It Doesn’t Have To Be the Way It Is – Lessons from Fairytales and Fantasy

Come with me to another place,   a hall house perhaps, where torchlight glances off stone walls hung with scarlet and gold tapestries to keep out the bitter winter draughts;  a world where people are not always kind to each other but they are at least allowed to meet – sometimes next the bridge, on horseback with a sword in hand – and sometimes in someone else’s bedchamber.

In another life (or so it seems) I have been a storyteller.   Equipped with tales of dastardly deeds and magical spells, and together with my lovely friend B, we ran a story circle in a local venue.

Live storytelling is on hold for the moment of course although some have taken their art online. Part of me thinks it would take more ingenuity than even the great wizard of Earthsea possesses to create a suitable atmosphere online.

And yet? One of the things that struck me about the experience of telling stories to a live audience is that however digital and relentlessly modern society, and however mundane the hired room that surrounds, it still takes very little to transport us back in our imaginations to that forest, to sit round the fire, breathing woodsmoke, listening.

So again just for a moment or two, turn down the striplighting and all the neon, replace with fairy lights – the prettiest ones you can find. Add a tall, woven, round backed storyteller’s chair, some candles (sadly batteries essential these days – even the elves have a safety department now) a couple of low, round wooden tables that could double as mushrooms, and I’ll begin…

Once upon a time in a cottage deep in the forest there lived an old lady with two beautiful daughters…

How deeply the forest lies in all our psyches.

 

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In the second volume of his Lord of the Rings trilogy, Tolkein wrote of Ents, the tree shepherds, guarding their ancient realm of Fangorn Forest where a conversation between trees may take years but it will be one well worth having.  Other beings are scared to enter this forest, yet it is a place of mutual support, sustenance and regard where light, air and the earth’s nutrients are shared among all.

Our two intrepid hobbits Merry and Pippin ask Treebeard (the chief of the Ents) to marshall his forces in support of the war against Sauron and his odious orcs. Treebeard agrees to call a meeting – an Ent moot – to ask the others what they think. After some considerable days spent waiting Merry asks if a decision has been made, to which Treebeard replies: Yes. We have decided that you are not orcs.

It takes a long time to make a decision in Fangorn forest. Interestingly, the book presaged and foresaw the era of environmental catastrophe in which we now live in which Saruman the wizard who has gone to the bad, cuts down trees relentlessly to fuel his war efforts.

In a more scientific way Richard Powers’ stunning novel The Overstory references too the spiritual connections we are losing as we destroy the trees that have guarded over our air and our light for centuries. Powers’ book is more an elegy than a warning. It is almost too late for the latter. Yet there are still trees to save – and they are in our DNA. As are their stories. And there need be no idea of mutual exclusiveness between the realm of fantasy and the realm of science. Each needs the other.

 

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Tolkein’s first book The Hobbit (1937) was written with World War 1 in mind and with the intention of warning against a second world war. (Jack Zipes, Spells of Enchantment, Viking, 1991). Zipes further warns against the saccharine “Disneyising” effect of the film industry and especially its sexual stereotyping. It is fair to add that Zipes’ book is now 30 years old and thankfully in the 21st century some effort is finally being made to address at least this latter point in films such as Frozen.   It took a while.

In her collection of Essays No Time To Spare: Thinking About What Matters (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) 2017, Ursula Le Guin writes:

The test of fairyland [is that] you cannot imagine two and one not making three but you can easily imagine trees not growing fruit; you can imagine them growing golden candlesticks or tigers hanging on by the tail.

There are many people it our own world it might be said who don’t like that it doesn’t have to be the way it is. People who are used to pursuing their own ends and being what is regarded in cultural terms as successful. They are happy that everything should stay exactly as it is.  Within their control. People who have what Le Guin terms “rigid reality constructs” don’t like fantasy or the idea that things don’t have to be the way they are.

How, she asks, does the fantastic tale suspend the law of physics? There is a distinction, Le Guin tells us between It doesn’t have to be the way it is thus promoting the idea of other ways and other possibilities and “Anything goes” the latter invoking an idea of being completely irresponsible. The ultimate conclusion of the ‘anything goes’ philosophy is be damned to everyone and everything else.

Not everyone has such extreme views about reading fantasy fiction of course. Some just prefer to read something else – biography or crime or something – considering fantasy to be ‘escapist’. But then what is inherently wrong with escapism? As Le Guin points out, is not the purpose of an escape to move towards freedom?

And is not the whole point of literature to free the mind? So that we can truly believe it doesn’t have to be the way it is.

 

 

 

 

All the lovely silence has gone: A Review of ‘Ash before Oak’ by Jeremy Cooper

Lockdown was a situation that could not continue nor should it.  It has caused far too much suffering.  But there were a couple of benefits – a slowing down and some peace – if not peace of mind then peace and quiet.   Birdsong too.  The birds are back fighting a losing battle with horrendous building works and the smell of traffic fumes on the air.

On another level, this happens internally.  Our brains start running horror movies in our heads.   In the vicissitues and general exhaustingness of life, we  lose our peace of mind, our lovely silence.

Increasingly and perhaps because of this I have been attracted to works on and about   the natural world.  This week I have read Ash before Oak by Jeremy Cooper published by indie press Fitzcarraldo Editions.  This is the second book I have purchased from them  the other being Grove by Esther Kinsky which I am also reading.  All Fitzcarraldo’s books are given a uniform dark blue cover.   I’m not a great fan of the look.    I can understand the commercial imperatives but maybe  give an artist or graphic designer some work folks as they have commercial imperatives too!

This book is way better than its  bland cover suggests, combining as it does two subjects very close to my heart – the natural world and mental health.    It’s hard to get much more topical than that at the moment.

Author Jeremy Cooper has an original author bio.  He has a track record of expertise on art postcards, having appeared in the first 24 episode sof the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow.  He is also a novelist and writer of non-fiction works.

Ash before Oak is definitely not about postcards.   It is fiction written in the form of a series of journal entries which chart the narrator’s stay at a house Somerset where he is renting a house on an estate called Cothelstone.  Initially the book appears to be a record of a man’s attempts to tame this house, garden and its surrounding woodland,  as the narrator learns to tell sorrel from not-sorrel and to plant Field Scabious and Ox Eye daisy in his new wildflower meadow, much of which he does ably assisted by local carpenter Beth.

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“Three cats live here now, in the old part of the cottage… “

But slowly into the lovely descriptions of flora and fauna, the ‘still warm sun of a cloudless October morning’  it becomes clear that all is not well in this rural idyll.   This is a man who has lived in the city and had other lives and other careers.  For someone in that situation to move to the country and choose a different life is not at all unusual.  Yet there has to be a ‘why’.  Ever since The Tenant of Wildfell Hall there has had to be a why.  Why is he here? It is a question that the narrator asks himself too.

A story that begins as an endearing battle with a mouse that moves into the house and refuses to move out suddenly becomes worrying, as do the references amidst the descriptions to feelings of being trapped and anxious.   Trapped?  When surrounded by all this natural wonder?  Something can’t be right.  And surely enough, something isn’t.  The fragility of the narrator’s mental state becomes apparent.

And while connections between nature and recovery from mental illness are not earth shatteringly new, they do not need to be.  It is the writing which counts and Ash before Oak is beautifully written.   The advantage of the journalistic entry style of writing is the author can get carried away with memories of hearing Alfred Brendel play or an anecdote about the composer Messiaen playing the piano in a prisoner of war camp, it’s fine to pop it in.   There are many references to both art and music throughout the book and these build a picture of a former life lived in London,  but one that has been abandoned.

Not many books have felt to me to be relevant or indeed as easy to read during this time of the world’s desperate uncertainty and difficulty – at least that has been my personal experience.  But Ash Before Oak felt completely right.  It is a complex book cleverly written which reveals it’s secrets slowly, or perhaps some of them not at all.

20 Books of Summer – for a Less than 2020 Summer

It’s been a tough week here down at the old Rune stead with not a lot of reading getting done.  I have parked a snail on top of my TBR pile – a glass one, not a real one.  He’s there to represent the speed at which I am coursing through my  list at the moment.    And can someone please tell me why – apart from the fact that we need the water – does it have to rain all the time so that the stuck at home-ness becomes even more oppressive!

This week I have been playing my harp which I do slowly and far from expertly but the great thing about  the harp as an instrument is that even when you mess up it still sounds ok.

I have also been exercising in my local park which is next the river Thames.    I am watching a family of Canada Geese   – at the moment the geese are keeping me sane.  Thank you geese.  Unlike me, they never seem to miss the tide.  The tiny fluffy goslings became teenagers very quickly.

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We are having to realise our place and how we disturb the balance in the ecosystem now – more than ever.  Having to recognise that we are part of the whole nature thing, not dominant over it.  I firmly believe that the massive increases we have seen in the last decades of mental health issues (the silent pandemic) are directly connected to breakdown of the biosphere and our destruction of the environment.

Anyway,   to the books. This year again I am taking part in the 20 books of Summer challenge

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Hosted by Cathy@746Books – thank you Cathy –  my 20 books of Summer is roughly 10 books at the moment.  I don’t know what the other ten will be yet,  but they will come into focus hopefully.

Those paying close attention will know that I have already read Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife (!!) but I do not consider this cheating.  I’m including it because I have read it since 1st June which is when the challenge started and we have until September 1st to read the others. Some of these books I have already committed to over the same period as part of my Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist reading commitment.   Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun is such a tough read I am balancing it with some hopeful things including Daisaku Ikeda’s excellent collection of essays Hope is a Decision (Middleway Press, 2017).

I have read Richard Powers The Overstory but would like to read it again.   It is a book which recognises how humans are abusing their place in the universe.  There are no doubt many of those  –  regrettably I can’t get to them all  but happy to take suggestions.  Powers’ book probably does this as well as any.    But its also true to say that the poets got there first.  I think fiction writers have been late to this particular, gloomy party.

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I am waiting for a copy of  Ash before Oak written by Jeremy Cooper and published by the excellent Fitzcarraldo Editions.  I have another of their books on my list too – Grove by Esther Kinsky (translated by Caroline Schmidt) which I have started reading and which drips atmosphere and yearning from every page of its lyrical prose.

Of Ash before Oak the publisher’s blurb says:

Ash before Oak is a novel in the form of a fictional journal written by a solitary man on a secluded Somerset estate. Ostensibly a nature diary, chronicling the narrator’s interest in the local flora and fauna and the passing of the seasons, Ash before Oak is also the story of a breakdown told slantwise, and of the narrator’s subsequent recovery through his reengagement with the world around him.

I am proud that I have avoided a single purchase during lockdown from certain online giants who shall remain nameless.  However I found a book by Janie Chang called The Library of Legends on Tomorrow is Another Day and downloaded that onto my kindle because it sounded sweet and comforting and it is so far.

 

 

 

Someone Should Write a History of Snow While we Still Know What it Looks Like: A Review of ‘Weather’ by Jenny Offill

I have made a start on my reading of the shortlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020.

So first out of the blocks is a book published by Granta Publications Jenny Offill’s Weather.

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This is not a lengthy book, coming in at around 200 pages. Offill plays with technique, but not in a mad way that makes you never want to go to Newburyport or see another duck as long as you live.   Nevertheless there is a certain experimentalism in the presentation of the prose in separated paragraphs throughout.

I love this – that you can breathe in between. Sometimes there is a separate thought or action in the new paragraph  and sometimes there is not. But there is nothing disjointed or irritating about the work which I felt flowed very well.   If this is stream of consciousness  then it is the sort that I can happily live with!

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It immediately put me in mind of the work of poet and sometime genius Ocean Vuong who has popped up with an endorsement on the cover. ‘This is so good,’ states Vuong, ‘we are not ready nor worthy.’

I’m not sure if I feel unworthy or unready for Offill’s work but I sort of see where the comment is coming from. This book is indeed very good and I feel I want to read it again.

So the blurb on the fly leaf posits this work as being about a lady called Lizzie Benson working as a librarian – without a traditional degree (shock, horror). She has supported for years her Mother and recovering addict brother. Lizzie takes on a project to answer mail for a podcast host/philosopher and lecturer called Sylvia who gets too much mail and who throughout the book seems to withdraw further and further into silence.

And although the book does do these things, the blurb fails to mention entirely that Lizzie is primary carer for her son Eli and that she is happily married to Ben, that she acquires a sister in law and a niece along the way. So in common with most women she spends her days juggling multiple responsibilities alongside her paid work. Her brother Henry requires a huge amount of support – particularly when he is rather unsuitably left in charge of a newborn baby – time and effort which Lizzie, in saintly fashion, never begrudges.

But the narrative of events takes second place against a background of 21st century hysteria and incipient climate crisis:

“Eli is at the kitchen table, trying all his markers one by one to see which still work. Ben brings him a bowl of water so he can dip them in to test. According to the current trajectory, New York City will begin to experience dramatic, life altering temperatures by 2047.”

Someone should write a history of snow while we still know what it looks like.

Weather must have been written pre-Corvid but it is an ideal and timely read for this crisis. Offill’s writing defies both categorisation and bland description. I recommend reading it to find out what it does. It certainly deserves its place on the short-list. Will it win?  It is so very different in scope and tone from some of the others on the list  – at least the ones that I have so far read – and yet the role of a novel is to describe to people the times they are living through so that they recognise themselves in the story, or the times their ancestors lived through, or the times we might live through in the future.  And all the shortlisted books do this.

I feel Weather crumbles a bit at the end but that is no doubt deliberate because society will crumble a bit at the end

I do hope to have a punt at the winner before an announcement is made, but it is too early to say if I will choose Weather.

This Fight Belongs to Us All. Diary of a Young Naturalist, Dara McAnulty

As we all go quietly crazy during this crisis it is worth remembering that for some the  constant routine, walking the same route day in, day out, knowing exactly what comes next,  is a positive, necessary even, for stability and mental health.  But things are not going to be the same for anyone.  Regardless of the virus, the future has a big question mark over it.

Writers of the future will have their work cut out to represent what it was like to be alive in the year 2020. We have a crisis within a crisis.  Corona within climate crisis. Do present day writers and poets have their heads stuck firmly in the climate crisis sand? Maybe some.

But one young man is already ahead of the game.   Dara McAnulty, a teenager living in Northern Ireland with his family has written Diary of a Young Naturalist published by the excellent Little Toller Books   –  an independent family run press in Dorset which publishes books on the natural world.

I am grateful to have found this press on a list of indie publishers on Susan Osborne’s blog A Life in BooksThank you Susan.

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Firstly, Dara’s book as physical item.  At £16 the book is not cheap.  But it is such a joy to hold a well produced hard cover copy with an attractively designed dust jacket after years of struggling with e-reader annotation systems most of which are clunky and dire.

This copy is a joy to hold;  the pleasing heft of good quality paper .   It reminds me of a time when there were book collectors, and that books were collected as much for appearance as content.

Divided like the year into sections on Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter the book is a diary about a young boy’s love of, understanding of and connections to the natural world.   Despite being only 15 years of age, McAnulty writes with a passionate lyricism,  a wisdom – and yes, vision –  about birds, plants, animals and trees.   And oh boy, can this young man write.

I’m lying on the ground looking up at the branches of an oak tree.  Dappled light is shining through the canopy, the leaves whisper ancient incantations.  This tree, in its living stage, rooted in sights and sounds that I’ll never know, has witnessed extinctions and wars, loves and losses.  I wish we could translate the language of trees – hear their voices, know their stories.”

Sadly some of Dara’s school friends do not understand or share his passion and it is clear that he suffers cruelly from bullying at school and from a sense of belonging nowhere except the forests, nature reserves and gardens that he craves.   The fear of school – its rigid lack of understanding of an individual child’s needs, its focus on conformity  – is a constant although sometimes unspoken presence in the early stages of the story.  Anyone who knows the  feeling of being an outsider, can take comfort from this writing as well as from the victories it describes.  And in Summer, he finds a friend…

In fact the very existence of this book is an indictment of educational systems.    Dara tells us that his parents  were once told by a teacher:  ‘Your son will never be able to complete a comprehension, never mind string a paragraph together.’

Yet, as Dara says, here we are.

And where we are – or desperately need to be – is recognising, encouraging and educating the naturalists of the future rather than disparaging them.  Because we need them badly.    Thank goodness young people are taking the lead – the school strikes for climate for example in which Dara has taken part.   These young people are the ones that will have to solve the problems that self-serving older generations have left behind.  Our legacy of destruction.

Yes this is a fantastic book and yes I heartily recommend it to anyone even vaguely concerned about the disappearance of our natural world.   But mostly it is a call to action.    Dara doesn’t want anyone to tell him how great he is, or what a role model he is. He just wants us to educate our children and grandchildren to join in his conservation efforts.

The RSPB website reminds us:

 Nature is still in crisis, with more than 40 million birds having vanished from UK skies in just 50 years and one in ten of our wildlife are critically endangered.

Nature has powerful allies in the new, young generations who refuse to accept expedience and compromise, who do not rely on vague hopes that it will probably be OK or someone else will sort it.   This fight belongs to us all.

 

From Glow Worms to the Avian Death Count in New York … and a Stork Arrested for Spying ‘Vesper Flights’ by Helen Macdonald

… from climate change to mushrooms to drone warfare, Vesper Flights is the new book by Helen Macdonald ( of H is for Hawk fame).  It’s been a long wait since 2014.   In that earlier award winning book the author wrote an account of how in the midst of grieving for her father, she struggled to train a Goshawk – named Mabel.

As a naturalist, Macdonald’s  work ranges widely across different species and ecologies.  As a writer she always finds the perfect analogy between whatever is happening out there in the natural world and what is also happening to the rest of us.  Needless to say at a time of global crisis that we are going through now, our relationship to nature seems even more confused and tormented.

Macdonald’s work epitomises the new nature writing.  I believe very few people can combine the passion and lyricism of superb writing with deep scientific knowledge born a lifetime of study, the way she does.

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There are things we know about birds and there are still even more things we don’t. Although it lacks some of the focus on narrative of her earlier book, Vesper Flights ranges across the myriad topics on which the author is knowledgeable.   The way we view birds and animals, the way we talk about them, name them, label them, treat them, ignore them, and often kill them either intentionally or not,  comes back in the end Macdonald writes, to the culture we inhabit and how we view ourselves.

Birdwatching, hours and hours spent watching  with the naked eye or through field glasses has been a hobby, a habit, an obsession, a career of us humans for as long as there have been birds and eyes or  field glasses through which to view them.  For beings that don’t talk, they connect to us and we to them.  They connect us to each other and to our history.

Macdonald writes:

“… I remember a British officer called Peter Conder who spent the Second World War in prison camps in Germany.  He survived by watching birds.  Goldfinches. Wrynecks.  Migrating crows picking through the waste spread on the frozen fields.  Hours and days and years on end.  When he came home he  didn’t talk.  He stayed with his sister and stared out of the window at London starlings roosting in long lines on ledges of Portland stone.”

He observed that the birds always stood a certain distance apart but close enough to deliver a rebuke to his neighbour.  He christened it the principle of pecking distance.

And before that around the time of the First World War, a man called Henry Eliot Howard decided that birds held territories too.  That males sang to other males as warnings.  That brightly coloured plumage was warning.  The naturalist Peter Scott noted from the deck of a naval destroyer on which he was serving that somehow the mallards and teal in the reed beds of Slapton Sands were what he was fighting to protect. “That somehow they were England.”

And somehow the birds are still England, enervated, etiolated, disappearing, besieged by wrong headed ideologies.

It has happened before, Macondald writes.    As ideologies and systems collapse we “seek ourselves in the mirror of the countryside”  See nature as refuge.

But nature is more often  encountered on TV and video than in living reality these days,  or through nature reserves’ – living museums of flora and fauna which once covered the land.

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Many thousands of animals and birds – swans, sea turtles even bears and whales – are tagged and tracked every year, in our efforts to understand migration patterns and understand the dangers they face.

“The particulate beauty of unimagined hordes of lives that aren’t our own, tracked minute by minute across the sky and rising out of mystery.”

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We survey our remaining birds as we ourselves are under surveillance. But often the biggest danger that they face is us.  We congratulate ourselves on our ability to watch the progress of thousands of tagged birds on the internet (a cuckoo named David is reported as reaching home in Wales safely) yet are powerless to intervene to save any that meet difficulties.

That sense of powerlessness is playing out all across the globe as we face as invisible virus and our paranoia increases to the extent that a stork can be captured and arrested on suspicion of carrying an electronic spying device!   Technological dominance is reaching out  gory tentacles to encompass the design of and the intentional imitation of birds and insects in drone warfare.  Poignant avatars, as Macdonald describes these avian victims, for human fears and conflicts.

The birds are caught in the middle.  But now, humans are caught in the middle too of things which are completely beyond our understand and control. The twin dangers of Corvid 19 and climate change.

“Summer storms conjure distance and time but conjure too all the things that come towards us over which we have no control.  Such storms have their place in literature, the heavy air and mood of suppressed emotion as the storm brews so often standing for an inevitable catastrophe.   

And I can’t help but think this is the weather we are all now made of.  All of us waiting.  Waiting for news.  Waiting for Brexit to hit us.  Waiting for the next revelation about the Trump administration.  Waiting for hope, stranded in that strange light that stills our hearts before the storm of history.”

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Thank you to #NetGalley and #Grove Press (New York) for this review copy.  All views are my own.

“I Had Been at Camusfeàrna Eight Years Before I Piped Water to the House ….” A Review of Gavin Maxwell’s trilogy ‘Ring of Bright Water’

Prior to that, the water was brought up from the burn in a bucket.

It is almost as if the difficulties of the life Gavin Maxwell chose in remote Camusfeàrna   where he lived with  no made up road, no electricity, one mile from the nearest house and five from the nearest shop,  were a metaphor for his own life struggles.  Gavin wrote a trilogy of books about his life in this isolated place,  in a rented cottage overlooking the Sound of Sleat on Scotland’s west coast between the years of 1948 and 1968.

Here he lived with his various otters,  Mijbil, Edal, Mossy and Monday.    The books Ring of Bright Water, The Rocks Remain and Raven Seek Thy Brother became bestsellers and made Gavin Maxwell famous but now inevitably feel elegiac representing as they do things permanently lost.  And like all fame, his did not come without a price.

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More than this,  many of the deep and true country ways of life were vanishing under an onslaught of new roads and telegraph poles even at the time Gavin was writing,  but in view of the disastrous habitat destruction which has since taken place on so many levels and in so many parts of the country,   Ring of Bright Water (which was made into a film with Virginia McKenna) is less of an elegy and more of an epitaph.

“The landscape and seascape that lay spread below me was of such beauty that I had no room for it all at once; my eye flickered from the house to the islands, from the white sands to the flat green pasture round the croft, from the wheeling gulls to the pale satin sea and on to the snow-topped Cuillins of Skye in the distance.”

What I loved about these books – more even than their feel of a Walden-esque attempt to hold back the tide of modernity –  is the poetry of the writing.  I have read a lot of poetry and a lot of what is called the new nature writing.   But Maxwell’s writing feels different. He was pioneer of the ‘new nature writing’ before the term was born or thought of and the empathy that he truly had with his otters and with the natural landscape of Camusfeàrna – and how those elements reflected back at him his own sense of unbelonging –  is made manifest on the page through his lyrical writing.

It  is as if Maxwell writes from the inside out.

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After reading the trilogy, I looked for a biography of the author as I felt generally ignorant of all matters concerning his life.   For example, I didn’t even know that the title of the book Ring of Bright Water is from one of Kathleen Raine’s poems:

“He has married me with a ring, a ring of bright water

Whose ripples travel from the heart of the sea…

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a poet with whom Maxwell had a tempestuous affair and who is said to have laid a curse on a Rowan tree at Camusfearna, after he threw her out  quite literally in the middle of the night.   The book I found was Gavin Maxwell: A Life by Douglas Botting (Eland) apparently the only authorised biography, other attempts at biography according to Botting having come up against ‘the twin obstacles of family and estate’.

Maxwell was an aristocrat – a scion of the House of Northumberland and at one time date of Princess Margaret.  His CV included wartime instructor in the SOE,  Guards Officer, Adventurer, Traveller and fully paid up member of the hero club (albeit of confused sexual identity so perhaps not the model for Bond).  Hero club that is if you discount throwing ladies out of isolated habitions in the middle of nowhere at midnight, which I personally do not discount.

It is clear both from Maxwell’s own writing and from Douglas Botting’s biography,  that Maxwell was essentially lonely and could be a difficult person to be around, often suffering from ill health and never happier than when alone and freezing on some moorland somewhere with his beloved plants and animals.

These aspects of his life are more acutely realised in the work than any enduring human relationships at which he generally appears to have been unsuccessful.  At least that is what the biography leads us to believe. And yet Maxwell seems never short of a friend to stay with when a bed in a castle is required or a companion for the many trips and adventures he undertook –  there was always an old Stoic, pal from Oxford, or Guards Officer around.

Sadly though it seems Kathleen Raine’s curse may have taken effect.  The final book in the trilogy charts Gavin’s series of financial and personal misfortunes which would lead to his death in 1969.

Perhaps the final irony of Maxwell’s life was that the overwhelming success of Ring of Bright Water  and its two sequels, The Rocks Remain, and Raven Seek Thy Brother contributed to the mass tourism which has placed so much stress on the once lonely Scottish landscapes he so loved and to which these books are in memoriam.

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Review of The Ring of Bright Water Trilogy, Gavin Maxwell (Viking, 2000)

 

 

Birds, Behaviourism and a Broken Promise

Review  Eva Meijer. Bird Cottage Pushkin Press.  Translated from the Dutch by Antoinette Fawcett

I always enjoy books about women who break the mould which was what attracted me to this one. I particular enjoy books which dwell on the study of nature since those are increasingly invaluable records of what we are losing .

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The title  is taken from the name of a house in Ditchling, Sussex in which the naturalist Len (Gwendolen) Howard lived and wrote from 1938  books on birds, based on years of living with them  and closely observing their behaviours. Meijer’s book is partly fictional, partly biographical based on Howard’s letters and archive.

Born in the early years of the 20th century to a poet father and depressed mother Howard gave up an early career as a violinist and the possibility of marriage in order to live alone and write about her birds.  At least  this is how the book presents her.

This reimagining of her life brings to light her struggles to be taken seriously as a naturalist – well it was the early part of the twentieth century and she was (a) a woman and (b) not a formally trained scientist.

Howard notes in her letters:

Konrad Lorenz’s book in which he describes how he lives with all kinds of animals, is treated far more seriously that mine, probably because he has proper qualifications, writes scientific articles, is a man.  Yet his observations are less original than mine.  Moreover the birds have freely chosen to live with me whereas Lorenz rears his and so influences their behaviour.

The factual elements of the book are interesting for observations on animal behaviour such as:

Darwin’s work on animal intelligence, for example, is regarded as unscientific because it is primarily based on anecdotal evidence.  Behaviourism, however, does not properly take account of the fact that many animals behave differently in captivity than when they are free.

Yet I found some of the dialogue slow moving and unconvincing which may be a result of translation, the evocation of period a bit clunky.

“Cook rings the bell. Tea is ready.  I go upstairs to put away my violin.  Mike is singing in the garden.  Ta-da-da, tada.”

There’s not much sense of the history against which the story is set  – a brief mention of some suffragettes  and force feeding “it must be dreadful”.  Gwen recognises a soldier as “one of the chaps Kingsley used to play tennis with”.   The second world war gets barely a mention.

Gwen’s character comes across as completely self-absorbed, out of touch with her family -she fails to attend her own father’s funeral – and certainly out of touch with the momentous events that shook the world through the first half of the twentieth century.  She’s not the most empathetic of characters but obviously the birds like her.    The author writes in a note that Howard’s books Birds as Individuals and Living with Birds were once best sellers, but now only available second hand.

I understand that the intention may have been to show that this is what it took to live life on your own terms for a woman.  If so I’m not entirely sure it worked for me. I felt I did not know the character any better by the end of the book than at the beginning.

Sadly the author tells us that Howard left Bird Cottage in her will to the Sussex Naturalist Trust who promised to turn it into a bird sanctuary.  This never materialised and the land was sold to someone who felled all the trees in the back garden, apart from a single oak.

 

Thank you to #PushkinPress and #NetGalley for this review copy.

A house with no foundations and lessons in survival A Review of ‘Unsheltered’ by Barbara Kingsolver

A new Barbara Kingsolver book is always an event in the literary calendar, although I haven’t read them all.  I loved The Poisonwood Bible, The Lacuna and Flight Behaviour.  In the latter the central character is a woman from small town America whose life normally bounded by childcare, domestic duties and caring for the in-laws,  is changed by the arrival of a scientific observation team who have come to examine the effects of climate change on the migration patterns of Monarch butterflies.

Kingsolver

Unsheltered uses similar tropes for the central character of the modern story Willa although reverses them.  Willa is a professional woman (a journalist) with two adult children who having moved to Vineland, New Jersey for her husband’s job finds herself trying to undertake freelance work and then trying to survive, in that order.

The book has two time shifts.  One, the modern story,  is set in Trump’s America (2016  ‘I can’t believe this is happening’ says Willa on hearing the result of the New Hampshire primary) and the historic story set in 1871 amongst the same community.

Willa’s journalistic ambitions are seriously stymied by the illness of her ageing and impossible father-in-law, Nick,  who has no plans to go gently into that good night and whose care falls to Willa.  Another catastrophe strikes as Willa’s adult son Zeke, married with a newborn, is suddenly faced with the death of his own partner.  Urgent childcare is needed, a breach into which Willa also steps.  As if those things are not enough, the Vineland house into which the family has recently moved is diagnosed as literally falling to pieces.

Because this is Kingsolver we know there will be science.  The historic section of the book is set in houses on the same street, and concerns a lady called Mary Treat (a real person), a naturalist and entomologist who wrote many books and articles and corresponded with Charles Darwin.

Willa’s belief that Mary Treat might have lived in the house that her family currently occupies  gives her hope that she could register the house as being of historic interest and so be eligible for grant funding to do urgent repairs. After research, though,  It turns out acclaimed biologist Mary Treat did not live in Willa’s house but in a house over the road.  Willa’s house was in fact occupied by the family  of a local school master named rather uproariously Thatcher Greenwood.

We learn that Thatcher is a proponent of Darwinian science –  beliefs considered dangerous and ungodly by the head of the school in which he is employed as a teacher.   He is peremptorily told not to fill the children’s heads with ungovernable nonsense such as evolution.   Ultimately Thatcher is told to disavow his Darwinian beliefs which -sensibly on the side of history – he refuses to do.

Back to the future, and undaunted by research showing the absence of Mary Treat or her ilk from her home, Willa sets about trying to find a possible connection between Thatcher and Mary.   Was there a connection between Thatcher Greenwood and Mrs Mary Treat, Willa wonders (you’ll have to read the book to find out)  and if so was it sufficient to enable her to make an application for historic registration of her property?

‘These two iconoclasts living in one another’s line of sight, anode and cathode, had some current flowing between them that Willa had accidentally stuck a hand into.’

This story is not just about someone trying to apply for a housing grant.  As part of the modern story, Unsheltered is also about generational differences but not the sort of generational differences that the boomers had with their parents which was all about cool and uncool and music and vibes. The expectations of the boomer generation was achiever fever,  to outdo their parents in wealth, position collecting of stuff, size of house.    The new generational differences are much more fundamental.  They relate to understanding the depths of disaster that the planet is facing and the price of survival.  They are about recognising:

‘The global contempt for temperance and nurture, the fierce entitlement to every kind of consumption’

This whole books is a metaphor for how we are going to have to completely redefine things which are important to us in the future.  A timely metaphor indeed on a day when Greta Thunberg has addressed the World Economic Forum at Davos asking us to act as if nothing matters more than our children.

Oh boy can Kingsolver do metaphors!  You only have to look at the central tenet of the story –    a house with no foundations!   And one of the minor characters in the story quite literally gets away with murder.  The title of the debate ‘Darwin versus Decency’ in which Thatcher takes part,  sounds as ridiculous to modern ears, as the utterings of climate deniers will sound to the ears of generations into the future.

But though I admired this book, somehow I didn’t enjoy it as much as I wanted to enjoy it – not as much as some of the previous books.  I found the historical storyline less absorbing than the modern day one, the characters harder to get a handle on.  I think I kept waiting for a ta-dah sort of revelation, but there was none.  The reader has to be satisfied with small victories and uplifting moments, against a background of relative awfulness. And isn’t that just like life.

Poets, Astronomers, Mathematicians, Biologists: Figuring by Maria Popova

Figuring

“We snatch our freeze frame of life from the simultaneity of existence by holding on to illusions of permanence, congruence and linearity; of static selves and lives that unfold in sensical narratives.  All the while we mistake chance for choice, our labels and models of things, for the things themselves, our records for our history.   History is not what happened but what survives the shipwrecks of judgement and chance.”

Maria Popova

The title of the book Figuring refers to Popova’s ideas about:

‘figuring and reconfiguring of reality – it all banged into being 13.8 billion years ago from a single source, no louder than the opening note of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony …’

Her book ranges widely across philosophical ideas and scientific notions, starting with mathematician Johannes Kepler (1571-1630).

Kepler would, says the author ‘quarry the marble out of which classical physics would be sculpted’.

Kepler had investigated and proposed the claim (made 50 years earlier by Copernicus) that the Earth moves around the sun, even before Galileo Galilei plucked up the courage to say that he had himself thought along these lines but kept silent to avoid being charged with heresy.  Eventually he could keep silent no longer.    Kepler, Before Newton,  also conceived the notion of a gravitational force which directed the movement of the planets.

The book moves on to American Journalist and women’s rights advocate Margaret Fuller (1810-1850) and the life of astronomer and mathematician Maria Mitchell (1818-1889).   Mitchell rose to be the first female Professor of Astronomy at Vassar.  Maria Mitchell knew that the surest route to empowerment of women was through education.

We are taken by the author on a journey through the  life and poems of Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) and on to the groundbreaking work of environmental scientist, Rachel Carson (1907-1964) with others in between.

Among the questions Popova asks, and seeks to answer through the examination of the lives of the (mostly women) in this book.     What are the building blocks of character, of contentment, of lasting achievement?

This last is a question which courses like blood through the veins of the book because, if it is axiomatic that we should seek to achieve greatness in our chosen field, whether science, literature, art, then what part does societal recognition play?  The lives of the women in this book were lived out against a background of the utter disbelief  of those particular societies in which they lived concerning the suitability of women even to partake in education, let alone to make world changing scientific or artistic discoveries.   Yet this is exactly what they did.

While it is impossible to know for certain every life chance or turn that led to these women becoming exactly who they did, they all shared the fortune of coming from families enlightened as to the education of its daughters.  They all shared a need to work, and like every human soul, a need for love which came in all sorts of shapes and guises.

Popova writes about women who were major achievers in their fields but this is not just an account of certain lives however remarkable they may be.  What Figuring does is the same thing that Popova’s blog Brain Pickings (www.brainpickings.org) does, it makes beautiful connections between art and life, between sinew and spirit, soul, chance and choice.  In her inimitable way she makes the reader not just wish to know more but insist on knowing more, to relish the ‘down the rabbit-hole’ effect of research,  to want to delve further, find more tunnels.

 

silentspring

 

The last ‘life’ to be covered in Figuring is that of Rachel Carson (1907-1964), author of Silent Spring.

Carson was a biologist, nature writer and oceanographer, an ecologist before the term was even known.   Although ailing and nearing the end of her life at the time of writing Silent Spring this was the book that it fell to her to write simply because she was the best qualified to do the job,  and in so doing she founded an ecological movement which today is more desperately needed than ever.

Carson was informed by the establishment of the time that despite her meticulously evidenced research on the damage caused by the use of DDTs in crop sprays and pesticides in decimating bird and insect populations,  there was no ‘evidence’ of permanent damage.  In other words, it was thought by some in a gung-ho way that populations might be decimated but, hey, they would recover.  They didn’t.  My life had stood a loaded gun’ as the poet Emily Dickinson wrote.

The conflation of such gung-ho attitudes towards chemically manufactured carcinogens, in pursuit of profit, and the disparagement by those engaged in such activities of individuals who challenge them, has given rise to the environmental activism we see today.    It is shocking how little attitudes have changed since Carson wrote in the 60s and how much there is still to achieve.  For example in the last few days it has been reported in the Guardian that the peaceful environmental group Extinction Rebellion was listed by the Metropolitan Police on its Prevent list of radicalisation, alongside neo-Nazi groups, meaning that to be concerned about ecological destruction and the death of species, is considered extreme even though we ourselves are part of the ecology we destroy.

Carson would no doubt  take little pleasure in – but equally might not be surprised by  narratives being pursued today by powerful corporates and those who serve their interests  regarding the damage done to human tissue by ultra-fine particles in the air that we breathe.

Governments cannot be trusted with environmental crises.  Although DDT’s may be banned in certain countries our legal and regulatory systems lag behind desecration and mayhem caused by chemical pollutants in our air and water systems, particularly from vehicle and aviation exhaust fumes.