Riding Out by Simon Parker

4 out of 5 stars

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

It is really hard being a travel writer when you’re not allowed to travel. This was the problem that Simon Parker had as the pandemic swept around the world at the beginning of 2020. Gone were the fancy flight and stays in nice hotels that were his natural habitat in his career as a travel journalist. His partner’s public relations business had more or less folded and they had no income and didn’t know when they would be able to earn again.

They had to give up their flat and move elsewhere and then to top it all a close friend died. The anxiety that he somehow had managed to keep suppressed began to bubble up and he knew that if he didn’t do something soon he would be a total lost cause. The therapies that he knew would work were travelling and exercise and it was these two activities that he turned to. He made a plan to cycle from the most northerly point on the British Isles, and he paused, overlooking the magnificently named Muckle Flugga, a lighthouse in Shetland. He climbed on his bike and cycled away.

Apart from the odd training ride, he had done very little training and he knew that he was going to feel it very soon. It was a journey that he hoped would help him meet new people and experience new things, the first person he came across on Shetland that he wanted to ask the way was a postman. His PPE was one stage down from a hazmat suit and it was then it dawned on him that cycling in the midst of a covid pandemic, might not be the trip he had envisaged.

Travel, I was reminded, was only ever a force for good.

It would change though and the people that he would meet as he cycled south would show kindness and generosity in equal measure. Not only is it an exploration of Scotland and England at 15mph on a bicycle in the midst of a pandemic, but it is a journey through Parker’s mind as he battles with self-doubt, anxiety and his mental health. On top of that, he has had to cope with the grief of losing two close friends. But in amongst that maelstrom he somehow manages to hang on and the dark moments fade away with the help of friends, family and the strangers that he meets on his ride.

I liked this a lot. Not only is it a really good travel book about his two journeys around the coast of the UK in the time of the pandemic and numerous lockdowns but Parker is using it to be open about addressing sensitive and complex issues about his mental health. It goes to prove that the greatest adventure you can have is not scaling vast mountain ranges, rather is it coming to terms with your abilities and limits.

Dorset in Photographs by Matthew Pinner

4 out of 5 stars

I thought that this was a great collection of photographs of my home county. Pinner has a great eye for framing these shots and I think that his best shots are those that feature water in one form or another. Particular favourite photos include the spring sunset at Sandbanks, a misty summer sunrise over Wareham and the delights of the Jurassic Coast.

Most of the places in the photographs I am familiar with and in certain cases know really well. There was the odd place that I didn’t know and have added to the list to visit at some point. If you like Dorset you’ll probably love this collection.

Secrets of a Devon Wood by Jo Brown

4 out of 5 stars

I have often wondered about keeping a record of some of the species that I see but have never quite got around to it. Knowing me it will probably be a spreadsheet. What I can’t do though is the amazing way of recording the wildlife that Jo Brown finds in her garden and near her home.

In this beautiful book are ninety pages of her beautiful art of creatures such as blue tits and frogs, insects like the cockchafer and shield bugs and orchids, campions and a number from the weird and wonderful world of fungi.

These are a stunning set of artworks that Jo has made from the common and less common wildlife that is found in her garden or at various locations near her home. I like her style, the pictures feel alive and dynamic and are full of colour and details. Each of the pages has notes about the featured subject, and details on what you need to look for when identifying them. I like that she has recorded the location of most of the flora fauna and fungi on each of the pages. So locations, like her garden or for particular rare species are kept deliberately secret. Highly recommended.

Seed To Dust by Marc Hamer

4 out of 5 stars

For the past two decades, Marc Hamer has cared for a twelve-acre garden. It is not his, rather it is owned by a lady called Dorothy Cashmere who lives alone on this vast property. They have a strange relationship, they are formal and polite with each other and yet there is an intimacy there that comes from knowing each other for a long time and sharing this garden.

The book follows his work and musings about life and the universe seem through this garden. There are the mundane elements of gardening such as cutting the grass and deadheading, as it is about finding the joy in the way that the garden changes every single day. He sees beauty in all parts of the growing process, from the unfurling of a leaf in the spring, the hum of bees around a proliferation of flowers in the summer and the gentle decay of a dahlia flower in the autumn.

I wake to the applause of rain and wonder for a moment…

As he explains in the book, he has had a tough life has been a vagrant, homeless and had stood at the very edge of the abyss at times. That has all changed now and one of the things that come across in his writing is that he is immensely happy with his lot now. He has learnt from his life that he wants for little apart from his books and a dram of whisky on a regular basis.

This garden is my temple. I come here and expect to feed and taste the world. I make it lovely for the pleasure of it being so, for the labour that is good for my body and my mind.

Hamer’s writing has a wistful melancholy about it and it is often quite beautiful. It is basically a collection of essays, some less than a page and others that are much longer. The essays are loosely pulled together in some order, but there are some that don’t quite fit the month that he has grouped them into. The book also feels a bit like I imagine the gardens he creates, not formal, more arranged in a way that there is beauty in the disorder, surprises as he changes the subject depending on what he wants to write about at the time. It might not be for everyone, but I really like it.

The Sea Is Not Made Of Water by Adam Nicolson

4 out of 5 stars

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

To sit a watch the waves by the sea is one of the ways that I find to relax, but under this ever-moving surface there is often much more going on than you realise. Life and death in all of its form is taking place day in and day out and we are totally unaware of it. One way of seeing the creatures that inhabit this space is to go rock pooling.

In the intertidal zone, as the water recedes some creatures are left in the pools and if you know where and how to look, you can find a rich variety of life. On the coastline of Argyll, Nicholson wants to see what he can find in this zone, but first, he needs permission from the Scottish Crown to create his own rock pools. It is quickly granted and he sets about making them using rocks and waterproof cement. It was cold work and took three days but he had his first pool. The first tide came and went that evening and under the light of a full moon, he could see the first life in his torchlight; prawns.

The first few chapters are about each of the creatures that he finds in the pool; winkle, crab, anemone and sandhopper, with a potted history of each. The second part of the book suddenly zooms right out from the microscopic view, and then he is considering the tides that bring these animals in twice a day before taking an even bigger step back to look at the geological time and the rock that make up the bay.

The final section is the people that have inhabited this shoreline, how they came to be there, how they survived on the most meagre of rations and their faith that somehow sustained them is this harsh place. The book ends with the creations of a third and final pool and the latest influx of creatures that end up within it.

As with almost all of Nicolson’s books, this is a well researched and well-written book. He has a way of writing that feels knowledgeable and accessible at the same time and I always come away feeling that I have learnt something. What did through me a little though was the way he went from a detailed examination of the life in these pools that he has made to a full widescreen view of tides and how the very rocks he was standing on came about? It is a bit discombobulating, but picks up on a thread that is appearing in more books that I read at the moment; everything is interconnected even over aeons of time. This is a really good book and I highly recommend that you read it.

Lost Woods by Rachel Carson

4 out of 5 stars

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

Rachel Carson is now rightly considered to be one of the environmental thinkers and writers of the twentieth century. Her seminal work, Silent Spring was the book that told the public of the scandal behind pesticide pollution and the way that the companies who sold the products used disinformation to downplay just how dangerous they were. More worrying was the indifference of public officials who took the chemical companies ‘evidence’ as truth.

The clouds are as old as the Earth itself – as much a part of our world as land or sea
They are the writing of the wind on the sky.

But she wrote lots more than just that book and this slim volume is a collection of her previously unpublished work, essays, field journals, speeches, articles and letters. It is an interesting read, full of well-informed arguments and criticism of those that were still ignoring the evidence that indiscriminate use of toxic chemicals was having on the wild environment. There is more in here than that. Some of the essays showed just how poetic she could be in her writing, I thought she was particularly good when writing about the sea and shoreline.

Contrary to the beliefs that seem to often guide our actions, man does not live apart from the world; he lives in the midst of a complex dynamic interplay of physical, chemical and biological forces, and between himself and this environment there are continuing, never-ending interactions

I must admit that I have never read Silent Spring, so this is the first book of hers that I have read. Even though some of the articles and essays are dated and the world has changed in better and worse ways since a lot of these were written, some of the points that she is making are sadly still valid today. I liked her writing style, she has a way of making her point that leaves the reader very clear on her intentions and passion.

12 Birds to Save Your Life by Charlie Corbett

3 out of 5 stars

Grief is an intensely personal thing that people cope with, in their own way. When Charlie Corbett lost his mother after a short but aggressive cancer he began to realise that his perspective on life was slipping away.

He had gone out alone with no real purpose in mind and found himself lying on a hill in the rain. His mind was full of dark thoughts and he couldn’t see the point in carrying on anymore. When he heard the song of a skylark above. It was a timely distraction. It was listening to that bird that changed his outlook on life.

He has chosen twelve birds that anyone can see with a little bit of effort and explains why and how they have helped him recover to the point where he has been able to cope with the stress and strains of normal life once again. In amongst that recovery, is the wider story of his mother and his family history and an acknowledgement that his childhood made him who he is today.

There is a strong natural history element to this book, but be aware that the central theme is about him dealing with the grief following the loss of his mother. Nature and birds, in particular, are his way of coping with all the trauma. What it does show though is how life can be improved and in certain circumstances saved by immersing yourself in the natural world. He is not a bad writer either and this is an engaging book.

Tomorrow’s People by Paul Morland

4 out of 5 stars

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

The world population is just shy of 8 billion and is the largest it has ever been and shows no signs of slowing anytime soon. Or does it? The factors that have brought us to this point in the global population are changing and the demographic will be utterly different in the coming decades.

In Tomorrow’s People, Paul Morland takes ten numbers that show different ways that it is changing and speculates on the way that the global population will differ in the future. Beginning with the number 10, the current infant mortality rate in Peru per 1000 births, he shows how the advent of medicine and better healthcare means that they have been able to halve the rate in only 25 years. This doesn’t’ mean that they will have a population boom though, as people who lose fewer children have fewer babies in the end.

His next number is 4 billion, this is the current population of Africa, and as he says, it is this figure that will change global politics in so many ways. This continent is growing so fast as it has a high birth rate and there is improving infant mortality. Not only will the population head out from there but there is massive internal migration too with a whole series of factors behind it. Just over a century ago there were about a dozen cities with a population of over one million people. Now China alone has 121 cities that have a population that size. India has over forty now and most people couldn’t name hardly any of them. In this chapter, he explains how the urban environment sucks in people and resources and how they will set the trends for the population in future

The figure that is needed to maintain a steady population is about 2.1 children. In Singapore, though the fertility rate is 1. We are beginning to think that overpopulation of the world might not be a problem as many countries are now showing these low rates for a raft of reasons, which he goes into in this chapter. This coupled with ageing populations, the median age in Catalonia is now 43 and in other countries is higher still is also adding to the decline in some countries’ populations.

I thought the concept behind this book really worked well. Morland takes the way that the world is changing by exploring ten numbers from populations and countries around the world and expanding them in detail. Not only is it a way of understanding how we have got to where we are at the moment, but it is a good way of seeing the way that the world is heading in the short and medium-term. For me this book worked really well, I liked the way that a simple statistic can explain so much about the world in the past and the way that it is going to be shaped tomorrow.

April 2022 Review

April always seems to come and go really quickly. I did have a week off where I had hoped to read more,  but it was disturbed by work ringing me up about various issues…  Anyway, here are the 15 books that I did get read in April. Not a bad selection and a good variety of subjects.

 

Books Read

Hope and Fear – Ronald H. Fritze – 4 Stars

Seed To Dust – Marc Hamer – 4 Stars

Secret Bristol – James MacVeigh – 2.5 Stars

The Mercenary River – Nick Higham – 4 Stars

Tomorrow’s People – Paul Morland – 4 Stars

12 Birds to Save Your Life – Charlie Corbett – 3 Stars

Fledgling – Hannah Bourne-Taylor – 4  Stars

Mysterious Britain – Homer W. Sykes – 3.5 Stars

Kid – Simon Armitage – 3 Stars

Ariel – Sylvia Plath – 3.5 Stars

The Year the World Went Mad – Mark Woolhouse – 3.5 Stars

The Four Horsemen – Emily Mayhew – 4 Stars

Who Are We Now? – Jason Cowley – 4 Stars

Umbria – Patricia Clough – 3.5 Stars

 

Book of the Month

The Nanny State Made Me – Stuart Maconie – 5Stars

I thought that this was excellent. Maconie has a distinctive voice that comes through strongly in this book and he is not afraid to put forward his point of view about the failing of the current government and those that have gone before. It is more than a middle-aged guy having a rant too. He looks back at the way that the state enabled him to be able to participate in society by having a properly funded education and health system and he is seething that those opportunities have been successively taken away by Tory governments over the years.

 

Top Genres

Natural History – 11 books

Travel – 9 books

History – 7 books

Poetry – 7 books

Science – 5 books

 

Top Publishers

William Collins – 6 books

Faber & Faber – 4 books

Quercus – 4 books

Picador – 3 books

Eland – 2 books

Little Toller – 2 books

 

Review Copies Received

Thank you to all the publishers who are generous enough to send me these:

The Ghost Slayers – Ed. Mike Ashley (British Library)

Riding Out – Simon Parker (Summersdale)

The Best British Travel Writing – Ed. Jessica Vincent (Summersdale)

Machine Journey (Self)

The View From The Hill – Christopher Somerville (Haus)

Illuminated By Water – Malachy Tallack (Doubleday)

Ring Of Stone Circles – Stan L. Abbott (Saraband)

 

 

Library Books Checked Out

Iconicon: A Journey Around the Landmark Buildings of Contemporary Britain – John Grindrod

Wild City: Encounters With Urban Wildlife – Florence Wilkinson

The Crow Folk – Mark Stay

Secrets Of A Devon Wood: A Nature Journal – Jo Brown

The Ship Asunder: A Maritime History In Eleven Vessels – Tom Nancollas

Otherlands: A World In The Making – Thomas Halliday

Salt Lick – Lulu Allison

 

Books Bought

The Olive Harvest – Carol Drinkwater (Signed)

Down To The Sea In Ships – Horatio Clare  (to be passed on to a friend)

Border – Kappa Kassabova

Street Fight In Naples – Peter Robb

Wild Signs & Star Paths – Tristan Gooley

Coronation Everest – Jan Morris

Cruel Crossing: Escaping Hitler Across the Pyrenees – Edward Stourton

London Overground: A Day’s Walk Around the Ginger Line – Iain Sinclair

Amazing Story of the Man Who Cycled from India to Europe for Love – by Per J. Andersson, Tr. Anna Holmwood

Blackmore Vale – Hilary Townsend

Geology – Paul Ensom

Isle Of Purbeck – Paul Hyland

Cranborne Chase – Desmond Hawkins

Madagascar – Gian Paolo Barbieri Tr. Carola Lodari

Wanderers in the New Forest – Juliette De Bairacli Levy

To A Mountain in Tibet – Colin Thubron

Eat Pray Eat: One Man’s Accidental Search For Enlightenment – Michael Booth

The Tao Of Travel – Paul Theroux

Barbed Wire And babushkas: A River Odyssey Across Siberia – Paul Grogan

River Dog: A Journey Down the Brahmaputra – Mark Shand

Russians Among Us – Gordon Corera

From the Camargue to the Alps: A Walk Across France in Hannibal’s Footsteps – Bernard Levin

The Eastern Fells – Alfred Wainwright

The Far Eastern Fells – Alfred Wainwright

The Central Fells – Alfred Wainwright

The Southern Fells – Alfred Wainwright

The Northern Fells – Alfred Wainwright

The North Western Fells – Alfred Wainwright

The Western Fells – Alfred Wainwright

Island Reich – Jack Grimwood

Shape of Light: 100 years of Photography and Abstract Art – Simon Baker & Emmanuelle De L’Ecotais

The History of the Countryside – Oliver Rackham

Serpent In Paradise – Dea Birkett

For Love and Money – Jonathan Raban (to be passed on to a friend)

Trees & Bushes – Eyre Methuen

Discovering Timber Framed Buildings – Richard Harris

Iceland: People Sagas, Landscapes – Hans Siwik

Sky – Storm Dunlop

I am very much out of shelf space…

The Mercenary River by Nick Higham

4 out of 5 stars

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

Every human needs water to survive and in the modern world, I can turn on a tap and have more than enough to drink. Go back several hundred years though, and it was a much tougher proposition. In hamlets and small communities, it is relatively easy to source from a well or river. When you get into towns getting water to people is much harder. For a city like London, the story of its water and how it got to people is a fascinating story.

In this book, the story begins in 1478 when a man called William Campion was convicted of stealing water from the public conduit near his house in Fleet Street. His punishment was suitable public and damp. Most people, including children, drank their water in the form of beer, the brewing process made it much safer to drink. These conduits brought water into the city from outside the walls and it was in short supply and could still be tainted with all manner of pollutants.

In 1613 though the way that water was supplied to the capital changed forever. A new venture called the New River Company was formed and they built a new aqueduct into the city. This company was a new type of business and the King himself had a financial interest in it. Water was originally supplied water in bored out trunks of trees that leaked terribly, and they began to develop new pipes to stop the leaking. They were innovators in many things, using the latest technologies to get water into the capital and new filtration systems to ensure that the water was potable. In fact, these were so good that they are still used today to purify two-thirds of London’s drinking water.

It was also a licence to print money too, this business made so much money that others wanted a piece of the action too. Because there was no overall plan for the infrastructures then it was a bit of a free for all. Each water company wanted to supply water to their customer and would spend a lot of time digging up roads to lays pipes. They would also engage in nefarious activities such as cutting people off with no notice and switching customers without their permission.

I thought this was a fascinating account of the history of water in London, I learnt a lot of things reading this. Higham has a way of explaining the details of the way these companies operated that is very relatable to the general reader. Should you wish to delve into more academic papers then there are references in the back of the book. It does feel that we have gone full circle with private companies in charge of our water once again who only care about profit and avoiding tax through horrendously complex convoluted ownership structures. And the quality is heading south too with water companies being given tacit approval by the government to fill the rivers with crap once again.

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