Tuesday, 8 October 2019

The Clara Vine series, by Jane Thynne

I fist came across the Clara Vine books a couple of years ago. I’ve just re-read them and caught up the newest one, Solitaire - and I think I’ve enjoyed them even more this time round. 

The story - because it is one story, albeit with different, wholly engrossing episodes - begins in Berlin in 1933 with the arrival of a young Englishwoman, Clara Vine. A rather unsuccessful actress, she has heard that the film industry in Berlin is expanding, and, as this coincides with a wish to put a distance between herself and an unwanted suitor, she decides to try her luck. 

She comes to the attention of Goebbels, the minister for propaganda who also has responsibility for the film industry. Through him she meets his wife, and through her the wives of the other men at the top of the Nazi Party - a potentially useful situation which is not lost on British intelligence. Clara, in short, becomes a spy  at the heart of the Nazi war machine. 

There’s so much to enjoy in these books. Clara is a fascinating character. Jane Thynne explores the elements of her upbringing and character which have led her to be a good spy: her reserve, her self-sufficiency, her ability to inhabit different personas, to hide behind a mask. She’s a subtle creation: she isn’t an expert in self-defence, she doesn’t get into fights: she survives on her instinct, her intelligence and her quick wits. She’s kind and loyal, and she is in some ways vulnerable. She’s a character you come to care for. 

Each book centres on a mystery of some kind - a murder, a missing person, a plot that has to be uncovered. But all this is set very firmly in the context of Berlin in the years of the Nazi ascendancy. Clara is right at the centre of things, so through her Jane Thynne can tell us how they managed to coerce a whole population to go along with their awful creed: how they convinced the people that they were under threat from enemies within and without, and that the only chance of salvation was to trust in a charismatic leader. It makes chilling reading - more so now than when I first read the books a few years ago. 

The research behind all this is formidable. Jane Thynne is immensely knowledgeable about life in Germany during this period: both the big historical events and the minutiae of everyday life, down to the name of a popular lipstick, the details of the food people ate, the cut of a uniform. She weaves actual incidents - the capture of two spies which almost destroyed the British intelligence operation in Europe, a plot to kidnap the Windsors, Eva Braun’s suicide attempts - into Clara’s story, and does this with such skill that it seems completely likely and natural. 

I think she’s a really excellent writer. I’m astonished that no-one’s made the books into a TV series as yet, and it surprises me that they aren’t far better known. 

Tuesday, 1 October 2019

Sightlines, by Kathleen Jamie

A couple of months ago, I mentioned to a friend that I was about to go on a course on nature writing (at Ty Newydd – I wrote about it a few posts back). She chuckled, and said, “Oh, but nature writing’s so boring, isn’t it?”

I was taken aback and lost for words. Now, I would say to her: but what do you even mean by nature writing? How could it be ‘boring’ to read about something which I know she loves, just as I do? How could she not be interested in reading about what gives life to us, and makes our planet apparently unique - and how it is under profound threat?

Or perhaps I’d just give her this book by Kathleen Jamie and say, “Just give this a try. Go on – do.”

Kathleen was one of the tutors on the Ty Newydd course. I had heard of her before, but though I’d given this book to a couple of other people as a present, I hadn’t actually read it myself. I’ve just remedied this, and have found it completely engrossing – and therapeutic. It’s autumn, which is a beautiful season but has at its heart the fading of things – the fading of light, the falling of leaves, the gradual death of flowers. Of course it’s not all bad – there are birds that arrive as well as those that depart, and there are already buds on the bare branches. But still – it’s a season when it’s easy to succumb to a generalised feeling of sadness. And there are one or two things going on in the outside world which are also just a tad worrying.

So there have been mornings when I’ve woken up feeling gloomy. But as soon as I begin to read a chapter of Sightlines, I am taken into another place - and what a relief that is. That is perhaps a cliché: certainly, it’s my stock, easy answer when someone asks me what I like about reading: “A book can take you into another world…” But in this case, it really feels true. The book is a collection of essays. In most of them, Kathleen travels to Scottish islands, though there’s also one where she goes to a Norwegian museum and reflects on whale skeletons (in other essays, she writes about encounters with living whales); another where she decides she needs to see inside the body, not just outside, and examines pathogens under a microscope; another where she recalls an archaeology dig, from which the discovery of the ancient skeleton of a young girl lingers in her mind.

Wherever she goes, she is supremely attentive. She looks, she listens, she tastes, she touches, she thinks, she explores, she reflects. And she does this so effectively that the reader is right there with her, feeling the force of a wind strong enough to knock you over, seeing how gannets glint against a storm cloud, shocked at the speed with which killer whales slice through the water.

But she doesn’t simply describe what she sees. She muses, considers, makes analogies, asks questions. The reader follows not just her physical journeys, but the path her thoughts take. At the back of it all is an awareness of transience. As she says in the book’s final paragraph:
There are myths and fragments which suggest that the sea that we were flying over was once land. Once upon a time, and not so long ago, it was a forest with trees, but the sea rose and covered it over. The wind and sea. Everything else is provisional. A wing’s beat and it’s gone.

(She is flying in a helicopter as she leaves a remote, storm-swept island, where she had found a dead swan, describing its outstretched wing as a full metre of gleaming quartz-white, a white cascade: the swan’s wing, the wind, the helicopter flight – they all link into a chain of thought.)

Boring? Not remotely.

Saturday, 21 September 2019

St Cuthbert’s Church in Wells

A few years ago when I was feeling rather sad, I happened to go into St Cuthbert’s in Wells to get some Christmas cards. It was November and the weather matched my mood.

I am not a religious person, but being in the church lightened and lifted my mood. It was very marked. I came out feeling - well, it sounds fanciful, but blessed. 

Today I went in again, to see if it would have the same effect. It wasn’t quite as noticeable, but there was something: I felt soothed. It’s not a feeling I’ve had in any other church, though I have had a similar sense on the hill and by the sea. 

Anyway, make of that what you will - while I was there I noticed a couple of things. One was the ceiling, which is extraordinary: I can’t imagine how I failed to see it before. They call it an ‘angel roof’ - for obvious reasons - and it dates from the 15th century. 

The other thing relates to Saint Cuthbert. Apparently no-one really knows what the link is between him and this church - he’s very much a product of the northeast. He is associated with Lindisfarne - a place I’m very fond of - and he’s buried at Durham, where I was at university. During the war, he’s said to have saved the cathedral from destruction during a raid by German bombers, by summoning a mist to cloak the tower and hide it from view. I’ve written a short story about this. 

The only apparent link with Somerset is that he’s said to have appeared in a dream to King Alfred and encouraged him to keep on fighting the pesky Vikings when, to be honest, any sensible person would have given up. And I’ve written a book about Alfred, called Warrior King. 

I don’t suppose any of this means anything at all. But I like the sense of there being links. And I like the feeling that maybe - just maybe - I have Saint Cuthbert in my corner. 

Sunday, 15 September 2019

Girl. Boy. Sea. - by Chris Vick

For quite a while now, I've not read much fiction, either for adults or for children, which has really 'blown my socks off.' (For the attribution of this very useful phrase, please see this post about an enthusiastic guide at the Lascaux Caves.) 

But happily, that's recently changed - I've read several very good novels indeed. I've just finished this one, and it's blown my socks right to the other side of Cheddar Reservoir. It's called Girl. Boy. Sea., and it's about exactly what it says in the title: a girl and a boy adrift in a boat on a wide, wide sea.

Bill is crewing a boat with half a dozen other fourteen to sixteen year-olds - they're getting in shape for the Youth Sail Challenge. They are twelve nautical miles north of the Canaries when they get warning of a nasty squall. The boat is badly damaged; everyone else manages to get into the life raft, but after a series of mishaps, Bill finds himself adrift alone in a small boat, the tender. 

More storms ensue, but gradually subside. Bill has managed to grab some supplies from the boat before it sank, so he has some food and water - enough for a few days. Then he comes across another castaway, a girl clinging to a barrel. She is a Berber, and her name is Aya.

They manage to communicate, in a mixture of French and English. She will say very little about where she is from, what her story is. At the beginning, Bill realises that now he will have to share his meagre supplies - but it is such a relief to have company that he soon forgets about this, and they become close. They drift for days - puzzlingly, there is no sign of anyone searching for Bill, although he is sure that his parents will be determined to find him. They drift on, under a hot sun. Bill works out a way to make a small supply of water through evaporation (he is a very resourceful boy) - and they manage to catch some sea creatures which they eat, raw, because they have to if they want to live.

Eventually Aya begins to tell Bill stories, apparently from the Arabian Nights. Bill is enthralled, just as the Sultan was in the stories, and the stories are entrancing. 

And then, when they are almost at the end of what they can cope with, they spot an island. It's tiny, but it has water and coconut trees. Unfortunately, it also has another inhabitant - one who Aya is not at all pleased to see.

The adventure continues: it would spoil it to explain how. Suffice it to say that the story opens out: it comes to be about some of the harshest realities for people living on our planet. The island (which, we learn later, appears on no chart) may seem like a paradise island compared to the hell of drifting without food or water on an unforgiving ocean, but in truth, it provides no escape from the hell which humans create for each other.

Yet, as Aya explains when she tells the first of her stories, about Pandora's box, there is always hope. And there is love and kindness, in the relationship between Aya and Bill, and as evinced by some of the adult characters who help them. It's a beautiful book. The writing is spare, with short sentences that move the story crisply on: yet it's also, when it needs to be, lyrical. For example, this: 

There was metal sky above us now, and light ahead. It was a race to the light, but we were losing. The storm drew over us like a cloak.

I suppose you would say that this is a book for teenagers. But really, it's for anyone who appreciates excellent writing: if adults don't read books like this, they are missing out. It deals with big themes, but also, viscerally, with the reality of what it would actually be like to be adrift on the ocean. It's elegant, in its lack of any extraneous verbiage. I'm chancing it here, because it's a long time since I read any Hemingway, but perhaps there's a hint of The Old Man And The Sea about it. And perhaps, too, a hint of The Lord of the Flies, though it's ultimately much more uplifting than that. 

And just a word about the cover - I can't find a credit as to who did it, but I think it's completely stunning.

Friday, 6 September 2019

Wilding, by Isabella Tree

Wilding is an extraordinary book. It's horrifying, uplifting, a catalogue of things to despair about, a litany of things to be hopeful about. It changes the way you see the world - even well-known and much-loved landscapes. It's sobering, but also intoxicating.

It's about an ancient estate in Sussex called Knepp Castle. Charlie Burrell, the husband of the writer, Isabella Tree, had taken the estate over from his grandmother in 1987 and immediately set about modernising it: '... he began doing what every modern farmer is supposed to do: rationalise, intensify, diversify, and, if possible, spread fixed costs over a larger area.' The five tenant farms were struggling and ready to give up, so Charlie took them all back and began to amalgamate the dairies, streamline and improve farm buildings, and invest in expensive machinery. What happened next is complicated - but basically, for all sorts of reasons, it didn't work. By 1999 it was clear that the business was not viable: intensive farming, which was supposed to lead to healthy profits, was in fact resulting in huge losses. It couldn't go on.

It just so happened that in 1999, they had invited a tree expert called (appropriately) Ted Green, to come and investigate whether a 550 year-old oak tree could possibly be saved. He was optimistic, and he moved on to examine the other great oaks on the estate. He explained to the Burrells that they too were at risk - and the reason wasn't age: it was ploughing and compaction of soil due to cattle grazing. 

A tree's roots may extend two and a half times the radius of the crown, not far below the surface of the soil, where oxygen is available. But the roots are just the beginning. From the roots there extends a network of mycorrhizae - tiny filaments of fungus which take carbohydrates from the tree, but in return supply it with water and essential nutrients. It's far more complicated than that - but if this huge network is disturbed, the health of the plant, or tree, is affected. It's also affected by insecticides, herbicides and fungicides, all of which are part of the armoury of a modern farmer.

This is just one tiny piece of the jigsaw of reasons that made the Burrells decide to take a radically different approach: they would allow nature to take the lead, and see what happened. They were inspired by a Dutch ecologist, Frans Vera, who had used a similar approach on a reserve in the Netherlands called the Oostvaardersplassen. He believed in minimal intervention, in allowing natural processes to develop. This would, he thought - and actually did - result in a tremendous increase in biodiversity. It began when huge numbers of greylag geese found the marshy land, and consumed the vegetation that would otherwise have clogged up the open water. But to keep the geese coming, they needed grassland. So they introduced old, tough breeds of cattle and horses, similar to the large animals that would once have grazed the land thousands of years ago. And they left them to get on with it.

Well, it's all much more complicated than that. But perhaps you begin to get the idea. At the beginning of the book, Isabella Tree writes about turtle doves. There are now a number of pairs of turtle doves at Knepp - but almost nowhere else in Britain. The decline in numbers of this bird is far greater in the UK than anywhere else. Our population density is actually higher than that of India: there are so many of us that the pressure of any 'spare' bits of land is immense. Here in my own place, Cheddar, over the last forty years small orchards have disappeared, large gardens have been halved, fields are disappearing as we speak - because there are more of us, and we need more houses. So the wild places are disappearing, and with them, the nourishment that turtle doves, and many other species, need. 

Of course it's not all bad. There are success stories, such as the reintroduction of red kites, the increase in otters due to cleaner waterways, and so on. But overall, it's a sad story. 'In 1966, according to the RSPB, there were 40 million more birds in the UK than there are today.' There's a terrible list of declining species, but perhaps an effective indicator of the situation is that in terms of lost biodiversity, the UK is ranked twenty-ninth lowest out of 218 countries.

The book tells the story of how the 'wilding' of Knepp has led to massively increased biodiversity, and to the reappearance of masses of species of flora and fauna which have become rare elsewhere in our crowded country. It's absolutely packed with evidence and information - so much so that it's actually difficult to take it all in at one reading. One thing - it is not anti-farming. Clearly, this approach cannot be put into practice everywhere. But there is an enormous amount to be learned from it, and much that can be applied elsewhere. Even in small ways: I know now that ragwort, far from being the poisonous pest I had believed it to be, is actually an enormously valuable food source for many birds and insects during the autumn months - and is only very rarely damaging to horses and cattle. (Had I actually taken note of the evidence of my own eyes, I would have realised this; there is a great deal of ragwort on our hill, and in thirty five years, I've never once heard of any of the cattle that graze up there being made ill by it.) Towards the end of the book, Isabella Tree discusses how she envisages lots of small patches of wilderness in the UK - but joined up, connected, so that wild life has its own habitat alongside ours, instead of being gradually squeezed to the margins, and then to extinction.

Ragwort on the hill

On the nature-writing course I attended recently, and which I wrote about a couple of posts back, I was surprised to hear one of the tutors, Mark Cocker, say sadly after a walk down to the sea that he had passed fields that were little more than a desert in terms of wild life. But now I know exactly what he means. He talked also about how we, like all other living things, are part of a complex network of systems - like, perhaps, the ancient oaks with their mycorrhizae: everything is interdependent. If we lose a species of dung beetle - it matters. Yet we are losing masses of species, some we may not even have known existed.

We need to know about this stuff - and this book is a very good place to start.

Monday, 2 September 2019

A charm of goldfinches

You might look at this picture and think - why? Nice sky, reservoir in the distance, but otherwise there's nothing much to see - just a big patch of rather dull looking scrub in the foreground.

But this morning, that scrub was full of life. I stood and watched it for a while. It's mainly brambles, buddleia and ragwort - you can just see a golden ragwort flower in the centre, but mostly it's gone to seed.

First I saw the butterflies. Mainly white ones, a few patterned brown ones which I think were probably Painted Ladies - I couldn't get close enough to be sure.

Then I saw a couple of goldfinches. I only had my phone with me, so knew I wasn't going to get a good picture, but tried to raise it very slowly and - up they flew. But not only those two. At least twenty fluttered up into the sky, and off they flew as one, dipping and diving, all together - not golden as they caught the sunlight, but silver. Magical.

I looked again. I saw a small bird, I think on a thistle. It was palest grey, quite difficult to see against the thistledown, with a soot-black head. I'm guessing it was a blackcap, though I'm no expert. Even more slowly than before, I raised the camera.

Too late again. But it didn't matter. The picture shows an absence of birds and butterflies. But they were there. I saw them.

Just before the goldfinches, I had come through a wood where, a couple of weeks ago I saw this flower. This picture really doesn't do it justice. It was more of a ruby red, jewel-like, with the white stamens a sharp contrast. I've never seen it before up on the hill (which is in the Mendip range, so limestone.) I showed the picture to my friend Liz, who is a botanist, and she told me it's called 'codlins and cream', or more prosaically, greater willowherb. It normally grows in great numbers, apparently - in ditches. Isn't it a lovely name? But it's a bit odd, because I can see where the cream comes from, but a codling is apparently a green apple. I think it's quite interesting that the single plant was noteworthy for its beauty - it really stood out in the green of the wood - yet although I'm sure I must have seen it growing in its normal habitat, I've never really seen it before.

I'd intended to take a better picture of it today, but I couldn't see it. I guess the flowers had dropped.

Tuesday, 27 August 2019

Big Sky and Simon Serailler

When I started this blog, I didn't really mean it to be a series of reviews. I meant it to be a way of keeping track of what I read. A friend, writer Adele Geras, says she keeps a note of everything she reads. When I heard that, I really wished I'd thought of doing it. I read quickly, and I read a lot, and have done ever since I was a child borrowing books from Ilkeston Library; just think, if I'd done that, I'd have books - whole shelves - full of titles by now!

Well, I didn't, and I haven't even managed to keep this blog going. But I've swept the floors and brushed away the cobwebs and I'm going to have a another go. Incidentally, it was very nice to see that I've acquired a few new followers while I've been gone - welcome and thanks to you!

So first, a bit of a catch-up about books I've read and enjoyed in the last month or two. Disclaimer: probably because I read too quickly, I don't generally remember books for all that long. Also, I read quite a few of the following on my Kindle, and it's notoriously difficult to go back and check up on things on a Kindle. So apologies for a possible lack of detail and/or accuracy.

I'm an admirer of Kate Atkinson, and particularly of her Jackson Brodie books. Big Sky is the most recent one - and I got this from the library and have it beside me, so that's a plus.

Brodie is an ex-policeman, now a private investigator. He's not actually very good at his job, though somehow or other, he usually manages to sort things out. As Crystal, the sort-of heroine tells her stepson at one stage: "Claims he's a detective... but he's shit at detecting." Crystal is a great character: the trophy wife of a wealthy businessman with an obsession for keeping things neat, tidy and wholesome - why, you will quite correctly be asking yourself? Her past, and her strength of character, are gradually revealed. She may look like a Barbie doll, but she's a tiger when it comes to defending her young. She's one of a whole array of nuanced, flawed characters: Kate Atkinson gets inside the heads of even the bad ones and, without laying it on with a trowel, lays bare their complexities.

The book is very cleverly constructed: different chapters are related from the point of view of different characters, and it's not at all obvious how they relate to each other or where the story is heading. I can't really say any more because it would spoil it. Just one thing: if anyone has read it/does read it, and understands why it's called Big Sky, would you tell me? I think I must have missed that bit.

Susan Hill is another writer acclaimed for both her 'literary' fiction and for her crime novels - if, indeed there is a distinction, which I don't think there necessarily is. I hadn't read her Simon Serailler novels until recently - thank you, to the friend who recommended them!

Serailler is one of those intelligent, attractive, intuitive police officers who crop up from time to time in crime fiction. He reminds me a bit of Dorothy Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey: like him, Serailler is fatally attractive - fatally, because he is unable to commit himself to anyone, so scatters broken hearts in his wake. He also solves crimes: the small country town where he lives has nearly as many serial killers knocking about as Midsomer. Like Kate Atkinson, Susan Hill is a very good story teller, who likes to get into the heads of all her characters - victims and perpetrators as well as the forces of law and order. She also develops the stories of Simon and his family as the series progresses - particularly his sister, Cat Deerbon, and his very odd father. There did come a point at which I felt there was just too much about the misfortunes of the Serailler family - they really do have a lot of bad luck - and so I've taken a break from the series: in particular there was a storyline involving the father which didn't convince me. But the first few books were very gripping, and I do like the sound of Simon's apartment overlooking the cathedral close. The first in the series is called The Various Haunts of Men.

This really has nothing to do with the books. It's just a big sky, up above Cheddar Gorge.