I have purchased some curious tomes over the past few days. Charlotte Higgins is the Guardian’s chief arts writer, and she’s recorded her investigations of ancient sites around Britain in Under Another Sky. Herodotus’ The Histories needs no introduction, but this edition has been translated by the fantastic historian Tom Holland. It’s a superb item, very well put together by Penguin, and comes with some splendid maps at the back. Finally, a River Cottage book on curing and smoking meat. Because why not? I’m a house move away from having somewhere proper to air dry my chorizo, but you never know when you need to have the skills. I really like these River Cottage handbooks because, as well as containing good advice on sourcing and creating your own food, they’re just really nicely made. Great graphics and layout within, and very tactile editions.
Over the past few weeks I’ve been reading some random titles; a bit of this, a bit of that – no one genre specifically. I’ve been trying to get to some authors from outside the UK and US, so picked up Azazeel by Youssef Ziedan, a fake memoir of a forgotten 5th century monk, after seeing it mentioned in this article on Arabic fiction. It caused a bit of a stir in the Arab world, but I think unless you have an appreciation for the intricacies of early Christian debates it won’t be as enjoyable. A ponderous book, at times enchanting and no doubt rich in theological references; but for the most part fairly meandering.
Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain is a classic of British nature writing, and this was a re-read for me. Potent, precise, fully of wonder. She’s a great writer. He prose is razor-sharp. The topography of the Cairngorms has surely never been better described. (Well worth reading what Robert Macfarlane has to say about the book.) Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road – a classic of American fiction and portrait of American middle-class life falling apart – is achingly well-written, funny, full of aphorisms and horrific in equal measure. I really enjoyed every word of this, though felt utterly miserable by the end. Dambisa Moyo is a brilliant economist – How The West Was Lost is her excellent thesis on the transference of economic powers from West to East, with China taking advantage of our squandering of wealth. Confessions of an Advertising Man is David Ogilvy‘s classic of advertising and business, yet it’s remarkable to see how much of his simple wisdom still stands up today. It’s interesting from a technical writing perspective, too, though I’m not sure how much translates to novel writing. (And yes, I have been watching Mad Men.)
The best of the bunch, though? The Monarch of the Glen by Compton Mackenzie. Set in the made-up Scottish castle of Glenbogle, it’s a farce of the highest order involving a Scottish laird who goes by the name of Ben Nevis, and his war against the National Union of Hikers. That something this bonkers can be full of intelligence is a testament to Macnkenzie’s skill and nuance as a writer. It’s got very little to do with the TV show of the same name – I think that was ‘loosely inspired by’ at best – but this is a book everyone should read. Outrageously mad and politically charged – though ideologies clash in a way that seems to leave all viewpoints in an equally bonkers position. On reflection, I think a farce is probably the best way to treat politics in fiction.
There are less than a handful of good secondhand bookshops in Nottingham. But there was one – Geoff Blore’s Bookshop – that I used to frequent every couple of months. If you got there on a Saturday, you’d probably end up being served by a man who gave you plenty of discount for no apparent reason. Being a bibliophile, you’d then immediately head off to pile on more books. I think his name was John, and he greeted you with a “Hello, Friend” no matter who you were.
Geoff Blore’s was, I think, co-owned by another secondhand bookshop, further into the city centre, but this one was far superior. It had a much better range of books, and it was much more neatly organised than the other. In fact, it was one of the best secondhand bookshops I’ve been in (and that includes a trip to Hay-on-Wye), beaten only by Scarthin Books because that place serves cake and has a cat.
Anyway, Geoff Blore’s has now closed, and when I arrived today I was greeted by that depressing sign. I wasn’t really going anywhere with this; I understand market forces, signs of the times and whatnot. I merely wanted to vent my annoyance.
Footsteps are silent in the snow, you only hear the sniff-sniff as they pass. The silence and the snow, yet many people: it is almost uncanny; a sort of numb mingling, dream-death-like; and a touch of the medieval in the hoods that all the women and children wear. And men wearing knitted helmets like Norman chain mail.
— Adrian Bell, on a wartime trip, in Apple Acre.
I loved this book. I think it’s one of the best pieces of British nature writing I’ve come across in a good couple of years. Certainly the best I’ve come across since Roger Deakin’s work. What makes it even more unusual as a piece of nature writing, is that it’s explicitly about taking things from nature – but with utter dependence upon nature.
The concept is pretty simple: Lewis-Stempel, who has access to a bit of land (though who is by no means wealthy), plans to live entirely off that land. No home-grown vegetables are to be found here, though. Lewis-Stempel aims to forage for his greens and shoot for his meat – for an entire year. Anything else is cheating.
There’s plenty to say on foraging, though it’s mostly nuggets of useful information and recipes. As you might expect, it’s actually quite an ethical book when it comes to the subject of killing animals, though. Lewis-Stempel has some very interesting reflections on the meat trade: that wild game has lived a far more pleasant life than anything led to slaughter, which is how the rest of us get our meat. And that killing is not – and ought not to be – a pleasant experience. It highlights a clear disconnect in the modern world, though: food is packaged up, kept well away from our conscience. We are desensitised to meat production. This unwillingness to accept and to face that we must kill to eat meat is, I think, not a good place to be. Yet in this book, we are dealing with wild meat, and Lewis-Stempel engages with the natural world on a far deeper scale. So much so that he can taste the difference between food caught in the wild and that which is slaughtered, an impressive feat. (It’s a remarkable transformation of taste, too, and by the end of the experience Lewis-Stempel can no longer get on with starchy carbs and sugars.)
To be a human is to take from nature, though some take more than others. It’s unavoidable. We’re not even really a part of nature as, able to control mechanisms of selection such as our access to food and the environment we can endure. We sit outside of natural systems. But Lewis-Stempel’s efforts to jump back in shows us just how removed we are from the natural process, but also how much everyday humans take in comparison. Hunting and foraging for wild food is minimalistic. Probably as minimalistic as it gets. No vast tracts of land are handed over for monoculture. There are no pesticides. It’s not insensitively reared food. Could you feed the world like this? Probably not. This is one man, with access to land, but even so it’s a heck of a lot more sustainable (in the non-greenwashed sense) for more people to attempt to live this way.
Throughout the reading, my feelings moved on from one of huge respect to one of envy. I actually became jealous of his experiences, the fact that he became tuned-in to the natural world in a way that we were designed to be. This is far beyond growing one’s own food. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for a good bit of free wi-fi and a Macbook Pro, but in this book I was shown something deeper, something truly authentic. It spoke to my current personal quest to connect with genuine things, to find satisfaction in the authentic rather than some abstract quest for happiness (or what we’re sold as happiness). Clearly, living off the land has its ups and downs, and moments of desperation, but Lewis-Stempel reveals a rugged realness that I’m sure would appeal to us all in some way.
Aside from the content, I do want to mention that the prose is bloody good. It’s written from an intimate, friendly perspective, with vivid descriptions of the natural world and some occasional, very hilarious references and anecdotes. Lewis-Stempel’s use of language was a joy, and was an example of nature writing that lacks whimsical pretension. It was as invigorating as a storm.
I guess it isn’t too cool these days to declare appreciation for mid-1990s fantasy. I’m sure that it’s not all that cool for someone who has previously stated he likes the Miéville’s, M John Harrisons, Wolfes and Don DeLillos of the literary world, to suddenly say that there’s this wonderful non-grimdark, high fantasy book from years ago, that’s not New Weird, that’s doesn’t come with a “-punk” suffixed to it, and he was rather charmed by it all.
I’ll not bother with a plot rehash – plenty of that about. Besides, this book has been around for years so there are plenty of good reviews around. But anyway, Robin Hobb’s Assassin’s Apprentice was a truly immersive read. It is also a lesson in craftsmanship. But for me, this was a lesson in letting go.
For the first time in a long while, I didn’t care about picking the book apart – something that, as an author, has been difficult to do. Within a few chapters I realised that Hobb was in complete control – her planning had been assiduous and her characters showed humanity, without judgement or merely being a mouthpiece. The descriptions of the world were thorough, but with a light touch – and the structure of the novel meant that the info-dumpy bits were side-stepped neatly. There was wonderful author trickery, and a deft-hand in plotting. For the characters, there was no need to go over-the-top with machismo – people were proved to be of strong stuff using complex, emotional methods rather than cheap physical tricks. In fact, the emotional maturity and human nuance of this text, given the relative youth of the lead character, was rather impressive.
What I mean to say is, this book really hit the spot. I was struggling to read anything thoroughly for the past few months. About ten years ago, I could really surrender myself to books. I could dive in, explore, escape, and enjoy the experience. There’s also something about reading fantasy when you’re younger – it goes beyond escapism, which is often used in derogatory terms by some people – but it has to do with provoking the imagination and bringing back a sense of wonder. Maybe that’s the same thing, but I’d say this is more on an engagement with the real world rather than fleeing from it.
So this gave me all those joyous feelings of yesteryear, without a hint of immaturity. I’d say that’s pretty cool, no?
Not a bad little haul from yesterday’s mooching around Nottingham. I’m going through a phase where I’m just going to buy lovely old editions of books I’ve wanted to read for a while, and hopefully my reading pile will not only be full of great books, but aesthetically pleasing while it’s taunting me.
Akenfield, by Ronald Blythe, really is very good. It’s a portrait of an English village community from the 1960s. Nothing outrageous there. It’s made up of dozens of real-life interviews, from farriers to orchard workers, to nurses and farmers, all of whom talk about their upbringing in the village, the impact of the First World War, their struggles to simply endure in the countryside. That’s all it is. Yet, it’s somehow one of the most moving books I’ve ever read.
You could probably just flick through a few entries here and there to get a flavour, but sitting down to go through them all is the best experience. There is the expected repetition – the most common of which being that people found it really tough simply making enough money to live. Yet it never came across like poverty. There’s an endurance here. Not the epic mountain-striding explorer kind of endurance, but a very stoic, very British way of coping with harsh realities of rural life, and it’s profound. I’m often saying that writers ought read widely – and this book is the kind of moving, unexpected pleasure that can be reprocessed in all manner of ways by creative minds. Likewise, if you ever wanted to know what rural life in Britain used to be about, this shows a truly non-romantic portrait.
To follow from yesterday’s post, here’s the current reading pile. Well, this is more the top of the reading pile, and books will most likely fall off this and be replaced by others. Suffice to say, here’s what I intend to read, starting with the Woolf.