Tretower to Clyro: Essays, By Karl Miller

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The Independent Culture

A new collection of essays by Karl Miller is a cause for jubilation, and this one comes with a bonus: a 31-page preface, or companion piece, by Andrew O'Hagan. O'Hagan's foreword, "The Excursions", sets the scene for much of what's in store. It describes a series of literary jaunts, undertaken in a spirit of homage and exuberance, by three friends, distinguished fellow-Celts, all endowed with the strongest instinct for allusion and assessment. ("Karl and Seamus sat on a bench and argued about the Latin on Vaughan's grave.")

A Scotsman, a Scots-Irishman, and an Irishman, they are Karl Miller, Andrew O'Hagan and Seamus Heaney. The places they visit include the Scottish Borders, the Welsh Marches and the Aran Islands - all of whose specific associations are joined by others that, due to the company, are drawn into their environs. Hence Thomas Hardy is invoked in a church in Scotland, and TS Eliot mentioned near the River Usk in Wales.

A country theme predominates throughout the 16 informative and spirited Miller essays which follow (presided over, in some sense, by Miller's two travelling companions). After "The Excursions" comes "Country Writers", the opening article. There's a Scottish theme, too, running through the book, with riveting commentaries on James Hogg, best known for his Confessions of a Justified Sinner; on Hogg's collateral descendant, the resonant and engaging short-story writer Alice Munro; and on afflicted Candia McWilliam - of the "memoir of blindness" What to Look for in Winter (among other books).

Ireland gets more than a look-in here, with praise by Miller for John McGahern's subtlety and veracity, and for steadfast Heaney - the Heaney of Stepping Stones, the quasi-autobiographical, question-and-answer compilation put together by Dennis O'Driscoll. Critics, Miller says, "have clearly been vexed by the thought of [Heaney's] good-heartedness". What else? We are treated to a close scrutiny of John McNeillie (Ian Niall) evoking the landscape of Galloway, and Francis Kilvert observing every aspect of Clyro life in the 1870s (Clyro, incidentally, has the same meaning as Heaney's Anahorish: "Clear Water").

You have to say that Miller's versions of pastoral - like William Empson's - are not all rural (with pieces on Ian McEwan and Irvine Welsh) and rarely countrified. The country matters, though, with all its ancestral implications and enduring effect on the literary imagination. Miller is consistently alert to every nuance of his subjects' preoccupations, and his observations are shaped by an idiosyncratic eloquence which accommodates both charm - of an austere, Scottish variety, indeed - and cogency. Words applied by James Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd, to an ancestor of his, Will o' Phaup - frolic, agility and strength - can be applied to Karl Miller in his critical persona too.