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Rory Stewart
ARRSE Rating
5 Mushroom Heads
Originally published in 2016 and now available as a Vintage Paperback, The Marches is a curious book: partly Rory Stewart's autobiography; partly the biography of his remarkable father, Brian; partly general history; partly military history; partly travel writing. If you enjoyed Bruce Chatwin's travel books, you will probably enjoy Stewart's, too; their styles are similar, although Stewart's learning is more profound than Chatwin's and his varied experience confers a deeper understanding of historic, political and economic factors. The title is ambiguous: The Marches could refer equally to frontier provinces, like the English and Scottish Border counties, or to long marches on foot, which seem to have constituted Rory and Brian Stewart's favourite recreation. The book covers several separate foot journeys within the UK: A) Walks around The Middleland (the area between Hadrian's Wall and the present Border, plus the Wall itself and Cumbria, which includes Stewart's constituency (2008-2012)); B) from Cragg in Cumbria to Broich (Stewart's ancestral house on the Scottish Highland/Lowland boundary; another March) (2012) and; C) The Cheviot Border, including the Otterburn Training Area (also 2012). Rory's father, who was born in 1921, did not walk with him all the way, although he had accompanied him on earlier treks. Instead, he travelled by other means and either “ambushed” his son at places of interest or joined him in an inn or bed—and-breakfast in the evening. The two men discussed a wide range of subjects, as Stewart also did with a varied cast of people encountered on the way.

Rory Stewart throws out provocative new theses: for example, that the island of Great Britain is a natural unit; that its division into “Britannia”, later England, and Scotland is the artificial and toxic outcome of the construction of Hadrian's Wall. Things would have been different and much better if Julius Agricola had been permitted to carry out his plan to occupy and civilise the whole island.

Stewart rightly deplores the contemporary politically-correct (PC) dumbing-down and sanitisation of our history. It is now apparently un-PC to refer to “Romans and barbarians”; the SNP might be offended. There were just different but equally valid cultures, co-existing. Hadrian's Wall, one of the most expensive imperial projects ever undertaken, was not a military barrier, designed to keep the barbarians out of Roman Britain. Perish the thought! it was probably put there to collect tolls and deter cattle-rustlers. Thanks to the presence of legionaries from many parts of the Roman Empire, it was a jolly, eighty-mile-long, all-singing, all-dancing multi-ethnic and multicultural fest Oh yeah? If you believe that, as Stewart implies, you'll believe anything. The environmentalists are just as bad: gleefully wrecking good farmland through their obsession with “re-wetting” and “re-wilding” and determined to “re-introduce” potentially lethal fauna, which might once have been native to the UK, but of whose former presence there is only slight, or no, archaeological evidence. They come across as arrogant, PC and, in the final analysis, dishonest. The temptation to kick such people's posteriors must have been very strong.

Eventually, at the end of The Marches and at the age of ninety-three, Rory's father, Brian, died, having become a grandfather shortly before. At his wish he was buried in the grounds of Broich. Rory was present at his distressing deathbed. This is perhaps the most moving passage in the book. Although the book is dedicated to Rory Stewart's mother, Sally, she – like other family mebers - has only a supporting role in the narrative. The focus is on the strong and heart-warming love that this father and son clearly felt for one another.

Rory Stewart is an OBE, FRSL, FRSGS and MA of the University of Oxford. He holds two honorary Doctorates. He is currently the Conservative MP for Penrith and the Border and a junior Minister at the Ministry of Justice with responsibility for prisons, probation and sentencing. He previously served as a junior Minister in the Department for International Development (DFID) and the Foreign Office. Apart from that, between Eton and Oxford he served briefly in his family regiment, the Black Watch; he read Modern History at Balliol College, before switching to Politics, Philosophy and Economics; tutored Princes William and Harry during the summer vacation; joined HM Diplomatic Service; administered two large chunks of Iraq following the Coalition invasion in 2003 and withstood the siege of his compound by Sadrist militia. Initially a supporter of the invasion, he later concluded that it had been a costly mistake.

From 2000 to 2002 Stewart travelled on foot through rural districts of Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Nepal; a journey of 6,000 miles, staying in over 500 village houses. For part of the time, his father joined him. The fruit of this journey was his first book, The Places in Between, which became a best-seller, favourably reviewed in, among others, The Guardian and The New York Times. It won several literary prizes. He has since written other books and founded the Turquoise Mountain charity. From 2009-2010 he served as Professor of Human Rights at Harvard and Director of the John F Kennedy School of Government's Carr Center for Human Rights Policy. At Harvard he met his future wife, Shoshana Clark.

Stewart's father, Brian, had an equally interesting career. He left Oxford to serve in the Black Watch during the Second World War; he never returned to finish his degree. He contrived to spend most of his working life outside the UK. During the war he fought in a number of important engagements, including the Normandy Landings. He got wounded and lost his brother, George, killed by a German shell in Sicily. After the war he joined the Colonial Service, later transferring to MI6, of which he became Deputy Director, often using a diplomatic cover when serving abroad; for example, as Consul-General in Shanghai. Later he worked in the private sector. His son Rory was born in Hong Kong, educated at Eton and Oxford and has likewise worked all over the globe. In The Marches Brian often muses nostalgically about his military and colonial service past. His generation managed simultaneously to be patriotic citizens of Scotland, the UK and the Empire. Why is that no longer imaginable?

Rory Stewart was born too late to have met John Buchan, who would have warmly approved of him and have probably based a character in one of his novels on him, but in 2012 Brad Pitt acquired the rights to produce a film based on Stewart's life. If the film ever materialises, it will make fascinating viewing; Stewart is only forty-five years old, looks much younger, and has crammed more experience, both interesting and dangerous, into his lifetime than most of us manage in ninety-five.

The Marches has been favourably reviewed in The Observer, The Times, The Sunday Times (“this bewitching book”), Scotland on Sunday and The Spectator.

Metellus Cimber II

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