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When I was a publisher at Faber, I used to negotiate contracts with all kinds of literary agents - good and bad, large and small... One of the most civilised and sympathetic was Jennifer Kavanagh...
I never did much business with Jennifer and wasn't surprised to hear in the 1990s that she had sold up, turned her back on the book world and taken to the road, embarking on a year or more of nomadic wandering. A familiar tale, you might think, of someone setting out to find herself in middle age by taking a year off. The dream of leaving is a powerful one, and a surprisingly large number of people turn to it. What's unusual about Jennifer's story is its resolution.
To cut a long story short, Jennifer Kavanagh has just published The O of Home with O Books...In this inspirational memoir, Kavanagh describes how, through joining the Quakers, she has discovered that:
"Home is not just four walls or the country we were born in. It is not a locked door, an investment, a legal address, or a nation with rigid borders. Home is where the heart is: a yearning for a precious past, a dream of something that has never been, or a present reality. Home is in relationship ... The qualities of home are reflected in the circle (O), an ancient symbol for safety, equality, inclusiveness and eternity. But we will never be at home unless we are at home to ourselves."
Some people will read this and think "new-age claptrap", but they would be wrong. The O of Home, which reached me just before the turn of the year, is a remarkably honest, unpretentious, clear-eyed account of a courageous woman getting rid of her worldly goods, and a lot of emotional baggage, and finding a new and exhilarating freedom. There are chapters about old age, death, displacement and homelessness: the whole is knitted together by the author's voyage of self-discovery. In the process of telling her story, Kavanagh also describes the lives of people she has encountered on her wanderings.
This, I cannot stress too strongly, isn't my usual kind of reading, but I was touched by it, and as I began to think about its message - a timely one for the season of good resolutions and fresh starts - my thoughts turned to its antecedents. Kavanagh is writing in the tradition that starts with that American classic Walden by Henry David Thoreau.
The inspiration for Thoreau was much more political and contemporary, and was more fully a protest against aspects of the evolving American republic, but the Quaker side of Kavanagh's book touches Thoreau's ideas at several illuminating points...
It's a nice reminder that inspiration, like comment, is free - and can be liberating.
Happy new year. --Robert McCrum, Guardian blog