Last year, I read Thomas Morris’ short story collection We Don’t Know What We’re Doing. It was a book that had been sitting on my shelf for years — when I finally got to it, I berated myself for having left it so long. He is a master of character study, the collection focusing on inhabitants of the small Welsh town of Caerphilly, exploring psychogeography, toxic masculinity and characters as islands desperate for connection. His latest book Open Up was recently published and I have promised that it will not languish on a shelf this time. So, today I pack it in my bag and take it on a walk.
I take the tube to East Finchley, arriving at 8:30am to make the most of the morning before it gets too hot. Turning right, I take the back exit onto The Causeway, winding my way through hedged backstreets, and then cut across the main road to enter Lyttleton Playing Fields. This is one of my favourite walks in north London: a combination of the Capital Ring (which is a 78 mile walk circling London), and the Dollis Valley Greenwalk, which begins further out in Mill Hill. Just past these playing fields, I join Mutton Brook, a tributary of the River Brent, and I love the way it carves a path between the houses, community gardens standing proudly on one side, willow trees draping themselves across the water.
From there, I take the path into the ancient forest of Big Wood, where many dogs are chasing many squirrels, and out to Central Square in Hampstead Garden Suburbs. Two churches stand opposite each other amongst the impressive Neo-Georgian architecture, and I take a seat on a bench to read the beginning of Open Up. The book is made up of five short stories, and it begins with the sentence: "It has been three months since they saw each other, and Gareth wonders if his father will recognise him."
This first story, ‘Wales’, vividly depicts a father-son trip to a football match. The importance Gareth places on this day makes the air feel sticky; as a reader, you desperately hope his father can sense and respect the weight of it. It pinpoints a child’s longed-for magic (‘Gareth nods, absorbs it all. If Wales win tonight, everything will turn out ok.’). It’s all about the bargains we anxiously make with ourselves and the perplexing world around us; the if onlys we whisper under our breath, rehashing and analysing conversations like a play-by-play on Match of the Day. I close the book, wanting to give Gareth a hug.
From Central Square, I walk down onto the Hampstead Heath extension. Less crowded than Hampstead Heath itself, it’s the path I need to take to reach the Hampstead Pergola, a hidden gem that I love taking people to. Heading across Wildwood Road, through more forest, and over North End Way, I enter The Hill Garden. Designed over a hundred years ago by Thomas Mawson, its dilapidated extravagance reminds me of Beauty and the Beast. Fairytale-like, The Pergola, built for Edwardian garden parties and now open free to the public, is covered with roses in the summer, and purple beautyberries in the autumn.
Before heading home, I sit in the Hill Garden and read more of Open Up. The second story in the collection, ‘Aberkariad’ at first feels like a departure for Morris, who mostly writes realist fiction, as it focuses on a family of seahorses. However, this set-up facilitates an interesting discussion on gender roles and parenthood; you soon forget you’re not reading about humans, and the first story haunts this one, looking at father-son relationships from a different perspective. The book continues on in this way, with each story partly informing the next, creating a kaleidoscopic and often claustrophobic landscape of unspoken feelings, fragile relationships and uncertain futures. Perfect for fans of Max Porter, Open Up is funny, heartbreaking, full of sensitivity and nuance, and I love it just as much as his first.
See a map of Jen’s walk, which is approximately four and a half miles, and takes an hour and thirty minutes.
Open Up by Thomas Morris is out now.
Jen Campbell is a bestselling author and disability advocate. She has written twelve books for children and adults, the latest of which is Please Do Not Touch This Exhibit. She also writes for TOAST Book Club.