Friday, 6 December 2013

In between Mr B’s Reading Year: Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos by Patrick Leigh Fermor (2013)

We managed to get our copy the evening before release at Mr B’s own bibliotherapy session ( what a treat we have.  This posthumous publication has been eagerly awaited, the third section of Patrick’s year-long walk from England to Istanbul (Constantinople) made in 1935 when he was 18.  This book has been finalised by Patrick’s literary executors, Colin Thubron and Artemis Cooper, using completed sections and notes.  They have managed a potentially very difficult task wonderfully well, creating something that is genuine.  Yet again, the brilliant writing, the descriptions of people and landscapes, shines through.  The lands and people Patrick meets are just fascinating.  The book takes us from the Iron Gates on the Donau through Bulgaria, back to Romania, then down the Black Sea coast to Constantinople.

Interestingly, there are only scattered notes of his stay in Istanbul – no soaring descriptions of the architecture or the bustle of city life we enjoyed earlier this year.  This is curious, but must be a part of the story why the book was never finalised in Patrick’s lifetime.  Perhaps the politics of the Ottoman collapse were too raw.  The final sections describe Patrick’s first time on Mount Athos, visiting the many different monasteries of that Greek isthmus.  Reading these pages, you can see why he was drawn back to the quiet places, as described in his little book on monasteries A Time to Keep Silence

There are some wonderful passages throughout the book – classic Fermor – leaving images in your mind that you hanker after.  A passing violent storm, with rushing rainwater.  The storks flying south - first the vanguard, then the massed ranks at different heights and finally the last stragglers and silence – oh what an image and how I want to see it.  Does it even still occur?  Then the evening with the Greek sailors and shepherds – perhaps the start of Patrick’s love of Greece.  The dancing is mesmeric and ecstatic, with tourist taverna evenings a pale reflection of what he describes.  And the people – friends he makes from all walks of life, who bring their mixed Balkan cultural histories to cloud their behaviour – fascinating and affecting.  A treat!

Istanbul 2013

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Books in between Mr B’s Reading Year: Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household (1939)

I first read this book aged 11 or 12, when it left me with an odd fascination for hollow ways and green lanes in the English landscape – picked up by others, including Hugh Thompson Green Road into the Trees, but more particularly Robert Macfarlane and his wonderful The Old Ways.  However, my schoolboy memory was also for a great adventure.  When this special reprinting in hardback by Mr B’s appeared (, how could we not get it?!  We are now the proud possessors of copy number 41 of a limited edition of 500. The Introduction is by Robert Macfarlane himself and describes a trip with Roger Deakin (Wildwood) to Dorset looking for the possible site in Rogue Male {just found Holloway (2013) describing that trip and more is out}! 

On a second reading, Rogue Male turned out to be a wonderful chameleon of a book.  OK it is a man’s book, but it has achieved something that is only rarely done – it is a boy’s adventure, an adult thriller, a spy story published on the eve of the Second World War in 1939, a nature study with insight into animal and human behaviour - all at the same time and in a relatively short book.  Cleverly, the writing uses described memory flashback, so that as the book proceeds, we learn more and more of the subject.  Written in the first person, the man who first lines up a foreign leader (clearly Hitler) in the crosshairs of his telescopic sight is an enigma.  We learn of his capture, suffering, escape to England, only to find his pursuers are close behind, notably the nasty but clever Quive-Smith. So to Dorset and old stamping grounds for me, as we head for a hidden holloway and an excavation to hide in, where Asmodeus the cat follows proceedings.  Ultimately, there is escape after an unwelcome end to the cat and fittingly Quive-Smith, with honour maintained in extremis, sadness for a lost love, before setting off for a final task.  A rare book indeed.

Dorset (2002)

Monday, 18 November 2013

Mr. B’s Reading Year No. 8: The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson (2012)

This a cracking read and a wonderfully full and complex story woven about Jun Do, the main character, and his life in North Korea.  It is a story about sacrifice, but it is a wonderful tale.  The environments and the lives may be bleak, in this totalitarian state, but they are human and carefully brought to life.  Starting as an orphan, he knows he is treated badly by the orphan master, but only because he is special.  He is clever, so he is trained in the army, and goes to work in the tunnels under the DMZ into South Korea.  He becomes at home and can fight in the dark.  Described only in snippets through the story, he undergoes pain training and learns to take terrible punishments.  He is bright and is selected to join a team of kidnappers, pinching people from Japan and South Korea, often for people with specific talents needed by the Pyonyang elite.  He learns foreign languages, especially Japanese and English.  Thus, he is sent to sea on a fishing trawler, where he listens to the radio traffic at night – including two American women rowing across the Pacific – and what turns out to be the International Space Station, where surprisingly Americans and Russians work and joke together.  How could that be possible?  Shortly after a run in with the US Navy, he fakes a terrible shark bite on his arm, to protect the trawler crew from summary posting to mining camps.  His language skills get him on a trip to Texas, where the “Minister” is a driver, the minder is the Minister and Jun Do as translator is mistaken by the US security as General Ga, the highest general in North Korea.  Treating his shark wounds, he is befriended.  Back home, Jun Do is sent to a prison mining camp, where it turns out the real General Ga is in charge of finding uranium for the state.  The characters Jun Do meets and the trying circumstances are very real.  When General Ga, a sadist, comes to visit, he sets about Jun Do underground.  However, Jun Do breaks the light, darkness is his friend and he gets rid of Ga and takes his place.  He escapes to Puyonyang and is slowly accepted by Ga’s wife Sun Moon and their two children.  Against a backdrop of bizarre brainwashing behaviour and grand designs to impress foreigners, escape to the US, torture and sacrifice complete this wonderful book - but for whom, you ask?  You will have to read it to find out.
With Do-Soon Kim on the east side of S Korea, after visiting Jeju Island (2008)

NamDaeMun Market, Seoul, S Korea (2008)

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Mr. B’s Reading Year No. 7: The Green Road into the Trees: a walk through England by Hugh Thomson (2012)

Here is an interesting, well-written book, full of people, locations and history that give us a snapshot of southern England today.  Personal coincidences abound, so Hugh was off to a winner for me from the off.  I started reading this a week after walking with Hilary and the dogs on Chesil beach at Abbotsbury, after Mike Rufus’ 75th birthday hog roast at his thatched cottage Tilly Whim in the countryside outside Dorchester, Dorset.  The walk described in the book starts at the chapel by Abbotsbury above the beach!  The walk is along the ancient Icknield Way, taking in the Ridgeway in Wiltshire, part of which I walked as a boy, through the Chilterns, ending at Holme-next-the -Sea in Norfolk. Halfway house is Hugh’s home near the Thames, where he learns he has to move out.  Not everything has gone smoothly for Hugh’s personal life, but I like his take on things and people. 

As an ancient trackway, it is fitting that history, archaeology and landscape are recurring themes.  There are fascinating places described, including the many hill forts, barrows and henges along the way.  The associated history of these comes easily and the writing provides new information and insights into our perspectives of English history.  The impact of agriculture on the landscape is a subject close to my heart and part of my professional life.  Thomson has a good eye and an insightful understanding of past influences and current pressures on farming and our social structures.  His telling of the Bronze Age is fascinating.  I’m not sure why I thought that there was more of the Green Wood in Saxon times – probably because of the history of hedges, via Oliver Rackham, one of a number of Cambridge dons that feature.  I’m on familiar territory from Dorset to Cambridgeshire, but the archaeological finds outside Peterborough including Flag Fen and the famous “Seahenge” at the end of the journey are just so exciting that we will have to get East and explore.

There is something about the coherence of making the walk that is appealing.  I guess many readers will have crossed the route, but somehow knowing some of the places and even some of the people in the book, adds to the read.  Having worked near Oxford, I know Wittenham Clumps and the Goring Gap.  I have met Robin Buxton many times, but cannot claim to have climbed Kilimanjaro with him!  My father did climb it, as a young Agricultural Officer from the Uganda Protectorate. Heading East, I was pleased to read of the Baldock Tesco’s with its amazing façade.  This was an occasional stopping point for me, stocking up for a week away at the Boxworth experimental farm outside Cambridge.

What hasn’t come across, is that this book is also a store of literary interludes, with a bit of music thrown in.  I loved George Orwell’s house.  Thomson read English Lit at Cambridge and we slowly learn of his life through the book, including his career of film-making.  His knowledge of travel and ancient cultures, particularly in South America, pops up now and then, always interesting and enthused.  So there is a lot here – enjoy.

Chesil Beach at Abbotsbury, Dorset

Thursday, 17 October 2013

Mr. B’s Reading Year No. 6: Thoughtful Gardening: great plants, great gardens, great gardeners by Robin Lane Fox (2010)

Thoughtless Gardening would be a better title for this book!  I haven’t been as stimulated by a book as this one, for some time.  However, it isn’t for the right reasons.  The Oxford academic author and Financial Times gardening columnist has gathered his writings into the calendar year in short column chapters.  The fact that each is short is a blessing.  To give him his due, he does have an excellent understanding of cultivars and the best chapters focus on individual groups – asters, peonies, roses, etc., etc. - where useful experience and information is passed on.  In a similar vein, some of the descriptions of individual gardens are good.  However, the overall tone is of pomposity and name dropping, rather than of passing on a genuine enthusiasm.  What comes over is a rather opinionated writer, probably reflecting a life spent in an Oxford college and London.  What really grates is that here is a writer that apparently likes gardens and gardening (one wonders if they really do in their heart of hearts), but who has little grasp of ecology and the natural world.  “Wildlife” seems to be just the four-footed variety and a problem to be eliminated. The value of beneficial invertebrates and pollinators is foreign to the author.  In fact, one chapter seems sufficient evidence to bring a criminal case against him under the Wildlife Act.  He describes putting out baits laced with weed killer to kill mammals in the garden.  This is just the practice used by some unscrupulous landowners to kill kites, eagles and harriers and now vigorously prosecuted by police and wildlife protection organisations. It isn’t clear, but it could be that the “poison” used was glyphosate, which of course is not toxic to mammals – again highlighting a lack of knowledge and understanding.  Surprising and irritating.

19th May 2011: Our garden, with granddaughter Abbie aged 6+ months.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Mr. B’s Reading Year No. 5: The Howling Miller by Arto Paasilinna (1981) - translated by Will Hobson from the French of Anne Collin du Terrail (Le Meunier Hurlant)

A slightly odd book?  Perhaps, but as one critic puts it, “beautifully written and strangely moving”.  The main character, the miller, Gunnar Huuttunen, is an odd individual for sure - he howls like a wolf now and then -  but he is hard working, straight and persecuted.  That persecution from his neighbours is definitely unfair and undeserved, but circumstances unfold in this fable in an unpredictably predictable way.  How he keeps going, being sent to an asylum, escaping and living wild, is a wonder and you feel for him.  His kind, increasingly supportive, girlfriend, the horticulturalist Sanelma Käyrämö, sees him through a series of mishaps and adventures.  The great and the good of the local town, particularly the chief of police and doctor, have it in for Gunnar, for no obviously good reason.  Having evaded the army, Gunnar is ultimately tricked and captured to be sent back to the asylum.  He is with his friend, the constable Portimo, on the train, but mysteriously they never arrive at the asylum.  However, equally mysteriously, a big lone wolf appears in the neighbourhood and wreaks a little revenge on the chief and doctor.  It must by Gunnar, but who knows?  The final fable is alluring, but the beauty of this book is with Gunnar and those closest to him.  Surely a little more understanding would help the world go round.

Saturday, 7 September 2013

Mr. B’s Reading Year No. 4: One Day I Will Write About This Place by Binyavanga Wainaina (2011)

We went across to Mr. B’s in Bath to listen to Alexander Fuller, brilliant author of Gone to the Dogs and Under the Tree of Forgetfulness about family life in Zambia and Zimbabwe, both of which will make you laugh out loud and cry.  This book, One Day I Will Write About This Place, was one that she recommended as a rare example of an honest and direct one by an African about their Africa. This is autobiographical, covering the early life of Binyavanga and is a chaotic romp from his early life in Kenya, through troubled adolescence, to university and even more troubled drop-out in South Africa, then back to the arms of his family in Kenya.  A measure of normality and a job, but all the time, he is reading, reading, reading – so, yes, he starts writing.  And he writes well.  Congolese music, sights, smells – the first impressions and feelings powerfully laid down as childhood memory are here.  There are his lows of dropping out in South Africa, where his beloved sister tries to keep him going, and having to return home to face his parents - but family are family.  People, communities and tribes he meets are fascinating and all the time, the background politics shape the city of Nairobi and the interactions between tribes.  He is of the “ruling” Kikuyu, but their place in Kenyan society is equivocal.  His mother also comes from the land of my birth, Uganda, torn apart by Idi Amin.  They travel there to western Uganda to visit the family, passing through places and landscapes that stir faint memories for me.  Read this book.  There is charm, wit, interest and much to learn – Binyavanga grows up, but this universal passage is an individual, unusual and vivid one in this book.
My parents, my sister and I used to live in this bungalow at Arapai Farm Institute, near Soroti, Uganda.

Saturday, 17 August 2013

Mr. B’s Reading Year No. 3: The Break by Pietro Grossi (2007)

“Small and perfectly formed” is one quote on the cover of this deceptive book and it accurately sums up this little charmer.  Set in a small Italian town, this seems an everyday tale where nothing much happens.  Dino, the main character, works on the town roads, with his small gang, creating and repairing perfect stone block work.  His recreation is billiards in the local café/billiards hall, run by the legendary player Cirillo.  As a boy, Dino is set the task by Cirillo of getting the ball to return to the exact spot – every time.  He perseveres.  As a man, he is quietly married to Sophia and they live frugally with little income.  Into this routine of stonework, billiards and home, slowly change comes. First, the arrival of tarmac and the break-up of the road gang. That does bring change, but going to national billiards tournaments at Cirillo’s suggestion (he will not go) is another.  Dino, as a country hick, just does his thing and wins, but it is for Sophia and the potential of fame and fortune is not for him.  With changes to work, comes protest, corruption, a bomb, a bit of racism, then tragedy at home, redemption and love.  How did all that happen, when nothing much was happening?  It is a mystery created by the writing.  Read and weep.

Saturday, 27 July 2013

Mr. B’s Reading Year No. 2: The Road to Oxiana by Robert Byron (1937)

Bruce Chatwin writes the introduction to this travel book, marking this book, written in 1933, as perhaps the best written travel book ever and bemoaning the loss of so many sights, smells and experiences to history.   Starting in Venice, this is the description of Byron’s journey to Oxiana, land of the River Oxus on the border between Afghanistan and Russia, with much time in Persia, today’s Iran.  He makes it on to India and ends back at home in Savernake, near where I went to school, where he cryptically hands his notes to his mother to see what she makes of it – yes, it was published!  What a joy this book is to read.  What writing!  His particular interest is in the ancient architecture of the lands he travels through.  Towers, tombs, triumphal arches, even old cities, as well as mosques and mausoleums are brought to life, some over 1000 years old.  Along the way, the vistas and people he meets and how they live are wonderfully described.  This must have been a tough trip to make, from all perspectives.  Many people helped him, some hindered, including the Shah of Persia (not named, except as the nickname Marjoribanks) and his administration.  As ever, the people continue their lives in spite of their leaders, just as I found in Tehran in 2010, 77 years later.  I too visited Isfahan and marvelled at the beautiful and wonderfully constructed mosque of Sheikh Lutfullah near the Blue Mosque and saw the stone polo goal posts at each end of the parade ground in front.  Alas, I suspect many of the monuments Byron saw are no more, though the best are preserved as World Heritage sites, including ancient ziggurats. Persia is a romantic, interesting, hard working, well-educated country that still, after all its changes, deserves better leadership.  One hopes it will happen soon.  Visit if you can.  It is worth it.  Tragically, Robert Byron was torpedoed off West Africa in 1941 aged just 36, while working as a correspondent.  He published four travel books.

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Turkey 2013: EWRS conference, Samsun, the Datca Peninsular and Istanbul

I fear our carbon footprint is growing. This trip, part work and part holiday, took eight flights to complete, but allowed us to see several parts of this diverse and fascinating country.  First up, was getting to Samsun, a city we will hear more of in the future on the northern Black Sea coast.  This was the venue for the 16th European Weed Research Society Symposium at the Ondokuz Mayýs University.  Leaving Bristol early at 06:00 we passed through Amsterdam and Istanbul Atatürk (KLM, then Turkish Airlines) before being picked up with others for our hotel, arriving at 22:30 local time.  Do-Soon Kim from Seoul and Per Kudsk from Denmark were at Istanbul, both editors for Weed Research.  We were up early on Sunday morning as I was teaching a course from 09:00 to 17:00 on “How to write a paper for an international scientific Journal” ahead of the conference.  I had a good group of attendees from 11 countries and it was a successful interactive day.  That was followed by an Editorial Board meeting for Weed Research, the society journal for which I am the Editor-in-Chief.  The conference was well-run and the social events were good, including an unexpected trip on a small ship up and down the coast for the attendees of the entire conference. 

Leaving Samsun on the Friday morning, we fly with Pegasus to Istanbul Sabiha Gökçen, then on to Bodrum near the south coast.  We had hired a car cheaply and managed to collect a slightly battered Renault Symbol outside the airport car park, signed for it on the bonnet and headed for the hills.  Not having a great deal of power was probably a good thing, driving on the right side of the road.  We drove north east over high hills, then south east, then south west along the Datca Peninsular.  We picked this for its distance from holiday destinations, looking for peace and a real break.  We were not disappointed, staying at the Flow Datca Surf and Beach Club, enjoying a bit of luxury.  The gardens around the pool were full of palms, olives and flowering Bougainvillea, not far from the sea.  The hot sun was ameliorated with a steady breeze.  Not that we did any, the hotel has a well-equipped windsurfing school on the beach, with people batting over the waves most of the day.  We drove to the end of the peninsular one day to visit the ancient city site of Knidos.  What views, with a double harbour on the Aegean and Mediterranean sides!  The British Museum has a huge carved lion from here, amongst other purloined artefacts. 

After five gloriously restful days, we drove to Dalaman airport and flew to Istanbul.  We had arranged a minibus to run us in to our hotel, also booked online.  All went well and we crossed from the Asian shore to the European and were driven past Taksim Square to the old town.  We were looking out over the great Blue Mosque with Hagia Sophia and the Topkapi Palace a stroll away.  We did all these sites and more, taking in the Grand Bazaar where we bought throws for the sitting room and a leather belt for me.  Bargaining was fun.  We also went to the Spice or Egyptian Bazaar and came away with Iranian saffron and lovely Turkish delights.  Our return journey was a long one, starting with a very early pickup at 03:30 for Atatürk airport and a 06:00 flight to Schiphol.  With an 8 hour wait, we headed into Amsterdam by bus and train and took a tram for the Rijksmuseum, which is now fully open.  The Rembrandts and Vermeers were grand, as were the doll’s houses!  After lunch in the museum, we headed back to the airport and landed in Bristol at 16:30.  The only disappointment after a great trip was when we picked up the dogs … unfortunately Teasel had been set upon and had had 7 wounds and umpteen stitches, Rosie 5 stitches and Holly a couple of nips.  After a second operation, Teasel is now back to her usual self, even if she is having to wear a plastic lampshade to stop her licking stitches.  

Sunday, 14 July 2013

Mr. B’s Reading Year No. 1: Fire Season by Philip Connors (2011)

Hilary gave me this great present last year – 11 books through the year selected by Mr. B’s wonderful and award-winning bookshop in Bath - but I only started getting the books towards the end of 2012.  First book up, Fire Season by Philip Connors, is this fascinating description of times in the Gila National Forest on the Texas-Mexico border as a fire-watcher.  This is a no-road wilderness, something we can only dream of in the UK.  There are lyrical passages of life alone in the high mountains with Alice, his faithful dog, over the summers.  The characters he meets, the fire teams and some passing through on the long-distance hiking trail, are interesting and varied.  There is romance, with his wife, Martha, how they met and increasing tension as to how they can carry on living apart over the summers.  The unanswered question is will he have to return to the Wall Street Journal after ten years and do a “real” job again. Philip Connors has a great feel for nature and ecology and brings to life the history of US forest management and the policies of individual foresters that have shaped that history.  Local history and characters colour the book.  Alongside Martha, Alice and himself is a fourth major character in this book – Fire.  Fires are dangerous – tragically reconfirmed very recently with the deaths of 19 men, an entire forest fire crew, in the US. Hence the old policy that US forests would no longer burn and firewatchers were installed across many national forests.  However, as Connors so well describes, fire is a natural force and without it, the ecology of huge areas of the US have been damaged.  Many forests are adapted to fire and require it for tree succession.  Slowly, natural burns, which often start from lightning strikes, are being allowed, though closely monitored by the fire watchers and fire crews, with the result that the natural ecology is returning. There is spectacular scenery in the US, especially the National Parks, a little of which Hilary and I saw on our 3000 mile road trip from Texas, via New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, a little bit of Wyoming to Denver, Colorado in 2007.