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.
“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.