Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 09 Oct 2020

The Shining Levels by John Wyatt

After brief stints as a copyboy on The Daily Telegraph and a sub-postmaster, and four-and-a-half years serving as a naval telegraphist during the Second World War, the self-taught writer John Wyatt realised that he would never be satisfied until he found a way to get back to basics, to a simple and austere life as little touched by the modern world as possible, living and working largely outside and in touch with nature. In pursuit of this aim he applied for a job as a ‘forest worker’ and became one of the first rangers in the Lake District. This was in the latter half of the 1960s and his first book, the very lovely The Shining Levels, published in 1973, is his memoir of this time.

On its publication, the publisher described it – more in hope than expectation, one must assume – as Thoreau’s Walden crossed with Laurie Lee’s Cider with Rosie. This rather over-eggs the pudding, but nonetheless contains some truth. The Shining Levels is certainly a charming, lyrical and nostalgic piece of nature writing of a very English kind celebrating a world that we have to a very large degree now lost. (And by this I don’t mean that the Lake District has disappeared but that the possibility and style of Wyatt’s life there has.)

The precise circumstances of Wyatt’s employment are not clear. His employer is referred to only as The Colonel – a local landowner, one assumes – and at this stage, what Wyatt does seems entirely of his own direction. There are no tedious management meetings, no memos, no targets or KPIs. Perhaps in its early stages the Lake District National Park was far less formal – it had only been established in 1951, after all, a dozen years or so before Wyatt began his employment – and consisted mainly of hardy outdoors people and misfits. I’m not sure, and in any case this isn’t really point. The Shining Levels isn’t that kind of book. This is no rather worthy account of the early years of the national parks movement. Indeed, in some respects it is a far stranger book than that – a mix of memoir, lyrical nature writing, cracker-barrel Transcendentalism, even (perhaps) just a slight touch of the kind of enraptured nature mysticism that US writers such as Annie Dillard would popularise in the 1970s. It is both a very simple and unsophisticated book while also being a quietly sophisticated one.

It tells of a few years spent living about as close to nature as it is possible to get – in part in a primitive cabin, and in part in an even more primitive forest bothy of turf and branches. A tiny roe deer is adopted and becomes almost as close a companion as a trusting spaniel might. The seasons turn; the grandeur of the hills and fells are lashed with rain, occasionally blanketed in drifting snow, dappled with fast-moving cloud, lit with the low buttery sunshine of late summer evenings, reduced to the strange lunar monochrome of moonlit nights.

The ‘shining levels’, literally speaking, are the upland lakes viewed from overlooking crags and hilltops. But Wyatt’s repetition of the term – it must appear ten or a dozen times – tells us that it means something else too. It also refers to moments of heightened consciousness – perhaps what Virginia Woolf called ‘moments of being’ – of being fully alive, possessed, one might almost say, by nature and the natural world, and as far from the empty, devouring hurly-burly of mass consumer society as possible. There are three journeys, Wyatt says, “that you can make towards self-knowledge, and to glimpse the immense reality of life – down to the sea, up to the mountains, or into the wilderness. But you must leave as much as possible behind.” The Shining Levels is as much about renunciation as it is about the natural world.

But despite this sense of high purpose, what I like about this book is its modesty. Much of contemporary nature writing has become oddly laboured, as if weighed down by the nobility of its cause. By comparison, Wyatt’s early foray into the genre is light, playful and funny, full of enjoyment. It’s true that here and there Wyatt’s inexperience as a writer slightly lets him down and there are a handful of passages that a more mature writer (or a better editor) would have pruned. But these are quibbles. The book is rich in innocence and for the most part its light, lyrical prose is a pleasure to read.

If you enjoy nature writing or nature-memoirs, then treat yourself to The Shining Levels. For many years the only edition of this book available was a horribly bound Penguin that quickly dried out and fell apart. Now, however, there is a handsome paperback from Little Toller Books. But if you want a real treat, see if you can find a copy of the 1973 first edition published by Geoffrey Bles. As well as a gorgeous watercolour jacket, it has line drawings throughout by Elizabeth Trimby. I rarely hunt down first editions of books, but this is one of the few instances where I have found that the physical loveliness of the book itself truly added to the experience of reading it. In any case, and in whatever form you read it, The Shining Levels is a charming and slightly eccentric addition to English nature-writing. Thoroughly enjoyable.


Alun Severn

October 2020