Friday, 30 October 2020

A Claxton Diary, by Mark Cocker

 If there's one thing that the lockdown reminded many of us, it's that nature is immensely important to us. For reasons that should be obvious, but also because a close relationship with nature soothes us, calms us - heals us.

I'm not suggesting you should use this book as a substitute for a walk in the woods or a spell in the garden - but it can reinforce the real thing by providing you with a regular, beautifully crafted little dose of the natural world by a writer who has observed it closely and intently for many years. To quote the book cover:

"For seventeen years as part of his daily routine the author and naturalist Mark Cocker has taken a two-mile walk to the river from his cottage on the edge of the Norfolk Broads National Park. Over the course of those 10,000 daily paces he has learnt the art of patience to observe a butterfly, bird, flower, bee deer, otter or fly and to take pleasure in all the other inhabitants of his parish no matter how seemingly insignificant."

This book contains a collection of these observations - mostly but not exclusively from Norfolk - in the form of a diary which takes us through a year's seasons. The author observes meticulously, and describes with exactitude - but he also has a huge amount of background knowledge with which to contextualise his observations.

A particular favourite of mine is the entry for 18th September 2014, and it will serve as an example. It's about swallows. He begins with a single swallow, perched on a wire. "It looks cute, but that enamel-blue bird is made of something tougher than steel. Very soon it will follow its instincts south over the English Channel, down through France and Spain and across the Straits of Gibralter. In a single non-stop odyssey it will then traverse the greatest desert on Earth."

He goes on to discuss the swallow's migratory journey in more detail, and to reflect on its symbolic resonance - the significance of its blue colour, and what that stands for in various contexts; the reason why Estonia recently chose the swallow as a national emblem; what its changing distribution tells us about climate change. But he ends with this: "We should cherish swallows for what they gift to us and for what they tell us about ourselves."

So what does this book gift to us? Well, it provides us with a few minutes of peace and focus on the natural world, in a day which at the moment is likely to feature too much dark news, too much to worry about and to fear. It shows us - or reminds us - how to look, and how each part of nature - including ourselves - is inextricably entwined in a vast and extraordinary whole.

It teaches us, perhaps, the value of stillness.

Saturday, 24 October 2020

The Wild Silence, by Raynor Winn

 This book is a sequel to The Salt Path, which I reviewed here. That was the story of how Raynor Winn and her husband Moth, in their fifties, lost everything after a dispute with someone who had been a lifelong friend over investments: they had to walk out of their beloved Welsh farmhouse with virtually nothing. On top of that, Moth was diagnosed with a cruel terminal disease, corticobasal degeneration, or CBD; he had about two years, they were told.

There are many things that emerge from The Salt Path and its successor, The Wild Silence. But one of the main elements is the rock-solid relationship between Raynor and Moth. So when they found themselves in this terrible situation, the one thing Raynor was not going to do was to simply accept the diagnosis and the doctor's advice - which was to avoid all strain and rest as much as possible.

Another element - which is explored even more thoroughly in this second book - is Raynor's profound connection with the land, with nature. Brought up on a farm, shy with other people, nature is her solace and her inspiration. So perhaps it wasn't surprising that she should turn to nature for relief. She suggested that, against all the dictates of caution and common sense, they should take to the wild and walk the South-West Coastal Path - despite the fact that Moth could hardly walk and would have trouble carrying a pack. (In any case, they had so little money to buy food or any other necessities that their packs must have been relatively - but only relatively - light.)

And it worked. They had an extraordinary journey, which resulted not in a miracle cure, but certainly in an improvement in Moth's condition. And at the end of it, a stranger offered them a refuge - a flat in Polruan, where they could live while Moth did a degree in sustainable agriculture, which he hoped would then bring him emploment.

This is where the second book picks up the story.

Often, a sequel is a rather paler version of the book it follows. That is not the case here. It seems to me that Raynor has gained confidence in her writing - not surprisingly, considering the huge success of The Salt Path. She writes absolutely beautifully in this book, and very effectively investigates subtle and complex ideas and emotions - as well, of course, as providing rich and evocative descriptions of nature.

The structure of the book is complex. She is exploring different aspects and periods of her life simultaneously; in the first section she is taking care of her mother, who has been taken to hospital following a stroke. Alongside this we find that she and Moth are still, three years later, in Polruan, and that Moth, despite increasing weakness, is nearing completion of his degree - whereas Raynor has become increasingly reclusive and anxious about meeting people. She has to make a terrible decision about her mother's care, and, staying in her mother's cottage, memories come back to her of her childhood. We begin to see that her current state is rooted in the past, and we find out how she met Moth, and how their relationship developed.

Later, she describes how the writing of The Salt Path came about. In the beginning, she knows nothing about publishing and has no expectations of success - she is writing about their extraordinary journey in order to capture it for Moth, who, to her dismay, is losing his memories of it. But of course it does become a success, and this leads to a new phase of their lives, when a wealthy businessman asks the two of them to take care of a farm he has bought, which is exhausted from intensive farming and almost devoid of wildlife. He wants them to bring it back to life, to re-nature it. At first, they are doubtful: the house is a damp and crumbling wreck, the farm will take a lot of work to enable the land to recover. But, never able to resist a challenge, they take it on.

In the last section of the book, they decide to undertake another ambitious walk: Moth is getting weaker, and they are convinced that what he needs, as before, is to literally and metaphorically stretch himself.

So they go to Iceland, with their friends Dave and Julie, whom they met on their first walk. They only have two weeks, which unfortunately fall at the end of the Icelandic summer and at the beginning of its fierce winter. Crazy? Well, perhaps - but when did that ever stop them?

Here is an example of Raynor's writing. She is describing the process of writing, of reliving, the coastal walk.

I stood in the dim evening light, faced the wall and spread my arms wide and the rain came stinging on gale-force winds, pounding my face, battering the rucksack. Winds roaring through granite-block cliffs, hurling crows through wild grey skies.

Here's another:

The soft rain became vertical rods of connection between land and sky, drops bouncing from the river with the force of a pebble, leaving ripples expanding and reflecting.


Thursday, 8 October 2020

Mr Keynes' Revolution, by E J Barnes

I have just finished reading this book, which is a novel about the influential economist  J Maynard Keynes. I thoroughly enjoyed it and am only sorry it came to an end when it did - I gather there will be a sequel, and I'll certainly be buying that. 

Keynes was a member of the Bloomsbury Group - Virginia Woolf, her sister Vanessa Bell, Bunny Garnett, Duncan Grant and co. Known for their interesting private lives as well as for their writing and painting, they have often been the subject of films and TV programmes. Keynes was a central figure - and financially a godsend to the others, but he is a fairly shadowy figure in accounts of the group. This is surprising when, as this book does, you look at his life. He was a hugely influential economist, but he too had a colourful private life. He was happily gay until, all of a sudden, he watched a Russian ballerina dancing across the stage as the Lilac Fairy - and suddenly, he was not. Despite practical obstacles (Lydia turned out to be already married, although, fortunately, to a bigamist) and the opposition of some of his friends, he married her - and the marriage, on the evidence of this book, looks like being a happy one.

I don't know anything about economics, but the author doesn't shy away from the subject, and clearly explains the issues with which Keynes grappled. (In her note at the end of the book, she reveals that she studied economics at Cambridge, so that's perhaps not surprising.) But she also makes him come alive as a man, revealing his intelligence, his directness, his loyalty to his friends, and his charisma. Lydia, too is brought to life: practical, down-to-earth, warm, funny. There are a whole array of other characters who also tread the boards, and I look forward to meeting them again in the next volume.

Recommended for people who, like myself, enjoy Jane Thynne's books, which are set in the next decade in Germany - and for anyone with an interest in the Bloomsbury Group, in economics, or generally in that period between the wars which, with hindsight, seems full of doomed gaiety.

Saturday, 12 September 2020

Hamnet, by Maggie O'Farrell

 It was announced that Hamnet had won the Women's Prize for Fiction just after I had finished reading it. I haven't read any of the other books on the shortlist, but nonetheless, I'm sure that it's an absolutely worthy winner - it's a marvellous book.

I actually bought the book a month or so ago, but it took a while before I could bring myself to read it. Why so? Well, Hamlet is my favourite Shakespeare play by quite a margin. I taught it for A-level many times, and I've seen several productions, so I know it well. (The best was with Kenneth Branagh as the prince many years ago at Stratford; he managed to speak the verse as if it was the natural language of speech, while at the same time losing none of the poetry - quite brilliant.) There are many lines in it that I love, but there's something about the overall tone of it that really moves me: elegiac, desperately sad.

When I was teaching Shakespeare, I had some notes that I'd written about Shakespeare's life and times which I used to give out as an introduction: it seemed to me that students needed to know where Shakespeare was coming from - literally and metaphorically - in order to be able to understand the verse. So I knew about his life: I knew about Hamnet, his son. 

Then, a few years ago, I was asked to write a book about his life and times for schoolchildren, so I read up on it again. I was amazed at how few actual facts are known about him - even the generally accepted dates given for his life and death are, to an extent, guesswork. But the death of his son at the age of eleven is known, though not the cause of his death. And I noticed, as who could not, that his death was followed not long afterwards by the play with the very similar name; spelling was notoriously a matter of choice, and the similarity was too close to be missed - though the play is based on an old story of a Danish prince with a similar name again, Amleth.

So - I knew that Hamnet was going to be about the death of Shakespeare's son. I knew it was going to hurt, and it does. But the way that Maggie O'Farrell tells the story is really so clever, and so beautifully done, that it's worth the pain of reading about the death of a child.

At the centre, it's about the strange marriage of Shakespeare and his wife, normally known to us as Anne Hathaway, though here called Agnes - perhaps to make us see her afresh. Again, little is known about Anne or about their marriage: mainly that she was several years older than him; that they spent much of their married life apart, he in London and she in Stratford; that they had three children, Susannah and the twins, Hamnet and Judith; and that in his will he left her his 'second-best bed', which has occasioned some discussion.

So Maggie O'Farrell has a lot of leeway. She uses it to create in Agnes a rich, complex character: an unusual woman with a knowledge of medicinal herbs and a mysterious ability to see the future. She and Will - who is never actually named in the book - are very much in love. But she knows, though it hurts her deeply, that his destiny is in London, not in Stratford.

We meet Hamnet straight away. Initially, it is his sister, Judith, who is ill. But with our foreknowledge, we can see that what ails her is the plague, and we know that Hamnet is the one who dies - so even as we warm to this kind and gentle boy, we know that he doesn't have long left. He searches for someone to help his sister, but can't find his mother - the only person around is his abusive grandfather.

The focus then switches to Agnes, who is out gathering herbs. We learn through flashbacks the story of her relationship with Will, touching down from time to time with Hamnet and Judith back in Stratford. It's heartbreaking and rivetting. When Hamnet dies, and Will returns, she cannot believe it when he tells her he will return almost straight away to London: she is understandably furious with him. The way that Maggie O'Farrell resolves this, through the medium of the play, Hamlet, is a quite extraordinary piece of writing.

I'll read this book again. It is quite beautiful.

Tuesday, 1 September 2020

CUTTING FOR STONE - Abraham Verghese

First of all, an apology: I read this book some weeks ago. I always intend my thoughts down straight away, but what usually happens is that I pick up the next book - and the next - and get involved in that, and so it goes. Then, by the time I get round to a review, I've forgotten the details and can only do a broad-brush review. Still, on we go!

This book is set in Ethiopia. It's big - 533 pages - and it's big also in ambition and sweep. At the centre of it is a family story. In the year 1954, twin boys, Marion and Shiva, are born to a Carmelite nun, Sister Mary Joseph Praise, in the hospital where she is a nurse, in Addis Ababa. It is a highly unusual birth: firstly, because she is a nun; secondly, because no-one had realised she was pregnant; thirdly, because the father, a brilliant surgeon named Thomas Stone, had absolutely no idea that he had even slept with Sister Mary. He loves her, but he doesn't realise it till he realises he is about to lose her - she doesn't survive the birth. Distraught, he disappears, so the twins are affectively orphans.

However, they are brought up by loving stand-in parents: Hema and Ghosh, both doctors at the hospital. Characterisation is one of the many strong points of the novel: there's a whole cavalcade of beautifully realised characters, eccentric, strong-willed, generous, funny - and these two head the procession.

Not unnaturally, living at a hospital and born of two medical people, the twins also become devoted to medecine. Marion narrates the book, and is a very different character from his brother, who has something other-worldly and mystical about him: Marion is hard-working and practical - though he too has his dreams.

Underlying the family story, though, there are two other preoccupations. One is medecine. Born and brought up in Ethiopia of Indian parents, Abraham Verghese is an eminent American physician, and he writes at considerable length in this book about surgical procedures and new ideas in treatments. I must admit I skimmed some of these - but he writes beautifully about them, and I am lost in admiration for someone who can at the same time have eminent careers as both a devoted physician and a brilliant writer.

The other story he tells is about Ethiopia. Many years ago I flew with Ethiopian Airlines to Tanzania, changing planes in Addis, and I remember looking at the flight attendants and thinking what stunningly beautiful people they were. I know Ethiopia produces outstanding long-distance runners, and I've wondered sometimes why Rastafarians revere Haile Selassie, the former president of Ethiopia - but that, until recently, was pretty much the sum of my knowledge about it. This book told me a great deal more, and by one of those serendipitous moments, there was a recent documentary on BBC4 which added to the picture.

Altogether, a tremendous, absorbing read, with the added extra that it took me to places of which I knew very little. 

Sunday, 23 August 2020

Sir Ken Robinson: 1950-2020

I was very sad to hear yesterday that Ken Robinson has died at the age of 70. He was an author, speaker, and international advisor on education, and his particular interest was creativity, and ways in which schools should be able to foster it. He was against standardised testing and various other straitjackets into which successive governments have put education: he was for maximising the huge potential of children.

I was lucky enough to hear him speak over twenty years ago. He was inspirational - a brilliant man and a brilliant speaker. He had that gift of speaking to a whole room as if he was just chatting to a group of friends; he was warm, witty, funny, original and immensely knowledgeable. I am so sorry he's gone.

The link is to a Ted talk he gave in 2006, which has been seen nearly 20 million times - it's the most watched Ted talk ever. If you watch it, you'll see why.


Wednesday, 5 August 2020

Chanel's Riviera, by Anne de Courcy

After finishing Overstory, I felt I wanted to read something that was easier, less emotionally demanding. Non-fiction, I thought. And right on cue, up popped an offer for history books for 99p. This one appealed; I remembered seeing an intriguing film about Chanel some years ago; also, this book covers an era that's interested me for quite some time - in fact, I've written two novels set in Europe during the war years. (Don't go looking: neither has so far been published, though I live in hope. Well, you have to, don't you?) I think somewhere else on this blog I've written about Anne Sebba's Les Parisiennes, which deals with the topic of the very different ways in which French women respnded to the exigencies of war. Chanel, I knew, was one of those who found herself a handsome and very useful German lover - no mean feat as she was almost sixty.

The first part of Anne de Courcy's book  deals with the Riviera in the thirties, and it is a delicious look through the keyhole at the lives of the incredibly rich and cosmoplitan group of people who made the south of France their playground and luxurious retreat at this time. Chanel herself had a palatial house built, with no expense spared, where she entertained large house parties; guests and neighbours included Winston Churchill, Somerset Maugham, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Igor Stravinsky, Serge Diaghilev, Edith Wharton - and later the Duke and Duchess of Windsor (who do NOT come across well). So, you know, just the kinds of people you and I have to tea all the time.

Chanel came from a childhood of extreme poverty. When she was twelve, her mother died, and her father abandonned her, leaving her in the care of nuns in a convent, where she was pretty much confined for seven years. (Apparently she later gave differing accounts of her early years, but this much seems to be undisputed.) She then, by virtue of becoming the lover of various wealthy men, opened a milliner's shop, which later became a fashion house; but her main fortune came from the famous perfume, Chanel No. 5 - though it continued to rankle with her for many years that she ad given away too large a percentage to the developers of her perfume, the Wertheimers. She must have been very, very rich: she bought houses for her brothers and supported various people, quite apart from spending money on herself. She had a large collection of jewellery - ropes of pearls of all different sizes: diamond cuffs and bracelets, ruby thises and emerald and sapphire thats. She had, naturally, a large staff, and an apartment in Paris: when she gave that up, she made do with a small flat above her atelier and an apartment at the Ritz.

She was very loyal to her friends, and was seldom without a lover or two. She was capable of great generosity, but also of casual cruelty: she closed her fashion house at the beginning of the war (having paid her staff low wages) without notice, thus depriving her workers of an income just at a time when they would have most needed it. She was anti semitic in general terms, yet she could go out on a limb to try to rescue Jewish friends who had been arrested by the Nazis - by calling on her German lover and associates.

All of this comes in the second part of the book, which deals with the German occupation of France. The contrast is great. The wealthy elite seem to have been so preoccupied with living their gilded lives that most of them simply did not notice what was happening in other parts of Europe - or if they did, they simply shrugged their shoulders, downed another glass of champagne, and assumed that none of it could possibly affect them. The Duke of Windsor, after various people had gone to a lot of trouble to organise a ship to take him to England and safety, refused to come unless the royal family issued a personal invitation, and a promise that he would be fiven all kinds of special attentions. This wasn't forthcoming, so he refused to go - eventually condescending to agree to be driven though Spain to Portugal, with, of course, vast amounts of luggage - while the roads of France were choked with refugees who had fled with only what they could carry.

Anne de Courcy reveals how life was under the occupation for a range of individuals: how things became harder and harder as the Germans commandeered most of the food and imposed increasingly cruel restrictions. She also makes it clear that the appalling treatment of the Jews in the unoccupied zone was largely undertaken by French, not German politicians and police: and she deals with the difficult period after the war, when collaborators were punished - pointing out that almost everyone, to some degree or another, had to collaborate in order to live.

It's very much a book of two halves, both of which are fascinating.