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A poet finds home in a patch of nettles

6 August 2022

9:00 AM

6 August 2022

9:00 AM

Thunderstone: A True Story of Losing One Home and Discovering Another Nancy Campbell

Elliot & Thompson, pp.223, 14.99

Towards the end of a long relationship – ‘resolved to have a conversation about the Future, which meant Separating’ – Nancy Campbell’s partner suffered a stroke. Campbell’s life then became a hell of hospital visits, supporting and fearing for the brilliant Anna, an intellectual who worked with virus analysts in Moscow, reduced by brain insult and aphasia to a kind of infancy.

Thunderstone is the story of Campbell’s response to this crisis. Her diary extracts jump from Anna’s stroke in 2019 and her slow healing, to Campbell’s own new life, which begins when Anna is strong enough to be encouraged to move on, from June to September 2021.

Campbell is a poet and travel writer, with many friends and contacts. (I met her in 2018 at a nature writing conference in Munich, hosted by Robert Macfarlane, and she once stayed in my flat when I was away, sending by way of thanks an enormous kipper through the post, and bulbs for my son to plant.) But writing has granted her no home, little money and the responsibility for many books. At the hospital coffee machine she meets Sven, who helps her get set up in a caravan in a patch of nettles between a canal and a railway line east of Oxford.

If you have seen or read Jez Butterworth’s play Jerusalemyou will recognise this world and its characters, with an Oxford twist. There is the Assassin, a former ‘paramilitary’ and ‘sort of’ Buddhist, who harbours a gun, a Land Rover and strong feelings for the Oxford comma. Sven is a dab hand with a car battery, being a former biochemistry scholar at CalTech. Aislin is another Oxford genius, according to Sven, who studied physiology before abandoning western medicine for gardening and herbalism. Jack is a thief, who lives on a boat called Bramble and quotes Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet: ‘Comfort is the death of the soul.’ There are surely worse ways for the soul to croak, but amid intensifying global storms and national food bankery, increasing numbers of us are living as these people do, in a barter economy where expertise, gifts, time and hospitality replace cash, and all become shareholders in our neighbourhoods.

Thunderstone makes a perfect handbook for this new world. You could run a creative writing centre or a Forest School on its tips and tricks, with Leonardo da Vinci as your art teacher (making a mess is the way to unlock genius, he says) and Benjamin Franklin (cited by the Assassin) as your head of physics. Campbell quotes a 1752 report on Franklin’s lightning-catching kite: ‘This Kite is to be raised when a Thunder Gust appears to be coming on, and the Person who holds the String must stand within a Door.’

This ‘Person’ is a good avatar for Campbell and her many-splendoured book, which is at once an after-love, ever-loving letter to her ex; a real-time journal to keep herself company and emotionally intact; a worked-over piece of literary art (Campbell writes beautiful prose) and a rich newcomer to the latest and most exciting department of place writing.

Here, women such as Tabitha Lasley, who goes gonzo among the oil workers of Aberdeen in the sublime Sea State, Cal Flyn exploring like a literary and forensic Indiana Jones her Islands of Abandonment and Tamsin Calidas, detonating the alcoholic patriarchies of the Hebrides in I Am an Island, form between them a faculty of bare knuckle and attentive re-seeing and claim-laying. ‘This is a hail of female voices who know they can write anything,’ as Tanya Gold, the first journalist to spot this movement, put it last year. It is a great sport to follow. I relished Campbell’s sidelong humour. Near the canal she comes upon a stoned man and a sober man

engaging in fierce and whirling debate, like two matadors whose bull has slipped away. They round on me like I’m the lost bull. ‘So where does this track lead?’ I ask. ‘And – do I want to go there tonight?’

I was gripped by the story of coming to love a strange place and people (all does not run smoothly; illness and peril stalk Campbell too). Playful questions of authenticity circle books like this – are you writing the diary/doing the journey/risking your neck with publication in mind, you writer? – and readers will appreciate Campbell’s answer. There is a thick bourgeois-bohemian scent in these Oxford nettles (everyone eats well and drinks sophisticatedly), but, then, great teachers do teach by example. I enjoyed heckling the sententious bollocks produced by Campbell’s I Ching app: ‘Know all movement is reinforced by rest’ etc. But I rather fell for her when she types ‘How to fix water heater?’ into it.

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