First of all a big shout out to Son of Rune (the elder) for the amazing transformation of the design of this blog. Thank you.
The Wild Silence is Raynor Winn’s second book which covers the time from her and her husband Moth’s return home (where is home?) to the writing of the book and trying in middle age to establish a new life for themselves. When Winn wrote her first book The Salt Path, she thought she was writing a personal account of a personal event. But this memoire of homelessness, with its unassuming displays of courage and endurance touched a universal nerve. The Salt Path became a runaway best seller in 2018. Being infinitely well qualified to write on these issues, Raynor Winn and her husband Moth were made homeless – aged in their ‘fifties. Moth also received a terminal diagnosis more or less in the same week. It seemed that the only way was up
After Winn and her husband complete the massive undertaking of walking the 650 mile South West Coast Path (in the UK) finding a new normal isn’t easy. The Wild Silence moves both backward and forward in time – backward as Winn remembers her rural childhood and the meeting of Moth; how she overcame her mother’s disapproval of the man she chose for her life partner. Then forward to the beginnings of writing The Salt Path and to a proposed tenancy of an old farm and apple orchard in great need of care and renewal. It is hard to avoid the analogy between watching new green shoots of a return to life for an arid and over farmed corner of land, and a parallel return for the protagonists who have to decide who they can ever trust again, if anyone.
Raynor Winn writes so beautifully that sometimes her books seem less of a story and more of an ode – to a vanishing landscape, to a lost childhood of (relative) rural peace when there were still meadows and insects, but mostly to Winn’s life’s consuming passion, her husband Moth and the mountains, both literal and metaphorical, that they have climbed together. But there is not much that is wistful and certainly no sentiment in these pages. Winn is too practical, too strong and far sighted. Rather than wasting time mourning what has been lost, Raynor Winn sits down with a notebook and pen and plans what the heck she can do about it.
W.H. Davies, poet and author of Autobiography of a Supertramp once wrote:
What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.
No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.
No time to see, in broad day light,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night.
No time to turn at beauty’s glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance.
No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began.
A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
‘Leisure’ From: Songs of Joy and Others (1911)
Davies was born in Newport, South Wales (my hometown) and knew real poverty. As the title of his autobiography suggests, he became a drifter. His poetic gifts, whether or not related to his peripatetic lifestyle, were born out of his deep understanding of the human connection to the natural world. To me, Raynor Winn’s writing is also redolent of those connections. Here she describes a walking holiday they once took in Scotland:
“Days later, among the rocks at the summit of Ben More, the highest point on Mull, the island spread beneath us in an undulation of hills and glistening lochs. On every side, a sheet of lush green draped over an ancient volcanic land, falling softly to the sea. And there in an upswell of air, lifting without moving wing or feather, the huge, terrifying, magnificent shape of a golden eagle. Glowing rust in the afternoon sun…”
However, while from the safety of historical perspective, we all wallow in the romance of the supertramp, the reality is somewhat different. Society’s current ethos on these matters of wandering and penury – unless you are Simon Armitage (with whom Moth was confused at one stage on their walk and asked for a recitation) – can be summed up by ‘if you don’t have a job and a house you must be a criminal, or mad, or both.’
But Raynor and Moth are just themselves, having to learn to avoid using the ‘H’ word while walking. So instead they find a story they can tell, about selling up the house and retraining to teach, which people could accept. Better to be thought of as a bit eccentric than homeless.
In her first book Winn wrote:
“ If you ask someone to describe a homeless person, the majority will give you a description of a rough sleeper, unrolling a mat and bedding down in a street, perhaps with a dog, invariably begging for money for drugs or alcohol. A stereotype that evokes a range of emotions from the feet that pass them as they sleep in doorways, from mildly uncomfortable to aggressively violent.”
Homeless folk are associated by others in society with potential trouble, mental health issues, drugs. Often local Councils deal with anyone they consider ‘suspicious’ by compassionately engaging the police to employ the nineteenth century Vagrancy Act to move them on, or arrest them. But anyone can be homeless. Jobs are becoming a rarity and the cost of property continues to spiral. Safety nets are getting threadbare and more full of holes and at the time when Winn and Moth were walking and at the time she began these books the pandemic hadn’t even started. Criminalising poverty is not going to make it go away. Post pandemic, these issues are only going to require even more urgent action, and funding. Achieving this level of awareness is one of Winn’s aims having experienced the sharp end of homelessness herself. With these lyrical books she has found the perfect medium for her voice.