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

Nancy Campbell

Elliot and Thompsonp. 223£14.99

Towards the end of a long relationship – “resolved to have a conversation about the future, which meant breaking up” – 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 damage and aphasia to some kind of childhood.

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

Campbell is a traveling poet and 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 a huge thank you kipper in the mail and bulbs to plant for my son.) But writing granted him no house, little money, and responsibility for many books. At the hospital coffee machine, she meets Sven, who helps her settle into a trailer 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 Jerusalem
you will recognize this world and its characters, with a touch of Oxford. There’s the Assassin, a former “paramilitary” and “sort of” Buddhist, who harbors a gun, a Land Rover and strong feelings for the Oxford comma. Sven is a good helping hand with a car battery, being a former biochemistry researcher 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 ship called Bramble and quotes Khalil Gibran The Prophet: ‘Comfort is the death of the soul.’ Surely there are worse ways for the soul to croak, but amid intensifying global storms and the national food bank, more and more of us are living like these folks, in a barter economy where expertise, gifts, time and hospitality replace money, and everything becomes shareholders in our neighborhoods.

Thunderstone makes a perfect manual for this new world. You could run a creative writing center or forestry school on his tips and tricks, with Leonardo da Vinci as your art teacher (messing up is the way to unlock genius, he says) and Benjamin Franklin (quoted by the Assassin) as your head of physics. Campbell cites a 1752 report of Franklin’s lightning-catching kite: “This kite should be hoisted when a gust of thunder seems to be coming, and the person holding the string should stand within it. ‘a door.”

This “person” is a good avatar for Campbell and his book of many splendours, which is both an after-love and still loving letter to his ex; a real-time diary to keep each other company and emotionally intact; a labored work of literary art (Campbell writes beautiful prose) and a wealthy newcomer to the newest and most exciting department of place writing.

Here, women like Tabitha Lasley, who goes gonzo among Aberdeen oil workers in the sublime sea ​​stateCal Flyn exploring it like a literary and forensic Indiana Jones Islands of Abandonment and Tamsin Calidas, exploding the alcoholic patriarchates of the Hebrides into I am an island, form between them a faculty of naked and attentive articulation to re-examine and to claim. “It’s a hail of female voices who know they can write anything,” said Tanya Gold, the first journalist to spot the movement, last year. It’s a great sport to follow. I savored Campbell’s oblique humor. By the canal she comes across a stoned man and a sober man

engage in fierce, whirling debate, like two matadors whose bull has slipped away. They circle around me like I’m the lost bull. “So where does this lead lead? ” I ask. “And – do I want to go tonight?”

I was gripped by the story of coming to love a strange place and people (all is not smooth; sickness and peril also stalk Campbell). Playful questions of authenticity surround books like this – do you write the journal/do you take the trip/are you risking your neck thinking about publication, you writer? — and readers will appreciate Campbell’s response. There is a thick bourgeois-bohemian flavor in these Oxford nettles (everyone eats well and drinks with refinement), but then the great teachers teach by example. I enjoyed heckling the savvy bullshit produced by Campbell’s I Ching app: “Know that all movement is enhanced by rest,” etc. But I rather fell in love with her when she types “How to fix the water heater?” in it.