Book Review: Aurochs and Auks

aurochs and auks

“we speak, but we rarely listen; we tell cautionary tales, but we go on making the same mistakes; we state the obvious daily, yet we never act on what we say we know”

Aurochs and Auks, by John Burnside, is a collection of four essays that ponder man’s place in the world alongside his culpability in the extinction of species. Whilst it may be depressing to consider how foolish and damaging our behaviour too often is, the undercurrent in this writing is one of hope for what still thrives among ruins, and will do so when we are gone. The author may grieve for the damage wreaked by our self-destructive habits but can also look out in wonder at the here and now.

The opening essay, Aurochs, explores story telling across the ages and how this enables ‘the most radical alternative to authorised history’. The titular animals preceded domesticated cattle and survived in lands where man had not yet decreed that places could be enclosed and owned by an elite. Farming turned animals into commodities, killed for profit rather than as needed for a hunter’s sustenance. By changing natural habitats – building on wilderness, felling forests, over fishing oceans – a long trail of extinctions followed. The author posits that many so called civilisations have lost connection with the liminal spaces our ancestors sought to connect with. What became organised religion was once a respect for unknown but occasionally encountered forces rather than a belief in a deity.

“Out in the wild, or gazing up at the stars … I do not feel diminished. On the contrary, I feel appropriate, one instance of a particular species with its own way of being in the world”

The second essay looks further at extinctions and how those who act on their concerns come to be branded negatively, often criminalised. Politicians and business leaders focus on the economy, ignoring the wide variety of damage industrialisation causes. The author reminds us that the ‘economic health of entire societies is measured according to the market value of its richest members’. The degradation of land, and the removal of freedoms afforded in wilder spaces, has left people ‘greedy, anxious, less spontaneous’.

Interesting asides include the way nature has recolonised the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, now ‘lush, diverse and swarming with animal, bird and insect life’.

“normal human activities associated with agrarian society are more destructive than the world’s worst nuclear meltdown”

There are further reminders that habitat changes result in displacement, that land should not be viewed primarily as a profitable resource.

“Land ownership inevitably leads, first to the denaturing of place and, second, to the basic conditions for social injustice. If one person has the right to enclose, develop or colonise an area, then others are not only excluded from its use, but also coerced into a position where their relationship to the land quickly becomes distorted.”

The penultimate essay, Auks, includes the always distressing account of how the Great Auk was systematically slaughtered to extinction. This, along with commercial whaling, depicts man at his worst in so many ways. Much is made in historical accounts of holocausts and genocides – man killing man. How we treat our other fellow creatures says much about moral compass – so called humanity.

The final essay tells of the author’s recent near death experience when he caught Covid-19. Once recovered he found himself more attuned to the now, more connected and appreciative. He offers special thanks to the healthcare workers who saved him, noting that a pay rise would be a better way of expressing this than a nation’s halo making.

“Nobody can say that these people are as culpable as the CEOs and politicos who keep the extinction machinery running – they, at least, have chosen to work on the side of life”

Although grateful to be alive, the author accepts his mortality and rejects the entitled assumption that ‘the whole show belongs to us’. He posits that it is this attitude that will drive man towards his own extinction, and that other species will likely blossom and flourish in the ruins we leave behind.

The writing is persuasive with many points of interest raised. Little hope is offered for change given how entrenched man’s self-entitlement remains, the comforts enjoyed that cost so dearly. Nevertheless, those who understand and value nature’s ecosystem will recognise that we are merely one species among many. We know what we are doing and continue, making a mockery of any complaints we may raise at our systematic degradation of what is our life support system.

Never didactic but clear on the issues that deserve unadulterated consideration, this is recommended reading.

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

Book Review: Where?

where

Where? by Simon Moreton is a moving tribute to the author’s late father who died in 2017. It is a hybrid of: memoir, local history, art – inspired by the question, where are you from? The book is beautifully produced and provides a fascinating insight into the impact surroundings have on shaping what a person becomes. It is a reminder that places are constantly changing, that time moves inexorably on.

“In my unfocused arbitrary melancholy I raged at the loss of that place, of a building, a function. Is that how the horrific pledge to ‘the good old days’ is made? To plant my flag, while ignoring the irony of having grown up five hundred feet away, in a house built upon layers and layers of other people’s memories, angry that someone else was now doing the same to me?”

In 1987, Moreton’s father took a job as an engineer, working at a radar station serving the Civil Aviation Authority. Situated on the embankments of an Iron Age hill fort, on Titterstone Clee in Shropshire, the view from the top in fine weather was ‘so pastoral that Tolkien was alleged to have written about it and called it the Shire.’ Weather was, however, unpredictable with squalls and sudden temperature drops providing memorable challenges for staff and tourists.

The family moved from their former home in suburban Surrey to a new-build house on a small estate in Caynham, three miles from the radar station and adjacent to a then derelict stately home. The locale was rural and quiet, steeped in lore and shaped by past lives and industry. The author revisits key locations, taking the reader on a walk through centuries of past residents’ known experiences and legacies – the marks they left on the area. As a child this was his playground, a place for adventures with his older brother and friends.

“Memories of these woods – pond-dipping, mud-running, grave-visiting, absurdly bucolic pictures – form the scaffolding of my childhood identity. We were a family as any other, thoroughly unaware that the place was a human-made landscape, oblivious to the history of wealth, power, privilege and tragedy to which it was witness.”

The stories are wrapped around the bones of Moreton’s father’s illness – diagnosis, progression and then death within a matter of weeks. As the scattered family come together to keep vigil, the author muses on elements of their personal history. They moved frequently, as did he after leaving home for university. He describes certain aspects of the seventeen years that followed this quest for independence with refreshing honesty – a young man unsure and frequently messing up – and a nod to the unreliability of memory.

“I don’t know what I want. Or rather, I do, but I have neither the experiential common sense nor the emotional vocabulary to work out how to articulate it, let alone go about getting it.”

“he speaks to me about making hard decisions, and being happy, and doing what was right for me. I don’t think he even means the school work or my decisions about university; I think he means for me to stop fighting myself, and make the changes I need to make, for myself.”

The family grief at the impending death is tempered for the reader by historic stories shared – tales of others’ lives and tragedies spanning centuries. Readers are immersed in the Shropshire hills as they too keep vigil. The monochrome artwork accompanying the many accounts and recollections is as poignant and expressive as the engaging prose, photographs and clippings.

where pic 1   where pic 2

A fascinating and moving tribute to an ordinary family man whose legacy lives on through his impact on those he predeceased. A comforting reminder that, despite individual transience, the ripples we make can provide comfort in memory – stories to share and pass on, as the author has done here.

“it’s no surprise that during the period of his illness thoughts about growing up, of how our family came to be and where we were from bubbled up as we sought in trauma and in grief to find common narratives to our diverging life-courses, things that would keep us connected with him and each other.”

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

Book Review: The Screaming Sky

screaming sky

“In the Neolithic we started carving up the world. We built walls across it to separate things that had once been part of a whole. Behind some of the walls we penned the animals we had previously seen as our ensouled cousins, and behind some of the walls we penned ourselves. In some of these Neolithic walls – which were really symptoms of a disastrous mania for control that has dominated and blighted us ever since – lived common swifts. If you choose to make your home in the manifestation of a disease, it’s probably not going to go well with you in the long term.”

The Screaming Sky, by Charles Foster (illustrated by Jonathan Pomroy), is the latest in the always fascinating and beautifully produced Little Toller Monograph series. Its subject is swifts, particularly the common swift (Apus apus), a species that arrives in Europe each summer to breed. The author describes his interest in this bird as an obsession – something borne out in what he shares within these pages. Although not considering himself a scientific expert, he credits the swift with teaching him how to be ‘a father, a friend and a human.’

The book is divided into the months of a calendar year. Swifts live in perpetual summer. In January they are hurtling through the skies above Africa. They mostly live on the wing, travelling awe inspiring distances at high speed. The birds are also long lived, many reaching their third decade. They feast on insects, snatching them out of the air yet choosing what they take and leave with a fastidiousness it is hard to fathom given the velocity at which they exist. They bathe in clouds and stay within sociable colonies. Once they mate they are monogamous.

“In the zoological world the tendency to monogamy is generally correlated with relative brain weight – and hence with cognitive ability. Promiscuous animals, by and large, have smaller brains, for relationship demands a good deal of neurological processing power”

The author lives in Oxford, in a house chosen by a breeding pair of swifts as their nest site thanks to an available hole under the eaves. He cautions against considering these birds his, or indeed referring to them as British just because they breed on this isle. Evidence suggests that proto-swifts were travelling the air roads over 50 million years ago. Plate tectonics have since changed continents and climate markedly. Swifts may be creatures of habit but the distances they travel mean huge swathes of Earth may be considered home to them.  

“Most of the birds that will breed in western Europe, after milling with all the world’s swifts over the Congo basin, move to Liberia which, after the mid-April rains, sees one of the greatest wildlife gatherings on the planet.”

Much of what we now know about swifts has been discovered because, in recent years, some of the poor creatures were fitted with tags and harnesses to enable monitoring. Much, however, remains unknown, such as how they navigate. What is clear is that man’s desire for tidiness in his surroundings along with the increase in factory farming and industrial agricultural practices has damaged the quantity and quality of insects on which swifts rely for food. 

Apart from the weeks spent raising their young each year, swifts avoid terra firma. Where they gather is mostly dependent on weather events and may involve regular journeys of thousands of miles. Although long lived, unexpected weather can prove catastrophic to large numbers of birds. 

“the architecture of the sky is as complex as that of the sea”

The author writes of the swifts’ history and geography as well as their physics and biology. This is not, however, an essay on science but rather a sharing of the wonder of a lifelong interest. Foster’s obsession is clear in the effect the swifts have on his mood and behaviour. He travels abroad in the hope that when he looks up the birds will be there. He is scathing of men who do not appreciate what may be learned from nature. His occasional views on politicians inject dry humour.

“sociopathy, vanity and talentlessness are emphatic disqualifications for leadership, rather than, as for us, essential elements of the CV.”

As with each of the Little Toller Monographs I gained a deeper appreciation of the subject while picking up nuggets of wider interest along the way. The author writes with passion and remains engaging. He feels anger and sadness when humans don’t notice what is happening around them, imploring the reader to look up and take time to enjoy these wondrous visitors. He cautions against the recent habit of arguing the societal or economic value to humans of any species.

 “The presumption that swifts need to justify themselves in terms that mean something to us is malignant and highly metastatic. Who are we to demand that the wild world pleads for its life in language that we can understand?”

An enjoyable and thought-provoking monograph that soars alongside these avian marvels while offering up broader considerations man would do well to attend to. A reminder of the perils inherent when we damage what is also our life support system. 

Book Review: Diary of a Young Naturalist

“Maybe, if we bang our heads against a brick wall for long enough, it will crumble and fall. And maybe the rubble can be used to rebuild something better and more beautiful, enabling our own wildness. Imagine that”

Diary of a Young Naturalist, by Dara McAnulty, is a year long account of the fourteen year old author’s life. It offers an inspiring and uplifting view of nature focusing on flora and small fauna – the insects and birds essential for balance in the ecosystem of which humans are a part. More than this though, Dara’s musings and recollections provide an eye-opening window into the challenges faced by a teenager on the autism spectrum. He must find a way to survive an intensity of roller coaster emotions as he strives to navigate society and raise awareness of the issues he is passionate about.

Dara was born and raised in Northern Ireland where he still lives with his family. The book opens at the spring equinox – his dad’s birthday. The family home is in Fermanagh. Their best days are spent exploring the gardens, parks and wild places in their vicinity. Dara is often halted by the wonder of a bird or insect he spots, pausing to observe its beauty and activity. He writes with knowledge and appreciation, drawing the reader in and bringing alive the detail of each encounter.

These moments carry the author through the black periods that assail him, when the noise of the structured world he is forced to inhabit drowns out the good he finds in more natural wildernesses. He has been cruelly and violently bullied by his peers at school. Although eager to learn, the setup of modern classrooms and teaching methods – the way he is expected to behave – leave him exhausted. His family are tuned in to his predicament and offer strategies for coping. The constant vigilance required affects them all but is deeply appreciated by the author.

At home he has the understanding and unfailing support of his family. Still though, he must find ways to survive inside his own head. A crisis occurs later in the year when the family move to the other side of the country. The land that lies below the peaks of the Mourne Mountains offers Dara many new and exciting opportunities for exploration but such a radical change is anxiety inducing, especially the change of school.

Each diary entry recounts the birds and tiny beasts that entrance and calm the author. Described in wondrous detail – in language that captivates with its colour – creatures that many would try hard to avoid are made delightful as well as exciting. Alongside this positive energy is Dara’s despair at how modern farming practices denude vital habitats. Humans strive for efficiency and tidiness over more nature friendly practices.

As well as the wild places visited, Dara has an interest in conservation. His growing on-line presence has drawn attention and support from some well known names in this arena. Dara is invited to take part in bird ringing – I was interested that this form of human intervention sat well with him. Other invitations include participation in meetings and rallies. He recognises that, as a young naturalist with a popular following, certain opportunities – especially those attended by politicians – are about using him rather than taking notice of what he has to say.

The writing flows, the structure enabling both brief dips in and longer reading periods. The natural world presented is inspiring but what strengthens the message presented is its honesty – how Dara notices and is affected by his varied encounters. This is a book with the potential to change attitudes and behaviour. A vital read for both young people and adults.

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

Book Review: A Stone Statue In The Future – #SaveIndies

It is probably stretching the definition somewhat to describe A Stone Statue In The Future, by Benjamin Myers, as a book. It is a new short story that has been released to raise much needed funds for two excellent small, independent presses whose finances are suffering because of the current lockdown. Priced at only £3, the reader purchases a digital download. As I do not read ebooks and wished to savour the writing from an author whose work I have previously enjoyed immensely, I made my own hard copy (pictured above).

The story features a young man, sitting by a pond, fishing. I have never understood this activity – how so much time can be spent apparently inactive. Having read this work I feel I understand better the motivation. The young man is taking in his surroundings and allowing his mind to wander. This takes him to a potential future and is a delightful reposte to how we interpret the past from found objects.

A warden makes his way around the ponds where coarse fishermen tend their rods. He offers practical advice to the young man who is impressed and grateful. The denouement is crafted with skill leaving a memorable impression.

The author’s writing evokes a strong sense of place. The vivid, sensuous language whilst rich is never cloying. Rather, there is a playfulness in the observations and characters created. This short story was a delight to read.

A Stone Statue In The Future is published by Bluemoose Books and Little Toller Books.

Do please consider purchasing – click on the cover below for further details.

Book Review: On Silbury Hill

On Silbury Hill, by Adam Thorpe, is another fascinating addition to the Little Toller Monograph series (I have previously reviewed Snow, Landfill, Eagle Country, and Limestone Countryall these books are also worth reading). Thorpe first became interested in Silbury – the largest prehistoric mound in Europe – while he was a pupil at nearby Marlborough College, an exclusive public school where he boarded during the 1970s while his parents lived abroad due to his father’s work. As well as providing the reader with information about the enigmatic hill and the varying theories about its original purpose, Thorpe writes of his time in Wiltshire as a schoolboy, and later in life when he would return to visit. Like many who are drawn to the area – I have lived nearby for over three decades – he finds something elemental in his reaction to the location and its ancient artefacts.

Silbury Hill was built, probably over several generations, more than 4000 years ago. She is around 130 feet high – the equivalent of a 13 storey building – and has a base covering around 5 acres. Nobody knows why she was created although there are many theories. Archaeologists have drilled down into her, dug tunnels through her and taken away samples to try to work out her purpose. She is neither a burial mound nor a treasure trove. There are few clues as to what she may have been used for.

What is known is that she was one of three man made mounds in an area that also includes the Avebury stone circles and its associated avenues. Nearby are several large barrows that exist to house the dead. There is evidence of massive gatherings in ancient times suggesting significant rituals were enacted. Today, gatherings are of tourists or those who claim a religious link.

“Sometimes I think that invasive archaeology is a metaphor for our whole current situation: the process of discovery necessitates destruction.”

What we know about Silbury Hill is due to the investigations that broke her open and allowed modern man in. These were halted earlier this century and repairs made to the damaging invasions. As a UNESCO World Heritage site the location must now be protected. Visitors are no longer granted access to the hill.

Thorpe writes of his time at boarding school and also of the visits he made at that time to his family in Cameroon. He found an appeal in what he perceived as the simpler, less materialistic lifestyle of certain Africans and compares this to what is known of Britons in Neolithic times. The latter, of course, had short life expectancy and high death rates. Their bones show signs of painful afflictions – it was hardly an ideal way of living.

At the time of Silbury Hill’s construction, much of the country was still wooded and large predators roamed free within their dark canopy. Man was transitioning from hunter gatherer to farmer but would still be reliant on the small community he lived within and contributed to.

“the examination of period burials reveals not only a ghastly catalogue of ways to suffer and die (plenty of fractures and wounds, severe arthritis, tooth abscesses, gum disease, rickets, polio, spina bifida, tetanus, tuberculosis, plague, malaria), but the likelihood that ‘four people in ten died before they were twenty’ – not including the 50 per cent who didn’t make it past their third year.”

As a schoolboy, Thorpe visited East Kennet Long Barrow – 5000 years old and the longest in Europe – and ‘had an extraordinary sense of my own mortality’.

“I was a mere blip, soon to be extinguished, in comparison with the multiple generations witnessed by this earthwork, and those stretching out onto the future.”

The ancients were closer to death and, perhaps therefore, revered the ancestors. Rituals would reflect this and their reliance on nature for survival.

“death was woven into the landscape here in the chalklands in a colossally evident way.”

“Alternatively, Silbury might have been a brilliant means to unite a people with a common project that gave their brief lives a meaning.”

Perhaps the hill draws so much interest because its purpose remains unknown. It has existed through several rounds of climate change – warming and cooling, with associated changes in water levels – and multiple ages as man’s habits and beliefs have endlessly shifted. She has been probed and speculated over. Her surroundings have been desecrated and rebuilt. It is her age and continuing existence – from such ancient times through to now – that demands pause for contemplation.

“So frail the summer,
I would like to plait it
like grass, and keep my place

in the book of my life
forever, now, here.
I’ve noticed this is not possible.

Something is always ushering us.”

The author writes in a personal and compelling style that pulls the reader in. He weaves the memoir elements with a wider history of the area and how these have contributed to shaping his own development. In a time when man has all but detached himself from his surroundings – the cars on the busy A4, that runs adjacent to the hill, whizzing by in too much of a hurry to pause at the millennia old wonder they may glimpse as they pass – it is good to consider how transient our existence, inventions and prideful acquisitions will be. Silbury Hill remains a mystery – just one facet of its allure – but stands as a monument to that which can endure, and the value of reflection.

On Silbury Hill is published by Little Toller Books.

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

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: 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.

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)