Tretower to Clyro: Essays by Karl Miller – review

In this erudite and darkly comic collection, literary critic and editor Karl Miller celebrates lesser-known poets and the joy of rural excursions with his friends

In the opening pages of his introductory essay to Karl Miller's new collection, Tretower to Clyro, we find young Andrew O'Hagan, Boswell to Miller's Johnson, reporting on an exchange he overheard in the office between the notoriously exacting editor and Seamus Heaney. Miller phones the poet to report that he has found "a mistake" in his tribute to Hugh MacDiarmid, "An Invocation", which was due to run in a forthcoming number of the London Review of Books. Apparently Heaney had referred to MacDiarmid's "chattering genius". The reproof to his old friend runs thus: "That's wrong. I'm from Scotland myself, Seamus. I'm from Scotland. And I can tell you that Scottish sheep don't chatter – they blether. Surely you mean MacDiarmid's 'blethering genius'?"

Miller, who prevailed in this exchange, is fond of salting his prose with authentic Scottish vernacular, both demotic and archaic, with words like nae and braw and auld and lug and cowp and gomeril. (A gomeril is a silly fellow, and the austere but seriously self-deprecating sage is at times happy to portray himself as a gomeril.) These sprinklings remind us and him of his origins, from which he has strayed so far, entrenching himself in voluntary exile for nearly the whole of his adult life in a highly pressurised and very urban literary London. But as this volume illustrates, his spirit returns continually to the landscapes of his homeland and to its writers. He cannot let them go. He has described himself elsewhere as "an anti-patriotic semi-Scot...with an ethnic tendency", and here he displays his inalienable weakness for people called MacThis and MacThat and mountains called BenThis and Ben-the-Other. (His incorrect phrases, not mine.)

The threads that tie this somewhat miscellaneous package of essays and reviews are slender. Miller invokes the "new ruralism" (and speaks warmly in passing of Richard Mabey), but there is no extended attempt to analyse this phenomenon, though there is a suggestion that it may be connected with global warming. We find a more engaging link in the form of interspersed descriptions of his travels with O'Hagan and Heaney – O'Hagan the intrepid chauffeur, Seamus the sociable drinker – as they seek out graveyards and tombstones, and hotels willing to serve them a meal after six in the evening. Two writers of Catholic stock, one reared as a Presbyterian, all "descendants of the rural working class", the happy trio was engaged in "the old-fashioned pursuit of driving round the country looking at places of literary interest", led on in O'Hagan's Will o' Whaup technological wonder of a car by a female voice called Tinkerbell. They did the Scotland of James Hogg the Ettrick Shepherd, they did the Ireland of Yeats and Patrick Kavanagh and Jonathan Swift, they sailed to the Aran Islands, and in the last recorded journey of 2010 they travelled to Wales and visited Henry Vaughan's grave under a great yew tree on a hill by the river Usk. O'Hagan writes "Karl and Seamus sat on a bench and argued about the Latin on Vaughan's grave. I was pleased to be with my friends."

Memories of these excursions and the literary associations they evoked are interwoven through the volume, which gathers pieces culled over the last 10 years from the Times Literary Supplement, Raritan and one or two other publications. They range from appreciative reflections on North American writers Alice Munro and (more surprisingly) Anne Tyler of Baltimore to a revealing postscript to Miller's lifelong obsession with Henry Cockburn, the Tacitus of Scotland. Miller has said that he is drawn to the lesser known and avoids the cult of the celebrity writer, and this inclination is here manifest, although there is an admiring notice of Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach, somewhat awkwardly included as "no pastoral" and "not a book by a country writer", but as a book that "happens in the country". More characteristic is the wide-ranging, brilliantly erudite and eccentric essay "From the Lone Shieling", which opens with an account of the origins of "The Canadian Boat Song", not it appears written by a Canadian but probably by a city-dwelling Scot, DM Moir, a contributor to Blackwood's Magazine, where it was published in September 1829:

Yet still the blood is strong, the heart is Highland,

And we in dreams behold the Hebrides.

Miller moves from the song to the Clearances, to Wordsworth's haunting Highland lass, to clans and clannishness, and on to emigration and the Canadian writer Alistair MacLeod and "the tribal or national significance of what he does". MacLeod is not one of our household Macs, although we are assured his fiction is read "in Britain too", and his material of ice and islands and drownings sounds bleak. Bleak too was the reception he gave to his fan Karl Miller, who met him once and made some would-be friendly comment on an account of a 19th-century MacLeod he had been reading, only to be told that there were lots of MacLeods in the world. "He may have thought", reflects Miller, that "I was some more than unusually flittermouse publicist come to ingratiate myself, who needed to be made aware that a clan was a serious business."

The flittermouse is perhaps at his best when being darkly comic at his own expense. His comment on one of Anne Tyler's admired novels of marital and parental tension, If Morning Ever Comes, is wonderfully illuminating in its gloomy way: readers of this novel, he remarks, are likely to feel, now and then, "that if morning comes night can't be far behind. And yet it's very enjoyable." And so is this ragbag of country pieces, tied together with rustic twine.

Margaret Drabble's A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman: The Collected Stories is published by Penguin Classics.

Margaret Drabble

The GuardianTramp

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