Category Archives: Nature Writing

61st London Film Festival – Day 8 i

Three PeaksThe day started with an absolute nerve-shredder! It was under the LOVE section so I was not entirely prepared for this. Three Peaks, an new film by German director Jan Zabeil, was filmed on location in the Dolomite Mountains. A three-hander, we meet a young couple with a little boy, Tristan, who is about eight. It soon becomes apparent that Aaron, a strong, healthy outdoorsy man, played by Alexander Fehling, is the step-father.

This becomes more and more problematic, mostly for Tristan but also for Aaron who says openly that at times he loves him but also at times wishes he wasn’t there.

There are some really beautiful scenes with Aaron and Tristan walking and climbing in the mountains near to the three peaks, it is astonishingly beautiful and also changeable, both the weather and the emotions can alter in a fraction of a second…

The boy, Arian Montgomery, is a consummate actor already, his expressive little face showed anger, joy, excitement and anxiety and it was in the Q&A that we were told quite how remarkable he had been, able even at such a young age to take instruction, think about it and then “act”.

This should have been an idyllic holiday, a log cabin in the mountains, what more could one ask? The film explores both the potential wonder of such relationships and the toxic alternative, with devastating truthfulness.

One thing I do notice though, audiences (and I have seen a good few in the thirty years that I have been coming to the London Film Festival) seem more and more uncomfortable with open endings. At nearly every Q&A that I have been to in the last three years, members of the audience have asked the director whether what ended the film meant either/or. In today’s film, Jan put the question back to the audience and it went 50/50 to a bad or good next step. But I find it interesting that people want to KNOW…is it that we live in such uncertain times that we cannot bear even our entertainment not to tell us exactly what happens next?

This film, as yet, has no UK distribution which seems a pity. You have one more chance to see it on the screen if you can get tickets for Saturday 14th at NFT2


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Man Booker Longlist 2017 – 12

It is very hard to know what to say about Elmet, the debut novel by UK author Fiona Mozley. It is a most remarkable beginning. Set at an undisclosed time, in a Yorkshire setting (Elmet was a Celtic Kingdom, largely spread over Yorkshire) a small family, father and two children make a hardy living in a house built for them by the father..Elmet

They are not travellers, though they have had contact with them; they are not exactly local, though the mother came from this area; they are not socially adept and now do not attend school; they live as much as possible off the land, trapping, foraging and making do.

In a very different way from the family in the other debut novel, Daniel and Cathy, his sister, are living outside society. John, the father has been a prize fighter, but not in the ring. This is illegal, bare-knuckle fighting where prize money comes from betting, and John is in a class apart, the strongest unbeaten fighter in England and Ireland. But during the period which is covered by this narrative, he has in fact given up fighting, though he often goes away leaving the two children to fend for themselves.

The book opens with the consequences of what happens at the end of the novel, and this only becomes apparent slowly. Sections in italics are in the first person narrative of the boy, Daniel. Why he is on his own does not get revealed until the end.

As Daniel travels, he fills in the bigger picture with a description of the events and personalities that led up to the end event.

There is a brooding threat hanging over the story, a supressed violence, which from the start seems to suggest that all is not going to end well. The graphic descriptions of the conditions that this family are living in are powerfully executed, and you really do get a sense of the social dislocation of this family.

On the whole, John is clearly a kind and well intentioned man, he helps out with things that people need doing, picks up odd jobs and has proved capable of building a sizeable and decent house for the family from next to nothing. But they are not safe, and their home life comes under threat from one principle quarter. John has a radical solution and calls in several like-minded people to start a community action which goes well to start with.

But it is in the nature of such things, there will come a backlash and once it comes things speedily change…

The writing is descriptive, moody and tight. There is neither a word too many, nor a word too few. In spare but lucid prose we are given a very clear picture of the situation and the denouement is shockingly violent.

This is very much the sort of book one would hope to find on the shortlist

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A break from the Booker

Had a long train journey and baulked at the idea of carrying a kilo+ book in my handbag, so left Paul Auster behind.  I went into WH Smith at the station and laid my hand on the nearest paperback that looked halfway interesting.

stefThis turned out to be Stef Penney‘s third novel, Under a Pole Star. It was an absolute find! It is quite a wonder that this writer has actually never been to any of the places that she writes so evocatively about, she is a self-confessed “armchair traveller”, so that all her background writing on locale, weather, snow conditions and such like come from research rather than experience.

This novel covers early exploration and scientific study in and around the Arctic Circle. The central character in Under a Pole Star is once again a strong and formidable woman, she is the daughter of an English whaler, a widower who perforce took his young daughter, Flora, with him on his two year forays into the Northern waters after whales. Here she mixed with men and with Inuits in a frozen waste and loved it. At some point, Captain Mackie realises that she can no longer accompany him, leaving her with a yearning ambition to return.

The story starts with an elderly woman waiting, weather-bound, in Gander airport to be flown to the North Pole for a PR stunt that she does not fully understand. Along with the group is a young journalist called Randall Crane. He has an ulterior motive which is revealed later, but his questions cause her memory to break open…

This is both a love story and a wonderful tale of explorers and scientists from America and Britain competing to study and, indeed, exploit the frozen North. It is a tale of delight and betrayal, danger and survival, professional shenanigans and competition and a deep love of the frozen Arctic.

The descriptive passages bring to mind the writings of Cherry Garrard in The Worst Journey in the World, which the author says she has included in her research, but it is not the worst for that. The difficulties that these early explorers endured are the stuff of legends, and even if this book is entirely fictional it brings these horrors and demands very much to life.

I was as gripped by this book as much as by The Tenderness of Wolves which I also loved. [What is it with Wolves? April 10, 2017]

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Man Booker Longlist 2017 – 8

A writer’s first book is always something to celebrate, an achievement for them and an adventure for us, especially when the book is a novel. Emily Fridlund is one of only two first book writers in this longlist, there are other first novel writers, but that is slightly different.

Wolves History of Wolves is set among the lakes of North Minnesota.  On the shores of Still Lake, one a small family live in a rustic cabin; once part of a larger commune, they are the remnants. Madeleine can remember a time when there were more of them, and the book centres around her childhood, more or less between the age of twelve to fifteen.

At some point during that time, another small family move into a modern summer cabin across the lake from where she lives. They first appear in the summer, but then one autumn they arrive again and she sees them unpacking. She can see through their windows exactly what they are doing, a father, mother and young child.

Drifting in loneliness between school and a dismal job in a local diner, Madeleine (Lindy) eventually fetches up babysitting for Patra and looking after the little boy, Paul, who is about four years old. Time passes and she earns sufficient money for the babysitting to give up the diner job. Leo, Paul’s father is away a great deal, and Lindy senses the unease that this causes Petra, but cannot quite focus on its source. Leo is a scientist, and it turns out a Christian Scientist, and when he is there seems to Lindy to be austere, but capable and generally kind, though he does grill her with penetrating questions about her understanding of life.

This novel is written in lucent, patient prose. Lindy observes and considers and we see the world almost entirely through her eyes and her experience. There is a terrible vacuity in her existence, limited as her life is. She is regarded as a freak at school and makes almost no friends, and has no contact with anyone her own age during the long holidays.

The days gaped open after that. No school, no job, daylight going on and on like it would never quit. I cleaned two perfect northern pike and did the north-forty wood the first day, then I dithered about in the boat for a few more, catching crappie near the beaver dam. I filled the net without trying, sorted all the tackle one morning, took a comb to the dogs and teased out the mats left over from their winter coats. One afternoon I walked the five miles into town and bought toothpaste and toilet paper from the drugstore.

Somehow, it is not surprising that this child ends up wrapping herself tighter and tighter around the novelty of a different family. It is not exactly that she is neglected, her father is there, caring and comfortable and her mother is there, but more spikey and dismissive, she is fed and housed and then left to her own devices…

This is a smashingly evocative novel, you feel the extreme cold, hear the damp thump of snow falling from the roof and branches, you smell the pine trees in the heat and hear the lonely call of the loons that swim and dive and you live inside the head of the narrator. It is compelling and insightful and I can hardly wait to see what Ms Fridlund will write next.

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Man Booker Longlist 2017 – 5

Sometimes you open a book and are astonished, every page has something to delight, interest and intrigue. This may be the style, as in Lincoln in the Bardo, or the narrative as in The Underground Railroad or it may be a combination of the two as in Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor.

McGregor has twice been nominated by the Man Booker, for his debut novel If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things and one other, he has won many prestigious awards: The Betty Trask Prize, the Somerset Maughan Award and the IMPAC Dublin Literature Prize, so it is hardly surprising that he is once again on the longlist of the Man Booker.

Reservoir 13This lyrical, pastoral novel reads somewhat like the journals of Gilbert White of Selbourne, in the sense that the whole novel covers a period of 13 years, each chapter beginning at the start of the New Year, or a bit after.

The opening chapter starts with the search for a thirteen year old girl, Rebecca. The family have been to the area before, once in the summer and again for the New Year (though never actually named, it is clearly the Peak District because there is a tradition of Well Dressing, which I believe to be unique to Derbyshire). The Shaw family stay in a converted barn belonging to Stuart and Jess Hunter. In the opening scene, the villagers and townspeople are gathered together waiting to be instructed on how to fan out, look out and search into the hills where Rebecca, or Becky, or Bex was last seen.

The other reason that I suspect that it is Derbyshire is the use of some dialect language, clough being one such dialect word and meaning ‘steep valley or ravine’.

The whole book is divided into chapters that are one year long. Each paragraph is exceptionally long, just as is a journal.  There are repetitions of festivals, especially the well dressing, about which we learn a great deal in some detail; Mischief Night, bonfire night, the cricket match against Cardwell, usually lost and New Year. There is also a considerable amount of natural observation, swallows coming and going; blackbirds mating, bringing off chicks, singing; firecrests, buzzards and other birds; foxes and badgers create dens, mate, have cubs and go foraging which is why I likened this novel to Gilbert White. All this integrates with the lives of the townspeople and their children, their doings and undoings, loyalties and betrayals, successes and failures.

August was hot and slow. The seed-heads of cow parsley and thistle blackened in the field margins, collapsing in the early dew. The river was clear and slow and the sun struck it hard. There were brown trout teeming thickly through the water. In the evening Ian Dowsett set up in the shade of a beech tree and tried dropping a few different mayflies but nothing was right for the rise. He could hear voices from someone’s back garden at the top of the steep bank and the air was still. In Cardwell the cricket was drawn for the second time in three years and some of the younger players started to talk confidently about a turn in the tide. In Fletcher’s orchard the blackbirds were fattening on the early windfalls, lazy about territory and forgetting to sing. Sally watched them from the kitchen window while she made an omelette for dinner. She folded half of it on to a plate for Brian to have later. He’d left a note on the table to say he’d be late back from the parish council. […] There were springtails in the old hay at the back of the lambing shed, feeding and laying eggs and hatching out, and at the end of a long stem a single male sat poised with his tail hooked to his belly, ready to spring into the air for the first time of his life. There was a moment’s hesitation. Overnight the heat broke into heavy rain but by late morning the ground was dry. In his studio Geoff Simmons turned the new pots on the wheel, using a narrow knife to cut a bevelled edge at the base and a leather to work the rough patches smooth…

There is quite a cast of characters and occupations: the sheep farming family of Jacksons; the dairy farm of Les Thompson; the stonemason Sean Hooper and his son, Liam; the solitary potter, Geoff Simmons; the school mistresses and Jones, the caretaker; the Vicar, Jane Hughes and a great many others, all play their parts in the life of the town, taking it in turns to do the display at Harvest Festival and of course, the well dressing and simply living with and amongst each other.

Rebecca’s disappearance never goes away, the case remains open. The local reservoirs fill, run over and dry up seasonally, as does the river; heather, willows and the other vegetation flower, fruit and wither in their seasons.

This is quite magical writing, it sounds odd the way I have presented it, but reading it is like reading someone’s private journal, as if they have just sat down with an over-seeing eye and recorded all that is around them, all of it integrated, connected and of equal importance, whether human or natural and drawn us into the narrative, so that we like them are on the look-out for Rebecca, or remember her and wonder where she is.

We, in real life, know the trajectory of this sort of situation: mass interest and media attention; a dropping off and a revival when the fifth anniversary passes; another similar incident somewhere else. What this novel tells us though, is about the underlying scar that such an event leaves on the people and the landscape where the disappearance occurred; there is never an ending unless there is resolution…

Not everybody admires this wide-angle lens look at life, a regular criticism is of Jon McGregor’s lack of focus, the inconsequential details along with the ones that move the story on, but isn’t that what life is actually like? Anyway, I love it and would like to see him win, but suspect that it is not adventurous enough, even in this exceedingly unadventurous longlist.

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Man Booker Longlist 2017 – 2

You have to hand it to Ali Smith! Her new title Autumn is Part One of a seasonal quartet. The flyleaf tells you that it is a “meditation on a world growing ever more bordered and exclusive, on what richness and worth are…” Who writes this stuff and did they even complete the whole book?Autumn.jpg

This is a jumble of thoughts and ideas, loosely hung around the backstory of two people, Elisabeth Demand and Daniel Gluck, neighbours when Elisabeth was a young girl. Daniel, by the time the novel is being set down, is in a care home aged 100 and Elisabeth, pretending to be his granddaughter visits regularly.

In an earlier part of his life, Daniel has known and loved Pauline Boty [a real British female pop artist of the 1960/70s]. He is a song writer, with one good song to his credit.

The book ranges over a Britain that is reeling from the results of the Referendum of 2016 backwards through the Profumo Scandal, but largely from Christine Keeler’s perspective, or rather how Pauline Boty has presented her in a picture entitled Scandal 63; struggles of identity – Elisabeth is trying to get her passport renewed and a Hannah Gluck, who gets picked up in Nice with a false passport in the 1930s, but manages to walk free and of bodies: men, women and children being washed up on a Mediterranean beach in 2015/6; it is also about perception.

Daniel has described Pauline’s pictures to Elisabeth when she was a young child, but they have all been lost and in any case, he does not ever tell her who they are by, much later as an art student she realises what it was he was telling her.

There is no doubt that this is a meditation of sorts, there is a lot of reported thinking and dreaming, and some philosophical questioning of truth, lies, presentation and reality.

But much of it is random thoughts laid on the page a bit like a collage (which is what Pauline Boty is famous for), scraps of thoughts and materials which may or may not mean anything in the scheme of things. Does this make it “a novel” or just “novel”?

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More of America

darktownAs promised in the last post, here is Darktown by Thomas Mullen. Set in 1948, it is a fictionalised account of early police work in Atlanta, Georgia. However, on this precinct all the policemen are black; eight men, under a white mentor, operate out of a hot basement apartment in an area of Atlanta largely populated by African Americans. These eight men have all the appearances of the white city police: guns, batons, badges and uniforms – but they have no squad cars and they are not allowed to arrest white citizens, furthermore they can do nothing if white cops decide to bring their operation into the black neighbourhood.

This happens, frequently and often violently, especially if a policeman called Dunlow happens to be around. Known for violent and often wrongful arrests of African American citizens, he is the nemesis of Officers Boggs and Smith.

So on a dark night when Boggs and Smith stop a car, one with a white driver and a young African American passenger in a yellow dress, there is not a great deal they can do; but a few hours later they seen the same car being stopped by Dunlow and Rakestraw, by this time it is clear that the young girl is in trouble as they have seen her being hit and when she jumps from the car and runs away, they assume that Dunlow and Rakestraw are dealing with it…

This is, at one and the same time, a police procedural thriller, a search for the perpetrator of several  untimely deaths and the extreme difficulties faced by the black officers who are not permitted to investigate crimes, even ones committed on their patch; they are not permitted to walk about in their uniforms unless actually on duty or appearing in court, so they are required to carry their uniforms in garment bags and to change on the site – generally in a cupboard and finally, they are not permitted under any circumstances to enter the police HQ.

This is also about race relations, the gulf between the two sides of Atlanta. The invisible dividing line between the areas where the white folk live and the areas for other people, and woe betide any uppity African American who builds a property on the wrong site, real estate being what it is, an area needs to maintain its status as a white neighbourhood, otherwise property values will nose-dive…

The writing is brilliant, the story breath-taking and the message is plain.  It is hard to believe that we have moved such a short way beyond this divided and hideous world and to many people it looks as though some of it may come back any time soon. This is the book to read, being forewarned is some way towards preventing it all coming back to haunt us.

Searching through the TBR pile I came upon another, very different American novel. Miller’s Valley by Anna Quindlen is so different that it is hard to relate the two books as being placed on the same continent. This is the tale of a woman, a doctor, looking back over her life and upbringing on a farm near to Philadelphia. In fact it is not clear where exactly the eponymous place, Miller’s Valley is exactly, but it must be East somewhere.Millers Valley.jpg

Mary Margaret Miller is the only daughter of Bob Miller and his wife, a nurse, who farm in the lower reaches of the valley.  They have two sons Ed and Tommy, Ed is quiet, stolid and hard working and eventually goes off to become an engineer, Tommy is fabulously good looking, and wild with it.

The thrust of the story, though, centres around plans to dam the valley. The state engineers come round offering deals to people who will give up their homes and relocate, this process is slow and many people think it will never happen. Often after severe rains there is catastrophic flooding, but still the residents are reluctant to move. The Miller family have been there at least since 1822, a matter of about one hundred and twenty five years and possibly more.

The characters, their families, their successes and failures are bewitchingly drawn for us, the readers. We really care and appreciate their dilemmas. The mistakes they make are terribly human and familiar and the Miller family are not unique in their triumphs and their tragedies.

This is also a novel about change, change resisted and then embraced. Mary Margaret moves away to study, marries and has a family and circumstances bring her back to Miller’s Valley to work as a GP. Looking back over her life, she muses on the things that change, the hidden secrets even among families and those things that remain unchanged – among them love.

Anna Quindlen has written several novels, but is virtually unknown in this country, hopefully that will change.

edricFinally, another book about the flooding of a valley, this time an English valley and written mostly from the perspective of the engineer. He comes to look at the feasibility, but finds his decisions are made much harder once he gets to know the residents. This is The Gathering the Water by Robert Edric, and author I have frequently recommended.

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