A couple of days ago I noticed that Ian McEwan’s new novel Solar will be published on March 18th. I’ve really been looking forward to reading it. Since being astounded by The Cement Garden twenty-odd years ago, I’ll generally go out and get a copy of his latest novel when it hits the shelves. I’m all the keener to read Solar after being at a reading Mr McEwan gave from the work in progress at Inverie village hall on the Knoydart peninsula last May. He was giving a reading as part of a series of events to mark the tenth anniversary of the creation of the Knoydart Foundation – which bought the Knoydart Estate to work on behalf of the community in 1999. By sheer good fortune I was on Knoydart with a group of friends for a few days’ walking and noticed a photocopied sheet announcing the event tacked up at Inverie’s very low-key campsite.
The reading took place on the third night of our stay. During the preceding days, we had undertaken two epic walks in wildly contrasting conditions. The first day we walked a very long route over Ladhar Bheinn, walking in from Glean an Dubh-Lochain and returning through Glean na Guiserein. The weather was windy, but dry and fast-moving broken cloud formations made for wonderful changing light on the massive landscape of hills and lochs around us. The following day it tipped down, and visibility was really poor. We climbed Meall Buidhe by a difficult route from the saddle of Mam Meadail, had no view at the top and had real difficulty finding our route off the hill. We were all pretty damp by the time we got back to the campsite. The ups and downs of hill-walking – so to speak.
Anyway, on the third night we wandered down the single-track road from the campsite to the village hall for the reading. By the time we took our seats, the hall was pretty full; there were perhaps thirty of us in the audience in all. Ian McEwan told us how much he liked visiting Knoydart and that he was glad to be able to contribute to the Foundation by giving a reading. The extract from the novel was principally concerned with the contentious consumption of a bag of crisps by the novel’s main character while he is on a train journey. I doubt that the business of eating crisps has ever been dealt with so forensically in a work of fiction before now.
The context of Solar is the threat to the planet presented by climate change and against this backdrop the narrative follows the novel’s ambitious and self-deceiving protagonist:
Michael Beard is in his late fifties; bald, overweight, unprepossessing – a Nobel prize-winning physicist whose best work is behind him. Trading on his reputation, he speaks for enormous fees, lends his name to the letterheads of renowned scientific institutions and half-heartedly heads a government-backed initiative tackling global warming. An inveterate philanderer, Beard finds his fifth marriage floundering. When Beard’s professional and personal worlds are entwined in a freak accident, an opportunity presents itself, a chance for Beard to extricate himself from his marital mess, reinvigorate his career and very possibly save the world from environmental disaster.
After the reading, Mr McEwan fielded lots of questions about his work, education (he studied at Sussex University, where I spent seven years!) and the adaptations of his novels for film. My friend Andy – who pops up on these pages with jack-in-the-box frequency, asked what the author’s favourite flavour crisps were. Salt n’ vinegar. A man of taste and discernment, I feel. Anyway, after the Q and A session, there was a book signing and we had the opportunity for a bit of a chat with Mr McEwan. Andy got him on to the subject of Knoydart’s hills and it turns out that our author is fond of hill-walking and he happily chatted about his favourite route up Ladhar Bheinn – from Barrisdale Bay on Loch Hourn.
In conclusion, I have to say that my admiration for Ian McEwan was deepened by the knowledge that he’s a hill-walking, salt n’ vinegar crisp-eating graduate of Sussex University.
For information about Knoydart peninsula and the Knoydart Foundation, visit: www.knoydart-foundation.com