Human, Nature by Ian Carter

3.5 out of 5 stars

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

The planet that we live on is a finely balanced system. We have for far too long been buggering it up though and there is much evidence that we are reaching a tipping point. What people seem to forget is that we are as much a part of the ecosystems as the worm in your garden and the blue whale.

The intricacies and complexity of these relationships and how we interact with the natural world around us is something that has fascinated Ian Carter for many years. In this book, he has brought together a series of essays and articles that he has written over a number of years that look at the way that we and the natural world have co-existed and the benefits and problems that it causes.

It is split into four sections, Closer to Home where there are essays on rats and what birdwatchers do in the quiet months of July and August and even lets us know his favourite bird. The second section is titled Human Nature. In here he extolls the virtues of making mud pies versus playing  Mario, why we name creatures, how one person’s favourite is another person’s nightmare and that even dead animals have a place in the ecosystem.

The third section is titled Conflict. Here are some of the sticky subjects that he wants to deal with including the spectre of plant and animal non-natives, when should we intervene in rescuing wildlife and should we cull wildlife at all? The final section, Wild Places is looking at how we see wildlife; if the place you park has a pay and display machine can it be counted as a wilderness and the delights of the Isle of Skye in January.

I thought this was pretty good overall. Carter has been involved in conservation for over thirty years now. He started with the nature Conservancy Council before moving to English Nature. In his work, he has been involved in a variety of schemes including the reintroduction of Red Kites. This has given him valuable insight into the way that we interact with the natural world and he conveys just how we are dependent on those links to the wildlife around us. I like that the essays are short distillations of his thoughts about a particular subject and be read all in one go, or dipped into as and when it suits. If you want a slightly different perspective on our complex and complicated relationship with the natural world then this is as good a place to start as any.

The Odditorium by David Bramwell & Jo Keeling

3 out of 5 stars

History may be written by the victors, but it is made by people from all walks of life. Who these people are is often overlooked in the grander history books, but thankfully we have authors like David Bramwell & Jo Keeling who are prepared to poke around in the dustier areas of our past and tell the stories of those that have made their mark in one way or other.

They have split the characters in this book into five different sections, the first is Tricksters & Subversives, Creative Mavericks, Wild at Heart, Pioneers & Inventors and Explorers of the mind. In each part, there are around ten different people that they have found and are telling the story of.

There are a few that stood out for me. W Reginald Bray was one, who in the pursuit of his art, posted anything and everything that he could get in a letterbox. Quentin Crisp who was camp and gay at a time when it was illegal to be, and Alfred Wallace Russell who worked out evolution at the same time as Darwin and is buried just down the road from me in Broadstone. Two particular favourites are Flora Tristan who stood up for injustice before anyone else and Joseph Campbell who took a huge pile of books to a shack in Woodstock and spent four years reading them.

If you want a history book that looks at the people who often go against the flow and you almost certainly haven’t heard of, then this is a good place to start.

Tarmac to Towpath by David Banning & Julian Hyde

4 out of 5 stars

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

The arrival of the Covid virus into Europe changed the way of life across the continent. What was normal, suddenly became forbidden or restricted. Words that were rare in our lexicography suddenly became common; furlough, social distancing and isolation. The first lockdown was a bit of a novelty for everyone. However, as the virus ebbed and flowed around the population, people came to realise that these changes were here to stay for a while.

We were allowed out at times. If you could not work from home then you could travel to work and there was permitted exercise for an hour a day which I used to discover more of my local area. People reacted to these changes in many different ways and David Banning & Julian Hyde have collected in this slender volume text and images from 13 artists across the UK. The first page is a Year planner, wherefrom the 16th March someone has written ‘IN’ on every day until the end of June.

Some of the photos in here show the eeriness of the empty streets, the queues of people waiting to scour the empty shelves for something to eat. Trains that were once full of commuters are now rattling empty along the lines. Most poignant is a series of black and white pictures with the discarded blue face masks picked out in colour.

It was dark; even the faintest stars were unusually clear

I hesitated.
I was afraid of the empty streets.

If you are looking for a very different take on the pandemic so far, then this book is a very good place to start. The artistic responses here are as good as they are unsettling, the empty streets feel like spectral walks, the ghosts of people who once passed seep out of the concrete. Without the people passing the eerie geometries of structures are much more visible, and the surreal things that have been discarded add to the psychogeographical encounters throughout the book. As unsettling as it is, I really liked this, it picks up on themes from the excellent Unofficial Britain by Gareth Rees about those fringe parts of our urban landscape that are not normally seen and brings them to life.

Ciderology by Gabe Cook

3 out of 5 stars

Generally, I am a beer drinker, but there are certain times over the summer when I like to have a cider or two. The acidity of the drink is very thirst-quenching and when chilled very refreshing. And I tend to think that it is one of your five a day…

Even though we think of apples as the archetypical English fruit, they originated from the mountains of Kazakhstan, where the wild Malus sieversii can still be found today. Those fruits are very unpalatable. However, with careful selection of hundreds of years, we have ended up with thousands of varieties of delicious apples that are now grown all over the world. There are the well-known dessert apples, crab apples, cooking apples, and of course, cider apples.

They have fantastic names too. For example, there are apples named Ball’s Bittersweet, Improved Hangdown, Bastard Underleaf and the best cider apple that there is, Kingston Black. I didn’t realise that one of my favourite apples, Egremont Russet is used for cider too. Apart from the Egremont, you wouldn’t want to eat any of these though, they are bitter, full of tannins and sour. But those qualities make them perfect for juicing and fermenting into cider.

I quite liked this book, it is a reasonable introduction to all manner of things about cider, with chapters on drink styles, orchards and the science of making cider. It is fairly comprehensive, but those looking for more depth would be wiser looking in other books. The writing is clear and concise and Cook really knows his stuff. There were a few new things that I learnt from here, for example, I didn’t think that you could grow apples in Sweden and Canada, let alone that they had a growing number of cider producers.

When Quiet Was The New Loud by Tom Clayton

4 out of 5 stars

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

Like everyone I like to think that I have some eclectic and fine tastes in music. However, judging at the looks on my children’s faces, sometimes they scandalously do not consider what I think is the best song that I have so far ever heard as worthy of troubling their ears. Mind you I think similar things about the music that they are playing…

That sums up just how personal musical taste is. A bit like reading really. I wouldn’t say I have a broad musical taste, rather it is pretty niche in particular genres but it does vary from folk to dubstep with some unusual avenues along that route. One of the things that I have never really been into was the phenomena of the late 1990s, Britpop. I quite liked the song, Wonderwall, but a lot of the other bands that existed then never really crossed my musical radar.

As the millennium came and went, and thankfully no one suffers from the bug, the music that took over didn’t crash to shore, rather it rose steadily and quietly like the tide coming in on a calm day. The New Acoustic Movement had arrived without a fuss. Not really considered cool, a lot of people thought that it had been unfairly overlooked, but sales of records proved that a lot of people liked the music that these bands were making. I must admit that a lot of this music escaped me, which has a certain irony, as at the time I was working for a hi-fi company designing multiroom systems and speaker cables and we played a lot of music for research purposes. Instead, at the time I was discovering lots of other bands and music styles that a friend was introducing to me.

One person who was into all these bands was Tom Clayton and one of the things that he felt was that thy were not getting the attention and recognition that he felt they deserved. Neither could he find much written about them, so he decided to write the book himself. His friends couldn’t believe that he wanted to write about these bands. This music had been around in his formative years, he loved them and he was sure that his friends did too, even though they were reluctant to admit it.

In five chapters he will take us through his key records of this era, He begins with Travis and The Man Who. There is a little history behind each band, who there were, where they cam from and a critique of each of the songs he has chosen.

I must admit that this type of music is not really my sort of thing, so much so that I had barely heard of some of the bands, such as Kings of Convenience, Badly Drawn Boy and Turin Brake he writes about. I had heard of Travis and we actually have Dido and Coldplay albums in the house. I couldn’t remember knowingly heard the music either, I. think at the time I was on a journey of discovery into Chicane and Afro Celt Sound Systems.

That said I really enjoyed the book. Clayton has a way with words that makes this book worthwhile reading. These are his favourite pieces of music so the way that he writes about them is warm and generous. There are personal anecdotes all the way through, these are the music that defined his formative years after all. The most amusing of which is where he gets to meet Guy Garvey while on holiday in Cornwall. Even though I haven’t heard many of these, I have been listening to the tracks with an open mind whilst writing this review. Thankfully, Tom has produced a playlist here on Spotify of his favourite tracks.

 

Croak by Phil Bishop

3 out of 5 stars

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

Frogs have been around far longer than us and are found on every continent except Antarctica. There are thought to be around 8300 species of these amphibians. So far we have identified around 88% of them. They may be more, but no one really knows.

Sometimes you never know the true value of a creature until it becomes a memory – Suzy Cato

Most live in damp places as you’d expect, by being ever adaptable there are some that can live in deserts. This book is a collection of amazing photographs and quotes that Bishop has collected together. The text is from a variety of people such as  Harrison Ford, Colin Tudge, Roald Dahl, Lou Read and even one from a puppet; you’ve guessed it, Kermit.

When we save the frogs, we’re protecting all our wildlife, all our ecosystems and all humans – Kerry Kriger

This is a delightful little book. The quotes are quite memorable and amusing occasionally about our little amphibious friends. Couple this together with a series of stunning images and it is quite the visual feast. Seeing all these pictures reminds me that not all frogs are green; the colour variation between the various species is just staggering. There is a list of the species at the back of the book, but I did feel that it could have done with a few lines about each of them to highlight where they come from and if they are endangered or not.

Trimming England by M.J. Nicholls

2 out of 5 stars

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

We have probably all had those moments when the person in front in front of you in a queue is doing something really annoying or the exasperation of some people who fail spectacularly to wear a simple face mask properly. You could be just that tiny bit happier if you could somehow get rid of them.

In an alternative Britain, set in 2021, the new British Prime Minister Frank Oakface has been elected just with the policy and mandate; to remove each county’s most annoying person and deport them for a period of time to the Hotel Diabolique, a one-star hotel in Jersey. But who will they send, and how long will their exile be for?

The crimes that these characters have supposedly committed vary from Verbal Uxoricede committed by a Craig Scowly of Northumberland, Zydeco Awaking by Sim Triple from Staffordshire to the MP for Wiltshire who had been found guilty of the unbelievable crime of Blabberoonification. Then there is the slightly more believably crime of YouTube comment history by a certain Frank Fitch from East Sussex and Polly Toddle who was incarcerated and the reason given is ‘because she knows why’.

This is one of the strangest books I have read in a while. It ranges from the absurd at times to the ridiculous fairly often. There are some amusing parts every now and again and Nicholls has a broad and warped sense of humour. I did struggle with it a little; I felt it was trying too hard to be funny at certain points. Not really one for me.

Fox Fires by Wyl Menmuir

4.5 out of 5 stars

Wren Lithgow has not really had a conventional upbringing. Her mother, Cleo, is a concert pianist who travels to different cities around Europe and she accompanies her as she moves. This time they are heading to the city-state of O, a place that according to her mother she was conceived in almost twenty years ago. Wren’s only information about this man is a scrap of a photo with his face on.

Finding him whilst they are staying there is her top priority and soon after arriving at their new abode, Wren has decided to leave her mother and venture into the city alone. She takes a few possessions, including the wind-up toy she calls Ariadne, a gift that arrived in her life a while ago and raised more questions than it answered.

She has no idea where to go though and stops at a café for a cake and a coke. Wren is soon on the move again trying to find her way around a city that she knows almost nothing about. A man who might be who her father walks past and she follows before realising that it almost certainly isn’t him. The next thing she knows is that she is lost. She is stopped by a woman in the street who tries to tell her that the curfew is starting soon, and points her in the direction of a hotel.

The following morning she tries to work out where she is in the city and heads out to buy a map. Nowhere has one for sale and she cannot work out why. She ends up in the library. It is mostly full of older people, but near her is a young guy sitting at a desk with his head on it sleeping. She feels the need to talk to him before he hurries off. A few days later he is there again and she manages to talk to him a little more and as it is nearly curfew, they head back to his apartment.

It is not long before she is moving into his apartment and hoping that Alexis will be able to help find her father; but will this mysterious city want to relinquish its secrets?

The city felt a little like Beszel from The City & the City by China Miéville, it feels like a place that you may have visited at some point when travelling. Menmuir has then cleverly layered that familiarity with the unease of being in a place as an outsider, where different conventions are normal and where everyone is watching.

I loved this haunting beautiful story of a girl trying to find her past in this dystopian city of O. Menmuir’s writing has found that perfect balance of tenderness about Wren, whilst conveying the brutal heavy-handedness of an authoritarian state.

Behind The Enigma by John Ferris

3.5 out of 5 stars

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

Most people have heard of MI5 and MI6 and even when they were officially denied for years, people knew why existed. GCHQ is the third part of our intelligence services and even though they have been around for 100 years, very few knew about them or what they did. When they did emerge from the shadows after the terrorist attacks in America and England they were still very circumspect about revealing any operational details.

A large number of people still haven’t really heard of them, though a large number of people are aware of the efforts during World War 2 in taking the work that the Polish did and breaking the Enigma codes of the Nazis. There were thousands of people involved in this process but one of two have become household names, Alan Turing and Tommy Flowers. Thankfully it isn’t too heavy on the Bletchley Park years. They do get a chapter of their own, but the emphasis is on all of their histories so there were things that I learnt about that I had never come across before.

Ferris begins the book way back in the 1840s tracing the origins of British efforts to intercept and break coded messages from those that were perceived as the enemy and to maintain the control we had over our global empire. It was a messy process though and each service undertook its own way of doing it. It would take a war to focus the attention from piecemeal collection to a department that is a central point for all its consumers of intelligence. This was to become the GC&CS. They shared a building with MI6 at one point and were under the secret umbrella of the Foreign Office.

In between the wars their prolific output of intercepted and broken transmissions of a huge number of countries never ceased. At one point there were thousands of messages being analysed. Germany was not of the priority list for most of that time, however, that would begin to change as they realised that Germany was in discussion with Italy and Japan and developing secret relationships with as yet unknown intents. Those would soon be revealed and the world would plunge into another war.

The amazing work in World War Two gave the allied powers great insight into the way that the Axis powers were thinking. Of all the chapters it is probably the most critical of the work that was completed. Post-war the goalposts changed dramatically and an ally in the war became enemy number one. The cold war had arrived and would shape world history for the next four and half decades. It was a time of close cooperation between America and the UK and other members of the five eyes network. There are chapters on the events in Palestine, Indonesia, the move out to Cheltenham and the rise in computers for codebreaking and of course the advent of the internet age along with all the positives and negatives that it has brought.

This is a fairly comprehensive guide to the history of GCHQ. However, being the official history there are no revelatory bits in it, rather it is the sanitised and unredacted version that portrays the organisation is mostly good light. I did have a couple of issues with it. The timeline that Ferris has chosen to use is different to the one I would have preferred. He has looked at the way that they changed in response to different world events, the cold war, the Indonesian conflict, the Falklands War. My preference would have been to take it a decade at a time which I feel would give a better flavour of the way that demands on their skills were shifting as world events unfolded. There is almost nothing on the way that they do things, I wasn’t expecting it in the book to be honest, but it would have been nice to read a little on the techniques and methods they use. He does mention traffic analysis a number of times, which looks at how people send messages and can derive an enormous amount of intelligence from that. It might not be for everyone as it can be a bit dry at times. I have read the official histories of the other secret services, Defend the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5 by Christopher M. Andrew and MI6: The History of the Secret Intelligence Service, 1909-1949 by Keith Jeffery and it felt that those authors had a wider scope to critically analyse the activities that those agencies had done over the years.

Where? by Simon Moreton

4.5 out of 5 stars

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

The loss of a parent can change your perspective on life in a big way especially if you are close to that parent. Back in 2017, Simon Moreton’s father suddenly became ill and very soon after that died. During his short illness the thoughts of growing up, how his family came to be and where they came from swirl in the tumult of emotions. It was something that he hoped would keep him connected with his dad and the family. Wanting to know how he became who he is now would mean going back to the place they live and his dad worked. The art that he would normally create felt insufficient, instead, that work he couldn’t create, became this book.

Heading back to the landscape of his childhood and back in time would bring back memories that have been suppressed for years. Some of those memories he mined were happy; holidays spent with the family, the times that he spent messing around with his brother, climbing the walnut tree and making things out of wood with his dad. The smells came back too, grass clippings, damp concrete, homebrew and horse farts. Other memories are more troubling, the teasing he had from other pupils about reading the encyclopaedia, the total lack of skills with any ball games and not even understanding the question about what team to support.

I sometimes think it would be nice to go back and feel like that again, and sometimes I am glad I never can.

His dad had quite an unusual job, he worked at a manned radar station on the Clee Hills and it would be the place that he would look for answers to questions that hadn’t yet fully formed in his head yet. Walking again through these places of his childhood that seemed familiar and yet different searching for the presence of his dad still left in the area, finding the magic once again in the gaps in his memories. He remembers trying to play the guitar one night. His father came and sat with him and passed him a book of poetry. He had written these at a similar age to Simon when he himself had been struggling with his own internal demons. It is a touching moment as each generation faces their own and their shared demons.

Those times are magical; so magical, in fact, that I don’t know if my memories of them are even real.

Walking to the radar station follows the path of the Titterstone Wake, a local festival that took place at the end of August. The station is still there, but now fully automated. He remembers being taken inside by his dad, it was a geodesic cathedral to the secret services. Meeting the men that he had worked with at the funeral gave him an insight into the character of his father that he had never really known or seen.

Okwell Soov is a poultice that was said to cure all ills. It is something that Moreton feels that he needs to cure his pain of grief, but its secrets have been lost to the past. The writing is often introspective but not in a bad way; his journey to the past to try to understand how he has become who he is now is quite some journey. I think that this book is a journey back with Moreton that we merely glimpse parts of because in between the prose is a mix of all sorts of art, photos and maps that come in a rush. His art is simple and yet full of the dynamics of life, they are interspersed with photos from childhood and significant moments in his life. It is primarily an artistic tribute to his dear father and also a look deep into the reflections that we see of ourselves when we look into the landscapes that formed us.

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