history

I made it to podcast episode 2

An awful lot of podcasters apparently give up after the first episode. Tried it and didn’t like it, perhaps, or became discouraged by the tumbleweed that greeted their first offering. Well, because I like to be different, I’ve persevered to make the second episode of my sitcom Lee-Ann’s Spare Fridays. It was released on Friday and as before, you can listen to it on Spotify or Apple podcasts, or at https://anchor.fm/jysaville where you should be able to play it in a browser without logging in to anything. And if I’ve embedded it properly, you can listen to both episodes right here:

Lee-Ann gets roped in by Gina to help get a book signed by the author. It’s hardly Lee-Ann’s fault she’s involved in a minor incident en route.
  1. Episode 2: Book-signing
  2. Episode 1: Sourdough Starter

Before you listen, you may want to know what this podcast is about. It’s about Lee-Ann who’s been moved on to a four-day week and wants to spend more time with her cat and research the history of the Yorkshire village she lives in. Unfortunately she has the sort of interfering and organised older sister (Gina) who doesn’t think those are worthy enough pursuits, and she spends most of Friday trying to get Gina off her case. She also has a dry, laid-back Scottish neighbour called Douglas, and a portly black and white cat named Lord Salisbury. It’s structured like a sitcom, but told as a monologue from Lee-Ann’s point of view. I’m not saying you’re going to learn anything from Lee-Ann, but she does drop real history in now and then (like sourdough bread being around in ancient Egypt).

Lord Salisbury leapt on to Douglas’s knee to show Gina that he’s not standoffish, he just doesn’t like her. Douglas said he was sure he’d regret asking, but why was my cat called Lord Salisbury?

episode 2, Lee-Ann’s Spare Fridays by JY Saville

Lord Salisbury (as I’m sure you all know) was a Tory prime minister of the late nineteenth century, and according to HCG Matthew in my Oxford Illustrated History of Britain, ‘the last Prime Minister to wear a beard’. There is no deep meaning behind my choosing the name, it is simply an improbable name for a cat (and turned out not to be the name of a cat who used to live round the corner from me, but that’s another story).

Richard Oastler, who gets a mention in episode two, was another nineteenth-century Tory, this time from Yorkshire. Best known for being instrumental in the Ten Hour Act (1847) which limited the amount of time in a day that children could work, there is a statue in Bradford of him accompanied by sorry-looking children. It’s not that far from the statue to William Forster (not a Tory), whose 1870 Education Act gets a passing mention.

Robert Owen, also mentioned in the second episode, was a Welsh mill-owner and famous socialist. Similar to Titus Salt in Yorkshire or the Cadbury family in the Midlands, he had a village for his workers at New Lanark in Scotland and was attempting to improve their health, morals, and general wellbeing. We learnt about him at school, and then presumably because it was a lot closer to get to, went for a day trip to Quarry Bank mill instead.

As a bonus historical fun fact, pilates (which crops up in both episodes, actually) was called Contrology until its inventor (Mr Pilates) died in 1967. I have a feeling if it was still called that, Lee-Ann wouldn’t be quite so set against it.

If you enjoyed either episode of Lee-Ann’s Spare Fridays and want to support me as I make episode three, you can always buy me a cuppa…

Ko-fiButton
Advertisement

My reading list for 2022 was eclectic

I read more books in 2022 than I had in a few years, which is good. I also read or re-read huge chunks of books as background for my Hexham book festival commission, but they don’t count in my list because it’s only complete books.

A few of the books I read in 2022

I read a lot of ebooks, and some I borrowed from the Library of Mum & Dad, and some I’ve given to charity shops since, so the picture’s a bit sparse but I think you’ll agree it’s wide-ranging. If we add in the fact that I read a couple of Celia Imrie novels, some local history and Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty, it becomes even more so. I wrote about Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald (good for dipping a toe into nature topics) and The Way Some People Die by Ross Macdonald (excellent slice of noir, borrowed from my dad) in January but nothing since, leaving it looking like I was only planning to review authors named Macdonald and ran out of steam. I had computer problems that stopped the blog for a few months and then I was too busy getting back into reading after a patchy couple of years to stop and write reviews of anything. I did mention The Ladies’ Paradise by Emile Zola and GM Trevelyan’s Illustrated English Social History in a post about historical echoes. I’ll try and rattle through a few recommendations now.

Scoff: A History of Food and Class in Britain by Pen Vogler was interesting and I enjoyed it but I was left wanting more (despite it being a hefty book). Rather than chronological, the book is arranged by topic. What you get therefore is effectively an article about a meal or foodstuff, which is loosely related to the other articles in that section, with little room for depth or cross-referencing. I learnt lots of fascinating things, but I think I’ll have to delve into the extensive bibliography to answer all the follow-up questions I was left with.

Farmer’s Glory by AG Street must have been mentioned by Cumbrian farmer-author James Rebanks at some point (in fact he wrote the introduction to the edition I’ve got). The author worked on his father’s farm somewhere in the south of England in the early years of the twentieth century, then went to work on a Canadian farm in 1911. If you’re interested in man’s changing relationship with nature, or the history of farming itself, it’s a sad but enjoyable comparison of two very different farms, and also the pre- and post-war farm in England.

Into the Tangled Bank by Lev Parikian I highly recommend if you’ve dipped a toe with Helen Macdonald and you’re eager for more of the nature stuff. He writes some of the Country Diary for the Guardian, and judging by both the humour and the use of footnotes in this book, is probably a reader of Douglas Adams and/or Terry Pratchett. He has a Bill Bryson-ish air of being interested but not an expert (even though he knows an awful lot about birds) and his enthusiasm is contagious – he’s also worth following on twitter. It is a book about nature, but also about how the average Briton (whoever that may be) experiences nature, so there are urban street/park/garden excursions as well as the grounds of museums, and nature reserves and the like. From memory, there is nowhere he visits that isn’t accessible to the general public, though that does include an isolated holiday destination on an island of birds.

Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty is extremely long but quite readable and it didn’t take me that long to get through. To be honest I think a massive chunk of it is graphs (which take up a lot of space) and end-notes (which I didn’t read because the BorrowBox app didn’t seem to allow easy return to where you were reading). I found it really interesting but a) I’m pretty left-wing so I’m predisposed to e.g. recommendations of wealth tax, and b) though I’m not really up on economics, I do enjoy reading economic histories full of coal production graphs. For reference, I have never read Das Kapital which sounded incredibly dull. I think if you’re interested in how we got in this mess (2008 financial crisis etc) and how tax and wealth have been handled in a few of the major economies in the last couple of centuries, it’s worth a try. I think it’s designed to be dippable, or at least skippable if you don’t want the detail.

I can’t remember the detail of most novels I read last year, like Hestia by CJ Cherryh or Ayala’s Angel by Anthony Trollope but The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley has stuck with me. It’s a wonderful blend of nineteenth-century adventure story and fantasy novel, set in (from memory) the 1860s and following a chap from Cornwall to Peru in the footsteps of his grandfather. Thinking about it, there’s another connection to my nature-reading here – the core of it is about collecting specimens of exotic trees, but there’s a lot about the properties of trees, and rock, and landscape, and it’s richly described (I can still picture various locations or scenes, months after reading it). I reviewed her novel The Watchmaker of Filigree Street a few years ago and a character from that book also makes a cameo appearance, as it were.

Even more nature-related was The Woodcock by Richard Smyth, which I recommended on Twitter after reading, as follows: If you like novels set in Yorkshire and/or the 1920s and would like to be deeply immersed in a fictional coastal town such that you feel you could become a visitor guide I recommend The Woodcock by @RSmythFreelance. Lots of bird & rockpool action, plus love, philosophy & sadness. Not to mention a theatrical American with a vision of Coney Island adjacent to the North Sea.

When I was really struggling to read anything and I just wanted something to immerse myself in, I turned to the library app on my phone and flicked through any available novels that weren’t crime or thriller. It didn’t leave a lot of choice and I ended up with Not Quite Nice, and Sail Away, both by Celia Imrie. I’m not going to claim they were literary triumphs, and yes they probably wouldn’t have been published if she wasn’t already famous, but the name helped me choose from the list and they made me laugh and they were easy to follow. And they obviously sparked something because they did get me back on a reading track, and I continued with a couple more random library ebooks before I went back to my To Read shelf.

One of them was Bunny by Mona Awad which was about friendship, belonging and loneliness, at its heart. It involved a small group of young women studying creative writing at a prestigious American university, and the cliques and bitchiness and rivalry. But, it also had a weird layer of gothic fairytale (and some gory bits so bear that in mind if you’re squeamish like me). I loved it, and I’d never have read it if I’d read a review or run across it in a bookshop. Sometimes a bit of randomness is just what your reading list needs.

I also read a Guardian article about non-Eurocentric fantasy novels, which added a few books to my To Read list, two of which I read towards the end of 2022. The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard mainly involves fallen angels in an alternative Paris; they live in rival Houses and there are long-running intrigues and complex goings-on, lots of celestial politics behind the scenes. However, one of the characters caught up in the events of the novel is originally from Vietnam and has a whole different framework of magic and religion to draw on, which brings a different perspective. The other one I read was The Fifth Season by NK Jemisin and good grief it’s good. It’s about the end of the world, but beyond that there’s not much to say without spoilers. I loved the conversational narrative voice, the fact that one strand is written in second person, the way the world feels whole and different (like Dune or similar). Just read it if you like epic fantasy, you’ll thank me later.

Books I’m reading now and next

In a break from tradition I’ll end with a look ahead. I suspect 2023 is going to be an equally weird mix. I’m reading The Obelisk Gate (the sequel to The Fifth Season) at the moment, and then there’s book 3 The Stone Sky. However I’m also reading Counting Sheep by Philip Walling, about British sheep breeds and their impact on history, and I was given Jeremy Clarkson’s book about his farm (Diddly Squat) for Christmas. I must say I’m intrigued to know how a man like Clarkson got along with farming, I think James Rebanks said he had at least got a conversation going among people who wouldn’t normally care about agriculture. My dad has pressed Never Had It So Good by Dominic Sandbrook on me – it’s two inches thick in this paperback edition and covers a seven-year period so I think it might take me a bit of a run-up. Northerners by Brian Groom and Black Gold by Jeremy Paxman were my post-Christmas treats. That lot will probably take me till March and that’s without adding any new books into the mix (or the Vaseem Khan novel that’s waiting on my kobo).

Feel free to tell me what you’ve been reading or are looking forward to reading, either in the comments or on Twitter @JYSaville.

If I’ve helped you find your new favourite author, you can always buy me a cuppa…

Ko-fiButton

Echoes of history

I read a lot of history and historical fiction, and I also read novels that were right up to the minute at the time but were written long ago. Sometimes the whole thing seems wonderfully alien or exotic (the past is a foreign country, etc) but now and then there are such chimes with the present that it makes you glad you read the thing now and not, say, fifteen years ago.

Cover of Illustrated English Social History 2 by GM Trevelyan

I had two such moments in the last few weeks, reading a fabulous social history and also a nineteenth-century French novel.

GM Trevelyan’s illustrated English Social History is well worth digging out, incidentally, if you like Ian Mortimer’s Time Traveller’s Guides and could stand a more formal and detailed version. Originally from the early 1940s, I believe, the illustrated edition was put together a few years later (I’ve got the 1960s paperbacks in 4 volumes). It is crammed with maps, paintings, woodcuts and manuscripts from the time in question, plus photographs of surviving artefacts and architecture that might help to make the point. Unfortunately the pictures are all black and white except on the cover, but they do help you imagine the period.

Anyway, the point in question in Trevelyan volume 2 was about what you might call levelling up, and the disproportionate amount of land used for raising livestock for meat. Queen Elizabeth (reigned 1558-1603) passed laws dictating Fish Days – days when you couldn’t eat meat and were encouraged to eat fish instead. It sounds superficially Catholic but Elizabeth was very much anti-Catholic and it was in fact to give a boost to fishermen, revive ‘decayed coast towns’ and ‘prevent the too great consumption of beef and mutton which resulted in the conversion of arable into pasture’. She was particularly reliant on the Royal Navy which her father had set up, and the sailors usually came from fishing communities so it makes sense that she wanted a ready supply, which she wouldn’t get if everyone gave up on fishing. It was the revival of coastal towns and the limiting of meat livestock that struck me though.

We actually have a Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities in the UK government at the moment, and as well as the north-south divide one of the problems I think it’s supposed to be addressing is coastal towns, which have tended to be left out and left behind. I’m not clear on why they were decaying in the last Elizabethan period but back then it can’t have been anything to do with cheap package holidays luring holiday-makers abroad. Likewise the limiting of meat wasn’t related to the present-day concerns of climate change and deforestation but the realisation that you could feed more people using the land for growing crops than grazing animals does echo modern thinking (George Monbiot wrote an article decrying beef and lamb only last week). Recent campaigns to reduce the consumption of red meat would be familiar to Elizabethans even if the idea of veganism wouldn’t. I’m not suggesting the government starts decreeing Fish Days but it’s interesting to note that there’s a Golden Age they could hark back to when state intervention to prop up a faltering but necessary industry or address a problem with national implications was acceptable.

The other book I’ve been reading was The Ladies Paradise by Emile Zola (Au Bonheur des Dames was the title in the original French), first published in 1883 but set in the 1870s as far as I’m aware. I’d written it on my To Read list a few months ago after reading about it somewhere, but by the time I came to read it I couldn’t remember why. Once I got going I wondered if it had come up online in a discussion about Amazon, and other giants of retail.

The novel itself has a romantic tale at its core that sometimes seems a bit of an afterthought (it was apparently adapted for TV by the BBC about 10 years ago, as The Paradise). However, the main business of the book is the owner, the staff, and the running of the Parisian department store The Ladies Paradise, and the effect it has on the shops and shop-owners in the neighbourhood. As the business grows, it stops specialising in dress fabric and broadens its interest into lace, haberdashery, hosiery, even umbrellas and gloves – anything a woman of fashion (or her children) might want. Consequently the local shops, each with its own niche that has been replaced by a department in The Ladies Paradise, are closing down and leaving an impoverished neighbourhood and less choice.

There are arguments in the book about progress and modernisation, about the convenience and cheap prices for customers, about no small shop ‘deserving’ to stay – they need to adapt or die. All of this is so familiar, particularly in the realm of bookshops but also any small shops that have been struggling in the past couple of years as people speed up their move to online buying or stick to the big superstores rather than use several local shops. It was fascinating in its detail of the day to day running of the department store, but when you read about the 35 clerks employed to work out sales commission (replaced by a spreadsheet or small database now?), the 350 messengers (replaced by phones and then email), the stable hands for the 145 horses for the delivery vans (done away with entirely), you realise that every phase of progress is the future until it isn’t. Books from today will no doubt be just as familiar-but-different to readers in 150 years, living through an era we can’t imagine.

If I’ve helped you find a good book to read, or made you think, you can always buy me a cuppa at https://ko-fi.com/jysaville

Ko-fiButton

Walking the Wall: now in audio

Having brought you all up to speed on what I’ve been writing this year, I’ve now recorded me reading the almost half-hour journey through time along Hadrian’s Wall that is Walking the Wall (new writing commissioned by Hexham Book Festival this year). You can listen to it at: https://chirb.it/dz5Hp4

It occurred to me that not all of you will be familiar with Hadrian’s Wall, or Northumberland. If you want a bit of scenic inspiration you could try this short video on YouTube which zooms over an iconic rural section of The Wall, and try and picture Sabinus in 122AD stuck somewhere not too different, in the drizzle. I had a look on the North East Film Archive and unfortunately people tend to film Hadrian’s Wall in amongst other landmarks and tourist attractions, but there’s some nice footage about 16 minutes into this fab old documentary.

I don’t mention many places specifically, because I used a bit of artistic licence and blurred nearby places together. Places I do mention are Corbridge (the capital of Northumbria by the late 8th century, burnt down by Robert Bruce in 1312), the Carlisle-Newcastle turnpike (which I think is now the B6318 where I was thinking of), Kielder forest, Heddon on the Wall, Benwell (including the temple), Killingworth, Newcastle upon Tyne (including the Swing Bridge and the university), Wallsend and the fort of Segedunum, Tynemouth priory, and the rivers Tyne, North Tyne, South Tyne. I did have general areas in mind when I was writing the historical fiction elements and the successive flash fictions move eastwards along Hadrian’s Wall. And of course once we’re in modern Wallsend and Richard’s been to the Segedunum museum he heads off to Tynemouth priory to have an ice cream and gaze out to sea.

The mouth of the Tyne from Tynemouth priory, taken by JY Saville

I was inspired along the way by: an actual account of a wren’s nest being found in a skull, though this was in an abandoned chapel not at a battle site; farmhouses built from Hadrian’s Wall stones; the Tyne Flood of November 1771 when ‘coffins were torn out of the ground, and the living and the dead were swirled away in the torrent’; Syrian archers at a fort near Birdoswald; Frenchmen’s Row in Heddon on the Wall which had housed ‘French royalist priests’ who fled the revolution; a Roman hoard dug up near Killingworth in 1811, a couple of years before George Stephenson built his first locomotive there; the battle of Otterburn and other border skirmishes; and twenty-odd years of brief visits to Tynemouth and Wallsend.

If all this has intrigued you, you can either listen to me reading Walking the Wall at https://chirb.it/dz5Hp4 or read it for yourself at https://www.hexhambookfestival.co.uk/Handlers/Download.ashx?IDMF=8c710378-92c6-4194-8186-cbd38fa87397 and as ever if you enjoyed any of it you can always buy me a cuppa at https://ko-fi.com/jysaville

Ko-fiButton

Dreaming about Northumberland

Just before Christmas I applied to Hexham book festival for a writing commission for this summer’s festival, and in January I read the acceptance email with a mixture of shock and excitement. This is the first time I’ve had new fiction commissioned, rather than writing something and sending it off to people in the hope they’d like it enough to publish it and maybe, if I was really lucky, also pay me. For a while the thought that this needed to be special, and somehow worthy of the fee, froze my creativity. Until OneMonkey helpfully pointed out that: I’ve written loads of stuff that people have liked before; I had sent writing samples with my application which they must have thought were good; I’ve successfully blended fiction and non-fiction a few times at live events, like at York Festival of Ideas.

The festival is taking place in the context of the Hadrian 1900 celebration of 1900 years since Hadrian’s Wall began to be built, and what I’d promised was this:

To create several connected short prose pieces, a blend of fiction and creative non-fiction aimed at adults but accessible to older children. Highlighting continuity and illustrating change, the fluidity of time slip fiction interspersed with a celebration of the natural world – a dreamlike exploration of Northumberland focused along the Wall.

My first ports of call

If you’ve seen photos of my bookshelves you’ll know I had plenty of resources to get me started, and I immediately pulled a likely pile from the shelves, including the wonderful Northumberland volume of the King’s England series of county guides. I also went to the Internet Archive and found eighteenth and early nineteenth century books on the natural history, history, agriculture and songs of the northern English counties. I read about fish and butterflies, archaeological investigations, battles and ballads, inquisitive antiquarians, and sheep-breeding. You won’t be surprised to know I went down a few rabbit holes that had little to do with the matter in hand, but it all adds to the mix. I ended up with pages of scribbled notes of interesting places and odd facts, and then I had to decide on a structure and a thread. I wrote a list of all the bits of history that I might be interested in touching on, and picked six time-periods that weren’t too cramped together, to meld into five pieces of flash fiction.

Blame my fascination with local and family history, but sometimes I become acutely aware of the crisscrossing paths layered in time, all the people who’ve been at a particular location before me. I liked the idea of somehow all the points in history being there at once, in key places along the Wall, and occasional seepage from one time into another. The thread became a student in a red cagoule who’s walking the Hadrian’s Wall path from west to east, experiencing weird time-slips along the way, although he thinks it’s the isolation making him see things.

Undoubtedly an influence but I didn’t dip back in

So much for the fiction. What about the creative non-fiction? I took my inspiration from the events I’ve done with Alice Courvoisier at the York Festival of Ideas among other places, where we’ve interspersed fiction and non-fiction to tell a patchwork story or explore a theme. Sandwiched between each pair of flash fictions is a flash CNF, on birds, forests, farming, and the Tyne. They connect to the surrounding fiction by image or theme – a circling bird, a darting deer, a discussion on eighteenth century agricultural improvement…

Surprise inspiration in the form of venison pasties

Once I’d started writing, my reading kept feeding in and I changed tack completely here and there. So many things I wanted to include I didn’t have room for, and so many fabulous things I found out that I want to use somewhere in future but were never going to be relevant here (take this as advance notice of future stories and local history articles about Northumberland).

When I applied for the commission, I fully expected to have moved to Hexham by June and to be strolling down the road to the New Writing event to read my piece. Nearly six months on, circumstances have changed so we’re going to be staying in West Yorkshire for a while longer. So apart from being great fun to research and write, Walking the Wall will stand as a reminder of That Time I Was About To Move To Hexham.

If you’re in the vicinity of Hexham on June 11th, you can book a free ticket to the festival event at which I’ll be reading a ten minute extract (roughly a third) of Walking the Wall.

A book about archaeology at Ur

I’ve been trying to use lockdown as a prompt to read the books languishing unread on my bookshelves. It’s proving full of delightful surprises, and is also making OneMonkey and I clear out a stupid number of books – more of which in a later post, I’m sure. The latest discovery is this slim volume, Ur of the Chaldees by Sir Leonard Woolley, which I’ve enjoyed immensely. Woolley was in charge of British Museum excavations in the 1920s at the ancient Sumerian city of Ur in modern Iraq, and this is his account, written in 1929 (though I have the 1952 revised edition, and I think there are modern editions as well).

You may recall I read a book called Footsteps by Bruce Norman last year, about nineteenth and early twentieth century archaeological expeditions and the birth of scientific archaeology. This book on Ur was a nice coda to that, being an expedition right at the end of the time period covered in Footsteps. Woolley describes techniques that made me wince, and I’m sure Professor Mick Aston from Time Team would have thrown up his hands in horror at them, but he is using the most up to date techniques available to him and contrasts them with the plundering seventy years earlier which has damaged some of the remains. I mention Time Team not just because I love the programme, but because Woolley’s descriptions of techniques, practicalities and frustrations reminded me of it. It struck me that this swiftly-produced book was the pre-television age version: an insight into the excavations for a popular audience, educating and entertaining in equal measure.

The title is, I believe, a biblical reference which was lost on me, something to do with Abraham. However, I do vaguely recall Nebuchadnezzar and Cyrus from primary school religious studies, and both those kings crop up here. As does Hammurabi, whose eye-for-an-eye code of law I remember learning about in history when I was about twelve. Basically, I know more about ancient Sumerian and Babylonian kings than I thought I did, and you probably do too. Not that it matters, because Woolley’s enthusiasm carried me through. The edition I have is 164 pages including the index, which is short enough to be casually and quickly readable. I did get a bit confused about layouts, because there are only twenty-seven black and white photos and a few line drawings in the whole book, but on the whole I got a sense of wonder and discovery as he described unearthing the different layers and artefacts. Amazingly, one of the places they excavated was a museum of antiquities! A site from around 600BCE where objects already at least a thousand years old were gathered as a teaching resource, it seems. A fascinating thought.

Trying to make out details on the small pictures included in this paperback, I wished I could see the objects themselves. He was digging for the British Museum, I realised – they must have pictures somewhere, they’re good at that. What they’ve actually got is a Google street view of the gallery, so you can (if you’re better at controlling street view than I am) walk through the gallery as though you were there. And the same goes for the rest of the museum, I think. I did also discover a British Museum blog post, which I haven’t explored but I think suggests there’s a new online Woolley/Ur resource somewhere. I had a wonderful time spotting objects in the gallery that I recognised either from the photos in the book or from Woolley’s descriptions. To have read about the difficulties of identifying or excavating them gave me much more of a connection than if I’d simply looked through the objects without reading about them first.

Possibly I’m just slow on the uptake and everyone else who’s missing museums has been tripping through the rooms of their favourites in a virtual way for months. However, I realised that in a similar way I could ‘visit’ museums I’ll never get to in real life. It is vaguely possible my London-based friend will persuade me to the British Museum once all this corona-horror is over, but I’ll never go to Cairo or Washington or St Petersburg but chances are their museums have virtual tours too. In the meantime I’ve also discovered, courtesy of OneMonkey, a reddit channel where people post photos of man-made objects, many of them ancient, from all around the world.

So, Ur of the Chaldees has earnt its continuing place on my bookshelves, next to Footsteps. Unusually for my second-hand books I have no recollection of where it came from or when I acquired it. It’s not ex-library, I can’t imagine anyone giving me it as a present, and I can see no evidence of a rubbed-out price from a charity shop. I have no idea what possessed me to pick it up in the first place, or why I then didn’t read it for years. However, I dare say I’ve appreciated it more after Footsteps than I might have done if I’d read it a couple of years ago so all in all, I’m glad I put it off.

If I’ve helped you discover some wonders you can always buy me a cuppa…

Ko-fiButton

Giordano Bruno as a fictional character

Back in the Before times, when I browsed charity shop bookshelves regularly, I kept spotting SJ Parris novels and thinking for a moment they were CJ Sansom novels. That’s probably the intention behind the fonts and general vibe of the covers. Eventually I picked one up and discovered that they seemed to be sixteenth century spy thrillers, rather than the sixteenth century crime of Sansom’s excellent Shardlake series, and parked the knowledge for later. I have a history of getting confused by the subtleties of spy tales. However, I couldn’t entirely dismiss the series as the central character was Giordano Bruno.

If you’ve ever delved into the history of physics you’ll have come across Giordano Bruno, the mad monk. I talked about him briefly in my dash through celestial mechanics at York Festival of Ideas in 2018 because in among some of his more outlandish theories he suggested things that turned out to be true. Here’s what I said about him, in my section on challenging dogma:

Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake in 1600 after 7 years of imprisonment by the Inquisition, though before long most of his worldview replaced that of medieval Christianity. He wasn’t an astronomer, his theories were based on neither experiment nor observation, he dealt in philosophy, really, though I’ve seen him described as “a renegade monk” which conjures up an interesting image. He often comes between Copernicus and Kepler in history of science books, but that’s the benefit of hindsight again. He suggested that the earth moves round the sun and that the sun moves; that there’s no such thing as a point absolutely at rest; that the stars are at vast and various distances from the solar system and that they are themselves centres of comparable systems; that the universe is infinite and can provide no criterion of fixity, and that our solar system is in no sense the centre of the universe. Which, as you can imagine, kind of annoyed the church who liked the idea that Man was special. Anyway, alongside all this fantastic stuff, way ahead of its time, he also had some strange ideas in the same way as Kepler and his mysticism or Newton and his alchemy. So was Bruno a crank with some lucky guesses or an insightful thinker? And would you have known what to make of him, without several centuries of hindsight?

You can see why I might be interested, then. And why I couldn’t resist a book of three Giordano Bruno novellas by SJ Parris on offer for 99p when I was browsing the Kobo store for new reading material at the start of January.

The first story, The Secret Dead, is set in 1566 when Bruno is 18 and has recently taken his vows, and contains both a murder mystery and the dangers of exploring science when the Inquisition are on the prowl. It was a bit gruesome in the dissection scene – remember, at the time scientists didn’t stick to what we think of as different disciplines – but I zipped through it. It felt close to being a Shardlake-Cadfael mash-up and I enjoyed the first-person perspective on the hypocrisies of the church.

I ran out of steam during the second one, however, The Academy of Secrets, set when Bruno is 20. I think there are several reasons, some to do with reading it as an e-book and some to do with Bruno as a character. I’ve come to realise how much I rely on the blurb on the back of a paperback, which of course is missing from an e-book, though I could go to the website and read it there. I take my cues on what to focus on from what is deemed important enough for the paragraph on the back cover. So I’m wondering if the incident I’ve just read is an aside, a sub-plot, or the main thrust of the novella. And because I don’t know how far through that story I am (I can never remember how to set a bookmark so I can get back to where I just was, so I don’t want to check the contents list and lose my place) I don’t have the cue from page-count either – if I’ve got two pages left that’s very different from having fifteen pages left. Though I haven’t read an awful lot about Bruno, he’s cropped up now and then from my undergraduate physics days onwards and I’d formed some kind of idea of him that doesn’t match this rendering. From these stories, Bruno is being played by a young Rufus Sewell in my head – a handsome philandering youth who is also interested in forbidden scientific writings. I had always thought of him as an austere solitary thinker.

I wonder if part of the disconnect is Bruno’s youth, and not having enough story to get my teeth into. Both of which would be solved by reading the first novel, Heresy, which is set in 1583 so would make Bruno 35. The novella and a half (or maybe three-quarters) that I’ve read so far are well-written, and I imagine fans of CJ Sansom’s Shardlake or Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell series would find much to interest them. I may well come back to the novellas, and dip into the first novel, when I’ve severed Giordano Bruno the fictional character from my idea of Giordano Bruno the figure from the history of science.

If I’ve helped you find your next book to read, you can always buy me a cuppa…

Ko-fiButton

An Indifference of Birds by Richard Smyth

An Indifference of Birds by Richard Smyth, in paperback

I don’t often review non-fiction and I don’t think I’ve ever reviewed ‘nature writing’ before, partly because I’m not sure how much of my audience will be interested and partly because I don’t feel qualified, somehow. I wanted to share this book, however, because I feel like it’s the most accessible nature book I’ve read.

An Indifference of Birds proclaims itself ‘Human history – from a bird’s eye view’ and in less than a hundred pages it rattles through a series of good turns and injuries we as a species have (mostly accidentally) done to birds both in general, and for specific types, times and places. In the process it lobbed handfuls of fascinating facts at me (which I then lobbed at OneMonkey), turned my perspective upside down and made me think hard about our place in nature. Which, to be honest, I’ve been thinking about a fair bit anyway.

Lockdown, we’re told, has made everyone in the UK appreciate nature more. Indeed, the BBC6Music breakfast show has a new nature-lovers’ segment, so mainstream has our Attenborough-fuelled appreciation become. No better time, then, to read this book. I will confess that Richard is a friend of a friend, which is what made me aware of the book’s existence but I’m glad I read it and I urge other interested amateurs to read it too.

I mentioned that ‘nature-writing’ can sometimes seem daunting, lots of technical terms for glacial valleys or Latin names for plants, or it’s written by someone who goes into raptures about trees while I’m sat here thinking trees are nice and everything, I love walking among them but is there something wrong with me that I don’t look at a 900-year-old oak and swoon? Richard’s book glows with enthusiasm, here is a man who clearly loves his subject and appears to know what he’s talking about, but he uses Latin names only about twice in the book where he needs to make a point, and if he uses a technical term he gives a simple gloss for the uninitiated. White-tailed eagles, we’re told, are ‘broad-spectrum feeders – they’ll eat any old shit’. This is the level of technicality I can deal with.

I’ve had the pleasure of reading a few of Richard Smyth’s short stories (some of which can be read at his website) and this book is also in a deceptively simple, readable style with occasional flourishes that leave you smiling. He makes the point in chapter 2 that our destruction of habitat isn’t solely down to late-stage capitalism and corporate greed, we’ve been doing this for centuries, and I love the way he says we’re ‘perfectly capable of wreaking handmade artisanal havoc at a community level’. That nudge to step back and think about what exactly the problem is and are our ‘solutions’ sensible recurs through the book.

I happened to have started listening to the audiobook of Wilding by Isabella Tree the week I read An Indifference of Birds and I once went to a talk about rewilding by George Monbiot, so I have a passing Guardian-reader’s interest in the topic. OneMonkey and I have had the odd conversation along the lines of ‘yes but returning to which state of nature – 500 years ago, a thousand?’ but I haven’t seen that problem articulated before. Richard makes the point that it’s tricky to talk about re-introduction of anything, as everything else in the ecosystem (including people and their habits, dwellings, waste) has changed in the meantime, and he raises some interesting moral questions about wiping out non-native species.

In short, if you want to find out some interesting things about birds ancient and modern, admirably contextualised, and be made to view the birds in your garden/town/city differently, and possibly be alerted to to the difficulties of noticing and stopping gradual changes (be it biodiversity loss or climate change), read this book. And if anyone knows of equivalently accessible volumes on other aspects of the natural world, let me know.

You can find out more or buy the book via the publisher.

If I just helped you find your way into nature-writing you can always buy me a cuppa…

Ko-fiButton

When do we decide to stop remembering?

Stuart Maconie mentioned in passing that it was 43 years since Elvis Presley died, on his BBC6Music programme this morning. Even so, and despite having played several other songs from the ’60s and ’70s in the half hour or so that I listened to, he didn’t play any of Elvis Presley’s music. Sometime in the ’80s I went through a big Elvis Presley phase (I’ve also had a bit of an Elvis Costello phase, but that came later) so his death did cross my mind this week, but it seems I’d misremembered the date as the 13th so I was surprised on Thursday when nobody mentioned it on BBC6Music. They still make a big thing about David Bowie’s death each year, but the years that have passed since then are still in single digits and besides, they were always in thrall to Bowie so that makes sense.

In the ’80s when Radio 1 was basically the only choice if you wanted to avoid adverts, I remember them making a big thing about Elvis Presley’s death, and the anniversary of his birth for that matter. Likewise the deaths of Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon, Jim Morrison but not Buddy Holly as far as I recall. At the time, all of these events seemed equally ancient to me – Elvis Presley died the year before I was born, and I hadn’t yet figured out who John Lennon was by the time he was shot – but looking back I wonder if my Elvis phase (Presley not Costello) coincided with the tenth anniversary of his death. Now that I’m in my forties, ten years sounds like no time at all. No wonder the DJs were still marking the date.

Also this week was the 75th anniversary of VJ Day. Because I live in an area with high COVID-19 infection rates and stricter rules than the national set, I got an email from the council reminding me not to throw or attend a street party for the occasion and suggesting I could put up some bunting instead. Leaving aside the fact that it would seem in bad taste given the Japanese lady who ran the village post office till she retired a few years ago lives round the corner, it made me wonder how long these commemorations will go on.

In the summer of 1987, when I was eight and three-quarters and possibly getting into Elvis Presley’s phenomenal rock n’ roll thanks to Radio 1, it was 42 years since the second world war ended and nearly 69 years since the first world war ended. We had the minute’s silence on Armistice Day, as we still do, but it was already about wars plural, not just 1914-18. I don’t remember – though bear in mind memory is a faulty thing at best – any particular commemoration for world war one in my lifetime until the centenary. There was a 50th anniversary of the end of world war two, however, and we seem to have marked it every five years since then.

HubertMedal

Great uncle Hubert’s WW1 medal

In November 2018, when the country was marking the centenary of that initial Armistice Day, my dad told me it had really hit him that week how recent the first world war was when he was a kid. Here were we, recently celebrating fifty years of Sergeant Pepper, an album that was released while my dad was at university, and yet when he went to university it was less than fifty years since his grandad had been fighting in the first world war. It was old hat though, my dad said, it was all about world war two by then.

When I mused to OneMonkey earlier about this 75th anniversary of VJ Day he said there are still people living who were caught up in it. That’s true, there are people who fought, had military support roles, were land girls, worked in munitions factories. My parents and OneMonkey’s were born in a scatter of years just before and just after summer 1945 and had fathers and/or uncles who fought. But the same could have been said about the first world war when we were children so is it, as my dad suggested, about displacement by the next thing?

A quick look through the online nineteenth century newspaper archive my library card gets me access to reveals no great British commemoration of the Battle of Waterloo on its 50th anniversary in June 1865 (there was a festival for 1,200 veterans in Holland, I believe). There were veterans still living, not least one of OneMonkey’s Westmorland ancestors, and yet all I can find is a passing reference to ‘the jubilee of Waterloo’ in a political canvassing speech, and another reference as a rhetorical flourish in an article about the American civil war. There had been wars and revolutions aplenty in the meantime. Perhaps they’d knocked Waterloo from its pedestal in the national psyche, or perhaps there were simply too many things to commemorate – like the old excuse for a drink, ‘toasting the siege of Gibraltar’ (the joke being that there’s been so many, it’s bound to be the anniversary of one or the other of them).

So maybe by the time I was a child, Buddy Holly had been knocked off the top spot by the more recent untimely rock deaths – god knows there have been enough of them – and Elvis Presley’s been surpassed in turn by the likes of Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse. You can’t dedicate an hour of radio to all of them, you’d never play any new music, but it doesn’t stop the fans remembering, the people who it means something to. We all have our personal anniversaries, whether weddings, deaths, or in my case a relative’s failed suicide attempt (21 extra years of them, this summer – hurrah!) but we don’t expect anyone else to remember or note their passing. I sincerely hope we never have another global war to knock world war two off the top spot, but I wonder when as a nation we’ll feel able to let the anniversary fade away as we have with its predecessors.

 

Ko-fiButton

Lost cities and forgotten worlds

Footsteps by Bruce Norman

I’ve never been able to resist a library book sale. OneMonkey had to ban me from going to them, eventually, but not before I’d filled our creaking bookshelves with cheap cast-offs I might find interesting or useful one day. The fiction tended to be read in short order, it was the non-fiction that hung around, getting passed over in subsequent book culls because one day, you know, when I’m in the right mood, I might do more than flick through and nod in an interested way before replacing it on the shelf.

Cue lockdown, and while I have bought 6 ebooks and 3 physical books online since March, it seemed like a good time to not only read books from my To Read shelf, but also ferret among the main shelves for the books I haven’t read yet. I should clarify at this point that the To Read shelf automatically gets any new fiction, and gets some new non-fiction but not all. There is no underlying logic as to which goes where. Which means that there are a handful of non-fiction books scattered around the house that weren’t bought purely for reference and yet neither of us has read them. Most of them were picked up at library book sales at least fifteen years ago.

Footsteps by Bruce Norman is a BBC book from 1987, I assume it went with a TV series of the same name but I don’t remember watching it. At a guess, I bought the book from Dunfermline library in about 2002 and for the last nine years in this flat it’s been sat on the shelf between the BBC tie-ins of Michael Palin’s travels, and a book about female Victorian explorers which I hadn’t read either. The female explorers one turned out to be patronising claptrap that had me ranting within half a prologue – and before anyone assumes male author, it wasn’t. Having cast that aside I moved onto Footsteps, thinking maybe this would be another book I’d finally get rid of, but I was hooked within moments.

The sub-title of Footsteps is ‘Nine archaeological journeys of romance and discovery’, and while there is romance aplenty, that word ‘discovery’ is a troubling but crucial one. In one sense none of these are ‘discoveries’ because they were all built by someone – at best they’re rediscoveries after being forgotten in the meantime. In another sense they were all discoveries in a personal sense because that explorer or that team was seeing the ruined city or the cave temples for the first time, with no inkling beforehand unlike now where we’ve all seen impressive photos or video footage of Machu Picchu. It’s that personal revelation and the sense of wonder and awe that often accompanies it in the journals of the explorers that I tried to hang on to as I read.

The journeys in question take place from the early nineteenth century to the 1920s in Egypt, India, Peru, the USA, Zimbabwe, Thailand and elsewhere, and the book draws on extensive quotes from journals and letters of the time of each journey. During those original journeys, particularly the early ones, the aim was plunder. In Egypt in 1817, for example, the explorers didn’t care who owned the pyramids and their associated statues and sarcophagi, there was a race between the British and French governments to loot the finest pieces and that’s what mattered. It’s disgraceful, and at some sites mentioned in the book it ruined all possibility of scientific archaeology later on, but the exploration itself I still find fascinating in the same way I find Michael Palin’s travels fascinating, with the added interest of itself describing the lost world (to us now) of the 1840s or 1920s.

For the most part, as you might expect, the explorers were wealthy amateurs from western Europe or the USA who decided – whether for glory, treasure or for the advancement of science – to head off and see what was out there. Alfred Maudslay apparently went to Guatemala in 1880 because he fancied spending the winter somewhere warm and had recently read about an 1840s expedition there. Part of me is gobsmacked by the arrogance of the man but another part of me admires his confidence and drive. Unfortunately, however, men like Maudslay were busy colonising the globe at the time (he was a colonial official himself, in the South Pacific) and even when there is some scientific basis behind their approach to their expeditions, the patronising attitude to the locals and the sense that everything is ripe for the picking, can be pretty sickening to read. Oddly, even some of the 1980s contextualising from Bruce Norman seems a tad old-fashioned now, to say the least.

The sites that were ‘discovered’ had mostly been abandoned, some had even passed from folk memory and the ability to read the carved or painted pictograms lost, but in Zimbabwe and some of the sites in Peru for instance people lived among the stone ruins, in recent dwellings that were not made of stone. In these cases I guess the sites had been abandoned at one time and then people had drifted back, or new people had drifted in. Some of the Ellora cave temples in India were in use when army captain John Seely turned up in 1810 but he still thought it impertinent of the local holy men to object to him pitching a tent in one or eating beef on the premises. I ought to be thoroughly disgusted with him – I am, his interactions with people make me wince, but I still want to read his account of the temples and their surroundings and see the place through his eyes, because he was the first Englishman to write about it, to see and describe it from that perspective. The outsider’s eyes that Reginald Le May later brought to northern Siam (published as Asian Arcady in 1926) even proved useful to that country’s new king, who read the book when first visiting that area of his realm a short time after its publication.

Most of the journeys in Footsteps are to sites I’ve read about before, or maybe watched a BBC programme about – Luxor, Petra, Machu Picchu, the cliff dwellings in the USA. They are still spell-binding, and the book gave me details I hadn’t known before, or perhaps had forgotten, as well as the contemporary accounts and drawings. Add to this the sites I wasn’t familiar with at all – Tikal in Guatemala, Lycia in Turkey, temples in India and Thailand – and it made for a wonderful book, an armchair excursion through space and time. It reminded me of reading Biggles books and Jules Verne as a kid, full of bravery and adventure, which has carried me through to reading sci-fi and Michael Palin now. I can be critical of the explorers and their approach while still enjoying the glimpse of other times and places they give me.

Footsteps serves in a way as a history of archaeology as a discipline as well, from the interested antiquarians to the introduction of scientific methods, all the way up to the (1980s) present day of magnetometry, familiar to anyone who’s ever watched Time Team. Even the looters mainly ended up turning to science: Belzoni in Egypt began to take measurements and make observations which led him to discover completely forgotten tombs that were not even suspected, for instance. Richard Wetherill of Colorado began by selling artefacts from the south-western USA in the 1890s but entirely self-taught seems to have progressed to proper layer by layer excavation with careful measuring and recording of finds using a grid system, and a need for his expeditions to meet high archaeological standards. He put forward theories about the basket maker and cliff dweller people in that area which have since been borne out but at the time were dismissed. Maybe that was because he was initially a looter, or because there were by this point university-trained archaeologists and Wetherill was an amateur, but I bet that in large part it’s because he was a cattle farmer rather than a ‘gentleman’.

Footsteps is long out of print, but you can read some of the original accounts in free out-of-copyright ebooks:

 

If you’ve enjoyed these adventurous ramblings you can always buy me a cuppa…

Ko-fiButton

Some thoughts on censorship and debate

I am what you might call a fan of free speech. I err on the side of people being able to say pretty much whatever they want, as long as they can’t say the bad stuff with impunity. I appreciate subtlety. I infuriate people frequently with my ‘it depends’ – maybe I’m a little too fond of nuance but everything happens or is said in a particular context, and I think there’s a worrying tendency lately to forget or disregard that, and to want to see everything in stark, simple terms.

Take the ‘statue wars’ in the UK. Tearing down statues does not erase history. Both the erection and the destruction or removal of the statue tell us something about the prevailing mood of the time. They’re symbolic, that’s the whole point, and therefore symbolically removing them can make sense. Do I think all statues of ‘questionable people’ should be torn down? No. Partly because I’m not sure who gets to decide what ‘questionable’ means and partly because we’d end up with no statues at all, except the one of Paddington Bear in the station he was named after, and there are better things to do with the time, money and energy we have available. It reminds me of something Billy Bragg said at a gig many years ago, it’s all very well smashing in a McDonalds as a representative of global capitalism but there’s another branch round the corner, and before you’re halfway across town you’ve encountered six more and run out of steam and maybe you’d have been better off doing something more productive about it all in the first place.

Leaving statues up and defending them at all costs can lead to erasure of history. Churchill is a case in point: inspiring wartime leader he may have been but he was also responsible for famine in Bengal and some heavy-handed tactics against strikers at home. Yet any attempt to point out his flaws and failings is seen as denial of his achievements, as though one cancels out the other. They are both true. Either looking up to someone as a hero or decrying them as pure villain misses the truth of their humanity. As former US President Obama said this week (himself a role model for many despite leaving Guantanamo Bay untouched) the world is messy, there is such a thing as moral complexity. People are rarely all good or all bad and once you start trying to find ‘pure’ people to have statues of, you start tying yourself in philosophical knots about why these ones are ok despite the inevitable flaws and these aren’t. Here’s a thought: why don’t we openly talk about all the aspects of someone’s character, and when as a society we decide that the good no longer outweighs the bad, take the statue down and say why we’re doing it. Debate and discussion don’t seem to get much of a look-in in modern life, unfortunately.

I haven’t read the JK Rowling stuff that’s caused such a stir, and I don’t intend to. I don’t read her novels, she isn’t a politician, I don’t need to know what she thinks about anything. However, I can’t escape the fact that there has been uproar, and some people at her publisher are saying they won’t work on her new book. I confess my first thought was that it’s a job, you don’t get to choose which bits you want to do. Then I thought I’ve clearly been living in a Tory town too long, and surely that’s the point of a union. I thought about Lancashire mill-workers who underwent hardship themselves rather than deal with slave-picked cotton during the American Civil War, because they felt strongly enough about it. I thought about how various staff at the publishing house would have to meet or speak to an author to ask or answer questions, discuss a marketing plan etc, and how I’ve sat at work in the past hoping I don’t have to join a meeting with a particular person who’s a friend of a friend at home and who I find odious – above all, I was worried I wouldn’t be able to stay professionally detached, that my personal feelings would come through and reflect badly on me. So after brief thought, I could see a few reasons why those publishing staff might revolt, and good luck to them. The point at which I’d worry is if they tried to prevent other staff who didn’t feel as strongly, or were happier about separating the creator from their work, from working on it.

I have mixed feelings about the blurring of the line between art and artist. For instance, everyone now knows that Eric Gill sexually abused his daughters which obviously entirely changes how a viewer sees or interprets any of his depictions of them. But does it – should it – change their views of his other work? And should we tear it all down and hide it away, or keep it on display with a note on context, or simply brush his biography under the carpet as some seem to advocate? The Guardian had an interesting article on this a while back. If he was still alive I doubt there would be quite as much debate about it, I have to say, but with a dead artist the argument can be made that we’re neither rewarding nor punishing him by our actions and so it’s more down to how the art itself makes people feel.

Which brings me to the litmags. If you’re running a small literary magazine with no pay then the main perk is getting to publish exactly what you want, and by extension not publishing whatever you don’t want. Nobody has any kind of a right to be published by your magazine, and if you want to never publish anyone called Tom because someone of that name bullied you at school, that’s your prerogative (depending on the jurisdiction you may have a hard time defending it legally if it’s a stated aim, but that’s another matter). However, I’m seeing again (it arose a couple of years ago and I’m sure I wrote about it at the time) statements on Twitter saying that ‘abusers’ and ‘bigots’ will never be knowingly published by certain magazines and if they have unknowingly published them, please let them know so they can remove their work. The aim, it seems, is to ‘not give them a platform’ – I’ll come back to no-platforming in a moment but take it at face value for now. You may have overlooked a term that’s offensive to particular groups and you weren’t familiar with it and would never have accepted the piece if you’d known the connotations. Fine. But I don’t think that’s what’s going on here, and certainly when this flared up a couple of years ago the main fuss was about elements in the life of the artist, not the work itself. So if there’s nothing offensive in the work, that means you’re objecting to the writer as a person. Again, your prerogative – they’ve been rude to you, you saw some views you didn’t like on Twitter, by all means don’t publish them. The bit that makes me uncomfortable is asking people to shop them and taking their work down retrospectively, it veers a bit too close to witch hunt territory for my liking. What evidence do you require? Could I contact you and make up a story about a rival and make you take down all their work? Do they have a right of reply?

I don’t like no-platforming as a response. I’ve spent most of the last 24 years studying or working at UK universities and every so often you hear that some student union or other has decided that someone or other shouldn’t be allowed to speak at their event. Most of these turn out to be a storm in a teacup that’s being wilfully misrepresented as ‘no-platforming’ but a few are genuine. I can understand that at a particular event you might be worried about a fight breaking out (context, see) but in general I think shutting down debate is a bad idea. If the person’s ideas are self-evidently ludicrous, let them expose themselves as fools, you could even help them along with some well-chosen questions. If you’re genuinely worried that exposure to these ideas might persuade people to join the dark side (whatever the dark side is in your opinion, in this situation) then it’s better to have them in the open being challenged than for their ideas to filter through quietly with no opposing voice. Shutting people up also lets them be portrayed as martyrs, as people who were so dangerous they had to be silenced, which only adds to their appeal.

There will be many people who disagree with this post but I think we’ve established that I’m ok with you having different views from me. When I was an adolescent I wanted all my rock heroes to live up to my expectations but one after the other they blotted their copybooks. For a while I stopped listening to interviews on the Radio 1 Rock Show. Then eventually I realised that if there wasn’t a single member of my own family that I agreed with on everything, I wasn’t likely to find a stranger that made the grade. So there are bands where I will only ever buy a second-hand album, won’t listen to them on Spotify or buy their merchandise, because I don’t want to give them money, but I’m not going to stop listening to them. I’m not even going to deny liking their music (Motley Crue are first on the list, since you ask). People are complicated. That goes for me, too.

A literature festival, a twinned town, and a workhouse

Autumn is always busy, it wouldn’t feel right if it wasn’t. As is often the case, I’ll be taking part in the Ilkley Literature Festival Fringe and I’m part of a festival on Chapel FM (have we stopped calling it East Leeds FM again?) though not the usual Writing on Air. I’ve also been busy behind the scenes doing historical research.

This year instead of showing off what we can do, Ilkley Writers are giving four bite-sized workshops called Invite To Write at the Fringe, two on Saturday 5th October and two on Sunday 6th. Each one will feature one writing exercise that’s intended to be fun, not at all intimidating, and suitable for those wanting to dip a toe in the creative waters as well as experienced writers in a rut. We like a challenge…

The night before the first workshop I’ll be on Chapel FM at 8.30pm (though as usual you’ll be able to listen again via the website) reading flash fiction that I wrote for the 50th anniversary of the twinning of Leeds and Dortmund. It has nothing to do with either Leeds or Dortmund, or anything high-minded like bridging the continental divide. The theme was neighbours, so mine is wry humour about living in a flat. Other people involved in the festival have been more serious about it (though not all of them, naturally). You can read all the pieces on the Leeds Dortmund website.

While preparations for all this have been going on, I signed up as a volunteer researcher on a project called More Than Oliver Twist, which aims to individualise and humanise the nineteenth century workhouse. The idea is to research inmates who were in particular workhouses on the 1881 census, and tell their life stories in an exhibition next year. For me this is a natural follow-on from writing about the Bradford Female Educational Institute a couple of years ago for the Dangerous Women Project, highlighting a forgotten, overlooked bit of working class history and trying to make people (including me, perhaps – it’s easy to think in broad terms when you’re reading about the past) think about classes and categories of historical figures as individuals. I’ve researched a few workhouse inmates before while looking into mine and OneMonkey’s families, but not in Leeds so I’m straying into new territory here.

Incidentally, the Dangerous Women Project is crowd-funding a book. I’m not entirely sure why they’re doing a book when they’ve already got a website (and my piece is not going to be in the book) but if you’re interested, head on over there and support them.

Also, as an aside, some or all of this arose from me working through The Writer’s Plan that Carmen Marcus kindly shared. I wanted to give more back, with teaching or mentoring. I wanted to dare to try (like, getting involved in a Chapel FM festival by myself. Though it turns out Roz is on earlier in the evening so we’re going there together, which is a nice coincidental compromise). And I wanted to write about more forgotten history. Thanks Carmen, for giving me a shove.

Alice and Jacqueline face the impossible

York Festival of Ideas is just drawing to a close for another year, but this week I joined Alice Courvoisier there for the third time to deliver an evening of thought-provoking entertainment (such has always been our aim, anyway).

We were supposed to be joined by Carolyn Dougherty this time (sadly she had to pull out at the last minute) so it was much more of a straightforward lecture format than our 2016 offering on the theme of time (which mixed myths, my fiction, history of science, and some proper physics) and a complete departure from our 2015 blend of myths and stories. Alice’s hair seems to get a bit shorter each time, but I can’t present the evidence because everyone was too engrossed to take photos this year (by which I mean, OneMonkey couldn’t make it and no-one else thinks of these things), which also means you don’t get to see the flabbergasting size of our audience. We were in a bigger venue this year, with stewards on hand to bring us coffee and supervise the Q&A (thank you to the students who gave up their time to do this) and I had a mild panic when I heard 88 tickets had been booked. They didn’t all turn up, but we still had a bigger audience than I was anticipating.

This year we were Facing the Impossible in Physics, according to the title of our talk, and (to paraphrase from my notes) we tried to get the audience thinking about science in a way they might not have thought about it before, by looking at how the notion of ‘impossible’ can change depending on when and where we are, and how the prevailing scientific view can change radically.

kepler-solar-system-1

Kepler’s Platonic Solid model of the solar system

Between us we did an accelerated history of celestial mechanics, with me tackling the part from the dawn of time (metaphorically speaking) to Kepler in 1609, and Alice presenting Newton to Poincaré at the turn of the 20th century, which gave her an excuse to play a clip of this video illustrating the concept of the sun moving as well (because we usually see it as static, with planets whizzing round it), with some suitably grandiose music.

I talked about experimental validation and bias, thought experiments, and provisional truths, while Alice pointed out that we have to trust something, and rattled through a history of Western views on the nature of matter. As a brief overview that might sound a bit dry but the audience seemed engaged and enthusiastic, and we had to curtail the Q&A after about half an hour because we’d over-run our slot and the next guy needed to start setting his presentation up! In fact Alice and I, as well as Mark the artist (who was there to provide moral support but also to critique us in his capacity as a philosopher of science) chatted to interested members of the audience for at least a quarter of an hour outside the lecture room afterwards as well, which made me feel like we’d achieved our goal of getting people thinking. A special mention must go to the physics student who boosted my ego by asking if there was an accompanying book available downstairs at the Waterstones stand… (maybe next time).

If you were there, thank you. If not, I’ll leave you with one of my thoughts from the evening:

In this age of the distrust of experts I don’t want to imply that scientists – even long-dead astronomers – don’t know what they’re doing. But I do want to emphasize that they’re not infallible, they’re not pure objective calculating machines, and the history of science isn’t a single-track road that’s sitting there just waiting for the brambles to be hacked away so the carefree physicists can skip along it arm in arm past all the handy signposts saying ‘Truth this way’.

Long Road From Jarrow by Stuart Maconie

I went to see Stuart Maconie talk about this book at last year’s Ilkley Literature Festival, an event which was entertaining and informative, and far too short. I finally got the book out of the library in January and it’s one of those that halfway through, I wished I’d bought it instead.

In October 1936 a couple of hundred unemployed men from Jarrow on the south bank of the Tyne marched to London to hand in a petition to parliament. The background is complex, but after the closure of a shipyard (added to other national problems) there was seventy percent unemployment in the town, and the men were asking for a proposed steelworks to be situated near them to provide new jobs. Ultimately, they were unsuccessful, and they weren’t the only men to march at that time, to highlight unemployment. For some reason, however, possibly to do with embedded journalists, a coincidence of date with the first BBC TV broadcasts, and being accompanied for part of the way by fiery local MP Ellen Wilkinson, the Jarrow Crusade (as it’s usually known) has lingered in the collective memory.

Or it has in some parts of it, at least. Stuart Maconie is something crucial in the Ramblers’ Association, as well as being an author and popular BBC presenter, so looking for a challenging walk in the autumn of 2016 he realised recreating the Jarrow marchers’ route would be perfect, and would allow him to ask people along the way what they knew about the crusade and what it meant to them, eighty years later. Not much, was the most common answer, though he did run across pockets of memory and enthusiasm.

You either like Stuart Maconie’s style or you don’t, and I do – it’s largely chatty and friendly (jovial, even) but there’s a vein of politics running through it (he describes himself as “unashamedly of Attlee’s patriotic leftist strain”) and he does get angry at the state of the country both now and in the time of Jarrow. I got angry too, reading it. There is a chapter for each day of the march, but in among the curry house recommendations and pop culture trivia sparked by towns and villages he passes through, there is enthusiastic historical and geographical information about the route. He also brings in snippets of history or broader context where necessary, and takes the odd bus or taxi detour if there’s somewhere of relevance nearby.

The book is as much about people as places, and he chats to lots of locals in pubs and on Twitter as he’s on the way, and gets their take on the area (and Britain) now as well as their thoughts on the original march. There are also interesting encounters in local museums, with the Dean of Ripon cathedral, and two MPs (Tracy Brabin and Kelvin Hopkins). As all this took place only a few months after the EU referendum, it’s got Brexit running through it. Maconie voted remain, but he shows a good understanding of why so many of his northern neighbours didn’t, and a frustration with the metropolitan elite who still don’t get it.

I don’t agree with all of his analysis (and I certainly don’t agree with all his musical views), but I think this is an interesting, well-meaning book. A worthy successor to JB Priestley’s English Journey in fact, which he mentions a couple of times himself. If you know quite a bit about English working class history, you might not learn any new facts (other than the possible name of the dog accompanying the Jarrow Crusaders, though that seems to be disputed) but by explicitly using the contrast of then and now it makes you think about contemporary events and circumstances in a different light. Aside from that it’s an entertaining travelogue through some less than obvious holiday destinations like Luton, Bedford, Barnsley and Darlington.

Stories of empire

IMG_20180117_162519~2.jpg

Coincidentally, the first two novels I read in 2018 were both tales of empire, though from quite different perspectives. One was the Portuguese empire as seen through the prism of science fiction, in Brasyl by Ian McDonald. The other was the British empire via crime fiction in India, in A Necessary Evil by Abir Mukherjee. I recommend them both.

Brasyl had an interesting structure, within each chapter there were three sections set in 1732, 2006 and 2032 respectively, in three different parts of Brazil. It had slavery (of different types), stratified societies, football, religion, and quantum mechanics running through everything, and I enjoyed it and would recommend it to anyone who likes both historical fiction and SF (because most of the 1732 strand reads as straight historical fiction). The book was peppered with non-English words and phrases, which added a flavour of Brazil but I felt like my reading speed was unusually slow because of it (and not everything was translated in the glossary at the end). The more I read, the more I realised how little I know about Brazil; I had no idea if historical events or people were real or not, and I found myself wishing I’d watched the programme I seem to recall Michael Palin making about Brazil a few years ago. I spent a while on Google maps dashing about the country though, so maybe I learnt something. I love a book that makes me go find out more in some way.

Abir Mukherjee was one of the writers on a panel at the Penguin WriteNow insight day I went to last September in Newcastle. I chatted to him a bit during that day, he seemed both thoughtful and entertaining, and I liked the sound of his crime series so I made sure I picked up one of the goodie bags that had his latest novel in it. That book was A Necessary Evil, which follows on from A Rising Man (which I’ve yet to read) and is set in India in 1920. Captain Sam Wyndham of the Imperial Police, and his Sergeant Surendranath (‘Surrender-not’) Banerjee witness the assassination of the heir to the throne of one of the states they have no authority in. But he was assassinated within their jurisdiction, and Banerjee did go to school with him, so they go to his funeral, blunder into a political situation they don’t fully grasp, and race to find the truth. Short chapters, flowing narrative voice with a dash of disrespectful humour, and a nicely flawed main character; I was hooked within a couple of pages and sped through it. Particularly good on complexity (characters and situations neither one obvious thing nor the other), and the British in India failing to (or refusing to) understand the culture they’re surrounded by, and being tripped up by preconceptions.

Signs of age: when even adults are too young to share your past

A few weeks ago I heard a bang outside and thought ‘car back-firing’, then I wondered if that still happens, and if it doesn’t then what do young people attribute unexplained sudden noises in the street to? The more I thought about it, the more I realised how many familiar everyday things from my childhood (though I grant that some of them were already old-fashioned) are completely unknown not only to children but many adults today and would require explanation in a story. Among them are:

  • the long, frustrating search for a working payphone
  • hoarding coins of a particular denomination (10p for the phone, 50p for the electricity meter)
  • crossed wires on the phone
  • older relatives answering the phone using the old 3 or 4 digit version of their phone number
  • people answering the phone by reciting their phone number
  • yellow headlamps on cars that had been to Europe
  • foolscap paper
  • cheap cameras with no focus control, and separate flash cubes
  • having to limit yourself to taking 24 photos on an entire holiday
  • Betamax vs VHS
  • floppy disk drives (particularly five and a quarter inch)
  • only having 4 TV channels to choose from (and they shut down overnight)
  • piling as many kids as possible in the back of an estate car for a day out, sometimes with a couple of dogs too
  • wondering what to do with the (entirely detachable) ring-pull from a can of pop, maybe getting a moment’s entertainment by wearing it as a ring
  • hoping to hear a song on the radio, or searching charity shops, car boot sales and second-hand record shops for years to find it, instead of being able to reach for spotify or YouTube

This undoubtedly happens to everyone as technology and fashions change, but it does give you a realisation of the passing years. Anybody got any more examples to share from their perspective?

Speech from the dead

Back in June I caught the first half of the first one of Hilary Mantel’s Reith lectures on Radio 4. As one of Britain’s best known writers of historical fiction, naturally she was talking about what we can know about the past. She talked about phrases passing down the family and in a sense keeping someone alive and it made me think about the time-spans word of mouth can cover and how immediate it makes the past feel.

I remember my Nana (born 1918) telling me anecdotes her grandma (born 1870) had told her about her younger days, which made my Nana’s grandma (and her dad, born 1832) more real to me than many a second cousin who lived nearby but never crossed my radar.

I have been known to refer to someone as an ‘Aunt Sarah Ann’ because they started clearing the dinner table before everyone had finished eating. The original Aunt Sarah Ann who had this mildly irritating habit was born in 1860 and was my great-grandmother’s aunt. Both of them died in the 1950s but the phrase persists in its fourth generation. It is slightly unfortunate for poor old Sarah Ann that this is the one trait that’s been remembered by the family, other than her short stature.

Whenever I’m full of cold I think of the phrase ‘poorly sick with a shawl on’, which my Nana’s friend Alice told me was what her grandmother (born 1860s I think, a friend of Nana’s grandma) always said in similar circumstances. I heard stories of Alice’s grandmother from my Nana too and I’ve had her described to me, so again she feels quite real to me though I’ve never even seen a picture of her.

I spent a lot of time as a child talking to Nana and Alice (hence the dedication in The Little Book of Northern Women) and the stories I heard about growing up in the 1920s and 1930s were full of detail as they relived their memories for me. I can still picture vividly many of the things they described – it helps that I spent part of my childhood in the same village, I guess. There’s a story in The Little Book of Northern Women called The Silent Witness which grew out of Nana’s childhood in particular (not the violent bit, I hasten to add) and I’d love to think that when I’m old I might tell a child born more than 100 years after my Nana some phrase or anecdote that they’ll remember, to keep the connection going.

 

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley

wp-1492358741676.jpg

I kept seeing this book advertised with a cover that looked like it should be speculative fiction, and noting it was described as historical, and passing over it. Eventually I read the synopsis, decided it sounded intriguing anyway and got it out of the library (from the general fiction shelves, not SF). It does have a historical setting but I don’t see how the main point of the book, which I can’t reveal without spoiling it for future readers, could be anything other than fantasy fiction. Besides which it contains a physics student and some ornate clockwork – if you’re at all of a fantasy bent and you like a Victorian setting I highly recommend it. Even if you’re not particularly of a fantasy bent but you enjoyed The Hourglass Factory by Lucy Ribchester you’ll probably love it.

A dull civil servant who didn’t particularly mean for his life to turn out that way inexplicably finds a gold pocket watch on his bed one day. Months later it saves him from an Irish bomb in Whitehall (Clan na Gael, this is the 1880s not the 1970s) and he tries to find out where it came from. Meeting the strange, lonely Japanese watchmaker changes his life. Meanwhile a young woman with a Japanese friend is finishing her undergraduate studies in physics and is desperate to finish her experiments on the ether before her parents can marry her off. All these lives eventually collide with fascinating consequences.

I can’t quite explain why but it felt like a delicate book, perhaps it was the intricacies of the plot (the clockwork theme, cogs, wheels within wheels are echoed through everything) or the descriptions of tiny pieces of machinery, hair-thin wires, fine Japanese porcelain. It made me feel as though I was holding my breath, and as though I was right there with the characters (even if where they were didn’t feel like an absolutely historically accurate Victorian London). There’s a lot about love and duty in it, and the idea of lives turning on the tiniest event which might seem inconsequential at the time. It was intriguing, beautifully written, and I thought it was refreshingly original in a nicely thought-out setting. I’m glad I finally picked it up.

Week 9: Research and the art of getting sidetracked

The week between Christmas and New Year – Twixtmas, as I’ve heard it referred to rather delightfully – is an odd time of suspended normality. OneMonkey and I had nothing particular to do, nowhere to be, I was full of cold most of the week and the weather wasn’t enticing us onto the moor much. What to do in those circumstances? Why, read, of course.

READ, carved in rock

As well as the end of a fantasy novel and the start of an intriguing crime novel (set in Mumbai, probably to be reviewed here later) I’ve read acres of newsprint. Online, naturally.

The trouble I always find with (historical) research is that I find everything fascinating: grain prices, shipping reports, court circulars. I start out quite innocently with a Bradford Observer from the mid-nineteenth century and before I know it I’ve hopped to the trials of a new steam coach (1837) and thence to 1812 where I ricochet between Luddite riots (and their associated trials), the assassination of the Prime Minister, a short account of the largest sheep a local butcher had ever slaughtered, and the abandonment of the leather tax (when the government, joined up as ever, realised it would be paying most of it on military equipment). Every single one of these articles (plus the inspection of militia regiments, the tragic death by fire of a small child, and a spate of highway robberies outside Wakefield) sparks story ideas and a whole series of questions. I start to forget what I was researching in the first place.

Amazingly I have found time this week to work on the semi-rural fantasy novel (now over 22,000 words), look back on the year in reading (probably to follow in its own post) and write some shorter pieces. I also ate the last mince pie of the season.

I hereby raise my mug of Earl Grey to all of you and to the coming year, may the two have a harmonious coexistence.

Technological supremacy, the not so direct path

Talking about technological innovation and what wins out, recently, I discovered that friend of a friend Carolyn Dougherty had written a great article on just such a topic. It’s called On Progress, On Airships and you can read it in Steampunk Magazine 5. She talks about how the invention that ‘wins’ (i.e. enters the mainstream) is not necessarily the best or the safest, which although you may have realised that before, still makes you stop and think.

Coincidentally in the same week I stumbled across a novel called The Last Days of Night by Graham Moore, which is about the legal battle that saw Edison triumph with his lightbulb. I haven’t read it but it sounds like an interesting angle (though I must admit the phrase SOON TO BE A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE STARRING EDDIE REDMAYNE is putting me off just a tad).