Monday, 18 March 2019

A clump of shining daffodils...

(Apologies - the pictures aren't very good: it was a very dark morning.)

A week or two ago, I was walking with Nessie up on the hill. It was not a nice day: it was dull, windy and rain was obviously imminent. 

There's a point where you come out from the woods into the open - that's where the lonesome tree is that's in the picture on the right. From here you can turn left, to take the longer walk through another wood, or right, to go straight down the hill, which has the benefit that you're facing wonderful views from Cheddar Gorge on the left, round across the vale of Cheddar, to the reservoir and in the distance the sea and the Quantocks, on the right.

There is another bit which isn't on the way to anywhere, so I don't usually go there. It's a space between two woods, on a downward slope of the hill. I suddenly remembered that some years ago, a fellow walker had shown me a clump of wild daffodils down there, and I decided to go and see if they were still there.

It was much more overgrown than I remembered and I had to be careful not to trip over brambles. But suddenly there they were: fine-leaved, with the flowers bright flecks of gold on the brown hillside. I'd half-expected them to have disappeared, but no, there they were - and what's more, they'd spread: they weren't what you'd call a host, but they were a lot more than a clump.

I've thought about them a lot since. It seems a very trite metaphor to use - but the idea of them there, steadfastly growing and spreading, shining and beautiful - well, wouldn't it be nice to see them as an image of hope? They could be an image of all sorts of other things too, but at the moment, when the domestic and international news seems darker than I can personally remember it being - I think hope will do.

This was taken on a different day - the darker patch in the middle is Cheddar Gorge.

Tuesday, 12 March 2019

The Salt Path, by Raynor Winn

On one level, this is a book about a couple who walked the South West Coastal Path, non-stop – all 630 miles of it. As you can see, it has a beautiful cover whose design places it firmly in the section of bookshops with books about nature and our relationship to it.

And indeed and of course, it is about nature – but not primarily so. It’s not a piece of finely judged, carefully crafted nature writing, though there is some of that here too. It’s the searing story of a couple whose home and livelihood and hopes for the future are suddenly torn away from them, and who decide, pretty much on impulse, that the only thing they can do, the only way they can literally and figuratively move on, is to walk, carrying with them all that they have – which is almost nothing.

The story begins, Ray tells us, when she and her husband Moth lose everything at the end of a court battle after an investment goes badly wrong. What makes this even worse is that Raynor eventually finds a document which she believes will prove that they are innocent of blame, but doesn’t submit it in time or according to the correct procedures: they cannot afford legal representation (and of course, legal aid was pretty much abolished some years ago), and they fail to find their way through the complexities of the law without it. And even worse than that: the person who recommended the investment to them and is now suing them is an old and dear friend of Moth’s, so that he feels a sense of hurt and betrayal. As a result of losing the case, they lose their home, a Welsh farmhouse which they have lovingly restored over many years; and the livelihood which goes with it.

And as if this isn’t enough, just after the verdict, Moth is diagnosed with a terminal, degenerative illness: they are in their early fifties.

Raynor Winn tells the story of how, as they hide from the bailiffs in the cupboard under the stairs, she notices a book in a packing case. It’s called Five Hundred Mile Walkies, and it’s about a man who, many years before, had walked the South West Coastal Path with his dog. And it’s this that gives them their idea.

When I read this, it seemed quite shocking to me – absolute madness. Moth is in constant pain, sometimes he can’t even get up. They have the grand sum of £48 a week coming in, they have virtually no other money: they can’t afford even to buy decent equipment. Neither of them is strong enough to carry much weight – in fact it’s practically a military manoeuvre even to get their rucksacks onto their backs. And yet, and yet… what else can they do? And what sort of an indictment of our society is it that they face such limited choices? Their two children are at university and in no position to help (though, in a reversal of the normal rôles, their worried daughter sends them a new phone and instructs them that they must keep in close touch); friends do what they can and offer temporary accommodation, but cannot, in the end, give them their lives back – this at least offers them a reason to move on, literally as well as metaphorically.

And so off they go. With a flimsy tent, inadequate sleeping bags, a single change of clothes, a thin towel and a toothbrush – and Moth’s battered and beloved copy of Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf: a fitting companion, with its theme of a battered hero fighting against evil monsters and against time itself.

Raynor Winn, looking out across the coastal path. (Penguin Books)

It’s very sobering, to read of how difficult it is to live on so little. They can only afford to buy the most basic foodstuffs – meals are delights such as pot noodles, or rice and a tin of peas or mackerel. Sometimes, even water is difficult to come by. Washing is usually impossible – there’s plenty of sea, but for one thing that’s salty, and for another, the cliff path is usually high above it. I’ve seen bits of that coast path, and it’s very precipitous. There are endless setbacks, yet even so, somehow they don’t just keep going, but Moth becomes stronger; and the experience of being so very close to nature teaches them to live in, and treasure, each moment. They have numerous encounters along the way, some of them strange, many of them comic. Quite early on, they ask for information at a tourist office in Combe Martin – and are puzzled by the reaction of the ladies behind the counter.

            The ladies shuffled, nudging each other, giggling.
            “Of course, it’s a pleasure to help. Just go to the grocery store up to the left. They’ll do cashback for you, Mr Armitage, but they weren’t expecting you yet.”
            “Sorry, I’m not Mr Armitage.”
            The ladies looked at each other conspiratorially.
            “No of course not, that’s okay, our secret, we won’t say a word.”
            Moth looked back in bemusement…

This keeps happening: people keep mistaking Moth for this mysterious Mr Armitage. Well – Moth might have been bemused, but I wasn’t. In 2015, the poet Simon Armitage published a book about his travels along the South West Coastal Path. The idea was that he would walk a stretch, and then pay for his board at a pub or whatever by doing a reading of his work. He’d done this before in the Penines. I bought the book, because I’m familiar with some bits of the path, particularly the first part from Minehead, but to be honest, much as I admire his other work and the TV programmes he’s done, I was a little disappointed in this book. It felt as if he was just going through the motions (sorry!): as if he was doing it because it seemed like a good idea for a book, not because it was something he was really enjoying. And the reaction of the people Moth and Ray meet, as well as the book itself, make it clear that the whole thing was very carefully planned and organised for the poet: there was no jeopardy involved. But for Moth and Ray, there most certainly was. They were living right on the edge in more ways than one.

This is a remarkable book: it’s a searing reflection on what is to be homeless and poor; an account of a first-hand experience of being as close to nature as you can get; and a tender story of a relationship which survives some incredibly difficult tests. In the end, one of the people they meet offers them a place to live: they come through. The last word belongs to Raynor herself.

At last I understood what homelessness had done for me. It had taken every material thing that I had and left me stripped bare, a blank page at the end of a partly written book. It had also given me a choice, either to leave that page blank or to keep writing the story with hope. I chose hope.

Tuesday, 5 February 2019

Drawing Europe Together: 45 illustrators, with a foreward by Axel Scheffler

It's going to be obvious anyway from this post - but I am a staunch Remainer. There. Said it. I think we should stay in the EU for many reasons - think how much time and money we and several other countries would have saved if there had never been a referendum! - but mainly because I love Europe and I really, really want to continue to be a part of it, though I can see now that that's unlikely to happen.

So you can see why a book with this title - Drawing Europe Together - was likely to appeal to me. I came across it in Waterstones a few weeks ago. It's put together by Axel Scheffler, the illustrator of many of Julia Donaldson's books, including the wonderful Gruffalo. He explains in his introduction that "the seed of this book was planted by a German children's book publisher, Marcus Weber at Moritz Verlag, who asked his illustrators to do a 'drawing for Europe'". An exhibition of the drawings eventually came to London, where it was added to by British-based illustrators, many of whom, unsurprisingly, took the opportunity to express their feelings about Brexit. With the creation of this book, the venture was taken a step further.

A lot of the pictures feature Europa, a mythical personage who was kidnapped from what we would now call the Middle East by a god in the shape of a bull, and brought to the place that now bears her name. In Polly Dunbar's image, see the little boy from Britain, who stands apart, looking wistfully back at the other children, one of whom reaches out to him.

It's a sad book in many ways. Axel Scheffler explains his own feelings: "Personally, Britain has been my home for 36 years. I came to study and work here, and that was made possible by the EU. It has enriched my life and I hope that I have enriched the life of this nation in return by creating The Gruffalo and many other popular books together with Julia Donaldson. I've never seen myself as a guest in the UK but it now no longer feels like home to me. The fatal decision of Brexit, which seems to me a tremendous act of national self-harm, fills me with disbelief, pain and anger."

I share his pain and his sadness, and I think it's a dreadful thing that Europeans who have lived here for many years and contributed so much, now feel unwelcome. I too think that we have made a terrible mistake, and I feel angry when I see the posturing and manoeuvering of many of our politicians, who have consistently refused to listen to those derided 'experts' who have tried to warn us. I have often disagreed with government policy, but I have never felt so utterly convinced that the path our country is taking is the wrong one.

Here, Sarah McIntyre presents us with an agitated starling, tied to a stake which keeps him in Britain, while all the other starlings fly free. It's beautifully executed, and its message is clear.

I commend this book to you. There is no anger here, but there is wit, humour, artistry - and considerable sadness. 

Saturday, 2 February 2019

Winter has come!

We don't often get much snow in this part of Somerset (the Mendips) - so here are a few pictures to celebrate the heavy snowfall on Thursday night! They were taken on Friday morning, when the now was still falling.

Blackbirds wondering where breakfast is.

Winter trees

Roundhouse, up on the top of the hill.
View across Cheddar.


Thursday, 20 December 2018

The Return

Something a little bit different for today's post. I volunteer on the SS Great Britain, Brunel's famous ship, permanently moored now in Bristol. It's always full of atmosphere - a little spooky in places - but one weekend earlier in December, it was even more so. And this is the story that resulted.

A Christmas Ghost Story

Snow fell from a strangely blue sky, and laughing children scooped it up from the dockside to make snowballs. An elderly man strolled past; he tipped his top hat and smiled. It was a charming smile, but I couldn’t help but notice that his teeth were stained brown, and that there was a nasty cut on his cheek. Two women were chatting, huddled inside drab looking shawls, their dresses muddy round the hem. Their faces were pale, and there were red circles under their eyes: they didn’t look too healthy. A wind whipped along the harbourside, and I zipped up my black jacket and looked up at the ship; the brightly coloured bunting fluttered against the sky, and the gold coat of arms carved on her stern gleamed in the sun.
            I’d been volunteering at the SS Great Britain for eight months now, and I never tired of seeing the beautiful ship. But today was special: it was just before Christmas, and the Victorian Festival had brought hundreds of extra visitors in. They mingled with the Ragged Victorians, a re-enactment group who specialised not in battles, but in recreating a sense of what life was like in the 19th century for the less well-off members of Victorian society – hence the dirt and the pallor. There were choirs, and Christmas card workshops, and Christmas pudding tasting sessions, and actors dressed as Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Charles Dickens. (A Christmas Carol came out in 1843, the same year the ship was launched – so why not?) And of course there was the snow machine, sending out flurries of damp but delicious snowflakes.
            My first shift was to be in the dry dock underneath the ship. It was here that the ship was built: now it was hermetically sealed from the outside so that the atmosphere could be controlled, to prevent the iron hull from rusting any more than it already had in its long years abandoned in Sparrow Cove in the Falklands. What a fate for the ship that had changed the world – the first iron ship, the first propeller-driven ship – Brunel’s glorious dream. But then, what a romantic rescue: the ship saved from its watery grave and brought back 8000 miles across the Atlantic to its birthplace in Bristol, and restored to the beauty of its youth.            
Before going down, I decided to have a stroll round the outside of the ship, just to take in the atmosphere and the buzz. As I approached the narrow walkway that goes in front of the bow, I noticed one of the Ragged Victorians standing gazing up at the ship. I was struck by his expression: he looked startled – even stupefied. Most of the re-enactors cultivated an air almost of boredom, as if this was just everyday life for them: nothing special at all. But not this man.
            He was tall and burly, with a square face framed by long sideburns and greying, slightly curly hair, which looked damp, as if he’d been caught in the rain. Perhaps he’d been standing directly in the trajectory of the snow machine? Yes, that must have been it – his clothes were dripping too. I felt a little concerned for him – he seemed to have taken his rôle play a little too far for his own good. I was about to suggest he should go somewhere and dry off, when he spoke. His voice had a slight burr that said he was from somewhere much further north than Bristol.
            “How well she looks! As beautiful as ever… but where is this? We are surely not in Liverpool?” He looked at the line of brightly painted houses on the other side of the river, winding up the hill towards Clifton, and frowned. “Wait – it’s Bristol, isn’t it? Where she was built and launched.”
            He was clearly taking his part very seriously indeed.
            Playing along with him, I said, “Yes, that’s right, we’re in Bristol.”
            He turned to look at me for the first time. He stared at my clothes – I was in black trousers, and the red shirt and black jacket worn by all the volunteers and many of the staff. He looked even more startled – bewildered even, and I began to wonder if he was quite well. He passed a hand over his forehead and murmured something that I didn’t catch.
            “I’m sorry?” I said.
            “Forgive me – really, I…” He seemed lost for words. He looked back at the ship, and then suddenly he reached out and laid his hand on the hull. Now, you’re really not supposed to do this: she may not look it, but the ship’s actually very fragile. I knew I should say something, but his face was so intent: it seemed like something too private, too important, to interrupt. It was almost as if he was listening to the ship, and she was listening to him. For a moment, the sky seemed to dim, and the wind blew stronger, and I heard the piercing, lonely cry of some unidentified seabird. I looked up, expecting to see it circling round the mast, but there was nothing there. I looked back at the man. He had taken his hand away, and he seemed calmer now.
            “I wonder,” he said, “if I might be permitted to step on board? It’s been a long time – so long. I should dearly love to walk her decks again.”
            “Yes, of course,” I found myself saying. “I’ll show you the way – we have to go through the Dockyard Museum…”
            But surely he must know that?
No matter – it was my job to welcome visitors, and so off we went towards the Dockyard Museum. I began to talk a little about the ship’s history, but I could see that he wasn’t listening. He paused by the audio-visual display at the entrance to the museum: there’s a screen in front of you showing the ocean, and a voice booms out instructing you to take the wheel and steer the ship. He gasped, stepped back and muttered something. No-one else seemed to notice his strange behaviour: in fact they didn’t seem to notice him. Feeling a little uneasy now, I noticed that people moved to each side of him, like waves parting round a rock, but they didn’t seem to notice him. I looked at him more closely. He had a kind face, I thought, but a sad one.
“Well,” I said brightly. “This way to the ship!”
I led him up the two flights of stairs and across the bridge which links the museum to the ship’s deck. If you’re brave enough, you can climb the rigging – under the supervision of experienced climbers, of course, and with safety harnesses and helmets. Two children were up there, and we could hear their excited calls, to each other and to their parents below. My companion looked up, and a broad smile lit up his face.
“Ah yes,” he murmured. “There’s no feeling like it, up there between the sea and the sky. But they must be careful…”
“Oh, they’ll be fine,” I assured him. “Really, there’s no danger. Though you wouldn’t catch me doing it,” I added.
He looked at me doubtfully. “Well, no, of course not. It’s no job for – er – a lady.” He frowned slightly as he glanced at my trousered legs, and for a moment I felt a little awkward, as though I was wearing something outlandish.
We walked along the deck towards the stairs that led below. He trailed his fingers along the railings, and gazed round as if inspecting the state of the ship. He seemed to be satisfied with what he saw, because he nodded and smiled slightly.
“You love the ship,” I said suddenly. “And you know her.”
“Aye, to be sure,” he said softly. “I know and love every inch of her.”
Who was he? Had he perhaps had something to do with the rescue mission that had brought her back from the Falklands? We quite often had visitors who remembered seeing her triumphal return – her last voyage, when she was towed up the river underneath Brunel’s other beautiful creation, the Clifton Suspension Bridge. She’d been a rusty hulk then, but the banks of the river had been lined with Bristolians who wanted to welcome her home.
Now he was leading the way, not I. We went down the stairs to the promenade deck. As he pushed open the doors, he paused, and gazed the length of the room before him. He frowned when he saw the trunks piled up in the middle: “They should be made secure. A good storm, and they’ll be rolling all over the place.” He strode forward, jumping when he saw the figure of Brunel sitting on a bench, smiling genially as he gazed out at his creation.
“Good heavens!” he gasped.
“He’s not real,” I said hastily.
“No – no, of course not. I see that,” he said, recovering himself. “But a remarkable likeness, nonetheless.”
Then he turned, and gazed at the windows set into the bow of the ship. He stood very still then, and I noticed that all the noise of the visitors and the ship’s soundscape – which made the whole experience so authentic – had died away. I had the sudden sense that the ship was rolling gently – I’ve had this before, but usually lower down, in the hold, where it’s dark and frankly rather spooky. I could hear the sound of the sea, restless, hungry. It was quite dramatic – I remember thinking that they must have changed the soundscape, and how clever ‘they’ were. The sky must have clouded over, because it had grown much darker. I looked at his large, pale face, and saw an expression of infinite sadness there.
Who was he?
He turned to me. His eyes were like pools of seawater. I was suddenly afraid that if I gazed into them too deeply, I might drown. But I couldn’t look away.
“This was my ship for so many years,” he said. “She was my life. But I knew I couldn’t do it for much longer. I was ill. I didn’t tell anyone – I could never bear to be the object of pity. And I couldn’t bear the prospect of a slow decline on land – that could never be my way. And so, that night…” He turned to gaze at the windows again.
And then, of course, I knew. I had seen his portrait in the Dockyard Museum, many times heard the story of his mysterious disappearance one night in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, with an unscrewed window the only clue. I had been saddened by the thought of his wife and daughters, who, all unawares, had come to meet him when the ship docked at Liverpool on Christmas Day some weeks later. This was none other than John Gray, the ship’s best-loved and longest-serving captain.
“But your wife,” I blurted out. “Your daughters. How could you…?”
He shook his head sadly, and I was silenced. Who, after all, can fully understand what goes on in the mind of a man so desperate that finally, he decides he can simply not go on?
Then he smiled. It was such a beautiful smile, and it was easy then to see how he had inspired such affection in his crew and passengers. He raised his arms as if to embrace the ship, and declared: “But how glad I am to see her once more! And she is cared for, and she looks so very well. My dear – you have been very kind. But now, if you permit, I will walk my ship alone. There is much to see…”
He bowed, and his ocean eyes twinkled, like ripples in the sun. Then he waked away, back toward the doors. The shadows seemed to gather round him, and soon I could no longer see him distinctly.
The sun had come out again. I felt suddenly rather weak, and I sat down beside Mr Brunel.
“Well,” I said. “Whoever would have thought it?”
And I swear he tipped his head slightly, and gave me a little smile.

Captain John Gray

Friday, 7 December 2018

A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles

A friend recommended this book to me, and I'm so grateful to her! It concerns Count Alexander Rostov, a Russian aristocrat who in 1922 is sentenced to lifelong house arrest - basically for being an aristocrat. He is told he must spend the rest of his life in the Hotel Metropol, where he has hitherto occupied a large and elegant suite. If he leaves and is seen, he will be executed.

From the start it's clear that this charming man has great reserves of resourcefulness, patience and erudition. He assumes he will be returning to his own suite, but finds instead that he has been relegated to a tiny room which has been used only for storage. Quietly accepting, he takes a few essentials from his old rooms, and turns his back on the rest. However, we soon learn that the desk he takes with him has hollow legs, each of which contains a quantity of gold coins. And he manages to break through into the room next door via a cupboard, so that unknown to the casual observer, he now has a bedroom and a study, and there he is quite content.

The staff of the hotel have always liked and respected him, but now he gets to know them much better, and they become friends. But his true salvation is a child called Nina, who also lives in the hotel and knows every nook and cranny of it. She shares her knowledge with him, and although his physical world is now so confined, his mental and emotional world expand.

We are aware, as is the Count, of the tumultuous events outside the Metropol. But somehow, for forty years, the hotel manages to sustain its own life which is almost independent of what is going on outside. The Count meets visitors from other countries and encounters a beautiful actress whose fortunes wax and wane; he also meets a member of the new ruling class, a man called Osip, who tells him he wants to learn from him about the world beyond the borders of Russia - a world in which the Count travelled extensively before his incarceration. They learn about America through watching films, a great favourite being Casablanca (my own all-time favourite, too): and eventually, Osip is able to help him on two occasions when his need is great.

The book has the feel to me of the Russian epics to which the Count often refers. Everything is beautifully observed: the food and wine served in the hotel (the Count, who in later life becomes the Head Waiter and rejoices in this calling, is extremely knowledgeable about both), the way a present is wrapped, the characters themselves. It's enchanting. It moves at quite a slow pace, but speeds up as the years go on - and the ending is a tour de force: breathtakingly clever and quite unexpected.

It's a lovely, lovely book - I strongly recommend it.

Monday, 19 November 2018

The Girl In The Broken Mirror, by Savita Kalhan

This is a riveting read, though not a comfortable one: indeed, how could it be in any way comfortable when at the heart of it is a brutal rape?

It tells the story of Jay, a fifteen year old girl born in England but from an Indian family. Up until she is eleven, she has a comfortable, happy life: her father,who has wholeheartedly embraced English life, has a successful business, and she goes to a private school. But then her father wraps his car round a tree, and they discover after his death that his business has failed and he has lost everything.

The story demonstrates very clearly how thin is the barrier between relative wealth and poverty. Jay and her mother move to a tiny flat above a grocer's. Jay moves from her private school to a comprehensive and works part time in the shop: her mother has two jobs and studies part-time to train as a teacher, which she hopes will be their way out of their situation. Jay has a plan too: she is studying hard, in the hope of getting a scholarship to a university, and then a good job. And she has two very good friends, Chloe and Matt - who is just becoming more than a friend.

But then the grocer decides to sell his shop, and Jay's mother tells her that they are to move in with Uncle Bal and Auntie Vimala. Uncle Bal is a kindly man, but he is dominated by his horrible wife, who is a more traditional Indian - and uses this as an excuse to demand that Jay and her mother act as pretty much unpaid servants in the house. Thay have two sons, gentle Ash, who is still at home, and Deven, a very unpleasant university student who is the apple of his mother's eye.

At the beginning of the book, Jay is just waking up in the aftermath of the rape. The writing is powerful and visceral, and Savita Kalhan, absolutely makes us understand why Jay feels she is filthy and spoiled, and that all she can think of doing - once she has scrubbed herself with bleach in a vain attempt to make herself feel clean - is to get as far away from the house as she can. The next section tells us what led up to the rape, and then we learn of its aftermath: of how Jay tries to come back from it, with the help of her friends. This process is not made to seem easy or inevitable: it's painful not only for Jay but for those around her, particularly her mother.

The book demonstrates how difficult it can be to be caught between two cultures. It also shows clearly how hard it is to get out of poverty - and it shows how, apart from these more dramatic difficulties, being a teenager isn't the easiest thing either. Savita Kalhan is not afraid to confront things that it would be easier to avoid, and because she writes so well and creates such very real characters, she puts the reader right in the middle of some very distressing experiences. Yet ultimately she offers hope, and shows that generosity and kindness are to be found more often than brutality and arrogance, and will, in the end, triumph.