Book Review: Don’t Turn Away

Dont Turn Away

“It is easy to cast a critical eye back over history; much harder to face up to it in the present.”

Don’t Turn Away, by Penelope Campling, offers a searing account of the traumas encountered by the author during her work in psychiatry and psychotherapy over the past forty years. She started her training in one of the large Victorian asylums that were earmarked for closure. She has experienced first hand the changes in mental health treatment from then through to the fallout from the Covid pandemic.

Having recently moved from the NHS to private practice, Campling can now be entirely honest in her assessment of where patients are failed by the systems imposed on frontline staff. As a young and inexperienced doctor she was expected to follow procedures without question, the consultants at the time revered. These days consultants are also facing mental breakdown, the pressures under which they are required to work often proving too great. It is no wonder there are severe staff shortages, exacerbating the problems caused by rising numbers of acute cases in need of treatment.

Following the closure of the asylums, there was great hope that moving patients into the community would remove some of the stigma attached to many mental health issues. While this appeared to be improving for a time, changes to funding and therefore staffing levels diluted the impact of what is necessarily a building of trust in the therapeutic relationship. Joined up medical care becomes problematic when departments are competing for dwindling resources. Outsourcing to companies looking to make a profit further diminishes the quality of day to day care. Patient need cannot be properly met when criteria for accessing treatment admits only the most desperate, and even they may have to wait months for any sort of limited consultation.

The book is structured around patients Campling has encountered during her long career. The problems they live with are shocking, stemming as many of them do from horrific abuse, especially in childhood. These triggers can be difficult for the patient to acknowledge, often leading to substance abuse and sometimes criminal behaviour. Self harm is common, the risk of suicide real. The author writes of the importance of granting agency to the mentally unwell, offering support alongside non-judgemental discussion, paying attention to cues offered that too many dismiss with platitudes. Prescribed drugs can be helpful but core issues need to be recognised if progress is to be made.

Chapters focus on some of the problems that can aggravate mental health patients’ afflictions. In the asylums bad practice could occur in what was a closed community that few outside wished to even think about. These days failings are more common because those in need are locked out by gatekeepers whose job is to decide who qualifies for available treatment.

Some of the most harrowing cases detailed were encountered in a more successful unit that offered in-patient counselling led by supervised peers. As a lay reader it is hard to see how such damaged minds can ever be rehabilitated. It is no wonder psychiatrists are affected by their work given the experiences they must listen to and counsel. Patients will not always engage however much effort is made. Cases can haunt a doctor’s mind for years.

Not a book, then, for the faint-hearted but one that opens up a section of society that is too often ignored or condemned without consideration. A well written and engaging memoir that lays bare the failings of our healthcare system, the toll this takes on overworked staff, and on the patients it should be existing to help.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Elliott & Thompson.

Book Review: Light Rains Sometimes Fall

light rains

“There is more, much more. No matter how well you look, there will always be something else”

Light Rains Sometimes Fall, by Lev Parikian, is structured in 72 short chapters, each focusing on a micro-season from the ancient Japanese calendar. The author lives in suburban London and spent the few days that make up each season closely observing the gradual changes in bird, insect and plant activity within a few miles radius of his home. By visiting and revisiting the same sites repeatedly he experiences the wonders of nature as it has adapted to life in a city environment.

Parikian is interested and attentive but not an academic expert. His style of writing is enthusiastic and often self-deprecating. All of this makes what he documents and comments on both entertaining and accessible. Buoyed by his optimistic approach to the wildlife he encounters, readers may well find themselves wanting to get out around their own neighbourhoods to also ‘look, look again, look better’.

The first season covers 4-8 February which Japan notes as the beginning of spring. In London, spring is still some weeks away. What we get here is the author introducing the areas he will be observing. This includes: his own back garden and those of neighbours, the streets he traverses, and a large cemetery that will provide many of his most exciting encounters.

As well as describing the creatures as they go about their daily business, there is commentary on habitat and how more nature respecting residents have adapted to the presence of people. There is wonder at the industry of birds, at their vocalisations, along with acceptance of the necessary deaths that occur to provide food and enable continuation of each species. Parikian notes that humans tend to have favourites, willing the fluffy chicks to survive while cheering the deaths of certain ‘nuisance’ insects.

What comes through clearly is the wonderment of all that happens yet goes unseen by many – the unfurling of leaves, the intricacies of nest building or web spinning, the global migrations. Readers are urged not just to look up or down at the obviously amazing but to look closely at all plants and the creatures that inhabit them, however ubiquitous they may seem.

“I do this occasionally, looking at something as if for the first time. It’s a way of finding beauty and interest in the mundane, learning to appreciate the things that form the backdrop to everyday life.”

The book was started in 2020, a year that became like no other, for humans at least. The author’s observations are noted during permitted daily exercise when the distance he travelled was limited. While creating its own stresses, for the purposes of this project the new rules provided a need to focus on an even smaller area than was perhaps first envisaged. There is still much to see.

“if you’re not interested, you can easily go through life without being aware of the microscopic universe around us”

For those who pause to listen there is rarely silence, even when much remains hidden. Behind the noise made by traffic and power tools there is birdsong and a good deal of raucous behaviour. The author seeks out areas where nature has been allowed to proliferate – not tidied by people intent on their own comfort and desired aesthetics. Wild creatures are sensibly wary of a killer species.

“I wonder, too, at the human instinct, when faced with something we perceive as a threat or a pest or just something that’s in our way, to destroy it”

I read this book slowly, taking many breaks to go outside and look at my own area. It is a rich and joyous account of not just the beauty that occurs briefly and grabs everyone’s attention – the special treats – but also the ‘wallpaper’ we may wander past without noticing. The author rejoices when he spots a rare visitor above his garden but also appreciates the intricacies and interdependencies of the regular residents.

An enjoyable new way of looking at the annual lifecycle of a locality, the bitesize chunks offering much to savour. The author’s enthusiasm is infectious – in a way to be welcomed – his writing style knowledgeable but never pretentious.

This book will now sit on my coffee table as a reminder and reference. It has inspired me to observe and listen, to go outside and pay attention. I may not possess the author’s ability to differentiate between certain species, aurally or visually, but can still recognise how awesome nature is with its casual complexity and interdependencies.

This is a highly recommended read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Elliott & Thompson.

Book Review: Goshawk Summer

goshawk summer

“Ultimately, just how compatible are concepts such as commoners’ rights, unfettered public access and commercial logging, with the encouragement and protection of biodiversity?”

Goshawk Summer: A New Forest Season Unlike Any Other, by James Aldred, was written from field notes the author kept while filming a family of goshawks in the spring and summer of 2020. An experienced wildlife cameraman internationally, Aldred was happy to return to what had been his childhood stomping ground during the first lockdown. As the rest of the world retreated he was able to fully appreciate the creatures of the New Forest and how they behaved when freed from the invasions of people. And then lockdown ended and the public, restless from many weeks of confinement and with few other options, returned to the forest in barely manageable droves.

Aldred’s observations are measured and candid. He films with the help of New Forest Keepers who grant him access to areas where they know the various creatures he seeks are breeding. The author may grow exhausted from the 3am starts and days spent ankle deep in water but footage captured provides him with a new perspective on the forest – its visitors and inhabitants.

“Humans are sensory beings, we all want to feel alive to prove we’re not wasting our short time on this planet, and I find the best way to connect with the here and now is to step into trees and give myself over to the wonder, curiosity and joy that they evoke. They help remind me of who I am, where I’ve come from and where – ultimately – we are all going.”

The New Forest is very much a managed environment, even if now mostly aiming to conserve its biodiversity. There is much in this book on species under threat from multiple sources. Ground nesting birds can have their nests trodden on by careless walkers or disturbed by curious off the lead dogs. When numbers of a bird species decline, their ability to fight off predators as a team effort becomes less viable. Aldred does not focus entirely on goshawks through their breeding season. He also observes amongst other creatures: lapwings, a Dartford warbler, curlews, dragonflies, a family of foxes. He notes not just their behaviours but also the conditions they require to survive. People are an obvious threat to survival but certainly not the only one. For all its endearing beauty, this is nature and it is brutal. In rearing their chicks, goshawks must hunt for the food they require to grow.

“It’s almost impossible to identify most of the corpses that arrive on a goshawk nest, especially since the male usually plucks and butchers them beforehand. It’s like trying to recognise an animal from the inside out.”

To capture his required footage, the author sets up a hide in a tree, fifty feet above ground. On filming days he then brings in his expensive camera equipment, all without scaring away the subjects who are well aware of the dangers man poses. Adult goshawks are particularly wild and wary, and could choose to go elsewhere if a threat is deemed too great. Each arrival and departure must be carefully planned by Aldred to be minimally disruptive.

The forest during lockdown was alive with creatures venturing out where they would normally avoid. The author muses on how amazing this was while recognising his own invasion and the privilege of being there to observe. In the outside world there is fear of dying. The forest is also a scene of regular quietus.

“We tend to celebrate springtime as a joyous period of awakening, fecundity and new beginnings: the season of life. And so it is. But its easy to forget that springtime is defined by death just as much. The pressure placed on parents to bring back a never-ending supply of food results in nothing short of a seasonal killing spree. We just don’t tend to see it”

When lockdown is eased and visitors return, the killing of creatures on the busy roads is added to the more nature driven death toll. Many of the people arriving have little idea how to behave in the forest, risking barbecues on tinder dry surfaces, organising raves and leaving behind litter or other environmental damage. Locals grow incandescent with rage as verges are parked on. Fear of disease being imported leads to othering.

Just as many of the people arriving are not New Forest natives, neither are many of the creatures the author observes. Species of raptors that were once common have been hunted to extinction – many regarded them as vermin. Their cousins exist in the forest now thanks to reintroductions. Goshawks were returned in 2000 and appear to have established a foothold – at a cost to those they feed off.

“you have to accept that when you bring these things back – just like goshawks themselves – it will have an impact. But how do you know what’s the norm? … chuck a new species back into the mix it’s obvious others are going to suffer”

The author welcomes the greater variety of creatures and despairs of the species in decline. He ponders how much man should be doing to bring nature into line with whatever is currently perceived as desirable.

“I believe that a little space goes a long way and sometimes all we really need to do is take a step back to let nature do its thing. A helping hand is sometimes welcome, but to think that nature needs constant micromanaging smacks of hubris and to my mind simply reflects our generally elevated sense of self-importance.”

He returns to this theme when filming dragonflies that thrive in and around a mire.

“Dragonflies have lived in perfect harmony with the planet for [280 million years], while the way we treat it makes me sometimes wonder whether we are as sentient as we like to believe.”

Aldred’s knowledge and appreciation of his surroundings are inspiring and instructive. I was, however, somehow pulled up short when he described a visit to a couple who raise birds of prey in captivity. This is done for the purpose of training them to fly alongside a camera. The author states that these birds make regular appearances in David Attenborough documentaries. While much of the footage is skilfully captured wild animal behaviour, it appears some is staged – and this disappointed me.

Not that such revelations are a reflection on the book. It is simply another nugget shared by a man whose work brings life in the wild to a wider audience. If changes are to be made to protect the wild creatures, people must be made aware of the dangers modern developments pose. Goshawk Summer offers a fascinating window into the lives and habitats of many forest visitors and dwellers, and their complex interrelationships. Man doesn’t need to be banned from the benefits of existing alongside but rather to be educated in how to minimise the damage currently wreaked by rapacious usage.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Elliott & Thompson.

Book Review: The Heeding

the heeding

The Heeding is a poignant and powerful poetry collection written by Rob Cowen and stunningly illustrated by Nick Hayes. It reflects on the year following the first COVID19 lockdown and will serve in the time to come as a reminder of when the world changed profoundly – how we lived lives altered in previously unimaginable ways. The poems capture the concerns and frustrations of families required to deal with the challenges of: house arrest, homeschooling, a ban on visiting their cared for elderly. It provides an evocative reminder that nobody will live forever.

“They are staring into a child’s eyes, wondering at the storm that’s coming.
How they might put themselves between what they love and everything”

The author is father to young children and his worries centre on them. He reflects on his own childhood and the lessons learned and valued from his parents and grandparents – often appreciated only in hindsight. He was taught to heed what was around him, particularly in nature. He now wishes to pass this valuable skill on to the next generation.

The poems have a depth that belies the ease with which they may be read. Incidents recounted are often everyday yet have an impact, a value, in the connections they engender.

Solidarity on a Saturday Night is a short poem about neighbours lighting up their backyards and somehow feeling together without the need to meet. This Allotment reflects on a humanity that is possible when people are accepting of difference in looks or creed – willing to offer practical advice and their labour along with excess produce.

“When heart-sore, I often wonder if this place is
secretly a model for what should be; how things could be,
were we not so preoccupied with property”

Last Breaths took my breath away, moving me to tears. It is a heartfelt account of a man in a nursing home, dying alone of this terrible plague. He remembers aspects of his life: war, a beloved wife outlived, a daughter who died in childhood, another now banned from seeing him – to keep him safe! The illustration that goes with this poem is perfect, as are so many here. The words brought home to me, perhaps for the first time, how my own father passed away last year – hand held by a nurse in PPE.

Another particularly poignant poem is Dennis, a man taunted relentlessly by local children whose casual cruelty makes their older selves squirm. The reason for his odd tics and behaviour is heartrending.

There are poems that describe encounters with birds and other creatures along with the Yorkshire landscape where the author lives. Nature is depicted as savage as well as beautiful, teeming with life but also death. There are reflections on more human concerns – failing businesses, history, politics, fearful unease.

“These cancelled birthdays.
These bans on being together.
These redundancies, uncertainties,
limits on impulse and joy,
on movement and autonomy.”

Black Ant highlights how we may try to save a tiny creature in difficulties, but will not tolerate those that threaten the structure or safety of our dwelling and family.

Pharmacy Cake brings home the loneliness of lockdown life for the elderly it was sold as designed to protect.

“This braving of sleet and virus;
this coddling of staff, is a way to treat a pain
more mangling, more unbelievably sore
than any of us are collecting prescriptions for.”

Viking Gold is a wonderfully evocative remembrance of a stern grandmother who, in the end, offered the author a window into all she had kept in check throughout her life, just before ‘her mind unspooled towards infancy.’

“Born of bleak moor and indoctrinated patriarchy;
the dark, meagre modesties of mill town terraces.
Be grateful for the least. Repent, repress
the sin of boastful joy; let your worries be endless
lest God give you, with a clout,
something proper to worry about.”

Lockdown, with all the mental baggage it has created, has certainly given the author much to worry about. He is scathing in his opinion of those who do not take the vaccine, especially those who spread fear about side-effects, branding them murderers. I pondered how many were living with such concerns and if this will change how they interact once guidelines are lifted.

Whatever views one ascribes to on this, the collection offers much to consider along with an appreciation of the natural world that continues to turn through the seasons however man is living within. I found this thought uplifting, that we too may choose to go on, perhaps still at risk but not allowing this to rob us of the joys to be found both in our back yards and beyond.

“Be kind. Forgive. Attend and heed.
Be strong, but lead with love not power.
Look for the universe inside the seed”

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Elliott & Thompson.

Book Review: The Future of You

“The real problem is that when human societies lose their freedom, it’s not usually because tyrants have taken it away. It’s usually because people willingly surrender their freedom in return for protection against some external threat. And the threat is usually a real threat but usually exaggerated.”

The Future of You: Can Your Identity Survive 21st Century Technology? is a timely exploration of the impact of moving more and more aspects of our lives into the digital realm. Relying on technology in order to function as we have come to expect is not without risk. The author approaches issues raised from a variety of directions, offering facts alongside considered opinion. Although there are obvious benefits to many of the innovations detailed, the potential for harming the individual is chilling. Advances are rarely made available to every member of society. This exacerbates the differences between those who benefit and everyone else.

Follows is a futurist – someone who systematically explores predictions and possibilities about the future and how they can emerge from the present. She writes here about: social media, data mining, privacy, legal rights, digital ownership, artificial intelligence, required behaviour, healthcare, enhancing humans, bots, transhumanism. Many of the technologies discussed exist already, with Covid-19 enabling governments to bring forward change that many western civilisations would not previously have countenanced. Places such as China offer a window into how this could play out, their society being more familiar with blatant state coercion ‘for the common good’.

Early chapters look at how identities are created, controlled and authenticated in a digital society. There are, for example, many problems with attempting to create a globally useful ID for an individual, not least who owns and controls the data and how it is used. Interconnectivity can be difficult to achieve – agreeing protocols and standardisations. There is always a security risk when data is shared. Covid-19 has brought to the fore the concept of health passports, bringing with it the prospect of enforced health treatments – or suffering pariah status. Coercing citizens to behave in a certain way is regarded as an acceptable means to an end by many, with neighbours willing to police behaviours, however much others may disagree for valid reasons. Described as ‘social credit’, digital records could be used in a wide array of applications to encourage government mandated practices.

“Once governments know they have the power to ‘correct’ people’s behaviour in this way, it’s all too tempting for them to implement such draconian measures more and more widely.”

For those who believe this would never be accepted in a democracy, surveys have shown there is a mutual distrust between citizens – a desire to control ‘undesirables’, to keep them separate until they ‘behave’.

Taiwan is held up as an example of a different approach. Rather than trying to turn its citizens into ‘obedient zombies’, it uses technology to listen to a variety of opinions and implement change only for the true good of all.

“Taiwanese children are not taught to all give the same answer or even to seek the answers to the same questions; they are taught to follow their own interests, set their own projects and find their own solutions. And they are not set up in competition with each other; they are set up to pool their individual talents and to collaborate”

Raised to think for themselves and accept differences in opinion, people are more able to think critically and listen considerately. Technology is not used here to encourage conformity – and therefore predictability – in the population. Participation in debate is encouraged and dissent accepted. Individual liberty is valued, as it should be.

The author then turns her attention to the digital identity individuals create for themselves in such spaces a social media. Social media may indeed be social but it is also tribal.

“liking what our friends post, muting those who disagree with us, clicking to be seen to support the right causes, and excluding anyone who is not part of our tribe or does not conform to the established narrative of our group.”

On line sharing becomes a performance, self-presentation filtered to create an idealised version. This comes with many risks: feelings of inadequacy or jealousy when comparing to others in the group, the fallout from an ill-judged remark deemed unacceptable or inauthentic.

“one false move and we could be shamed forever”

The creation of ‘perfect’ avatars has led to bots becoming influencers.

Of course, digital connectivity has many benefits. This has become ever more apparent during the Covid-19 lockdown. Lockdown has also, however, sparked a pandemic of loneliness. Into this void has stepped the potential for robot ‘companions’. AI is becoming ever more sophisticated. Already widely accepted as assistants, social aspects are now being developed. For those who struggle to form relationships with people, a digital friend to talk to and seek advice from – one who doesn’t judge, mock or bully – can be beneficial.

AI robots are obviously digital but what of people who present themselves to the digital world in an altered state? The author writes of the Proteus Effect – how individuals are treated and behave based on how they look. If an avatar is created that is a favoured height, hair colour, race or gender, will some perceived ideal become more acceptable than individuality?

Another benefit of improved technology is in public health. Upgrading humans – fitting a pacemaker or quality prosthesis, replacing a vital organ, cosmetic surgery to right damage rather than for vanity – is usually only available to the wealthier nations, and sometimes only to wealthy citizens. This creates elites and ordinaries with very different potentials. There is a suggestion that this could be further developed to enable dictators to implement breeding programs – or introduce viruses that kill those not protected…

Moving on to mortality, there are thoughts on slowing the aging process and transhumanism. Technology has also been harnessed to memorialise the dead by recording: voice, mannerisms, facial expression. These may be used to create a bot of the deceased, in some cases projected as a hologram. Listening to histories recorded during interviews may be fascinating but the idea of the dead being enabled to interact with the living felt creepy. There is also the question of who owns ‘you’ when you are dead.

This book offers a wide-ranging study of many aspects of identity in the digital age, only a few aspects of which I have highlighted here. The writing is accessible, the subject interesting if somewhat disturbing. Choice appears to be a casualty of increasingly required connectivity. Form of government is key in how much individuals benefit. Only briefly mentioned are those living in countries lacking the infrastructure and economic ability to join in.

Well worth reading to raise understanding of what we lose and gain when our personal data is taken. A warning not to accept new technologies without question, whatever benefits they appear to offer. A reminder of the repercussive damage when choice to not participate is removed.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Elliott & Thompson.

Book Review: It’s the End of the World

“It is much better, psychologically as well as practically, to greet the impending disastrousness with a cheerful hopelessness. After all: we are all doomed. Everybody dies. There are no exceptions, and it demeans us to deny that fact.”

It’s the End of the World, by Adam Roberts, is strap-lined But What Are We Really Afraid Of? The author’s thoughts on this are expanded in six chapters, bookended by an introduction and an epilogue. He opens with the comment, ‘It’s always the end of the world’, and goes on to explain why, given the average existence of any species of mammal, humans may well be facing extinction in the not too distant future – in planetary timescales at least. He also posits that this need not concern us unduly, that it is what happens while we live that counts more than our eventual demise.

In exploring the wider picture there is the suggestion that disaster followed by reset may be a regular occurrence – that a Big Bang could eventually lead to a Big Crunch (the universe collapses in on itself) resulting in a Big Bounce as matter is flung away from the centre. All of this is speculation but what is interesting is how parochial, how miniscule, is the timescale most humans will consider about their species’ existence.

“Why should the universe we’re living in at the moment be the very first? Maybe our current reality is the millionth version”

This isn’t, however, what we’re afraid of. What many people struggle to accept is their own mortality.

“we’re not really worried about the end of the world. We’re worried about the end of our world”

Popular culture has long been fascinated by the prospect of a catastrophe that threatens to wipe out, if not all then most humans. This is an important distinction. It is regarded as disaster followed by reset, in which good men face an opportunity to build a different world than that which we currently inhabit. Sometimes the threat comes from space – such as aliens with no concept of how important man believes he is – but often the catalyst is man-made war or natural disaster. Films and books present stories triggered by an event where the moral is it could have been prevented had actions been less thoughtlessly selfish.

“Climate change is a result of us treating the world as a resource that we should exploit rather than a life-support system to nurture”

It is pointed out that one such resource is people – exploited by the more powerful for as long as they have existed.

“We are Monty Python’s Black Knight, gaily lopping off our own limbs while loudly boasting about our invincibility”

The author name-checks a great many works of literature and films. These include the Armaggeddon that closes the bible and Ragnarök from Norse mythology. In the present day, popular video games feature futuristic locations where avatars destroy and rebuild. Endings are rarely acceptable unless there is at least some chance of a new beginning.

Do we really want to live forever? A favourite chapter was on those who do not die, instead changing form. The author explores the recurring trope of zombies as harbingers of apocalypse.

“perhaps our fascination with zombies comes not from our fear of death but our fear that we won’t die […] This is perhaps connected to the different indignities we might suffer as we age. We might be fully in command of our faculties, but trapped in a body that is deteriorating before our very eyes. Or our bodies are fit and healthy but our minds are slowly being taken over by dementia.”

The book was completed in 2020 so Covid 19 is mentioned, the author pointing out how small a percentage of the world population has been killed by this virus compared to previous pandemics. Medieval plagues in Europe enabled survivors to fight off future viruses. When these countries started to conquer and colonise other continents the effect was truly devastating to native populations.

“The Wampanoag population of Native Americans, mostly located in modern-day New England, suffered up to 90 percent loss of population as a European disease, now thought to be leptospirosis, spread through their tribes. In the cocoliztli epidemic of 1545-48, in what is now Mexico, 12 million people – a staggering 80 per cent of the native population – died of a disease brought by European settlers.”

It is pointed out that such diseases do not wipe out literally everyone. However grievous and horrific, these episodes have never come near ending the world.

Although this may all sound rather depressing to read, the tone of the book is more one of irony and interest in man’s ability to ignore the wider implications of choices and lifestyles.

“Our own life, our own experiences, are the only frames of reference that we have for existence. This is why the idea of the world carrying on beyond our deaths is so troubling”

“Through our stories we have constructed a version of the world that gives an illusion of security – one made out of societies, laws, religions. But that world of our creation is vulnerable to change and upheaval; even though physically it might not end, those structures can, and have, come crashing down. Imagining the end of the world is an expression of our collective anxiety over life as well as death.”

The uber-wealthy may plot and plan to colonise another planet. The next economic level down may stockpile food and build bunkers. The poor are left to fend for themselves – we are a selfish species. Yet most of what is feared does not happen – although sometimes worse occurs in a way not yet imagined. An asteroid may strike, climate change accelerate beyond our species’ ability to survive the changes. Both these events are known to have happened in our planet’s past.

I found this a fascinating book in the ideas expounded. We use stories to work through our fears while largely avoiding the facts around the damage we cause. Man may wipe himself out but the end of the world, if or when it happens, is unlikely to be caused by us. Other than to ourselves, on a world building scale, we are really not that important or impactful.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Elliott & Thompson.

Book Review: Fifty Words for Snow

Fifty Words for Snow, by Nancy Campbell, is a beautifully produced book containing an eclectic mix of history, myth and anecdote. Structured into fifty short chapters, each preceded by an illustration of a snowflake, the author travels the world to explore how snow has impacted the lives of diverse cultures. She digs into the etymology of indigenous languages as well as musing on how incomers have shaped changes in vocabulary. While there are many references to climate change, the narrative avoids polemic.

The transformative powers of snow are wide ranging. Within the varied chapters the author looks at a snowfall’s sound, shape, texture and colour. She explains where and why phenomena happen and how, over time, people have adapted to the challenges wrought. Also included are the fun side of snow – from the origins of skiing and snowboarding to the joy to be garnered from creating a snow angel.

“This time, the marks we humans leave behind will last only as long as the snow itself”

Many landscapes around the world have been carved by glaciers. Snow can bring forth life but also cause death due to factors such as cold and avalanche. Readers will learn of: a mountain that has never been climbed, the rules of using an ice road in Estonia, where snow may be found in Hawaii, how a snow shower inspired the building of a basilica. There are also details on how to build an igloo and on how an arctic whale hunters ship was traditionally constructed. Snow can be a shroud, a playground or provide shelter. It is a source of life giving water and an inspiration for art.

The text is blue on white, the illustrations white on blue. These aesthetics are notable and fitting, adding to the pleasure of perusal. This is a book that may best be enjoyed by dipping into rather than read in a lengthy sitting. It contains much of interest without going into great detail.

A reminder that natural phenomena should be respected, often defying attempts by man to exert control. A light yet informative look at snow’s influence. A gentle warning of the damage caused when nature’s cycle is eroded.

Fifty Words for Snow is published by Elliott & Thompson.

Book Review: The Secret Life of Fungi

“fungi are all over us, around us, and in us, so this is not a world we can choose to ignore, or escape, because it’s their space just as much as it’s ours”

The Secret Life of Fungi: Discoveries from a Hidden World, by Aliya Whiteley, is a work of non fiction that reads like a series of short vignettes. It enables the author to share her lifelong interest in these extraordinary organisms, which many of us take for granted without considering their wonder. The love of her subject shines through the factual, fascinating and often playful prose. It is a book that could change readers’ perception of what exists all around them, wherever they are, in or out of the natural world.

Short chapters offer nuggets that remind how amazing nature remains, despite how it has been plundered. Take, for example, Pilobolus crystallinus, the spores of which are jettisoned from the dung heap where they feast at an acceleration equivalent to 20,000G (a bullet is fired from a shotgun at an acceleration of roughly 9000G).

“this spore release is one of the most powerful forces in nature”

A living specimen of Armillaria ostoyae in the Malheur National Forest, Oregon, has an underground network estimated to stretch for 965 hectares – you could fit 110,000 blue whales within it (although I don’t expect they would be happy with this arrangement). The fungi is a vampire, killing the trees it feasts on. It is also, for no discernable reason, bioluminescent. As the author writes, imagine coming across that in a dark forest at night…

Fungi grow in every possible environment: underground, on icy tundras, from Stonehenge to the International Space Station. Fungal spores can be carried in the wind, some causing illness such as coccidioidomycosis (Valley Fever), which can be fatal – invading its host until eventually (without treatment) vital organs fail. And yet, for every deadly variety there are others necessary for life as we know it.

There are also, of course, the many varieties that are tasty to eat and pleasingly nutritious – although don’t forage unless you know what you’re doing.

The author offers up many interesting facts and musings. Fungi can: bring down a giant ants’ nest; help the depressed or those facing death; aid decomposition of a plethora of substances, including plastic. Without fungi, there would be no orchids.

As we approach the fifth mass extinction on our planet it is worth remembering that fungi have survived and thrived. They are amazing opportunists, growing with equal enthusiasm in graveyards and volcanic ash as in woods, fields or when cultivated.

“We are insignificant as individuals, even as a species. If we were to disappear tomorrow, we would not be missed for long, if at all. The cathedrals might stand for a while, as stones do. The microbes will remain in motion and the light of the stars will still shine.”

The writing flows and engages, making clear why the author has developed and retained her interest in these wondrous organisms that grow and then die back so quickly and reliably. I challenge any reader to finish this book without immediately wanting to go outside and look more closely at the fungi growing where the natural world has not yet been sanitised.

“We are not the giants of this world, but the caretakers.”

“Let’s all go on a long walk and replace words with experience. Let’s go now.”

Photos taken by Jackie

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Elliott and Thompson.

Book Review: Unofficial Britain

“These are landscapes not considered to be ‘proper’ countryside, yet they harbour an array of life and can have as much beauty as the postcard rural Britain of common imagination.”

Unofficial Britain: Journeys Through Unexpected Places, by Gareth E. Rees, explores the ‘magic, mythology and folklore of urban space’. The author travels the length and breadth of Britain seeking out places many would overlook as they pass through. He delves into the history of structures that at first glance are ubiquitous but on closer inspection may harbour unique stories and features.

Time imbues what has gone before with nostalgia. A Victorian mill may now be regarded as worthy of preservation while a motorway flyover is hailed an eyesore, new roads widely protested against. Fields razed to make way for yet another housing estate are mourned for the cost to nature, with people forgetting that man has always used his surrounds in this way.

“By the seventeenth century the great forests that covered the land had been largely plundered for houses, ships and fuel, while fields had been enclosed for agriculture and ownership by those pretty hedgerows we sentimentalise today. The entirety of the lowland country had been reconfigured for the benefit of humans.”

Chapters are divided by the structure or place on which the author is focusing. The first of these is the electricity pylon.

“To attack the ugliness of electricity pylons, on which we rely for our daily lives, is to deny the truth of the state we live in, the civilisation we have built and the price we must pay for it.”

As well as considering the varying reactions to these ‘modern invaders’, the author shares tales of darkness – hauntings and suicides – and also the art they have inspired. To some a pylon is a thing of awe and beauty, to others it is a blot on the landscape.

Next comes an investigation of ring roads and roundabouts. Underneath a flyover on Glasgow’s incomplete ring road can be found ‘a hotchpotch underworld of cobbled slopes, pathways, stone plinths and steps’. Just as archaeologists sift through ancient remains to try to ascertain how our ancestors lived, so Rees examines more modern design and detritus to see if he can make sense of purpose or possible messages left. A surprising amount of lore is uncovered along with evidence of the illicit – attracted to spaces that go largely unseen.

Hauntings in housing estates are probed, along with stories of poltergeists and local ghostbusting teams.

Buildings such as factories and power stations become iconic as time passes. What may once have been complained of as ugly can quickly become venerated when steeped in local memory. Land use has always been modified to suit the now.

“the latest aspect of the biography of this location”

In delving into the spaces behind or beneath a place, the author opines that fear induced – such as monstrous creatures glimpsed in shadows – is not the result of an overactive imagination but rather a survival instinct that humans have experienced for centuries.

“A place is made of stories you read and rumours you hear. It is made of prejudices and anxieties, shaped by your past experiences. It is an atmosphere”

Graffiti is art to some. Shrines can exist without sanctified spaces.

Whatever the beauty, or otherwise, of the roads and buildings that fall under the author’s gaze, his musings are fascinating to consider. It is not just the particular stories that he shares but also what can be learned about people’s perceptions – their reaction to change.

“After each new manifestation replaces the old, it too becomes worn, decayed and saturated with nostalgia, to the point where some mourn its passing as much as others once lamented its coming. So the circle turns.”

Rees writes with a very particular style. He harnesses the personal and philosophical, offering thoughts that are penetrating yet always entertaining. He has an eye for the surreal and the skill to present this as worthy of consideration.

I wasn’t convinced by the poems that conclude each chapter, although they do offer a kind of nursery rhyme coda – perhaps of the darker variety – to the preceding narrative.

Unofficial Britain is a study of aspects of the isle from a rarely viewed perspective. It will encourage the reader to look more closely at surrounds not typically regarded as of interest. It offers a fresh take on vistas some may too readily dismiss.

“Whatever changes come, let us never fall prey to the delusion of a halcyon past and convince ourselves that any single period of history is more authentic than another”


My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Elliott & Thompson.

Book Review: Into the Tangled Bank

“Honestly, there are times when nature seems to be taking the piss.
‘Here you go – have something of unfathomable beauty. Here’s another. And another. Careful not to faint.'”

Into the Tangled Bank, by Lev Parikian, follows the author as he contemplates the natural world around him as it gets on with its business of living, everywhere. He starts on the pavement outside his home in South London. Alongside the traffic and urban debris are: plants, butterflies, birds and other creatures. The reader is reminded that they too are part of nature and it is not necessary to visit a specialist reserve to observe the wonder of ecosystems.

Later in the book such reserves are visited. The author also journeys to the homes and gardens (some covering many acres) of key figures from history who shared observations of their surroundings – local and further afield – with the wider public through scientific and artistic endeavours.

First though, what is alive – and not always welcome – within homes is investigated. Efforts may be made to eradicate supposed invaders such as flies, wasps or spiders but it is pointed out that they serve a useful purpose. They are also amazing when form and habits are closely observed.

The author’s garden and local woodland are explored. The author contemplates a Perfectly Normal Tree. He also muses on how others experience place and its features.

“When we see someone looking at a tree, we have no way of knowing what’s going on in their heads. Maybe they’re silently composing poetry; perhaps they’re wondering if they left the iron on; or they might just be thinking about the deliciousness of really good chips. It is, and should remain, a mystery. But sometimes the Thomas Bewicks and John Clares of the world see fit to record their reaction in the form of art, and that in turn affects people in different and unknowable ways.”

Encounters with people are included in contemplations. Some are chatty; others appear unmoved by what is around them. One lady, on a boat trip to view eagles, is loud and excitable – an irritation to others or a reminder that what is being observed is worth getting excited about? This is better, perhaps, than the parents hurrying children away from their encounters with the creatures they were brought to observe, enjoy, and now wish to linger with.

The text is informative but also personal with many footnotes offering elucidation along with self-deprecating humour. Birds are of particular interest and the reader is reminded that it is not just the unusual that should be sought for admiration. One anecdote shared is when bird-watchers in China rushed to view a visiting robin – a rarity there.

“a vivid reminder not to take commonplace for granted, to look at normal more closely, to appreciate the magic of the everyday.”

The author does not consider himself an expert, pointing out that information can be readily gleaned from books and the myriad of online resources available. What he urges is that readers take time to observe, wherever they may be.

Towards the end of the book Parikian turns his gaze upwards. He visits a Dark Skies observatory and is overwhelmed by the vastness of outer space. What this does offer, though, is perspective.

There are cautions against man’s habit of anthropomorphising – attributing reactions to how we would feel. The author also advises against expecting the constant action depicted in televised nature programmes. Nature does not perform for man’s benefit but rather as is necessary for continued survival.

This is a gently structured, affable study that takes the reader ‘from the kitchen sink to the cosmic void’ via museums, zoos and what now passes as wilderness. It provides a reminder that all are connected and everyday actions are truly fascinating. Informative, well written and interesting – an entertaining and uplifting read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Elliott & Thompson