“The Wallcreeper” by Nell Zink

By the time I turned to the first page of The Wallcreeper, I was (unfairly) already primed to be pretty defensive. Nell Zink, an American expatriate in Berlin and protégé of Jonathan Franzen, has been hailed as being a kind of post-punk, zeitgeist genius. People are saying she’s a modern Kafka. She emailed The Guardian a naked picture of herself to accompany a recent interview. For me, an essentially square Englishwoman, it all felt a bit melodramatic; a little constructed. And I have to say, the opening line of, “I was looking at the map when Stephen swerved, hit the rock, and occasioned the miscarriage” didn’t do much to set my mind at ease. There’s a kind of jarring baldness to some of the early phrases (and some fairly graphic sex) which made me crunch my teeth: “It was hot and dry. (I mean my brain)” or “Objectifying my body saved him from objectifying my mind.” I wondered if reading the novel was going to feel like walking into a hyper-academic college bar and over-hearing earnest conversations about Nietzsche or Post-Structuralism – not that that’s necessarily a bad thing, but it’s definitely not my frequency.

I was still intrigued, though – there’s something strange and compelling about The Wallcreeper from the very beginning, and it moves at such a lick that you’re soon being pulled into Tiff’s weird, off-beat train of thought. It didn’t take me too long to put my prejudices back in their box either, and realize that the narrator isn’t contrived – she’s incredibly smart and also very lazy, which is in part what makes it all feel so off-kilter. When Stephen swerves the car and occasions Tiff’s miscarriage, he is doing it to avoid hitting a wallcreeper. The bird comes back to live with them, which not only kick-starts Tiff’s apathetic involvement with environmentalism, but also seems to account for the pace of her recollection; like a wallcreeper flitting from nook to cranny, Tiff hops across the story – with short sentences, snatches of stilted dialogue, and nuggets of contradiction. In amongst that, though, are vivid descriptions and flashes of intellectual brilliance – I loved the image of Stephen’s “awkward hands” pawing at her like “the flames around Joan of Arc at the stake”; of a failed affair feeling like “generations of bluesmen whining about women they shot to death”; of grumbling geese sounding like couples squabbling over blankets; and the moment where she stands in the dark “as though rooted to the ground, or rather as though connected to everything around me by guy-wires in three dimensions.” Tiff may be lazy, and a complete freeloader for much of the novel, but she’s pretty sparkling when she wants to be.

The story whizzes past you in a half-realized haze. Stephen and Tiff married after a very short courtship, knowing almost nothing about one another. Tiff immediately quits work and slouches around, sometimes pregnant, sometimes not, avoiding any kind of work other than her extra-marital affairs. Stephen starts out working in R&D, before deciding to pursue his passion for birds and music with bursts of frenetic energy. He has affairs, too, and may or may not be taking significant quantities of drugs. Their lovers guide them towards environmental activism, and Stephen starts working for the Global Rivers Alliance, whilst Tiff decides to free the Elbe and flood the struggling tree reservation nearby by sabotaging the river’s man-made banks. This is all relayed in disjointed snap-shots until entirely unexpectedly, a traditional novel emerges out of the final few pages – when there is suddenly a crisis, signs of self-improvement and intelligent resolution. By the end Tiff has shed her work-shy passivism to become an independent trail-blazer, and her environmentalism suddenly seems real, and coherent. It is brilliant.

It’s also very shrewd about the importance of environmental activism, and the way NGOs hamstring themselves. Without being even vaguely preachy, Tiff morphs from being both a classic consumerist nightmare and a representation of the plundered planet – “I had been treating myself as resources to be mined. Now I know I am the soil where I grow” – into a force for real good. It must be one of the only novels with a genuinely potent political message which includes a line like, “I shrank at the vulgarity of raptures over beauty, nature’s most irrelevant and unnecessary quality.” I love the passage where Stephen, as a representative of the Global Rivers Alliance, slips into a pointless social media wormhole – “His task now was to strike a jaunty pose from which to launch scathing witticisms about the energy industry. Instead of preaching to the converted, he would sit on the couch with them watching the news and make snide remarks. But they still wanted clever new aphorisms every day.”

This is a novel which really shocks you out of apathy. It isn’t easy and isn’t always likeable, but it is seriously clever, and wears its smarts easily. There’s also a feeling of stealth tenderness – Stephen and Tiff don’t treat one another kindly and she almost clinically avoids sentimentality, but the absence of naturally expressed feeling doesn’t prevent it from rippling through the story. I’m sure I’ve missed things and misinterpreted others – it definitely encourages more than one reading – but it is wonderfully different, and certainly fascinating.

the wallcreeper

“Rogue Male” by Geoffrey Household

The behaviour of a rogue may fairly be described as individual, separation from its fellows appearing to increase both cunning and ferocity.

Roger Deakin mentions Rogue Male a number of times throughout Notes from Walnut Tree Farm – I think it would be impossible to finish Deakin’s book without feeling compelled to read Geoffrey Household’s most famous offering at the earliest opportunity.

It is an absolute gem of a novel – with all of the ingredients required for a classic adventure story paired with a fascinating psychological study of the classic British gentleman. The enigmatic hero, who is never named, is clearly the prototype for characters like James Bond; maverick Brits of a certain class who tear up the rule book for the sake of Queen and Country. And yet one of fundamental features of this story is that our man is not motivated by patriotism – he is a true rogue with an independent will. As he says towards the end, “I distrust patriotism; the reasonable man can find little these days that is worth dying for. But dying against – there’s enough iniquity in Europe to carry the most urbane or decadent into battle.” This prototype is arguably more nuanced than any of his later reincarnations, and far more dangerous and intriguing as a result.

The novel – written in the first person, as the hero records his experiences in a notebook – opens with a failed assassination. Our protagonist, half-convinced that he is stalking his prey out of a love of the sport rather than with any intent to kill, is caught aiming his rifle at a European dictator bearing more than a passing resemblance to Adolf Hitler. When he is interrogated by the dictator’s lackeys, he argues that he is nothing more than an eccentric sportsman who wanted to know whether it might be possible to shoot his prey if he so wished; unsurprisingly this doesn’t wash, and our nameless hero is brutally tortured. The scene is entirely left to the imagination and, like all the thrillers, the reader has to conjure the punishments for herself – suffice to say that by the time the hero is hurled from a cliff, one eye is burnt and swollen, his nails have been removed, his fingers crushed, and the masticated flesh of the back of his legs is in a dire state. Rather than dying in the marshland below as his torturers had intended, however, the figure crawls out of the slime like a primordial beast, dragging himself to the safety of some nearby woodland. Through his ingenuity and grit, our man finds himself back in England, now being hunted both by the (let’s call them German) spies, and the English police. Whilst we are not told his name, we know that he is very well known to his countrymen as a result of past exploits in foreign lands – in addition to having a very recognisably wounded eye. He therefore decides that he must go to ground to evade his would-be captors, and chooses Dorset as his refuge.

The plot would be enticing enough; and then there is the quality of the writing itself. Household, speaking through his narrator, is shrewd and full of insight; “I felt I had come home –  a half-melancholy sense of slippered relaxation.”  You, the reader, are invited to play with the idea of espionage, piecing together an image of the protagonist from the scant facts he reveals. We know he is relatively famous, or infamous in England; that he is in his late 30s; that his family home is centuries old, suggesting he is an aristocrat; we know he has travelled widely; and that he likes big-game hunting. These pieces of information are revealed gradually over the course of the novel and as circumstances demand; they are not offered on a plate, but neither are they obscured. The same is true of the protagonist’s thoughts – he is relatively open about his opinions (“A hideous word, hiker. It has nothing to do with the gentle souls of my youth who wandered in tweeds and stout shoes from pub to pub”; “The only periods, I suspect, when a man feels captain of his soul are those when he has not the slightest need of such an organ”), but his motivations are concealed even from him. We do not know why he was aiming a gun at the dictator; he is not an agent of the state, and keeps telling himself that he did not mean to pull the trigger. But, through the course of the novel, and as our man is physically tortured, interrogated, and even buried alive, he accesses feelings he had been suppressing, and in doing so gradually reveals himself to us. “By writing of him I become him for the time.”

I won’t tell you exactly what he discovers about himself as he presses his cold body into a burrow in Dorset, other than to say that it certainly cements his heroic status. What is even better is that, as Robert Macfarlane’s excellent introduction explains, Household’s career during the Second World War almost rivalled his creation’s in resourcefulness and courage.  A rip-roaring, intelligent yarn; thank you, Roger Deakin.

24 July: our chance to protect European wildlife

As you may know, there has never been much specifically British legislation enacted to protect our natural habitats; for a nation which has such a cultural fascination with the English landscape, we don’t have many national laws in place which protect our wildlife. Arguably we shouldn’t need to pass Acts of Parliament in order to make us respect our countryside, but there it is – in the current climate, bolstering conservation with legislation is more important than ever.

The few laws we do have were essentially put in place to enact EU legislation – the Habitats Directive and Birds Directive, specifically, known collective as the EU Nature Directives. Collectively, these pieces of legislation underpin the concepts of protected sites and species protection, and provide a framework for human interaction with European wildlife. Without those laws, British wildlife would be extremely vulnerable.

The EU is currently going through a 12 week review process of the EU Nature Directives, with a view to assessing whether the legislation works and/or whether it is still relevant. There is a very real risk that this REFIT will result in changes being made to those laws – perhaps even resulting in their removal. As commercial interests continue to take precedence over environmental concerns, conservationists throughout Europe fear that the review could lead to a weakening of the protective framework – which could in turn prove to be the thin end of the wedge, leading to the watering down of other key pieces of European legislation. (There are concerns, for example, that changes could have a negative impact on national emissions ceilings.)

The laws aren’t flawless – George Monbiot has recently written a fascinating piece in the Guardian about this (George Monbiot – Nature Directives), which mentions that the protection of upland heather moors is irrational, for example – but notwithstanding these issues, conservationists and wildlife charities all agree on the crucial point that the laws must be protected. If there is not enough public support for them, the REFIT could very well sound the death knell for all the benefits these Directives have to offer.

The Commission is currently running a public consultation on the proposed changes, and we have until 24 July to respond. The Woodland Trust have lots of really helpful information on their website about how and why to respond – it is incredibly easy, and only takes a few minutes: Woods need EU

Many stakeholders will be banking on the fact that the British people don’t care enough to have their say. Please take a look, and respond if you can.

“Me dad planted that tree,” she said absently, pointing out through the old cracked window.
The great beech filled at least half the sky and shook shadows all over the house.
Its roots clutched the slope like a giant hand, holding the hill in place. Its trunk writhed with power, threw off veils of green dust, rose towering into the air, branched into a thousand shaded alleys, became a city for owls and squirrels.
Cider with Rosie, Laurie Lee, Vintage Classics; New Ed edition (1 Nov. 2002)

Further information:


“Notes from Walnut Tree Farm” by Roger Deakin

I read about Notes from Walnut Tree Farm on the excellent So Many Books (So Many Books),and couldn’t wait to get my hands on a copy. Once again, Roger Deakin is one of those writers I can’t believe I’d never come across before – and is yet another reason I’m so delighted I made the decision to start exploring book review blogging earlier this year. So far, it’s led me to Patrick Leigh Fermor; Nick Wood; Gladys Mitchell; and Roger Deakin. That’s some reading list.

For the last six years of his life, Roger Deakin, a writer, broadcaster and passionate advocate of wild-swimming, recorded his thoughts in a series of notebooks. This is a very finely edited collection of those writings, presented as a sequence of entries over the course of a single year. In these notes, Deakin observes the world around him; offers snatches of poetry and philosophy; relives encounters with friends; and muses on the way the habitat around the farm was being transformed by the mania for tidiness in rural areas and the invasion of urbanites in their four-wheel drives. It is a glimpse into a passionate, kind, intelligent, questing mind.

One of the many things I’ve been discovering as I’ve read more non-fiction this year – particularly in relation to travel, wildlife and environmentalism – is how these genres offer such consistently vivid, lyrical prose. It is a vast generalisation, of course, but one which seems to holds true; something about being so bound to the natural world, to paths and trees and wildness, gives the best of these writers an intense acuity. The same is true of the finest cricket writing, by the way – focusing on a tangible, physical narrative offers commentators the freedom to riff over the top of the scene, to describe images with occasionally outrageous sharpness and delight. It is some of the best prose writing I have ever come across, a world of astonishing poetry which is invisible if you dedicate yourself to fiction (as I have tended to do). (Really, I would urge any aspiring writer to read Neville Cardus – even if the game itself isn’t your thing, it’s a complete joy.) I don’t know what Roger Deakin might have felt about the cricket – he mentions in Walnut Farm that he doesn’t know who Phil Tufnell is, so I assume he wasn’t a fan! – but his writing certainly supports my nascent theory. He relishes language and its relationship to the Suffolk wildlife he loved so deeply; combining poetry with a remarkably shrewd eye for detail.

I walk up the field to investigate. Little haloes of stamens’ ruffed courtiers (as all the plantains flower, like tiny courtiers’ ruffs, all bowing and nodding to each other.

Moorhens sound like a cork twisting in a wet bottleneck.

And perhaps my favourite – We pitched the pup-tents side by side on an almost-level sward and slept soundly in the silence under a mackerel-sky perforated by stars.

“Mackerel-sky” – what a perfect image! I’d never come across the description before, but apparently a “mackerel-sky” is a sky dappled with rows of small white fleecy…clouds, like the pattern on a mackerel’s back (Oxford Dictionaries Online). In any case, descriptions like that come think and fast here – sources of rivers are the tear-ducts of the earth; an insect frantically washes its legs like Lady Macbeth – perfect little jewels, the kind of keepsakes you find in Ted Hughes or John Clare, and which compel you to scribble incessantly in the margin, adding stars and exclamation marks.

Notes from Walnut Tree Farm gives a very special insight into Deakin’s curious, irreverent mind. There’s something in the format which fosters real intimacy, lets you feel as though you are making a friend – a bit like reading Montaigne’s essays. The occasionally insights into the fact that he believed his love of conservation came from the death of his father when he was only seventeen are particularly moving, appearing like sudden bolts in the middle of the rippling narrative.

I returned to school still wearing a black armband, as people did in 1960, and my embarrassed friends avoided my eye. It was almost as though I myself had died, so ghostly, so invisible did I feel. Thus did I acquire my sense of loss – a deep-seated feeling that has followed me around all my life and that I’ve never shaken off.

Deakin’s anecdotes, like his descriptions, twinkle on the page, and his boyish enthusiasm runs through the text like an artery. (He makes frequent references to a novel called Rogue Male for example, a classic 1939 thriller which I have now acquired and very much look forward to reading.) One of the things he laments about the many changes to the English countryside is the fact that people no long acknowledge one another when they’re out walking. I will make a point of always doing so from now on, as a way of honouring Deakin, and to attempt to recapture some of the rural spirit he knew we were losing.

Shiny New Books

My review of Vain Shadow by Jane Hervey is in the new edition of the really excellent Shiny New Books; please do take a look! There are lots of wonderful things to be found in this magazine…

Vain Shadow by Jane Hervey