Gig Review: Tim Dee in Bath

Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights in Bath hosts a number of reading groups, one of which is called The Paperback Ramblers. As the name suggests this involves getting readers together and going for a walk to discuss a chosen book. When I noticed that they had selected Landfill by Tim Dee, and that the author was to join the group for the event, I knew I had to attend.

On the day it rained heavily all morning. Emails were sent to ensure the walk would go ahead. Reassured that the forty mile round trip would be worthwhile I packed my full set of walking waterproofs and set out. The rain eased as I reached the bookshop and had stopped by the time our diminished group set out (such a shame that the wet weather put so many who had signed up off).

I should add that while waiting in Mr B’s I was offered a most welcome cup of tea. Independent bookshops know how to look after their customers.

Sam from the bookshop had organised the event and decided on the best route given the weather. I did not need the level of gear I was wearing. We wound our way up to the Royal Crescent and then through the park. The gulls which we had brought our binoculars to observe on our urban nature hike were staying away.

I had a lovely chat with Tim about his book as we walked. He told me about his interest in gulls, how the methods of classification have changed, and of his wish to capture a moment in birding history that was passing. I was glad that I had recently read Landfill as I had little prior knowledge of the subject. Yet our conversation was wider than that. Tim writes as much about human life as about the birds that have interested him since he was a teenager. The personal touch makes his subject a story.

  

We stopped in the park where Tim gave the group an overview of the book and its background. We stopped again at a pond where a few gulls competed with the many ducks for the bread that Tim had brought to feed them. A group of children were also feeding the birds – being Bath they had brought brioche. The birds were equally happy to eat Tim’s sliced pan.

We walked on and I chatted to some other members of the group. Several were regulars. A lady who had also read Landfill in preparation agreed with me that her interest had been piqued in a subject she had previously known nothing about. Tim’s writing is accessible for all.

I also chatted to Sam who expressed interest in where I published my writing. He had heard of Bookmunch but struggled to understand what I was saying when I named my blog (and there was me thinking I had lost my regional accent – I hadn’t thought to slip some business cards into the pocket of my walking jacket). I did try to persuade him to get Mr B’s to stock more books from small independent publishers. I do that with every bookseller I meet.

Given the subject of the Tim’s book, Sam next led us to one of Bath’s recycling centres. Being a Sunday it was closed which, as is explained in Landfill, meant little gull activity. We did see a few birds flying overhead. More appeared as Tim gave a reading. Hopefully they were appreciative of his sympathetic stance to creatures many regard as a nuisance – behaviours caused by man’s actions.

We made our way along the river and back to Mr B’s. From there it was decided that there was time for a quick pint at a local hostelry. Settled with our drinks Tim told me about the book he is currently working on in which he will follow Spring as it moves north at walking pace. He has become aware of the process of aging, and of capturing what moments are still available. I suspect it will be another fine read.

Landfill is published by Little Toller Press

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Book Review: The Study Circle

“There was something fundamental at stake. Deep-seated ways of looking at the world that were at odds.”

The Study Circle, by Haroun Khan, is set in a South London housing estate of graffitied tower blocks where the simmering resentments of a second generation immigrant Muslim community are approaching boiling point. Harassed by the police on the streets and passed over for employment due to their names, the young men are urged by their parents and religious leaders to remain calm and obliging. The story is a powerful evocation of the day to day challenges which make this entreaty such a tough ask.

Ishaq, Marwane and Shams have been friends since school. The former two now attend a good university while Shams struggles to find a job. After several false starts he agrees to run deliveries for Mujahid, a local hard man and ex-convict trying to provide for his family any way he can. Sham’s new role brings him into contact with vocal supporters of the EDL. When the police and then a man claiming to work for MI5 question Shams he must make difficult choices.

For several years Ishaq has regularly attended a Study Circle. Here he and like minded peers from his community listen to a speaker, Ayub, as he reads from revered texts, and talks through the basic tenets of the Islamic faith. Ishaq wishes to be a good Muslim, striving to improve piety and character. His ideals are tested by the realities of blatant animosity that impacts his day to day experiences. Government, the media and those in positions of authority are increasingly strident in their prejudices and fear of followers of Islam.

Ishaq’s parents wish him to complete his degree, get a job, marry, have children and make a good life for himself by keeping his head down and acting compliant. Ishaq is questioning if he can live this way. On the estate are the likes of Mujahid who believes power and thereby rights and respect can only be earned through open displays of aggressive strength. The behaviour of the police and security services suggests they think along similar lines.

As a reader it took some time to engage with the tale being told. The incremental plot progression is cushioned by lengthy sections of dialogue. These conversations are the beating heart of a story whose aim appears to be to increase understanding of Muslim attitudes and resentments in Britain. There are misapprehensions on both sides. What is offered is nuances to counter the broad brush strokes more widely reported.

The young Muslim men observe the white people they regard as oppressors. They decry the drinking and gambling just as the white people they encounter decry their insistence on halal meat and proscribed attire. Ishaq recounts overhearing elderly neighbours share a moment of tenderness commenting that he had, up until this point, been unaware that white families were capable of being like this together – that they could ever act as his family did.

What comes to the fore is how little either side understands the other. The Islamic community preaches peace and patience yet there is so much anger boiling over at each provocation. The men on both sides resort to violence to protect what they regard as their innate rights. The white people demand assimilation while the Muslim community wish to be left to live according to their beliefs. Within each side are the few whose arguments are fuelled by hate.

The immigrant parents, who moved to Britain for a better way of life, berate their children for not making more of the opportunities thereby offered. The children berate their parents for not understanding how frustrated they feel at being treated as a threat by a white community granted the power to subjugate. Frustration, fear and aggression build to confrontations that, inevitably, spiral out of control.

Misunderstood prejudices explored include: traditional attire, including the head coverings worn by some Muslim women; FGM; the treatment of child abusers; arranged marriage. I would have liked more prominence given to female characters but this is a story of young men fighting for a place in the world they believe they deserve. Ishaq is torn between demands for loyalty to those he has grown up with, and the chance of a better way but only for himself.

This is a carefully crafted story on the reality of living as a Muslim man in working class Britain. The tinder of cultural and political persecution, enacted in the name of national security, builds dangerously in a community whose choices are limited by racial discrimination. The schisms created by interpretations of religious teachings add a volatile flame.

A story that works to provide a fair representation of both sides of a serious contemporary issue. This was an eye-opening, searingly relevant read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Dead Ink

Gig Review: Edward Carey in Bath

On Thursday of last week I travelled to Bath to hear author Edward Carey talk about his latest novel, Little. This fabulous tale tells the fictionalised life story of a young woman named Anne Marie Grosholtz who would one day become known as Madame Tussaud. Edward had travelled all the way from America to promote the UK release and, having read the book, I had been happy to discover that one of the stops on his tour was the always delightful Mr B’s Emporium, less than an hour’s drive from my home.

As I sipped on a well chilled glass of wine prior to the event I got into conversation with another attendee. She told me that she went to university with Edward, who she had known as John, and that she was expecting a number of their former student friends to join her for the evening. She hadn’t yet read the book which I was happy to recommend.

We were soon ushered upstairs to the bibliotherapy room, taking our seats in the intimate space to listen to Edward in discussion with a member of staff on how he came to write this particular story.

Edward told us that the book took around fifteen years to create. A number of years ago he worked in Madame Tussauds in London where his job was to ensure that the noble wax figures were protected from a disrespectful public. He was intrigued by the original models on display, especially that of an elderly Marie Tussaud which she had made.

Research for the novel included temporarily living in Paris and getting a feel for the city and its history. There were so many famous characters to learn about whose wax models Marie created. Eventually Edward stepped back from the research to write the story. He realised that this was a tale of survival, that Marie was a witness to an incredible period of history – the years leading up to and including the French Revolution.

Although a rather dry memoir was written in Victorian times, by three different men, Marie’s life remained largely undocumented. What she left behind were her wax models of the famous. Edward aimed to present a story that joined them together. There were many to incorporate. Despite being an orphan and penniless servant, Marie became part of these people’s history. She met them in life or death. She enabled those who came after to attain a feel for them as individuals.

There were details that Edward wished to share, such as that King Louis never wished to be king and was fairly hopeless in the role making many poor decisions. Louis would have preferred to be a locksmith – the Palace of Versaille still contains locks he fitted. It is known that he would go out onto the roof of the palace and shoot at the feral cats his father had introduced – in the story Marie meets him here, unaware of who he is. Whether or not Marie lived in a cupboard in the palace cannot be known but Edward was writing fiction so felt free to embellish.

Edward spoke of Marie’s encounters with Benjamin Franklin (through his hair) and Voltaire (after he died). He wished to find a new way to tell these people’s stories. To create a wax model a cast needed to be created, a process that required the subject to sit silent and still. Edward liked to imagine the tiny Marie being in charge, for a short time at least, of the likes of Napolean.

Doctor Curtius, Marie’s mentor, was a talented wax anatomist. It was he who instilled in Marie the fascination and obsession with physiology. When, as a lowly servant, she was denied access to the wax models, she would draw instead. The book’s wonderful illustrations are the author’s way of presenting how Marie dealt with the challenges and triumphs of her life. Shut away from other people these are her means of connecting with the noise and activity of the tumultuous events that surrounded her.

Edward read the passage from the book where Marie first meets Curtius. He brought the doctor to life.

All writers find ways of not writing. Edward draws, a process that enables him to physically understand his characters. He also sculpted Curtius in wax to better understand the modelling process, that he could write on the subject with some sort of authority.

Marie understands people from their notable features. Her nose and chin, from her mother and father, were her inheritance – proof that she was once loved.

Her greatest mistake was to marry Tussaud – a useless man – but she was strong and survived. She packed up the French Revolution in crates and took her figures to London, telling Tussaud she would return. In this way she gained autonomy at a time when such freedom were made difficult for any woman to achieve.

Edward has visited Times Square where an enormous gold hand holds a sign for the Madame Tussauds there. He believes this would have pleased Marie, although she would not have been so happy that her family sold the business.

Curtius and Marie were not the first to display wax models for public entertainment but they became the most famous. They recognised that people wished to see royalty, celebrities and murderers.

The French royal family would allow observers into their palace once a week to watch them eat. Marie drew this scene and wax models were made of the spectacle which the public could then touch for a fee. This removed social barriers – the whiff of somewhat scandalous behaviour generating publicity.

Over time Marie became a savvy businesswoman. By casting the famous in wax, those who believed they too were famous wished to be included and came to her.

Edward spoke with passion and vivacity, answering questions and sharing his enthusiasm for his determined little protagonist. When he moved into the adjacent room to sign books a queue quickly formed. It was good to see that he was happy to chat to each purchaser as they proffered their books.

It is always a pleasure to visit Mr B’s. This truly special bookshop is currently crowdfunding to enable them to expand. You may check out the rewards available to supporters here.

Little is published in the UK by Gallic Books. You may read my review here.

 

Book Review: Normal People

Normal People, by Sally Rooney, is a refreshingly linear story set between January 2011 and February 2015. It has two protagonists, Connell and Marianne, who get together during their final year at school. Connell is popular, sporty and intelligent, enjoying his place within his wide circle of friends. Marianne is bullied and derided, a loner who somehow copes as her homelife is worse. They agree to keep their burgeoning relationship secret. Connell does not wish to lose his social standing by association.

The ebb and flow of these two young people’s love affair is explored in forensic detail over the years. The setting moves from their hometown of Carricklea in Galway to the city of Dublin where they attend a prestigious university. Here the affluence of Marianne’s family offers her a stepping stone to acceptance. Connell feels out of place and almost friendless, unmoored by his change of circumstances. Both had hopes of escape and reinvention. The realities of changing a personality prove hard to sustain.

Marianne’s simmering hurts manifest in ways that appall Connell at a time when he has found a degree of peace elsewhere. When a mutual friend is found dead the importance ascribed to seemingly significant decisions is brought into relief. Each is questioning their recent past and where they can go next.

Through the years the two friends come together and drift apart, their confidences and social circles changing. The story is an exploration of intimacy, influence and the causes of dissonance. Marianne expresses a wish to be normal but cannot shed the demons of her upbringing. The supporting cast of characters demonstrate differing perceptions and what normal means.

The writing is honest in its portrayal of university students with their shallow convictions and closely guarded fears. Marianne and Connell may have something special between them, including a rare ability to discuss emotions, but they are still individuals and not mind readers. There are passions and jealousies, ambitions that they dare not articulate for fear of ridicule.

A novel that shivers with the traumas caused by the experience of living. A meticulous and compelling rendering of love and its shade.

Normal People is published by Faber & Faber

Book Review: Landfill

Landfill, by Tim Dee, is the most recent addition to Little Toller’s series of nature monographs. With jacket design and occasional illustrations by Greg Poole, this beautifully produced book explores the author’s interest in gulls, and how their populations have grown and adapted to make the most of modern man’s waste generating behaviour. Dee’s research was carried out at various landfill sites where birds are tagged and observed. These once migratory creatures now live year round in British cities where they are regarded as pests for getting too close to the humans who have enabled them to flourish.

“It’s also important to remember that we’re responsible for all this. We’ve thrown so much edible stuff away.”

Due to man’s habits, gulls no longer need to travel to find winter food. Gulls fly over wide areas but many return to breed where they hatched so populations expand. They are dynamic and fast adapting. In eating human rubbish they have become indicators of future problems such as when DDT exposure caused feminisation of embryos.

The author has been a keen birdwatcher since his teens. He seeks out those with specialist knowledge to interview and accompanies them on field trips. He writes up the conversations that take place in: Bristol City Centre; various Essex landfill sites; an island in the Severn Estuary; the Isle of Lewis off Scotland; still segregated South African population centres; the rainforests of Madagascar; the Natural History archive centre. It is not always gulls that are observed. What bird enthusiasts seek are rare sightings and better understood avian behaviours. The author notes that evolution isn’t over – species are coming into existence as much as they ever were. When a new species is discovered it is new to science but could, perhaps, have simply avoided prior categorisation. Humans have this need to label – birds, animals and people.

Although accessible and raising interesting questions, the subject will be of particular interest to other bird enthusiasts. Gulls deliver a challenge for ornithologists as certain species can hybridise – nature exists whether or not man names or understands it. Nevertheless, awakening interest, as chasing a rare sighting does, may make man less eager to follow through on his typically selfish and destructive behaviour.

One rare bird spotted in Lewis in 2013 had twitchers rushing to watch in awe. They observed as its impressive aeronautic display was cut short, literally, by the blades of a wind turbine.

There are many historic books featuring birds, the merits of which the author discusses in sometimes scathing terms. The only positive views he has on the Richard Bach’s best selling Jonathan Livingston Seagull are about Russell Munson’s photographs which he wished to identify. This desire to recognise and categorise is strong.

In Daphne du Maurier’s The Birds, nature assembles to attack its greatest destroyer, man. Henry Mayhew’s London Labour London Poor, published in the nineteenth century, barely mentions gulls which at the time were kept for eggs or occasionally eaten, but rarely flew up the estuary. What this and other books offer as interest is how rubbish was perceived and treated. The recent growth in gull numbers is down to people. In visits to overseas landfill sites, Dee observes both human and avian scavengers.

“When do objects – or people – cease to have value?”

Having provided so bountifully for gulls, man is once again changing how his rubbish is treated. Food waste is no longer to be dumped in landfill sites, and these are to be covered over and converted into parks. Cities are taking measures to cull populations of birds regarded as unruly. Numbers may have peaked and now be in decline but the author is keen to show what wider lessons may still be learned from the tagging and sharing of information. If nature is to be protected it requires new generations of ambassadors.

“The world is, and then the world is as we say it is.”

As with each book in the monograph series, the author’s enthusiasm for his subject is infectious. I am highly unlikely to become a twitcher but will now view gulls with more curiosity. This was an interesting, informative and often entertaining read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Little Toller.

Book Review: Captain Pug

Captain Pug: The Dog Who Sailed the Seas, by Laura James (illustrated by Églantine Ceulemans) is the first in a series of humorous action adventure stories for children. Pug the dog is loyal friend and companion to Lady Miranda, a young girl who lives with her friendly attendants at No. 10, The Crescent. In this story she is invited to a birthday party at a boating lake. Excited by the prospect of a seafaring adventure she declares that she will make Pug a captain. Pug is unsure of his suitability for this role but determines to try his best.

Once at the lake things do not go to plan. Pug is distracted by a picnic basket while Miranda sends her footmen to fetch her a stranded pedalo. Before anyone realises what is happening Pug is being taken away!

With Miranda in hot pursuit the little dog makes some new friends. They take him to a river where he seeks opportunities to learn how to be a captain. Quite unexpectedly he discovers that he can be a useful coxswain, at least until he is distracted by ice cream. From here he travels by canal, sinking along the way, before ending up in the sea.

All ends well after a dramatic rescue. Pug is pleased to be safely home, but Miranda is already thinking of their next adventure.

  

The story is packed full of fun and frolics, the font and illustrations adding much detail and enjoyment.

A delightful story with its intrepid young girl and her ever hungry companion. The agency and horizons enjoyed by Lady Miranda are sure to ignite any modern young child’s wistful imagination.

Captain Pug is published by Bloomsbury. 

Book Review: Chains

Chains: Unheard Voices is an anthology of eleven short stories. It is the first offering from a new independent publisher whose stated aim is:

“to empower writers who have been pushed to the margins by the mainstream”

The tales included here are challenging, poignant, and at times disturbing. The diverse range of voices are quietly resonant.

The collection opens with Epilogue in which a family are trying to cope with an attempted suicide. Although lacking somewhat in depth, the prejudices and concerns of those trying to make sense of what has happened shine through.

Incubus explores the impact of dementia, death, and the effects of illness on the aspirations of a teenager. An inexplicable visitor helps put potential futures in perspective.

There are stories set in the past, present and the future. The impact of bullying, of both adults and children, is approached from differing perspectives, as are prejudices against single mothers and those living in poverty.

Crawl is a particularly powerful piece with its twisted take on foodbanks and the way donors respond to their own supposed beneficence, how they are encouraged to treat those they feed.

Several stories deal with alleged terrorists and miscreants. There are depictions of attempts to dehumanise and the effect on victims. The rule of law is accorded little respect.

Anchor is a chilling tale of the warped outlook of a domestic abuse survivor. They have not perhaps survived in any meaningful sense.

In amongst these challenging subjects is the delightful Help, My Dog Is Isaac Newton which takes a playful look at reincarnation from the point of view of an elderly widower. I enjoyed the protagonists observations on and attitudes to the recent influx of Hindu neighbours.

The final story, Identity, offers a window into the cost of fighting for woman’s suffrage. This follows a tale set in a tinderbox township on the eve of elections. The dangers to women living in different ages yet willing to fight for what they believe in is sobering.

The writing in these stories is fresh and varied, the subjects worth pondering. I have read stronger voices elsewhere, but these deserve to be heard.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, MargŌ Collective.