Category Archives: Nature Writing

Oh to be in England

Possibly not right now, but in the 1920s. Before everything went bad again. The farming community in the West of England is poetically and brilliantly portrayed in Tim Pears trilogy which starts with The Horseman and finishes with The Redeemed.

This is a world of simple values, but hard work. The horse was key. In farming and in leisure, in transport and in fact. To have a good horse was one thing, but you needed good people to deal with them too. For the gentry and the farmers alike, to have someone who handled horses as if born to it was to own a living diamond, and Leo Sercombe was one such.

This trilogy is, as much as anything, a coming of age for Leo who is a young lad in the first book. He is the youngest child of a ploughman, Albert Sercombe, who is the employee of a tenant farmer, Amos Tucker; tenant to Lord Prideaux, the owner of the estate.

Prideaux has one daughter, Charlotte. Her mother died and she is mostly alone with her father and his staff, among whom is a German governess Ingrid Goettner.

It is horses that bring Leo and Lottie together, and it proves to be an innocent but devastating mistake.

By the end of the first volume, the Sercombes are out of their farm and Leo is an outcast from his family. The next two volumes follow his strange but vivid trajectory as a wanderer over the land, through the hands of good and bad men up to, and including, his strange career in the Second World War and finally his return to the West Country.

Tim Pears must be regarded as one of the finest novelists writing today about country life; a way of life that has now completely vanished. The settings are beautifully captured; the importance of the seasons and the weather; the sense of timelessness shadowing into doom is evocative. Read as a whole, it is a paean of praise in honour of the men and women of that forgotten generation, a generation who lived on and for the land.



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Not the Man Booker 2018

The laptop catastrophe has meant lots of reading and no blogging. Here are four excellent novels of merit that I have read recently, anyone of which could have been on the Man Booker list:

Michael Arditti – Of Men and Angels

Patrick Gale – Take Nothing With You

Melissa Harrison – All Among the Barley

Pat Barker – The Silence of the Girls

ArdittiOf Men and Angels is a strange books, it is really the story of how the Angel Gabriel, Michael and other angels, but especially Gabriel, have been portrayed in human storytelling. Going back particularly to the part played by the angels in the telling of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and the saving of Lot and his family.

Each section, and there are five, brings us nearer and nearer the present day. The opening section, By the Rivers of Babylon, deals with the familiar story and its origins in various scriptures, The Bible, The Koran and other Babylonian texts; the next section tells the story of the traditional Guild that staged the Lot story in the York mystery plays of the Middle Ages; moving on from the fifteenth century we arrive in Florence at the time of Savonarola and the Bonfire of the Vanities and finally more or less to the present day to Los Angeles, the City of Angels.

As a quick run through literature, painting and poetry this is quite a feat. There is drama, passion, humour and imagination. Each section is prefaced with a short introduction in the “voice” of Gabriel, but then the narrative takes off into a realm of its own. His/her wonderment at the way men imagine angels, at what point they acquired wings, sex and other attributes. It is a researched and well trodden topic, but here is gets the full panoply of treatments from the forbidding flaming sword of Michael, to the number that can dance on the head of a pin and finally to the creation and destruction of the modern city of the plains, Los Angeles.

GaleAn entirely different book from a prolific and favourite author, Take Nothing With You is a love story with a terrible difference. The narrator has only recently recovered from the loss of his long term partner and has found, online, a new friend; Eustace has just a day to reflect on his life and his new happiness before embarking on a radical, aggressive treatment for thyroid cancer.

The novel covers his strange childhood, his love of music and his cello teacher, Carla Gold, his adolescence and growing awareness of his homosexuality and the dramatic turn of events that leads to his parents’ separation.

This is set still in the age of Aids and HIV as a deadly disease, Eustace is surviving and the cancer is just the beginning of what might be the downward spiral. Meeting someone online throws up difficult decisions, about revealing his cancer and the treatment.

Patrick Gale’s writing is informed, insightful and full of gentle humour. There is a tremendous sub-plot which the intuitive reader will have understood immediately, but which the young man, the narrator, remains entirely unaware of. It is never spelled out, so it becomes distinctly possible that Eustace remains ignorant even to the end.

This is a stunning coming-of-age novel, complex, transitory, confusing. Patrick Gale never disappoints and this one has all the hallmarks of a masterly pen.

Melissa HarrisonAll Among the Barley is set in the years immediately before the Second World War, even the shadows have not started to fall. In a rural community a young girl, Edie Mather, watches as her life slowly disintegrates; with the coming of a journalist, Constance FitzAllen from London, the young girl begins to see her life from a different perspective.

She is not aware how very destructive are the motives behind Constance’s questions, and Constance inveigles herself well and truly into the farming community, only in the end to upturn the tables.

The narrative is bookended with the voice of an elderly woman returning to her community after a near lifetime in an institution – care in the community is the name of the movement, and that did not go well for anyone.

Melissa Harrison has a wonderful eye for detail and ear for cadences. Like Jon MacGregor we are made aware of the seasons. For lives in a farming community at that time, before mechanisation and industrial farming methods, the seasons and the weather were key.

Belief in influences that were unseen but deeply felt, tradition, superstition and magic were commonplace. Health and ill-health were transparently part of daily life, hospitals and doctors came at a cost, so why not go to the healers, who were mostly women.

England in all its past magnificence and glory is on these pages, and read now it is possible to take fully on board what was swept away by the coming conflict. The absolute unawareness of impending disaster hangs over this novel from start to finish.

The ending is one familiar to many farming families in its bleak tragedy.

Barker GirlsFinally, back to a re-telling of The Iliad. This must be the most richly mined resource in literature, after perhaps The Holy Bible. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Rosemary Sutcliffe, Margaret Atwood, Madeleine Miller and many, many more have mined this great epic and Pat Barker is no exception.

Abandoning the First World War, she has turned her gaze on to the Greeks and Trojans. In The Silence of the Girls, she reminds us that there were two women at the heart of the Trojan War.  Helen obviously, since her abduction (or elopement) led to it all and Briseis, a Trojan princess who is abducted after the sack of Lyrnessus and awarded to Achilles, filtched from him by Agamemnon when he was forced to give up his own prize and all that followed from that fateful decision…

The narrative is Briseis’ summation. Long after the war is over and Achilles is dead, she looks back at the lives of the captive women in the seemingly endless war at the base of the walls of Troy. Slaves and concubines to their captors, they still had to make a life. It might not have been the one they had chosen, but to survive they had to put up and shut up. And that it the point really. The Iliad is all about the men; this novel is also all about the men, and Achilles mostly but the women are there, ever present and not speaking much.

There is an exquisite moment when Briseis’ silence speaks volumes…

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Man Booker Longlist 2018/7

My post today is unusual in that I am including a non-fiction book as an alternative to the longlist novel.

Tree huggers and arboriculturalists will have understood the pun in the title of Richard Powers new novel. It is a book about trees and forests, and for the rest of you I will explain the hidden meaning in the title.

A true forest contains units which are trees – roots, trunks and branches; when there are a lot of trees together the upper leaves and branches are the canopy; down on the forest floor there will be an assortment of smaller bushes, vines, young trees and this is called the understory.

2018 BLL PowersThe Overstory introduces us to several main characters and for the whole of the first part of the book, entitled Roots, they have no connection with each other, and each one is a short story in itself; it is not until the second part of the book that some of these characters end up in the same place and it is not until the final part of the book that the threads that pull them together, finally knot up into a complete whole.

Each of the characters has a relationship with a particular tree or species of tree; for Nick Hoel it is the American Chestnut, planted by his great-great-great-great grandfather in Iowa, and which because of its isolated spot has not succumbed to the disease that killed all its other families in Connecticut and Massachusetts, a tree which had ‘built’ America: houses, fences, furniture, paper pulp and more besides. Every fourth tree in a forest stretching two hundred miles would die.

For Mimi Ma, daughter of Chinese immigrants fleeing from Chairman Mao, it is the Mulberry Tree. Her grandfather had handed over three jade rings carved in miniature with the delicacy of a magician; The Lote – the tree of life for the Persians; Fusang – the mulberry tree and Now, the tree of the future plus a precious scroll of wizened men, one leaning on a staff at the edge of a forest, one peering through a narrow window and one seated under a twisted pine: the adepts who have passed through the Enlightenment and know the answers to life.

Adam Appich is an artist, he is somewhere on the spectrum of autism but that doesn’t matter; eventually he ends up as a research student studying under Professor Rabinowski.

We meet Ray Brinkman and Dorothy Cazaly who plant trees in their back yard on the anniversary of their getting together; Ray is a property lawyer dealing in copyright and Dorothy is a stenographer in court, which is where they meet.

We first meet Douglas Pavilcek when he takes part in an experiment and is placed in a jail situation; this is to earn money and eventually the experiment fails but he gets a taste of what confinement is like and the powerlessness of it. He has been a typical American, a war veteran and an odd job man, but he takes a trip North and on his way discovers that the forest he supposes he is driving through is only a spectre, that behind the concealing strip, loggers are clear felling the trees by the thousand – so he takes up tree planting.

Another character we meet is Neelay, the Gujarati son of poor parents. But one day when he is about eight his father comes home with a computer kit and together they put it to work. Neelay learns coding, and ends up inventing internet games.

The two last characters we meet are Patricia Westerwood, an early illness has caused deafness and she is mildly mute, though can be understood with patience. Patricia makes up for physical disability with an extraordinary mind, eventually she publishes a paper that states that trees have means of communication that humans have failed to recognise; this study get panned and she retires from public life and writes a book which she calls The Secret Forest. Olivia Vandergriff is a student, she has married far too young and is just freeing herself from this when she electrocutes herself. In the few minutes in which she is dead, her life changes…

We have reached page 152 and so far, none of these characters have anything in common. That all changes in the second part which is entitled Trunk.

This is part novel and part environmental polemic, everywhere on every continent and country, trees are being chopped down at an incredible and unsustainable rate. Campaigns to prevent this devastation bring some of these characters together with differing and terrible results.

There are two more parts Crown and Seeds, and by the end of the book everything is clear; but not for the trees which are being slaughtered at an increasing rate. The ill-effects of this are widespread and known, but somehow the destruction cannot be stopped.

Richard Powers cannot write a bad novel, his imagination is vivid and wild and his books, eleven novels so far, range over a lot of different subjects. The Overstory is quite a hard book to read, since its apocalyptic message is written across most of the latter parts of the book. Is this what people want in a novel? There is an encyclopaedic amount of information about trees and growing, seed formation and suckering, regeneration and death. Salutary, naturally. It is a book that appealed to me but then, I might be considered a bit of a tree hugger; I hope lots of people read this book but it may already be too late.

WildingMy non-fiction offering is the story of a Sussex farm who are trying to turn the clock back a bit. It too is a riveting if depressing read.  We have practically destroyed the butterfly population already in Europe, we need many more farms like this to take up the challenge, and it too may already be too late. Wilding by Isabella Tree is hopeful, if only a small voice crying out against the loud hum of the combine harvester.

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Man Booker Longlist 2018/5

While I was surprised and hesitant about the inclusion of a poem in the longlist, having read The Long Take I do understand why it was included. There is no doubt that is has a narrative, it also has quite a few pieces that are absolutely prose and even the poetry can read like prose. [My husband would have derided it as “chopped up prose”] I remain extremely doubtful whether poetry ought to qualify, but am heartily glad this book arrived on the longlist as I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

2018 BLL PoemRobin Robertson is a well know poet, he has already published five volumes of poems and has received many honours. Since I haven’t read anything by him before (almost certainly my loss) I cannot say whether narrative poetry is his usual genre. Never mind, The Long Take is a narrative.

Walker is a Second World War veteran, of the North Nova Scotia Highlanders, a Canadian regiment – my sister-in-law claims that the Stuarts founded Nova Scotia, a family myth that I haven’t pursued, she may even possibly be right, but I warmed immediately to this man.

We meet him first in New York, recently de-mobbed. It is 1946 and he feels too befouled by his wartime experiences to go back to Lake Ainslie and his home and family. The title of the book comes from the cinema.  A year or so has passed and it is now 1948, Walker moves to Los Angeles, he is a press reporter and has been asked to write up some movie reviews. He chooses Deadly is the Female (a good choice) and the film make him think.  The poem expresses it thus:

He thought about it all night. That long take

inside the getaway car: one shot that lasted three minutes easy

and was just real life. Right there.

Later on Walker meets the director, Joseph H Lewis,  and talks about this one long shot and gets to hear how it was accomplished and why the title of the film was changed to Gun Crazy.

This short passage too may show you how the poem can be seen as “chopped up prose”, though I am not really rubbishing poetry written like this. Above, I have written it out exactly as it appears in the book; but you could equally have read it in a prose novel as: “He thought about it all night. That long take inside the getaway car: one shot that lasted three minutes easy and was just real life. Right there.” And you would not necessarily have thought, that sentence simply doesn’t work.

The actual prose pieces are mostly in italics, these are Walker’s flashbacks, partly to his pre-war life in Canada and his girlfriend, and nature: the lake, otters, trees and colour and then his war. The flashbacks are part of his PTSD, which is part of his not now going home, he is simply not a fit person to pick up his old life, from what he has seen and, more importantly, what he has done. Here are two pieces, separated by about 40 pages which demonstrate the state he is in mentally. [This describes his D-Day experience]:

It was all about timing. Waiting to jump from the scramble net down the side of the merchant ship to the LCA below. Trying to find the rhythm of it: the swell of the water, the boats colliding. Your best chance was just before the landing craft slammed against the ship’s hull. Mistiming the jump meant drowning or crushing. You got it right. Picked yourself up. The steel deck slippery with vomit.

Forty pages on, his mind swings back to this day

The rating with the bilge bucket is swilling off the puke, and what is left of McPherson who hadn’t timed it right, his jump from the nets to this landing craft below.

There are also occasions, within the poem, that Walker loses his grip, and this loss of control accelerates towards the end as Los Angeles itself is pulled to pieces by the demands of the automobile barons and the CRA (the very corrupt planning office); making highways and destroying public transport and ghettoising many areas of the expanding city.

While working for the Press, Walker requests permission to write up the homeless, jobless situation in Los Angeles and San Francisco. So the poem is full of characters in bars and cafes. Here is the section in which he describes his colleagues: [This is a pretty long piece, for which I make no apology – I want people to go out and get this book to read]:

He’s got to know more people at the Press

who’d been there as long as the boss, and all from out east like him:

Templeton from Iowa’s an okay guy,

well-bred, sense of humour, smart,

and May Wood from Boston, the face of the paper.

Some said she’s a dyke, but he didn’t think so

and he liked her anyway – liked to make her laugh.

The rest were harder going.

The compositors and proof-readers

looked up at him with eyes of ruminants: carefully,

without movement. If something required scrutiny

there was a slow, elaborate shift of the shoulders. The stare.

Rennert and Sherwood were his team, in their cheap suits,

three-day shirts and stained ties,

keeping his straight on the city:

the organized crime, the stoolies, bent cops and politicians,

the ninety-six clubs, hash joints, card rooms, cathouses.

They knew the city from Griffith Park to the harbour at San Pedro,

from Pasadena to Malibu, Point Dume.

They smoked full-time, traded girls like baseball cards,

wore their hats tipped back,

had a bad word to say about everyone, told stories

even they didn’t believe.

And then there was Pike:

holding up the stacks of manuscript pages

and tapping them down on the desk to align them,

patting them straight at the tope and the sides.

There is more about all these people, especially Pike who is a snake and about the bums that he interviews, there is domesticity in his own life, illness and death, violent sometimes; but in his deeper being there is darkness and regret.

The book ends in Los Angeles in 1953. Robertson has covered pretty much everything that has happened, the Korean War, the HUAC, MacCarthy, elections and all sorts. Walker fumbles through it all, bowed down by memory and loss.

I have not got a shadow book for this post. I want you to read this book. I hope it makes it to the shortlist.

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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.’


‘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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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.


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