Category Archives: Reviews

Eight books I loved this year

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Two missing! (one on loan, one on Kindle)

I started 2018 with grand plans to keep good records and review every book I read this year. As usual, that lasted till about half way through February, so my year-end round-up of books I loved reflects those that really made an impact.

In no particular order, they are:

Icebreaker: a voyage far north
Horatio Clare’s account of life aboard a Finnish ice-breaking ship, busily keeping the Bay of Bothnia navigable to shipping during the long winter months, made me pine for the fjords. Something about Clare’s descriptions of the stoic and gloomy crew, the splendour of the ice and the implacable nature of the ship’s life appealed to me. Anyway, it may help to explain why I’m heading to Helsinki on Saturday to spend Christmas in the snow.

Golden Hill
It took me a while to get around to Francis Spufford’s rollicking novel of 18th century New York. I’d read about how beautifully it was written, how precisely it conjured the pioneering spirit of early Manhattan, how well it was researched… but I don’t remember anyone pointing out how side-clutchingly funny it was. Perhaps if they had, I’d have jumped in earlier. I adored it from start to finish, for its audacity, wit and precision.

Circe
Madeleine Miller’s retelling of the myth of the sorceress Circe was my stand-out novel of the year. It represents an enormous feat of imagination, conjuring a whole pantheon of gods and goddesses from the ancient world and bringing them to urgent, vivid life. Miller does not just make us believe in magic, in immortals. She makes us feel the pain of immortality, the toll that magic takes. I was so immersed in the world she created, I didn’t want to leave. For the first time in years, I read the last page then turned again immediately to the beginning.

Milkman
Anna Burns’ Booker Prize winner plunges you straight into the heart of 1970s Belfast, with its unwritten (but unbreakable) rules. The voice of the unnamed 18-year-old girl who tells the story is wholly original, striking and funny and alive with cadence and lilt. The density of the prose reflects the stifling conformity of the time and place, where the impossible is normal and what the outside world thinks is normal doesn’t apply. As someone who remembers the troubles only as a depressing and frightening backdrop on television news, this was a sometimes shocking glimpse into how it must have felt to grow up in the heart of it.

Against the Grain: a deep history of the earliest states
Big ideas and a big book from James C Scott. Deep history, the far-away origins of our species and how we may have lived, fascinates me. And this book gets down to the nitty-gritty, the ways we lived before states, before taxation, before parliaments and leaders, before we settled by the rivers to grow grain. Scott persuasively explains how the standard view of a steady progress from hunter-gatherer nomadism to settled agriculture and grain production was anything but steady. People, he asserts, were remarkably reluctant to settle down and till the fields. Indeed, city walls tended to be designed to keep people in, rather than repel invaders. The links between grain and taxation, war and surpluses, livestock and disease, are all explored in intriguing detail. A book to make you think differently.

Strange Labyrinth: outlaws, poets, mystics, murderers and a coward in London’s great forest.
Will Ashton was a delightful guide to this personal and whimsical memoir/history/travel book about Epping Forest. I spent a lot of time in Epping Forest this summer in preparation for leading a Refugee Tales walk of 120 people into and out of the woods. Happily we made it through without having to bunk up in the trees for the night. Knowing a little about some of the folk who had lived in the forest before, including poet John Clare and sculptor Jacob Epstein, brought fresh interest to every walk.

Life After Life
Kate Atkinson is fast becoming my favourite novelist of English life. This novel reminds us, time after time and life after life, of the delicacy of the thread on which every life hangs, the tiny decisions that turn fate one way or another. Mordantly funny at times, it’s also achingly sad as Atkinson repeatedly takes the world she has carefully constructed for us in its minute, precise detail and shakes it like a snow-globe. Despite the cleverness of the central conceit, and the way it insists on its own fictitiousness, it doesn’t pull its emotional punches. The opening chapter is a masterclass in how to start a story.

The Dark is Rising
About this time last year, I noticed a thread starting on Twitter, launched by nature writer Robert Macfarlane. People were reading or re-reading Susan Cooper’s creepy children’s book, The Dark is Rising, starting on December 22, the midwinter darkest day and finishing (as the novel does) on January 6. I hadn’t read the book before. It was something else – part-pagan, part-parable, a descent into the darkness and a struggle back into the light. The natural world is depicted with delicate menace. The uncanny is everywhere, in the way that early dusk can bring on the shivers in familiar lanes, or a blanket of snow makes everything unknowable. As the darkness wheels round again, I’m thinking of re-reading it this year, a companion into the Finnish night.

 

 

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A midwinter ramble

WoodlandThis midwinter, I’m reading Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising, along with the peerless landscape author Robert Macfarlane and thousands of others on Twitter (#TheDarkIsReading if you want to join in).

The children’s novel, which opens in a very English countryside, on the eve of midwinter’s day, is beloved of many but new to me. The opening chapter is a masterpiece of the uncanny, as ten-year-old Will Stanton notices ominous signs creeping into his familiar, domestic sphere.

Animals are suddenly afraid of him; his favourite rabbit startles away. Rooks wheel above him in the sky, a seething and unquiet mass, then swoop down to attack a strange, dishevelled old man. The farmer gives Will a mysterious gift and warns: “Tonight will be bad. And tomorrow will be beyond imagining.” A more chilling sentence is hard to imagine.

As Will’s family gathers for supper, the snow begins to fall. As one commenter on Twitter observed: “The snow settles. Everything else unsettles”.

This midwinter day in London is unsettlingly mild, although the white sky could presage snow in colder temperatures. Before starting work today, I set out to my local woodland, inspired by the book, for a midwinter ramble.

Ivy.jpgSydenham Hill woods was once part of the Great North Wood that covered this part of south London. It’s a domesticated suburban woodland now, but the backbone of the forest is still there; the soaring trunks of oak and hornbeam, straight and dark in the damp air, raising their bare canopies to the skies. Sombre holly hunches beneath (few scarlet berries this year), intertwined with glossy ivy.

I can hear birdsong – warbling blue tits and robins, fizzing starlings, the mournful coo of a wood pigeon.  More exotically, emerald parakeets squawk, newcomers to these English woods. Deeper in, I hear the insistent drill of a woodpecker, although I can’t spot him. The wood is alive with squirrels, bounding across the carpet of dead leaves and scuttling up tree trunks.

Alert for the uncanny, I notice cobwebs in the fissures of oak trunks, sudden showers of water from wet leaves, the soft mist shrouding the spire of St Stephens church, rising above the trees. I’m heading for the place where rooks gather.

They are there, a few of them, quietly perched among the bare branches, or taking a desultory look for worms on the grass verge. No swirling hordes, no swoops, no restless cawing. It’s quiet up here at the top of the hill. Traffic noise is muted, the mist softening the view towards London, where the glass towers of the city sometimes glitter in the morning sunshine.

Rooks

The shortest day, the longest night. There is no sense here of menace, of the rise of the dark. It’s a slightly melancholy day, a dim, muted day for working and reading. Back home, I’m glad to see the white lights on the Christmas tree, promising company and feasting to entice back the sun. Not long now. The dark may be rising, but the light will always return.

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Lawyers, literature and Grays Inn Court

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Paul Croft as Egeon in Antic Disposition’s A Comedy of Errors at Gray’s Inn

London: noisy, crowded, constantly swept along with the tide of history. Except for a few pockets of tranquility that can take you back in time to the childhood of Charles Dickens, or even further back, to the first productions of Shakespeare’s plays.

The Inns of Court still function today as professional barristers’ associations, and all barristers in England and Wales must belong to one of them. Lincoln’s Inn, Middle Temple, Inner Temple and Gray’s Inn, however, are more than dry institutions. Step through their gates (if you can find them – you’ll need to know the hidden gateways in their walls) and you find yourself in quiet squares of historical buildings from the 16th to the 19th century, mere feet away from bustling Holburn or Fleet Street.

The 13th century Gray’s Inn has a strong literary pedigree. Slip through a passageway next to the Cittie of Yorke pub, and you’re in Grays’ Inn’s South Square, opposite the Elizabethan Gray’s Inn Hall. The hall was the venue for the first recorded performance of Shakespeare’s early comedy, The Comedy of Errors, at Christmas 1594.

Last week I was in the audience for a brilliant new production of the play, by Antic Disposition, in the same elegantly-panelled hall. I think Shakespeare would have enjoyed the frenetic, slapstick pace that the performers gave this tricky play, not to mention the accomplished live jazz band. The portrait of Elizabeth I’s spymaster Francis Walsingham, looking down with unamused disapproval from the wall, was a reminder that not all members of the Inn appreciated the ‘base and common fellows’ who made up the itinerant acting companies of the day.

Outside, across South Square, is the window of the office where the 15-year-old Charles Dickens sat, his sharp eyes no doubt picking up everything and noting it down, for later use in the many depictions of lawyers in his novels.

The Inn has a wonderful garden with lawns and roses, which you can glimpse if you take the other entrance, off Jockey Fields. The Inn has been unfortunate in the loss of several buildings to fire and bombing, including the 13th century chapel and the 16th century library. However, it retains an atmosphere of secluded antiquity which makes it well worth a visit.

Grays’ Inn is taking part in Open House London on September 18, with tours including the Hall and Library.

Photo: Scott Rylander

 

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Caught by the River Thames

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The Thames from Putney Bridge

The first Caught by the River Thames festival at Fulham Palace was conceived as “a cross between a vicar’s tea party and an Anti-Nazi League gig,” according to one of the organisers. So what washed up on the river bank?

There was a strong literary/nature writing theme to the weekend. Some of my favourite authors, including Iain Sinclair and Melissa Harrison, talked waterways, wilderness and seasons.

Sinclair spoke of the choice Londoners face between following the river upstream, to the riparian villages of Cookham and Swan Upping, or downriver to the ‘Heart of Darkness’ in the estuary. Conrad or Jerome K Jerome – two impossibly different visions of the Thames.

I loved Harrison’s description of how seasons in a temperate country like the UK help us understand and keep track of time – ‘The seasons are to time as a metronome is to music.’ The rhythm of the year, blackberries to bare branches, cherry blossom to courgette flowers, provides some reassurance of our place in the dizzying march of time.

More potential dizzying from Andy Hamilton, who kicked off Sunday with a masterclass in creating booze for free, talking us through his experiments in infusing, brewing and making alcoholic concoctions from the most amazing ingredients. I’m planning to have a go at his 18-botanical gin, made in half an hour during his talk, although I may give the kelp martini a miss.

Chill-out time meant a retreat to snooze under an apple tree in the bosky and beautiful  Walled Garden, complete with impressive vegetable patch, bee hives and spectacular dahlias.

There was music, as befits a festival, from the trippy North African Imarhan, to the final stomping session from headliners Super Furry Animals. I loved both of these, as well as the impressively funky Llareggub Brass Band and Ramones-wannabees Temples. I’m not a Beth Orton fan, though, and Saturday night’s doom rockers Low were not a high point for me either. My main disappointment was being unable to see poet/rapper Kate Tempest perform, as she’d been scheduled for a room far too small for the numbers who wanted to see her.

The unexpected highlight was watching music journalist Lauren Laverne interview the wildlife broadcaster and campaigner Chris Packham on the main stage, while we sat and basked in the blazing sunshine. The interview was surprisingly personal, given that several hundred people were watching, with Chris describing how his Asperger’s syndrome affected the way he perceived the natural world. He described his early forays into natural history, his forthright methods of getting a job at the BBC, and encouraged us not to run away if faced by a predator. I’ll remember that, next time I’m set upon by a baboon.

He also had a ‘rant’ about the plight of the hen harrier, asking us all to sign a petition to prompt a parliamentary debate about the detrimental effect of driven grouse moors on the numbers of these birds of prey. I’ll finish with a link to the petition – I signed when I got home. I hope you will consider doing so too: Ban Driven Grouse Shooting.

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Bees enjoying the dahlias

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Melissa Harrison

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Iain Sinclair

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Midsummer madness at the Globe

Titania

Zubin Varla as Oberon and Meow Meow as Titania

I saw this show two days after the UK voted to leave the EU, in what seemed to me a fit of midsummer madness. I was with a Belgian friend who was now wondering how long she will be able to live in lovely London – and whether she was still welcome. We were both in serious need of cheering up.

Boy, did the Globe deliver. This was one sexy, swaggering, joyous carnival of theatre. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of Shakespeare’s dafter plots. It requires an embrace of the absurd and fantastical, a massive willingness to suspend disbelief. I mean, fairies. Love potions. Amateur actors sprouting donkey’s heads, with scant regard for evolutionary theory. Richard Dawkins would hate it.

I’ve seen minimalist productions that expect you to do that work on your own, with only a few leotards and hanging drapes to help your imagination. This production, Emma Rice’s first as artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe, could be described as maximalist.

It doesn’t feel like a play, so much as a musical show, a celebration rich with comedy, dance and song. Other voices, from John Donne to David Bowie, are conscripted to the irreverent mix. The energy fizzes, the costumes dazzle, the wit sparkles. The farcical elements are played to the max, wringing every drop of comedy from Titania’s lust for Bottom, and the lovers’ misplaced longing for each other. The energy is earthy and raw, the fairies elemental rather than ethereal. Titania (the outstanding Meow Meow) and Oberon are wilful as well as powerful, dishevelled, funny and magnificent by turns.

The much-commented gender swap from Helena to Helenus could have been gimmicky, but Ankur Bahl gave the part a heartbroken tenderness that makes good sense of the lovers’ relationships. Anjana Vasan was a charmingly lusty Hermia, Katy Owen a beguiling Puck. By the end of the show, when the puzzles had been resolved, the play had been played out and every Jack had his Jill (or his Jack), we were swept up into a dazzling finale of bhangra that rocked us out of our seats.

It was the sort of thing London does best. Shakespeare, our greatest national treasure, can well take anything that multi-ethnic, pan-sexual London can thrown at him. Indeed, his work dazzles all the brighter for the alchemy.

In a strange contrast, I was in Stratford-on-Avon three days later, sipping tea in the Hathaway tea shop in the heart of this Midlands English town. Stratford has been preserved for the nation as a genteel Shakespeare-land, with more Elizabethan houses than you can shake a stick at. Shakespeare might have recognised the buildings, but I bet he’d have recognised the excitement of the Globe as a truer legacy of his genius.

Photo: Steve Tanner.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by Emma Rice, is at Shakespeare’s Globe until 11 September 2016.

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