Category Archives: Nature Writing

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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60th London Film Festival – 9

Rather a weird day. Two very different films both of which needed percolating before I felt I could write about them.

12-10-2-the-ornithologistFirst The Ornithologist, a Portuguese film by João Pedro Rodrigues. The bird life, and the gorge down which the ornithologist kayaks is magnificent, a lyrical look at nature and its stupendous offerings in scenery and in fact. Using binoculars while drifting towards some fairly violent rapids has predictable consequences, and the kayak and its oarsman are swept away.

Thereafter the film becomes more and more hallucinatory. This is a journey through bizarre rituals: his Chinese rescuers have drugged and then bound him like a parcel, he escapes and his strange adventure begins with a pietà-like pose on a blue sleeping bag, for all the world like a religious painting (see above), its significance only becomes apparent later in the film; he finds half of his kayak has been used for a fetishized romp of some kind, and later sees the revellers, masked and with grotesque, but colourful, costumes capering around the woods and apparently killing a wild boar.

He wakes to the sound of goat bells and finds a deaf-mute goatherd…to say more on the plot or the next sequences would be too much of a spoiler.

His encounters and his interior journey become more and more symbolic and krypto-Christian. Nothing is quite what it seems, and even if it is what it seems, like the strangely damaged terracotta “Stations of the Cross” which he finds in a tangled woodland, the meaning as part of his journey is obscure.

Paul Hamy plays the ornithologist and his bemused expression vividly underscores the adventure he is having, he seems totally at sea – as I suspect were many of the audience.

12-10-3-hermia-helenHermia and Helena was equally obscure but in a completely different way. Mainly about two girls Carmen and Camila (Augustina Muñoz and Maria Villar) and their assortment of friends.  They are both studying A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one for acting and one for translation and as the film progresses their lives begin to resemble, more and more, the exigencies of the two female roles in the play.

Meetings get missed, or the two people are confused about arrangements and are in a different place, strange postcards arrive for a girl who has left, then the writer Danielle turns up but finds the wrong girl. Boyfriends seems expendable or exchangeable…

All readily recognisable from actions in the play, which my companion did not know well and the relevance went straight over his head. So as far as he was concerned this was a film about nothing very much – an epic fail in other words.

What got to me though was the music. A more inappropriate musical score could hardly have been chosen! Mostly, and recognisably, Scott Joplin and then suddenly Beethoven!? A further playful disjunction was the occasional written instruction that this was two or three months previously, what was never made clear was whether that meant that the film was forever running backwards, or whether it was flipping back and forth between the past and the present. Since all the characters seem to wear pretty much the same clothes the whole time (a wardrobe malfunction or a continuity failure?) it was pretty impossible to judge. If the audience is at a loss does this matter? Yes, in my view it does.

There were clever scene changes, the girl walks into one underground system in New York and walks out into Buenos Aires, or into one provincial park and out of another. This is a clever and witty film, the scenes are interesting for themselves and the mirror imaging of the play is super-modern and subtle. The dialogue alternated between English and Spanish which was a healthy clue as to where we were, but without this distinction interior scenes would have been impossible to decipher.

It is definitely film to think about, but quite whether it worked on the impact level that the Director (Matias Pinero) intended remains doubtful.



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60th London Film Festival – 2

What an absolute gem. The Eagle Huntress is breathtakingly beautiful. A low budget film that has hit gold – very appropriately in the Golden Jubilee Year of the LFF.

6-10-1-eagle-huntressThe premise was fairly simple, the director, Otto Bell saw a photograph of the Golden Eagle Festival and decided he would like to make a film about it. On the very day that he and his tiny crew of three went out to northwest Mongolia to explore the possibilities, the family he was directed to visit was going on a eaglet hunt that very day.

Strapping cameras on to everyone who could carry them, they went into the mountains and filmed the capture of a three-month-old eagle chick. Make no mistake, this is not a small yellow fluffy thing, it is quite large and has a fearsome beak and talons.  Not to mention a vigilant mother; but what makes this even more remarkable is that the young person doing the capture, a descendant of generations of Eagle Hunters, was uniquely a thirteen year old girl.

Aisholpan, the daughter of enlightened parents, was breaking a centuries old tradition. The traditional role of women in these nomadic Mongolian tribes is at home, milking the cows, bringing up the babies and feeding the men. At no time, in the history of the tribe had a woman, let alone a girl, been permitted to train an eagle.

The film crew followed and filmed the capture, filmed part of the training process and also filmed the decidedly disapproving elders, all of them ancient and venerable Eagle Hunters themselves, all of them sometime winners of the all-male Golden Eagle Competition.

This is now a world-wide event with tourists coming to watch from China and other countries. The Eagle Hunters gather at the same place every year and compete in timed trials, skill tests and horse riding. As with any competition, the judges are elders and experienced hunters and each award points up to 10 for each aspect.

Each hunter has three trials: first for handling the eagle, horse and for dress; then for a drag – the handler has to drag a hare behind the horse and the eagle, released by another member of the team, has to catch it and finally from a high point, the catcher releases the eagle on the call of the handler. Points are awarded for speed and for the landing (a fifteen kilo bird, flying at speed must land on the outstretched arm of a handler moving on a horse).

This is as far as I am prepared to go with content…

The filming was amazing.  What this small team achieved, sometimes in temperatures way below freezing, in fact so cold that the equipment could not function – limiting their options for filming to maybe three hours a day in the winter, was little short of miraculous. Though it did mean that the final part of the film, which appeared to be taking place over a single day, actually took twenty two days to film.

Whatever one may feel about the idea of drones delivering Amazon groceries, there is no doubt that they have revolutionised the low budget film. The aerial photography in The Eagle Huntress is quite magnificent.  The Mongolian plains and the Altai mountains are beyond scenic and are mysterious, even possibly murderous in the winter when horses can slide and fall. This is living on the edge with winter temperatures dropping to below -50 degrees. The lives and domestic habitations are basic, but beautiful and we see them at their most vivid, in summer quarters and in winter.

There is one more showing of this film on Sunday 9th at 12:00 Vue 7 in Leicester Square – get online now and try to get tickets, failing that it has got UK distribution, achieved only a week or so ago, so look out for it.

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England’s Green and Pleasant Land

I have long wanted to write about John Lewis-Stempel. You can meet him rhapsodising about the English countryside, as shown by its fields and pastures or striding across the battlefields of the First World War.  Either way, he is, to my mind at least, a prose-poet.

lewis-stempel-1Meadowlands, which is where I first encountered his writing, is sub-titled The Private Life of an English Field. In a notebook which spans the twelve months of the year, he carries us into a field, an ancient meadow and watches what happens; who stumbles past – badger, hedgehog, fox, partridge and who flies above him, feathered or invertebrate, day and night. It is all rather marvellous and strange, especially if you have never actually done it yourself.

The intense scrutiny is rewarding, we learn through this detailed account a great deal about this one patch of soil, earth, humus and our connection to it as humans (the similarity is not accidental).  For Lewis-Stempel does not stop at using words for things, he explains where they come from and their relationship to us and to all linguistic development.

lewis-stempel-2His more recent book, The Running Hare, A Secret Life of Farmland is a threnody to a fast vanishing landscape. He has noted, haven’t we all, that in the neon-green fields of modern day farming, the treeless, hedgeless prairies of brilliantly coloured, nitrogen-fed, insecticide-drenched wheat, there is no life. No birds, no insects, no mammals, nothing but produce can be seen.

To see whether it is possible to revive the landscape before it is too late, he secures a short tenancy on a small holding, three fields and a copse. He is only permitted to plough one field and that for only one year.

We follow that plough. Using the oldest possible methods of ploughing, sewing and reaping with a non-GM wheat seed and some wildflower seeds he records the arrival of birds, bees and insects, mammals and all things natural. mary-1

This might sound like watching paint dry, but truly it is not. The language alone is enough to make your mouth tingle, it all grows in your mind. This whole book is filled with poetry, his prose-poem which is the body of the work and poems from other naturalists:  John Clare, William Langland, Edward Thomas and some of the naturalist-parsons of the eighteenth century – Gilbert White and others.

The naturalist-parson is a dying breed, along with much of the wild life that they so faithfully recorded. How can a parson with nine parishes, and an injunction to run them as if they were a business, share the intimacy with the flowers and trees of his acreage, when nine parishes might run from Bruton through Shepton Malet, Eversleigh and all points beyond. Gilbert White was only concerned with Selborne in Hampshire and his Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne is a classic of its kind.

The Running Hare is also an angrier book, dedicated to the vanishing wildlife of England – the brown hare, the corncrake, the poppy, and the partridge (grey and red-legged); all of them and a whole list more of butterflies, plants and other wild life that is fast becoming endangered.

housmanIn the same vein, but from a different angle Housman Country, Into the Heart of England looks at the life of the poet who wrote A Shropshire Lad, through the pictures painted in the poem, one of the most famous poems in the English language and through the other medium that it has inspired, largely music but also paintings.

Peter Parker has not set out just to tell the life of AE Housman, though clearly the life tells itself if you follow the poems carefully and read them with attention. This book is more about the landscape that inspired the poet, which like John Lewis-Stempel in the West Country. Housman did not live in Shropshire, that county was the vision that he had from the hills where he grew up; he lived in Hampstead, London. Lewis-Stempel’s county is Herefordshire.

A Shropshire Lad was an influential poem, many poets read it and were inspired by it. It paints a picture of England that is worth more than a hundred paintings, and it was no accident that early editions of the poem were deliberately cheap and of a size that would fit into the pocket. Those pockets, many of them, belonged to soldiers of the First World War, poets like Siegfried Sassoon, Edward Thomas and Wilfred Owen. But not just them, many and many of the ordinary soldiers had copies, and many of them knew the whole series off by heart.mary-2 These exquisitely beautiful wood-engravings are by Agnes Miller Parker who was an engraver-illustrator, her works are used in this book to illustrate the vanished world of AE Housman.

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Poles Apart

I have no idea whether the words “if you like this then you will like…” make you shudder or make you take notice. I also have no idea when I pair up books, as per my last post, whether you think “I will try both of those” or whether you think “too much information”.

In spite of all these doubts, I am going to revisit a book that I read during the Man Booker long-list process and will recommend another book that has a distinct relationship with the first.

North You may recall that I was not particularly kind to this book when considering it as a possible candidate for the Man Booker prize, [Man Booker Longlist 2016-3]. I recommended it as a good read but thought it would not reach the coveted prize, so far, so right – as it is not on the shortlist.

Actually, as Hilary Mantel writes on the cover, it is a fast-paced historical thriller. It covers a period when one industry is dying, along with its principal prey and another is being found it its place. All taking place against a backdrop of the cold waters around the Arctic Circle, where the loss of a ship spells mortal danger.

The other book, which I read more recently, is of another order all together. This book, part human love story and part environmental love song, takes us to Antarctica where a young woman, Deborah (always called Deb) guides tourists around the penguin colonies and the icy cold waters around that continent.

Although she acts as a tour guide, she is also a research assistant to the Antarctic Penguin Project (fictional) and helps with the counting, recording and tagging of penguins, especially Adélies, whose lives, habitats and habits are steadily being eroded as more and more tourists visit this area.  Once in single figures, then in the hundreds, it is now in the thousands: Antarctica is accessible and on the “bucket list” of wasteful things to do before you die – and some people die trying [not unlike Everest].

midgeMy Last Continent by Midge Raymond, her first novel, is an elegy to a part of our planet that should be pristine and yet isn’t; should be protected and yet the protections are failing; is a clear indicator of climate change and yet the facts are dismissed as anecdotal.

All this, by way of a very real and terrible experience of love, bravery and frailty, combine to make a wonderful book. The narrative is not obscured by the plea for attention to the environment, or for the information about penguins, whose comic appearance belies a lifestyle of patience, fortitude and loyalty (which is, I know, to anthropomorphise horribly) in the pursuit of survival; it sweeps us up into a backwards and forwards life adventure of this young naturalist who has a passion for penguins.

Both books encounter and share a dangerous symmetry – boats, cold water and possible disaster. Page-turning and un-put-downable, they tear you apart one minute and relieve you the next. They are not great literature – but both are a rattling good read.



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My favourite book site

It is no secret that my favourite book blog is A Little Blog of Books. Many of the suggestions and reviews have led me to read books that might have slipped under my radar.

YanagiharaThis, the first novel by Hanya Yanagihara, is one such. It is a darkly, rich memoir by a disgraced scientist, with an introduction and footnotes by another scientist who continues to admire him.

Norton Perina, a somewhat unassuming science graduate is invited to join an anthropological expedition to a Micronesian island, distant and unvisited by the West, its distance adding to its mythological status.

The People in the Trees, is both the title of this book and the title of a fictional account of the expedition by its leader, Paul Tallent.

The memoir, Norton’s own, is written after everything that he has discovered and done has been discredited by a drastic and ill-judged action involving some of his adopted children. It reaches publication with an introduction and footnotes by Ronald Kubodera, one of the few people who is still prepared to have anything to do with Norton after his arrest and imprisonment.

This is a penetrating, deft and imaginative book. Less robustly provocative than A Little Life, for which she was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2015, but no less intense.



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Great Minds Think – Differently

What makes a writer choose to fictionalise two great men, each one of whom deserves the whole novel to himself?

Alexander von Humboldt is already the subject of quite a weighty biography, The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf but at the same time, he would make a marvellous subject for a novel. Carl Friedrich Gauss, the mathematical genius also might be worthy of a long novel on his own, here they are oddly coupled in a new novel by Daniel Kehlmann.

Measuring.jpgMeasuring the World, which is the title of this novel, indicates roughly the ways in which these two great men made their mark on their worlds, and in this novel it is where the two meet and in what circumstances that concerns the author. This is challenging, for though roughly contemporary, their spheres of interest were widely different.

Alexander von Humboldt was an adventurer who was determined to see and experience as many new things as it was possible to imagine and, on the way, wished to measure and categorise everything. He climbed, measured, observed and theorised…today we owe to him the discovery of the zonal nature of plants, isobars, weather systems and the most remarkably accurate maps of South America.

Carl Friedrich Gauss on the other hand, stayed relentlessly at home, and was disturbed greatly by any suggestion that he would be better off somewhere else. Several passages describe the miseries endured by him and his son, Eugen travelling around Germany in uncomfortable equipages. A mathematical genius when very young; aged eight, he astonished his teacher who thought to keep the class quiet for a long period by telling them to add all the numbers from one to a hundred; Gauss completed the sum in less than three minutes – but what froze his teacher was that he had reached this conclusion by means of a system, a system that he had worked out for himself. This systemising brain continued to work brilliantly in the field of mathematics for the rest of his life.

Gauss admired Humboldt, who admired nobody; Gauss was himself admired by the royal family and this book seeks to mesh the extraordinary achievements of both men, and of their relationship, such as it was – which was reluctant on both sides.

It doesn’t quite work, but as an introduction read with a mind to go on to other, better books it is worth reading. In places it is amusing and fascinating, alluring and repelling, but it is not enough on its own.

On a different planet entirely is another recent novel which elucidates the life of a well known genius: René Descartes. Told exclusively through the life of Helena Jans, a Dutch housemaid, The Words in my Hand, brings to life seventeenth century Holland and the luckless life of a maid, one who moreover, can read and write. This in itself is remarkable. She is sent, via an agent, to work in the household of an English bookseller in Amsterdam – to make ends meet Mr Serjeant takes in paying guests.  The Monsieur who comes to stay for several years, mysterious and reclusive, with his man-servant Limosin, turns out to be none other than the philosopher, Descartes – cogito, sum ego – hiding incognito while his pamphlets outrage France and the illustrious Catholics.  Thoughtful and advanced in his thinking, Decartes hides, writes and fails to publish; horribly aware of the fate of Galileo, his near contemporary.

GlasfurdIn this delightful look at his life, Guinevere Glasfurd reveals a hidden, tragic but beautiful love story between the thinker and the maid, which ultimately results in a child. Helena has to be hidden away without knowing where Descartes is, she is smuggled to Deventer where she gives birth to a girl, Francine. So fearful of discovery, not of the scandal but of the effect of his writings, Descartes does not immediately acknowledge the child, but love overcomes his fear and hidden together, they carve out something of a life.

Another book in the same vein, one that I have read many times and recommended many times more is This Thing of Darkness, the only novel by Harry Thompson. This is the astonishing and tragic tale of the life of Captain Robert FitzRoy who sailed with Charles Darwin on The Beagle, and changed forever the concept of Man’s place in the universe.

This Thing of DarknessThis incomparable book brings to life this haunted and difficult man, whose achievements were overshadowed by his more illustrious passenger, but who, like von Humboldt gave us systems that we use today: weather patterns and weather forecasting which he observed, noted and categorised, and he also had a hand in the creation of the Beaufort scale, it was Beaufort who made the necessary arrangements for his protégé, FitzRoy to captain the ship, Darwin only joined at the last moment when the ship’s surgeon absconded.

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