A Good Read – Russell Brand – Revolution.

revolution-russell-brandRevolution – Russell Brand

Russell Brand? Never gave him much thought until recently. He was just some quite funny bloke with a massive ego and a lot of women. Then I heard he was actually a troubled soul who wanted to start a revolution and build Utopia and he began to sound like my kind of man.

I watched his documentary, The Emperors New Clothes and came away fired up, wanting to do something but not knowing quite where to direct this energy. I feel the same way after reading his book Revolution.

Revolution sets forth a case as to why our present economic and governmental system is exploiting ordinary people to make profit for a few wealthy men and women. It sets out what the alternative could be and it makes these arguments accessible. So far, so good.

True, Russell Brand is not the most coherent of writers. He goes off on rambling asides which sometimes seem to lead nowhere. The sort of stories which probably work much better in Stand Up than in print. However, he does make ideas which could be dry and hard work, readable. He uses his fame and notoriety in well intentioned ways and I won’t knock him for that.

I don’t agree with all of Russ’s ideas but by half way through I’m thinking, ‘Great, Fantastic, we’re going to start a socially and ecologically sound collective. Where do I sign? Where do I start? What’s step one?’ Problem is, Russell Brand’s book never tells me.

The man himself would know doubt say that, if he sets himself up as a leader to follow then it is against the principle of a collective, but as he never gives us any ideas of where the ordinary person in the street should begin then I’m left feeling demoralised. Feeling that I am being done over by all these rich people and am powerless to stop it.

Another chapter or two giving some grass roots ideas and organisations to get the ball rolling would have been really useful. A few tips on how to stop paying your taxes and avoid jail would also have been helpful.  Revolutions need talk, personally I think they probably also need leaders but what they need most of all is action.

Whitstable Literary Festival

PrintWhitstable Literary Festival

Sunday 14th May 11am-12.00pm

Whitstable Castle, Tower Hill, Whitstable CT5 2BW

This literary festival by the sea features both well known and lesser known local writers and aims to celebrate Kent’s cultural heritage.

I will be talking about my new book, On the Marshes and will be in conversation with Ros Coward, Guardian journalist and former director of Greenpeace.

A Good Read – Helen Macdonald, H is for Hawk.

A Good Read – Helen Macdonald, H is for Hawk.

final-H-is-for-hawk-cover

We’ve all done it. Dismissed a book based on the hype without ever opening the front cover. I was all poised to read this and be a bit sneery but, within the first few pages I changed my mind.

There was something real and honest in Helen Macdonald I hadn’t expected to find. Despite the reviews I don’t think this book is a work of dark genius. It’s not The Peregrine. I did not find it a hard, difficult, painful read but a simple account of grief and the desire to withdraw from the world.

Maybe it says something about me that I found so much in this book I could relate to. That the author’s desire to hide out with a hawk, lose herself in the wild, bury herself in non human instincts was something I could sympathise with.

I like the unapologetic way she deals with many of the issues this book covers. She doesn’t get bogged down in the ethics of killing animals it is just something she does. She takes responsibility for ending an animal’s life and she eats what she kills. Maybe at times you do feel uneasy about her lack of comment on the contrast between her own sustainable hunting and the pheasant shoots whose rearing pens her hawk plunders but ultimately the ethics of hunting is not what this book sets out to explore.

I also appreciated the lack of melodrama when talking about her grief and depression and her realisation that she can’t continue to hide out in the wilderness but needs people in her life.

If you are one of the people who have become sick of hearing about this book and actively avoided it then think again. Ignore the hype and enjoy the book for what it is. A simple and well written book from a women, who you sense, never sought the limelight.

A Good Read – John Betjeman’s Collected Poems

thJohn Betjeman’s Collected Poems

I have fallen in love with John Betjeman. It is my usual crush, an unobtainable man (in this case long dead!) with whom I feel a kinship.

In his collected poems, first published in 1958, Betjeman is nostalgic for a vanishing Britain and so am I. I am told that nostalgia is wrong, that we must all embrace sustainable progress into a modern Britain I want no part of.

Instead I am drawn to Betjeman’s world of tennis played on the lawns of country houses and hills lined with elm trees. A less peopled country of winding roads with fewer cars and more detail.

I seek Betjeman’s world on long cycles through wintry lanes, in quiet woods and parish churches. I close my eyes to much of modern Britain and instead seek a country that offers food for the soul, that enriches not erodes.

But in Betjeman I do not find a poet of the past, despite being dead for over twenty years, many of his collected poems come across as surprisingly relevant. He depicts a countryside trashed by pylons and ugly developments and ugly values. A world of nature and depth consumed by plastic and triviality. Betjeman’s poems seem more than relevant in an era where all the little weedy paradises where children once played and learned to love nature are consumed by a tide of cheaply thrown up housing estates which will lock children into their box rooms to stare at computer screens and learn to shop.

Betjeman’s poems have an air of sadness, of knowing the fight against the destruction of all you love in your country is fruitless, it will be destroyed by politicians and planners and developers. As our wild places are gobbled up by housing at an alarming rate then Betjeman is a reminder of what beauty we threw away.

A Good Read – Silt Road, The Story of a Lost River – Charles Rangeley-Wilson

untitled (5)I read this book in superfast time, drawn on by its underlying melancholy. A sadness of the author both for the buried and brutalised river whose history he charts and a personal sadness, hinted at but, with admirable constraint, never quite revealed.

As someone who has worked on many river restoration projects and known the teeth grinding frustration of coming up against official inertia, short sightedness and profit margins, as if these were something I personally was supposed to care about, then I fully understood Rangeley-Wilson’s anger at the tiny, self interested decisions made by councillors with hands in developers pockets. Decisions which then go on to suck the life out of a town and its inhabitants for a long time to come.

The story of the River Wye in High Wycombe, that this book uncovers, could be the story of so many of our rivers. Essential to the towns that grew up around them, bound up in our history, once beautiful and then lost under concrete. It could well have been the story of my own local river, The Beam which flows into Romford in Essex. Once an essential part of the towns brewery industry, it too now is buried under concrete with plans for its resurrection shelved in favour of a car park and shopping centre. It is a sign of the times, where we once worshipped river Gods, now our Gods are shopping and cars.

Silt Road is not an uplifting read but the universality of its subject allows us all to recognise, think about and understand the rivers which flow in and around our towns better. Towards the end of this book you begin to will the author on, hoping for a happy ending, wanting Charles Rangeley-Wilson to save his river, unearth it from its tomb and give it back to the town but it is not to be.

The book does end, however, with a little glimmer of hope. As the author sits in a café and watches the people of the town drawn to the one water feature they have left. Reaching out in order to touch and connect with this element and, in doing so, maybe connect with an inner part of themselves which, like the river, is buried deep underground.

 

A Good Read – Meadowland – John Lewis-Stempel

613pL0kjIPL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Meadowland – The Private Life of an English Field – John Lewis-Stempel

Meadowland follows the yearly cycle of a field in a corner of John Lewis-Stempel’s farm in Herefordshire. This, on the surface of things, would not seem a wide enough subject about which to write a whole book but from the first line we are transported down into the meadow with the author to watch the ice moon rising, feel the frost biting at our finger tips and watch the badger dragging his lame back legs across the field. The prose in Meadowland takes you down amongst the grasses and allows you to witness the lives of a host of creatures that live around this quiet corner of the English countryside.

Time and again in this book you wish to applaud John Lewis-Stempel’s patience and field skills. The hours he spends simply sitting and observing and recording those intimate moments of nature which can only be witnessed by long hours in the field. It is the detail that sings off the page here; a fox catching craneflies along with a flycatcher, a shrew rolling a slug into an appetiser, voles running from the brushcutter blade.

There are some subjects touched which are likely to rouse the blood of many wildlife  lovers and at times the authors shows a slightly schizophrenic attitude towards his hay meadow. He finds the foxes beautiful but would happily shoot them. He gently covers up a nest of field voles which he exposes during his hay cutting but downs a pigeon just as it performs a last swoop towards the safety of cover. He delights in seeing the badgers but is relieved that his borderline TB cattle are free to go out and wander amongst them. Still, John Lewis-Stempel is at least not hiding his views on such issues. He holds his hands up to being somewhat confused about where his loyalties lie. He admits that he has both hunted foxes from horse back and been a hunt saboteur.

This is nature writing which will stand the test of time. A book dip into to enjoy the turning of the year. It is a beautiful observation of wildlife in an unspoilt corner of the country and made me want to go out and spend more time simply sitting and watching and enjoying the everyday delights to be found on our doorsteps.

Book Review – The Old Ways, Robert Macfarlane

Book Review – The Old Ways, Robert Macfarlane

The Old Ways

The Old Ways – Robert Macfarlane

The jury is still out on Mr Macfarlane. Despite being lauded as one of the best nature writers of his generation, then I find it hard to fall in love with his style of writing.

I feel I should rate him, after, all Roger Deakin thought so highly of him he made him his literary executor and I applaud the way in which he has raised the profile of my much maligned home county of Essex, praising the desolate beauty of its coastline and the iconic Englishness of it’s seaside resorts, but, unlike Roger Deakin, Macfarlane’s writing just seems to lack the human touch or possibly a sense of humour, it is all so very, very clever and earnest.

Walking the Old Ways with him, while reading his book, felt, at times, a hard slog. Wading through a treacle of endless metaphor’s, scrabbling through geological terms. The fact that the book needs a 9 page glossary to help you understand it, says it all. It seems that, at times, Robert Macfarlane looses his way. Is he an academic or a literary writer? and , if he is a such a great writer, why does it feel as if he is trying so very hard to impress us with his knowledge? At times it just seems as if he is trying too hard, when he loosens up towards the end of the book he gets so much better.

I loved his stories of seeing a panther on the road at night after a long days walking in the snow or his experiences of ghostly presences at Chanctonbury Ring. He retold these events with admirably little fanfare and a dryness of style which made them believable and left you wanting more. Where this book really seemed to excel was when Macfarlane forgot himself and told the stories of others, particularly his account of the war experiences of Edward Thomas, then I became lost in the story and the writing, no longer fighting through cleverness but immersed in the landscape and the life of another.

The Old Ways has been praised to the hilt by many and was a surprise top ten bestseller. If you are at all interested in nature writing then it is a book to read just make sure you are prepared for some heavy walking.

Book Review – After London, Richard Jefferies

After London

Written in 1885, After London tells the story of a pastoral world which has evolved after a disaster has swept away the technology, cities and memories of the 19th century. The people that have survived this disaster have separated into distinct casts from the primitive bushmen, the gypsies and outcasts, to serfs and nobles who exercise supreme power and are rule with merciless violence.

The story follows the journey of Felix, a nobleman’s son who has fallen on hard times and sets out to better himself and win the hand of his beloved Aurora. This is a simple tale of adventure, quest and discovery. The basic telling was actually refreshing, devoid of the convoluted language and clever philosophy that seems necessary for writing to be considered ‘good’ in the modern world.

the book ends with Felix heading out once more into the unknown and the reader is left with the hope that Jefferies wrote a sequel.

Sadly, it seems, he never did. After a childhood on a Wiltshire Farm not unlike  the estate depicted in After London, Jefferies ran off to France with his cousin and tried to walk to Russia, when this proved unsuccessful they boarded a boat to America but were sent home when it was discovered they had no money for food.

Jefferies took to wandering the countryside with hair down to his shirt collar, dishevelled clothes and a gun over his shoulder, an appearance which made him an object of some concern in Swindon. He spent many solitary hours laying beside stone circles seeking a deep connection with nature.

After a stint as a newspaper reporter, Jefferies began submitting articles about nature and rural life to magazines. He published several books during his lifetime but a long battle with tuberculosis meant his productivity was never great and he was obliged to ask for the assistance of the Royal Literary Fund to sustain him and his family. He finally lost his battle with TB in 1887.

After London is an immensely enjoyable read and an ambitious attempt to imagine a post apocalyptic society. A book well worth tracking down through your local library or second hand book shop.

To write and be read

writing students, hopefully not having their hopes crushed.

writing students, hopefully not having their hopes crushed.

School has a lot to answer for. How many people have had their abilities mocked or their hopes crushed by a teacher with more ignorance than knowledge and more cruelty than compassion. I know there are lots of good and worthy teachers out there but I come across too many people still suffering from the ravages of bad schooling.

One of these came up to me during the writing class I was teaching at the weekend. She wanted to write, she had a great idea for a story but she found, when she sat down, she couldn’t do it. All those voices from her childhood crept into her head telling her that her spelling was appalling, her grammar poor, she had no talent. What could she do?

I sympathised, I too had been marked down in English classes because my characters spoke in the accent of the people around me. This my teacher told me was incorrect. My characters had bad grammar. Now I think, ‘ignorant bleeder. What did she know about writing? Where would Irvine Welsh be if his characters had all spoken the Queens English?’

Another teacher, later on, at university, told me that I would never make a journalist as I ‘had no grasp of the English Language.’ Yet, here I am writing for the BBC.

Of course, over the years I have worked very hard to improve my spelling and grammar and punctuation. Those teachers would undoubtedly be proud of me, but their lack of ability to see that there were things of quality in my writing was their own failing.

What advice did I give to my own student. I told her to sit down and very consciously think of all those negative voices, picture those people who had told her that she couldn’t write and then think ‘balls to them. Those people tried to limit me but I am about to prove them wrong.’ and then write and then, beyond writing, let other people see your work.

This brings me to my second writer of the week, my assistant who also writes, whose writing sounds really interesting, but who never shows his work to anyone. He says this is not why he writes, but somehow it sits uneasily with me and I can’t put my finger on why.  I don’t write for fame and I certainly don’t write for money but I do write to be read. I want to be read and enjoyed and I want to know if my writing is any good or not so I put it out there, into the world to be judged. For writing not to be read somehow feels wrong, it feels like hiding something in the darkness which should have light.

But maybe some of us were just crushed too much by those voices from our youth, our thoughts, our words are all wrong in some way and we have learnt to keep them in the darkness.

Teachers, parents, authority figures have a lot to answer for and I hope I can do better with my own students.

Book Review – Walden, Henry Thoreau

Walden by Thoreau

Walden by Thoreau

‘I borrowed an axe and went to the woods,’ wrote Henry David Thoreau and so begins his two year experiment in living simply. Thoreau felt that man wasted his life by working to pay off a large mortgage and acquire material goods so he could keep up with his neighbours, where as, if he only lived simply, worked with his hands to grow and catch his own food and gave up the pursuit of stuff he did not need, then he could devote his time to the things he really wanted to, which in Thoreau’s case was the study of nature and writing.

Here was a man years ahead of his time, both as an environmentalist and anti-consumerist, living by ideals which are all the more relevant today. At times, the writing of Walden is overly dense by modern standards and is more of an educational lecture than entertainment but there are moments of true beauty and insight in his writing and his delight in the natural world and love of Walden Pond races off the page.

Thoreau died an untimely death at 44, having gone out in a rain storm to count tree rings, but, by all accounts, he was at peace with the world when he died presumably because he had succeeded in his quest to live deliberately and did not find, when he came to die, find that he had not lived.