Sunday 30 April 2023

A Killing in November, by Simon Mason

 Back to books, with this detective story set in Oxford. I thought to start off with it was going to be relatively gentle, I suppose because of the Oxford college setting - but gentle it certainly is not.

The 'hero' is Detective Inspector Ryan Wilkins, who has to be one of the most unusual police officers in fiction. He's skinny and foul-mouthed, always wears loud tracksuits, and has a very severe anger management problem.

But - he is clever, he's intensely observant, he's direct to a fault - and he is a wonderful father to his small son, also called Ryan. This little boy is perhaps a bit more articulate than most two and a half year olds, but he's also an absolute sweetie, and the conversations the two of them have are almost heart breakingly tender.

Ryan has come back to Oxford, where he was born and not-exactly brought up, after an unfortunate incident involving a bishop in his previous post. His new partner is DI Ray Wilkins, who is as different from Ryan as he could possibly be: elegant, black, from a privileged background, charming and successful. They don't get on at all at first, but their relationship develops: each has the other's back. But this is not enough to save Ryan from the consequences of his rage - which, in turn, is clearly a result of his horrendously violent childhood - even though he is actually extremely good at his job.

There's lots more to the book than this. I was absolutely gripped; I so wanted Ryan to triumph - as, in some ways, he did.

I'm indebted to Adele Geras, who recommended it on Twitter. The only problem is - there's only one more book published so far in the series... Oh well - off to read it now.

Monday 24 April 2023

Cawdor Castle

  In the early summer of 2022, we were staying in the Cairngorm National Park. It was our first time in the north-west of Scotland, and we were wowed by the ancient Caledonian Forest, the gaunt hills, the sparkling rivers, and the variety of wildlife. However, on a day that was forecast to be wet and windy (in fact it was the latter but not the former), we decided to find somewhere that would offer shelter if necessary. So we went to Cawdor Castle.

All we knew about the place was that Macbeth, at the beginning of Shakespeare's play, was told by the witches that he would become Thane of Cawdor - and thereafter, of course, King of Scotland. So we were expecting somewhere dark and forbidding, probably half-ruined, and naturally haunted by ravens croaking in a doom-laden sort of way.

But the castle turned out to be none of those things. Built of grey stone, with a turreted square tower at its centre, the house is softened by the lawns, gardens and woodland that surround it. Inside, it has the feel of a comfortable home, in which you can imagine a family living happily - though reminders of a dark and bloody past do emerge. And in fact, we were told that the Dowager Countess, who manages the house, does live there in the winter, and even sleeps in the centuries-old scarlet four-poster. "Sooner her than me," commented the volunteer who told us this with a shudder. 

You enter through the drawing room, which is warm and colourful, with comfortable looking chairs and sofas and lots of lamps. There are also lots of portraits, which of course you don't tend to find in the average family home. In an alcove on a staircase there is a bold piece of wall-art, which at a second glance you see is a fan-shaped arrangement of nineteen rifles. (Why only nineteen? What happened to the twentieth?) I imagine these are a consequence of the aristocracy's strange desire to kill great quantities of wildlife, rather than earlier generations' propensity for killing their enemies, or sometimes their relations. But I could well be wrong...

The house is filled not only with interesting objects which generations of Campbells have collected on their travels - pictures, ornaments, sculptures, porcelain - but also with family photographs and some very lovely modern art. The tower is the oldest part of the castle, and was built with a view to defending the castle against enemies and marauders; but now, the top floor is a relatively small, very pleasant living room.

But go down the narrow winding staircase, and you will find this reminder of the building's long history. The castle was founded round about the end of the fourteenth century. Tradition has it that the site was chosen - bizarrely - by a donkey, which was set free and allowed to wander where it would. In the place where it stopped, there the castle would be built. And so it was.

I suppose it's just possible that this may not be entirely true - but what is certainly true is that the tower was built around a tree. The evidence is in the picture below - the tree is still there. It was said to be a hawthorn, but when samples were analysed recently, it was found to be a holly. This seems to make more sense: holly has a place in myth and legend. Certainly it has been credited with protecting the castle from destruction at various dangerous times in its history.

And dangerous times there certainly were. Cosy and comfortable as the castle seems now (apart from this basement, which has a bijou little dungeon tucked away on one side - just the place for unwelcome visitors), the family that lived there were, over the centuries, involved in some very nasty goings-on indeed. For example - in the early sixteenth century, the heiress was a child called Muriel. She was kidnapped by the Earl of Argyll, and, the guidebook tells us: 'For future recognition, she was branded on the hip by her nurse with a key. and the top joint of the little finger of her left hand was bitten off.' When she was twelve, she was married off to Argyll's younger son, Sir John Campbell. Surprisingly, the marriage was apparently a happy one. But this wasn't the end to the drama: Sir John's sister was married to one Lachlan Maclean. Wearying of his wife, he had her chained naked to a tidal skerry; she was supposed to drown, but was in fact rescued by passing fishermen. Sir John then knifed his brother-in-law to death in Edinburgh. He was pardoned, but deemed it a good moment to retreat to Muriel's far-distant ancestral home in Cawdor.

And that was only the beginning. There's far more blood-letting, feuding and killing people in hideously brutal ways - much too much to include in this post.

And talking of blood-letting, what of Macbeth? Was he really the Thane of Cawdor? We asked a guide. She sighed. One might almost have thought she'd been asked this question a million times before. "No. Macbeth was a real person - but he lived long before the castle of Cawdor was built, long before there was even a thane. What's more, there's quite a lot of evidence that he was a VERY NICE PERSON. He and his wife were very well-loved."

So there.

We certainly shouldn't leave Cawdor without a visit to the gardens, which are quite beautiful -see also the top picture. And the woodlands are lovely too, with rhododendrons and some very old trees, and a stream running through. Times have changed since the castle's founding - and in some ways - though not all - very much for the better. (I do wonder how the peasants were getting on while the aristocrats were whirling around killing each other...)

Monday 17 April 2023

The Plant-Hunter's Atlas, and The Newt

  Some of you may recall that I have an interest in the history of plants, and particularly in the extraordinary adventures of the plant hunters. So much so that my last book, Jack Fortune and the Search for the Hidden Valley, draws on real histories to tell the story of a boy who goes plant-hunting in the Himalayas at the end of the eighteenth century. The plant hunters were - and are - incredibly brave (some might say foolhardy!) and resourceful, so it struck me that they would be an excellent subject for a children's book - and so, I think, it proved.

So when I noticed that among the luminaries appearing at the Wells Literature Festival was one Ambra Edwards, promoting her new book The Plant Hunter's Atlas, I of course booked a ticket and sallied forth, a week ago, to find out more. 

The book is published in association with Kew, and is lusciously illustrated with botanical paintings. As the title suggests, it is organised into geographical areas, and tells of the plants which were discovered (by the west: of course, indigenous people already knew all about them, and in many cases were indispensable in helping the emissaries from Kew and the Royal Horticultural Society in their mission to find new plants) - and the people who discovered them. So we meet old friends such as Sir Joseph Banks, who travelled with Captain Cook on his voyage to discover the Great Southern Continent, botanising enthusiastically, and fraternising possibly even more enthusiastically with the inhabitants of Otaheite (Tahiti), and on his return to England headed up Kew and was responsible for promoting the careers of scientists like the astronomers William Herschel and his sister, Caroline, as well as sending out plant hunters far and wide, in search of plants which would be useful for economic purposes as well as to ornament private gardens. Here too is David Douglas, who must have been one of the most unlucky plant hunters ever. He botanised in North America, and was subjected to storms, shipwrecks, dishonest guides, and every other plant-hunting misfortune you can think of, finally meeting a horrible end when he fell into a pit with sharp spikes at the bottom, designed to capture wild animals.

One of the gorgeous illustrations.

There are many more, but we are also introduced to some extraordinary plants. Take, for instance, the Corpse Lily, found in Sumatra. This produces 'the largest single flower in the world', which can grow to four feet across and weigh up to ten kg. It's a parasite, growing on the Indian chestnut vine: it takes more than two years to flower, and then the bloom - which smells of rotting meat - lasts for a mere week. Then there's Davidia Involucrata, the handkerchief tree, of which a single specimen was found by Dr Augustine Henry in China in 1888. He sent seeds back to Kew, but they failed to germinate, so in 1899 a young man called Ernest Wilson was sent to China to track down this one tree. He had to contend with an outbreak of bubonic plague and the Boxer Rebellion, as well as mountains and river rapids - but, astonishingly, he managed to find the site of the tree from a mere cross on a map: only to find that it had been cut down to clear the site for a smart new wooden house. Fortunately, a few weeks later he came across a small group of the precious trees. Imagine the relief!

The book is a treat, which I am still reading through - and Ambra's presentation was brilliant. But by coincidence, a few days ago another plant history treat came my way, when some friends invited us to go with them to The Newt in Somerset, an extraordinary garden created by South African businessman Koos Bekker, under the direction of Italo-French architect Patrice Taravella. We all know about Capability Brown and Humphrey Repton, who created gardens in the 18th century which involved the digging out of lakes, the rerouting of rivers - even the relocation of entire villages. Things these days are not usually done on this kind of scale, and this is why The Newt is so striking - it very much is a creation of that degree of magnitude. Everything is beautifully done, from the newly built tithe barn made out of warm golden stone which provides the reception area, to the curving elevated path made out of metal which takes you through the woods, to the gardens themselves - which of course were not at their best this week, but must look spectacular in spring and summer.

But the treat I mentioned lies at the end of that metal walkway. Inside a building which is tucked into the hillside, with a living roof, is a museum of garden history. And it's fascinating. Of course, it has extraordinary stories to tell. But it's the way it tells them too: it uses technology in a breathtakingly innovative way, so that in a relatively short space of time, you learn an enormous amount about garden history - from the Romans, through Islamic gardens, taking in Chinese and Japanese gardens, Eurpoean and British ones, right up to today. I'll let the pictures tell a little of the story.

The entrance, with tithe barn, cider-making on the left, and a fire in the foreground to ward off the chill.

The Parabola, with drystone terraces and lots of apple trees.

The vegetable garden. Love the flowerpots.

The Japanese room in the museum of garden history. You walk on a pond...

A Wardian case. Was very interested to see this - until the invention of the Wardian case, 
it was a very dodgy enterprise to try and transport living plants across oceans.

Beautifully displayed garden tools - here, flower pots and pliers.

Monday 10 April 2023

Shipley Hall, D H Lawrence, and a sad irony

  When I was a child, we lived on the edge of Ilkeston, formerly a Derbyshire mining town. By then most of the local pits pits had closed down. Probably the biggest employer was Stanton Ironworks, where one of my grandfathers had once worked. I'm reminded of Stanton often, because wherever you go in this country, if you look down you will see a draincover which is stamped Stanton PLC. There's a particularly pretty one at the Bristol dockyard where the SS Great Britain is moored.

Anyway, on Sundays we often used to go for a walk in Shipley Wood. There was a rather stately entrance on Heanor Road, and then you walked along a wide driveway with trees on either side. To the left there were interesting dips, or holes, with a thick layer of dead leaves at the bottom. I don't know what had caused them - perhaps subsidence: more of that later. Whatever their origin, they were great for playing. In the spring, there were masses of bluebells, and we would take bunches home and put them in jamjars. I was always worried by the fierce signs up all over the place saying: NCB (National Coal Board): TRESPASSERS WILL BE PROSECUTED! But nobody else seemed to bother and so far as I knew, nobody ever got arrested.

If you carried on along the driveway, there would soon be a sharp change in the scenery, from sylvan to industrial. For this was the site of Shipley Colliery. It was no longer in use, but everything was still there: the winding gear, a dark, brooding slagheap, and a gloomy reservoir. This must have been securely fenced off, because you never saw anyone there. It was ugly, lifeless, a place to pass by.

The road carried on, past a rather nice looking house which had once been a lodge, and then up a hill. To the left, my mother told us, was the site of Shipley Hall. There was nothing left of it now, but she remembered that when she was a child, there were garden parties or summer fetes there, and she had been to one. They were probably held for the miners' families - the owners of the house also owned Shipley Pit. There's a description of something similar in Women In Love, by D H Lawrence; as I recall it, there's a tragic drowning in an ornamental lake shortly after the party. (Typically of Lawrence, there's a hint that it's the woman's fault: her arms are wrapped round her fiancee, as if she dragged him down...)

Shipley Hall

He may have pictured the scene at Shipley Hall itself, becuse Lawrence came from Eastwood, just a few miles away. He certainly used it as the setting for Connie and Clifford's house in Lady Chatterley's Lover: like the Miller Mundys, who owned Shipley, Clifford Chatterley was a mine owner. Once, when I was older, I was with my parents walking near the site of the hall, and we met an old man who remembered Lawrence. He shook his head and said disapprovingly, "He were a dutty bugger, he were. He put a lot of people from round here in his books, and they didn't like it."

For his part, Lawrence wasn't always overly complimentary about the locals. In Lady C's Lover, he says: 

'This country had a grim will of its own, and the people had guts. Connie wondered what else they had: certainly neither eyes nor minds. The people were as haggard, shapeless and dreary as the countryside, and as unfriendly. Only there was something in their deep-mouthed slurring of the dialect, and the thresh-thresh of their hob-nailed pit-boots as they trailed home in gangs on the asphalt from work, that was terrible and a bit mysterious.'

So, yes - thanks for that, DH. Perhaps that's why he's not as popular round Ilkeston as, say, Hardy is in Dorset, or Jane Austen in Bath and Hampshire. Or perhaps it's just that his books, despite their many remarkable qualities, seem to have gone out of fashion.

But the main reason Shipley Hall has always interested me is because of the sad irony of its ending. The hall, and the Miller Mundys, had been associated with coal mining since the 18th century. They knew about it, and they had been careful to ensure that no tunnelling took place underneath the house. In the early twentieth century, they were said, by the standards of the time, to have been good owners - hence, perhaps, the garden parties for the local children. But in the early twenties, the house, the land and the mine were sold to Shipley Colliery Company. The company decided to mine the rich seams of coal underneath the house. They planned to do it carefully, but then came the General Strike, and all work stopped. As a result, uneven subsidence damaged the house, and eventually it had to be knocked down.

The thought haunts me that this once-gracious house was destroyed by the very industry which had created the wealth of the family who had owned it. Perhaps this is because it echoes a bigger truth: that we have plundered our planet - for coal, and many other things - and are only just realising that in delving for wealth, we are in danger of destroying our home.

To end on a happier note: in Lawrence's novel, Clifford, looking at the wood, says to Connie: '"I want this wood perfect... untouched...Except for us, it would go... it would be gone already, like the rest of the forest. (He believes it to be a remnant of Sherwood.) One must preserve some of the old England!"'

But he got that wrong. The landowners did go, but the land - and the wood - have been preserved. The scars of industry have been cleared away, and the estate is now Shipley Country Park - a beautiful open space for the descendants of those 'shapeless and dreary' common people. (Of whom, incidentally, DHL was originally one.) Let's hope it's a lesson learned. 

Monday 3 April 2023

The Stones of Stanton Drew (NB this is not a book review!)

 I've been meaning for some time to visit Stanton Drew, where I'd heard there are stone circles. I'm interested in prehistory, and fascinated by all the discoveries that keep being made about early man - and I find these mysterious stones which are scattered across our landscape intriguing, and somehow meaningful in a way I can't quite grasp.

Stanton Drew is only half an hour's drive from where I live in Somerset. I'm on one side of the Mendips, and Stanton Drew is on the other side, in the Chew Valley - which is very beautiful, so it was a treat of a drive over there. 

Stanton Drew itself is an exceptionally pretty village, built of stone, clustered round its church, reached by a very narrow lane - which is perhaps why it's escaped lots of new building. I missed the circles at first and had to turn round and come back over a tiny bridge; if you visit (for the information of Scattered Authors: it's very close to Folly Farm), just head for the church and then follow the signs till you can't go any further. You'll find a small parking area among some houses; look behind you, and you'll see the path into the field where the stones are. The site is managed by English Heritage, but it's not remotely like their more famous site, Stonehenge, which, as you'll know, is a massive, very busy tourist attraction with a state-of-the-art tourist centre.

Stanton Drew isn't like that at all. There are a couple of information boards at the entrance, which is through an old, slightly battered-looking kissing gate. You look ahead: and there is a large meadow dotted with stones. It slopes slightly down towards the River Chew, and to the left, on the other side of the river, the ground rises up again, as you can see in the second picture. To the left, more fields, and the skeleton outline of a few trees. It was one of those days that alternates between bright sunshine and sudden downpours, with a sky full of dramatic clouds tinged with purple and grey.

There are three circles, estimated to have been constructed in about 2500BC - so within roughly the same period as Stonehenge. The largest one, according to English Heritage, is, at 113 metres across, one of the biggest in the British Isles. Some of its stones are missing, but many remain: some standing, some fallen. They are made of a stone called Dolomitic Conglomerate, which probably comes from just a few miles away, in the Mendips. It's a gnarled, heavily textured stone, colonised by lichens, with hollows filled by rainwater which gleams in the sunshine. 

Perhaps surprisingly, none of the circles have been excavated, but geophysics surveys show that in the large one there were once concentric circles of wooden posts, together with a ditch running round the outside. These circles took a lot of building: what drove the small communities that lived here to invest so much time and effort in creating them? Something to do with religion, surely: an attempt to make sense of life and death.

But legend has a different explanation. The story has it that long ago, on a Saturday night in summer, there was a wedding party in this meadow. Drink was, of course, taken: a fiddler played and the dancing grew wilder and wilder. However, at midnight the fiddler wiped his brow and said apologetically that that was it: it was Sunday now, and he must stop playing. The newly-marrieds and the guests cried shame, but the fiddler would not be swayed: he packed up his fiddle and off he went.

But all, it seemed, was not lost. For there, in the centre of the circle, another fiddler had suddenly appeared: a handsome stranger. With a grin, he declared that he would be more than happy to keep the festivities going, Sunday or no Sunday.

He played well. In fact he played so well that the music was irresistible. The dancing grew wilder and more frenzied; the dancers couldn't stop, until eventually, utterly exhausted, they fell to the ground, exhausted - and were turned to stone.

Then the stranger, still smiling, shed his handsome appearance - and revealed himself to be, in fact, the Devil.

Well, there was no sign of the Devil yesterday. Though the weather was wild, the scene was utterly peaceful. Quite magical, in fact. 

As I walked across to one of the smaller circles, I noticed a splash of crimson on one of the overturned stones. It was a single red rose. 

And when I reached the centre of the smaller circle - which appears to be more complete than the larger one - I saw little patches of white scattered among the grass. I thought at first they were some kind of flower, but as I looked more closely, I saw that they were rose petals: some red, but mostly white. Someone had been here before me. Someone who felt a special connection to this place. 

It's a feeling I can understand.

Incidentally, some of you may know that I am a huge fan of Elly Griffiths' Ruth Galloway series of novels. For fellow fans - Stanton Drew features in the 11th novel of the series, 'The Stone Circle'. Elly mentions another legend: that it's impossible to count the number of stones - or that if you do succeed, you drop down dead. Just to be on the safe side, I decided not to try.


Thursday 29 September 2022

Dogs of the Deadlands, by Anthony McGowan

 For a  review of Anthony McGowan's rivetting new YA novel set in the aftermath of Chernobyl, please follow the link to An Awfully Big Blog Adventure. (I should perhaps mention that it's mostly about the dogs of Chernobyl, not the people.)

Monday 12 September 2022

The Mayor of Casterbridge, by Thomas Hardy

I can't imagine why, but recently I've felt the urge to escape from the present into a greener, gentler past: and so I decided to re-read The Mayor of Casterbridge, by Thomas Hardy. I think Hardy had similar feelings; most of his books are set in a time slightly earlier than his own. His beloved Wessex included Dorset and parts of Wiltshire and Devon - all of which, of course, are still beautiful. Hardy had a strong sense of the past, and how its remains can be found in the present: hence, for example, the use of Stonehenge or somewhere very similar in Tess of the D'Urbervilles - and the Roman amphitheatre which is the setting for a number of clandestine meetings in The Mayor. And sure, it may be that he sometimes over-indulges in his preoccupation with such places, and with echoes through time.

It wasn't physically the easiest of reads. We have a set of leather-bound Hardy books which used to belong to my father-in-law, and at some stage when I was desperately trying to make some space on the bookshelves - this happens quite often - I chucked out most of my own, paperback copies of the novels on the ground that it was silly to keep duplicates. The copy of The Mayor dates from 1920, so about 25 years after the book was written. It's small, the paper is very thin, and the print at first sight is not easy to read. But I soon got used to it - as I became absorbed in the story.

It begins with an extraordinary incident, which is the springboard for all that happens later. Michael Henchard, a young farm labourer, is trudging the roads of Wessex with his wife, Susan, and their baby, Elizabeth-Jane. They are dispirited and weary. They happen upon a fair, and Susan suggests that, rather than going to the beer tent, they should go to a tent where furmity, a mixture of corn, milk, raisins and currants is sold. Susan's intent is in part to keep Henchard away from the beer - what she doesn't realise is that the furmity woman tips a measure of rum into the bowls of those who ask for it - which Henchard does.

Becoming steadily more drunk, he starts to bemoan his circumstances, and particularly his marriage. Outside the tent, he hears an auctioneer, and the idea strikes him that, just as he could sell a no-longer-wanted horse if he wanted, so he should be able to sell a wife he no longer wants. Others join in the 'fun', and an auction is set up, at which he sells Susan to a sailor for five guineas. What had started out as a cruel joke becomes reality; Henchard doesn't back down, and neither does the sailor. So Henchard wakes up the next morning with a blinding headache and the realisation that he has sold his wife. He searches for her and the sailor, but without success.

We next see our characters nearly twenty years later, when Susan and her daughter have come to Casterbridge in search of Henchard; the sailor has been lost at sea, and so Susan has decided she must seek out her former husband in the hope that he might be able to help them. Rural poverty is never far from the surface in Hardy: nor is the realisation that even a wealthy man, after a bad harvest, a poor business decision or an accident, can lose everything. They soon find out that Henchard is prosperous and has in fact become the Mayor of Casterbridge.

At the same time, a young Scot called Donald Farfrae has arrived in town. Where Henchard is dour and quick-tempered, Farfrae is quick-minded and pleasant; he's the sort of person who makes a success of everything he does, and draws people to him. Henchard quickly sees that Farfrae can be a great help to him, and he employs him. 

So almost all the main characters are assembled. The remaining one is Lucetta, with whom Henchard has had an affair in the past: she arrives some time after the others, and so the scene is set.

Now, I'm not going to go into exactly what follows. For one thing that would spoil the story for you - but for another, it's very complicated! Suffice to say that things do not run at all smoothly for most of the characters - there is not a happy-ever-after for most of them. There are mishaps, there are misunderstandings, there are instances of petty revenge: but mostly, the tragedy arises from the characters of the protagonists and that one fateful evening in the furmity tent.

What really struck me was how clever the plot is. I think I noticed this particularly because, as a writer, I find plotting difficult. Not so Hardy. The structure of this book is like a maze - or like a fiendishly complicated sailor's knot. He is a master. The other thing that struck me is that you might think, from a relation of what happens, that this would be a melodrama. And it's not, though it does have elements of melodrama. Very often, a situation is set up, and you expect the character to be propelled into a self-destructive action - but instead, they stand back and consider, and react with restraint. (Then, just when you think it's safe to come out from behind the sofa, something else happens, and the disaster befalls the character anyway.)

And there is a happy ending. Sort of.