Everest England by Peter Owen Jones

A copy of this was provided free of charge from the publisher in return for an honest review.

Since 1953 when the tallest mountain was conquered by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay the number of people reaching the summit has grown exponentially year on year, with well over 5000 people having made the ascent. Climbing to that height is not without risk, and with those numbers of people climbing there have of course been fatalities for a whole series of reasons, as well as the amount of junk left on the mountain has also grown too. Plus there is the cost of doing it, from somewhere you with have to find around £25k; most people will not ever reach this roof of our planet.

Conquering is a dreadful business, a blighted gene. I want nothing to do with it

Peter Owen Jones had another idea though, why not ascend the same vertical distance of 29,016 feet over a similar period of time that an ascent of Everest would take, but do it on some of the most beautiful hills that the UK has to offer. This has several advantages, you can get there quite quickly, you do not need to find large sums of money to do the challenge, you do not need oxygen and it you are still within reach of pubs and tea rooms for the required refreshment and recuperation.

Climbing up, walking to the summit, is a calling a summoning, for what can only be known, seen and heard on the edge of the land and the sky in the space between them.

In this book, Jones has collected together eighteen routes and climbs to achieve the total height that he wanted. These climbs begin in Cornwall and he heads up the west side of the country before reaching the summit on Scafell Pike in Cumbria. But there is much more to this book than just a series of walks. Jones is completing this partly as a personal pilgrimage but also as a way of taking a step away from the relentless stream of information from the internet, becoming an observer of people and things around his and taking time to reconnect with the natural world.

The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents by Terry Pratchett

5 out of 5 stars

Every town on Discworld has a story about rat infestation and a piper who can blow a magical tune to lead the rats away. Maurice, a streetwise tomcat saw this as a business opportunity and had cobbled together a bunch of rats who had been affected by the same magic as him. They had persuaded a young lad called Keith to be the piper and ‘lead’ the rats away.

The group are on their way to a small town called Bad Blintz and the rats persuade Maurice that this should be the last town that they pull this stunt on. But on arrival, they realise that there is something strange about the town, there are no other rats around. The residents of the town think they already have an infestation and have been paying two rat catchers to clear them. Their food still keeps disappearing and yet the rat-catchers hang up large numbers of tails from rats they have caught. Except these tails look suspiciously like shoelaces.

Malicia, the mayor’s daughter has concluded that the rat-catchers are up to something, but quite what she has no idea. As they investigate more, they realise that the rat-catchers have created a King Rat called Spider. This entity is pure evil and its presence is starting to affect the rats and Maurice realises that he knows what he has to do.

I thought that this was a really enjoyable book and the first set on the Discworld that is specifically aimed at a younger audience with simpler plot lines. However, it is still suitable for those of an older generation though (i.e. me), as the later part of the book really is quite dark. If there was one tiny flaw, things work out too well at the end for my liking. Great stuff and can highly recommend.

The Stolen Bicycle by Wu Ming-Yi

2.5 out of 5 stars

Two decades ago a man disappeared in mysterious circumstances. His son ponders why he vanished in such mysterious circumstances and memories from that time keep flooding back to him. The one lead that he does have was that his father rode off on a particular bicycle and it helped him remember the bicycles that his father that had stolen or lost after particular family events.

The son’s investigation into his father begins to uncover all sorts of things and details in the overlapping histories between his family and others in the neighbourhoods that they lived. Discovering the little known world of those that collect antique bicycles brings all sort of revelations for him and a moment where he finds a tangible link. Draped over this is a history of Taiwan all the way back to the Second World War.

I was recommended this by Jessica J. Lee, the author of Turning as she described it as one of her all-time favourites. I didn’t fall for it in the same way that she did and I think that is because some of the cultural references are lost on me. However, I did enjoy the wistful and dreamlike writing, though the plot seemed to almost be stretched to gossamer-thin at times.

The Lark Ascending by Richard King

3 out of 5 stars

The piece of music behind the title of the book was first played in 1921. Ralph Vaughan Williams’ evocative piece has filtered its way into the national consciousness to portray a gentle countryside of meadows, quiet country lanes and of course, skylarks. But this rose-tinted view of a past that probably didn’t even exist. Unless you were in the upper echelons of society, living on the land was hard and relentless. But that emotive connection we have to our landscape is the same one that connects us to music.

King meanders through the links that have existed between a variety of music genres and the countryside. Some of the connections are obvious, folk music has very strong ties to the landscape and the farming seasons, but there are chapters on political action, Greenham Common, hippies and druids and most recently the Acid house scene and rave parties that were the precursor to clubbing.

I thought that this was an interesting take for a subject on a book. People connect to the landscape in all sorts of ways, and I had never thought of it with regards to music. I was more interested in the more contemporary accounts to do with the travelling community and rave culture in the later chapters in the book. It was interesting how this bought all sorts of draconian laws to curb their excesses. It did feel for a couple of the chapters that connections between the music elements and landscapes were an afterthought. There is a playlist to go with the book here.

The Seafarers by Stephen Rutt

4 out of 5 stars

The insane craziness of London gets to people in many different ways and in 2015 it happened to Stephen Rutt. Rather than just downsize and move out to the country, he decided to take himself as far away from London as he could. This was why he found himself in North Ronaldsay, the most northerly of the Orkney Islands, at the bird observatory there. It is in these places where the open ocean meets the land where the birds that he is seeking, live. They thrive in these dynamic environments and Rutt’s experiences on these windblown edges of our coasts are the closest he can come to experiencing what an ocean-going bird feels. Most of our seabird colonies are located in Scotland and he is naturally drawn to these places, but he travels all over the UK,  from Wales to Northumberland to experience other colonies of birds and to uncover a little of the history between us and the seabirds.

Rutt has a really nice writing style, informative without feeling that you are being lectured too. He describes enough detail in the scenes that he sees in his prose that you feel like you are stood alongside him as he watches the skuas stoop towards his head, or standing in the dark listening to the shearwaters return to their nests, when he takes off in tiny rickety places to hop between the islands and is buffeted by the same winds that they fly in every day in the open ocean. Woven into all of this are his observations on the landscape and geology of the places with just enough history to add context. It is a great insight into the life of the birds he is following and has a wonderful resonance.  I can recommend this if you wish to know about the birds of the open ocean, skua, gannets and fulmars and also to be read in conjunction with the Seabird’s Cry by Adam Nicolson, to get some idea of the threats that these birds are under.

July 2019 Review

July came and went. We had a fantastic week in Sicily and were rewarded with sunsets like this

Didn’t get quite as much read as I wanted, the story of my life, but did read 17 books in the end and I think that they were as varied as ever

Unusually I read four fiction this month. I have read all of Ben Aaronovitch’s books. and The October Man is his latest novella. Set in Germany, this book introduces some new characters and a new magical challenge. I was recommended The Stolen Bicycle by the author Jessica J. Lee. This book by Ming-Yi Wu is about man who is looking for traces of his father after he disappeared two decades ago.  Whilst in Sicily I read one of Norman Lewis’ fiction books, The March of the Long Shadows. didn’t think that it was as good as his non-fiction, but he did capture the atmosphere of the island very well. The final fiction book was Golden Hill by Francis Spufford. I have read Backroom Boys by him a few years ago, so was looking forward to this and it was quite a romp around a very early New York.

            

I haven’t seen the tv series, but the book about Chernobyl is a fascination account about the worst nuclear accident so far. Serhii Plokhy has had access to the archives and in here reveals just how close we got to it being far worse than it already was.

Paul Kingsnorth has been an environmental writer for years and he hopes that moving to Ireland on a small plot of land will help him to find a purpose. He enjoys the work but he realises that the tools that made him a writer have begun to ebb away. Savage Gods is his musings on the loos of words and how he sought them out again. I have read Mike Parker’s books on maps and this was recommended to me by Jon Woolcot of Little Toller. On The Red Hill is the story of being gay in rural Wales seen from his life and his partner, Preds and from the perspective of Reg and George who were a couple when it was still illegal. A multi-layered book of life, love and landscape.

   

Another recommendation from the people over at Caught at the River was The Lark Ascending by Richard King. In this book he looks at the interwoven links between the music we create and listen to and the landscape around us. It takes us from the classical Lark Ascending by Ralph Vaughan Williams to the modern rave scene.

I read two Poetry books this month. First was The Girl Aquarium a new collection by Jen Campbell. There were some that I liked in this, and there were some that I struggled to elicit meaning from. Karl Tearney’s new collection, Second Life is rooted deep in the PTSD that he suffers from. It is much more black and white and very raw at times.

   

I read a lot of travel books this month! Mike Carter is another author who I have read all his previous books and this new one was kindly sent by Faber. In All Together Now, he repeats the walk that his father took from Liverpool to London in 1981 as a protest about the lack of jobs in the north. As he walks he takes the political pulse of the country as we were about to vote in the 2016 referendum. Around the same time that this walk was taking place, Jonathan Raban was sailing around the coast of the UK. His brilliant writing cuts through the political noise around the Falklands War and the miner’s strike that was taking place at the time. Emma Bamford is also on a boat and her travels take her from America to the Carribean and around Malaysia. it also forces her to reconsider her priorities as she contemplates the stressful job she has in London.

         

As we were going to Sicily, I had collected all the books on the island that I had. I had read and loved, Mary Taylor Simeti’s book, On Persophy’s Island years ago and found Bitter Almonds in a charity shop. This is the stories and recipes that she collected from Maria Grammatico who grew up in a convent and learnt to cook the most amazing pastries. I have read a couple of Norman Lewis ‘ books before, and Eland kindly sent me this. Sicily was an island that he loved, he married the daughter of a mafioso and spent a lot of time there. He is travelling around the island, catching up with old friends and familiar places. Quite a wonderful book from a wonderful writer. Matthew Fort is also travelling around Sicily on a scarlet red Vespa in his book, Sweet Honey, Bitter Lemons. He is not really there for the culture, though it is inescapable on this island, but is there to discover the delicious foods from locals. A book that makes you very, very hungry. Horatio Clare is another fan of the place and he has curated a select set of writings about the island in Sicily: Through the Writers’ Eyes. A really enjoyable book, and we even made it to one of the places mentioned in the book.

           

 

I had two books of the month in July, All Together Now? and Savage Gods and would recommend that you read them if you had a chance.

On the Red Hill by Mike Parker

4.5 out of 5 stars

Shortly after the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1972, Reg and George moved to deepest rural Wales from Bournemouth. They had a couple of homes before settling into a house that would become a B&B and be their home until 2011. In total, they were together over six decades, the first two of which their relationship was deemed to be illegal by the state. In 2006 they formally became a couple with a short civil partnership ceremony in the town of Machynlleth. They had two witnesses to this momentous occasion, Peredur and Mike Parker.

Mike Parker was another exile from England having first gone to Wales to write a Rough Guide and realised that he actually quite liked the place. Discovering his sexuality, Parker had had a large number of flings and very short term relationships in his younger days but arriving in Wales calmed him and it was there that he first met Peredur. Finding excuses to go and see him in the shop he was working they both realised that they were attracted to each other and both fell in love.

Reg, George, Preds and Mike were to become close friends, hence why the younger guys ended up as witnesses and came to love the house that the older guys owned. They started to save up with the intention of purchasing it after they had passed away; but in a remarkable turn of events, Reg and George left the property to them in the will. For the first time, they had some proper financial security and Preds was living in the home that he always dreamed of. They didn’t change much, to begin with, but added a swimming pond for bracing dips

After moving in they begun to sort through their home and discovered a rich history of Reg and George’s younger lives through their diaries, letter and personal effects. This is not just the story of the older and younger guys and their lives. Rather it is a layered and multi-faceted memoir of Parker’s time growing up, Preds life in a small Welsh town and the way that the community supports each other. The book is split into the four parts and he writes about the seasons, the four elements of earth, wire, fire and water and about each of them. Central to all of this though is Rhiw Goch, or the Red Hill, and how it changes every single day with the seasons, the way that kites hang in the air and the thrill of snow cutting them off sometimes, though the thrill of being isolated wears off after a brief period of time. I had read Parker’s previous books on maps and this was recommended to me. I thought this was a really enjoyable book about a new life in Wales coupled with a touch of history, landscape, social history and the natural world of Wales that captivates him every time he steps outside the door. It is a book full of deep love for the man and the land he now inhabits.

August 2019 TBR

These are the books I am hoping to read in August. I do have a week in Jersey and a long ferry trip over and back so am aiming to get some serious amounts of reading in.

Blog Tours 

None – Hurrah!

Library Books

Between River and Sea, Encounters in Israel and Palestine by Dervla Murphy

Human Chain by Seamus Heaney

White Mountain: Real And Imagined Journeys In The Himalayas by Robert Twigger

Viva South America!: A Journey Through A Restless Continent by Oliver Balch

On the Road to Babadag by Andrzej Stasiuk Tr. Michael Kandel

#20BooksOfSummer

White Mountain: Real And Imagined Journeys In The Himalayas by Robert Twigger

Limits of the Known by David Roberts

Just Another Mountain by Sarah Jane Douglas

Everest England: 29,000 Feet in 12 Days by Peter Owen Jones

For Love & Money by Jonathan Raban

Hunting Mister Heartbreak by Jonathan Raban

A Raindrop in the Ocean: The Extraordinary Life of a Global Adventurer by Michael Dobbs-Higginson

Blue Mind: How Water Makes You Happier, More Connected and Better at What You Do by Wallace J. Nichols

When the Rivers Run Dry: Water – The Defining Crisis of the Twenty-first Century by Fred Pearce

Still Water: Reflections on the Deep Life of the Pond by John Lewis-Stempel

The Chronology Of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch

Review Books

Vickery’s Folk Flora: An A-Z of the Folklore and Uses of British and Irish Plants by Roy Vickery

The Seafarers: A Journey Among Birds by Stephen Rutt

Sunfall by Jim Al-Khalili

Tempest: An Anthology Edited by Anna Vaught & Anna Johnson

Still Water: Reflections on the Deep Life of the Pond by John Lewis-Stempel

The Many Lives of Carbon by Dag Olav Hessen, Tr. Kerri Pierce

The Saddest Pleasure: A Journey on Two Rivers by Moritz Thomsen

The Book of Puka-Puka: A Lone Trader in the South Pacific by Robert Dean Frisbie

Irreplaceable: The Fight To Save Our Wild Places by Julian Hoffman

The Ancient Woods of the Helford River by Oliver Rackham

Wishful Thinking

As I Walked Out Through Spain in Search of Laurie Lee by P. D. Murphy

My Midsummer Morning: Rediscovering a Life of Adventure by Alastair Humphreys

The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents by Terry Pratchett

On Beauty by Zadie Smith

Sicily: Through the Writers’ Eyes by Horatio Clare

4 out of 5 stars

Sicily is the very essence of Italy distilled down to an espresso sized shot. The food is strongly flavoured, the sun bakes the landscape over the long summer and the intense rush that assault all of your senses. Its position in the centre of the Mediterranean meant that it had suffered invasions all the way through its long history too, Phoenicians, Athenians, Romans, Arabs, Normans, Habsburgs, Bourbons and Byzantines are just some of the cultures that have come and gone, leaving traces on the landscape, culture and people.

Travel writer Horatio Clare is one of a long list of writers who have been inspired to write about their adventure and experiences of the island. In this book, he has sifted through some of the vast quantity of writings and annotated them with his own personal stories. Some of the stories told reach as far back as the Greek classics, and in Arrivals, he begins with Homer from the Odyssey where the first mention of the island appears in literature.

The next section is called Miracles, and in this Clare has selected stories and tales from the diverse religions and peoples that have occupied the island in times past from writers and poets such as Vincent Cronin, Ibn Jubayr and Johann Wolfgang von Gothe. People of the Earth is concerned with those that have scratched a living from the scorched earth and have been the victims of a millennia-old feudal system that the island still has echoes of if you know where to look. This neatly leads on to the next section, The Curse is about the horrors that the Mafia have inflicted on the population of the island. In her are passages from the great, Norman Lewis, Leonardo Sciascia and Peter Robb. The final section brings us to the modern-day where there are passages from Mary Taylor Simeti and Theresa Maggio of life on the island.

Clare has curated a great and varied collection of prose about this small but significant island in the middle of the Mediterranean. Each passage gives a strongly flavoured taste of what it is like there. I really liked most of the chosen passages, but most fascinating was the part by Charlotte Gower Chapman called Milocca: A Sicilian Village where she reveals so much detail about life there in the late 1920s. The manuscript was lost and reappeared in 1978 and was thankfully published. I read this whilst on holiday in the island and even travelled to one or two of the places that are mentioned, and it is a great way to discover a lot of different things about Sicily.

Savage Gods by Paul Kingsnorth

5 out of 5 stars

A copy of this was provided free of charge from the publisher in return for an honest review.

Kingsnorth thought having access to his own patch of land would settle his very being, give him a sense of belonging, somewhere where he could be rooted for the first time. An opportunity came to acquire a smallholding in Ireland and after a lot of thought, they grasped it. The family could begin a simpler life, growing their own food, homeschooling and become more in tune with the natural world. A place that they could call home and discover contentment for the first time in a very long time.

Except it didn’t work out that way. He didn’t feel settled, nor that he belonged or had become an integral part of the landscape. Most troubling of all was the fact that the skills he had relied on for decades, the art of conjuring words into sentences, which he would then mould into a cohesive body of work were deserting him and he was at a total loss at what to do. It began to affect his outlook on life and he was starting to move closer to the abyss.

His exploration of why this happened will take him back to the first alphabets and their connections to the things around us, how as our language evolved, the process of abstraction from the natural world came in stages until the letters we write with bear no resemblance to things any more. He considers the ‘European Mind’ and how the desire to quantify everything has also contributed to the breaking of the links between us and the places we inhabit.

I regret every word that I have ever written, and every word I will ever write.

And I stand by all of it.

However, this disconnection to things that have been important to him all his life, has given us this searingly honest account of the meanders through his thoughts and feelings. The chapters vary in length from a few intense words to longer more reflective pieces. It does feel like the passages have had minimal editing too as you read what was swirling around in his mind at that very moment. He wonders where the words that were so freely flowing have gone, and if they will ever return. As well as pondering if the modern world with its relentless all-consuming consumption has robbed us all of the connections that we now need more than ever. Compelling reading indeed.

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