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Mudlarking by Lara Maiklem

4 out of 5 stars

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

Pretty much everything that humans have made used and thrown away will be here forever. Often these possessions have ended up in middens and now we bury vast quantities of our unwanted stuff in the ground in dumps. If you know where to look these relics from a time long gone can be found, especially along the foreshore of the tidal Thames.

There have been people finding the detritus and treasure alongside the capital’s river for hundreds of years. It has been called the world’s longest archaeological site! The people who look for those discarded and lost items are called mudlarks and for the past fifteen years, Lara Maiklem has walked searching for anything that she can find. The variety of things that she spots is quite astounding, and these tell the story of London going back several thousand years to the Neolithic.

I have been following her via various social media accounts for years now, so nice to read a little more on the subject as well as a little of her own history as to what she finds so addictive about doing it. I really enjoyed this and liked the way each chapter concentrated on different parts of the capital, from Hammersmith, Rotherhithe and right out into the estuary. I found her to be an informative writer who is passionate about her subject and keen to discover more about the objects she finds. If the book has one tiny flaw, it is that there are very few pictures of her finds. I know she has an Instagram account (here) that is linked to the book, but I am not on Instagram so couldn’t see them.

Epic Continent by Nicholas Jubber

4 out of 5 stars

Before the written word, stories were spoken, and those that were popular became learnt by others and spread further afield. The best known of them, such as Odyssey and Beowulf, became epics in their own right. We now know them, as they have been written down and even transferred to the screen, but are the people where these stories emerged from still aware of them?

Award-winning travel writer Nicholas Jubber, decided to find out for himself if he could still find traces across the European continent of these stories in the countries that they originated. Beginning in Chios, just of the Turkish coast is where he starts looking for The Odyssey, the story of the aftermath of the Trojan War. Here it doesn’t take long for him to find traces from the story on the wall in graffiti, as well as meeting people who still seek meaning and comfort from the tales. He listens to recitals, debates over gritty coffee about the power it still has and manages to mislay various things…

The second story in the book is the Serbian Kosovo Cycle. This is about the battle between the sultan Murad and Prince Lazar. It is a fairly bloody and brutal affair if truth be told, and it is often recited by guslars, or bards, who play a single-stringed instrument called the gusle. It was a story of rebellion too, as the recitals evolved as they were under the Turkish occupation, before becoming more written down in the early nineteenth century. There is a much darker and more recent aspect to them though, the stories were used as propaganda by Milosevic who exploited it to bring his own conflict to the region. The stories that he is following through Europe tend to be draped over the culture of each of the countries, but this story is unique that one of the main characters, Prince Lazar, remains can still be seen in a church in Ravanica. He wanted to hear the epic recited by a gusle, heading to the mountains, he didn’t know if he would find one though.

The third story in the book is the French Song of Roland, another battle between the forces of Christendom and Islam. The story was originally written in the eleventh century and then was rediscovered in the Bodleian library by a French scholar who was following a mention in Chaucer. Since that, a further nine manuscripts of the epic have been found. But as it is a French story, the place to start would be Sicily and then onto Spain, before eventually making it to France. Sicily is an amazing island, I know, I saw a little of it last year and it has long been a melting pot of cultures and civilisations. Whilst there he visits the puppeteers in Palermo who have been performing the story for several generations; this may be the last though as people are more interested in their phones that performances.

A brief trip across Sardinia takes him to Saragossa in Spain for the next element in this epic, there he sees the influence that the Moors had over the town before moving onto Roncesvalles to see the place where a major battle took place in the epic. Then on a train to the town of Rocamadour in France to experience the Black Madonna in the twelfth century Chapel of Notre Dame.

Another country and another epic beckons, this time it is Germany and the fantastical The Song of the Nibelungen tracks the collapse of a Germanic kingdom on the edge of the Roman Empire involving dragons, murder and betrayal. All a bit Game of Thrones really… This is another of those stories that was misappropriated by the government of the time. The German Nazi government in the 1930s  used the messages within for their own propaganda.

Finally, we make it to the UK for Beowulf,  that was first written down around 1000 years ago, but first came to light because of the work of an Icelandic bibliophile. It was first seen as a Danish story but has now come to be the only surviving Old English epic. It is full of fantastical tales and elements like the dark fens, feasting in old halls and dragons one again that is somehow familiar to us. This may be because of one JRR Tolkien who robustly interpreted it and used many of the themes in his own books.

The final epic in the book is the great Icelandic Saga of Burnt Njal. there is still the tumult of murder, revenge and betrayal that we have come to expect from the other stories, but Unlike all the others this one has a lawyer in the story. The place is quite spectacular from his descriptions in the book as well as being incredibly wet and windy from the storms. It is so very different from where he began his journey in the balmy Mediterranean in Greece.

This is the second book of Jubber’s that I have read and it is as equally enjoyable as that other one. Epic Continent is part history book, part travelogue and him seeking those threads that run right back to the stories of old. It is quite staggering to think that words that were written a millennia ago still can have power and most importantly resonance in the modern world. It is sometimes amusing and I like his sense of immediacy that he comes across in his writing as he deals with the minutiae of daily life as he travels. Well worth reading.


 

Surrender by Joanna Pocock

4 out of 5 stars

It is said that as we approach our fifties that this can be one of the most stressful parts of our lives. Our bodies are changing, the pressures of looking after sick parents can take their toll and often the demands of children and teenagers can be too much. Joanna Pocock was in this position, menopause had begun and she had recently lost her parents and she needed something to take her away from the humdrum life in London.

She has a fascination with radical environmental movements and was seeking a reconnection to nature. An opportunity presented itself and with her husband and daughter, she left London and headed to the America West and the state of Montana. Whilst there she finds those that have taken a back seat from society and who are trying in their own way to reconnect with the natural world. She attends an Ecosex conference, meets Native Americans as they perfect the skills their ancestors once had, talks with hunters who care little about the landscapes they are walking through and listens to others who are seeking to rewild those same landscapes.

I have witnessed that western light gathers in intensity and sharpness as it crosses the landscape towards me. The vastness, the inscrutability of so much space performs an act of initiation. It does things to you that cannot be undone.

She approached these people and places with very much an open mind and is prepared to listen to all that she is told. Using this it means that she can form her own opinion of what is going on and more importantly to see if there is another way that she can interact with the world around her. I thought it was really nicely written, she is non-judgemental about all of the people that she comes across, open to different perspectives and most of all curious. Most of all this is about the way that she is testing things out to see where her place in the world will be for the future.

January 2020 Review

Why is it that January always seems so long.? There were some hilarious memes out there on social media about how many days there are in the month, but we finally made it to the end. Even though it dragged on, I only managed to read 17 books. There were a couple that I wasn’t overly enamoured with, but most were good and there were a couple of great books. So this is what I read:

 

Colson Whitehead has won the Pulitzer and the Clarke award with The Underground Railroad, but I wasn’t that impressed by it.

     

 

My wife is a big knitter so when I saw that Granta was publishing This Golden Fleece by Esther Rutter I’d thought I’d get a copy for us to read. It had a reservation on it, so I had to read it quickly and return it. I really liked it, not only does she talk about the social history of knitting and wool in general, but for each chapter, she makes a project relevant to the place that she is visiting around the UK.

I read Charlotte Higgins book on Roman Britain a while ago now and was quite pleased that I got a review copy of Red Thread as I have long had a fascination with Mazes and Labyrinths. It wasn’t quite what I was expecting as it was more focused on the classics rather than contemporary mazes, but thought it was still an interesting read.

Rob Temple’s Very British Problems is a guaranteed laugh every day. This book I picked up from somewhere about the perils of travelling abroad is a fine piece of tongue in cheek humour.

I have been an engineer at two lighting companies over the last 15 years, so when I saw that Saraband were publishing Incandescent: We Need to Talk about Light by Anna Levin I thought I’d give it a go. It is an interesting book about the rise of CFL and LED lamps that were replacing the old incandescent lamps to save energy and carbon dioxide. Not everyone can get along with these new light sources for a variety of health reasons and this is her well-crafted argument as to why we still should have them available for sale.

Ghostland was another find from Twitter. It is an interesting mix of family memoir, literary reminiscence and fringed by the author visiting the places where the books were set. It wasn’t quite what i was expecting as it occassional venture into the slightly strange and surreal.

   

I read two poetry books this month as I indicated in my 202 goals. First was Memorial by Alice Oswald and it is her interpretation of a character in the Iliad. Not bad overall. The second was the debut collection from Nathan Evans & Justin David and is called Threads. It is a collaboration of verse and photo and I thought that it was really good.

I had intended to read the Emma Newman book for my science fiction selection but realised that the review copy I had is book three in the series. The library cam to the rescue and now have all four books in the series. Ended up reading Defender by G X Todd as I have been promising to read it for ages. Thought it was really good depiction of a brutal dystopian society with a supernatural element

           

I read seven travel books in total this month. For the first four I ventured to South America with Oliver Balch as he meets the people of a number of countries, Indonesia with Will Buckingham as he goes in search of three sculptors and all across Europe following the Epic tales that still have resonance in this modern time with Nicholas Jubber and finally to Montana with Joanna Pocock

I also read three from the shortlist for the adventure category for the Edward Stanford Awards:

       

Journeys in the Wild  by Gavin Thurston, Where There’s A Will by Emily Chappell and From the Lion’s Mouth by Iain Campbell, but I can’t say much about them until after the awards are announced on the 26th February!

My book of the month is The Wee Free Men Terry Pratchett. A brilliant introduction for a formidable new witch to the Disc. And she is only nine!

February 2020 TBR

January seemed to last for ages but suddenly it is February so a day or so late, here is my TBR for this month:

Finishing Off

The Impossible Climb by Mark Synott (The final book from the shortlist I am judging)

 

Review Copies

American Dirt – Jeanie Cummins (wavering on this one a little with all the publicity about this)
Eothen: Traces Of Travel Brought Home From The East – Alexander William Kinglake
Through Two Doors at Once: The Elegant Experiment That Captures the Enigma of Our Quantum Reality – Anil Ananthaswamy
Under the Stars: A Journey into Light – Matt Gaw
The Magicians – Marcus Chown
Along the Amber Route: St Petersburg to Venice – C.J. Schuller
Vickery’s Folk Flora: An A-Z of the Folklore and Uses of British and Irish Plants – Roy Vickery
The Many Lives of Carbon – Dag Olav Hessen, Tr. Kerri Pierce
Spinning Silver – Naomi Novrik
The Saddest Pleasure: A Journey on Two Rivers – Moritz Thomsen
The Book of Puka-Puka: A Lone Trader in the South Pacific Robert – Dean Frisbie
Irreplaceable: The Fight To Save Our Wild Places – Julian Hoffman
The House of Islam – Ed Husain
Blue Mind: How Water Makes You Happier, More Connected and Better at What You Do – Wallace J. Nichols
When the Rivers Run Dry: Water – The Defining Crisis of the Twenty-first Century – Fred Pearce
The Glass Woman – Caroline Lea
Sunfall – Jim Al-Khalili

 

Library Books

The Edge Of The World – Michael Pye (Really Must finish this one)
Mudlarking: Lost And Found On The River Thames – Lara Maiklem
Doggerland – Ben Smith
Figures in a Landscape: People and Places – Paul Theroux
The Odditorium – David Bramwell & Jo Keeling
Ciderology – Gabe Cook
The Almost Nearly Perfect People – Michael Booth
Tweet Of The Day – Brett Westwood & Stephen Moss
Elephant Complex: Travels In Sri Lanka – John Gimlette
Cobra In The Bath: Adventures In Less Travelled Lands – Miles Morland
Down In The Valley: A Writer’s Landscape – Laurie Lee

 

Challenge Books

A Hat Full of Sky – Terry Pratchett

This is Going to Hurt – Adam Kay

A Year In Kingcombe – Anita Roy

 

Poetry

Soho – Richard Scott

A Force That Takes – Edward Ragg

 

Science Fiction

One Way – S.J. Morden

Defender by G.X. Todd

4 out of 5 stars

People have always heard voices in their heads, but these voices in this dystopian future are deadly. They have forced people to kill themselves and the few people left that have either not heard the voices or have resisted them are all that are left in this hollowed-out society. Pilgrim is one of the few who has a voice within and has resisted the taunting and almost has a working relationship with it.

Lacey is a girl who misses her sister, and since her gran died, she has been very much alone. Somehow she has survived the anarchy that is all that is left of her society, She sets up a stall selling lemonade and the first person to stop for a drink is Pilgrim; he has been told to by his voice. Her price for the drink is not money, but rather a lift to the city where her sister lives.

He reluctantly agrees, and after she has shut the house up, they set off. A brief stop in a motel demonstrates the danger that they are into Lacey, but they do manage to acquire another companion, Alex. As they approach the city where Karey lives, they start to come across members of a lawless gang who are on the search for a person who managed to escape from them. She was another with a voice in her head and they are always on the lookout for other people with voices within. Pilgrim hasn’t mentioned anything to Lacey about his, so she doesn’t realise just how much danger they are in. The encounter with the gang splits the three up and they know that they have to get back together to survive this cruel world.

This is a very fast-paced dystopian science fiction book that grabs you and runs relentlessly towards the ending. It is a brutal future too, the violence in this world Todd has created does not stop and yet within it all, is this paternal relationship that is developing between Pilgrim and Lacey as they look out for each other. I had the odd thing that I wasn’t sure about, I still don’t understand what the Voices are and I don’t think we are supposed to know until much later on. It reminded me a little of Host by Stephanie Meyer, combined with large dollops of American Gods and Mad Max. Whilst the plot is self-contained in this book, there is enough, that is left open for the next in the series, Hunted.

Messy by Tim Harford

4 out of 5 stars

My desk is a mess. I have a laptop, a second screen, keyboard, a task light and a lava lamp, a stationary rack and pencil holder, scrap paper and a pad to write on, as well as 18 books and various other items of detritus. To be honest, it could do with a bit of a tidy up. One day I will…

Most people want a tidy place to work in. Some businesses are really strict on this, enforcing numerous draconian rules as to what you can or can’t have on your desk, the number of personal photos allowed and so on. These businesses make look slick and have the impression of performing well, but they are soulless places and they are missing that extra spark that disorganization, improvisation and confusion can bring to the creative process.

In this highly entertaining book, Tim Harford argues that clean pristine working areas, rather we need a little mess and disorder in our work and home lives to get that creativity back that is ultimately enriching. He uses lots of examples of how people have not had the exact equipment that they wanted or had the usual preparation time for a particular thing, and it turned out to be one of the best performance or speeches of their life.

Being organised does get things done, but that spark of creativity that happens when things are not quite so is where the magic lies. I really liked this book, partly because I am not so tidy, and tend to have lots of things on the go at any one time, but also because I think on a fundamental level he is right. I particularly liked the story of a lab in America that managed to create all manner of things and the reason was because of the layout of the building and people with a variety of different interests and skills would pass each other, get talking and spark new ideas off. If you are a person who likes all their pencils lined up, then this might not be the book for you, but perhaps you should read it, you never know what might happen…

Stealing with the Eyes by Will Buckingham

4 out of 5 stars

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

The Tanimbar Islands of Indonesia are remote, not particularly easy to get to and are often overlooked and ignored by outsiders and travellers. For Will Buckingham though, they seemed perfect, even more so when he found out about the sculptors who lived there. Cobbling together a research fund he became an anthropologist in training and started to make his way out there.

He had in mind finding three sculptors, Matias Fatruan, Abraham Amelwatin, and Damianus Masele. Each of them had a particular set of skills in their carving and to discover the cultural references that help define their art. It was a world that still had its roots deep in their past even though the modern world had tried to push and pull them in different directions. Their art is something that they saw cannot be taught to anyone as each sculpture is as much the work of the ancestors as it is the work of the craftsmen.

The title of the book comes from a conversation that he has with Fatruan. He accuses people like Buckingham, of being one of those that come and enquire about all aspects of their lives and culture, but who can never fully understand them because they do not have the same deep links with the ancestors that are all around them.

It is a culture that has been mostly suffocated by the catholic religion, but if you know where to look then you can still see glimpses of the earlier traditions still shining through. He is prepared to stay with the villagers and get to know the people at a much deeper level. This closeness to the villagers has its own problems, he gets very ill and is treated as a Tanimbarese would be by using herbal medicines and witchcraft. One of the things that he learnt from this trip, is that he does see just how much of a problem a visiting anthropologist can cause to a society. He learns as much about himself as he does about the three sculptors that he is visiting. He is a talented writer and this book is full of evocative descriptions of the villages that he is living in and the people that he meets on his day to day routines. Well worth reading if you want to discover a little more about this part of the planet.

The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett

5 out of 5 stars

Tiffany Aching is only 9-years old, but already she has a different sense of all that is happening around her. She is by the river when she sees two tiny blue men in kilts. They warn her that there is a ‘green heid’ or a monster in the river called Jenny Greenteeth. Unfazed by this, she sets a trap using her small brother, Wentworth and tempts the monster out of the water and cracks her with her frying pan.

She heads into town to top up her education from the teachers who travel around. It is here that she meets Miss Tick, a witch from up in the mountains. She sees that Tiffany has potential, but Miss Tick still can’t believe that witches can exist on the chalk. Miss Tick tells her that the tiny blue men are Nac Mac Feegles, a rough and ready fae people who speak with a strong accent. She returns home to discover that Wentworth has gone missing.

Not knowing what to do, she heads outside to contact the Nac Mac Feegles and see if they can help. They tell her that the Queen has taken him to Fairyland and that they will be happy to help her rescue him, but first, they need a new Kelda or leader. The Feegles check to see is she is capable of finding Fairyland and let her find the entrance. Soon after they have entered they are faced with several large wolves and these dream-like blobs called dromes. But Tiffany still has to face the Queen and at that point, there will be a reckoning.

This is the first of the Tiffany sub-series that I have read and  I thought it was just brilliant. Pratchett has taken elements of the witches from his past books and formed them into this new character who you can sense developing page by page. One of my favourite parts of the book was when Granny Weatherwax and Tiffany first meet. Weatherwax knows exactly what she is seeing in this young witch, she respects her place in the landscape and can already see what Tiffany will be capable of in time. It is amusing as I have come to expect from all of his books, full of subtle and not so subtle humour and the Nac Mac Feegles are just hilarious.

Incandescent by Anna Levin

4.5 out of 5 stars

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

Climate change is happening whether you like it or not, and various places are taking steps to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide that we are pumping into the atmosphere. There are various ways of doing this, cutting coal, making more efficient vehicles, insulating home and lots of other methods of reducing energy consumption overall. One of the target areas has been lighting, moving away from the old incandescent lamps, changing first to compact fluorescent lamps (CFL’s) and with the advent of cost-effective LED lamps even greater energy and carbon saving can be achieved, often to the tune of 90% less energy used.

A perfect solution you’d think, but things are never as straight forward as you think. To start with CFLs use mercury in the way that they create light, so whilst being more efficient, they are often the cause of mercury pollution in the water table as they are not properly recycled. They often took ages to warm up; the joke being, that you had to turn them on as yeo went to bed to make sure they were bright enough in morning… LED seems to solve a lot of the problems, instant turn on, now as bright as the original lamps and are super-efficient. They have their drawbacks though, they use rare earth elements in their construction, which are often sourced from countries with less than stable governments and even though they last much longer than incandescent, the quality of the light is not as good and the light output degrades over time too.

Light is fundamental to our very ecosystem on the earth. It determines all sorts of natural events, in animals, plants and sea life. The advent of artificial light has meant that we have pushed our natural rhythms to the very limit and the long term implications of doing this are still only poorly understood. Anna Levin has had a fraught relationship with these new lighting technologies. After it became harder to get hold of incandescent lamps she switched to the fluorescent types but found they made her ill. The advent of LED lamps on the market helped her a little, but as a lot are poorly made, then there was not much improvement. She would end up trying to avoid anywhere that relied on these artificially created light sources as the ban on incandescent and halogen kicked in.

She soon discovered that she was not alone either, there were lots of people who were suffering all sorts of illnesses and effects from these lamps. There are those that have stockpiled the older style lamps to use for the years ahead. Further investigation revealed that the regulations that manufacturers had to comply with were pushed through with very little consultation and at a greater rate than manufacturers could adapt to the changes. This meant that factories in the EU lost out on business to the far east and often the quality wasn’t what was needed.

There is a certain irony that since these regulations were passed and the ban on incandescent lamps enforced, domestic energy consumption has risen since. The overall saving effect is zero according to the UK Department for the Environment. For example, the heat dissipated by conventional incandescent lamps is reduced, the missing warmth is compensated for by the central heating system, negating savings in energy and carbon overall. When pressed the EU says that it hasn’t looked at the savings that the changes in lighting have brought so far and also stated that it was ‘still premature to draw conclusions’ when they were asked just how much carbon dioxide had been saved…

Part of the reason that I know so much of what she is talking about in here is that when I don’t have my head in a book, in the real world I have been a development engineer in the lighting industry for the past 15 years.  I have even had the pleasure (not…) of reading the new Single Lighting Regulation that was published in December 2019. I have designed and developed various LED products and seen some of the benefits that these new technologies can bring. All the lamps I have at home are LED, but I have chosen branded flicker-free lamps that have a warm colour temperature. Having said that, there are certain applications where LED lighting is not the most appropriate nor efficient method of illumination.

I thought that this was a really well-researched book as Levin is spot on with the technical details in here. It is well written and argued too; she is saying that the various bans on incandescent lamps that have rippled around the world have never taken into account the quality of the light that the replacements have offered when compared to the older lamps. Those replacements are not as easy to recycle as the old incandescent lamps either. Part of what she is saying is that consumers have never been offered a choice with any of these technologies, unlike with other electronic items in the home you can choose to use a more or less energy-efficient product that meets particular standards. None of this detracts from the urgent crises of climate change, but this subject needs to have an open and transparent discussion because it feels like it has been steamrollered through but the powers that be.

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