In December 2014, eight months before his death at the age of 93, Brian Stewart sat for the artist Paul Benney. The painting had been commissioned by Prince Charles as part of a series of portraits of D-Day veterans.
Stewart, who had led an anti-tank platoon which destroyed a dozen or so enemy Panzers, was shown with a chestful of medals and the red hackle of the Black Watch on his cap. He was troubled by the picture. ‘I do not like,’ he wrote to his son, ‘being remembered as a half-demented, melancholy, puzzled old man.’ Rory Stewart’s The Marches is, among other things, an attempt at a better likeness.
We see his father through his eyes; at first, the eyes of a child. A delightful preface describes Brian Stewart from the perspective of five-year-old Rory. This would be around 1978, at which point he was director of technical and support services – ‘Q in James Bond terms’ – at MI6. The preface makes no mention of this; such things would be unknown or unimportant to a little boy. Instead, we learn about the casual physical intimacy of father and son: they shower together; Rory places an index finger into the deep shrapnel scar, a souvenir of Normandy, on his father’s right thigh; held to his father’s chest as the water cascades, he listens to his echoing baritone as he sings a folk song, and notices that his Scottish accent is stronger when he sings than when he speaks. Brian, clearly, is Rory’s hero – and friend. An example of manhood, but a playmate, too.
Later that day, feeling that he has not been paid sufficient attention, Rory writes a note announcing that he has run away from home. He hides behind the dining room curtains in order to observe his father’s reaction, and is appalled. ‘I saw from his face how frightened he was. I realised how easily I could hurt him. I never wanted to see him like that again.’ This tipping of the balance of power foreshadows the rest of the book, when the child grows up to be a sort of parent to the elderly father, but never quite loses his feeling of inferiority. The next time we see Brian Stewart it is the next page, it is 2011, he is 89, and Rory is bending to kiss him on the forehead, wrapping a tartan scarf around his neck and tucking it into his coat. They are going for a walk.
Walking is at the heart of this book. The title has a double meaning. Marches in the sense of marching, yes, but also the medieval name for the dangerous frontier zone on both sides of the England-Scotland border. Rory Stewart has had a long interest in ambiguous areas, debatable lands; his first book, an account of a 600-mile walk across Afghanistan’s unchancy central route from Herat to Kabul, was called The Places In Between. ‘The Middleland’ is what Stewart calls the area around the border, a term coined by his father, who feels it ‘belonged particularly to us as hybrid-Scot-Britons struggling with debates over Scottish independence …’
The Marches is the story of two walks: the first along Hadrian’s Wall, in the company of his father; the second from his cottage in Cumbria, along the full length of the border, and north to the family pile in Perthshire. Stewart’s motivations are sketchy: the political backdrop is the 2014 referendum, so these walks seem intended, to an extent, as meditations on national identity. In what ways are the Scots and the English different, and in what ways do they feel themselves the same? Stewart is the Conservative MP for Penrith and the Border; his most visible contribution to the campaign was the much mocked Auld Acquaintance Cairn at Gretna, to which visitors were encouraged to add rocks bearing messages of support for the union. His understanding of why he is drawn to make these epic journeys by foot is much less concrete. ‘I’ve never been any good at explaining why I go on long walks,’ he writes. ‘The truth, I think, is I believe walks are miracles – which can let me learn, like nothing else, about a nation, or myself – helping me to solve disappointments personal and political.’
Walking, he muses on history: his own, his father’s, Britain’s. He was born in Hong Kong in 1973, and brought up in Malaysia, London and Perthshire; he went to Eton and Oxford. But there was never any question that he is a Scot. One of the most enjoyable passages in the book describes teenage years spent attending Highland dances. ‘I came to recognise men less by their faces than by their sporrans. Duncan had a badger-headed sporran, Charles a white-tasselled, goat-hair sporran, mounted in silver. Mine for a time was a moth-eaten otter…’ He would dance till midnight, Cinderella in a sweaty kilt, and drive home while listening over and over again to a tape of Hugh MacDiarmid reading his poem ‘Wheesht, Wheesht’. People often grumble that politicians have no hinterland; Stewart has so much to spare that he could offer a tenancy to Theresa May, who recently made him minister for international development. A New Yorker profile, in 2010, likened him to Lawrence of Arabia and noted that ‘many people think he’s likely to become Foreign Secretary or even Prime Minister’.
The first and last parts of The Marches, like many a long walk, are its most pleasurable. In between is a slog. The opening section on Hadrian’s Wall – ‘the origin of the idea of Scotland and England’ – has an energy which comes from Stewart’s vivid, at times comic, portrait of his father. Brian Stewart, in his son’s depiction, is a brilliant eccentric, a sort of cartoon laird, all tartan trews and bufferish views, the Selkirk grace and a tot of whisky never far from his lips. They walk together and discuss the Romans. Rory sees parallels everywhere. The life of a prefect on the wall must have been rather like his own experience as a deputy-governor in Iraq, he thinks. Likewise, a Dacian cohort ñ a unit which had originated in what is now Romania but represented the might of Empire for 275 years during the occupation ñ reminds him of his father’s wartime battalion, the Tyneside Scottish, Geordies who felt themselves to be Highlanders.
One senses, too, a deeper likening, mostly unspoken, running through the book ñ the comparison Stewart makes between his father and himself. ‘I was only half conscious of the many ways in which he had modestly concealed how he was better than me,’ is a self-wounding sentence. Elsewhere he reflects that the old man ‘seemed to understand more clearly than me that we were different people’.
As his father tires more easily than they had hoped, Stewart suggests that they abandon their journey along the wall and drive back to Perthshire. In any case, the walk is not illustrating the point he had hoped to make: that there are no real material differences between England and Scotland, that the two countries had ‘richly interwoven’ histories and cultures. ‘But I was more conscious now of fractures, absences and distortions.’ This is typical of Stewart’s writing and world view – an instinctual suspicion of easy conclusions and a willingness to record disappointment, even if his own narrative feels anticlimactic as a result. In The Places In Between, he wrote with approval of the diary kept by Babur, the first Emperor of Mughal India, as he walked across Afghanistan: ‘He does not embroider anecdotes to make them neater, funnier, more personal or more symbolic. Unlike most travel writers, he is honest.’
Such a strategy is admirable, but risks losing the readers, and the long middle section of The Marches is where they are most likely to get lost. Stewart crosses and recrosses the border: at one point, in a piece of impressive stunt reportage, he does so by fording the Solway Firth, up to his waist in salt water, England at his back, Romans on his mind. ‘From the second to the early fifth century AD you could have ridden from modern Iraq through to Belgium, on fine roads, speaking a single language, in a single state, until, here in this brown water, Rome stopped and barbarians began.’
That is a brilliant compression of time and space, but for dozens of pages the book gets bogged down in encounters Stewart has with people he meets along the road. He piles these on, the cairn grows, but doesn’t add up to much. His father’s absence from this second walk is a real loss. A lightness goes with him. He keeps in touch with his son in long emails, asking questions about the walk, and offering a blunt commentary in which he seems to speak for the readers. ‘It’s a bit dull isn’t it?’ he asks at one point. When he travels down to Bewcastle to meet Rory for dinner, one feels his return as a relief. ‘On with the story’, he urges his son, ‘faster and funnier.’ Good advice.
In the book’s final section, The General Danced At Dawn, Stewart’s focus returns to his father. It is the last year of his life and he is going into physical decline. ‘I haven’t got the third part,’ Stewart tells his father on what turns out to be his deathbed. ‘I haven’t got the upbeat part where I bring it all together and come to some kind of conclusion about what kind of country Britain adds up to today.’ Those with a low tolerance for self-reflexivity may cringe at this, but Stewart does, to an extent, manage to pull his different themes together in a moving description of his father’s last moments and funeral. His writing is at its best when he allows himself to be tender and merely descriptive – ‘His long fingers gently stroked mine’ – and doesn’t strain for intellectual effect.
As a state-of-the-nation analysis of Britishness and Scottishness and what it all means, The Marches is a muddled failure. As a life of Brian, written with grief and love, it is a charming, disarming success.