Thursday, 15 August 2019

The Light in the Dark, A Winter Journal - by Horatio Clare

I've read other books by Horatio Clare. Some are about nature and about the people and places he meets on his travels: Orison for a Curlew, for instance, is about his search for the slender-billed curlew, which is thought to have become extinct - a search which took him through bits of Europe which tourists mostly don't visit. Icebreaker is - fairly obviously - about a voyage on an icebreaker. But both of these are about the people as much as the journey: he is clearly very interested in and intrigued by people, and he's a generous, sympathetic observer.

He's also written three books for children - I wrote about the first of these, Aubrey and the Terrible Yoot, here. I thought it was enchanting: full of magic but with a very serious side to it. It's about a father who suffers from depression, and how his small son copes with this and helps his dad to fight against it. It deals with the subject in the most imaginative way, so that although the story is about depression, it's not the least bit depressing itself. On the contrary, it's an adventure, full of energy and delight,with Aubrey, lively, brave and sensitive, as its invincible hero.

The Light in the Dark covers some of the same ground - though in a very different way - and allows us to meet Aubrey again. For Aubrey is Horatio's son, and Horatio does indeed suffer from depression. This book is about the winter of 2017-18. Horatio's depression is linked to the seasons, and is worse in the winter (towards the end of the book, it's diagnosed as cyclothymia, a milder version of bi-polar disorder, which is exacerbated by the seasons). The book charts his struggle to master it, or at least to prevent it from impacting too much on his family, whom he clearly loves very dearly. But it is also about winter itself, and particularly about a northern, countryside winter: this was the winter of the Beast From The East: a dramatic, snowy winter, not the kind that kills you with dampness.

Published by Elliott and Thompson, this is a very beautifully produced book. My copy is a hardback, with a slip cover by Dan Mogford, which shows snowy hills against a sky shading from navy to lapis to turquoise. It is framed by the black silhouettes of bare trees, and sprinkled with stars which, magically, change from gold to silver according to the angle at which you hold the book. It's in diary format, but is divided into sections by tiny drawings of snowflakes.

It's an account of this winter, but of other times too: of Horatio's childhood on a sheep farm in Wales, of his meeting his partner, Rebecca, and a magical Christmas in Venice; of journeys he's taken and people he's met. Although he writes honestly about his depression, it is not a depressing book. On the contrary, it is affirming of life, of love, of nature. The language is rich, pictorial, precise: for example - There have been ominous sunsets like spilled fire under brooding cloud, and in daylight the bare trees reveal the country and its creatures in a clarity the other seasons deny. (There is a lovely balance and rhythm to that sentence.)

And about what the depression does to him: ...somehow I must not let the worry make me a terrible father and a ghastly person to live with. I will fail at this - I am failing at this, I know. The negative, like an egg hatching, produces a kind of dark thing which sits in my mouth, spitting out gloom whenever it can. I try not to speak.

But then on the other hand there's Aubrey, and joy: Up into the wood we went, Aubrey poking the runnels, delighted by trapped air bubbles and white-starred ice. He was tremendous this half-term morning, climbing rocks, telling stories about sea-planes and snow troopers, whipping through his letters...

The book is a treat: each word is to be savoured. And I hesitate to say it, because I know it's a bit early, and you don't need my advice anyway - but it would be a perfect Christmas present!

Tuesday, 11 June 2019

Any Human Heart, by William Boyd

Have just finished this, and what a read it is! I feel as if I'm tottering out of a cave, blinking in the
daylight, after a long and intense journey through a goodly portion of the twentieth century, during which I've met Virginia Woolf, Picasso, James Joyce, Hemingway, the Duke of Windsor and heaven knows who else, experienced the Spanish Civil War, been a spy in the Second World War, witnessed the civil war in Nigeria and been a slightly baffled hanger-on of the Baader Meinhof Gang.

The story is told through the character of Logan Mountstuart, and purports to be a collection of his journals, with occasional additional notes from an anonymous editor. Born in 1906, Mountstuart's early childhood is spent in Uruguay, where his father runs a meat processing factory: his mother is Uruguayan. When he's eight, his father has a promotion and they move to England, to Birmingham. Logan is sent to boarding school, and begins his first journal when he's seventeen. Friends he meets there recur throughout the book.

At this stage, Logan seems pretty bumptious - a vivid character, but not necessarily a likeable one. And that's a feature of him: all through his life, he does things he should probably be ashamed of - as we all do - and sometimes you find yourself feeling really cross with him. But then you catch him out in an unexpected act of kindness and you think, oh, well, he's not so bad after all. Which can happen with real people, but not so much with characters in books, who are generally expected to be consistent. So he sleeps with his best friend's wife, Gloria, quite carelessly - but years later, when she's impoverished and dying, he takes her in and cares for her, even though by this stage he's extremely poor himself. He drifts into his first marriage carelessly and is unkind to his wife - but his relationship with his second wife is deep and lovely. The title of the novel comes from a quotation from Henry James, Never say you know the last word about any human heart: and clearly, the human heart, its complexity, its shallowness and its depths, is one of the things Boyd is exploring in this book

Boyd puts his character right in the middle of so many significant places and situations in the 20th century. And he does it so skilfully that it all seems entirely plausible - even, just about, his involvement with the Baader-Meinhof gang, which begins when he finds a leaflet in a phone box asking for volunteers to join a group interested in social justice - just when he's looking for a new purpose in life in old age. He proves to be rather good at selling the group's newspapers, and becomes more and more involved, eventually finding himself smuggling gelignite in Europe - at which point he finds himself bemused but not disconcerted, and yet again extricates himself from what seems an impossible situation.

I found it a remarkable book - one of the best I've read in a long while.

Wednesday, 10 April 2019

The hill in April

The first cowslip and orchid I’ve seen this spring, and the view from the remains of the Round House, which gave the hill its name, but about which I know very little. 

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 rĂ´les, 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.