A Good Read – Fingers in the Sparkle Jar – Chris Packham

sparkle-jar-298x156Chris Packham’s memoir is a book about a lonely, troubled, isolated child who is at his happiest when he is out in the fields and woods discovering wildlife. A boy who is the freaky kid in school, probably a worry to his parents but who has far more potential than anyone else around him.

 If you were this kid, read this book. If you are the parents of a child who you suspect may just be this kid, read this book. If you expect a media friendly anecdote about a happy boy who came to be a television presenter, maybe stay clear.

Fingers in the Sparkle Jar is an unbelievably, bloody, brave book which it is hard to believe anyone with a public profile would have written. I suspect that if this had not been written by a ‘celebrity’ it wouldn’t have been published which says far more about the lack of bravery in publishing houses than it does about Chris’s ability to write as the book is very well written with beautiful descriptions of nature and brilliant observation of Britain in the 1970’s with all it’s hot, dusty and disconnected edge.

The book jumps around between times and perspectives but keeps it cohesion and the odd structure feels appropriate for the subject, sometimes you are in Chris’s head, sometimes you are observing him from someone else’s viewpoint. I think if you are deeply internalised then this is how you view the world.

This book resonated with me on so many levels. I frankly was that child or one very like it. It took me right back to being an isolated and bullied girl in a rough comprehensive and finding solace in nature books. It bought home the absolute necessity of being completely honest in your writing because only then can you reach out to others who feel the same way and give them something of real value.

This is a valuable book. It is a brave and important book. It makes me want to stand up and applaud this man and then possibly follow him around for the rest of his life and say ‘thank you.’

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.

A Good Read – Wild – Cheryl Strayed

imagesFUVZI6H4Wild – A journey from lost to found – Cheryl Strayed

Cheryl Strayed sets out to walk the Pacific Coast Trail after falling of the rails, following the death of her mother. The long walk out as a metaphor for the long walk in is a well covered theme and one I know well, but these books can be so hit and miss. They can be melodramatic or shoe gazing in the extreme or, alternately, the author can go all coy on us and use lots of lovely metaphors about the countryside without telling us one single true and honest thing about themselves.

Wild manages to admirably avoid either of these extremes. It is that thing we all love, a great bit of armchair travel. Not many of us really wish to put out body through the physical hardships that Cheryl endured, watch our toenails blacken and become detached, drink dubious water sauces and live on dehydrated food. Not many women are brave enough to take off alone into the wilderness with scarcely a penny to their name but we don’t have to, Chery did and we can, from the cosiness of our homes, walk with her.

This book is a good story, well told. It isn’t poetic nature writing or profound insight but I found it a refreshing change because of this. Unlike so many British writers who laden their books with endless clever words that only a small percentage of the population understand, or quote and re-quote  the same collection of ‘acceptable’ writers, or sit in their ‘aren’t we all so marvellous club,’ slapping each other on the back and thanking each other profusely in the ‘acknowledgement’ section, then Cheryl just gets on with the business of telling her story without fanfare. She is a normal, flawed, working class women who has had some major hiccups in her life and found a way to deal with them.

If only British publishers would publish more people like this and stop churning out the same old stories from writers who sometimes appear to have nothing to offer other than the fact they are the ‘right sort.’

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.

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.

Exhibition of Estuary Art

GetAttachment

If you are visiting Whitstable in Kent before the 14th April then please take time to explore Paul Fowler’s exhibition at the Horsebridge Arts Centre. Paul creates the most beautiful paintings often of pieces of found drift wood and this exhibition explores the changing coast of Kent and his travels along the Saxon Shore Way.  For more information on Paul’s painting visit;

www.paulfowler.uk.com

 

Book Review – Waterlog ( a swimmer’s journey through Britain) Roger Deakin

Waterlog-A-Swimmers-Journey-

In Waterlog Roger Deakin sets out to swim his way across Britain taking us on a summer’s journey through leafy backwaters, plunge pools in the hills, across the mouth of estuaries and through a series of outdoor swimming pools. On the way he argues with officious river ‘owners’ and challenges the Environment Agencies insistence that our rivers are nowadays dangerous, polluted waterways likely to drag you into there depths or poison you with all manner of chemicals and mysterious sounding diseases.

Roger is seemingly oblivious to social conventions which, in Britain at least, dictate that, nowadays, stripping down to your trunks or beyond and going for a swim in the local river is simply not on. He reminds us that it was not that many years ago when most people learnt to swim outdoors. With every stroke you want to cheer this man on. He liberates us from the chlorine filled crowded halls of our local swimming baths, he invites us to reclaim our rivers, lakes and forbidden waters, he encourages us to ignore what others might think of us.

This has been the perfect read for a winter in which rivers have been rarely out of the news. Usually because they have burst their bank,s like a convict escaping from jail. Waterlog reminds us that our rivers are also a national treasure which should be kept as wild as possible and not trained into concrete sewers.

Reading this beautifully written book I wanted  to head out and take back my local river by plummeting into it, but it is winter and the river’s are flooded and spreading across the land. Instead I am going to head to my local baths and learn to swim with the same elegance and economy as Roger so I will be able to sample their delights come summer.

Roger Deakin died before he ever had a chance to publish another book (although two further books were posthumously published) but Waterlog is a beautiful testimony to a fine writer and I like to think that, as the final line of the book tells us, at the moment of death he simply ‘turned and swam on into the quiet waves.’

Book Review – The Road by Cormac McCarthy

untitled (9)A man and his son walk through a post-apocalyptic world of ash strewn countryside and abandoned cities populated by desperate gangs of cannibals. They survive on a cart of scavenged food, love for each other and hope, without evidence, that things could be better down south.

Throughout the book their are references to ‘carrying the fire’ and this symbolises faith in God to heal the ravaged land, in the future represented by the boy, in the need to keep your humanity and goodness when all around you is darkness and desperate survival.

The Road is a bleak, desperate and, at times, gruesome read but don’t let this put you off. It is not a depressing book, there are moments of joy for the pair and it is a reminder of how happiness can be found in the smallest things and that love and strength of character are things of value even when there is nothing else to give.

A brilliantly crafted and bravely written book, The Road is a worthy winner of the Pulitzer Prize.

Book Review – The Peregrine – J A Baker

The-PeregrineThe Peregrine is an anomaly and in today’s profit driven world you can’t imagine a publisher taking a risk on a book in which one anti-social man obsessively follows and documents the everyday life of a bird through a bleak winter. It’s not exactly ‘high concept.’ Thank God though that someone did take the risk as The Peregrine is undoubtedly a masterpiece of nature writing full of vivid descriptions and rich detail which will stay with you long after you have finished.

From the opening pages, The Peregrine describes a landscape known only too well to anyone who dwells by a river estuary. Even though the book is set in Essex(England) the world of mud and water and reflected light will be familiar to many,  while the author’s devotional hours of bird watching open the door to reveal the fight for survival that is going on among the birds that inhabit our landscapes.

Unlike many modern nature writers whose books sometimes seem to be more about the writer than the wildlife, the author is conspicuous by his absence. There is no mention of Baker’s outside the birds and this invisibility draws you in. Who exactly was this man who stood for hours everyday in all weathers watching peregrines? Didn’t he have a job? A family? A life? One of the few known facts about Baker is that he was diagnosed with a serious illness just before taking up his mission to pursue peregrines.

The Peregrine is a book which will give readers a new appreciation of the beauty of the estuary landscape and the creatures that live there.