Category Archives: Environment

Man Booker Longlist 2018/6

My shadow books first. The Melody by Jim Crace and The Shepherd’s Hut by Tim Winton. Both writers that I discovered thanks to the Man Booker Prize.  Both such mellifluous titles, but both actually about menace.

CraceIn The Melody the principal character, Alfred Busi is a widower, in his prime he has been a renowned singer, songwriter. We meet him first as he is about to be significantly honoured by his town, an unnamed seaside town, with an Avenue of Fame: town worthies remembered, pedestalized and in bronze and Mister Al, is to be one of them.

But the might before his honouring ceremony, he had a damaging encounter with a feral creature that has got into his larder. His nights have often been disturbed by urban foxes and other creatures upsetting his bins and scavenging for food; but on this occasion he has been alerted by the tinkling of some Persian Bells, and goes down to investigate, but when he opens the larder door, something attacks him, scratching his face badly and biting his hand.

He calls for his sister-in-law, Terina to help him and she dismisses it as an animal, but he responds “a cat with dentures by the look of it”.

He does not call the police, and later on this incident is reported badly and inaccurately in the press. The town is alerted to the feral menace of possible “Neanderthals” hiding out in the bosk, the wild wooded area away from the sea at the back of the town.

This is a novel about change and “progress”. The first part is about changes in Alfred himself, partly brought on by the first attack, and then exacerbated by another more personal attack, and by a discovery which pulls away all his certainties. Two years a widower, there are bound to be alterations to the daily grind, or in the taking of pleasure but to become a victim in one’s own home is another order of magnitude, a disconcerting and destabilising event.

In the second part of the book, which follows some six or seven years later, the disruption seen in the first part has been completed.

I must first have come across Jim Crace in 2001, when he was listed for Being Dead, and I have gone back into his other novels.  One Quarantine, is the book I have given away most often.

Tim Winton, an Australian writer, I discovered through the Booker listings in The Riders. This must have been in about 1992, it is not his best I think, but I have read most of the others since, also going back through earlier novels. The Shepherd’s Hut though, is streets ahead of all of them. I cannot imagine why this is not on this year’s longlist, only that it was not presented for consideration.

WintonJaxie Clackton is the son of a butcher, his father is one of a dubious but successful breed of bully. Jaxie’s mother has died of cancer before the book opens, his childhood has been punctuated with good times, with his Auntie Marg and his cousins, and bad and worse times at home; his mother has been persistently bullied and beaten, but like so many battered wives, has stuck by her man. Now she is gone, Jaxie is the main punchbag.

After a particularly severe beating, when his eye is pretty nearly punched out, Jaxie goes off to hide out. A night or so later, he returns home but what he finds spooks him so badly that he hastily packs up a bag and makes a run for it.

Monkton, which is where is he is running from, is somewhere in Western Australia. (It may not even exist, I haven’t checked).  He heads into the bush, mostly mulga scrub and some tree cover where there are eucalyptus groves. He steers away from the roads and highways, though he can often hear the huge “roadtrains” passing.

He is in pretty dire straits when he discovers the prospector’s shack, where there is water but not a lot else. He has his father’s gun and some cartridges, lives rough for a while but cannot keep the kangaroo meat, as it goes off in the heat. But he realises he is not far from the salt lakes, so he goes off to get salt and finds more than he bargains for.

Jaxie thinks he is a lucky man, and by any definition this must be true, but luck is not always a two-way street, and those whom he meets are not always quite so fortunate.

This is a book full of quite brilliant descriptions: exquisite tenderness and love; the wilderness of Western Australia; survival; and also acute and devastating tension. Tim Winton writes beautifully.

I have camped out by those salt lakes, they are both wonderful and terrifying. Turning the mulga scrub into grassland for sheep permanently damaged the land. The salt lakes are a leprosy left by European settlers and rangers, some of them spread by a metre in diameter every year, the land is no longer good for cattle or sheep, which is why the eponymous hut is abandoned to its present incumbent when Jaxie gets there.

Unless you are completely turned off books by Australians, simply because I love them so much, this is a truly remarkable and astounding novel, which I cannot recommend too highly.

2018 BLL GunaratneBack to this year’s Man Booker longlist. An extraordinary debut novel by Guy Gunaratne, a BAME writer of considerable talent, who lives in London with a wife and two cats. Anyone who has two cats gets my vote.

In OUR MAD and FURIOUS CITY, the title of Gunaratne’s novel (deliberately written here more or less exactly as it appears on the book jacket) we find ourselves in Neasdon. Not a name to conjure with, honestly. In the novel, it sounds as dreary, messed up and conflicted as its name. We are kicking around with a group of young boys, they have mostly been around each other since primary or secondary school, though perhaps their attendance has not been 100%. They are all of them either BAME or mixed; the novel is bookended by an unidentified voice, but one who clearly knows the group, but may not be part of it.

The characters appear, each in their own section. Part 1 is called Mongrel, the chapters are Estate, Square, Ends. Here, we meet in this order: Selvon, Caroline, Ardan, Yusuf and Nelson. These characters are not all the same generation so the reader needs to pay attention because relationships will be revealed later that make a difference to how we view each boy. Sections 2 and 3 are Brother and Blood.

I do not think I would have picked this book off the shelf; the book jacket is quite threatening even without the title! But I am glad to have read it. The writing is original, visceral and fully-fledged. For a debut novel, even though Gunaratne has written short stories, this is an accomplished masterpiece. The city gets up and whacks you in the face; and has affected its young inhabitants in ways that it is hard to grasp, from its leafier suburbs.

This is a book that I would be glad to see on the shortlist, though I do not see it as an outright winner, so far.

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To go to the sea in ships

There are plenty of fictional accounts of London’s Thames waterside, Charles Dickens to name just one, so it is rather wonderful to read this account by Margarette Lincoln detailing the lives and trades of real people involved in commissioning, building, provisioning and manning the great ships that traded and fought for Britain in the age of Cook and Nelson.

M LincolnTrading in War is a fully examined look at the maritime adventures of Britain through the lens of the people who lived, worked and sailed from the Port of London. It is hard to reconcile the picture of London’s Dockland two hundred years ago with how it is today; yet interestingly, the parallels between 1718 and 2018 are not hard to find.

The book traces the history of shipbuilding on the Thames from about the 1760’s through to a period shortly after the defeat of Napoleon. It covers all the trades associated with the river, from watermen, lightermen and sailors through to sawyers, caulkers, shipwrights, to the land based trades of chandlers, biscuit manufacturers and sailmakers.

Largely centred north of the river in Wapping, Shadwell and Limehouse, the south banks do get an also-ran mention, sadly especially in terms of crime. But this is not to forget the shipbuilding docks in Deptford and Greenwich.

Margarette Lincoln identifies the families, follows their fortunes and outlines in particular the stresses of such a fluctuating profession. For example, in peace time – maritime adventures were mostly about trade, the two largest companies The West Indian Company and the East Indian Company both used private shipbuilding docks for their ships; though probably for provisions and chandlery they would use the same companies as the Admiralty. Meanwhile the Admiralty shipbuilders might languish; the reverse became true during the American War and the war with the French, when navy vessels were at a premium and both Admiralty docks and private docks were occupied at full stretch. as many as 54 warships were outfitted in any one year from a single dock in Deptford.

There are startling parallels between the eighteenth and 20th centuries though. The construction of West India Dock and The London Dock were fiercely contested, so that it was some several years before either could be constructed; similar to the competition between Gatwick and Heathrow, the expansion of docks, as opposed to open river docking was fought over, and then there was further rivalry between the construction of the two sites, Wapping and the Isle of Dogs. The Wapping site required the destruction of several areas of residential and commercial buildings, around 2,200 in all, putting many families out of their homes and businesses while the Isle of Dogs had other problems; but once built the docks altered completely the nature of the districts surrounding them, not least by tearing the heart out of the community. Furthermore, these developments, by displacing so many people led to changes in the populations of areas further east and north, like Shoreditch and Hackney.

The building of the docks altered the livelihoods of many people on the river in much the same way as containerisation in the 1970s and 80s emptied the Port of London of any trading ships, thereby leading to the domestication and gentrification of much of the area, both north and south of the river all the way from London Bridge to beyond the Isle of Dogs on the north and down to Deptford and Greenwich on the south bank.

I loved this book. I loved learning about the wives and widows of famous explorers and sailors like Captain Bligh (he of the Mutiny) and Captain Cook and the lives of the Barnard families (shipbuilders) and of merchants like J Robinson who had a carpet and furniture warehouse in the Ratcliff area.

The term “warehouse” only entered general use in this period to denote a superior type of “shop”. I wonder what J Robinson would have made of a department store!

It is in the nature of a seafaring community that many women, wives as well as widows feature more prominently that in other walks of life. The menfolk being away, pressed or serving in the navy, for long periods; lives and livelihoods had to be maintained, and these women mastered the art magnificently. Frances Barnard took over the Deptford shipyard on the death of her husband and continued to manage it until the ages of her sons meant that a man could take over again. However, it says much for her that when she did hand it over some ten years later, it was still a profitable business. One has to respect these women, who in an age when they had absolutely no power, they thrived.

 

 

 

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Don’t cry, my beloved country

Snowy RiverWhat another Australian novel? Yes, just so.

The Trout Opera covers a number of Australian tropes, but once again the characters are largely European Australians. There is one native Australian in the whole book and he, a character called Percy, gets the opportunity to prick a fair number of assumptions made about the indigenous people.

In the following scene, Wilfred Lampe and Percy are looking for someone who has gone missing in the Snowy Mountains:

They reckoned Hayes had become disoriented, despite his expertise on the skis. […]

They’d already found Hayes’ gloves and scarf. And ski tracks near Merritts Lookout. Yet  no Hayes.

On the ride up, Percy said: ‘I think the tree line.’

‘Why?’

‘You are not going to leave the tree line in the big snow.’

‘Why not?’

‘Have to be crazy to leave the tree line. Maybe he was crazy.’

They rode to where Seaman was found and ate quietly, looking down into the valley.

‘You think you can find any tracks?’ Wilfred asked. ‘You’re a black bloke.’

Percy chewed a sandwich. ‘You think all black blokes can track?’

‘I dunno. Can you?’

‘You don’t know much.’

‘I’m just asking you.’

‘If you knew anything you don’t need to ask if I can track. Course I can track. My mother could track. My sisters, they track. It’s nothing special to track. Just a way of getting food. Taught when we’re little. If you knew anything you’d be able to track.’

However, in spite of the apparent disappearance of the “blackfella” in so many modern Australian novels, this is still an interesting and well constructed novel. It shows an Australia that is steeped in manufactured myth. The year is 1999/2000. A team responsible for the opening ceremony of the Sydney Olympics are looking for a typical near-one-hundred-year-old Australian and eventually they settle on Wilfred Lampe. Sadly, the day they arrive at his shack, they find him collapsed in the back yard amongst the weeds and long grass. Panicking, the two men summon assistance, and Wilfred is whisked off to hospital.

Matthew Condon‘s novel segues between Wilfred’s life, almost a hundred years living in the same spot, near to the Snowy River, so the ultimate man from Snowy River [a famous Banjo Patterson poem] and the means by which the men from the committee try to find his family, and try to incorporate him into the festival ceremony. At the same time, the novel also covers the story of the Snowy River itself, once a huge and gushing torrent, full of fish and life, until choked and spoiled by damming and pollution.

There are poetic stretches of life as a fly fisherman, and the tying of flies for fishing which are interesting in themselves. The delicacy of these deadly lures and the inventiveness.

It is also a long love story, a human love story and a love story devoted to a place – the Snowy River and its environs.

Unlike The Dry and many other novels, this is real Australia. The places mentioned all exist in real time and in character. And it is a land despoiled by pollution, and by cheap housing but also, in places completely unspoiled.

The novel covers the big debate about where the capital city should be built. Dalgety, the first, and seemingly obvious, choice has its moment in the sun and then suddenly it is dropped in favour of Canberra. Dalgety is where Wilfred Lampe and his family live, Callistus his grandfather, Uncle Berty, a damaged veteran of World War I, his mother and his sister Astrid.

It is also about the darker side of life amongst drug addicts and city drop-outs.

It is a marvellously complex story, beautifully told.

 

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Read on, read on

To find a new voice on the crime scene is generally a pleasure and in this instance double the pleasure for me because it comes from Australia. Jane Harper lives in Melbourne.  Her debut novel, The Dry, was written at a time when the state of Victoria had suffered several years of drought and the book is set in Kiewarra among the farming community.

HarperFederal Agent Aaron Falk, normally in the department chasing the money, returns to his home town to attend the funeral of a family: mother, father and son – all shot by the same gun – leaving an eighteen month old baby daughter. Aaron has a personal history with Luke Hadler, the dead man, going back to their teenage indiscretions and he has not been back to Kiewarra since he and his father left when he was about fifteen.

Old stories, old suspicions and old rumours burst to the surface when the townspeople find him amongst them again. Luke’s father and the father of another person, long dead, both want to see him; one to talk to him and one to threaten him off.

The police have seen this as an open and shut case of murder by the father, followed by suicide but the rookie cop, the one actually in the town who only took up his post a couple of months before the shooting, is not completely convinced.

Aaron is persuaded to stay around for a few days to dig into the case a bit more; an investigation which throws up some revealing and disturbing results…

The new offering from Jane Harper, Force of Nature, finds Aaron called in to look into a disappearance. He is only there because he received a fractured and indistinct mobile phone call early in the morning from the girl who has vanished. This is the last known contact.

Five women and five men, all from the same company, go into the fictional Giralang Ranges for a team building weekend.  They are split into two groups – men and women – and are given two separate routes to follow. The men make it back first, the women are late, in fact nearly a day late when they stagger out of the bush minus one of the walkers, Alice Russell.

The odd coincidence is that Falk and his team have been investigating this company, and Alice is their inside mole…

If I have any criticism of these novels, which I thoroughly enjoyed in spite of this complaint, it is that this is an all-white Australia. In The Dry, since it is set in a farming community and small town, one would have expected to have at least one or two Indigenous Australians working on the farms, most of the homesteads might be expected to have them as sheep-hands or domestics – nary a one. OK the community was going through a very bad patch, but total lay-offs seems a far cry. In Force of Nature I would have expected there to be at least one, if not more Indigenous trackers, especially in such wild and rugged terrain as the Giralang Ranges, a densely forested region some hours drive from Melbourne.

Kiewarra and Giralang are both invented places, but the author demonstrates a very accurate understanding of Australia’s wilderness and its isolated farming communities – small places with big characters and Jane Harper absolutely nails this in these books – so where are the original inhabitants? I know for a fact that the police regularly use indigenous trackers when some idiot backpacker strays off into the bush and frantic friends and parents ask for help.

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Raw Nature

Two very different novels that pit humans against the forces of nature.

FerencikThe first is a rather melodramatic adventure story.  Four women, who have been friends “forever”; led by Pia, they embark on a wild river adventure into the wilderness of Maine. Pia is always the leader on these occasions and on this one she has excelled herself. So, in spite of misgivings on the part of the other three, they set off to meet their guide.

The first meeting is not encouraging, but now they are committed.  So the next morning they pile into the off road vehicle to get to the river. The road, which the guide, Rory, finds astonishingly muddy after two weeks of rain proves challenging enough, but then there is a long hike through difficult terrain to the first camp site…

The group fragment somewhat before they have even hit the river, as for the first night in their tents, three of the women are subjected to the full opera of a sexual fling between the fourth women and Rory. So sizzling with a mixture of contempt and envy the first full day starts rather badly, not least because racoons have got into some of the provisions…

It gets worse and instead of being about sniping at each other, it becomes a trial of strength as to which of them will survive. Think The River Wild, a film in which Meryl Streep takes on a white water adventure with two escaped convicted murderers & extract the convicts.

Did no one realise that a river swollen by two weeks of rain might be dangerous?

Erica Ferencik is a screenwriter and novelist based in Massachusetts.

TreloarThe second novel is set in South Australia, always my beloved country.  It flips between Hester Crane, neé Finch, now living in Chichester, England in the 1860s and her memories of a hard and difficult life on Salt Creek some ten years earlier. The Finch family take up a lot on The Coorong, a lagoon some distance from Adelaide on the southern coast. Led by their father from the settled life in an almost civilised city, they arrive to find a shack built from old ships’ planking, branches and mud daub.

The facts are slowly revealed, the patriarchal Finch is a loser, gambling on making money from one scheme after another, he has failed and this is the last ditch attempt to regain everything.

So Mama, four boys and two girls are towed along in his wake. His rectitude or hypocrisy knows no bounds and extend outwards towards the Aboriginal families that live on the land already. He aims to civilise them…

The family he meets and mixes with include a young man who they name Tull, although not specifically clear, it can be assumed that Tull or Tully is a half caste. As with all interventions and relationships between the white settlers and the original dwellers there is the inevitable conflicts, including: disease, depredation of the land and the watering holes. But Tull, who speaks English already, and his mother, Rimmilli, who also speaks English, are different and Tull gradually joins the Finch family, learns to read and flourishes.

There are some lovely passages in this book, beautiful descriptions of the land and the light but the story itself is a harsh and unforgiving look at parental control and downright cruelty. The Finches perch on the land, taking from it in ways that are incomprehensible to Tull and to his family, and he wavers between the two different cultures. We do not see his life with his natural family, but only learn that he often goes away for several months.

Meanwhile, other relationships are few and far between and of those that exist in such an unpopulated area, some are of more consequence than others…

This is Lucy Treloar‘s first novel, though she is already well known for award winning collections of short stories.

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Christmas shopping anyone? Look no further…

ScanThere is one present suitable for all ages, not too expensive, inexpressibly beautiful and an joy forever – a book, but not just any book. The Lost Words by Robert MacFarlane and illustrated by Jackie Morris.

A while back I posted about Robert MacFarlane’s book Landmarks, [May 9 2013] and commented on one of the saddest paragraphs I had ever read. He was writing about words that were being dropped from The Oxford Junior Dictionary. Space obligations were creating a demand for some words to be left out in order to make way for new words that children would need to know and MacFarlane listed some of them: adder, willow, ivy, fern, wren…

and so on. But now he has rectified this terrible omission by creating an alternative, an illustrated book of these lost words.

Each word used and illustrated comes out in stages: the opener is a beautiful picture threaded with letters, but the observant reader will spot that some letters are a different colour and spell out a word; turn the page and there is the word and a “spell”, a short or long semi-poetic evocation of the meaning by MacFarlane and on the next full page and double spread – an exquisite painting of the subject/object by Jackie Morris.

Only picking up this book and looking through it can you even begin to capture its essence and its joy. But if you are wondering what to give a partner, a godchild, a grandparent, a parent, a difficult aunt and above all – any child you know…you will have in your hands the answer.

backcover

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61st London Film Festival – Day 6

Guardians

I went in to this screening without reading up my notes, so I had forgotten that I chose this on account of the director, Xavier Beauvois. The Guardians comes from the same place in the heart as his previous film Of Gods and Men (LFF 2010). In the former film, it was the monks who were taken hostage.  In this film it is the women: farmers’ wives, daughters and cousins, left with only the old men while their young men fight in the First World War, it is they who are hostage to the exigencies of farm life in an age when farming was manual labour.

Early scenes show Hortense, a woman of around seventy (at a guess) labouring across a field ploughing with a horse, sometimes even with oxen. It is hard work, men’s work but these women must keep it going or starve.

The film concentrates on a single farm run by Hortense, the matriarch. It becomes apparent that she has two sons at the front and a son-in-law, Clovis. His wife works on the farm with her mother, but eventually they need more help, which arrives in the form of Francine, an orphan – therefore protected by the State until she becomes 21 – but who is an excellent worker, durable and honest.

The casting is magnificent: Nathalie Baye plays Hortense, and her real-life daughter, Laura Smet plays her daughter, Solange. But the newcomer Iris Bry, who plays Francine, shines out like a torch. Her subtlety of movement, facial expression and air of dogged goodness makes her story in this profound meditation on hardship and grit and grief all the more telling. Very many of the rest of the cast are non-professionals. Hortense’s husband is played by Gilbert Bonneau, who makes his film debut at 78.

The cinematography is exquisite, with slow panning views across the farm at different seasons; the farm itself is lovely, gorgeously rural, well-set stone dwellings, with dark, cramped interiors. But for all that, somehow very compelling because it meant that many of the interior scenes were close up to the actors, so every lip tremble and tear was right there.

I have no idea where this was filmed, but I suspect not in France. But wherever it was – I want to go there.

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