Book Review: Eagle Country

Eagle Country, by Seán Lysaght, is the tenth book in the publisher’s Nature Monograph Series. Presented in the form of a journal it details the author’s travels around Ireland as he searches for the eyries where eagles once nested. Despite growing up on the island I would not have associated Ireland with eagles, never having heard reports of these magnificent hunters settling there. Until a recent reintroduction programme they had been exterminated, shot or poisoned by farmers and gamekeepers who would not tolerate them taking small livestock or the grouse required by shooting parties. The impact of this policy is described in some detail, a lesson in causality when attempting to control nature.

As Lysaght walks across the mountainous and coastal land where eagles once bred he marvels at the flora and fauna that has somehow survived modern farming methods. The land has been denuded by overgrazing as farmers maximise the subsidies they may claim from the EU. This has affected the habitats required by grouse and hares on which eagles would feast. It is not just the land that has been affected. Fish farms and rubbish contaminate the water. Pine forests turn rivers acidic making it unsuitable for native fish species. Short term gain has been given precedence over a healthy ecology. Man has set himself apart and then wonders at the impact of the damage.

“state bodies and learned institutions were there to give us exact statistics about the degradation, without any apparent clout to change things.”

Despite his unease at these observations, the descriptions of the elements Lysaght encounters are awe-inspiring. In poetic prose he marvels at the landscape and the nature it supports. He remains aware that his presence also has an effect, exemplified by the chagrin felt when others appear in the landscapes he walks many miles to survey.

“Mine was a typical arrival – a lá brea (fine day), someone who appears only during fine weather and arrives with a tourist’s fantasy of remoteness, cultural purity and authenticity.”

There are explanations of the names of places. As he travels the views shift, the same features observed from different vantage points. Vast mountains disappear behind closer peaks, lakes come into view reflecting the sky and the sheer drops of their surrounds.

“The binoculars isolated the image, extracted it from the scene, and made it abstract; I imagined these recorded on video and placed in one of the temples of contemporary art.”

For some time the only eagles the author sees are fashioned in stone or plaster and placed upon gateposts. Landowners marvel at the creatures despite having wiped them out. The land itself has been shaped to suit human development, stunning vistas offering health and safety compliant adventures, marketed and branded almost out of existence.

“[I] lay in the tent, amused at my own naivety in thinking I could escape the twenty-first century in the twenty-first century.”

Lysaght feels a strong affinity to the place and its history. In his observations he recognises that he is myth making yet what he shows the reader is a fascinating snapshot of the detail most won’t be aware of because they do not know where to look. There is suffering inflicted on creatures that modern squeamishness may baulk at, despite knowledge of animal cruelties that prevail in factory farm settings.

As well as the wildernesses and farmland, Lysaght’s travels take him to state run reserves and places he visited as a child.

“My father brought us to those institutions to make us understand that Ireland’s identity was as much about the country’s flora and fauna as it had to do with symbols of the armed revolution.”

Now a grandfather himself he thanks his grandson for reminding him that ‘there is more than one way of looking through a telescope’.

The sights are described in exquisite detail. Alongside the landscape and its natural history, the inhabitants and their impact, there is wonder and appreciation. This is a glorious evocation of nature, and of the difficulties of recreating the order that man has upset.

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

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Gig Review: Novel Nights in Bristol, with guest speaker Jon Woolcott

“Novel Nights is a monthly literary event in Bristol and Bath showcasing and supporting excellent writing and writers at all stages of their career.”

I am a fan of independent publisher Little Toller which publishes books about nature, rural life, and local history, mainly in the British Isles. As well as being informative and engaging, their books are beautifully presented – high quality and aesthetically pleasing. I am always happy to receive one to review. When I spotted on Twitter that Jon Woolcott was to speak at a writers’ group in Bristol, and that all were welcome, I decided to go along. What an enjoyable evening it turned out to be.

Held in The Square Club, Clifton, this well attended and welcoming group offers creative writers the opportunity to read from their work prior to a talk from an invited guest. Last week we were treated to three excerpts from as yet unpublished novels, all with a nature theme.

Polly Roberts read from the novel she wrote as part of her Creative Writing MA, provisionally titled ‘Animals’ and currently looking for a home. This is a work of fiction and, in the excerpt read, the prose had a poetic quality. It described relationships between otters – the book is set in the English countryside.

Andy Morgan is a writer and journalist. He read from his non fiction work, ‘Sahara Soul Rebels’.

“Self, desert and nature are one and nature is beautiful”

Despite conflicts in the area there is a deep love for the land.

“I’m free in my country”

Grace Palmer, the founder of Novel Nights, read from ‘Cathy’s Field’. The excerpt centred around memories – an attachment to land that was to be sold.

“Time to let it all go”

Although based on a particular landscape on the Staffordshire / Shropshire border, the world and characters are fictional. This was the first chapter in a book Grace is working on.

There followed a short break allowing drinks to be purchased and conversations with other attendees to be enjoyed before Jon took his seat to give his talk on The Business of Books.

Jon has, over the course of his career to date, worked for Waterstones, Ottakars and Stanfords booksellers. He is aware that there can be a disconnect between author, publisher and retailer. In an industry that loves to gossip, where a plethora of information exists, rumours are rife. Jon gave is some facts.

In 2016 (the last year for which figures are available), the total sales from all publishers in the UK amounted to some £3.5 billion, £1.5 billion of which was exported. Around 160,000 individual titles were published. These included technical, academic, self-published and reprints of older books. There were around 60,000 ebooks published, many as co-editions of physical titles. How, in a market awash with books, does a bookseller decide what to stock?

Bookshops are businesses. Their primary priority is to remain solvent. They will therefore stock what sells, including cookbooks, celebrity memoirs and best-selling authors. Deciding what units of stock will shift can be tricky and there have been some notable disasters in the past twenty or so years.

The first of these was the end of the net book agreement. This led to retailers offering discounts on premium authors, the very titles that would sell anyway, to get customers through the door. Supermarkets wanted a slice of the action – Asda offered one of the new Harry Potter titles for a fiver. Waterstones introduced its 3 for 2 multibuys.

Then there was Amazon. The use of the ISBN enabled the online retailer to easily catalogue available books. In response to Amazon’s success several bricks and mortar chains abandoned their ecommerce operations, although many of these have since been reinstated. Amazon was accepted as the go to on line shop.

Next came the Richard and Judy Book Club. Their first title was expected to sell perhaps twenty thousand units. It sold ten times this amount. In response, publishing focused on that market. It influenced commissioning decisions, packaging and price. Publishers tried to produce books more cheaply, affecting quality and creating generic designs.

Soon after came ebooks. For certain genres this caused a 20% drop in sales, badly affecting bookshops. Books are, after all, discretionary purchases. Attempts to copy the success of the Kindle failed.

Then, in 2011 the Booker Prize winner, Julian Barnes, praised the design of his novel. He stated that if physical books were to have a life in the world of ebooks they must be beautiful, that the product must be created to gain attention. Jon equated this to the plumage on birds.

The race to the bottom ceased.

Around the same time Waterstones was sold to a Russian billionaire who simplified the business. A centralised buying structure was introduced, stores were refurbished and many of the price promotions removed. As a result sales fell but so did returns. Publishers grew used to selling books over a longer period rather than simply around initial publication.

Book tables are now less likely to hold only the latest best sellers. Curation has grown in importance. The shortcomings of the Kindle have been recognised – they have a place but not a monopoly. The landscape of bookselling is as stable today as it has been for some time.

The invisible giant, Amazon, remains with its poor pay and ability to avoid tax. However, readers are aware of this and can make informed choices. Many bookshops, including the independents, will take on line orders and post direct to readers.

Although the big publishers are still mainly London based there has been a notable growth in the small presses. They are willing to take risks on what they believe in, and most bookshops are willing to stock their titles. Social media offers access to readers. Although still tiny, managing to survive month by month, they offer authors greater flexibility and a beautiful end product.

So, how does this affect writers?

Firstly, bookshops matter. Forge relationships with booksellers early on. Seek advice on what sells. Make friends but don’t make it all about your book. Be realistic in expectations – bookshops are commercial enterprises. Offer to sign books (there is no truth in the rumour that signed books cannot be returned). Offer to do events, then provide the audience by inviting friends. Generate interest by joining up with another writer to offer a Q&A and help sell their books as well as your own.

Other aspects that matter are a good AI sheet – offer to meet the publisher’s sales rep. Use social media – The Big Green Bookshop is a fine example of how this can work. Provide content for the local newspaper, perhaps the story behind the book. Invest time in creating an author website or blog – and sing the praises of your local bookshop. Encourage readers to use their library too.

Jon was asked about the recent growth of interest in nature writing. He suggested this could be partly nostalgia but also an increase in awareness of the planet. Little Toller started out republishing nature classics but now publishes more contemporary works, some from commissions and others from submissions. It remains small, operating out of a converted cow byre on its founders’ farm.

With that the evening was drawn to a close and the audience were able to browse and buy from a tempting range of Little Toller books. As anticipated, this had proved a truly fascinating evening.

Little Toller Books will publish the latest in their Monograph Series, Eagle Country by Seán Lysaght, in April 2018. It is available to buy now if ordered direct – click on the cover below.

You may keep up with events organised by Novel Nights on their website and by following them on Twitter: NovelNights (@novelnightsuk)

You may follow Jon Woolcott on Twitter (@jonwoolcott) and also Little Toller Books (@LittleToller)

Book Review: Limestone Country

“which came first, geography or history? And where does one end and the other begin?”

Limestone Country, by Fiona Sampson, is the ninth book in Little Toller’s monograph series (you may read my review of Snow, by Marcus Sedgwick, here). These are beautifully written and presented meditations on subjects that impact personally on each of the authors. They are varied in scope but focus on human interactions with the environment and forces of nature. In this work what is offered is a portrait of life in four particular limestone landscapes:

  • Chambon, a farming hamlet in Périgord, southern France;
  • Škocjan in the Karst region of Slovenia;
  • Coleshill, a rural parish in England;
  • Jerusalem, Israel.

 The author has lived in or travelled around these locations and opens each of the four sections of the book with a short personal anecdote from her experiences. They set the scene for a lyrical and sympathetic study of the very different lifestyles of the locals, how these have been established over time, and the natural, cultural and political forces that subject them to change.

“the liveliness of tradition doesn’t come from where and how it originated, but from its use today.”

Locations are steeped in a constantly evolving history. Residents must adapt as generational exposures change. Modern incomers trying to capture whatever drew them to the place with their tidy, sterile renovations may be welcomed but rarely blend in.

As people have fought wars and moved borders there has been a shift in tolerance to certain visitors. This is particularly striking in the Karst region which the author travels with a friend from Macedonia, also a region of the former Yugoslavia, who is made to feel unwelcome by some who would previously have been his countrymen. Yet the land remains largely the same – the woodlands where walkers are warned of bears, the caves which draw tourists and provide income.

“Geological time is incomprehensibly grander than human history.”

There is the seemingly ubiquitous addition of holiday homes for the wealthy offering heritage chic. Visitors are drawn to admire centuries old churches that have survived through iterations of belief, places of cultic pilgrimage containing:

“graves of important figures […] who, like the rich everywhere, seem to have planned on the front row in paradise.”

In Coleshill the author observes how the working English villages have become satellite residences for wealthy metropolitans. Old traditions have been monetised if not valued by landowners such as the National Trust.

“It’s as if the techniques of land work, whether dry-stone walling or game-keeping, don’t count as knowledge if someone has practised them all his life, but only when they’re acquired by someone young and middle-class. The public schoolboy who grows his hair and chooses a holistic lifestyle as a craft worker, and the graduate of land management courses who plans to spend his life in an estate office, are alike in being valued as ‘experts’. Whereas Walter from number 17, now in his 70’s and bow-legged by arthritis after a lifetime of outdoor work, is regarded as merely old-fashioned; a burden to be laid off.”

Kept awake by the B52s taking off and landing from the neighbouring airfield at Fairford the author mulls the payload of death and destruction they carry to regions currently undergoing catastrophic change. From her rural idyll she notes that the cities of which visitors are most in awe

“have been destroyed almost as often as they’ve been rebuilt.”

Jerusalem is one such place. Each of her fellow visitors is there to come away with a personal experience based on their own ideas of what the place has been, the dreams and nightmares that whole societies entertain.

“Those fantasies devour the places they fix on through colonial exploitation, through war and plunder, even through mass tourism. Every city is as much unreal as real.”

Landscapes are formed over millennia and shape the lives of its settlers. These personal adaptations are passed down, altered by events and evolving attitudes but still umbilically tied to home regions. We are each a constituent of where we live, and it of us:

“We make places our own in part by the stories we dream up about them”

This book is a perceptive, thought-provoking observation of nature with man passing through. The exquisite yet substantive prose is a pleasure to read.

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

Gig Review: Marcus Sedgwick in Bath

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Regular readers will be aware of how fond I am of Mr Bs Emporium of Reading Delights in the City of Bath. However, up until Tuesday night of this week, I had yet to attend one of their author events. I had been waiting for the right author to visit the bookshop itself, not one of the larger venues where events are sometimes held. Marcus Sedgwick, whose writing I adore, was a perfect fit.

The ticket had seemed a little pricey but included music, wine, a plentiful and delicious wintry feast, and a 15% discount on all purchases made on the night. For a full evening of such congenial entertainment it turned out to be excellent value. The size of the bibliotherapy room ensured that this was an intimate gathering, and Marcus was happy to mingle while supper was eaten.

Attendees were welcomed with a glass of wine and invited to browse the shelves before moving upstairs for the main event. This opened with music by The Bookshop Band who performed a specially written song about Snow. If you haven’t heard of these guys then do look out for them. They set the scene beautifully for a cosy and entertaining evening.

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Marcus was there to discuss a recently published monograph about Snow, the seventh in a series of nature themed books commissioned by Little Toller Books. He talked briefly of the work that this small publisher supports, how they have recently opened an art gallery in Devon and offer residencies to artists in the Toller valley. This helped explain the gorgeous look and feel of the book. I was privileged to have been sent an early copy – you may read my review here.

Marcus now lives full time in the French Alps, at a height equivalent to the peak of Snowdon. He talked of how science has proved that the natural world has health benefits, how exercise outside is more beneficial than in a gym, and how hospital patients on the sunny side of a hospital ward respond better to treatment. Our emotional response to natural events remains childlike throughout our lives. We point out a rainbow, a sunset, heavy rainfall or a covering of snow. Businesses monetise this when they charge more for a room with a view.

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As well as the science of snow, Marcus talked of its inclusion in literature. He mentioned his favourite book, The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann, which is set in and around a sanatorium in the Swiss Alps. Living where he does he understands the pleasure of the rarefied mountain air and the introspective world he can enjoy in such a remote location.

Marcus talked of his interest in etymology and the century long debate over how many words the Innuit people have for snow. He pondered why the early explorers to the poles chose to risk their lives to bag a world first, and how only now are some of their remains being located. The indigenous people could have shared this knowledge much earlier but few were willing to listen, convinced as they were of their own superiority.

There was mention of climate change, of how much less snow now falls, how when it does there is a muffling of the regular world as a cleansed pallet is offered. It is also, of course, a danger. The music of Schubert evokes this darkness.

There were many more questions but much of what Marcus revealed is covered in the book which I recommend you read. He writes so beautifully and this is obviously a subject close to his heart.

The evening ended with a signing and I was delighted when Marcus drew a little snowflake in my book. He is a warm and fascinating speaker. This was a special event.

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Snow is published by Little Toller Books and is available to buy now.

Book Review: Snow

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“we live in a world of over-simplification. Few people have the time, energy or desire to see the world as any more complex than they can cope with.”

Snow, by Marcus Sedgwick, is the latest addition to the publisher’s monograph series – beautiful books which explore aspects of the natural world and the rich variety of places in which the authors live. Echoing the six sides of a snowflake, the six chapters in this highly readable study delve into the science and art of snow – its impact on literature, folklore, exploration and scientific progress, on those who have experienced its power to trigger awe and fear.

The author now lives in the French Alps but spent his childhood in rural Kent where he remembers there being more snow than typically falls today. Despite its ability to throw travel plans into disarray he associates it with freedom. A deep covering would have prevented him and his brother from attending their hated school leading to fun and imaginative play. The transformed world offered a blank canvas, an empty page on which to create. The muffled silence and crisp cleanliness belyed the potential dangers. He goes on to discuss this in some depth.

Music and literature use snow as a backdrop to terror. Historic explorers have been trapped, frozen or maimed. Snow has physically shaped the mountains and valleys. The modern world is impotent when a heavy fall cuts off communications.

The author looks not just at the physical but also the emotional impact of snow on the human psyche. He talks of ancient stories, mythical figures, and the powerful forces an accumulation of these flakes can unleash. There is much to consider and take in.

The quality of the writing ensures that the ideas are never difficult to process. As befits the subject, it is a captivating read.

“Snow ranks amongst the greatest forces in the natural world […] the result of the humble snowflake, tiny and almost weightless. Minuscule, intricately beautiful too”

Snowfall has transformed the world in many ways. This book will enable readers to look at its arrival this winter through a newly polished lens.

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