“Pomfret Towers” by Angela Thirkell

Visitors are requested not to ring for their servants between the hours of twelve and one, or six and seven.

“Did you see this?” said Alice, showing it to her new friend.

“Like their cheek,” said the girl, glancing at it. “It’s some mouldy idea of Lord Pomfret’s. He was a vegetarian or a philanderer or something and that’s how it took him.”

Alice, guessing that philanthropist or humanitarian were probably the words in her new friend’s mind, asked if it was out of kindness for servants…

If you’re looking for a jolly festive read, Pomfret Towers would be a fun place to start.

Set in Angela Thirkell’s 1930’s Barsetshire, the novel tells the story of Alice Barton, a terribly shy nineteen year-old  set to attend her first proper house party at the neighbouring Pomfret Towers. A delicate girl who trembles in the presence of dogs and sobs at the very idea of social interaction, Alice is terrified by the prospect – yet with the promise of the support of her brother and closest friends, Sally and Roddy, she girds her loins and sets forth to join the party.

Once she arrives Alice is taken under the wing of a ravishing young actress, Phoebe Rivers, and finds that Society is not nearly as gruesome as she had feared. Indeed, much to Roddy’s chagrin she promptly falls in love with Phoebe’s brother, Julian, a self-important young artist who insists on dragging Alice into corners so that he can Talk about Himself at length, whilst Lady Pomfret becomes convinced that she should instead marry her husband’s young heir, a very kind young man called Giles Foster. Gentle confusion ensures as the young people form attachments, accidentally become engaged to one another, and thwart their parents’ plans.

The only disappointment here is that Alice never really ceases being fairly wet and irritating. Her foray into Society gives her the first glimmers of self-confidence, but she is not a particularly beguiling heroine. That almost becomes irrelevant, however, in light of the wonderful supporting cast of bores; eccentrics; artists; and hearty country types crying “Gad!” at every available opportunity. Julian Rivers is a particularly excellent creation – a handsome, sulky young modernist who bangs on about surrealism, maintains that he is Misunderstood and at one point leaps out of the casement window in a fit of pique. It is a brilliant skewering not only of the Bloomsbury set, but also the kind of narcissistic young poet many of us thought we wanted to fall in love with when we were teenagers.

It is immensely readable, full of light-hearted absurdity, and offers a very happy escape from the EastEnders Christmas special, should one be required!

Pomfret Towers

“Apple Acre” by Adrian Bell

It is a relaxation to sit here and watch the wildness, after a day of order and cultivation; to exercise the power of stillness, that the wild things may come near. There is a pleasure in a well-kept oak wood, and also in the farmer’s little island of wilderness – his plantation. This is a long-neglected estate wood, and here I am in awe of the old, old England, and feel the spirit of the island abbeys, forest-islanded each from each, rejoicing to be alone with God.

There is a deep pleasure to be had in reading the writings of someone entirely content with their life and home. Cider with Rosie is an exquisite window into a since-passed England, described in that famously rich prose, borne out of a profound connection to a childhood home. Apple Acre has the same fundamental love of the English countryside and a contagious sense of peace – entirely at odds with the martial context in which it was written.

During the Second World War Adrian Bell lived in the Suffolk countryside with his wife and three small children. As the entire country returned to subsistence farming, eking out their rations with whatever they could grow, the Bells and their neighbours found themselves thrust back into a very simple way of life. They farmed their land; helped their neighbours; shared clothes; and, though it was borne from the very worst of times, found a kind of joy in this new-ancient rhythm. As the author says in his foreword, I think that, but for the war, they could have been the happiest days of my life.  In essence, Apple Acre is a description of a year in this family’s life, centred on their relationship with the land. In Adrian Bell’s hands, though, and through his wise, poetic voice, a philosophy of living emerges too: you are left with a tender portrait of his family; an intoxicating description of the English countryside; and a feeling that you want to change your own life, too.

I was so moved by this book, by Bell’s appreciation of his countryside and relationship with his family, which colours every page. He obviously delights, in particular, in his children’s voyages around the house and in the garden – he doesn’t romanticise them in the least, but finds the magic in their childhood logic, and the gentle comedy in their mannerisms.  One of his toddling twins, Martin, is frequently described as “strutting” naked around the kitchen – occasionally looking “profoundly wise” – which always made me laugh. The four year-old Anthea stands in her coat and gaiters holding Janet’s hand and facing the big door, waiting for it to be opened. She has formed in an hour such a perfect speechless friendship with Janet that she would walk straight out into the night with her anywhere. When his wife, Nora, and the children have to go to Northumberland for a time, the threat of a Nazi invasion having reached its peak, he doesn’t sentimentalise the separation. He says only that It is sufficient to record that the time passed. To write more is unnecessary, and there is a world of experience buried in this line; the simplicity of this, and the final sentence of the book, nearly brought me to tears.

The poetic quality of Bell’s language is very special. The image of a woman and her young child embalmed in the sunlight; the harvests that gleamed to him from a pint of golden ale; the toddling girl moving about the garden with blossomy gusts of movement; his belief that we are a firmament and have our inward sun – it has that vividly spun Laurie Lee quality, and must surely be one of the finest evocations of a disappearing England.

His philosophies, too, have a strange pertinence and immediacy. More than anything, he regrets the passing of the old ways. He believes that England hides bits of her old craft, deliberately, from the modern world, as though they were a persecuted religion, by putting up a machine-made façade. How wonderful to think of our traditions hidden behind panels, like Catholic Priests in Tudor England, still serving the loyal few. He notes that his farming friends’ sons, who are moving from horse-power to technology, now have to work so much harder than their fathers that they have no time to enjoy the land. He describes the popular feeling that something that has grown should almost be a gift, has cost nothing; I don’t know why. This in particular seems so relevant to our modern lives. He says that Ours is the age of mechanical perfection and therefore a perfect loss of sensibility – industrialisation gutted our traditions and our communities and left nothing in their place. Above all, though – and as I say, his observations seem even more urgent today than they were in 1942 – he is profoundly hopeful. Despite our century of reckless expenditure, he believes that the motley architecture of commerce will pass away; that the power of wind and water could be harnessed again with new skill by men (eerily prescient!); and that we will, eventually, return to working in the light and the air, and find the kind of integrity which was rediscovered by his village during the 1940s. Apple Acre is a hymn addressed to family, nature, and living with the rhythms of the countryside. If only these were the voices we listened to, rather than those that tell us to frack and shop and burn our way through fossil fuels.

I was given this book as a present, and I’m so grateful for it. I hope you enjoy it as much as I have.


Apple Acre

“Climate Change, Capitalism and Corporations” by Christopher Wright and Daniel Nyberg

It is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.*

Internet shopping; social media; consumerism; celebrity TV shows; fast food; cheap air travel…they have all been a part of our lives for so long that it’s increasingly difficult to remember a time when this wasn’t our landscape. Perhaps that’s partly why it seems to be so impossible to ingest the realities of climate change, and what it means for our society – our hyper-materialism has thrived for decades, and scaling back now seems incomprehensible. Things will change – they are changing already – and experts are telling us in unison that we cannot keep consuming natural resources at the same rate. Still, though, action remains elusive.   

Climate Change, Capitalism and Corporations is a brilliantly accessible analysis of the realities of the Anthropocene, and the barriers corporations erect to prevent us from making critically urgent societal changes. In a world which is visibly and dramatically altering as a result of man-made climate change, capitalism remains supported by its trio of carefully constructed, mythical pillars: the idea that we can continue to grow our economies whilst still addressing the climate change crisis; that omnipotent corporations will in fact save us from climate change through technology; and that corporations are essentially citizens of our societies, with a human moral code. As far as corporations are concerned, then, and supported by this mythic infrastructure, climate change need not interrupt “business as usual”.

Successful decoupling (which I mentioned a couple of weeks ago) is shown here to be illusory. Capitalism, the authors say, depends on compound economic growth and, as such, the entire model is based on identifying a hierarchy of resources – humans and carbon are essential, whereas other species are expendable. In order to continue in this vein, and whilst society gradually begins to respond to the threat of climate change, corporations have hijacked the highly emotive dialogue around the crisis with stunning results: rather than being a reason to reduce consumption, climate change is being sold to us as  an “opportunity for growth.” It is, in the minds of corporate managers, a quantifiable risk, which is something to be commoditised, controlled, and converted into profit.

As they continue to try to shape public discourse on climate change, major car manufacturers and fossil fuel companies have spent the past few years refining their brands to buy themselves social legitimacy, whilst in the background, creating “an echo chamber of climate change denial” by engaging with the right-wing media, and funding incredibly damaging campaigns. In one section, for example, the authors note that, In 2012, the Heartland Institute, which is funded by the fossil fuel industry, even ran a billboard campaign associating those who believe in climate change with mass murderers, juxtaposing a mugshot of Unabomber Ted Kaczinsky with the tag line: “I still believe in global warming. Do you?” It’s an outrageous, and so far highly successful, hypocrisy.

There are so many fascinating arguments here. In the context of an issue which can seem overwhelming, I particularly liked how the authors focused on the impact this conversation has on individuals – especially those who hold sustainability roles within corporations. In order to function both as an employee and an agent of change, managers cling on to their rational business arguments: specifically, the fact that a greener economy creates exciting space for growth. “Green” arguments are stripped of legitimacy in the board room, but if a sustainability manager can show that recycling is good for business, then she has a chance of effecting change. At home, the same individuals may be passionate advocates for environmentalism, but at work, their arguments need to be tempered by this apparent rationality and corporate loyalty. Wearing these different hats is exhausting, and it also leaves individuals with a lack of identity coherence. We are “meaning-seeking” creatures and like to be able to view ourselves as having integrity. Until acting to curb climate change is recognised in and of itself as being for the public good, without corporate carve-outs, there may be a limit on the number of people who manage successfully to work a response to the crisis into their own personal narratives – which is precisely what is needed.

It is also intriguing and hugely frustrating, that, as Nyberg and Wright say, we happily grant corporations a civic status – they are legal “people” with rights and obligations, and by implication, a supposed moral duty to abide by our societal ethics – but that nature has been denied the same respect. When Christopher Stone argued in Should Trees Have Standing that entities such as forests, oceans and rivers, along with the natural environment as a whole, should be safeguarded through inclusion in the civic sphere, the claim failed because rights for natural objects proved too strange. In short, conferring rights on the ocean seems eccentric, whereas turning companies into “people” is uncontroversial. I was relieved, then, that the authors go on to reference a tribunal in New Zealand which recently recognised a river as a legal entity, echoing analogous initiatives in Bolivia and Ecuador, where constitutional amendments have included specific rights for the environment.” It is entirely ludicrous to confer such a civic personality upon finance-driven corporate structures whilst withholding the same rights from the natural resources we depend upon; particularly when free trade agreements like TTIP  go so far as to give companies the right to sue national governments for adopting environmental policies which threaten their bottom line. Ecocide should surely be made an international crime without any more delay.

This is a brilliant book, clearly and engagingly written, offering fascinating perspectives on a terrifying crisis. For anyone who has already read This Changes Everything, this is a perfect follow-up – and like Naomi Klein, the authors end here with a road-map for change; albeit one which acknowledges how much damage we have already done: Extreme weather events, record heat, the melting Arctic, and acidifying oceans lay bare the folly of advocating “solutions” in the strictest sense. There will be no silver bullet. There will be no heroic, cure-all act of salvation. Our only hope is damage limitation.

“A Philosophy of Walking” by Frédéric Gros

When you walk, the basso continuo of joy comes from feeling the extent to which the body is made for this movement, the way it finds each pace the resource for the next.

Anyone who loves long, tiring walks probably already has any instinctive appreciation of why the process is so satisfying. It’s something to do with the rhythm; the physical endeavour; the distance from telephones and schedules. I’d always enjoyed being outside, and exercise, but over the past few years I’ve found that long walks are the only way I ever really get close to shedding the burden of work. Walking has become something of a necessity. I wrote about this back in the summer, when Neil and I had just finished Hadrian’s Way; as I said then, for a few days everything slips away in the rhythm of the trail, and the modern demand for distraction is replaced by attention to maps and stiles and aching feet.

In A Philosophy of Walking, Frédéric Gros interrogates that sensation, and isolates the pleasures to be found in a long walk. Interwoven in his gentle philosophizing are histories of some of the most famous walkers and the impact it had on their lives, art and politics: Nietzsche, Rimbaud, Rousseau, Wordsworth, Thoreau and Gandhi. None of them are figures I know a great deal about, but I enjoyed Gros’ exploration of their lives through the prism of their walking. I can only imagine that the book would be even more pleasurable if you had an existing interest in any of these men. (It would have been interesting to include a woman’s story here, too – someone like Robyn Davidson, perhaps.)

For me, the book struck an ideal balance between ratifying feelings I was already half-aware of, and introducing me to entirely new people and ideas. He begins, for example, by explaining the tantalizing anonymity of walking. By walking you escape from the very idea of identity, the temptation to be someone, to have a name and a history. Being someone is all very well for smart parties where everyone is telling their story, it’s all very well for the psychologists’ consulting rooms. But isn’t being someone also a social obligation which trails in its wake – for one has to be faithful to the self-portrait – a stupid and burdensome fiction? That expresses it perfectly – it isn’t that walking is a kind of self-abnegation, more that the “selves” you require day to day become surplus to requirement, like the extra jumper you thought you ought to pack for the journey. It’s a relief to shed job-titles and status-updates, and by extension the labels people may use to define you at home. In Wild Cheryl Strayed doesn’t travel as a griever, a daughter or a divorcee – she is a walker, and the process of leaving those identities by the side of the trail is her salvation. When you encounter fellow-walkers, they don’t care what you do, what your circumstances are, or even if you’re happy. They just want to know how far you’ve come, if there’s a camp-site ahead, or somewhere to get food.

There is a playful, rebellious political undercurrent here, too. In a consumer-driven world, one of the most shocking things an individual can do is to strip their life back to the essentials. Like Patrick Leigh Fermor striding across Europe with nothing but some books, a walking stick and a limited supply of clothes, walking necessitates simplicity. Just below the useful, there is necessary, as Gros says. In one chapter, Gros explains just how subversive a figure the urban flâneur can be: because in the world of crowds and merchandise, he does nothing other than look – he subverts solitude, speed, dubious business politics and consumerism. A walk may last a few hours, a few days, a few weeks – but in that time, you are doing nothing other than move, sleep, and eat. You can step away from the grindstone, your wallet, and your status, and rediscover the wild.

If walking is subversive for the flâneur, it was also the ideal means of protest for Gandhi. In 1930, at the age of sixty and after years of failing to overthrow the rule of Empire through his entirely peaceful methods, he decided to march to the coast to collect salt. For years, Gros says, the British had held a monopoly over salt. There was even recourse to destruction of deposits when natural salt was found close to populations who might take it for their own use. Salt: a free gift from the sea, a humble but indispensable foodstuff. It was an obvious injustice, and Gandhi decided to use it as a symbolic destination for a long journey. This is a particularly beautiful, and timely chapter; ahead of the launch of COP21 this week, hundreds of thousands of people around the world took to the streets to demonstrate how important an issue climate change is to them. The legacy of Gandhi’s peaceful march lives on in moments like this, where walking takes on a particular significance.

Gros’ book put something I enjoy very much into a fascinating new context. The best way I can think to describe it is to say that it reminded me of the way in which the Greeks have different words for love – and in that way, the most simple of things can acquire a myriad of different meanings.

“Grief is the Thing with Feathers” by Max Porter

A book about grief, published by Faber, part-grafted onto the mythology of Ted Hughes “Crow” – I was very excited indeed when my copy of Grief is the Thing with Feathers finally arrived. Since I first bought a copy of The Birthday Letters when I was about fifteen, desperately lost in the poetry section of a bookshop, trying to look knowledgeable and seizing an ice-blue collection I’d never heard of, I have loved Ted Hughes. I’ve spent hours poring over those poems; I wrote about him in my finals when everything else eluded me; and now, as I’m finally beginning to take a real interest in the natural world, his are the words which accompany me. Max Porter, though, is a next-level Hughes fan. I may have a picture postcard of Ted Hughes pinned to my wall at work, but he has taken Hughes’ “crow” and turned him into a puckish, violent, sentimental guardian in his debut novel, leading a young family through the first throes of hopeless grief and back into the light.

I’ve called it a novel, but I’m not sure that’s necessarily accurate. The slim volume is really a hybrid of prose fiction; poetry; fable; essay; and a kind of sparse, talking-head dialogue. Divided into three short sections, Grief is the Thing with Feathers begins just after the death of a young mother. Her husband is left in their London home with their two young sons, trying to write a book about Hughes whilst also coping with the agony of loss and the perversity of everyday life continuing around him. Into this chaos marches Crow – the embodiment of Hughes’ vision, a foul carrion bird determined to carry the family through their grief: I won’t leave until you don’t need me anymore, Crow promises. He is a brutal, hilarious, sentimental creation, nursing the boys through their sorrow like a perversion of Mary Poppins, and haunting their father like a kind of tender poltergeist.

Porter has made it clear that his book is inspired by rather than wedded to Hughes’ Crow, and you don’t need any familiarity with the poems to appreciate Grief is the Thing with Feathers. Perhaps it adds to the mythology, though to know that Crow was first conceived as Hughes’ visceral response to Plath’s suicide,  and that, like Porter’s Crow, he lives in the shades of death, fable, guilt and love, searching for something female. He gripped her hard so that life/ Should not drag her from that moment/ He wanted all future to cease….

The story is told from the three perspectives of “Dad”, “Boys” and “Crow”, and their voices intertwine as the strange family navigate loss together. It is at once grounded in a shockingly funny, jet-black comedy, and also drifting in a kind of timeless semi-psychosis. Which makes it feel vital, and incredibly real – because grief is fragmenting and can make you lose your grip on reality, but it also lives in the every day. The practical shock that she won’t ever use (make-up turmeric, hairbrush, thesaurus) and that She will never finish (Patricia Highsmith novel, peanut butter, lip balm) is as shocking as the dream-like passage in which the boys sprint downstairs to open the door to a demon who feeds on grief, chambers of the baffled  baby hearts filled with yearning. And the comedy – mainly supplied by Crow – is perfect. Crow, we learn, likes history books, is composing a memoir, and has nightmares about singing like a blackbird. In one passage, as Dad tries to articulate the depth of his loss (concluding that The whole city is my missing her), Crow accuses him of sounding like a fridge magnet. It’s how, eventually, we recover – finding the ability to laugh at ourselves as we make ourselves ridiculous, even in the depths of despair.

It is essentially a cruel, violent process. No-one is spared here. Crow tells Dad that if his wife were a ghost, she certainly wouldn’t be wailing in the cupboards and corners of this house, or mooching about bemoaning the loss of her motherhood – no, she would have side-stepped her husband to find herself in the golden days of her childhood. In one fairy-tale re-imagining of their plight, the porcine King (Dad) tells his unruly Princes (the Boys) that their mother was certainly not the friend-of-a-friend I called Queen. The boys fight and bleed and mock their father, Crow weeps and is cooked alive. Grief is wild and uncontrollable. The family, though, are also resilient and gentle with one another, until hopelessness is replaced by long-term grief – which they will carry all their lives, but which is manageable, and will not stop them rediscovering joy. Finally, when Crow eventually takes his leave, you feel as though you can hear their mother’s voice, just for a moment, in his tender parting advice. Horror is eventually replaced by kindness, and the worst is behind them.

It’s an exquisite, agonising, wonderfully funny book, staring grief in the eye with an ego-less intelligence and humanity. There is even a cameo from Hughes himself. I couldn’t have hoped for anything more.

Crow_(poem)Grief is the thing with feathers

“Tisala” by Richard Seward Newton

One of my favourite passages in Wildwood is the description of the language of jackdaws. Deakin says that one of the books that inspired him as a child was Konrad Lorenz’s King Solomon’s Ring, and that in his favourite chapter, Lorenz begins to learn the language of jackdaws. The cry “kiaw”, he says, is uttered by dominant jackdaws to urge the flock homewards. When a marten broke into the aviary at Lorenz’s home and killed all but one of the jackdaws, the lone survivor sat all day on the weathervane and sang. The dominant theme of her song, repeated over and over, was “Kiaw,” “Come back, oh, come back.” It was a song of heartbreak.

In Tisala, Richard Seward Newton attempts to portray something like this on a massive scale. A young biologist called David finds himself alone on a remote Scottish island, supposedly studying the local deer population for his PhD. One evening when he is rowing around his island, he notices a disturbance in the water nearby. He assumes it’s a shoal of fish, and then, when he sees the curve of a huge back, perhaps a basking shark. It is only when he catches a flash of blue slate that he realises he is looking at a blue whale. In a frenzy of excitement David greets the whale, which circles around his small boat in curiosity. The pair meet again the next night, and the night after that, until it becomes clear that the whale is trying to communicate with David. After months of trying and with the use of scientific equipment, the pair finally manage to strike up a conversation which shapes the rest of their lives.

The idea is a fascinating one; and as a history of one of the more brutal, unsustainable methods used by humans to exploit the natural world, I can’t think that Tisala has many rivals. The author’s knowledge of the whaling industry over the centuries is vast, and related in a very accessible, devastating way. Interwoven with this is the whale, Tisala’s, own story – a narration of how the world he knew has been destroyed by centuries of relentlessly cruel hunting, and his quest to save his species from extinction. Like the jackdaws, Tisala is anthropomorphized, and clearly experiences profound grief. In particular, he is bewildered by the fact that what he calls the genocide of his species was in part motivated by the need to provide whalebone for hats and corsets, and latterly, to make cheap food for cattle. And David can find no justification.

From a philosophical and historical point of view, the novel has a lot to recommend it. I had had a vague knowledge of whaling (gleaned mostly from Moby Dick…) and understood from occasional news articles that, much like EU fishing quotas, the IWC struggled with enforceability. I learnt a great deal more here, though; and I can appreciate the value of trying to look at human behaviour through the lens of another species.

That being said, I did have a number of reservations. First, I think there is a danger in over-sentimentalising and anthropormorphising animals as a way of persuading humans not to harm them. It may well be that cetaceans grieve as profoundly as we do, and it is almost certainly true that most of us at least have almost no understanding of the language, emotional intelligence and societal structures of other species. That, though, cannot be the main argument for preserving biodiversity. Although it’s beguiling, it seems dangerous to rank species relative to how like humans they are – the reduction in the number of Antarctic krill is no less worthy of our attention, for example. The catastrophic destruction of whale populations as a direct result of human activity is shameful and very easy to feel enraged by, and to mourn – I cried plenty during reading this book – but we shouldn’t just conserve wildlife because its destruction is distressing. There is a moment in the book when Tisala accuses humans of destroying miracles you do not even see. It’s a very quotable line, and one that resonated. Of course we should question the ethics of the ways in which we treat the natural world – but surely we will have a better chance of protecting it if we stop using human characteristics as a yardstick to measure a species’ value by.

I also really struggled to connect with the human characters in the novel. Tisala, with his rumbling laugh and keen intelligence, is beautifully drawn, and I’d say the novel’s real success. David, though, occasionally makes odd, inexplicable missteps – early on, for example, he describes the marital successes of various types of girl in a bizarrely sexist way: the timid, plainer and conventional girls are given a chance at parties to establish their often kind and competent qualities, which enable them to win a husband; but woe betide the girls who, having played the game too long or with too much looseness, choosiness or pride, remained unmarried…and on party nights [would] apply more make-up with creeping apprehension. I couldn’t quite believe it. In the context of this vast novel it’s perhaps unfair of me to focus on such a fleeting moment – but it’s alienating, and is the sort of sweeping, slightly unthinking language which bought me up short, and meant I struggled to empathise with David. Essentially there are times when the language just lost its fluency, and seemed unnatural.

For me, it was also far too long. It’s such an interesting idea, but I felt as though it could have been pared down to its core components – Tisala, whaling, and the need for humans to reconsider the way they treat the natural world. A great deal of the book is given over to David and Tisala’s extended conversations on education, and population size, and warfare, for example – and I can appreciate why, as Tisala functions almost like an aquatic Montaigne, holding a mirror up to human life. For me, though, there was just too much – I couldn’t switch between the brutal, compelling story of Tisala’s family to these esoteric conversations; and in the effort of trying to do so, I lost the story’s rhythm.

Overall, I’m pleased I found Tisala. It talks about things I’m very interested in in an inventive and thoughtful way; it never quite captivated me, and from time to time the style or an opinion jarred, but as an impassioned record of a brutal industry, it is a very interesting book.

“The Spectre of Alexander Wolf” by Gaito Gazdanov

When Stanley Kubrick lived near Cambridge (or so the story goes), he apparently used to pay English Literature undergraduates to send him summaries of novels so that he could mine for material to be adapted for his movies. His classic films are all based on diverse, and generally superb, works of literature: Lolita; Traumnovelle (which became Eyes Wide Shut); Barry Lyndon; A Clockwork Orange; The Shining….It’d be fascinating to know whether he ever came across A Spectre of Alexander Wolf, as it feels very much like the sort of story he would have turned into a cult classic.

The story begins during the Russian Civil War, with an exhausted sixteen year old narrator who has accidentally been separated from his unit in the Steppe. The boy stumbles across a black mare whose owner has been killed: he has not slept for thirty hours, and is desperately tired. Suddenly, as he is riding along a deserted road, the animal is shot and tumbles to the earth, and the boy hears “the dry sobbing of hooves against the cracked earth.” A second rider appears on a magnificent white horse, and takes aim at the narrator with his rifle. The boy fires his own weapon in instinctive self-defence, and, he believes, kills the soldier. Seizing the white horse he speeds away when he hears the sound of approaching riders, tortured by the idea that he has now become a murderer.

Many years later when he is living in Paris, the narrator stumbles across a novel written by a man called Alexander Wolf, which contains a chapter called “The Adventure in the Steppe”. Eerily, the chapter tells the story of a soldier shot during the Russian civil war in precisely the same circumstances as those experienced by the narrator when he was sixteen. Evidently his victim did not die, and the narrator becomes obsessed by the idea of finding Wolf – the man he still feels as though he murdered. What follows is a terse, unique psychological thriller – at times reminiscent of the Freudian Traumnovelle, whilst also having something of the cool, deadly film noir about it – and as he unfurls the tightly-coiled plot, Gazdanov also finds time to explore the complex interplay of love, death, guilt, and fate.

It is an addictive, dense little volume, and takes on some enormous questions with deft flair and intelligence. Can we ever really avoid our fate? Is life only truly appreciated in the face of death? Is it possible to live with profound guilt and still be happy? Can our physical and mental worlds ever exist in harmony? What does it mean to be in love?

I mention Traumnovelle not just because of the Kubrick idea, but also because there is something unreal – spectral – about every character in the story. The narrator’s lover makes every movement with languid delay; one man is a morphine addict; and the narrator constantly feels as though he is living in some kind of nightmarish fantasy.

I was still unable to rid myself of the impression that this evening stroll had been a patent fantasy, as though in the habitual quiet of my imagination I had been walking around a strange, unfamiliar city, alongside the spectre haunting this long, uninterrupted dream.

There is even a vague suggestion that he and Wolf are one person, or at least Uncanny Freudian doubles in some way – split by that moment when the narrator pulled the trigger: “In other words, the fate of Alexander Wolf interested me because I too, had suffered my whole life from an extraordinarily persistent and indomitable case of split personality, one that I had tried to fight and that had poisoned my happiest hours.”

This hyper-thoughtful prose very deliberately places the physical and psychological at odds with one another – which I would say is one of the novel’s most self-consciously effective flourishes. His mysterious lover “existed independently of her surroundings”; as if her physical and inner lives were somehow disconnected. The narrator talks about being compelled to pursue her in such a way as to render the external circumstances of his life powerless – he talks about the “whole silent melody of skin and muscle” as he hands her into the taxi, a tangibility which exists independently of the fated impulse which forces him to call on her a few days later. Again, it’s dreamlike – bodies moving sluggishly to a rhythm at odds with the intention of the minds controlling them. Limbs and intelligence living in contradiction, but both ultimately controlled by fate: on one level this is how the novel itself operates – beautifully articulated musings on life’s contradictions interspersed with vivid, sensuous descriptions of the world the narrator lives in:

Whenever I opened the window for a moment to flick the ash off my cigarette, the intense patter of raindrops falling on leaves would bore into my ears; there was the smell of earth and damp tree trunks.

Living life versus thinking about what it means to be alive – the two threads are balanced so brilliantly (and perhaps with a touch of the split personality the narrator believes he suffers from) that this operates both as a gripping page turner, and a truly thought-provoking meditation on what it is to be human, and mortal. In a literal sense, it means you experience the kind of physical discombobulation assigned to the characters – wanting to zip through the pages to find out what will happen next, whilst also needing to stop to chew over what’s being said. What a stylish book, beautifully published by Pushkin.

the spectre of alexander wolf

(I should also note that I was prompted to read this novel by an excellent review on Tales from the Reading Room! https://litlove.wordpress.com/2015/08/18/back-to-life/)

“Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees” by Roger Deakin

Reading Notes From Walnut Tree Farm led me, joyfully, to Rogue Male
– one of the best adventure novels I’ve read (and a great movie, too, with Peter O’Toole at his electrifying best). Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees has been similarly lavish in terms of new introductions. I had never heard of the artists David Nash or John Wolseley before, for instance, and am now desperate to see their work in person after Deakin’s tantalizing descriptions. (I may have to wait until Christmas to get my hands on one of the beautiful collaborative books John Wolseley has published in recent years – they’re a bit too dear for an impulse purchase, sadly). In the best way possible, it’s one of those books that makes you wonder what on earth you’ve been looking at all these years – I wanted to absorb every image, and know I will read it many times again, luxuriating in the detail.

Wildwood is divided into four sections (Roots, Sapwood, Driftwood and Heartwood) all of which meander through a series of lightly linked vignettes. The artery running through the book, of course, is bursting with trees. Structured rather like one of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s adventures, Deakin takes you from the woodland of his childhood (where the finely named Biology Teacher, Barry Goater, first inspired his love of nature), through the rich, pagan, tree-bound traditions of the British Isles, and then onwards to Australia and Central Asia. Every page is overflowing with fascinating ecological facts, romantic tradition, natural beauty, and his sharply observant, delighted writing style. I imagine Deakin himself must have been one heck of a teacher.

With fluid ease, as if exploring the tributaries of a wooded river, he introduces the greenman of English folklore; artists such as Nash and Wolseley; poets like Ted Hughes; walnut-gatherers in Kyrgyzstan; and aboriginal fruit-pickers in Australia. His international cast, linked by a web of shared botanical knowledge and friendship, reveal the shared traditions of woodland. Each of them experience it in his or her own way – the journey through the Australian bush in search of fruit is very different to the image of a group of lepidopterists gathering in the Essex darkness to look for moths – but there are common themes. Time – freedom – knowledge – community – mythology.

And interspersing the descriptions of woodland with references to his artist friends ensures that you experience his travels in a very visual, and at times almost metaphysical way. In the Australian section, for example, I was very much reminded of the surreal visuals of the 1971 film “Walkabout”; a series of images punctuated by Wolseley’s charred, grey-brown visions of the bush. In the sections talking about the wild walnut forests in Kyrgyzstan, it was as though I was reading about one of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s dream-like experiences. The descriptions of the stone and wooden henges in Britain are rich with visual ritual – patinas of history layered over one another in rock and wood, as people commemorated the dead or celebrated the living for thousands of years. And in talking about David Nash’s wooden boulder, Deakin writes:

I sense that perhaps Wooden Boulder has become an alter-ego for Nash: it’s unfolding story part of his life, the restless thing itself an embodiment of his soul….There is a mythic feel to the story of Wooden Boulder. An artist turns a tree into a boulder, which miraculously floats and swims its way over many years towards the sea, where it rolls over like a seal and seems to disappear.

Sitting side by side with that poetic sense of the importance of woodland are very practical explanations. He talks about Nikolai Vavilov (I’ve just been learning about Vavilov centres as part of my environmental studies A-level, so that was exciting), the evolution of the domestic apple, the reason leaves change colour in autumn and the way forests marshal humidity. Which means that your mind is constantly stimulated – a breakdown of photosynthesis here, descriptions of grieving birds there…what a treasure trove.

“When a marten broke into the roosting aviary at Altenberg and killed all but one of his jackdaw flock, the lone survivor sat all day on the weathervane and sang. The dominant theme of her song, repeated over and over, was “Kiaw”, “Come back, oh, come back. It was a song of heartbreak.”

The ready comparison which kept rolling about as I made my way through Wildwood (much like David Nash’s elusive wooden boulder) is to Ted Hughes’ poetry, which Deakin refers to on a number of occasions. Hughes is never just writing as a poet – his verse is layered with identities and visions. He is a naturalist; an anthropologist; a seer; a bird; and a lover. It gives his writing a sense of being suspended above time, and lends Hughes as poet a kind of eternal wisdom. Deakin feels the same, somehow. All of life is reflected in these pages. If anyone could convince you to immerse yourself in nature and its preservation, it’s Roger Deakin.

“Death of an Avid Reader” by Frances Brody

I came across Frances Brody on Tales from the Reading Room a couple of weeks’ ago, and had an inkling she might offer a welcome spot of light relief. I’ve raced through Death of an Avid Reader over the past few days – it was just what I hoped it would be; a cosy, pleasurable whodunnit with some splendid characters.

This is one of the most recent novels in an established series, but Brody gets you up to speed quickly, and with ease. Kate Shackleton is our heroine: a former VAD Nurse who lost her husband during the First World War, she now works as a private detective in Leeds with her stalwart friend Mr Sykes. As the novel opens, Kate is asked by one Lady Coulton to track down her daughter, Sophia, born out of wedlock many years ago and raised by the younger sister of Lady Coulton’s nanny. Lady Coulton had received sporadic updates about her child, until they stopped in 1911 – all she knows is that Sophia was raised in Scarborough, and that her adoptive parents were fishmongers.

The plot thickens when Kate is then asked to attend a blessing at Leeds Library, where she is a respected member of the board – apparently the basement has been the victim of hauntings for many years, and the deputy librarian has summoned a local priest to rid the place of any evil spirits. When Kate heads to the library to meet the the chosen priest on a cold, miserable night, she stumbles across the body of her friend, Dr. Horatio Potter, sprawled in the basement beneath a pile of books. Her search for Sophia becomes embroiled in the ensuing murder investigation, and the story swiftly becomes populated with thieves, lawyers, academics, missing girls, and, naturally, a monkey.

The novel gallops along at an enjoyable pace, and the characterisations and visual details are excellent – “She bustled towards me, being a person who walks like a crowd, dangerously swinging her string bag full of borrowed books into the thigh of a passing businessman.” It doesn’t quite have the nail-biting denouement of an Agatha Christie, or the wonderful, period madness of Gladys Mitchell, but still, I found myself returning to Kate’s quest eagerly at the end of each day. It is, essentially, a very comfortable book – the novel equivalent of sitting by a roaring fire with a buttered crumpet. And that’s not to detract from the skilful plotting – Brody links the two mysteries superbly. The true test, I suppose, is that I’ve just ordered the next book in the series: I very much look forward to following Kate on another adventure soon.  Death of an Avid Reader

“The Shepherd’s Life: A Tale of the Lake District” by James Rebanks

James Rebanks (well known to his Twitter followers as @herdyshepherd1) shepherds Herdwick sheep in the Lake District, in an area which has been home to his family for countless generations. The Shepherd’s Life is his record of that world; one which is tramped across by droves of tourists like me every year who have, post-Wordsworth, viewed it through a very different lens to the families who work there. Part family history; part diary; part portrait of an ancient and still-mysterious way of life; and part lesson on the importance of seeing our countryside as more than just an aesthetic treasure, this is a hugely enjoyable, and often humbling, read.

Rebanks mentions the Odyssey early on as one of the few works of literature he took to as a child (I remember loving the bit about Odysseus and his men clutching to the bellies of his giant fat sheep to escape the One-Eyed-Giant’s Cave), and his own story has echoes of Odysseus. Like Homer’s mercurial hero, Rebanks is a man who is bound to his home by an unbreakable cord. He is “hefted” to the fells, and needs the passing of the seasons and the proximity to his animals to feel like himself. As he tells us the arch of his life – from a childhood spent working with his father and grandfather; the troubled years spent at a school he leaves with no qualifications; the first, difficult years of working with his father on the farm; and eventually his spell at Oxford University – Rebanks lays out before you his rock-solid sense of self. Like any wandering hero, he closes the book with nostos, a declaration of self-knowledge and that fierce sense of belonging – This is my life. I want no other.

He doesn’t romanticise the difficulties of shepherding in the least – there are heart-breaking descriptions of the devastation wrought by foot and mouth disease and its mishandling, for example, images of blood, loss and grief – but it’s impossible not to feel an envy for such a bond with a place. There can’t be many people who can claim to come from such a rooted family and profession, but he explains those ties to his farm in the most accessible, thoughtful way – and, after a brief spell in London, with an understanding of why the rest of us head for the hills whenever we can:

I didn’t know anyone in London, and I never wanted to be there. This was not how my life was meant to be, but needs must. It was as if the gods were showing me how tough everyone else’s lives were, and what I had left behind. I understood for the first time why people wanted to escape to places like the Lake District.

Modern life impels us to travel; to find work far from home; to accumulate and spend. Many of us (myself included) are almost entirely detached from the reality of where our food comes from (as an aside, this is a fantastic piece on that idea: http://www.monbiot.com/2015/10/05/on-bullshit/), and the management of farmland and its consonant policies are, Rebanks says, handled by an urban government. In that context – and with things like rewilding; climate change; and conservation in mind – Rebanks springs from the page like a hybrid, ancient/modern prophet; one who tweets about shepherding, whilst carrying the torch for an egalitarian, physical, historic profession. Again, this comes across as a kind of obvious wisdom rather than any sentimental idea of rural living – but as he says, just once, we may well need to reacquaint ourselves with these kinds of skills if we can’t find a way to moderate our extractivism.

Running through the book like a spine of steel are three generations of Rebanks men: our author; his father (known to the family as The Loose Canon); and his grandfather, whom he idolises. All three of them share an unshakeable work ethic and moral code; if a neighbour needs help with his sheep, it’s given without question. If it turns out that a man has overpaid for a tup or a ewe at a fair, then the money must somehow surreptitiously be returned to him at the first opportunity, without anyone losing face. There is a brilliant description at the beginning of the book when it’s time for “the gathering”, and all the shepherds in the area turn up with their dogs at 5 am one morning to move the sheep from the fells – it’s described like a military campaign, with every woman, man and sheepdog working hard for the good of the community and to maintain personal pride. It’s stirring stuff, but none of it is sugar-coated – the three Rebanks men are hot-tempered, intelligent and stubborn, and often argue over what’s best for their land. Arguments aside, the book reads like a love letter to those two titanic figures in his life – they will, Rebanks is sure, take on the mythic qualities of the men and women in their family who have gone before them, and their stories will still be told by generations to come, in the oral tradition of their community (there’s Homer again, creeping in).

She [Rebanks’ grandmother] loved to talk about him after he had died. And he glowed in those stories, like some great dead king.

The language is another of the book’s great pleasures. Rebanks explains that the commands used by a shepherd in the Lake District today would be recognised by a shepherd in Sweden; in the same way that You could bring a Viking man to stand on our fell with me and he would understand what we were doing and the basic pattern of our farming year. It is rich, practical, and full of history. I love the idea of being “hefted” to a piece of land (a lamb is hefted when it becomes attached to an area of upland pasture); the writing is full of references to tups, ewes, stints, mowdies, and gaeblics. Neil would generally elect to spend a holiday in the UK rather than abroad, on the grounds that there is already so much to explore here – and this certainly proves his point. It’s so easy to march across the countryside without listening, and remembering to look for something other than a pretty view. What Rebanks demonstrates so beautifully is that there are ancient parallel universes on own small island; entirely “foreign” ecosystems, languages and cultures which have been living side by side for centuries, without really recognising one another. I sincerely hope his world survives for another six hundred years, hidden in the fells.