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.