A book by Chris McCully
Reviewed by John Andrews
‘And there in Drenthe I came to another kind of border, a baffled parenthesis, a civilised space filled by winter and the memory of an 18th Century painting, by pike I couldn’t hook, and by something I could identify neither as loneliness or happiness’.
There are a lot of ‘somethings’ that you can identify neither as ‘loneliness’ or ‘happiness’ in Chris McCully’s new collection of essays ‘Outside’ published this month by Ullapool independent publishing house Two Ravens Press. The book is an aptly nebulous and joyously directionless diary consisting of weekly penned 1200 word pieces on the nature of being ‘Outside’. In McCully’s sense, this means outside the house, up the road, off the map, beyond the comfort zone. Always questioning it is written intimately over the year in the life of the exiled British writer as he settles into an unsettling landscape, the Dutch waterland to the north of the town of Groningen, a remote place of atmosphere, ‘It was a shock, coming to live in het Hogeland in 2007. English visitors occasionally remark that the landscape is ‘bleak’; Dutch visitors – those from Amsterdam or even from nearby Groningen – sometimes drive up to Usquert on the road bordering the Boterdiep and, once arrived, comment that Usquert seems like ‘the end of the world’.
Amid this bleak landscape McCully finds natural life in the form of fauna, fish and fowl which by the end of the book makes you think that Usquert might be considered ‘the end of the world’ by visitors from Amsterdam but to anyone else is visible as its very beginning. McCully represents it as a cradle of creation in the 21st Century. A place ignored by the hundred years just past to the extent that nature has been allowed to take its course amid the artificial waterways of old Holland and spawn abundance. In the skies and under the ice, through the owl holes in every home, along the muddy roads. There are pike everywhere, not as a recurring theme, but in the flesh, pike as brown as the soils they swim between, as there are butterflies, owls, eels, zander and fat roach. Beyond this paradise in the estuaries of the Wadden, three miles north of McCully’s house, there are rumours of bass and sea trout. McCully chases them all whilst something called homesickness chases him. A man it will never catch completely, in mid-life stranded ‘on the Pike road’, and given to ‘Counting the Holes’ in a 1960’s Intrepid Rimfly, addictive behaviour perhaps, but understandable when you learn that to get to Usquert, McCully fought off addiction, emerged from a broken marriage and all the while worked in academia whilst publishing critically acclaimed volumes of poetry. His words have an ease that is mostly eloquent and only occasionally offbeat, here is a native of England who is as happy referencing Edward Thomas’ ‘Adlestrop’ as he is reminiscing about chip shops in a childhood York. There is no trace of a comedy Steve McClaren accent for McCully, he is a settler who is happy in his own skin. A skin that survives by being ‘Outside’, integrated amongst ‘The Roach – Masters of Uithuizen’, standing ‘On the Border of Loneliness’ and at home charting ‘The Distance between York and Zwolle’.