Now and then here in The Writer Shed, I will formally review a book. This is not the casual albeit sincere Goodreads or Amazon review, but rather a hard and close look. I do this only occasionally and usually choose books for specific reasons. Either I am asked to review the book by a publisher or author, or I am so overwhelmingly captivated or charmed by it that I am compelled to share what I have found. Two things will do it for me: The book is so superbly written, employing stunning and revealing language that can’t be ignored, and/or the book exudes such spirit that it transcends the pages it is printed on and I must offer up, however I can, a little wind under its wings.
My Midsummer Morning: Rediscovering a Life of Adventure by Alastair Humphreys is a book that hits all those marks.
I’ve read beautifully written stories in the last few months by talented authors: The Boatbuilder by Daniel Gumbiner, The Friend by Sigrid Nunez, and most recently Claire Lombardo’s The Best Time We Ever Had, just to name three. But as good as they are, and as wonderful as the reading experience has been, these books, at least for me, do not linger in the same way Humphreys’ latest does.
I came to know of Alastair Humphreys through a six-degrees-of-separation moment. Humphreys is a renowned adventurer who has bicycled around the world, raced a yacht across the Atlantic Ocean, and walked across India. I, on the other hand, am not an adventurer, not in the traditional way we think of one. But my older son has embarked on his share of mini-adventures and came to be connected with a group of men who were planning a hike across Iceland. My son was doing some media work for them. One of the hikers knew Humphreys. Through pure curiosity, I read one of Humphreys’ books—There are Other Rivers: On Foot Across India—and was taken with its richness, its authenticity, and its spirit. I then read another, Moods of Future Joys. Again, I was hooked by not only his observational abilities and his deftness at entwining travel and adventure with intimate personal insight, but by how his eager and passionate embrace of life jumped from the page. That’s a rare ability for a writer. I can think only of Gretel Ehrlich, Pico Iyer, and Bruce Chatwin.
In My Midsummer Morning Humphreys retraces the travels of Laurie Lee, a young English writer and poet who in 1935 walked across Spain, earning his way by playing his violin in bars and village squares. It was an exercise in minimalism and simple adventure. Lee wrote a book about it, a book and journey Humphreys admired. And so, Humphreys takes on Lee’s travels, step-by-step, as a way to redefine his life as an adventurer—to be less the risk-taker and, at nearly 40 years old, a man who must reimagine his adventures in a deeper way. He has a wife, two children, and his life of bravado—although it had fueled his unbridled soul—has to be redefined if he is to be a good husband and father. He could no longer jump on a bike and take a year off to cycle the globe. In fact, he cancelled an Antarctica adventure when he found himself overwhelmed with guilt knowing he would have to leave his family behind. Still, the Spain journey, Humphrey admits, may have been his most terrifying. In other adventures he may have risked injury and even death, but in this one he risks failure, humiliation, and vulnerability. Walking the many miles was far from daunting for a man of Humphreys’ adventure status, but playing the violin to keep from starving? That’s a different matter. Alastair Humphreys knew nothing of music, of any stringed instrument, and considered himself tone-deaf. He practiced and practiced, but he remained a terrible violinist. Who in the world would toss a coin in the direction of such a dreadful musician?
The Spain adventure was desperately needed to pull Humphreys out of a serious funk and help him rediscover how to rebalance his life. He admits to being surly, unhappy, even drinking too much at times, feeling trapped in British suburbia. Humphreys writes, “And so I carried into Spain a determination to change my life, for, despite everything that had happened in recent years, I loved my family and did not want to lose them.” So from village to village, Humphreys moves along with little or no money, his rucksack and inexpensive violin strapped to his back, and busks his way through the countryside. “Busking” is the act of performing in the street for donations. It is an English word derived from the Spanish verb buscar: to seek. “What was I seeking out in Spain with my violin?” Humphreys writes. “If anything,” he continues, “I was trying to stop seeking.” And that’s the essence of the conflict in his story. What is Humphreys trying to accomplish? And whatever it is, can it be done? Not the physical expedition, for Humphreys certainly can manage that, but what about the inner journey? Can Humphreys reshape his life of adventure through the simple act of walking the hot and dusty roads, encountering the kindness of strangers, screeching his way through his short repertoire of simple songs on his violin over and over again, camping in mosquito infested fields, and sustaining himself by eating only the food he can buy with the few euros he makes each day? Can this adventure be enough to change a life?
Humphreys not only marches through Spain’s wheat fields, along cobblestone streets, and through ancient towns, but travels on an inner journey to search for peace and redemption. My Midsummer Morning is an honest and sincere look at a man trying to define himself. And it is Humphreys’ open and genuine spirit that provides the authenticity. We cannot all be world-class adventurers, but each of us is a traveler and a seeker in our own way, and that is how and why Humphreys’ book will make such a lasting impression.
Photo credit: (Humphreys and violin) My Midsummer Morning Book Jacket