Author: Paul (Page 1 of 111)

Rock Pool by Heather Buttivant

4.5 out of 5 stars

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

If I have a choice then I would rather spend time at the coast, walking over dunes, sitting having an ice cream or even bodyboarding. I like to go all times of the year, from the blistering hot days that we occasionally get in the summer to the windswept winter beaches where there is almost no one there.

One of the activities that we have done for the past decade, in particular at one of my favourite places, the beautiful harbour of West bay, is to go crabbing. Some of days we have caught loads, and there have been other days when we got a few pieces of seaweed. As disappointing as that is it is still good fun. When we are in Jersey we try to head out to the east coast to see what we can find in the rock pools.

Rock Pools are Heather Buttivant’s passion, so much so that she has made a career from it. Down in the beautiful county of Cornwall she takes people out on to the tidal zone to see what they can discover lurking just out of sight. The book is split into three sections, which are the upper, middle and lower intertidal zones, or as she headlines it, Life at the Extreme, Rock Pool Specialists and Gateway to the deep. In each of these sections she describes the type of animals such as the Shanny, the Dog whelk or the Squat Lobster, that you could come across if you are prepared to get a little wet when searching for them.

Understanding a sea squirt as an animal is far more challenging. It stretches the imagination beyond its twanging point.

If you are expecting a guide book for things that you might find in rock pools, this is not the best book for that. Join her as she alternately freezes and bakes in the sun exploring the rock pools that are close to her Cornish home without having to get wet and cold.  As well as spending time introducing you to the weird, wacky and seriously strange creatures you could come across whilst rootling about in a rock pool, there is a little of her life story too. No so much to distract us from her obsession, but enough to help you understand why she is doing this today. This is a joy to read as her enthusiasm is evident on every single page and you are a lover of the things in the sea then this is definitely a worthy addition to your natural history shelves.

Exploring Rights by Edward Ragg

4 out of 5 stars

 

There is a lot of talk about a person rights at the moment, in particular when it comes to free speech. One person’s right to express their opinion may mean that another person is offended by that opinion. We may think that we are free, but there is all manner of restrictions on what we can do and say, and it seems to be the way that our so-called freedoms are being eroded at the moment.

In his latest collection, Edward Ragg is considering what that means for us as an individual. He has lived for a while in China a country known for its poor record on human rights, mass surveillance of the population and often brutal suppression of the population.

His poetic response to this is wide-ranging there are poems on his rights, one on article 29.1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, armed robbery, the reclamation of irony and even one by Trump.

 

The earth is suddenly bright and the rain

Reflects what light it must, is more vividly

There for the thick crusts of experience

 

The poems vary in length, metre and style so you go from reading a dense poem to one that does not lose any of the power in its brevity. I thought that this was definitely his best collection yet.

 

Three (ish) Favourite Poems

The Undetected Path

In Flight

The Question

In the Climate of Tautology

Confirm Humanity

July 2020 Review

Another month whizzes by and another birthday for me too. Not sure I am any wiser yet… Really good reading this month too, with three books getting five stars and I managed to read 18 too! So here we go.

Not quite sure how I got to hear about this one but managed to get a library copy prior to lockdown. This is a multi-layered story about a Piers Shonks who was supposed to have slain a dragon. Unpicking the fact from the myth takes Hadley all around the country.

Landscapes of Detectorists is about the TV series that is as much about the human character as it is the landscape. In here four academics look at what makes this such a wonderful comedy.

Alex Bellos keep coming up with really good puzzle books and So You Think You’ve Got Problems? is no exception. Brain stretching stuff.

Two very good books from the writer, Neil Sentance on his family history in the fields of Lincolnshire. Really nicely written vignettes of place too.

     

Roy Dennis has been a passionate supporter of the natural world and the environment for decades. There are 52 essays in her with his take on what we should be doing and some of his past successes in the reintroduction of extinct birds and animals.

I love spending time by the sea, and if you are going to do that then you can’t go wrong picking up these two books. Buttivant’s enthusiasm pours out of the page in Rock Pool and this new edition of Shell Life on the Seashore is beautifully done. Definitely worthy additions to your shelves.

   

Two poetry books this month, both utterly different. Flèche deals with complex themes of multilingualism, queerness, psychoanalysis and cultural history and The Picture of the Wind is about that perennial British obsession, the weather.

   

Finally got to read this one, it has been on my TBR for months, and it is a well-written explanation of why carbon is key to life on this planet.

I had read Gabriel Hemery’s book called Green Gold, and when he offered me a copy of this I accepted. It is a collection of fiction stories about trees and often ventures into the science fiction realm. Really enjoyed this.

We rely on codes in almost all things on the web and this book is about their evolution from ancient times to the modern-day. Clear explanations and lots of graphics and pictures

Lots of travel books this month. I have read all of Jamie’s natural history books abut not this one. It is excellent, as you expect from an accomplished writer, full of empathy of the people that she is staying with. Thubron is one of my favourite travel writers but I had not read this, his first book about Syria. It is really good, but a touch heavy on the history, I much preferred his dealing with the people of that city.

    

And now for my books of the month, three this time. Two are real-life stories of experience in World War 2, one set in Somalia and the other in Italy. Both writers are sensitive to the people that they are alongside and they are both full of tiny details about how life was at that time. Lev Parikian’s new book, Into The Tangled Bank, is my final book of the month. In here he writes about his wider experiences of exploring the natural world and pays homage to some of the great of nature writing. Very funny and occasionally a bit rude!

         

So there we go. Have you read any of these? Are there any that you now want to read? Let me know below.

 

August 2020 TBR

Starting to get through the backlog at the moment and actually have a week in Jersey so more reading time. Here is my TBR for August:

 

Finishing Off (Still!)

Vickery’s Folk Flora – Roy Vickery

Lotharingia – Simon Winder

The Way Of The World – Nicolas Bouvier, Translated By Robyn Marsack

Reckless Paper Bird – John McCullough

 

Blog Tours

The Museum Makers – Rachel Moris

Cauld Blasts and Clishmaclavers – Robin A. Crawford

 

Review Copies

Thank you to the publishers that have sent me these review copies:

American Dirt – Jeanie Cummins (still wavering on this one a little with all the publicity about this)

The Maths Of Life And Death – Kit Yates

Fibonacci’s Rabbits – Adam Hart-Davis

The Stream Invites Us To Follow – Dick Capel

Cut Stones and Crossroads – Ronald Wright

Time Among the Maya – Ronald Wright

Rewilding – Paul Jepson, Cain Blythe

The Oak Papers – James Canton

 

Wainwright Prize

Dar, Salt, Clear – Lamona Ash

Native – Patrick Laurie

Dancing with Bees – Brigit Strawbridge Howard

Rebirding – Benedict Macdonald

 

Library Books

Only read one library book in July, but now there are slowly opening up, I even got my first two books out this week, so aiming to get to these:

Brilliant Maps – Ian Wright

Lone Rider – Elspeth Beard

Sea People – Christina Thompson

The Way To The Sea – Caroline Crampton

A Beginner’s Guide To Japan – Pico Iyer

Pie Fidelity – Pete Brown

The Bells of Old Tokyo – Anna Sherman

 

Challenge Books

As well as a dusty shelf challenge that I am running on Good Reads, I am joining in with #20BooksOfSummer run by Cathy at 746 books.

Bitter Lemons of Cyprus – Lawrence Durrell

Jungle – Yossi Ghinsberg

From Rome to San Marino – Oliver Knox

The Crow Garden – Alison Littlewood

Vicious – V.E Schwab

A Street without a Name – Kapka Kassabova

Hokkaido Highway Blues – Will Ferguson

 

Own Books

Liminal – Bee Lewis

 

Poetry

Read a different poetry book last month from the two I had on my TBR, so have one of those to finish and then this one:

The Perseverance – Raymond Antrobus

 

Science Fiction

Didn’t read any last month (again!!!) so this is still on the list:

One Way – S.J. Morden

Wainwright Shortlisted Books

It is that time of the year again when the shortlist for one of my favourite prizes is announced. Yesterday the two shortlists for The Wainwright Prize were announced. Normally by now, I would have read all of the books on the longlist and have some strong opinions as to what should be populating the shortlist, but due to many other factors and commitments this year I haven’t got to all of them. There is a pile of books glaring at me from a bookcase to be read soon. But without further ado, here is the shortlist:

Diary of a Young Naturalist – Dara McAnulty (Little Toller Books)

Diary of a Young Naturalist chronicles the turning of 15-year-old Dara McAnulty’s world. From spring and through a year in his home patch in Northern Ireland, Dara spent the seasons writing. These vivid, evocative and moving diary entries about his connection to wildlife and the way he sees the world are raw in their telling. “I was diagnosed with Asperger’s/autism aged five … By age seven I knew I was very different, I had got used to the isolation, my inability to break through into the world of talking about football or Minecraft was not tolerated. Then came the bullying. Nature became so much more than an escape; it became a life-support system.” Diary of a Young Naturalist portrays Dara’s intense connection to the natural world, and his perspective as a teenager juggling exams and friendships alongside a life of campaigning. “In writing this book,” Dara explains, “I have experienced challenges but also felt incredible joy, wonder, curiosity and excitement. In sharing this journey my hope is that people of all generations will not only understand autism a little more but also appreciate a child’s eye view on our delicate and changing biosphere.”

 

 

 

The Frayed Atlantic Edge – David Gange (William Collins)

An original snapshot of the beauty of the British Isles, as captured by a brand new voice in nature and travel writing.

After two decades exploring the Western coast and mountains of the British Isles, the historian and nature writer David Gange set out to travel the seaboard in the course of a year. This coastline spans just eight-hundred miles as the crow flies, but the complex folds of its firths and headlands stretch more than ten-thousand. Even those who circumnavigate Britain by kayak tend to follow the shortest route; the purpose of this journey was to discover these coastlines by seeking out the longest.

Travelling by kayak, on foot and at the end of a rope, Gange encounters wildcats, basking sharks and vast colonies of seabirds, as well as rich and diverse coastal communities. Spending nights in sight of the sea, outdoors and without a tent, the journey crosses hundreds of peaks and millions of waves. With an eye attuned both to nature and the traces of the past, Gange evokes living worlds and lost worlds on the tattered edges of Scotland, Ireland, Wales and England.

Written with literary finesse in an immersive style, and informed by history, this new talent in nature writing takes us on a whirlwind trip over the course of twelve months, each chapter serving as a love letter to a different region of the British coastline.

On the Red Hill – Mike Parker (Cornerstone)

In early 2006, Mike Parker and his partner Peredur were witnesses at the first civil partnership ceremony in the small Welsh town of Machynlleth. The celebrants were their friends Reg and George, who had moved to deepest rural Wales in 1972, not long after the decriminalisation of homosexuality. When Reg and George died within a few weeks of each other in 2011, Mike and Peredur discovered that they had been left their home: a whitewashed ‘house from the children’s stories’, buried deep within the hills. They had also been left a lifetime’s collection of diaries, photographs, letters and books, all revealing an extraordinary history.

On the Red Hill is the story of Rhiw Goch, ‘the Red Hill’, and its inhabitants, but also the story of a remarkable rural community and a legacy that extends far beyond bricks and mortar. On The Red Hill celebrates the turn of the year’s wheel, of ever-changing landscapes, and of the family to be found in the unlikeliest of places. Taking the four seasons, the four elements and these four lives as his structure, Mike Parker creates a lyrical but clear-eyed exploration of the natural world, the challenges of accepting one’s place in it, and what it can mean to find home.

 

 

Dark, Salt, Clear – Lamorna Ash (Bloomsbury)

A captivating, lyrical and deeply discerning portrait of life in the Cornish town of Newlyn, the largest working fishing port in Britain, from a brilliant debut writer
There is the Cornwall Lamorna Ash knew as a child – the idyllic, folklore-rich place where she spent her summer holidays. Then there is the Cornwall she discovers when, feeling increasingly dislocated in London, she moves to Newlyn, a fishing town near Land’s End. This Cornwall is messier and harder; it doesn’t seem like a place that would welcome strangers.
Before long, however, Lamorna finds herself on a week-long trawler trip with a crew of local fishermen, afforded a rare glimpse into their world, their warmth and their humour. Out on the water, miles from the coast, she learns how fishing requires you to confront who you are and what it is that tethers you to the land. But she also realises that this proud and compassionate community, sustained and defined by the sea for centuries, is under threat, living in the lengthening shadow cast by globalisation.
An evocative journey of personal discovery replete with the poetry and deep history of our fishing communities, Dark, Salt, Clear confirms Lamorna Ash as a strikingly original new voice.

 

Native: Life in a Vanishing Landscape – Patrick Laurie (Birlinn)

Desperate to connect with his native Galloway, Patrick Laurie plunges into work on his family farm in the hills of southwest Scotland. Investing in the oldest and most traditional breeds of Galloway cattle, the Riggit Galloway, he begins to discover how cows once shaped people, places and nature in this remote and half-hidden place. This traditional breed requires different methods of care from modern farming on an industrial, totally unnatural scale.

As the cattle begin to dictate the pattern of his life, Patrick stumbles upon the passing of an ancient rural heritage. Always one of the most isolated and insular parts of the country, as the twentieth century progressed, the people of Galloway deserted the land and the moors have been transformed into commercial forest in the last thirty years. The people and the cattle have gone, and this withdrawal has shattered many centuries of tradition and custom. Much has been lost, and the new forests have driven the catastrophic decline of the much-loved curlew, a bird which features strongly in Galloway’s consciousness. The links between people, cattle and wild birds become a central theme as Patrick begins to face the reality of life in a vanishing landscape.

 

 

Dancing with Bees – Brigit Strawbridge Howard & John Walters, illustrator (Chelsea Green Publishing)

A naturalist’s passionate dive into the world of bees of all stripes–what she has learned about them, and what we can learn from them.

Brigit Strawbridge Howard was shocked the day she realised she knew more about the French Revolution than she did about her native trees. And birds. And wildflowers. And bees. The thought stopped her quite literally in her tracks. But that day was also the start of a journey, one filled with silver birches and hairy-footed flower bees, skylarks, and rosebay willow herb, and the joy that comes with deepening one’s relationship with place. Dancing with Bees is Strawbridge Howard’s charming and eloquent account of a return to noticing, to rediscovering a perspective on the world that had somehow been lost to her for decades and to reconnecting with the natural world. With special care and attention to the plight of pollinators, including honeybees, bumblebees, and solitary bees, and what we can do to help them, Strawbridge Howard shares fascinating details of the lives of flora and fauna that have filled her days with ever-increasing wonder and delight.

 

 

Wanderland – Jini Reddy (Bloomsbury)

Alone on a remote mountaintop one dark night, a woman hears a mysterious voice.

Propelled by the memory and after years of dreaming about it, Jini Reddy dares to delve into the ‘wanderlands’ of Britain, heading off in search of the magical in the landscape.

A London journalist with multicultural roots and a perennial outsider, she determinedly sets off on this unorthodox path. Serendipity and her inner compass guide her around the country in pursuit of the Other and a connection to Britain’s captivating natural world. Where might this lead? And if you know what it is to be Othered yourself, how might this colour your experiences? And what if, in invoking the spirit of the land, ‘it’ decides to make its presence felt?

Whether following a ‘cult’ map to a hidden well that refuses to reveal itself, attempting to persuade a labyrinth to spill its secrets, embarking on a coast-to-coast pilgrimage or searching for a mystical land temple, Jini depicts a whimsical, natural Britain. Along the way, she tracks down ephemeral wild art, encounters women who worship The Goddess, falls deeper in love with her birth land and struggles – but mostly fails – to get to grips with its lore. Throughout, she rejoices in the wildness we cannot see and celebrates the natural beauty we can, while offering glimpses of her Canadian childhood and her Indian parents’ struggles in apartheid-era South Africa.

Wanderland is a book in which the heart leads, all things are possible and the Other, both wild and human, comes in from the cold. It is a paean to the joy of roaming, both figuratively and imaginatively, and to the joy of finding your place in the world.

 

Some thoughts on this shortlist:

So far I have read four of the shortlist and they have all been good in very different ways. Dara’s book shows the promise that he has as a writer and his passion for the natural world in all its forms is evident. The Frayed Atlantic Edge is an evocative travel book about our coastline that faces the mighty Atlantic Ocean and the time he spent bobbing around in a kayak on it. Mike Parker book is a story of the place they live as much as it about the four people in it. Wanderland is a very different book about seeking that something extra from the landscape to fill the spiritual yearning that some people need. I have got the other three on the shortlist and will crack on with reading the final three next month prior to the prize announcement on the 9th of September. I was a little disappointed to not see Surfacing and Bird Therapy on the list, but the difficult choice would be what to leave off to fit those in. It is good to have a couple of travel books on here too. I know which would be my winner from this list of the books that I have read so far, but I don’t envy the judges choice in picking this one!

 

And then there is the Writing for Global Conservation Prize which is a new and necessary addition. These are the books that have been shortlisted:

 

Irreplaceable – Julian Hoffman (Hamish Hamilton)

All across the world, irreplaceable habitats are under threat. Unique ecosystems of plants and animals are being destroyed by human intervention. From the tiny to the vast, from marshland to meadow, and from Kent to Glasgow to India to America, they are disappearing.

Irreplaceable is not only a love letter to the haunting beauty of these landscapes and the wild species that call them home, including nightingales, lynxes, hornbills, redwoods, and elephant seals, it is also a timely reminder of the vital connections between humans and nature, and all that we stand to lose in terms of wonder and well-being. This is a book about the power of resistance in an age of loss, a testament to the transformative possibilities that emerge when people unite to defend our most special places and wildlife from extinction.

Exploring treasured coral reefs and remote mountains, tropical jungle and ancient woodland, urban allotments and tallgrass prairie, Julian Hoffman traces the stories of threatened places around the globe through the voices of local communities and grassroots campaigners as well as professional ecologists and academics. And in the process, he asks what a deep emotional relationship with place offers us–culturally, socially and psychologically. In this rigorous, intimate, and impassioned account, he presents a powerful call to arms in the face of unconscionable natural destruction.

 

Life Changing – Helen Pilcher (Bloomsbury)

We are now living through the post-natural phase, where the fate of all living things is irrevocably intertwined with our own. We domesticated animals to suit our needs, and altered their DNA–wolves became dogs to help us hunt, junglefowl became chickens to provide us with eggs, wildebeest were transformed through breeding into golden gnus so rifle-clad tourists had something to shoot. And this was only the beginning. As our knowledge grew we found new ways to tailor the DNA of animals more precisely; we’ve now cloned police dogs and created a little glow-in-the-dark fish–the world’s first genetically modified pet. The breakthroughs continue.

Through climate change, humans have now affected even the most remote environments and their inhabitants, and studies suggest that through our actions we are forcing some animals to evolve at breakneck speed to survive. Whilst some are thriving, others are on the brink of extinction, and for others the only option is life in captivity. Today, it’s not just the fittest that survive; sometimes it’s the ones we decide to let live.

According to the Bible, Noah built the original ark to save the world’s creatures from imminent floods. Now the world is warming, the ice caps are melting and sea levels are rising. With nowhere “wild” left to go, Helen Pilcher proposes a New Ark. In this entertaining and thought-provoking book, she considers the many ways that we’ve shaped the DNA of the animal kingdom and in so doing, altered the fate of life on earth. In her post-natural history guide, she invites us to meet key species that have been sculpted by humanity, as well as the researchers and conservationists who create, manage and tend to these post-natural creations.

 

Rebirding – Benedict Macdonald (Pelagic)

Rebirding takes the long view of Britain’s wildlife decline, from the early taming of our landscape and its long-lost elephants and rhinos, to fenland drainage, the removal of cornerstone species such as wild cattle, horses, beavers and boar – and forward in time to the intensification of our modern landscapes and the collapse of invertebrate populations.

It looks at key reasons why species are vanishing, as our landscapes become ever more tamed and less diverse, with wildlife trapped in tiny pockets of habitat. It explores how Britain has, uniquely, relied on modifying farmland, rather than restoring ecosystems, in a failing attempt to halt wildlife decline. The irony is that 94% of Britain is not built upon at all. And with more nature-loving voices than any European country, we should in fact have the best, not the most impoverished, wildlife on our continent. Especially when the rural economics of our game estates, and upland farms, are among the worst in Europe.

Britain is blessed with all the space it needs for an epic wildlife recovery. The deer estates of the Scottish Highlands are twice the size of Yellowstone National Park. Snowdonia is larger than the Maasai Mara. The problem in Britain is not a lack of space. It is that our precious space is uniquely wasted – not only for wildlife, but for people’s jobs and rural futures too.

Rebirding maps out how we might finally turn things around: rewilding our national parks, restoring natural ecosystems and allowing our wildlife a far richer future. In doing so, an entirely new sector of rural jobs would be created; finally bringing Britain’s dying rural landscapes and failing economies back to life.

 

Sitopia – Carolyn Steel (Chatto & Windus)

We live in a world shaped by food, a Sitopia (sitos – food; topos – place). Food, and how we search for and consume it, has defined our human journey.

From our foraging hunter-gatherer ancestors to the enormous appetites of modern cities, food has shaped our bodies and homes, our politics and trade, and our climate. Whether it’s the daily decision of what to eat, or the monopoly of industrial food production, food touches every part of our world. But by forgetting its value, we have drifted into a way of life that threatens our planet and ourselves. Yet food remains central to addressing the predicaments and opportunities of our urban, digital age. Drawing on insights from philosophy, history, architecture, literature, politics and science, as well as stories of the farmers, designers and economists who are remaking our relationship with food, Sitopia is a provocative and exhilarating vision for change, and how to thrive on our crowded, overheating planet. In her inspiring and deeply thoughtful new book Carolyn Steel, points the way to a better future.

 

 

 

What We Need to Do Now – Chris Goodall (Profile Books)

What We Need To Do Now sets out a comprehensive programme of action to counter the threats to our environment. It is a manifesto for groups around the world that are seeking urgent action on climate breakdown and other threats.

Emphasising the importance and relative simplicity of decarbonising our energy supply, the book also stresses that this is a small part of the switch to a sustainable planet. Among many other urgent transitions, we also need to focus on changing the agricultural system and reducing our hugely wasteful use of resources. As importantly, we need to make sure that the transition to a zero-carbon world benefits the less well-off and reinvigorates the smaller cities and towns around the world that have been left behind.

This is a practical, original and inspiring book: a new green deal for an inhabitable earth.

 

 

Working with Nature – Jeremy Purseglove (Profile Books)

From cocoa farming in Ghana to the orchards of Kent and the desert badlands of Pakistan, taking a practical approach to sustaining the landscape can mean the difference between prosperity and ruin. Working with Nature is the story of a lifetime of work, often in extreme environments, to harvest nature and protect it – in effect, gardening on a global scale. It is also a memoir of encounters with larger-than-life characters such as William Bunting, the gun-toting saviour of Yorkshire’s peatlands and the aristocratic gardener Vita Sackville-West, examining their idiosyncratic approaches to conservation.

Jeremy Purseglove explains clearly and convincingly why it’s not a good idea to extract as many resources as possible, whether it’s the demand for palm oil currently denuding the forests of Borneo, cottonfield irrigation draining the Aral Sea, or monocrops spreading across Britain. The pioneer of engineering projects to preserve nature and landscape, first in Britain and then around the world, he offers fresh insights and solutions at each step.

 

 

 

Some thoughts on this shortlist:

I have read two from the longlist so far, both of which were excellent, but only one of those made it to the shortlist, Irreplaceable. this is an urgent plea to take action to save those things that once they have gone, will be gon forever. Again I want to read all of them from here as these are books about urgent subjects that have not gone away in the COVID pandemic. Again I don’t envy them picking one from that pile. As soon as the library reservations are back up and running again I will be reserving the ones that I haven’t read.

 

Have you read any? Do you now want to read any of them? Let me know in the comments below

For links to my reviews, where there are any, please click on the title of the books.

Hollow Places by Christopher Hadley

3.5 out of 5 stars

“Here be dragons” is often thought to be on ancient maps, but whilst there were drawing of fantastical creatures on the cartography, this phrase wasn’t ever used. But stories of these creatures, as well as others that step over the line of folklore and reality have been a part of our culture for hundreds of years. In a village in Hertfordshire, a tomb was carved to cover the bones of one of these men who it was said was a giant, and who also slew a dragon that lived under ancient yew in a field called Great Pepsells.

Who was this man? Was he a real giant? Why is his tomb in the wall of the church? Was there ever a dragon? And could he find the field where the ancient yew tree was?

It is unlikely that you would have heard of the story of Piers Shonks, I hadn’t until I picked this book up a couple of weeks ago. To find the answers to these seemingly innocuous questions will take Hadley far away from St Mary, the 14th-century church of Brent Pelham, Hertfordshire where Shonks’ tomb is set in the north wall. He died in 1086, several hundred years before the church was even built so finding where he had been in the interim would be a challenge.

First, though he has to scour the old maps to find the location of the yew tree, the place where the so-called dragon’s lair was discovered under it when Master Lawrence was asked to fell it. These maps do not reveal their secrets easily, but there are pointers to other documents and pamphlets that were written in the Victorian age by the those that had an interest in the history of the place they lived.

Some of these are based on truth, some are based on oral histories that are passed from person to person, changing subtly in their retelling until someone writes them down. Others have their roots deep in pagan folklore that the church had tried to suppress but never fully eradicated. Finding out about the richly decorated lid of the tomb is another series of mysteries trying to discover who carved it, where the stone came from and how it ended up there.

Each thread of the story he is researching is scattered far and wild and fining the end of one thread often leads to another tale that is separate and yet still intrinsically connected to the main story of the book. Just finding out if Shonks was a real person is a challenge, but details gradually emerge about the real man as he chips away at the documentary evidence.

This is a deeply layered historical mystery. It feels like he is reconstructing a finely woven cloth from a collection of threads that have been scattered near and far from the tomb. Hadley has done a pretty good job of it too, but there are gaps as you’d expect. Deciding what is history and fact or myth and fiction is very hard in stories like this. It is like looking into a dark pool where the sky is reflected with your face, but in the murky water are tantalising glimpses of the things you are searching for. Even Wimborne Minster gets a mention with Anthony Ettricke, who is buried neither inside nor outside the church, but in the wall as Shonks is. I thought the book was fairly well written, it might not have the rigour of a book but an established historian, but neither does it have the dry prose that you can sometimes get with those as well. It has a good selection of pictures and maps which complement the text really well too.

Cottongrass Summer by Roy Dennis

4 out of 5 stars

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

Roy Dennis has been working in conservation since 1959. In his time he has been the RSPB senior office in Scotland, Chairman of the Bird Observatory and is now President of the Trust. He has extensive knowledge of seabirds, migration and Scottish island wildlife. He is a specialist in raptor conservation and has been involved in many re-introductions and research into these magnificent birds. He has been a passionate exponent for the reintroduction of mammals such as lynx and beaver back to Scotland.

He begins with cottongrass, that plant whose snow-white blooms sway softly in the wind and in the right light can glow in the fields. But they are an indicator of the health of the landscape, seeing them means that the deer are not overgrazing and a balance is being restored.  In these fifty-two essays, loosely split into the seasons, are on subjects as varied as storks and bearded vultures, downpours and stoats. There is a theme that runs all through them though, and that is his passion for rewilding and bringing back those complex interdependent links between predator and prey.

Dennis goes through all his emotions about the state of wildlife in Scotland in particular and the and the world in general in this well-written book. There is genuine anger in here about the state of conservation bodies in this country and the lack of urgency to try and reset the way of life that in the long run, will benefit us all. He has long been active in all sorts of programmes to help with this, for example playing a significant role in the osprey, red kite, golden eagle and sea eagle introduction programmes. He re-iterates several times that 50% of the planet needs to be returned to a natural state for them and us to stand a chance of survival. Essential reading for those with an interest in restoring our landscapes to some of their former glory.

Greenery by Tim Dee

5 out of 5 stars

As we reach the peak of one season in the northern hemisphere they are at the opposite end. It was in December in South Africa, their midsummer, that Tim Dee was watching the swallows as they gathered prior to heading north to Europe in time for another midsummer half a year later.

This seasonal migration of swallows and thousands of other species is one of the wonders of our planet. Spring moves at walking pace from south to north across the landscape and that equates to about 30 miles a day. This cycle has been going on for millennia and as much as we try to destroy the planet, it will still continue for the foreseeable future.

Part of Tim Dee’s reason for wanting to follow these birds is to remain permanently in spring and summer and avoid the bleakness of winter. Beginning at 34 degrees south at the Cape of Good Hope on the 21st December he is watching barn and greater swallows moving between his house and the ocean. He is normally used to seeing them in the spring and summer at home in the UK. It is an unsettling moment. Soon they would head north. Arriving in their own time and on time in Europe, they are following the rise in temperature as it reaches an average of 10 degrees, sometimes known as the isotherm line.

It is a very different feeling to being in the UK on the same day. It is the shortest day here and the light feels fleeting. Dee watches the sunrise in Swaffham and can almost feel the earth spin on his patch of chalky soil he is standing on. Every day from now on will be longer, every day will have those extra minutes of light as the planet pivots once again.

It is the beginning of a journey that will take him up and down the continent of Africa and up into the far north of Europe, where on the shores of the Arctic Ocean, he will see swallows in midsummer. He peers from the window of a plane, hoping to glimpse a redstart marvelling how such tiny birds can cross the vast Sahara Desert, staying in Chad, he sees the resident species mixed up with those flying through and it is always slightly surreal to see a common British bird like the whitethroat nearby some African lions. March finds him back in the UK heading from Bristol to the Fens and then on to Denmark where he sees a bog body in a museum and wonders about what past cultures would do to ensure the return on the spring. At Lake Langano in Ethiopia, he is waiting for the swallow to pass through and ends up watching his favourite redstarts in the meantime.

In April heading to Ireland to talk about writing and to visit the grave of the late great Seamus Heaney and to pas his respects to the poet. There is an account of a visit to Sicily to participate in counting the birds as they fly past. Sadly this is a place where there are under attack from the residents who see these migrants as a welcome addition to the pot. Romania in May is the place to see the wallcreeper whose ability to cling onto the sheer cliffs in almost a miracle. In June we find him in the far north in Lerwick and Aarhus as well as reaching the heady latitude of Troms at 70 degrees north and watch the people in the rush hour dodge the bull reindeer and walking out in the endless day.

As the summer solstice passes he recounts the time he was in Chad and awaking to a spasm in his arm. He thought that they would pass, but they didn’t so medical advice was sought and eventually a diagnosis was given. Telling Claire is a deeply emotional moment to read about. As he reaches the autumn of his life he becomes very aware of his mortality.

This is another magnificent book by Tim Dee. He is endlessly fascinated by all of the natural world, however, his passion and obsession is with birds. He has been fortunate to travel all over the world but he has a soft spot for those birds that head to our country each year. Even though it really doesn’t matter where he sees the natural world, it could be the vast African plains, a council dump looking for gulls or listening to the snap of a beak from the spotted flycatcher through his open window he is always ready to see things that other people miss. The writing is as ever, excellent, but in this book, in particular, is as much as about him as the writing has a poignancy and urgency behind it. There is a beautiful tribute to the artist who created the cover of this book (and Landfill), Greg Poole. Having the latitude of the places in the book was a nice touch too. If you haven’t read any of his other books, then I would urge you to do so, but save this one until last.

Naples ’44 by Norman Lewis

5 out of 5 stars

The invasion of Europe to fight back against the Nazi’s began in Sicily in July 1943. A couple of months after that the allies had reached halfway through Italy,  Norman Lewis was one of those who landed in Paestum, Southern Italy in September 1943. Just before he disembarked from the Duchess of Bedford they were given a lecture by the intelligence corps who could have saved everyone a lot of time by just saying that they knew nothing about what was happening…

Passing the corpses of those that had died earlier that were laid out neatly was an eyeopener for him. He and eleven others had been issued with a Webley pistol with five rounds of ammunition and no orders on what to do or where to go. Sleeping overnight in a wood he woke and heard German voices nearby, they soon faded out and he went back to sleep. The battle arrived with a vengeance the following day though, sitting in a farmhouse they watched a line of American tanks pass and not long after that they were back, but fewer of them and then lots of people running around wearing gas masks and running around panicking. The battel was to rage until the end of the month, and then Lewis was admitted to hospital with malaria. This was just the beginning of what was to be one of the most surreal experiences of his life and he was finally to set foot in Naples in early October.

As he recovered from his illness he watched the newly liberated population as they lived their life outdoors in the late autumn. They hadn’t advertised that they were the headquarters for the secret police, but word soon got out and they were to have a steady stream of people with information to offer. They had scant information rather they were there primarily to declare loyalty to the new regime. The information that they did gather sent them on various wild goose chases and they came to realise that a lot of the information being provided was personal vendettas and grudges being played out on an official level.

It is still a dangerous place, bombs have been left as booby traps, and in the chaos that happens as one authority changes to another, there is space for the rise of the organised crime to fill the gaps once again. The culture of silence was almost suffocating, he would hear about a murder, see where the body had fallen and there was nothing left but a few drops of blood and a denial of anything happening by those in the vicinity.

This shattered city that had pretty much been bombed back to the middle ages, people were starving, crime and corruption were endemic. If it wasn’t nailed down it would go missing. Whilst he did what he could given the meagre resources that they had, he tried to be fair and just in his work. He came to realise that his refusal to accept the token bribes offered by the population counted against him in the end. And yet with all this, it was fairly peaceful, his weapon would remain unfired throughout his stay.

I liked the diary form as you can follow the ebb and flow of people and life as it happens to him during his year in the city. He witnesses the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, deals with the menial, trying to find who had been cutting cables down or stealing army blankets to vetting whether a resident can marry a British soldier or not, a life-changing decision for some people. This is an excellent account of post-war Naples though at times it can be heartbreaking to read.

Water and Sky by Neil Sentance

4.5 out of 5 stars

Neil Sentance now lives in West Dorset, but he grew up in the 1970s in Lincolnshire and it is to that landscape that he returns to his childhood to uncover a little more of his family history and to understand how the county that shaped who they were.

He grew up a few streets from the River Witham, as he describes it ‘a place of mossy banks and murky water’ and it where they lived out the stories and adventures in their heads. He has fond memories of wooden swords and pirate battles, rope swings in the long summer and seeing the crayfish at the bottom of the pools. The nearby football ground, where dreams of league success would be dashed every week, has inevitably become a supermarket. Just down from the river was Swallows Mill, a place for catching tiddlers, and now vibrates to the sound of the kick drum as a nightclub.

The memories go back further too, his dad reminisces about Bonfire Night, building up the fire from all sorts of kindling and windfall branches and the anticipation leading up to the moment when his grandfather would light it. Tradition meant that there would be a few fireworks and red hot potatoes from the fire before tipping the ashes into the river and heading home at midnight smelling of smoke.

Before the war his grandfather had shown some talent as a fast bowler, and could be useful with a bat; however, the dreams of going professional were dashed as his father needed the help on the 200-acre farm. It was to be his life’s work, every day’s labour was visible on his hands. Did he ever wonder what his other life might have been? He never said and no one will ever know.

Another generation back and the memories of the Great War are still raw as Charles Chalk thinks of his son in the graveyard of Pas-de-Calais. A young life wasted early in the war that would never make old bones. It brings him full circle as he watches his children running around near their new home, forming their touchstones in their own landscapes.

This is a wonderful series of short stories, vignettes and essays about family life in a Lincolnshire village. Not been to the county myself, but the descriptions that Sentance has of the place make it very appealing. The partial memories of his family are like shattered glass shards, a glimpse of a whole lived. It had echoes of Cider with Rosie, but with less of the rose-tinted elements, instead, it is written with a piercing gaze coupled with the tiny details that go to make up a life. All of this sparkling writing is what Bruce Chatwin calls the ‘substance of our ‘mental soil’ – to which forever after we are bound’. It is true too, I can still remember the stamping ground of my youth crossing the red stream over at a place called Sheets Heath as clear as something that happened last week. Very highly recommended.

« Older posts

© 2020 Halfman, Halfbook

Theme by Anders NorénUp ↑