Monday, 29 October 2018

WALDEN by Henry David Thoreau

"I'm struck by how much it chimes with current preoccupations..."

Linda Newbery has written widely for young readers and is currently working on her second adult novel. The Key to Flambards was published this month by David Fickling Books.

The word Walden has come to mean a great deal: the rejection of materialism; a retreat from society into natural surroundings; a search for uncomplicated contentment. This much I knew without having read Thoreau's book (Walden, or, Life in the Woods, to give its full original title), but at last I have, and am struck by how much it chimes with current preoccupations. 

In 1845, aged 27, Thoreau went to live in woods near Concord, Massachusetts, building a single-room cabin on land owned by his friend and mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson. "I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived." He stayed there for two years, two months and two days, later recording the experience as the journal of a single year.

Thoreau and his anti-establishment ideals found new relevance in the 1960s. He was briefly jailed for refusing to pay taxes on the grounds that they financed slavery and the US - Mexico war, later writing an essay, On Civil Disobedience, which not only influenced Martin Luther King and Gandhi but echoed through anti-Vietnam War protests and the flouting of authority in the hippie era. The 60s, too, saw a revived interest in transcendentalism, a movement to which Emerson introduced Thoreau and which stressed individualism and intuition rather than adherence to religious doctrines and rituals.

In Buddhist fashion (he is greatly influenced by Indian spiritual writings) Thoreau explains how we clutter ourselves with possessions and responsibilities to the extent that we prevent ourselves from enjoying what we have. Rejecting the work ethic that's a central component of the American Dream, he says "we have become the slave-drivers of ourselves", and writes of the "seemingly wealthy, but most impoverished class of all, who have accumulated dross, but know not how to use it, or get rid of it, and thus have forged their own golden or silver fetters." Productivity and economic growth are often seen as intrinsically desirable, but at what cost? Today we should certainly add: at what cost to the environment, as well as to ourselves?

Thoreau records details of his diet and plant husbandry, claiming that only thirty or forty days' work in a year were needed to support himself. Although not strictly vegetarian - he regularly caught and ate fish from the lake - he wrote, "I believe that every man who has ever been earnest to preserve his higher or poetic faculties in the best condition has been particularly inclined to abstain from animal food." In hunting and fishing, he finds "something essentially unclean about this diet and all flesh ... when I had caught and cleaned and cooked and eaten my fish, they seemed not to have fed me essentially ... It cost more than it came to." He sees a future in which the human race no longer eats animals, which is certainly pertinent today: it's becoming clear that the planet simply cannot sustain meat-eating as the norm in the affluent countries of the world.

Some of the most beautiful writing in Walden describes the waters of the lake at various times of year, and the birds and animals who inhabit it. Thoreau's deep interest in the natural world led to the making of detailed observations of what we now call ecosystems - long before ecology became a distinct scientific discipline. In particular, he was interested in how forestry regenerates after individual trees have been destroyed by fire; his notes on this have proved to be of lasting worth. Another area in which he was a forerunner of today's concerns is in identifying the mental health benefits of exposure to the natural world. "I have been anxious to improve the nick of time ... to stand on the meeting of two eternities, the past and future, which is precisely the present moment." This "living in the moment" is the essence of mindfulness.

Walden was not and is not to everyone's taste. Thoreau has been derided for merely playing at self-sufficiency, regularly returning to his mother with his laundry; Bill Bryson dismissed him as "inestimably priggish and tiresome".  E.B. White, quoted by John Updike in a new introduction, was an admirer, but conceded that Thoreau sometimes wrote as if "all his readers were male, unmarried, and well-connected". (And, I might add, classics scholars - the text is liberally scattered with allusions to Greek and Roman mythology.) The tone can be preachy, and he is given to making the same point several times, as in the chapter on Economy. Thoreau can be patronising, as in his famous pronouncement that "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." To a modern ear he is misogynistic, rarely mentioning women.

But I'll forgive him all that, because it seems to me that Walden speaks as clearly to our time as it did to its own - possibly even more so.

Walden is published by Empire Books.

Monday, 22 October 2018

Guest review by Stephanie Butland: A PIECE OF THE WORLD by Christina Baker Kline

Stephanie Butland has written four novels, including Lost For Words and The Curious Heart Of Ailsa Rae. She lives in the north east of England where she writes in the studio at the bottom of her garden, and walks on the beach in all weathers.

My relationship with this book began in the best possible way. I was chatting to Jo, a bookseller in Waterstones in Newcastle, and admiring her table of what she considered to be underrated novels. Maggie Shipstead’s Seating Arrangements, which I had thoroughly enjoyed, was on there. So was A Manual For Cleaning Women, short stories by Lucia Berlin, a book I’d been recommending to anyone and everyone since it was given to me as a gift. Jo picked up A Piece Of The World and asked, “Have you read this? It’s amazing.”

Reader, I bought it. And I started it, idly, while having a coffee that afternoon. It’s a novel based around American artist Andrew Wyeth’s celebrated painting Christina’s World, which I recognised in the way you’d recognise the Laughing Cavalier if he passed you at the bus stop, but had no real knowledge of. I read it, hungrily, in all of my spare moments over the next few days. And I finished it, with the happy/sad feeling that comes when something is over, but it’s enriched your life, and you are so very glad that you found it. (See also: A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth, and Parks and Recreation on microwave mug cakes.)

This novel is a life of Christina Olsen, the woman in the foreground of Wyeth’s painting. She was born into a farming family in Maine in the early 1900s, and had an undiagnosed degenerative condition: in Baker Kline’s imagining of her life, it gradually eats away at her mobility and her confidence, and she becomes as good as imprisoned in her family home. When a friend brings the then-unknown painter Wyeth to visit, he is inspired by both the farm and Christina herself, who becomes a muse to him.

If it sounds as though nothing much happens, well, I suppose it doesn’t, but that’s kind of the point. Christina’s world, as portrayed in Wyeth’s painting, is both spacious and eerie, both lonely and comforting, and the novel feels, to me, like a prose rendition of the characteristics of the artwork that inspired it. As we follow Christina’s story, in memories and flashbacks, we’re sucked into her world; the storytelling is compelling enough to make you hold your breath. And the writing is simply beautiful.

“… I put my hand over his, and he lays his other hand over mine. I feel the way I do when I lose something – a spool of thread, say – and search for it everywhere, only to discover it in an obvious place, like on the sideboard under the cloth.”

And oh, what a wonderful narrator Christina is. Made bad-tempered by constant pain and all of the ways she is unfulfilled, she alienates others and rejects all help. And she does not care. She has decided her own limits and she lives within them and she resents them. And I loved her and respected her for it. She doesn’t try to please people; she can be cruel, dismissive, and awkward. But she knows herself, understands herself, and is honest with herself and with us. I think that might be my favourite thing of all about this novel. It made me feel - trusted.

“All at once I am so tired of this-of the constant threat of humiliation and pain, the fear of exposure, of trying to act like I'm normal when I'm not- that I burst into tears. No, I am not all right, I want to say. I am fouled, degraded, ashamed, a burden and an embarrassment.”

I read a lot of books, and I love a lot of books, and often even the books I love I forget almost as soon as I’ve read the last page. This book has stayed with me. (Literally as well as figuratively. It’s still on the bedside table; I’m not ready to shelve it.) It’s partly because I admire the writing so much - there isn’t so much as a misplaced syllable from start to finish - but it’s also because the way Christina Baker Kline evokes the world she writes about makes it genuinely unforgettable. She asks us readers to listen to Christina’s voice and, if we do, the rewards are rich. 

A Piece of the World is published by Borough Press. 


Monday, 15 October 2018

Guest post by Dawn Finch: A SWEET, WILD NOTE: WHAT WE HEAR WHEN THE BIRDS SING by Richard Smyth

Dawn Finch is a children’s writer and former librarian who is possibly best known for her role in many national library and literacy campaigns. She writes both fiction and non-fiction for children, and her non-fiction books are used in almost every primary school in the UK.

I am what might be called a casual birdwatcher. I have quite a bit of knowledge, but not as much as some. I can identify a good number of birds, but am often left baffled by extraordinary bursts of song, or by a dazzling flash of something feathery as it passes me by. I own many books on birds, but still prefer the kind of birdwatching that might be better described as “bird listening.”

As a very small child I loved to listen to the birds, and still sleep with my window open so that I can hear the dawn chorus, but I’m extremely bad at identifying birdsong. I am not alone. Despite the fact that birdsong is quite literally the soundtrack of our lives, most of us can only identify a few of the singers. We are lifted and inspired by birdsong, but can’t name the bird that is mastering the chorus.

In Richard Smyth’s wonderfully eccentric little book, A Sweet, Wild Note, he takes a look at the human relationship with birdsong and how it has inspired poets, writers, musicians and artists of all fields. In this beautiful book the author explores how we hear birdsong and what it means to us. He takes us from “some kind of crow” to the complex scientific matters of actually describing birdsong. We meet the poets who argued over what a nightingale actually was, and elegantly stroll through the world of birdsong to the emotionally loaded issue of keeping songbirds in captivity.

Smyth’s style is somewhat meandering, and eclectic, and that works well in a book that is as charming as the songs it explores. It is an enjoyable experience as it almost feels as if you are at a select gathering listening to a wonderful lecture. After reading it I felt that I wanted to quote many things from the book, and to get hold of many of the other books he has mentioned as sources. The book is a friendly read that never drifts into arrogance or pretention.

A Sweet, Wild Note has left me not only with a greater understanding of birdsong, but also a keener ear and a new appetite for finding out more. A lovely book that is also well packaged with a gorgeous cover by Lynn Hatzius and illustrated throughout by Tim Oakenfull. The whole makes for a very pleasing read that I know I will return to many times.

A Sweet, Wild Note is published by Elliot and Thompson

Monday, 8 October 2018

Guest review by Sheena Wilkinson: BAD GIRLS, A HISTORY OF REBELS AND RENEGADES, by Caitlin Davies

Described in The Irish Times as 'one of our foremost writers for young people', Sheena Wilkinson writes both contemporary and historical fiction for young adults. She has won many awards, including the Children's Books Ireland Book of the Year. Her most recent novel Star By Star, winner of the CBI Honour Award for Fiction, commemorates the centenary of women’s suffrage.

I love fiction, and perhaps best of all I love stories set in institutions. Especially women’s institutions, and especially in the past. I thrill to books about closed communities, with their intense relationships, their special rules, their sense of being worlds apart and worlds unto themselves. My PhD was on fiction set in girls’ schools and colleges, and my work in progress is about a working girls’ hostel, but you could add to that a obsession with convents, hospitals (Call The Midwife scores twice here) and of course prisons. And I am not alone. The success of dramas such as Orange Is The New Black testifies to an abiding fascination with women who break the rules and how society deals with them.

My own first memories of being politically aware involve prisons. I remember the IRA hunger strikes of 1981, and very shortly afterwards seeing women from Greenham Common being sent to prison. This coincided with my learning about suffragette prisoners in the 1910s, so I always knew that prisons were complex spaces. As a student and later as a writer I have spent time working inside prisons, and know that they are places bristling with stories, often harsh and horrifying, always reflecting the world outside as well inside their walls.

So when I heard about Caitlin Davies’ forthcoming Bad Girls, a history of Holloway Prison, some time before publication, I was really excited about it. Because even more than fiction I love social history, especially the history of women’s experience. Sometimes when I feel a bit storied-out I reach for social history as a kind of palate-cleanser. I knew this book was going to tick a lot of my boxes, and when it arrived I was almost scared to start reading it; I had invested so much interest and expectation in it. I’d also rashly agreed to review it for this blog before I even started reading it.

But I needn’t have worried. A quick glance at the contents page was enough to reassure me that this was very much my kind of book, with chapters on subjects ranging from Victorian baby farmers to spies in World War Two, and of course a detailed and horrifying section on the treatment of suffragettes. There are also sections covering sex and relationships, medical matters, and the changing regime at Holloway. The book is comprehensive and thoroughly researched, with a successful balance between telling the overarching factual story of Holloway as an institution and exploring some of the individual characters and events who found themselves incarcerated – or dependent on Holloway for their livelihood. It is dense with detail but always readable and engaging.

Davies writes fascinatingly about the women who worked as warders, and the changing demands of that role from Victorian times until more or less the present day. (Holloway closed in 2016.) I was surprised to learn that many of the wardresses were in fact sympathetic to the cause of suffragette prisoners, though this sympathy was not encouraged, and in fact the opposite was suggested in the press. As Davies says, ‘The press preferred to portray them in opposition to the suffragettes, for… a prison full of inmates and wardresses who wanted the vote was a frightening prospect.’

The book raises important questions about what constitutes crime and punishment, and the extent to which this is determined by changing social mores. Women are particularly vulnerable to this, as their crimes and misdemeanours are sometimes less clear-cut than male crime, and very prone to shifting notions of morality. I had imagined that the prison regime would have been harshest in the nineteenth century, growing gradually more humane, but the truth is more complex than that.

Bad Girls joins my library of non-fiction about women’s experiences in the past, and I know I’ll return to it many times. I’d recommend it to anyone with an interest in social history, especially women’s history.

Bad Girls is published by John Murray.

Monday, 1 October 2018

Guest review by Sue Purkiss: THE SALT PATH by Raynor Winn

"They were living right on the edge in more ways than one ... this is a remarkable book."

Sue Purkiss writes for children and young people. She has been a Royal Literary Fellow at Exeter and Bristol Universities, and has also taught English and worked with young offenders. Her latest novel for children, Jack Fortune and the Search for the Hidden Valley, is an adventure story set in the Himalayas at the end of the 18th century, featuring plant hunters, a sacred mountain – and its mysterious guardian! For more information, see Sue's website. She also has her own literary review blog, A Fool on a Hill, and is a contributor to The History Girls, blogging there once each month.

On one level, this is a book about a couple who walked the South West Coastal Path, non-stop – all 630 miles of it. As you can see, it has a beautiful cover whose design places it firmly in the section of bookshops with books about nature and our relationship to it.

And indeed and of course, it is about nature – but not primarily so. It’s not a piece of finely judged, carefully crafted nature writing, though there is some of that here too. It’s the searing story of a couple whose home and livelihood and hopes for the future are suddenly torn away from them, and who decide, pretty much on impulse, that the only thing they can do, the only way they can literally and figuratively move on, is to walk, carrying with them all that they have – which is almost nothing.

The story begins, Ray tells us, when she and her husband Moth lose everything at the end of a court battle after an investment goes badly wrong. What makes this even worse is that Raynor eventually finds a document which she believes will prove that they are innocent of blame, but doesn’t submit it in time or according to the correct procedures: they cannot afford legal representation (and of course, legal aid was pretty much abolished some years ago), and they fail to find their way through the complexities of the law without it. And even worse than that: the person who recommended the investment to them and is now suing them is an old and dear friend of Moth’s, so that he feels a sense of hurt and betrayal. As a result of losing the case, they lose their home, a Welsh farmhouse which they have lovingly restored over many years; and the livelihood which goes with it.

And as if this isn’t enough, just after the verdict, Moth is diagnosed with a terminal, degenerative illness: they are in their early fifties.

Raynor Winn tells the story of how, as they hide from the bailiffs in the cupboard under the stairs, she notices a book in a packing case. It’s called Five Hundred Mile Walkies, and it’s about a man who, many years before, had walked the South West Coastal Path with his dog. And it’s this that gives them their idea.

When I read this, it seemed quite shocking to me – absolute madness. Moth is in constant pain, sometimes he can’t even get up. They have the grand sum of £48 a week coming in, they have virtually no other money: they can’t afford even to buy decent equipment. Neither of them is strong enough to carry much weight – in fact it’s practically a military manoeuvre even to get their rucksacks onto their backs. And yet, and yet… what else can they do? And what sort of an indictment of our society is it that they face such limited choices? Their two children are at university and in no position to help (though, in a reversal of the normal rôles, their worried daughter sends them a new phone and instructs them that they must keep in close touch); friends do what they can and offer temporary accommodation, but cannot, in the end, give them their lives back – this at least offers them a reason to move on, literally as well as metaphorically.

And so off they go. With a flimsy tent, inadequate sleeping bags, a single change of clothes, a thin towel and a toothbrush – and Moth’s battered and beloved copy of Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf: a fitting companion, with its theme of a battered hero fighting against evil monsters and against time itself.

It’s very sobering, to read of how difficult it is to live on so little. They can only afford to buy the most basic foodstuffs – meals are delights such as pot noodles, or rice and a tin of peas or mackerel. Sometimes, even water is difficult to come by. Washing is usually impossible – there’s plenty of sea, but for one thing that’s salty, and for another, the cliff path is usually high above it. I’ve seen bits of that coast path, and it’s very precipitous. There are endless setbacks, yet even so, somehow they don’t just keep going, but Moth becomes stronger; and the experience of being so very close to nature teaches them to live in, and treasure, each moment. They have numerous encounters along the way, some of them strange, many of them comic. Quite early on, they ask for information at a tourist office in Combe Martin – and are puzzled by the reaction of the ladies behind the counter.

     'The ladies shuffled, nudging each other, giggling.
     “Of course, it’s a pleasure to help. Just go to the grocery store up to the left. They’ll do cashback for you, Mr Armitage, but they weren’t expecting you yet.”
     “Sorry, I’m not Mr Armitage.”
     The ladies looked at each other conspiratorially.
     “No of course not, that’s okay, our secret, we won’t say a word.”
     Moth looked back in bemusement…'

This keeps happening: people keep mistaking Moth for this mysterious Mr Armitage. Well – Moth might have been bemused, but I wasn’t. In 2015, the poet Simon Armitage published a book about his travels along the South West Coastal Path. The idea was that he would walk a stretch, and then pay for his board at a pub or whatever by doing a reading of his work. He’d done this before in the Pennines. I bought the book, because I’m familiar with some bits of the path, particularly the first part from Minehead, but to be honest, much as I admire his other work and the TV programmes he’s done, I was a little disappointed in this book. It felt as if he was just going through the motions (sorry!): as if he was doing it because it seemed like a good idea for a book, not because it was something he was really enjoying. And the reaction of the people Moth and Ray meet, as well as the book itself, make it clear that the whole thing was very carefully planned and organised for the poet: there was no jeopardy involved. But for Moth and Ray, there most certainly was. They were living right on the edge in more ways than one.

This is a remarkable book: it’s a searing reflection on what is to be homeless and poor; an account of a first-hand experience of being as close to nature as you can get; and a tender story of a relationship which survives some incredibly difficult tests. In the end, one of the people they meet offers them a place to live: they come through. The last word belongs to Raynor herself.

     'At last I understood what homelessness had done for me. It had taken every material thing that I had and left me stripped bare, a blank page at the end of a partly written book. It had also given me a choice, either to leave that page blank or to keep writing the story with hope. I chose hope.'

The Salt Path is published by Penguin.