Monday, 28 November 2022

Guest review by Graeme Fife: THE SCENT OF DRIED ROSES by Tim Lott


 "I have, so to speak, just been turned inside out by a book."

Graeme Fife is a regular reviewer here. He has written many plays, stories, features and talks for radio, stage plays and articles for newspapers and magazines, and is a regular contributor to BBC Radio 4's From Our Own Correspondent. He's the author of a string of books - children's stories, biography, works of history and fiction. His novel of the French Revolution, No Common Assassin, tells the story of Charlotte Corday.

I have, so to speak, just been turned inside out by a book. We all know the injunctions: the Delphic Oracle – know thyself, echoed by Polonius; Socrates – the unexamined life is not worth living – Sophocles – what is neglected runs away from us. However paled into cliché the familiar axiom may become, its truth still holds. Tim Lott’s The Scent of Dried Roses – an intriguing title whose disclosure I leave to him – offers a salutary lesson in the essential value of self-scrutiny. His writing is merciless in its pursuit of detail and causation. He lets nothing slip. Not only does he bring to light with merciless resolve the various conflicting influences, bodily and mental, that test us, the vicissitudes which unsettle and undermine us. He also, as if inadvertently, uncovers how the patterns and habits of life in this country altered so radically after the Second World War. It’s an important element in understanding who we are, where we are now. Post-war austerity, the emergence of a different class, the rise of an entirely new human species, hitherto unclassified and uncatalogued, the teenager, with all the accretions of teenage culture and shifted values, disturbing the accepted continuum, life as she has always been lived. No longer. The resultant rage in the enquiry: ‘What is going on? What has happened to us?’ Empire, colonies, British hegemony, all gone or given away, the very fabric of life in this throne of kings, this sceptr’d isle shredded. A queen, even? Queenies still did the knees-up in Bethnal Green but Southall, where Lott grew up, saw a new influx, from abroad, a place we’d rarely had to go because we were already here. No longer. Changes altered the scenery, just as the knowns of childhood distintegrate in adulthood.

With the shifts in life and its acquisitions – all, to those of us growing up through the grey into technicolour, as medical science confronted a new phenomenon, depression – everything changed. How? We’d always had nutters and loony bins but now? Unhappy and a bit worse? Here’s a pill.

Well, Lott’s story is more complex than that, of course but it’s a story that need to be told and Lott tells it marvellously well, with one proviso: in a striking image he exposes the perils of belief, often desperate, in fixity. The painting which seems so ordered, locked in a frame, a moment fastened for all time, the permanence of our viewing, is never more than a construct, a seemingly motionless truth pinned down like a dead butterfly in the flux of reality.

Lott explores that flux, the watching eye unblinking, the listening ear pricked and the colour of the detail he registers is staggering in its range. I admit that the immediate resonances prejudice me a little – the fact (eg) that we both learnt Marian Richardson handwriting at primary school, a dullness soon ditched. Ditched, the very word is like a bell … you know the rest. We look and often do not see, listen but don’t hear, forgetting that both might lead to a sort of conclusion. It may be a paradox that one conclusion is the need to discard the quest for certainty, fixity, the definite, like an anchor. A useful, I’d say essential, paradox. And Lott calls it ‘the awesome responsibility that accepting uncertainty and insignificance entails’. [p 267]

Above all, this troublesome truth is what emerges most forcefully and altogether welcome, from this very often painful, always exhilarating, if difficult, memoir which, presented as personal, reaches out to a wider humanity in a way that only unflinchingly honest introspection can. Honesty can be overused in critique, a slick judgement of writing about self when that writing purports to be record, the untailored result of what is there, palpably there: us, our very self. Does that make fiction dishonest, then? Of course not. In books is found knowledge, even if, as the preacher warns, knowledge leads to sorrow. The vale of tears? Hmm. I once undertook a job of interpreting for a French street theatre group, because the organiser told me that, at the end of the show, ‘grown men cry’. And so they should.

You know what purgative means. Lott has, in this restlessly managed careful exposé, made forensic pathology of the heart and mind a kindly operation. Forensic is the adjective for forum where, in ancient Rome the law courts were sited. I use forensic because in writing of the hurts and desires, the tribulation of heart and soul, a certain legalistic dispassion does not go amiss. Reporting on the fevered heat takes a cool head. There is that here.

The Scent of Dried Roses is published by Penguin Modern Classics.

Monday, 21 November 2022

Guest review by Cindy Jefferies: LESSONS by Ian McEwan

 


"McEwan makes demands of his reader, but in return he gives us a very thoughtful novel." 

First published in 2001 for children, Cindy Jefferies found success with her Fame School series with Usborne Books, obtaining 22 foreign rights deals. Latterly writing fiction for adults as Cynthia Jefferies, her first title The Outrageous Fortune of Abel Morgan was published in 2018, followed a year later by The Honourable Life of Thomas Chayne, set during the English Civil Wars, followed in 2019. Both titles are now available in paperback.

Every novel by Ian McEwan gathers numerous reviews. So why write another? Hasn’t everything been said about Lessons? It’s fair to say that some of the reviews haven’t exactly lauded the book and having been something of a fan of McEwan’s earlier work I didn’t enjoy Machines Like Us, so didn’t review that one. What was Lessons going to make me feel?

Quite a lot, as it happens.

It’s a brave novelist who chooses a humdrum central character. How to make him interesting while at the same time inadequate? I’m not sure he quite pulls it off, though he gives it a very good go. Did McEwan’s publicist think it vital to flag up the fact that Roland’s wife leaves him? I’m glad if he did, otherwise I might almost have missed it. We are told in such a throwaway line that I had to go back and read it again; not for its brilliance, just to check that I hadn’t missed something else. Another grumble is that some of the remembered history made me feel rather as if I were attending lessons being given by a droning pedagogue. But wait! This is McEwan. There must be something good in this possible curate’s egg, otherwise why would I be writing this review?

McEwan makes demands of his reader, but in return he gives us a very thoughtful novel. He addresses the if only question, writes sex as well as he always did, is excellent on family, made even more interesting with his admission that it is in part somewhat autobiographical. By chapter four I was hooked and very much looking forward to Part Two.

He gives us some nodders, those sentences that reverberate with a truth beyond the words. The dogged fidelity of objects, to remain exactly as they had unthinkingly placed them. He can’t resist a joke about beds which made me laugh aloud. But what made me love this novel was the gentle inevitability of Roland’s path through it. There’s something touching and meek about him, while at the same time he’s never insipid, or if he strays that way he pulls himself up, and usually corrects his path. He knows himself increasingly well as time passes, something we would all do well to emulate. Illness is addressed in classic McEwan style and I found myself profoundly moved.

Roland has a difficult start in life, makes mistakes, loves, loses, loves again as so many of us do. This Everyman also discovers something about creativity. How some are so driven they have to abandon everything else to achieve what they must, while others don’t reach the heights because at the final analysis it doesn’t matter enough. There is much to recognise in Lessons. We can all learn something here.

Lessons is published by Jonathan Cape.   

Monday, 14 November 2022

Independent Bookseller Feature No.16: Juliette Bottomley of MR B'S EMPORIUM OF READING DELIGHTS, Bath, with a selection of personal favourites


"On a mission to create a haven for booklovers - a place buzzing with book chat and recommendations."

Juliette Bottomley is the co-owner of Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights, a multi-award-winning independent bookshop in the heart of beautiful Bath.

“Since we opened our doors in 2006, we have been on a mission to create a haven for booklovers - a place buzzing with book chat and recommendations. With our famous Reading Spa bibliotherapy sessions, Recommendation Station and bespoke Reading Subscriptions service, we have become renowned for finding the right books for the right customers. Each year we hand-select around 100 titles which we personally review to create a beautiful Christmas Catalogue, each one illustrated by a different book illustrator (this year it is the brilliant Nadia Shireen).

I have picked out some personal favourites from this selection across various genres which will hopefully help to inspire those on the hunt for Christmas presents. Happy reading!”

Here's the link to our Christmas Catalogue, and we've also included the link for each book featured below.


The Pachinko Parlour by Elisa Shua Dushapin

Cultures and languages intermingle with class in this sparse novella set in Tokyo. Claire speaks broken English with her grandparents – refugees of the Korean war – having been raised in French-speaking Switzerland, and her Japanese is rusty at best. Lost in translation with her own family, Claire will need their help to recognise the cure for her feeling of rootlessness. One of this year’s most elegant explorations of what really forges our culture identity.

Damnation Spring by Ash Davidson

Rich Gundersen was born with logging in his blood. When he puts his family’s savings on the line to buy a plot of ancient redwoods, his belief in a dying industry is put to the ultimate test, and a dark secret is revealed. Based on true events that devastated a Californian community in the 1970s, Damnation Spring tells the story of ecological disaster and its insidious echoes across the generations.

The Treekeepers by Kieran Larwood

Liska is a shapeshifter in the magical city of Arborven, a place built around a gigantic tree that gives extraordinary power to its inhabitants. But with great power comes hierarchy and corruption. When the tree comes under threat, Liska must try to unite the city and do everything possible to protect her home. A beautifully written and compelling tale of nature and power from a Mr B’s favourite.

The Treekeepers - Mr B's Emporium (mrbsemporium.com)

The Beastly Bunch
by Leisa Stewart-Sharpe & Pippa Curnick

Flo the Flamingo is going to throw the most amazing, cultured pool party the neighbourhood has seen. She certainly won’t be inviting her stinky, bitey neighbours, the Beastly Bunch. But when Flo’s party is a flop and all her guests desert her, it turns out the beasts next door might have just the kind of energy the party needs. A fun, riotous picture book that celebrates friendship, acceptance ….and parties.

The Beastly Bunch - Mr B's Emporium (mrbsemporium.com)


Marram
by Leonie Charlton

Facing a crippling grief, Leonie Charlton recommits to her life by trekking the Outer Hebrides with her best friend and two ponies. But her plans fall off course as she is forced to acknowledge that this is not something she can easily run away from. Ingratiating herself in the Hebridean landscape might just be her saviour. A heart-breaking, life-affirming and wonderful memoir, perfect for fans of The Salt Path and The Outrun.

Marram - Mr B's Emporium (mrbsemporium.com)


Diary of an Invasion
by Andrey Kurkov

Though best known for his satirical novels, since the annexation of Crimea in 2014, Andrey Kurkov has been documenting the human face of Ukraine’s increasingly volatile socio-political climate. Written from the war-torn Kyiv countryside, Diary of an Invasion contemplates Pushkin, hipster bookshops, and Putin’s dreams of a new USSR in spare, captivating prose. This is an urgent and essential book penned from the front lines of these unprecedented times.

Diary of an Invasion - Mr B's Emporium (mrbsemporium.com)

The Nutmeg’s Curse
by Amitav Ghosh

An accessible and wide-ranging work of environmental philosophy, The Nutmeg’s Curse charts the links between thought and policy from the colonisation of the Banda Islands in the 17th Century to our current climate, political and social crises. Ghosh has an unmatched ability to present an argument that exists at the convergence of various disciplines: combining history, geopolitics, economics, and indigenous storytelling, Ghosh reveals the trajectory we’re travelling along, and presents solutions for correcting our course.

The Nutmeg's Curse - Mr B's Emporium (mrbsemporium.com)


Grimwood by Nadia Shireen

Prepare to laugh your head off…before it gets bitten off! Ted and Nancy are two young foxes who have moved to the strange woodland of Grimwood, a place filled with some very unique animals. Treebonking squirrels, an over-dramatic duck, a murderous eagle, a DEFINITELY NOT CUTE rabbit with anger issues, and many more make up this wild and wonderful place. But Ted and Nancy’s happy new life is about to come under threat when the dastardly mayor of neighbouring Twinklenuts reveals his plans for the forest. Cute, hilarious and full of mischief, the Grimwood series is guaranteed to leave the whole family in fits of laughter.

Grimwood: Let the Fur Fly! - Mr B's Emporium (mrbsemporium.com)

The Trio by Johanna Hedman

Thora, August and Hugo are students from different worlds, whose lives will become magnetically entangled over two euphoric Stockholm summers. When many years have passed and estranged Hugo is visited by August and Thora’s daughter, difficult questions reopen old wounds, and past and present become blurred. The Trio is an intimate portrayal of friendship, jealousy and regret, a perfect read for fans of Deborah Levy and Andre Aciman.

The Trio - Mr B's Emporium (mrbsemporium.com)


Vine Street by Dominic Nolan

London, 1935. Sergeant Geats knows Soho like the back of his hand. He knows the jazz clubs, the wise guys, the prostitutes and pimps. And he ain’t afraid to crack a few skulls to keep them all in line. When a working girl is found strangled, nobody seems to care, but Geats knows better. An epic, savagely brilliant crime novel with a stunning sense of place, perfect for fans of Michael Connelly and James Ellroy.

Vine Street - Mr B's Emporium (mrbsemporium.com)


Unwell Women
by Elinor Cleghorn

For centuries, medicine has been the realm of men; funded by, researched for, and catered to. This timely book unpacks the myriad ways that women have been demonised and their bodies traumatised, and the incredible ways in which they have fought back. Cleghorn makes a compelling case for demanding change in a realm which has led to countless misdiagnoses, habitual blame and a criminal lack of funding for research into women’s health.



The Haunting Season
by various authors

A warm blanket, candlelight and a cup of something hot are required for reading this dark and ghostly collection of winter tales. Let the gothic masters sweep you through the Yorkshire Moors, tantalise you with the mysteries of a glittering London market, and ensnare you in the legacies of an ancient family mansion. With stories from Kiran Millwood Hargrave, Jess Kidd, Andrew Michael Hurley and many others, you’ll know you are in good hands.


Monday, 7 November 2022

Guest review by Leslie Wilson: WE GERMANS by Alexander Starritt

 


"The great strength of this part of the novel is that it makes the soldiers, and particularly Meissner, real people. Not monsters, but human beings who might be ourselves under other circumstances."

Leslie Wilson is the author of two novels for adults and three for young adults. Last Train from Kummersdorf was shortlisted for the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize and the Branford Boase Award; Saving Rafael was nominated for the Carnegie Medal and Highly Commended for the Southern Schools Book Award. The first two deal with Nazi Germany: The War’s Not Over Yet is just out as a Kindle e-book and is set at the time of the Russian blockade of Berlin in 1948. Leslie Wilson is half German, was brought up bilingual, and has spent considerable amounts of time in Germany.


My grandfather fought in Ukraine, though only up till 1943, but unlike the fictional grandfather here, my Opa never spoke to me or to my brother about his experiences (or anything he might have perpetrated). In fact, since he was an officer, his experience would have been different from those of the ordinary Landser, or squaddies. But when I read Alexander Starritt’s description of those men, some of them only lads, ‘fleeing on foot, broken, bedraggled, our tanks blown up, our artillery abandoned, our good name blackened for generations, our friends and brothers-in-arms buried in hostile soil', I did remember my mother’s description of my grandfather returning from the Front, haggard, unshaven, dressed in rags, drinking morosely in the kitchen. I also remember watching Gone with the Wind, when the movie showed the shattered Confederate army limping back, and my mother whispered to me: ‘That’s what our soldiers looked like when I saw them retreating.’ By the time she saw that, the soldiers had been beaten back to Graz, with the Russians hard on their heels. All the same. Not only defeated, but on the wrong side of history.

Meissner, the protagonist of We Germans, is one of a group of soldiers who are authorised by their captain to go hunting for a ‘food depot’ which, it’s rumoured, is about to be abandoned to the enemy. They don’t even half believe in its existence, but by now (1944) supplies aren’t getting to them and the ordinary soldiers, at least, are starving. Some of them are shooting themselves, or just wandering out to let the Russians kill them. The survivors will do anything if they think it might just fill their bellies.

What the soldiers first happen on, though, are the inhabitants of an entire village who have been strung up on ‘a single big tree ... in bunches, like swollen plums.’ Too hardened by the war, by the things they have seen and done, the soldiers leave them there, foraging onwards, arguing with each other and threatening each other, till they find an empty champagne bottle, Bollinger. That gets them on the scent. They follow a trail of empty bottles till they find a hunting lodge guarded by the much hated, brutal military police (hated because they’re brutal to their own side), Feldgendarmerie. At this point, Meissner tells us, ‘the desperate animal part of me barged any more complex sentiment out of the way. We stormed the compound just as we would have a Russian outpost.’ The soldiers kill most of the policemen. When they get inside, they find two frightened and teary Polish prostitutes. This novel is definitely not one for the squeamish, but the soldiers are more interested in food than in rape, and the Polish girls get away.

Meissner and his comrades (if that word is appropriate) help themselves to unimagined riches; ‘Italian sardines, French cheese, rollmops.. tinned peaches from Greece, sacks and sacks of firm, hale potatoes,’ also cigarettes and ‘fancy drinks.’ Finally, they torch the hunting lodge and leave it, having committed murder and treason. Yet the line they have crossed has given them ‘the taste of a certain destructive freedom.’ They escape out into the countryside, get huge quantities of the food down themselves, get the squitters because it’s too rich, torment each other.

Brutal and licentious soldiery, indeed. Meissner does have some human feeling left, but it’s too ‘deeply buried.’ Or driven out by the nagging misery of foot-rot, by, confusion, a vicious irritability, by fears for family at home, fear of death or capture, by, in Meissner’s case, a dogged determination to survive.

And yet these disaffected soldiers manage to seize a Russian tank and drive it towards the enemy, knocking out a great many tanks as they go. The story might end with their deaths, but they then get out of the tank and escape into the forest once more.

All this is portrayed with consummate and convincing skill; the reader is drawn into the ghastly reality of the soldiers’ existence, and the great strength of this part of the novel is that it makes the soldiers, and particularly Meissner, real people. Not monsters, but human beings who might be ourselves under other circumstances. Hunger does dreadful things to us; makes us more inclined to violence, sharpens the survival instinct to a lethal extent.

So far, so convincing. However, this is a novel of layers, and there are other layers which are less accomplished. Meissner’s narrative is a written document he leaves for his grandson, Callum, to read after his death, and it is heavily mediated. We have Meissner’s story from 1944, and then, like voiceovers, the older Meissner, and Callum speak to us; my reaction to those voices often veered from irritation to indignation.

I did at first wonder if what I was reading was the well-worn (in my youth) myth of the ordinary ‘Landser’ or squaddie, who fought a largely decent war, while police regiments and SS committed the atrocities. Then I thought, no, it’s not this kind of story. On the surface, Meissner is brutally honest; he describes how he and his fellow soldiers went ‘foraging,’ which meant stealing food from civilians, who were going to starve, but then you read: ‘What I want to tell you isn’t about atrocities or genocide’. Yet there is an episode where the soldiers come upon more Feldgendarmen and men from a ‘penal battallion’ (composed of convicted criminals), who are hanging German deserters, raping Polish housemaids and crucifying them and Polish labourers against the sides of a barn. So what, exactly, is Meissner’s definition of an atrocity? To be fair, he is quite clear that by merely fighting as a conscript he was complicit in the whole thing, but we know now that ordinary soldiers did murder civilians, incluidng Jews. Not Meissner, apparently.

Meissner also claims that the story is really about courage. Does he mean the naked instinct to survive (if so, are the others, who gave up, cowards?) or is it only about the capture of the tank? The tank capture actually prevents the Russians getting to the atrocities against the Poles and perhaps rescuing the victims before they died.

‘Did we do wrong?’ Meissner reflects. ‘By the morality of consequences, yes, undoubtedly. But it’s hard for me to accept that so baldly, because by the morality of virtues, of character, the others at least were brave and loyal.’

The elephant in the room here is that warfare is actually about killing people (though the expression ‘killing for your country’ is never used.) Nowadays it’s always justified in terms of some future good; the Russians, right now, are freeing Ukraine from ‘Nazis’, or so Putin tells us. We still feel that World War 2 was largely a just war, because it defeated Nazism (though it failed to protect the territorial integrity of Poland, which was where it started). In the post-war moral system, admittedly flawed, that Meissner is supposed to adhere to now, the morality of consequences is what it’s all about. What I would see in the tank capture is a kind of resetting of psychological equilibrium: the soldiers compensate for the treason they have committed. Or else they are simply doing what they have been programmed, by years of training and propaganda, to do.

Meissner does make one very valuable observation, a conclusion I came to myself after years of reading about Nazi Germany and thinking it through: ‘Only a very few of us were stronger than our times. Not me. A handful who somehow knew how to act beyond themselves, even then.’ Look at our own society. How many people dare blow the whistle on their employers, no matter what those employers do? He also writes: ‘I think that we were blemished by the consequences of what other people decided. No one ever has complete responsibility for his own moral balance. And the unforgiving truth, the severe, ancient truth, is that you can be culpable for something that you weren’t in control of.’

As one who has looked back at her own grandfather and wondered how he could live after participating in that war, and being part of that machinery, I have had similar thoughts. I cannot be indignant about the horrors of his internment after the end of the war, even though the investigators found nothing to convict him of in the end. He began by hating the Nazis; I do know that after the war he hated them, yet he became part of the machinery, to survive. To me, not the least crime of Nazis great and small is that the society they created made criminals of so many others. But I did feel that it might have been possible to get this view across through the narrative (indeed, I have passed quite a few moments, when walking the dog or dealing with mundane household tasks, working out how it could be done). I also wondered how far the opinions I heard were Starritt’s, rather than those of his characters.

Some of the interventions in the story are frankly off-beam, and why does Callum have to end an exposition of the myth of Ragnarok by sniping that dedicated recyclers are driven by an ‘end-of-days fixation’ which is a ‘narrow, atavistic niche in German culture, brought out by the extreme despair of losing two world wars’? It is news to me that recycling is a purely German concern. But what made me indignant (not to mention furious) was the attitude (whether Starritt’s or Meissner’s) towards the atrocities the Russians in their turn committed when they conquered Germany.

‘We were in the wrong,’ Starritt has Meissner write. ‘We had that knowledge hammered into us with the deaths of friends and the rape of our families. And the enormity of our crime meant we had to accept that the punishment, though terrible, was not unjust.’ Leaving aside the fact that the Russians also raped Polish and Yugoslav women (and what were they punished for?) what that boils down to is that the rape of women, girls and even young children and babies was a matter between men; the German army, the Red Army. Women, then, are property, what’s done to them is primarily an act of retribution against the males who own them?

But if there is ‘no fair, except what people effortfully construct’, as Starritt has Meissner tell us, then we need absolute clarity about what is just and what is not. What happened in Germany and Austria in 1945 was certainly the consequence of Hitler’s invasion of Russia in 1941; it doesn’t follow that it is right for a child to wake up and find a Russian soldier on top of her. ‘And then,’ (the adult woman, speaking on a video I once watched, shuddered) ‘the next one came, and the next one, and the next one-’

Imagine what that was like, if you can bear to, and see if you can comfortably talk about justice.

We Germans is published by John Murray.

The War's Not Over Yet is available from Amazon Kindle.



Monday, 31 October 2022

SIXTY HARVESTS LEFT: HOW TO REACH A NATURE-FRIENDLY FUTURE by Philip Lymbery, reviewed by Linda Newbery

 


"At the heart of sustainable change lies a recognition that all life on our planet is interconnected, and that our future depends on treating it with compassion and respect."

Linda Newbery edits Writers Review. Her latest publication is This Book is Cruelty Free - Animals and Us, a guide to compassionate living for teenagers and adults. She is a long-term supporter of Compassion in World Farming, and campaigns with Feed Our Future.

"This is now our planet, run by humankind for humankind," David Attenborough has written, quoted by Philip Lymbery. "There is little left for the rest of the living world." Our food systems are part of that domination, and Lymbery outlines powerful reasons for transforming the way we farm, eat and live if we are to have a future at all. 

Philip Lymbery is ideally-placed to write this important and timely investigation into the present and future of food and farming. As Chief Executive of Compassion in World Farming he has a wealth of knowledge and experience; he's travelled widely in his investigations, spoken at international conferences and written two previous books on different aspects of this subject: Farmageddon and Where the Wild Things Were (both of which are on my shelves).

His latest book is already receiving more attention than its predecessors - coinciding, as it does, with George Monbiot's equally important Regenesis, published earlier this year, and with a general rising of awareness of the links between food production and climate breakdown. It's not a message the majority of the public wants to hear, but for those willing to listen it's ever clearer that the planet can't sustain regular meat-eating in the affluent countries of the world: animal agriculture is responsible for 14.5-16% of global emissions and is a major driver of habitat destruction. And meat-eating is due to increase drastically as developing countries aspire to the excesses set by the US, UK and Australia. We have to make the connection between what's on our plates and the climate crisis that's all too evident. "I fear for those who will bear witness to the next ninety years, if we continue living as we are doing at present" - David Attenborough, quoted again.

Backed up by studies and references, Sixty Harvests Left could have been offputtingly dense, so it's a tribute to Philip Lymbery's skill that he makes it compellingly readable. The title is taken from a stark warning given in 2014 by the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organisation that topsoil is being lost at such a rate that only 60 more harvests could remain, and both Lymbery and Monbiot stress the importance of soil structure and how its importance has been underestimated, the drive for increased productivity leading to overuse of fertiliser and the removal of trees and hedgerows. Lymbery's book illustrates this by opening with a vivid description of the American Dust Bowl of the 1930s, immortalised in John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. Although the impoverishment of the soil caused by over-ploughing and the destruction of native vegetation proved devastating, we don't seem to have learned from it. More intensive farming, higher yields and bigger output have been the goal for so long that the cost to ecosystems has barely been questioned. 'So much of our societal thinking is based around the economy,' Lymbery writes: leaders seem to imagine that infinite growth on a finite planet is somehow possible.

Industrial scale animal farming produces cheap meat but at a high environmental cost. "Factory farming is a cruel and wasteful process ... Animals reared in this way eat vast quantities of grain and waste most of its value in its conversion to meat. In this way, we waste crops enough to feed an extra 4 billion people." Lymbery doesn't dwell here on the cruelties of intensive farming but clearly that's another factor. "Long-hidden behind a veil of closed-door secrecy, misleading labelling and opaque government handouts, factory farming will come to be seen as the cruellest folly of our times. Like the slave trade, we will wonder how we let it happen."

There's hope, though, if we're prepared to adapt. Like Monbiot, Philip Lymbery enlarges on the possibilities of precision fermenting, which is being developed to produce what looks and tastes increasingly like meat and can provide protein for a fraction of the environmental cost. Yes, we'll have to get past public squeamishness at the notion (illogical though it is to feel revulsion at fermented protein while happily consuming slaughterhouse products); but this will surely be an important way to feed future populations. It's one of several solutions we need, another being regenerative farming, or agro-ecology. Lymbery visits farmers for whom sustainable land management means reintroducing wildlife, re-establishing native vegetation and treating the soil as the precious resource it is. For such farmers as Jake Fiennes in Norfolk, the presence of grazing animals is important, though they aren't viewed primarily as a source of meat. Sheep on Fiennes' farm are seen mainly as tramplers of the soil, providers of dung and lawnmowers for conservation grazing. Nature can respond, if given a chance.

Sixty Harvests Left is structured around the seasons, beginning in summer and ending in spring, each section introduced by Lymbery's reflections and observations on rural walks with his dog Duke (he wrote the book during lockdown). It's inspiring as well as informative - I'd say a must-read for anyone concerned about nature, animals and the future of food. But do we, and especially policy-makers, care enough to listen, and make the necessary shifts in behaviour?

"At the heart of sustainable change lies a recognition that all life on our planet is interconnected, and that our future depends on treating it with compassion and respect."

Sixty Harvests Left is published by Bloomsbury.

See also: Wilding by Isabella Tree


The Garden of Vegan by Cleve West


George Monbiot's Regenesis: Feeding the World without Devouring the Planet  is published by Penguin.

Linda Newbery's This Book is Cruelty Free: Animals and Us is published by Farshore.


Monday, 24 October 2022

Guest review by Helena Pielichaty: THE GIFTS by Liz Hyder

 


"Something extraordinary and haunting ..."

Helena Pielichaty
is a children’s writer. She has had over thirty books published, mainly by Oxford University Press and Walker Books.

Website: www. helenapielichaty.com 

A few chapters in to Liz Hyder’s engrossing debut adult novel, a Thames boatman finds a woman’s body: ‘It is not the usual sort that Peter King drags from the murky Thames with his hook. She is older, for a start. Silver hair and pale white skin. She looks in good nick, he thinks to himself, as if she has fallen asleep underneath the waves …’

No, don’t roll your eyes. The Gifts is not another crime story of a hapless female victim and the detective sent to solve the case. This story is different, for the body is different. As Peter King discovers, this dead woman’s body has wings. Seizing the opportunity to make money, King hears that a surgeon is in attendance in his tenement. ‘Might you be interested in a curio, Sir? A body with some distortion to it, perhaps?’

Surgeon Edward Meake is most interested. The corpse is brought back to his basement to be analysed and dissected. As Meake severs the wings, his curiosity is piqued, his ambition ignited. Could this be his chance to make his name? To outshine his rival, the more flamboyant Samuel Covell? When, a little later, he takes possession of another ‘angel’, this time very much alive, his question is answered and his destiny is sealed.

Meake is one of five main protagonists in this multi-narrative, fantasy-reality tale set in 1840. The other four are women: Etta, a botanist, daughter of a deceased free-born Jamaican slave and a wealthy Shropshire landowner. Natalya, a gifted storyteller, forced to leave the serenity of her remote Scottish island to seek, she hopes, lodgings with her cousin in London. Eighteen-year-old Mary, the spirited ward of journalist Jos and the late George, reduced by circumstance to doing piecework by fixing buttons on cards. Finally, there is Annie Meake, Edward’s wife, a talented artist, desperate to conceive. Over the course of the 469-page book, Hyder skilfully nudges these characters towards each other, one powerful voice at a time, until they inevitably converge.

The Gifts is a page turner with a feminist twist. Through the four women’s experiences, we are left in no doubt about the unequal status of women in the mid-nineteenth century, a time when men felt they had ‘God-given’ rights over women and the law supported the notion. Yet it was also a time when women began to rebel against this misogyny. Although such ground has been well covered in fiction and non-fiction (the recent televising of Ann Lister’s diaries, Gentleman Jack, springs to mind as one example), by having two of her characters possess something as supernatural as wings, Hyder is able to explore these injustices in a freshly-imagined way. Wings can be ‘clipped’ and they can be used to soar – metaphors which are played well here.

It is hard to believe this is only Hyder’s second book, so seasoned a writer does she seem. Her first was the highly acclaimed Bearmouth, a dystopian YA novel which won the Branford Boase Award 2020 and the Waterstones Children’s Book of the Year for Older Readers 2020. Hyder makes the crossing from YA to adult seamlessly, bringing with her, perhaps, the caveat of making sure something happens on every page. Multi-narratives risk the reader losing track of the various strands but Hyder avoids this by keeping the chapters short and pacy. The result is something extraordinary and haunting and I applaud her for it. I can’t wait to see what she comes up with next.

The Gifts is published by Manilla Press.

Monday, 17 October 2022

Guest review by S C Skillman: SAPIENS: A BRIEF HISTORY OF HUMANKIND by Yuval Noah Harari


"He offers many intriguing insights, one of the first of which is the vital role ‘gossip’ plays in human evolution and life."

S C Skillman
lives in Warwickshire, and writes psychological, paranormal and mystery fiction and non-fiction. She is a member of the Society of Authors and the Association of Christian Writers. Her non-fiction books on local history are published by Amberley and include Paranormal Warwickshire and Illustrated Tales of Warwickshire; her next book, A-Z of Warwick, will be released in 2023. She has been asked to offer a fourth history book for Amberley, which she is now researching; meanwhile, her new novel is out with publishers, and she is working on the sequel. She was born and brought up in Orpington, Kent, and has loved writing most of her life. She studied English Literature at Lancaster University, and her first permanent job was as a production secretary with the BBC. Later she lived for nearly five years in Australia before returning to the UK. She has now settled in Warwick with her husband and son, and her daughter currently lives and works in Australia.

 

In this book Harari gives us an overview of who we are, where we came from and why we behave as we do, reaching many bold and enlightening conclusions derived from numerous scholars’ views. He narrates a story of random causal chains and surprising consequences, of competing theories and contradictions. In an approachable and engaging style, he offers many intriguing insights, one of the first of which is the vital role ‘gossip’ plays in human evolution and life. As he remarks, ‘Homo sapiens is a story-telling animal’.

Across ‘the Arrow of History’, he sees a trend towards Global Order: diversity moving to unity. He discerns the great transformations, beginning with The Agricultural Revolution – in his view, wheat cultivation was a disaster on every level; it initially appeared good but then became (literally) a millstone round our necks. He asks how human society first began to consider men superior to women and traces this idea back to the beginning of the Agricultural Revolution. He can find no good biological explanation for the universality and stability of the patriarchal system: a challenge to us to seek the true cause!

Biology and culture, we learn, have always been at war with each other: biology enables, culture forbids. Events, circumstances, and power relations transformed ‘figments of imagination’ into cruel social structures, such as racism. He then explores Cognitive Dissonance, a vital asset: establishing and maintaining a human culture depends upon the ability of humans to hold contradictory beliefs and values.

In 1500 AD, history chose the Scientific Revolution, with Copernicus in the field of Astronomy; and from then on, we have seen massive growth in human power. Science, industry, and military technology intertwined only with the advent of the capitalist system and the Industrial Revolution which then quickly transformed the world.

Three universal orders, Money, Empires and Religions, have laid the foundation of the united world of today. Money succeeded where gods and kings failed: it is built on our trust in an imaginary future. Now many of us live up to the ‘Capitalist-Consumerist Ideal’. Imperial ideology from Cyrus the Great onwards has tended to be inclusive and all encompassing: empires actively spread a common culture, and they have created the world as we know it. Despite the 300 year-long Explore and Conquer Mentality, he sees good emerging from Imperial Expansion and points out that history ensured a peaceful and orderly end to Empires in the twentieth century. We now head into a new global empire: major planetary problems such as climate change and the energy crisis can only be solved globally. Immensely powerful currents of capital, labour and information turn and shape the world with a growing disregard for the borders and opinions of states.

Religion he sees as the third great unifier of mankind: to unite globally, a religion must be universal and missionary. We progressed from Animism (a belief in demons, ghosts, fairies, holy rocks, springs, and trees) through to the Agricultural Revolution, when we moved on to Polytheism (a world controlled by a group of powerful gods). With the coming of Christianity and Islam, the monotheist idea played a central role in world history and succeeded. Now all these worldviews co-exist along with several new natural-law religions, among which he lists liberalism, nationalism, and different types of humanism.

He considers the forces that make cultures succeed; history disregards the happiness of individual organisms, but nevertheless, extreme widespread poverty has been largely conquered along with international war and violence. The Gilgamesh Project hopes to eliminate the ageing process, though social chaos would probably result.

Now we have reached a Permanent Revolution and ecological turmoil might endanger our survival. ‘Perhaps,’ the author speculates, ‘65,000 years from now, intelligent rats will look back gratefully on the decimation wrought by humankind.’ He warns of the collapse of the family and the community, giving way to ‘Imagined Communities’ – consumer tribes which determine our identity and sense of belonging.

He then considers how humans achieve ‘happiness’. We are significantly happier if we live in tight-knit and supportive communities. The key to our happiness is a sense of meaningfulness and purpose. But do we know the truth about ourselves?

From natural selection to intelligent design – that is the journey of our race. The Scientific Revolution may bring in bionic life. But he acknowledges, as soon as we predict something, that changes the outcome. Finally, after ten thousand years of sapiens history, we are more powerful than ever before, but we never find satisfaction.

A fascinating survey which challenged several of my prior assumptions and helped me see many things afresh.

Sapiens is published by Vintage.

S C Skillman's Illustrated Tales of Warwickshire is published by Amberley Publishing.