Friday, 25 October 2019

CorshamStoryTown

Note - this post first appeared on An Awfully Big Blog Adventure.

I had a lovely day last Saturday at a book event in Corsham, Wiltshire, along with several other authors. Corsham is the home of the renowned Bath Spa creative writing department: many in the Scattered Authors' Society are alumni of the MA in Children's Writing, and I think there are several who teach there.

I imagine it's because of the proximity of the department that Corsham seems to be a very writerish sort of a place. It also has the gloss that comes from being one of the settings for Poldark; yes, Ross first set eyes on Demelza in the picturesque streets of this very town!

But part of what the CorshamStoryTown event was about was finding out the stories of people who live there. As I understand it, there were opportunities for people to go along over the weekend and have their stories, memories and anecdotes recorded - it all sounded really interesting. I didn't see much of this side of things, though, as I was in Corsham's rather splendid library along with Sharon Tregenza, Jasbinder Bilal, Chris Vick, Jak Harrison and Julia Seal, at a mini book fair.

I've never taken part in a book fair before, but I certainly would again. It's a very relaxing way to meet and chat to young (and older) readers, and also to meet other authors. I've long been rather envious of the lovely network which you instantly belong to as a graduate of the Bath Spa courses, as Sharon, Jak, Chris and Jas do, so I'm very grateful to Sharon for inviting me along to this event - it was so nice to actually physically meet up with other writers: something which I realised I very rarely do except at the wonderful Scattered Authors' Society gatherings.

Jak, Chris, Sharon, me, Julia and Jas (l-r)

So off I went, armed with a tablecloth, lots of books, twinkly lights (thanks to Sharon for that suggestion!), book stands, and my trusty (but sadly not blue) rhododendron. (Jack Fortune is all about the search for a blue rhododendron in the Himalayas, but I've not so far managed to get hold of a true blue artificial one.) It was jolly nice and somehow quite surprising to see all my books spread out in one place instead of being tucked away in drawers and cupboards: several people commented on how many there were, and as I chatted to young readers, I realised that there's actually quite a nice spread of titles for different age groups. I've often thought it was a drawback that I've written very different books, rather than producing a recognisable 'brand' of similar books aimed at a specific audience, but I began to realise that in some ways, it's no bad thing - there was pretty much something for everyone.

Sharon and I

There were other interesting things too. My most recent book, Jack Fortune, about plant-hunting adventures in the Himalayas, got a lot of interest, but the book I sold most of was Emily's Surprising Voyage, which is set on the SS Great Britain. Naturally so, as many children 'do' the Victorians and Brunel, and, certainly in this area, go to visit the ship in Bristol: the book is now on sale at the ship and doing well, but I do wish that I, and the publisher, had managed to get the message out to schools about it more successfully.

Another was something I realised as I talked to people about Warrior King, my book about Alfred the Great and his fabulous daughter Aethelfled. This book, like Emily, was originally published by Walker. The cover they designed was beautiful, and it featured Alfred (looking rather as if he'd just escaped from Lord of the Rings) standing in front of a marshy landscape.

When it went out of print, I republished it myself. I was quite keen to appeal to adult readers, so I used a moody black and white photograph I had taken of the land around Athelney, where Alfred took refuge from the Vikings and where much of the book is set.

But talking to people about the book, I realised I had to do a lot of explaining about the story - the cover didn't do much of it for me. Neither cover made the point that most of the story is told from Aethelflaed's point of view; and that's important and unfair to her. Nor would girls looking at either cover realise that it's a book about a girl, as well as about a king. So I'm going to see if I can do something about that.

Readers!

Another comment came from a great children's book enthusiast with whom I've been in touch on social media, but whom I hadn't actually met before. She said she'd had no idea that I'd written so much. (Please note - I do realise that I've written very little compared to many other members of the SAS!) So how did that happen? Or rather, not happen? How come that with all the blog and social media posts I do, I somehow haven't managed to talk much about my books?

All of this, and the conversations with children, made me think. It's very easy, particularly when you are geographically a bit out on a limb, to brood (just ever so slightly) on the prizes you didn't win, the books that didn't get published, the stories that got away. But in so doing, it's easy to lose sight of the virtues of the books that did see the light of day: a bit like my grandma, who spent much of her life brooding over the son she lost in the war, to the detriment of the daughter who lived.

So apologies in advance, because from now on I'm going to start paying a lot more attention to those neglected children...

Huge thanks to Sharon Tregenza in particular for inviting me, and also to the other writers whose company I so enjoyed, and to the extremely hospitable library and Paper Nations staff. (Our event was under the auspices of Paper Nations.) And the next time I go to a fair, I'll remember to take my toy rat. (A reference to Emily, which I think may go down rather well.) You have been warned.

Tuesday, 8 October 2019

The Clara Vine series, by Jane Thynne

I first came across the Clara Vine books a couple of years ago. I’ve just re-read them and caught up the newest one, Solitaire - and I think I’ve enjoyed them even more this time round.

The story - because it is one story, albeit with different, wholly engrossing episodes - begins in Berlin in 1933 with the arrival of a young Englishwoman, Clara Vine. A rather unsuccessful actress, she has heard that the film industry in Berlin is expanding, and, as this coincides with a wish to put a distance between herself and an unwanted suitor, she decides to try her luck. 

She comes to the attention of Goebbels, the minister for propaganda who also has responsibility for the film industry. Through him she meets his wife, and through her the wives of the other men at the top of the Nazi Party - a potentially useful situation which is not lost on British intelligence. Clara, in short, becomes a spy  at the heart of the Nazi war machine. 

There’s so much to enjoy in these books. Clara is a fascinating character. Jane Thynne explores the elements of her upbringing and character which have led her to be a good spy: her reserve, her self-sufficiency, her ability to inhabit different personas, to hide behind a mask. She’s a subtle creation: she isn’t an expert in self-defence, she doesn’t get into fights: she survives on her instinct, her intelligence and her quick wits. She’s kind and loyal, and she is in some ways vulnerable. She’s a character you come to care for. 

Each book centres on a mystery of some kind - a murder, a missing person, a plot that has to be uncovered. But all this is set very firmly in the context of Berlin in the years of the Nazi ascendancy. Clara is right at the centre of things, so through her Jane Thynne can tell us how they managed to coerce a whole population to go along with their awful creed: how they convinced the people that they were under threat from enemies within and without, and that the only chance of salvation was to trust in a charismatic leader. It makes chilling reading - more so now than when I first read the books a few years ago. 

The research behind all this is formidable. Jane Thynne is immensely knowledgeable and informative about life in Germany during this period: both the big historical events and the minutiae of everyday life, down to the name of a popular lipstick, the details of the food people ate, the cut of a uniform. She weaves actual incidents - the capture of two spies which almost destroyed the British intelligence operation in Europe, a plot to kidnap the Windsors, Eva Braun’s suicide attempts - into Clara’s story, and does this with such skill that it seems completely likely and natural. 

I think she’s a really excellent writer. I’m astonished that no-one’s made the books into a TV series as yet, and it surprises me that they aren’t far better known. 

Tuesday, 1 October 2019

Sightlines, by Kathleen Jamie


A couple of months ago, I mentioned to a friend that I was about to go on a course on nature writing (at Ty Newydd – I wrote about it a few posts back). She chuckled, and said, “Oh, but nature writing’s so boring, isn’t it?”

I was taken aback and lost for words. Now, I would say to her: but what do you even mean by nature writing? How could it be ‘boring’ to read about something which I know she loves, just as I do? How could she not be interested in reading about what gives life to us, and makes our planet apparently unique - and how it is under profound threat?

Or perhaps I’d just give her this book by Kathleen Jamie and say, “Just give this a try. Go on – do.”

Kathleen was one of the tutors on the Ty Newydd course. I had heard of her before, but though I’d given this book to a couple of other people as a present, I hadn’t actually read it myself. I’ve just remedied this, and have found it completely engrossing – and therapeutic. It’s autumn, which is a beautiful season but has at its heart the fading of things – the fading of light, the falling of leaves, the gradual death of flowers. Of course it’s not all bad – there are birds that arrive as well as those that depart, and there are already buds on the bare branches. But still – it’s a season when it’s easy to succumb to a generalised feeling of sadness. And there are one or two things going on in the outside world which are also just a tad worrying.

So there have been mornings when I’ve woken up feeling gloomy. But as soon as I begin to read a chapter of Sightlines, I am taken into another place - and what a relief that is. That is perhaps a cliché: certainly, it’s my stock, easy answer when someone asks me what I like about reading: “A book can take you into another world…” But in this case, it really feels true. The book is a collection of essays. In most of them, Kathleen travels to Scottish islands, though there’s also one where she goes to a Norwegian museum and reflects on whale skeletons (in other essays, she writes about encounters with living whales); another where she decides she needs to see inside the body, not just outside, and examines pathogens under a microscope; another where she recalls an archaeology dig, from which the discovery of the ancient skeleton of a young girl lingers in her mind.

Wherever she goes, she is supremely attentive. She looks, she listens, she tastes, she touches, she thinks, she explores, she reflects. And she does this so effectively that the reader is right there with her, feeling the force of a wind strong enough to knock you over, seeing how gannets glint against a storm cloud, shocked at the speed with which killer whales slice through the water.

But she doesn’t simply describe what she sees. She muses, considers, makes analogies, asks questions. The reader follows not just her physical journeys, but the path her thoughts take. At the back of it all is an awareness of transience. As she says in the book’s final paragraph:
There are myths and fragments which suggest that the sea that we were flying over was once land. Once upon a time, and not so long ago, it was a forest with trees, but the sea rose and covered it over. The wind and sea. Everything else is provisional. A wing’s beat and it’s gone.

(She is flying in a helicopter as she leaves a remote, storm-swept island, where she had found a dead swan, describing its outstretched wing as a full metre of gleaming quartz-white, a white cascade: the swan’s wing, the wind, the helicopter flight – they all link into a chain of thought.)

Boring? Not remotely.

Saturday, 21 September 2019

St Cuthbert’s Church in Wells



A few years ago when I was feeling rather sad, I happened to go into St Cuthbert’s in Wells to get some Christmas cards. It was November and the weather matched my mood.

I am not a religious person, but being in the church lightened and lifted my mood. It was very marked. I came out feeling - well, it sounds fanciful, but blessed. 

Today I went in again, to see if it would have the same effect. It wasn’t quite as noticeable, but there was something: I felt soothed. It’s not a feeling I’ve had in any other church, though I have had a similar sense on the hill and by the sea. 

Anyway, make of that what you will - while I was there I noticed a couple of things. One was the ceiling, which is extraordinary: I can’t imagine how I failed to see it before. They call it an ‘angel roof’ - for obvious reasons - and it dates from the 15th century. 

The other thing relates to Saint Cuthbert. Apparently no-one really knows what the link is between him and this church - he’s very much a product of the northeast. He is associated with Lindisfarne - a place I’m very fond of - and he’s buried at Durham, where I was at university. During the war, he’s said to have saved the cathedral from destruction during a raid by German bombers, by summoning a mist to cloak the tower and hide it from view. I’ve written a short story about this. 

The only apparent link with Somerset is that he’s said to have appeared in a dream to King Alfred and encouraged him to keep on fighting the pesky Vikings when, to be honest, any sensible person would have given up. And I’ve written a book about Alfred, called Warrior King. 

I don’t suppose any of this means anything at all. But I like the sense of there being links. And I like the feeling that maybe - just maybe - I have Saint Cuthbert in my corner. 

Sunday, 15 September 2019

Girl. Boy. Sea. - by Chris Vick

For quite a while now, I've not read much fiction, either for adults or for children, which has really 'blown my socks off.' (For the attribution of this very useful phrase, please see this post about an enthusiastic guide at the Lascaux Caves.) 

But happily, that's recently changed - I've read several very good novels indeed. I've just finished this one, and it's blown my socks right to the other side of Cheddar Reservoir. It's called Girl. Boy. Sea., and it's about exactly what it says in the title: a girl and a boy adrift in a boat on a wide, wide sea.



Bill is crewing a boat with half a dozen other fourteen to sixteen year-olds - they're getting in shape for the Youth Sail Challenge. They are twelve nautical miles north of the Canaries when they get warning of a nasty squall. The boat is badly damaged; everyone else manages to get into the life raft, but after a series of mishaps, Bill finds himself adrift alone in a small boat, the tender. 

More storms ensue, but gradually subside. Bill has managed to grab some supplies from the boat before it sank, so he has some food and water - enough for a few days. Then he comes across another castaway, a girl clinging to a barrel. She is a Berber, and her name is Aya.

They manage to communicate, in a mixture of French and English. She will say very little about where she is from, what her story is. At the beginning, Bill realises that now he will have to share his meagre supplies - but it is such a relief to have company that he soon forgets about this, and they become close. They drift for days - puzzlingly, there is no sign of anyone searching for Bill, although he is sure that his parents will be determined to find him. They drift on, under a hot sun. Bill works out a way to make a small supply of water through evaporation (he is a very resourceful boy) - and they manage to catch some sea creatures which they eat, raw, because they have to if they want to live.

Eventually Aya begins to tell Bill stories, apparently from the Arabian Nights. Bill is enthralled, just as the Sultan was in the stories, and the stories are entrancing. 

And then, when they are almost at the end of what they can cope with, they spot an island. It's tiny, but it has water and coconut trees. Unfortunately, it also has another inhabitant - one who Aya is not at all pleased to see.

The adventure continues: it would spoil it to explain how. Suffice it to say that the story opens out: it comes to be about some of the harshest realities for people living on our planet. The island (which, we learn later, appears on no chart) may seem like a paradise island compared to the hell of drifting without food or water on an unforgiving ocean, but in truth, it provides no escape from the hell which humans create for each other.

Yet, as Aya explains when she tells the first of her stories, about Pandora's box, there is always hope. And there is love and kindness, in the relationship between Aya and Bill, and as evinced by some of the adult characters who help them. It's a beautiful book. The writing is spare, with short sentences that move the story crisply on: yet it's also, when it needs to be, lyrical. For example, this: 

There was metal sky above us now, and light ahead. It was a race to the light, but we were losing. The storm drew over us like a cloak.

I suppose you would say that this is a book for teenagers. But really, it's for anyone who appreciates excellent writing: if adults don't read books like this, they are missing out. It deals with big themes, but also, viscerally, with the reality of what it would actually be like to be adrift on the ocean. It's elegant, in its lack of any extraneous verbiage. I'm chancing it here, because it's a long time since I read any Hemingway, but perhaps there's a hint of The Old Man And The Sea about it. And perhaps, too, a hint of The Lord of the Flies, though it's ultimately much more uplifting than that. 

And just a word about the cover - I can't find a credit as to who did it, but I think it's completely stunning.

Friday, 6 September 2019

Wilding, by Isabella Tree

Wilding is an extraordinary book. It's horrifying, uplifting, a catalogue of things to despair about, a litany of things to be hopeful about. It changes the way you see the world - even well-known and much-loved landscapes. It's sobering, but also intoxicating.

It's about an ancient estate in Sussex called Knepp Castle. Charlie Burrell, the husband of the writer, Isabella Tree, had taken the estate over from his grandmother in 1987 and immediately set about modernising it: '... he began doing what every modern farmer is supposed to do: rationalise, intensify, diversify, and, if possible, spread fixed costs over a larger area.' The five tenant farms were struggling and ready to give up, so Charlie took them all back and began to amalgamate the dairies, streamline and improve farm buildings, and invest in expensive machinery. What happened next is complicated - but basically, for all sorts of reasons, it didn't work. By 1999 it was clear that the business was not viable: intensive farming, which was supposed to lead to healthy profits, was in fact resulting in huge losses. It couldn't go on.


It just so happened that in 1999, they had invited a tree expert called (appropriately) Ted Green, to come and investigate whether a 550 year-old oak tree could possibly be saved. He was optimistic, and he moved on to examine the other great oaks on the estate. He explained to the Burrells that they too were at risk - and the reason wasn't age: it was ploughing and compaction of soil due to cattle grazing. 

A tree's roots may extend two and a half times the radius of the crown, not far below the surface of the soil, where oxygen is available. But the roots are just the beginning. From the roots there extends a network of mycorrhizae - tiny filaments of fungus which take carbohydrates from the tree, but in return supply it with water and essential nutrients. It's far more complicated than that - but if this huge network is disturbed, the health of the plant, or tree, is affected. It's also affected by insecticides, herbicides and fungicides, all of which are part of the armoury of a modern farmer.

This is just one tiny piece of the jigsaw of reasons that made the Burrells decide to take a radically different approach: they would allow nature to take the lead, and see what happened. They were inspired by a Dutch ecologist, Frans Vera, who had used a similar approach on a reserve in the Netherlands called the Oostvaardersplassen. He believed in minimal intervention, in allowing natural processes to develop. This would, he thought - and actually did - result in a tremendous increase in biodiversity. It began when huge numbers of greylag geese found the marshy land, and consumed the vegetation that would otherwise have clogged up the open water. But to keep the geese coming, they needed grassland. So they introduced old, tough breeds of cattle and horses, similar to the large animals that would once have grazed the land thousands of years ago. And they left them to get on with it.

Well, it's all much more complicated than that. But perhaps you begin to get the idea. At the beginning of the book, Isabella Tree writes about turtle doves. There are now a number of pairs of turtle doves at Knepp - but almost nowhere else in Britain. The decline in numbers of this bird is far greater in the UK than anywhere else. Our population density is actually higher than that of India: there are so many of us that the pressure of any 'spare' bits of land is immense. Here in my own place, Cheddar, over the last forty years small orchards have disappeared, large gardens have been halved, fields are disappearing as we speak - because there are more of us, and we need more houses. So the wild places are disappearing, and with them, the nourishment that turtle doves, and many other species, need. 

Of course it's not all bad. There are success stories, such as the reintroduction of red kites, the increase in otters due to cleaner waterways, and so on. But overall, it's a sad story. 'In 1966, according to the RSPB, there were 40 million more birds in the UK than there are today.' There's a terrible list of declining species, but perhaps an effective indicator of the situation is that in terms of lost biodiversity, the UK is ranked twenty-ninth lowest out of 218 countries.

The book tells the story of how the 'wilding' of Knepp has led to massively increased biodiversity, and to the reappearance of masses of species of flora and fauna which have become rare elsewhere in our crowded country. It's absolutely packed with evidence and information - so much so that it's actually difficult to take it all in at one reading. One thing - it is not anti-farming. Clearly, this approach cannot be put into practice everywhere. But there is an enormous amount to be learned from it, and much that can be applied elsewhere. Even in small ways: I know now that ragwort, far from being the poisonous pest I had believed it to be, is actually an enormously valuable food source for many birds and insects during the autumn months - and is only very rarely damaging to horses and cattle. (Had I actually taken note of the evidence of my own eyes, I would have realised this; there is a great deal of ragwort on our hill, and in thirty five years, I've never once heard of any of the cattle that graze up there being made ill by it.) Towards the end of the book, Isabella Tree discusses how she envisages lots of small patches of wilderness in the UK - but joined up, connected, so that wild life has its own habitat alongside ours, instead of being gradually squeezed to the margins, and then to extinction.


Ragwort on the hill

On the nature-writing course I attended recently, and which I wrote about a couple of posts back, I was surprised to hear one of the tutors, Mark Cocker, say sadly after a walk down to the sea that he had passed fields that were little more than a desert in terms of wild life. But now I know exactly what he means. He talked also about how we, like all other living things, are part of a complex network of systems - like, perhaps, the ancient oaks with their mycorrhizae: everything is interdependent. If we lose a species of dung beetle - it matters. Yet we are losing masses of species, some we may not even have known existed.

We need to know about this stuff - and this book is a very good place to start.

Monday, 2 September 2019

A charm of goldfinches


You might look at this picture and think - why? Nice sky, reservoir in the distance, but otherwise there's nothing much to see - just a big patch of rather dull looking scrub in the foreground.

But this morning, that scrub was full of life. I stood and watched it for a while. It's mainly brambles, buddleia and ragwort - you can just see a golden ragwort flower in the centre, but mostly it's gone to seed.

First I saw the butterflies. Mainly white ones, a few patterned brown ones which I think were probably Painted Ladies - I couldn't get close enough to be sure.

Then I saw a couple of goldfinches. I only had my phone with me, so knew I wasn't going to get a good picture, but tried to raise it very slowly and - up they flew. But not only those two. At least twenty fluttered up into the sky, and off they flew as one, dipping and diving, all together - not golden as they caught the sunlight, but silver. Magical.

I looked again. I saw a small bird, I think on a thistle. It was palest grey, quite difficult to see against the thistledown, with a soot-black head. I'm guessing it was a blackcap, though I'm no expert. Even more slowly than before, I raised the camera.

Too late again. But it didn't matter. The picture shows an absence of birds and butterflies. But they were there. I saw them.



Just before the goldfinches, I had come through a wood where, a couple of weeks ago I saw this flower. This picture really doesn't do it justice. It was more of a ruby red, jewel-like, with the white stamens a sharp contrast. I've never seen it before up on the hill (which is in the Mendip range, so limestone.) I showed the picture to my friend Liz, who is a botanist, and she told me it's called 'codlins and cream', or more prosaically, greater willowherb. It normally grows in great numbers, apparently - in ditches. Isn't it a lovely name? But it's a bit odd, because I can see where the cream comes from, but a codling is apparently a green apple. I think it's quite interesting that the single plant was noteworthy for its beauty - it really stood out in the green of the wood - yet although I'm sure I must have seen it growing in its normal habitat, I've never really seen it before.

I'd intended to take a better picture of it today, but I couldn't see it. I guess the flowers had dropped.

Tuesday, 27 August 2019

Big Sky and Simon Serailler

When I started this blog, I didn't really mean it to be a series of reviews. I meant it to be a way of keeping track of what I read. A friend, writer Adele Geras, says she keeps a note of everything she reads. When I heard that, I really wished I'd thought of doing it. I read quickly, and I read a lot, and have done ever since I was a child borrowing books from Ilkeston Library; just think, if I'd done that, I'd have books - whole shelves - full of titles by now!

Well, I didn't, and I haven't even managed to keep this blog going. But I've swept the floors and brushed away the cobwebs and I'm going to have a another go. Incidentally, it was very nice to see that I've acquired a few new followers while I've been gone - welcome and thanks to you!

So first, a bit of a catch-up about books I've read and enjoyed in the last month or two. Disclaimer: probably because I read too quickly, I don't generally remember books for all that long. Also, I read quite a few of the following on my Kindle, and it's notoriously difficult to go back and check up on things on a Kindle. So apologies for a possible lack of detail and/or accuracy.

I'm an admirer of Kate Atkinson, and particularly of her Jackson Brodie books. Big Sky is the most recent one - and I got this from the library and have it beside me, so that's a plus.

Brodie is an ex-policeman, now a private investigator. He's not actually very good at his job, though somehow or other, he usually manages to sort things out. As Crystal, the sort-of heroine tells her stepson at one stage: "Claims he's a detective... but he's shit at detecting." Crystal is a great character: the trophy wife of a wealthy businessman with an obsession for keeping things neat, tidy and wholesome - why, you will quite correctly be asking yourself? Her past, and her strength of character, are gradually revealed. She may look like a Barbie doll, but she's a tiger when it comes to defending her young. She's one of a whole array of nuanced, flawed characters: Kate Atkinson gets inside the heads of even the bad ones and, without laying it on with a trowel, lays bare their complexities.

The book is very cleverly constructed: different chapters are related from the point of view of different characters, and it's not at all obvious how they relate to each other or where the story is heading. I can't really say any more because it would spoil it. Just one thing: if anyone has read it/does read it, and understands why it's called Big Sky, would you tell me? I think I must have missed that bit.

Susan Hill is another writer acclaimed for both her 'literary' fiction and for her crime novels - if, indeed there is a distinction, which I don't think there necessarily is. I hadn't read her Simon Serailler novels until recently - thank you, to the friend who recommended them!

Serailler is one of those intelligent, attractive, intuitive police officers who crop up from time to time in crime fiction. He reminds me a bit of Dorothy Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey: like him, Serailler is fatally attractive - fatally, because he is unable to commit himself to anyone, so scatters broken hearts in his wake. He also solves crimes: the small country town where he lives has nearly as many serial killers knocking about as Midsomer. Like Kate Atkinson, Susan Hill is a very good story teller, who likes to get into the heads of all her characters - victims and perpetrators as well as the forces of law and order. She also develops the stories of Simon and his family as the series progresses - particularly his sister, Cat Deerbon, and his very odd father. There did come a point at which I felt there was just too much about the misfortunes of the Serailler family - they really do have a lot of bad luck - and so I've taken a break from the series: in particular there was a storyline involving the father which didn't convince me. But the first few books were very gripping, and I do like the sound of Simon's apartment overlooking the cathedral close. The first in the series is called The Various Haunts of Men.

This really has nothing to do with the books. It's just a big sky, up above Cheddar Gorge.

Sunday, 25 August 2019

Signs of autumn

Today is gorgeously sunny, and it's clear that summer is staging a comeback. But still, there are signs of autumn about. Dusk is dropping earlier, and some mornings the air is cool.

Earlier this week when I took Nessie (dog, not monster) for a walk up on the hill, I looked out for concrete signs that autumn is coming, and here they are.


Beech mast. There are masses of these nuts on the ground in the woods, which will clearly make the squirrels, Nessie's sworn enemies (How dare they diappear up into the trees like that? SO unsporting!) very happy. I wondered if it was just that I haven't noticed them in previous years, but recently read in Isabella Tree's book Wilding that there's such a thing as a 'mast year', when you get bumper crops of nuts and suchlike. So maybe that's what this is.


This feather was floating on the surface of a dew pond in the wood - the same one where, a few months ago, thousands of tadpoles gradually turned into tiny frogs, a process that - incredibly - I'd never witnessed before. It's wonderful how you keep learning things. I only found out recently that the reason you don't see many birds about in high summer is that they're hiding away because they're losing their feathers. ( You can imagine the avian protests: "But my dear, I can't possibly go out looking like this!")


Fungi are starting to appear. If anyone knows what this one is, do say: it was out in the open, on top of the Mendips. I've googled images of fungi - who knew there were so many, and such splendid ones? I was particularly taken by a bright purple one called a Violet Pouch. But I haven't managed to find this one.


A bee on a thistle.


The blackberries in the lane opposite our house started to turn black at the beginning of August this year, and they're much larger and juicier than they usually are. I did cut the brambles back earlier in the year - I don't know if that has anything to do with it. Or perhaps it's to do with that mast year thing again.


And finally, something from the garden. This is a large abelia bush. It is covered in these pale lilac flowers, which the bees absolutely love. The newest leaves are a foxy, tawney colour which glows in the sun, and it flowers from August right through till late autumn.

The lavender in the garden is almost over now, but the bees still visit it, seeking out the few little bits of goodness that remain before moving on to the abelia next door.

Monday, 19 August 2019

Ty Newydd


Last week, I was on a writing course in North Wales, at Ty Newydd, not far from Criccieth. People in the writing world will have heard of it; it's the Welsh equivalent of the Arvon writing centres in England, and Moniack Mhor in Scotland. The centres all provide courses with a similar structure on a variety of writing forms - script-writing, memoir, fiction, children's writing and so on. 

Ty Newydd, once the home of Lloyd George, now the Welsh Writing Centre.



At Ty Newydd, you arrive on the Monday in time for dinner and introductions, and leave on Saturday after breakfast. There are two tutors, and often a guest speaker on Wednesday evenings: the mornings are taken up by workshops, the afternoons are free for you to write, to have one-to-one sessions with the tutors or to go for a walk down to the sea or the River Dwyfor. All meals are provided by a cook called Tony, who somehow remains completely calm while delivering a clear and entertaining commentary on what he's doing (everyone helps with clearing up and preparation one evening during the week) and producing amazing food. I was lucky enough to have a spacious room in a newly refurbished cottage; through one window trees shifted restlessly in the wind, while through the other, sheep grazed on the other side of a stone wall.

Workshop session with Mark in the garden...

...and with Kathleen inside.

Horatio Clare - a brilliant speaker - and rather a lot of feet.

The course was on nature writing, and the tutors were Scottish poet and prose writer Kathleen Jamie, and naturalist, broadcaster and writer Mark Cocker. The mid-week speaker was Horatio Clare, journalist, writer and lecturer in creative writing. (I wrote about one of his books in the post before this one.) I've probably missed out some of the things they do: they are all fizzing with talent, energy and enthusiasm for the craft of writing in a variety of different forms, and they were generous with their time, their expertise and their encouragement - Mark, incredibly knowledgeable about nature and passionate about how special and unique this planet of ours is: Kathleen, quiet, intensely focused not only on poetry, but on how writers should react to the current climate emergency. This was not about lyrical descriptions of beautiful views - though that certainly came into it: although everyone really wanted a break from politics, they were inescapable: dark shadows massing around the castle walls.

I write for children, so why, you may ask, was I on a course in nature writing? (To be fair, I think that was something the tutors wondered too, and probably some of the other participants - who were mainly poets, and it seemed to me wonderfully good ones.)

Well, I can only say that when I was browsing through the courses on offer earlier on in the summer, there was something about this one that just sounded right. It was as if a light came on, or a trumpet sounded, or a signpost appeared. I wasn't entirely certain why, but I knew that this was something I really wanted to do.

I do not have a burning desire to become a nature writer - whatever that is - or a poet. I write the occasional poem, when a thought comes to me that won't work any other way, but to be honest, my poems are more like prose that's just been chopped about a bit. But place is very important to me. My books have often been inspired and I think enriched by the landscapes in which they are set. The Willow Man is set in Bridgwater, but suffused by the atmosphere of the nearby Somerset levels; and a climactic scene takes place on - and was shaped by - Brean Down, the spur of the Mendips which juts out into the chocolatey waters of the Bristol Channel. Warrior King, about Alfred the Great, had for its birthplace Athelney, also on the levels, once the island surrounded by marshes where Alfred took shelter from the Danes - and not so very different now, over a thousand years later. I visited the places where Alfred fought - near Wayland's Smithy in Oxfordshire and above Eddington, which used to be Ethandun, in Wiltshire. In all these places, it was so easy to imagine the events that took place there so long ago: they all had in common a powerful sense of the distant past - and of something very close to magic, which also found its way into the book.


And so on. 

The river. Now how, exactly, do you convey in words what you see here?

The sea, looking towards Criccieth.

But there was something else, too. It's always good to hone your craft, whatever that craft is. And listening to the poets and the tutors focusing closely on language, on finding exactly the right word or image, was really humbling. If you get a group of children's writers together, the discussion will be fascinating. But I think it's fair to say that it will in general centre on story, voice and character, rather than on the nuts and bolts of language. Please note: I am NOT AT ALL saying that children's writers are not good writers or stylists - just that they tend to have different priorities. If you're writing for children, you need to make them want to turn the page: too much description will make them scowl, though you certainly need enough to set the scene, to create the world.

Anyway, from the exercises we did, and the way the poets and non-fiction writers talked about their craft, I gradually realised that I have sometimes been coasting: that sometimes I reach for the easy word instead of the right word, even - horrors! - for a seductively available cliché. (Though, resistant to the last, I would still tentatively suggest that sometimes the first thought and the easy word is the right one.)

It became obvious during the week and particularly during my tutorial with Mark that even when I was trying specifically to write about nature, a story or a character would come pushing its way through. Accepting this, and following up on a suggestion of Mark's, I wrote the beginning of a new story. In fact it almost wrote itself, and it's such a joy when that happens.

Hydrangeas in the garden. You can see a tiny bit of sea, if you look very hard!



On top of all that, I had the pleasure of being in a very special place with a very interesting group of writers. 
The garden was filled with bees humming among the lavender, and it was a twenty minute walk down to the sea, or a ten minute walk down to the River Dwyfor. The team who run the centre are efficient, friendly and welcoming.

Just one word of warning. If you decide to go, and the course of your choice happens to be in the summer holidays, be wary of choosing the rail line that hugs the coast and ends up at Criccieth. I did this, but when I changed at Shrewsbury and the Transport for Wales train arrived, it had only two coaches instead of the four it should have had, and people who took the train regularly said that that this kind of thing often happens. It wasn't good. In the end we switched to coaches, but there wasn't enough room for everyone. 

On the other hand, coming back was fine, and the views are lovely. But I'd think twice, if you're travelling in August, and go to Bangor instead.

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 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.

Nessie