Monday, 27 February 2017

News from the hill

There have been dramatic happenings up on the hill over the last couple of weeks. Yellow plastic signs appeare warning of forestry operations, and these were followed by enormous tractors with shovels and suchlike on the front. Every few years, men and machines come and clear away the brambles and bracken which constantly seek to smother the whole hill - but in thirty years I've never seen them do as thorough a job as they have done this time. They've pretty much rearranged the landscape. In the picture above, the golden-brown areas are where just one small area of scrub has been destroyed.

It was all a bit worrying - where were they going to stop? How much was going to be destroyed? Well, a good deal. But I think it was necessary. They've opened up new clearings and vistas and created shapely little copses. I guess it's like gardening, only on a much bigger scale; you prune a bush, and it feels like a massacre, but then it goes back better and healthier. It's not natural, but then very little of the British landscape is - it's all managed, and has been for thousands for years.

I have just two quibbles. There was a lovely little clearing with limestone outcrops which were perfect to sit on and gaze across the valley towards Nyland and Glastonbury. It's on quite a steep slope, and I think the tractor must have got stuck so that the wheels spun round and gouged out great clods of earth and stone - it's a mess. I don't know what it was doing there; there was nothing that needed clearing and the path was nowhere near wide or level enough for any kind of vehicle. Every time I walk through there up with Ness, I spend a bit of time tidying it up, making it better, clod by clod, stone by stone - I feel like Tom Bombadil, only without the songs.

The other worry is an area on the edge of a copse where there used to be a very large and very old badger sett. That's flattened now. But the other day when I went past, I spotted two holes that I hadn't noticed since the work was done - and so I'm hoping that the badgers survived and are reclaiming their home. We'll see.

This curved remnant of stone is all that's left of the Roundhouse, which is also what local people call the hill, whose official name is, I think, the Perch. An old-timer once told me that in his younger days he used to be a beater for the local hunt, and the Roundhouse was where the hunters used to gather to have their picnic. They chose a good spot - there are marvellous views across the valley from here. Now, it's another good place to sit and contemplate the rather sorry state of the world, or its beauty, depending how you're feeling. Its crannies host lots of small ferns, mosses and other plants. The brambles were creeping closer and closer to the Roundhouse - I'm glad they've been cut back.

The gorse is out and bright at the moment. Another old-timer, long gone now, once told me there was a saying: "When gorse is out of season, kissing's out of fashion."

Once before when they cleared the brambles and bracken, a few months later a gorgeous patch of pale blue harebells appeared. They grow freely on most hills - in the Peak District, in North Wales - but you rarely see them on the Mendips round here: I don't know why. They only appeared the once. So I'm hoping that will be another bonus from the clearance.

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Reading the detectives 4: Bruno, Chief of Police, by Martin Walker

I'm astonished to see that it's over two years since I wrote about a detective series. It's not that I haven't read any since then - I have. But it's true that for a while now, I haven't felt like reading about murder and mayhem. Perhaps there's been too much mayhem going on in real life.

But just recently I came across this series, written by Martin Walker and set in the Dordogne. And actually, these books are just the thing for a bit of mid-winter escapism, despite the crime.

The hero - and what a hero he is - is Bruno Courreges. (And I'm sorry that doesn't have the appropriate accents; I don't know how to do them in Blogger, and if anyone does, please tell me!) Bruno is the Chief of Police in a small town in the Perigord (near all those painted caves) called St Denis. He works closely with the Mayor to ensure the well-being of all the town's inhabitants, and he's so devoted to his job and his town that he turns down frequent invitations to be promoted to a job in Paris working for the rather shadowy Brigadier, who works for a mysterious intelligence agency and has links to the highest levels of government. Moving to Paris would also mean that he could be with Isabelle, probably the truest of his several loves, who also works for the Brigadier - but he simply can't tear himself away from St Denis.

The first book in the series.

And who could blame him? It's the most enchanting place, peopled with an array of colourful characters who all adore him - unsurprisingly, as he rescues them from dire fates on a regular basis, teaches their children tennis and rugby, dresses up as Father Christmas, and cooks them delicious feasts. He doesn't earn very much money, but this doesn't bother him: with the help of his friends he has built a charming house; he has an adorable dog with which he goes hunting for game, all of which he eats (this is the Perigord, after all: no country for vegetarians); he grows salad, vegetables and fruit in his garden; and he gets everything else - wine, cheese, cream, croissants - from friends.

He's caring, tender and intelligent, and he has a strong set of values. Unlike many literary detectives, he doesn't become ground down by the evil he encounters, and there is never any danger that he will cross the line; his moral compass is firmly set.

It's escapism, but into a world which apparently does actually exist: the author, Martin Walker, has a house in the Dordogne himself, and many of the characters are inspired by people he knows. And, as with Montalbano and Sicily, or Commissario Brunetti and Venice, or Dr Siri and Laos, you learn a great deal about the country in which the detective operates: how its legal system works, its recent history, the problems it faces. So in the Bruno novels I've read recently, there's been an exploration of the legacy of the French involvement in Vietnam, an overview of the wine trade, a look at the conflict between traditional hunters and their opponents, and an examination as to how the history of resistance and occupation is remembered - or sometimes stifled.

And beside all that, there's the food. Oh, the food...

'Bruno's summer soup was quickly made. He chopped two green peppers, peeled and sliced a cucumber and put them all into the blender with two cloves of garlic, two glasses of wine and half a glass of olive oil. He pored boiling water over four tomatoes to loosen their skins, peeled them and squeezed oyt the pips and added the tomato flesh to the blender...' And he's already got some delicious home-made bread on the go - and this isn't even in his own house!

What a guy. And of course he's also exceedingly good at solving crimes. Usually several at a time.

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Exposure: Helen Dunmore

Although I'm a big fan of Helen Dunmore, I almost didn't want to read this after the first few pages, intriguing as it was - because it re-creates so convincingly the world of post-war Britain. This was the world of my childhood. Unlike Lily, the main character in this book, I lived not in London but in the industrial midlands, and not in a private house but a council house - so there are differences. But what is instantly familiar is the sense of only just managing; the sense that, although there's enough to eat and enough money to buy what you need, there's only ever just enough: that there's only a thin curtain between everything being all right and everything being very much not all right. The war was over before I was born, but it still loomed large; there were shortages, and the war was part of everyday conversation among the grown-ups - not in a deep and meaningful way, but just part of everybody's frame of reference.

But the state kept an eye on you - particularly if you were a child. You got orange juice and cod liver oil from the clinic and small bottles of milk - as Dunmore describes - at playtime at school. Clothes were passed on or made by your mum; jumpers were hand-knitted. There was no such thing as jeans.

I'm rambling - but that's because this book takes you with such certainty and accuracy into that world. But it also takes you into another world - one which I only became aware of much later, through films and books and newspaper articles: the world of cold war spies. The two worlds co-existed - not in the Midlands industrial town where I was brought up, but certainly in the suburbs of London. Dunmore's heroine is Lily Callington: Lily who was originally Lili, a German Jew whose mother brought her over to England before the war. Lily speaks perfect English, and has done her best to forget she ever knew German. But she remembers. She remembers the first time she realised that even home wasn't safe; when she got in the lift to go up to their apartment  and a lady called her 'Dirty little Jew'. A 'nice lady in a summer dress with yellow and purple pansies on it'. Evil does not always come in the most obvious of guises.

Whose story is it? Is it Lily's? Or is it her husband, Simon's? Simon works for the civil service. He got the job through an older man, Giles, with whom he had an affair while he was at Cambridge. Giles loved Simon then, and still loves him, but Giles is a spy, and when an accident leaves him vulnerable to discovery, he decides to sacrifice Simon - Simon is a small player; he can take the blame. It's Giles' story too. And then there's Julian: the smooth, ruthless spy master. He's prepared to sacrifice anybody who might endanger him - but he reckons without Lily.

The book really has the feel and atmosphere of the fifties; of sitting in a living room close to the fire because there's no central heating, listening to the wireless - and on a bigger scale, of the political picture: the divided loyalties, suspicions and betrayals of the Cold War. But it's not all gloom and doom. There's love and courage, and ultimately, redemption. And, as ever with Helen Dunmore, beautiful writing.

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

That Burning Summer, by Lydia Syson - just published in the US by Sky Pony Press

Set during the Battle of Britain, this book deals not with the undoubted heroism of the Few - the pilots and crew of the RAF - but with those who, for one reason or another, came to to the decision that they could not take an active part in fighting the war.

Sixteen year old Peggy's father, a conscientious objector, is one of these. He has been interned, and Peggy, her younger brother Ernest and her mother have come to live with Aunt Myra in an isolated farmhouse in Romney Marsh.

Ernest, a serious, thoughtful boy, is desperately anxious about what will happen if the Germans invade. Peggy is determinedly keeping her spirits up, in the face of the obvious disapproval of people in the village of her father's principled but unpopular stance, and despite Ernest's constant anxiety and need for reassurance.

Then a plane crashes into the marsh. Its pilot is Henryk, a young Polish airman who has joined the RAF after fleeing Poland after the German invasion in order to continue to fight. (Many Polish aircrew escaped, first to France and then to England. They were noted for their daring and bravery - but at the end of the war, Poland was shamefully betrayed, and the Polish aircrew were not acknowledged in the victory celebrations for fear of antagonising Stalin.) Henryk has been through a harrowing time: traumatised, he decides he can no longer continue to fight, and he goes into hiding. One day he approaches the farm for food - and runs into Peggy. She finds herself helping him, and she becomes more and more drawn to him. But should she be aiding a deserter? And should she be pressuring Ernest to do the same? There are difficult decisions to be made, with no easy answers.

The novel explores unusual territory for a book about the Second World War. Pilots who could no longer cope with what they were required to do could be accused of LMF - lack of moral fibre -and ignominiously treated - or if they deserted, they would be court-martialled. And yet they were under almost unbearable pressure; that summer, they pretty much alone stood between Britain and defeat. (A few years later, my uncle, a boy of 19 and a rear gunner in the RAF, agreed to do a sortie for a friend - he had done his required number of flights and should have been on leave. He confided to my mother the night he left home to go back to base that he was afraid; he didn't want to go, he had a bad feeling about this trip. He went, and was killed - lost over Germany. One, of course, of many.)

And there's Ernest, who is so anxious, so afraid that there might be an invasion. From this end of the war, we know the outcome - we know that Hitler never did invade. It's so easy to forget that at the time, invasion was a real and terrifying threat.

But as well as all this, That Burning Summer is a tender coming of age and love story. It's beautifully written and a sensitive exploration of a relatively unexplored area of the second world war - do read it!