Friday 30 October 2020

A Claxton Diary, by Mark Cocker

 If there's one thing that the lockdown reminded many of us, it's that nature is immensely important to us. For reasons that should be obvious, but also because a close relationship with nature soothes us, calms us - heals us.

I'm not suggesting you should use this book as a substitute for a walk in the woods or a spell in the garden - but it can reinforce the real thing by providing you with a regular, beautifully crafted little dose of the natural world by a writer who has observed it closely and intently for many years. To quote the book cover:

"For seventeen years as part of his daily routine the author and naturalist Mark Cocker has taken a two-mile walk to the river from his cottage on the edge of the Norfolk Broads National Park. Over the course of those 10,000 daily paces he has learnt the art of patience to observe a butterfly, bird, flower, bee deer, otter or fly and to take pleasure in all the other inhabitants of his parish no matter how seemingly insignificant."

This book contains a collection of these observations - mostly but not exclusively from Norfolk - in the form of a diary which takes us through a year's seasons. The author observes meticulously, and describes with exactitude - but he also has a huge amount of background knowledge with which to contextualise his observations.

A particular favourite of mine is the entry for 18th September 2014, and it will serve as an example. It's about swallows. He begins with a single swallow, perched on a wire. "It looks cute, but that enamel-blue bird is made of something tougher than steel. Very soon it will follow its instincts south over the English Channel, down through France and Spain and across the Straits of Gibralter. In a single non-stop odyssey it will then traverse the greatest desert on Earth."

He goes on to discuss the swallow's migratory journey in more detail, and to reflect on its symbolic resonance - the significance of its blue colour, and what that stands for in various contexts; the reason why Estonia recently chose the swallow as a national emblem; what its changing distribution tells us about climate change. But he ends with this: "We should cherish swallows for what they gift to us and for what they tell us about ourselves."

So what does this book gift to us? Well, it provides us with a few minutes of peace and focus on the natural world, in a day which at the moment is likely to feature too much dark news, too much to worry about and to fear. It shows us - or reminds us - how to look, and how each part of nature - including ourselves - is inextricably entwined in a vast and extraordinary whole.

It teaches us, perhaps, the value of stillness.

Saturday 24 October 2020

The Wild Silence, by Raynor Winn

 This book is a sequel to The Salt Path, which I reviewed here. That was the story of how Raynor Winn and her husband Moth, in their fifties, lost everything after a dispute with someone who had been a lifelong friend over investments: they had to walk out of their beloved Welsh farmhouse with virtually nothing. On top of that, Moth was diagnosed with a cruel terminal disease, corticobasal degeneration, or CBD; he had about two years, they were told.

There are many things that emerge from The Salt Path and its successor, The Wild Silence. But one of the main elements is the rock-solid relationship between Raynor and Moth. So when they found themselves in this terrible situation, the one thing Raynor was not going to do was to simply accept the diagnosis and the doctor's advice - which was to avoid all strain and rest as much as possible.

Another element - which is explored even more thoroughly in this second book - is Raynor's profound connection with the land, with nature. Brought up on a farm, shy with other people, nature is her solace and her inspiration. So perhaps it wasn't surprising that she should turn to nature for relief. She suggested that, against all the dictates of caution and common sense, they should take to the wild and walk the South-West Coastal Path - despite the fact that Moth could hardly walk and would have trouble carrying a pack. (In any case, they had so little money to buy food or any other necessities that their packs must have been relatively - but only relatively - light.)

And it worked. They had an extraordinary journey, which resulted not in a miracle cure, but certainly in an improvement in Moth's condition. And at the end of it, a stranger offered them a refuge - a flat in Polruan, where they could live while Moth did a degree in sustainable agriculture, which he hoped would then bring him emploment.

This is where the second book picks up the story.

Often, a sequel is a rather paler version of the book it follows. That is not the case here. It seems to me that Raynor has gained confidence in her writing - not surprisingly, considering the huge success of The Salt Path. She writes absolutely beautifully in this book, and very effectively investigates subtle and complex ideas and emotions - as well, of course, as providing rich and evocative descriptions of nature.

The structure of the book is complex. She is exploring different aspects and periods of her life simultaneously; in the first section she is taking care of her mother, who has been taken to hospital following a stroke. Alongside this we find that she and Moth are still, three years later, in Polruan, and that Moth, despite increasing weakness, is nearing completion of his degree - whereas Raynor has become increasingly reclusive and anxious about meeting people. She has to make a terrible decision about her mother's care, and, staying in her mother's cottage, memories come back to her of her childhood. We begin to see that her current state is rooted in the past, and we find out how she met Moth, and how their relationship developed.

Later, she describes how the writing of The Salt Path came about. In the beginning, she knows nothing about publishing and has no expectations of success - she is writing about their extraordinary journey in order to capture it for Moth, who, to her dismay, is losing his memories of it. But of course it does become a success, and this leads to a new phase of their lives, when a wealthy businessman asks the two of them to take care of a farm he has bought, which is exhausted from intensive farming and almost devoid of wildlife. He wants them to bring it back to life, to re-nature it. At first, they are doubtful: the house is a damp and crumbling wreck, the farm will take a lot of work to enable the land to recover. But, never able to resist a challenge, they take it on.

In the last section of the book, they decide to undertake another ambitious walk: Moth is getting weaker, and they are convinced that what he needs, as before, is to literally and metaphorically stretch himself.

So they go to Iceland, with their friends Dave and Julie, whom they met on their first walk. They only have two weeks, which unfortunately fall at the end of the Icelandic summer and at the beginning of its fierce winter. Crazy? Well, perhaps - but when did that ever stop them?

Here is an example of Raynor's writing. She is describing the process of writing, of reliving, the coastal walk.

I stood in the dim evening light, faced the wall and spread my arms wide and the rain came stinging on gale-force winds, pounding my face, battering the rucksack. Winds roaring through granite-block cliffs, hurling crows through wild grey skies.

Here's another:

The soft rain became vertical rods of connection between land and sky, drops bouncing from the river with the force of a pebble, leaving ripples expanding and reflecting.


Thursday 8 October 2020

Mr Keynes' Revolution, by E J Barnes

I have just finished reading this book, which is a novel about the influential economist  J Maynard Keynes. I thoroughly enjoyed it and am only sorry it came to an end when it did - I gather there will be a sequel, and I'll certainly be buying that. 

Keynes was a member of the Bloomsbury Group - Virginia Woolf, her sister Vanessa Bell, Bunny Garnett, Duncan Grant and co. Known for their interesting private lives as well as for their writing and painting, they have often been the subject of films and TV programmes. Keynes was a central figure - and financially a godsend to the others, but he is a fairly shadowy figure in accounts of the group. This is surprising when, as this book does, you look at his life. He was a hugely influential economist, but he too had a colourful private life. He was happily gay until, all of a sudden, he watched a Russian ballerina dancing across the stage as the Lilac Fairy - and suddenly, he was not. Despite practical obstacles (Lydia turned out to be already married, although, fortunately, to a bigamist) and the opposition of some of his friends, he married her - and the marriage, on the evidence of this book, looks like being a happy one.

I don't know anything about economics, but the author doesn't shy away from the subject, and clearly explains the issues with which Keynes grappled. (In her note at the end of the book, she reveals that she studied economics at Cambridge, so that's perhaps not surprising.) But she also makes him come alive as a man, revealing his intelligence, his directness, his loyalty to his friends, and his charisma. Lydia, too is brought to life: practical, down-to-earth, warm, funny. There are a whole array of other characters who also tread the boards, and I look forward to meeting them again in the next volume.

Recommended for people who, like myself, enjoy Jane Thynne's books, which are set in the next decade in Germany - and for anyone with an interest in the Bloomsbury Group, in economics, or generally in that period between the wars which, with hindsight, seems full of doomed gaiety.