Tuesday, 25 October 2016

NIGEL: My family and other dogs, by Monty Don

I know that a lot of the people who read this blog are in America - so I'm guessing you probably won't have heard of a gardening presenter and writer we have over here called Monty Don. He heads up a weekly programme called Gardeners' World. It gives topical advice, and there are items about interesting gardens all over Britain, from tiny London plots to gorgeous stately homes: but at the centre is Monty's own garden in rural Herefordshire - Longmeadow.

It's a beautiful garden, divided into various sections. There's the Jewel Garden, full of brilliant colour; there's the Dry Garden, which is dry because it was created on top of a courtyard, there's a vegetable garden; there's a pond and an orchard and a mound created from a pile of spoil, now a vantage point where Monty and co can sit and watch the sunset with a glass of wine. And there's a potting shed, of course.

Monty is the centre of the programme, of course. But over recent years, the true star has turned out to be not Monty, but his dog, Nigel: a charismatic golden retriever who steals every scene. As Monty says:

When we are filming it is uncanny how he will always find just the one position where the combination of sunlight, flowers, the whole composition of the scene - about which he cannot possibly have the slightest notion - all come together to work perfectly around him.

And so now Monty has written a book about him. But it's not just about Nigel. Monty has always had dogs, and here he writes about many of them. As he does so, he tells us quite a bit about his life, and particularly about Longmeadow. But the focus is the dogs, and his relationship with them. It's full of a sort of calm wisdom, and in a completely un-pushy sort of way, he passes on advice about how to live with dogs (and how to deal with the pain when the time comes when you must part with them). He's gentle but unsentimental, amusing and kind. It's a delight to be in his company as you wander through the book, following Nigel as he hunts out tennis balls, swims in flooded fields and flops down close to wherever Monty is working.

If you're interested in gardening and in dogs, this is a book you will thoroughly enjoy. Or it would make a perfect Christmas present for the right person. Reading it is like spending time in that sunshiny garden - without having to do any of the work!

Sunday, 16 October 2016

There is a post elsewhere...

Two posts from me elsewhere today: this one is over on The History Girls, and is about a wonderful visit a few days ago to Athelney (where Alfred undoubtedly burnt the cakes)  - to see this, click here.

The other is a review of The Wolf Wilder, a magical children's book by Katherine Rundell - that's here.

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

The book I wish I could have written...

(This is a second outing for this post, which first appeared on An Awfully Big Blog Adventure yesterday.)

Last Christmas, I was lucky enough to be given a very generous book token, and I've had a very jolly time choosing books that have caught my eye from my local Waterstones, in Wells. One of the first was a book by Marcus Sedgwick, called The Ghosts of Heaven. He's an author I admire, and I think this book was shortlisted for the Carnegie, so it was an easy choice.

However, when it came to the top of the pile and I opened it, ready to plunge into a good story, I found that it was written in verse. To my shame, I decided that this made it 'difficult', and I wanted something at that time that didn't require a lot of effort. So it went back on the pile, and I only picked it up again a few weeks ago.

And it was the strangest experience. Because as soon as I opened it, I saw a drawing - a line which traced a spiral. Why was that strange? Because ever since I can remember, when I've doodled, in lessons or lectures or boring meetings, the spiral is one of my go-to doodles. If you look in any of my notebooks or old exercise books, you'll see it (along with swans, trees, faces, and abstract, cross-hatched scribbles). You have to concentrate hard to do a perfect spiral; it very easily goes astray, because it's difficult to keep the distance between the lines even. So it focuses the mind - though possibly not on what it's supposed to be focused on.

There is a mathematical way to create a spiral, and the spirals which illustrate The Ghosts of Heaven probably used it. You have to use the Fibonacci sequence. This is a mathematical concept - I am terrible at maths, and so I'm not going to try to explain this here; just google it, and you'll get a much better explanation than I can give you. But it's all tied up with proportions and patterns that appear in nature: you see it in a snail shell, an ammonite, the curled up frond of an emerging fern. And it's central to this book.

So that was the first thing. The second thing was that as I read, I realised that the first section of the book is set thousands of years back in pre-history, in the time when our ancestors made beautiful paintings in caves. Now - three years ago, I was in France. About half an hour from Cahors, there is a cave called Pech Merle. It's one of the very few painted caves which the public are still allowed to visit. I was fascinated, of course, by the engravings and paintings of bison, deer, horses, aurochs and so on, with their extraordinary economy of line and clever use of the natural form of the rock face.

But I was truly moved by the hand prints, like this one. They looked so fresh; they could have been made yesterday. It was so easy to imagine someone - probably a woman or a child, because the prints were quite small - placing their hand on the rock, blowing the ochre from a thin pipe to make a negative imprint - then standing back to see this mark that they had made, smiling with pride, telling the others to come and see. They created a vital connection which threw a bridge across 24,000 years.

I kept thinking about those hand prints. I tried to write a story which would incorporate them, but it didn't work, so I abandoned it. Then, recently, I thought of another, very different way I might be able to use them. I'm working on that now, and I'm a little bit hopeful.

But Marcus Sedgewick has done what I tried to do in that first version - and done it triumphantly. He has incorporated spirals, and cave painting, and hand prints: and he's solved a lot of the problems I came across - and solved them so cleverly, so elegantly. Problems such as what kind of language you use to express the thoughts of these early people; what the purpose of the paintings may have been. He's done what I couldn't do. (So it's a good job I'm trying to do something quite different now.)

This isn't a review - there would be a lot more to be said about Marcus's book if it was. But it's about that feeling - when the knowledge uncurls, like the line of a spiral, that someone has already written the book that you really wish you could have written. I've never felt that before. It's the oddest sensation, it really is. Like meeting a doppelganger, a person who, impossibly, looks exactly like yourself. It's unnerving, and just a tiny bit sinister.

Sunday, 4 September 2016

East West Street, by Philippe Sands

The tag line on the cover of this book is:


Now, I have a friend who gets restless when talk turns to the two world wars. ‘Why must people keep re-living the past?’ she wonders. ‘Isn’t it time to let it go?’ And my father, who was a prisoner of war from Dunkirk right the way through to 1945, had a similar attitude. When there were programmes around Remembrance Day, he too would ask: ‘Why must we keep remembering? Why can’t we just forget it all?’

(Dad actually did throw some light on this, when I asked him why it was that a contemporary and good friend of his, in contrast, regularly went to regimental reunions and loved reminiscing about his days in North Africa and then in Italy. ‘Ah,’ said Dad. ‘Well, Harold had a good war. Me, you see, I just had an ordinary war.’)

When I was a child, the Second World War was only a few years in the past. But to me then, it could have been centuries ago. It was gone, over: it belonged to my parents’ generation, not mine – just as the First World War was to do with my grandparents’ generation. To be sure, I thought that when I grew up, there would be probably be another war – that must just be what happened – but being grown-up was a very, very long way off so it wasn’t something I needed to worry about then.
But in recent years I’ve become more and more drawn to books about the Second World War and the lead-up to it, and I’m clearly not alone – there are masses of them, both fiction and non-fiction: what we think we know and understand is being constantly re-evaluated. I think the two big questions that draw me are:
  1. How did ordinary people cope with the terrible things that happened to them – with all the loss and destruction?
  2. In the particular context of the Holocaust - how on earth did human beings find it within themselves to treat other human beings with such unimaginable cruelty?
So when I saw the tag line on the front of East West Street, I thought it would be addressing the second of these questions. Well, it doesn’t - or at least, that's not its main purpose. It sets out to do something much more specific. Philippe Sands is an international lawyer, and what he seeks to do is to explore the origins of these two legal concepts: genocide, and crimes against humanity.

He does this by tracing the lives and careers of two of the prosecutors at Nuremberg, where Nazi war criminals were put on trial after the war: Hersch Lauterpacht and Rafael Lemkin. Another significant figure is Hans Frank, Hitler’s personal lawyer and the Governor-General of Nazi-occupied Poland; he was one of the men on trial at Nuremberg in 1946. 

There are several strange twists of fate in this story. One is that both prosecutors – who were far from being friends, and seem in fact to have had as little to do with each other as they could manage – came from the same city, which is now known as Lviv and is in the Ukraine, but has changed hands and names several times: in the war it was known as Lemberg. Further, near the end of the trial, the two men – both Jewish – discovered that most of their family members who had remained in the city were dead; and the man who had given the orders which led to their deaths was Frank.

And yet another twist, another thread that binds together the different elements of the story: the author’s own grandfather, Léon Buchholz, was also born in Lemberg/Lviv, at roughly the same time as the two lawyers. Sands knew little of his family’s history. His interest was aroused when, as a human rights lawyer with expertise in cases of mass killings in far too many places, he was asked to deliver a lecture in Lviv. While there, he saw the chance to find out more about his own family. His researches also led him to explore the origins of these new and terrible concepts which had formed the basis for his own career – and the lives of his grandfather’s two compatriots. (Another intriguing twist is that during his research for this book, Sands became good friends with Frank's son.)

It’s an extraordinarily complex narrative, and I found that there were times when I lost the thread and became confused as to which family I was reading about. But it’s fascinating – if challenging – to try to grasp the legal framework which allowed Germany in the thirties to treat (or mistreat) its minorities in whatever way it liked with apparent impunity; part, after all, of one of those questions I asked at the beginning. It doesn’t explain how sane men from a country with a great culture and civilisation could come up with the hideousness of the Final Solution, or how so many others could find it within themselves to carry it out: but it does go some way to explaining how the circumstances arose which made such a thing possible.

I like stories, and I like to look at history through the lives of ordinary people – that’s why I particularly enjoyed Thomas Harding’s book, The House by the Lake. For me, this book followed too many stories and demanded too much close reading: it’s a truly remarkable achievement, but you’ll need to be able to rise to the challenge and be prepared for some serious concentration (or, if you’re a lightweight like me, to be prepared to skip bits!).

Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Summer's end

And what a strange summer it's been here in the UK since the referendum result. Tempers seem to be heightened, everyone's suspicious of everyone else's motives, plots are suspected round every corner... but since the extraordinary round of political back-stabbing and resignations at the end of June, nothing much has happened: there's been a sort of a brooding lull over the summer.

Well, that's all as maybe and there are stirrings in the undergrowth which suggest that the uneasy peace will soon be at an end. But meanwhile, here on the Mendips, the seasons roll on as they always do. The sloes and hawthorn berries seem very abundant this year, and there are lots of blackberries too, though they're a but puny and sour so far. Here are a few pictures - I've played about with a couple of them!

This is a view of the reservoir from Roundhouse Hill. I found this option called 'Posterise' ...
Sloes and blackberries.

Ragwort - it's an ugly name, and it can do ugly things to cattle or horses. But it creates a bright splash of gold in an otherwise tired-looking hillside.
 Old man's beard is apparently also poisonous - though it usually isn't eaten. Plus, it chokes other plants. (Is there a bit of a theme developing here?) But the seed heads are lovely - feathery and graceful, gleaming when they catch the light.

A convolvulus flower. I hate this plant in the garden. The flowers are beautiful, but the plant's another thug. It wasn't a very good picture - it was windy, and I was holding onto the dog with one hand, so there was wobble - so I tried to enhance it. I hoped the finished result had a touch of the Georgia O'Keefe's, but I think I was kidding myself.

 Next time, back to books!

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Fingers in the Sparkle Jar, by Chris Packham

Chris Packham is on the right
For readers in other countries, Chris Packham is a very popular presenter of programmes about nature in the UK. When my children were young, in the 80s, he fronted The Really Wild Show - with Nicola Davies, amongst others, who's since become a very successful children's author. More recently, he's been presenting Springwatch/Autumnwatch, when all the BBC's outside broadcasting capability decamps to a reserve somewhere and for three weeks, Chris and his co-presenters investigate what's happening in the natural world. The highlights are too many to mention - the horror stories include the revelation that in times of hardship, the strongest owl chicks in a nest will eat their younger siblings. The nation watched and recoiled in shock - but Chris calmly put it into context: in the wild, you do what you have to do to survive. The mother owl had been unable to find enough food for her chicks because of exceptionally wet weather, and it was a case of one chick surviving, or none of them.

He is completely unsentimental, but he waxes lyrical about some pretty strange things - he's very keen on animal droppings, for instance - and will always stand up for creatures that most people revile, such as - off the top of my head - slugs, for instance, pointing out the beautiful complexity of their life cycle. And he's a fearless campaigner; he was arrested in Malta when he went there to publicise the number of songbirds killed there by hunters; and he's under fire at the moment from Sir Ian Botham, among others, for protesting the futility of grouse hunting.

Recently he wrote this memoir, Fingers in the Sparkle Jar, which shows very clearly how he came to hold the views he does. A child of the sixties and early seventies, his story echoes that of Billy Casper, in Barry Hines' wonderful book, Kes, about a working class boy who catches and trains a kestrel. Like Billy, Chris as a boy has a profound empathy with the natural world. In Kes there's a bit where Billy describes the sensation of putting his foot into a welly full of tadpoles - the boy Chris does some very similar things: the 'sparkle jar' incident of the title has something in common with that incident.

But this isn't a book 'like' Kes. In fact, it's not a book like any other I've ever read. It is a series of memories, not related chronologically, interspersed with accounts of sessions with a psychiatrist/psychologist whom Chris saw ten or so years ago, when he was suffering from a crippling episode of repression. I don't know how he wrote these - how did he remember everything they talked about? Or is it an approximation of what they said - a way of exploring his inner being, rather than an accurate representation of what was said? Whatever - these sections cast a light on his
memories of his childhood, and vice versa.

The writing is extraordinary, rich and lyrical and full of a 'passionate intensity', to lift from Yeats, who, like Bruce Springsteen and Shakespeare, seems to have a quote for almost every occasion. Here, for example, is his summation of an incident where he came across a cloud of moths in a wood.

Without the restless insects the place seemed stunned, stupefied, shocked by that ballet of gossamer violence, the wonder of plain and simple things drawn together to conjure such beauty, transforming that bubble of urban air into a theatre where an astonishing performance was fleetingly played to an awed audience of one, the memory of which would sparkle for a lifetime. And he knew it then, in that moment of dazed happiness, what a gift, what a thing he had seen, what a treasure he held.

It's not the easiest of reads, but it is immensely rewarding, on several different levels: notably in its minute and loving observation of the natural world - but also in its evocation of the world of a sensitive, driven, bemused boy who finds it much easier to relate to creatures than to human beings.

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

The growth of a book - from the germ of an idea to 'The Things You Do For Love' - by Rachel Crowther

I'm very pleased to be introducing my very first blog tourist - Rachel Crowther. Rachel's thoughtful and highly enjoyable novel, published by Bonnier Zaffre, is about a woman at a turning point: a highly successful surgeon, Flora Macintyre loses her career and her marriage at the same time, after she retires to nurse her husband through his final illness. The book is about how she - and her two daughters - negotiate the next part of their lives, and in so doing find they must also come to terms with the past. 

I'll be reviewing it soon, but in the meantime, here's Rachel on what inspired her book.

A long time ago (writes Rachel), when I had a small baby, a job as a hospital doctor and a few thousand words of a novel that I’d written on maternity leave, I had the wonderful good fortune of meeting Fay Weldon – an idol, both then and now. To my embarrassment, the journalist friend who took me with her as chauffeur told Fay about the embryonic novel, and among many words of wisdom I’ve treasured from that occasion was her pronouncement that it’s hard to manage more than two out of three things – work, babies and writing – at a time.

Since then, often struggling to manage even one thing properly, I’ve regularly been astonished by quite how much many women juggle – but I’ve also been very much aware of the cost. Guilt, maybe. A belief that they are not good mothers, or good doctors, or good wives or daughters or friends or sisters. Having no time to themselves, to think or read or sleep, let alone write. Marriages that are perhaps complicated by their success, or at least their preoccupation with careers in which they have to fight harder than their male colleagues to succeed.

As the women I’d looked up to and admired in my twenties and thirties approached retirement age, I began to wonder what it would feel like for them to let all the plates they’d been juggling all these years fall to the ground. There was an influential and hugely energetic consultant I’d worked for as a junior doctor who very sadly died on a mountain climbing expedition around the time she was due to retire, and I was haunted by the thought of what she might have done in retirement: whether she’d have had as busy and fulfilling a time after stopping work, or whether she’d have found it hard, having invested so much in her career, to manage her life without it. Then my aunt, a lawyer who had sustained a brilliant career for several decades while her children were growing up, retired early – and almost immediately seemed just as busy again, and in particular blissfully happy to be a granny.

As writers do, I started thinking not just about real-life examples, but ‘what ifs’. What if a woman who’d made it in a truly male-dominated world – surgery, for instance – had done so partly thanks to the support of a husband who had driven a hard bargain in return? What if she found herself retired and widowed at more or less the same time, so that she lost her career and her marriage at the same time? What if she actually gave up work to nurse her faithless husband through his last illness – and why might she do that, pray? What if, after he died, she realised she’d lost sight of her daughters, and that she had no interests, no hobbies, no friends – absolutely nothing to fall back on?

Rachel Crowther
(Photo:Roger Smeeton)
That was the beginning of ‘The Things We Do For Love’. I actually started with a line constructed as a sort of pastiche of the famous opening of Jane Austen’s Emma: Flora Macintyre, retired, widowed and entirely without occupation, had nearly twenty-five years of life expectancy left to her and very little idea what to do with it.

As novels do, ‘The Things We Do For Love’ took a circuitous route from that first germ of an idea to the finished article. For a while it was going to be a pair of novels, one from Flora’s point of view and one from her daughters’, rather like Jane Gardam’s Old Filth novels or Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead series. At various points there were three daughters rather than two, a literary festival in France with a fully fledged organising committee, a medical crisis in a French hospital – and the shadowy woman Flora meets on a cross-channel ferry in the first chapter reappeared several more times throughout the book. Quite near the end of the editing process, Kitty’s second-string boyfriend was cut, events were reordered, relationships were subtly reshaped.

But the basic premise stayed the same through all this, and it remains the driving force for the novel. What price had Flora paid for her success, and what exactly was the final reckoning she’d been left to face? How was she to rebuild her life when so many things had gone from it? Had she, as she believed, failed as a mother and lost her daughters for good? What had become of the things she’d done for love?

Rachel's website is hereFor more dates on her blog tour, please see below.