I have been reading Tim Robinson''s Stones Of Aran

Wednesday 10 December 2008 12:05

The astonishing thing about The Stones Or Aran is its intensity. Beautifully, elegantly written, it demands a concentrated imagining of the landscape of Aran in a way that we no longer expect from a book. Ordinarily, a book like this is supplemented with photographs or drawings. This thought occurred to me quite early in my reading but I had to wait until page 210 for a an admission by Robinson that he had thought about and dismissed the idea of including illustrations. The admission comes in a section that discusses the ghosts of kelp-gatherers on the northern shore of the island: ''a photograph resists quotation, adoption into a verbal context by cutting and commentary, more resolutely than does another text. In particular it is only through description and not through physical inclusion that those troubling likenesses of bygone kelpers can people this described shore of mine.''

Robinson has a poet''s sensibility to language, as well as an artist''s eye for telling detail and a navigator''s for space and direction. It is possible to follow him around those weather-beaten shores if one is willing to make the commitment. Following him we discover all our shorelines, our seaboards, our edges and our centres, because the centre is defined by the rim, the absolute edge, and Robinson has charted it for us.

As an example of Robinson''s beautiful style I give you this summary of tectonic plate theory:

''For it is now known that the earth''s crust is made up of fifteen or so contiguous plates, like those of a tortoise shell but more various in size and shape , and that these plates are in continuous motion at rates like an inch a year, bearing the continents and ocean beds with them as comparatively minor irregularities of their surface.... So the geographies over which we are so suicidally passionate are, on this scale of events, fleeting expressions on the earth''s face.''

Robinson''s project is, I think, unique. He weaves together an intense engagement with the physical features of the landscape and its place in the wider landscape of Connemara with a lucid discussion of the science (geology, topography, etc) and an exposition of the relationship between people, their history, both real and imagined, their communal relationships, their mythical past and the everyday experience of living on a remote island off the west coast of a remote island (Ireland).

Robinson is an Englishman, and therefore doubly an outsider to Aran, where even people from the nearby Connemara shore are regarded as foreigners. He is not the first foreigner to fall for Aran, of course: John Synge is his most famous predecessor - he came from Wicklow! Synge''s beautiful masterpiece The Aran Islands may now be downloaded free from Project Gutenberg. But Synge was merely a visitor to Aran. Robinson has lived there since 1979 and must surely be regarded as almost native by now. Certainly, his sympathy with the people and the landscape is intense. His solidarity with their way of life too.

Robinson is a mathematician and an artist by profession, but he also became a map-maker in an attempt to make a living there and has mapped all of Aran and a good deal of Connemara. His elegant map of Aran is included in the text. This is the first book of his that I have read, but it won''t be the last.

Stones of Aran, Tim Robinson, Faber and Faber