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Epitaph for the Ash by Lisa Samson

4 out of 5 stars

First, it was the elms, ravaged by Dutch Elm disease their magnificent frames that had punctuated the British countryside, vanished. Now it is the turn of another of our trees that hols a special place if our woodlands; the Ash. These trees are being ravaged by Chalara fraxinea or ash dieback.

The disease was first seen in Poland in the early 1990s and moved across the continent before being spotted in the UK in 2012 in a nursery and a year later was spotted in the wild in the UK. The spores travel easily in the wind and it has spread across the countryside, killing small trees completely and affecting larger trees significantly. It is thought that it will affect all ash trees in the end. There are a few glimmers of hope though, some trees are less affected than others and these are being used to breed resistant specimens.

Way back in 1978, Gerald Wilkinson wrote Epitaph for the Elm, a eulogy to the tree and his niece thought that with what was happening to the ash, she would write a book with a similar premise and that is why we have this book. Her journey around the UK will take her from the aptly named, Ashwellthorpe, the first place the disease was found to ancient forests in Scotland, a visit to Hardy’s Ash and Wenlock Edge to see the ash trees there before the spores blow over. As well as the visits to the notable copse’s of ash, there are cultural and folklore elements to the book too.

Part of the way through writing this book, Samson is diagnosed with a brain tumour. When it was diagnosed, she realised that it explained a lot of the symptoms that she had been suffering from. She came very close to death and even had to stop writing for a long period of time before she was well enough to begin travelling and writing again. Part of this book is about her battle with her tumour but does not take over the narrative, rather it adds a small, but no less significant parallel story, as she fights her own personal battle as the trees succumb to the disease.

Her illness knocked her for six and on the later trips, she is much less mobile and is often accompanied by her husband. I really liked her gentle style of writing, it has a certain amount of anger at the loss of these trees to a disease that could have kept out of the country. The ash coppices are there to comfort her and she uses them for healing and to bring her peace. I can also recommend, The Ash Tree by Oliver Rackham and The Man Who Made Things out of Trees by Robert Penn is a book to read to see the number of different objects that can be produced by a single tree if you’re wanting to find out more about these trees.

The Ash Tree by Oliver Rackham

4 out of 5 stars

Even though Ash got into the top ten of trees in a survey a couple of years ago, it is not the one that springs to mind for a lot of people. This is why you often find books and prose on the magnificent oak, beech, elm and yew. We don’t as much take them for granted, rather the ash is not visible in our day to days lives, so we tend to never think of it. It has been one of the most common trees, but with the arrival of Ash dieback, this could all change in the coming years.

The tree has a number of qualities that have made this an appealing tree to use since way back in the Neolithic time. It can be coppiced and pollarded and because of its versatility, ash has been used for tool handles, bowls, fodder for livestock, to warm our homes and you can even find it on the back of a Morris Minor Traveller. It is very rarely used in construction. An ash will support a number of species, hosting bats, lichens, and the bark even is a food for all sorts of animals and there are a lot of plants growing in the ground under the trees. In 2012 the first case of dieback appeared in the UK; it was inevitable as it had been tracked across Europe for a number of years, but it has the potential of killing all the ash trees in the country.

Rackham’s book covers all sorts of information about the uses of ash over the past millennia, as well as lots of detail on the disease that they are starting to succumb to. The greater threat though is from the Emerald Ash Borer, another insect that has been brought in to the UK as a side effect of the globalisation and international trade. He writes in a matter of fact style that belies that amount of research that has gone into the detail in the book, but his plea to those that read this book is that we take proper precautions to restrict items that are moved around the globe without any care for the possible damage and also that we start taking the protection of woodlands seriously.

Golden Hill by Francis Spufford

3.5 out of 5 stars

Just of the latest boat from the UK in 1746, New York is a Mr Richard Smith. Gaining entry to a counting-house,  he presents the proprietor, Mr Lovell, with a demand for £1000. Staggered by the amount, he is not helping his cause by refusing to explain any details as to why he needs that amount of money and what the purpose of it will be for. Lovell initially doubts its legitimacy but a little more research seems to prove that it is a genuine order, helped by Smith claiming that proof will be following on the next ship due, so they decide not to honour it until that point.

His arrival adds fuel to the fire that there are spying and other nefarious things happening and Smith quickly becomes the centre of attention for all the citizens of the city. This notoriety means that he begins to get into lots of scrapes and suffers the misfortune of being robbed, almost killed, be challenged to a duel and be arrested for fraud. As well as falling in love…

There are several layers and subplots in this 18th-century story. Spufford seems to manage to keep each of the plates for these spinning well, making it quite readable and fairly fast-paced. Smith is an entertaining character, his boldness and naivety make for entertaining reading and he frequently sparks of the other main character, Tabitha Lovell. Liked the setting, New York feels fresh, edgy and slightly dangerous at this time. Very different to his non-fiction which I have read in the past and maybe a book for someone who wants to give historical fiction a go for the first time.

A Claxton Diary by Mark Cocker

5 out of 5 stars

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

Every day possible, Mark Cocker has taken a walk from his home alongside the Norfolk Broads National Park, down to the river near his home. These two-mile walks get him outside in the natural world and away from any screens or other distractions. It also gives him time to see the minute daily changes that happen, the imperceptible way that a tree changes from skeletal branches to the first flush of leaves, glimpsing the first of the spring flowers, spotting the first of the butterflies and noticing the arrival of the migrants after their long journeys. These are the things that flit through his vision and are then written about.

We know that at some level there is no such thing as season or month or week or even a day. There is just the liquid passage of time flowing across our lives that we chop and segment with these invented names to give it all clarity and structure.

He has distilled these walks into a series of columns that first were published in the Guardian and have now appeared here in a month by month diary. They are reproduced in day order, so the years jump around, but for me, that adds to the charm. You have the sense that these columns show the way that the world is changing too. His subjects vary from badgers to owls, to bees and flowers, as well as trees, climate, weather, bees, deer, fungi, frogs, oh, and bees again.

He doesn’t shy away from the harsh realities of life; that the hedgerow full of juvenile birds are more than likely to be the next meal for the sparrow hawk that he has just seen, the spiders catching and wrapping wasps and bumblebees and the swifts cutting through the sky eating the insects that are never going to get out of the way in time. But this is about the beauty of his regular haunts too, seeing the first flush of wildflowers, hearing the dawn chorus and the smell of summer rain. He does occasionally venture further afield and there are columns from Greece, Scotland and elsewhere in Norfolk.

This is another wonderful book by Cocker. He has been writing about the natural world for the past fifty years and while he has seen some of the world great creatures, he gets as much pleasure from the exotica that we can find around us if we care to look for it. It is a worthy continuation to his first, Claxton: Field Notes from a Small Planet, which I can also highly recommend along with this.

The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch

4 out of 5 stars

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

Lidia Yuknavitch didn’t have a conventional upbringing. She and her sister suffered from verbal, physical, and sexual abuse from their father and sadly her depressed alcoholic mother chose not to intervene. There were people looking out for her though, her swimming coach worked well with her and she began to become and very competitive swimmer. They moved to Florida, with the intention of helping her with her training, but the tormented early life that she had had, caused her to seek solace in drugs and booze.

She was attracted to both men and women and spent a lot of time pushing the limits of her sexual exploration. She had an abortion and sadly a stillbirth, until one day she met a man called Andy and her life began to stabilise and settle with the birth of their son, Miles and a move to Portland, Oregan.

This is her memoir of a troubled early life and how she overcome abuse, drugs and alcohol to become the person she is now. It is quite amazing that she survived her earlier life. It has an unusual writing style, with short punchy sentences and brief chapters that are focused on one detail or episode of her life. The prose has a relentless energy and intensity that I haven’t come across before. If you’re not broadminded before reading this book, you will be after; it is quite some book.

Surfacing by Kathleen Jamie

5 out of 5 stars

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

Life feels like one headlong rush at times. The phone squeaks constantly with notifications, demanding attention now, the 24 hour news fills our lives with politics and despair and yet time goes no faster than it did 5000 years ago. It grinds ceaselessly on, covering memories and objects with its gossamer-thin seconds. To go back in time, we need to unearth our landscapes and memories.

Time is a spiral. What goes around comes around.

The book opens with her in Alaska helping at an archaeological dig in a Yup’ik village. The site is normally frozen most of the year, but in the summer the cold relents, normally allowing the top four or five inches to be uncovered, however, climate change means that the permafrost is thawing to a depth of half a metre allowing more secrets of its hunter-gatherer past to be revealed. The objects that they are finding are enabling the village to re-discover their past. They found dance masks that were discarded after missionaries told them it was devil worship and for the first time in a very long time performed a dance that was pieced together from the elder’s memories.

The landscape was astonishing. There was nothing I wanted to do more than sit quietly and look at it, come to terms with its vastness.

Her next excursion to the past is at the Links of Noltland, up in Orkney. This Neolithic site has been covered by dunes and what they have found here was last seen by human eyes thousands of years ago. The need to excavate and understand just what is there, is urgent as it is subject to erosion from the storms that the Atlantic brings, as well as the other pressure of funding to carry out the work being stopped because of budget pressures. These people were only a step away from the wild and had short brutal lives and yet they were skilled enough to have devised a method when they built their homes to keep out the relentless wind.

They fill your hands, these fragments, these stories, but with a wide gesture, you cast them back across the field again.

Jamie writes of time spent in Xiahe in Tibet in her younger days, at the time of the student protests and the clampdown of martial law in the region and the palpable tension in the area. They explore as much as they can, but because they are foreigners, they have an undue amount of attention directed towards them, including the inevitable night raid by the police. There are other essays in here too, almost short interludes between the longer pieces. She stops her car to watch the mastery an eagle has over the air and consider the timelessness of a woodland. Some of the essays are more personal too, she recalls the moment of her fathers passing and struggles to hear her mother and grandmothers voices in her mind.

A new Kathleen Jamie book is a thing of joy, and Surfacing does not disappoint at all. Her wonderful writing is layered, building images of the things that she sees, until you the reader, feel immersed in the same place that she inhabited. Some of the essays are very moving, Elders in particular, but also The Wind Horse where you sense the tension in the town from what she observes. Her skill as a poet means, for me at least, that her writing has a way of helping you seen the world around in a new and different light, revealing as much from the shadows as from the obvious and this book is no different.

A Raindrop in the Ocean by Michael Dobbs-Higginson

3 out of 5 stars

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

There are those that achieve one or two notable things in their lifetime, writing a book, standing on top of mountains or some sort of sporting achievement. Given the number of thing that Michael Dobbs-Higginson has achieved, Zen Buddhist Monk, learning to speak Japanese, investment banking career, losing a fortune and gaining a fortune, surviving a encounter with the CIA, sailing the Atlantic, drug smuggling, and travelling all around the world, you’d think that he has lived several lives.

He would have carried on had he not been diagnosed with cancer, and this book is his recollection of the life that he lived. In in he tells the stories of how he became the person he is now, from his earliest days growing up in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and the training that he undertook in Japan that gave him the balanced outlook that enabled him to face all that life threw at him with resilience and good humour.

It was an entertaining read, written in a straightforward, matter of fact style. At times it felt exhausting reading as he rushes about here and there, setting up businesses and even at one point designing a car. Even with his illness looming over the future, he still manages to be very positive and I think relishes the life he has been able to lead.

Still Water by John Lewis-Stempel

3.5 out of 5 stars

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

Every village of any note used to have its church, pub and pond, but it has been a long while since I have seen a pond in a village, and even though some have become clogged with silt, there are still a substantial number left. Even a small pond can support a surprising amount of life. There are the obvious frogs and toads and the other amphibians, but on top of that, there are all the insects and invertebrates, leeches, and all manner of birdlife. Mammals too rely on ponds for water and opportunities to eat some of the other wildlife there.

A pond is Bigger than a puddle and smaller than a lake and John Lewis-Stempel is fortunate to have a pond on his farm in Hereford, and he begins this book from a frogs eye view while swimming in there. This book takes us from the layers of mud and silt at the bottom that protects all manner of creatures in the depths of winter, past the plants and the insects that feed there to the surface and the creatures that stop by for the life-giving water. He slips a small amount of that water onto a slide and sees the world that the first naturalists first saw through a microscope.

This is another very readable book by Lewis-Stempel. He mixes in prose and poetry and I liked the seasonal / diary format of the book and the way he compared the aquatic life in France with the pond on his farm in Hereford. I did feel that this wasn’t quite as good as his previous books, though that said, he has a very high bar to reach each time. Still worth reading though for his beautiful prose and sharp observations.

The Landscape by Don McCullin

4 out of 5 stars

Don McCullin is best known for his stark war photography. The images that he has taken all over the world from Afghanistan to the troubles in Northern Ireland of conflict show human misery and suffering at its worst. He has an unnerving way of getting to the essence of the story at the time, whilst showing compassion for his subjects. Authorities took a dim view of his work as he was prepared to help those in need and even had a bounty on his head.

The images that he took were about the people, but they were also about the place and this latest book of his is very much about the Landscape. This book is full of the images that he has taken recently as well as a few going back four decades or so. Each photo has that same razor-sharp composition that made him famous, but what really makes this so special is the way he captures the light.

He has used the light to great effect in all of these photos. Each Black and white image is dark and brooding and sometimes menacing. The stormy weather adds to the foreboding atmosphere too. I like the way that he has made some images grainy, adding to the drama. The pictures have been selected from his vast array, and some pictures of places still troubled by horrendous conflict, the images of Syria after bombing taken last year are quite horrific.

Quite a collection. I liked the A3 format of the book, it adds a certain amount of heft and gravitas. The Guardian has got some images here if you want a taster of what the book is like.



Hunting Mr Heartbreak by Jonathan Raban

5 out of 5 stars

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

Having travelled down the length of the Mississippi in a small boat and come to love the country, Raban wanted to get the full experience of what it used to be like to be an immigrant to this vast country. His partner drops him off at the docks in Liverpool and he climbs aboard a container ship called the Atlantic Conveyor, that is ready to depart for New York. A tropical storm, called Helene, delays the voyage and makes for a rough crossing. It does give him time to think about those who were making this voyage with no intention of returning back to the UK. They pause briefly in Halifax to unload some cargo before heading onto New York.

He has secured the use of an apartment, on East 18th Street, between Union Square and Gramercy Park in New York. The concrete cell as he calls it, is half the size of the room he had aboard ship. Naturally, he checks out her bookshelves, before heading out onto the streets to walk where other immigrants first made the tentative steps in making this country their home. The grey cliffs of Manhattan are visible from the apartment and there is a constant low-level rumble of traffic the ebbs and flows throughout the day but never ceases. As he moves around the city, he begins to see that life there can be seen through the prism of the department store, Macy’s in particular. It offered a way of life for some people and a glimpse of something unobtainable for the rest. Taking time to sit on a fire hydrant and observer life as it rushed around him, he began to see that the New York was stratified into two layers; the Street People who are those who are just keeping their heads above water, and the Air people who were whisked to places by lifts, taking them far away from the street.

Having had his fill of this city it was time to hit the road. Taking the I78 and then joining the much larger I80 he headed south, flying past the drivers pootling along at 50. Arriving in Guntersville, Alabama he finds it very much different from New York. Staying in a rented cabin he sets about meeting the residents and has to borrow a dog for personal security by the lake. Realising that this community has very conservative views he keeps a lot of his opinions to himself, knowing that some will take offence to them. It was time to move on again.

This time he was travelling by plane across the country. Not his favourite form of transport, especially when the plane was stuck on the tarmac and not going anywhere any time soon. The contrast with his nerves and a guy nearby who has a basket of popcorn and a book and pays no attention to the announcements. It gives him time to consider the differences between the American’s ease in which they take a plane and the event that flying in Europe is at that time. His destination is to the city where the plane was made, Seattle. It was here that he began to realise that he wanted a city he could mould to his shape, rather than having to fit in with what others did. First, though, he had to find somewhere to live, provided his car he was driving could make it. It was a place that felt American, and yet didn’t fit the other characterises that he came to know for other travels around this country.

It wouldn’t be a Raban book without some sort of boat journey and he heads to the diagonally opposite side of the country on the southern tip of Florida. While he is there he contemplates some of the, shall we say, less legal ways of making money in the region. Talking to the law enforcement people there about it he realises that it is fraught with danger and he would be in the high risk of something nasty happening to him. Chartering the Sea Mist he settles into a gentle cruise off the coast and is even brave enough to put of shorts and reveal his lily-white legs to the sun and probably consternation of the locals…

He writes about America so well, treating the flaws of the people with a warm shrug and embracing the qualities of the places he visits. I am glad too, that I read them in the order of publication, you sense as you travel with his through all his books the warmth that he has, as he meets people and places and experiences the richness of humanity in all its facets. You also sense in this book, his desire to settle somewhere that suits him and it turns out that Seattle was the place that he moved too and where he still lives now. I think that this is my favourite book of his so far of the five that I have read. Highly recommended.

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