Wednesday, 14 April 2021

Underland, by Robert Macfarlane

 The first thing to say is that I do realise how useless I am at keeping up this blog. I am very envious of a friend who has written down every book she's ever read in a notebook (several notebooks? A bookcase full of notebooks?) - and yet I have utterly failed at writing a bit about a book just once every couple of weeks or so.

I'm not making excuses - well, I am - but I think it's because I read a lot, and as soon as I've finished one book, I start another. Plus, I sometimes have several on the go at the same time. And during this lockdown in particular, I've really felt the need for bookish worlds to escape into, one after another - and to stop to review each one just seems too big an ask. (Not, of course, that anyone's asking except me.)

But, I've just finished the latest draft of my work in progress and don't yet know what I'm going to write next, so I'm going to try and catch up a little bit. But of course, it's some while since I've read some of these books, so you'll have to bear with if if there's a certain lack of detail.

First up is Robert Macfarlane's Underland. Now, I have to confess that while I have read other books by Macfarlane, I haven't always round them easy to get into. Typically, I read a few pages or a couple of chapters, and think Oh, what beautiful writing this is! - and then find myself gravitating towards something easier. I do wonder if this is partly to do with being immersed in children's books, and in crime fiction. With both of these, the story is all. At the end of each chapter, there needs to be a hook which draws you inexorably into reading the next chapter. And you don't spend an awful lot of time writing description - there is room for it, and some children's books have mouthwatering descriptions - but it's subservient to the story.

With nature writing, the case is quite different. I think it's probably fair to say that with nature writing, observation and description form the bedrock of the essay or book. Other things will emerge, but that's where you start. So your expectations need to be different. You need to slow down, take your time, read carefully. Whereas naturally, what I do is gallop through.

However with Underland, it was different. It was gripping.

As you might deduce from the title, it's about exploring underground. It's divided into three sections, called the first, second and third chambers. The first deals with caves and tunnels in Britain; the second with undergound tunnel networks in Paris, Italy and Slovenia, and the third with caves in Norway, Greenland and Finland. 

The first chapter concerns the Mendips - of which the hill in the title of this blog is one. Macfarlane doesn't just desribe the landscape. He muses on it, reflects on it, explores it through a network of ideas and cultural references. Looking at this first chapter again, my eye is caught by this, from Sean, the friend who will be his guide to the Mendips: 

"This has been a funerary landscape for over 10,000 years. It's a terrain into which we have long entrusted things, as well as from which we have long extracted things." 

Macfarlane expands on this, illustrating the thought with lots of examples of ancient burials, in Austria, in Israel, in Somerset itself, and mulling over their significance. Then, he goes underground with Sean. There is climbing over wet rock, there is the rope getting stuck, there is squeezing through narrow passageways. It's all quite terrifying - especially when he tells the incredibly sad story of a caver in the Peak District who got stuck in a narrow gulley and could not be got out. He's there to this day. So nightmares come true.

And this is the pattern of the book: erudite musing about the historical, philosophical, cultural or scientific significance of what he's seeing, alternated with jaw-dropping accounts of dangerous descents. I confess I'm a complete wuss: scared of heights, depths, deep water and narrow spaces. So I'm fascinated by the exploits of someone who is clearly not any of those things. And I am interested in caves, because of something I've been writing. And the writing is beautiful. So, yes, I was hooked.

Sunday, 10 January 2021

Voyage of the Sparrowhawk, by Natasha Farrant

 I noticed the other day that this book, Voyage of the Sparrowhawk, has won the children's book category of the Costa award, and so I decided to send for it. The afternoon it arrived, on a cold grey day when the obvious thing to do was to curl up with a good book, I settled down on the settee and got stuck in.

It's 352 pages long, and other than getting up to make a cup of tea, I barely looked up until I'd read it. It's that entertaining.

Set just after the First World War, it's about two orphans, Lotti and Ben. Lotti's parents, wealthy, charming, and very much in love, both with each other and with their little daughter, are killed in a plane crash. Lotti inherits their beautiful house and their money - but her guardian is her ghastly uncle, Hubert Netherbury, who is a cruel bully who wants to enjoy her house and money and, seeing Lotti as an inconvenience, packs her off to an unpleasant boarding school.

The story starts when she is twelve. Having just run away from school, she meets Ben and they become firm friends. Ben's background is far less privileged. Having spent his early years in a horrible orphanage, he is rescued by Nathan, a kindly barge owner. Nathan comes across Ben and his older friend Sam and, moved by their plight, takes them in. However, a few years later the war intervenes. Sam joins up and is injured. Nathan goes to France to see him in hospital, and is killed in a bombing raid: Sam is missing, presumed dead.

By coincidence, the hospital is close to the village where Lotti's beloved grandmother lives. Strangely, she has lost touch with her grandmother; though she has written many letters to her, she has never heard back.

But then various things happen which convince the two of them that they have no choice but to run away - and to where else but that village in France? And in what but Nathan's old barge, the Sparrowhawk? With them are their two dogs, which help to move the action along nicely.

The charm of the book is largely in its characters - not just Lotti and Ben, but their supporting cast of friends and helpers. They are generous, spiky, kind, practical, funny, brave, and Natasha Farrant tells their stories with crispness and panache. It's not all spun sugar: there are instances of real cruelty, there's jeopardy - and there are quite a few deaths.

When you start to write books for children, someone will point out to you quite early on that you need to devise a way to get rid of parents. Otherwise, how can your child heroes have the adventures they need to keep readers turning the pages? Back in the olden days, Enid Blyton did it with a flourish: off the kids would go to boarding school, and in the holidays to Kirrin Island. Convalescence from a serious illness was another goody, as with Will Stanton in Susan Cooper's The Grey King. Or there's always a wardrobe. Natasha Farrant ruthlessly wipes out , not one, but two set of parents here. (Interestingly, I heard Frank Cottrell Boyce on the radio the other day, talking about the Moomins - and he pointed out that in the Moomin books, this doesn't happen: the family is at the centre of the books. Each member is important, and when an adventure is afoot, the parents aren't necessarily left out of it.)

All that aside, this is a wonderfully readable and exciting book: perfect for distracting children - and yes, adults too - from these rather dreary days in which we find ourselves.

PS If you're reading this and quite enjoying it, do consider becoming a follower of this blog. You'll get a notification when there's a new post, and well - it would just be nice!

Friday, 18 December 2020

Winter Trees

 Since my writing group went online, I've mostly done the weekly tasks I've set them - and it's been fun and quite liberating trying out different things. Most recently, I set them to write a poem about winter. (You can see the task here.) My poem was very generously and kindly received - so here, very trepidatiously, because I know I'm not a poet, it is. 

Winter Trees

They look dead, don’t they?

Beautiful, but dead. That incredibly complex

Network of branches, held aloft against a thrush-egg sky:

An exquisite grey etching, done by the cleverest artist

With the finest pen. But of course,

They are not dead: only resting,

Preparing for spring. It’s all happening

Inside those enigmatic trunks and branches,

Powered by invisible roots and fungal filaments.

All they need from us

Is to be left alone.


Their backdrop is the sky.

Sometimes dull grey cloud, perhaps

With a tinge of sulphurous yellow,

A warning of storms ahead. But sometimes –

Ah, sometimes!

They trace their intricate patterns

Against a sky of perfect blue,

Which has a softness summer skies

Can’t match: the chalky blue of

Ancient frescoes. And then too –

That jewel-like blue, that you get

Just before sunset, when in a last splendid gesture,

The sun throws gold at the trees

And they flaunt their splendour

With all the brilliance

Of a mediaeval manuscript.


And then again – not often,

But all the more precious for that:

Silvered by frost, they glitter

With icy magic. Or snow falls,

To highlight each stark line,

While below, new shapes appear:

Softly sculpted drifts,

The delicate tracery of birds’ footprints.

And there is

A silence, as the world holds its breath,

Before we arrive, with our sledges and boots,

Our shouts and our litter.

🅲 Sue Purkiss

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.