diski characterises herself as a strictly non-participant observer. She doesn't do strenuous activity, or joining in; she doesn't even do walking if she can avoid it. So what kind of a travel writer is she?

As a novelist whose third "travel" book this is, she worries about being cast as a travel writer and denies this is a travel book. She is at pains to play down the distinction between "being a fiction and a non-fiction writer"; all writing stems from curiosity and involves the same productive processes. She thinks of herself "as a writer. Period". The word she is eschewing is "creative", as in that baneful phrase "creative writing", which applies only to fiction and relegates all non-fiction to a lower league. And she's not having that. She belongs to the Republic of Letters, not to some spurious pecking order, or class system.

To underline the point, she concludes On Trying to Keep Still with a story she wrote for radio, in which a woman who "wrote novels long before she became the travel writer she is now mostly known for" decides to short-circuit the effort of going to some far-off place by making up her travel books, "using a mixture of conscientious research and free-floating imagination". Fine, except that "authenticity" was the sine qua non of travel writing. She would get round that by... no, I won't spoil the story.

The book is divided in three parts, covering three different journeys. In the first, Diski uses a writers' festival in Wellington as the jumping-off point for a New Zealand journey that takes in Auckland, the Coromandel and (to Diski's ear) the wonderful-sounding Dreadful Sound in the southern Fiordland. Along the way, she makes a virtual visit to a glow-worm cave from her hotel sickbed by means of the brochure and reflects brilliantly on the "desire to plummet... everywhere evident" in New Zealand: "People drop off any ledge, bridge, building or mountain they come across... Falling down is institutionalised in New Zealand". For a fleeting moment, even the non-participant Diski is tempted to have a go.

The central, and longest, section is the most Diskiesque, in that it finds her staying on her own, in comfort, in a converted granary in the Quantock Hills. Here she is more or less free to stay in for days on end and read, write, listen to music, or just sleep. "I am a sloth, not a cat that walks alone". Yet there is plenty going on, around her and in her head. The reader regrets her departure from this Somerset idyll as much as she does.

The nearest she gets to conventional travel writing is in the final section, where she has to suffer for her art in the far north of Sweden. But there, too, she is uniquely herself, entertaining us with a hilarious disquisition of what is involved, if you're a woman, in having to go outside the tent you're sharing with three male strangers for a pee in the middle of an Arctic winter's night. More please.