Book Review: Shalimar

shalimar

“I am not listening out for the same pitch or cadence, I am listening out, always acutely, to the differences. These, I know, tell me exactly where home is and all the spaces in between.”

Davina Quinlivan describes herself as of diverse cultural heritage. Her forebears are of Irish, Burmese, Portuguese and Indian descent. Within each ethnicity are other minglings as, throughout time, people have emigrated for work or safety, blending to create new identities. Her father was born in Rangoon but lived in England for most of his adult life. Davina was raised within a close, multi-generational family scattered around the West London area, being told the stories of her relatives’ early experiences in distant parts of the world that have since changed borders and names as colonisers secede. There has never been enough money for them to make return visits to those left behind.

Shalimar is a memoir that explores what the links between home and family mean. It opens with a defining incident in her father’s childhood, made all the more poignant as he has recently been diagnosed with cancer. Davina and her husband have been living with her parents for the past six years. They now decide to move away, to settle in their own place. Over the course of the stories being shared they move from London to Surrey, Berkshire, Hampshire and finally Devon. In the intervening years they have two children, and Davina’s father dies.

Grief, for someone with terminal cancer, begins before the actual death. Davina writes of denial, of running away from what she knows is inevitable, and of how she copes when it happens. Her life in London mostly revolved around the streets where she and her relatives lived. Once moved away she starts to use walking as a coping mechanism rather than a way to simply travel. She discovers the beauty and sensation of nature, the comfort to be found there.

“Even if you pull a tree out of the ground, its roots will have threaded through the other trees around it and will go on providing a scaffolding to the living systems it has dwelled within for years to come.”

Although there is obvious fondness and gratitude for the stability they offered, observations and anecdotes from wider family get togethers are entertaining and recognisable. Being related, especially through marriage, doesn’t necessarily mean being liked.

“In truth, there was a subtle history of unspoken tension between these two sides of my family, which followed them to England. Both families had known each other in India and Burma, but they were very different … These differences would manifest themselves at family gatherings, never openly admitted, but there in the way they interacted with each other. Everyone would be measuring each other’s behaviour.”

Many of the author’s musings focus on how a person is shaped not just by personal history but also by the histories of parents, and they by theirs’. In her children she recognises features they have inherited from both sides of their family. She ponders what they carry forward of her late father.

Quinlivan’s own experiences include the influence of aunts, uncles and grandparents. For example, she remembers, as a young child, being taught to swear in Burmese.

“Though a little blunt and inappropriate, it was a lesson really: in her own way, she was teaching me to be armoured, to be fierce.”

Davina may not have moved as far as her forbears to resettle but the new lands she encounters have similar issues. Ownership is asserted by the powerful not because of love of place but for the right to plunder its wealth. As she walks through fields and woodland she observes how everything eventually goes back to the earth or sea from whence it came. The great oak trees planted when ships were built from them remind her of the journeys her family made to get to England.

“this book is not my ship, it is my father’s, carrying my family safely within it, through all the little gaps in space and time.”

The prose in places is dreamlike and poetic. The grief the author feels is palpable. There is humour and love aplenty but what comes to the fore is how much a part of everything everything is. We are affected by an ecosystem whether or not we acknowledge it.

A hauntingly beautiful memoir that evokes the multiple layers that exist in people and place. An appreciation of life in its myriad incarnations.

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

Book Review: The Long Field

long field

The Long Field, by Pamela Petro, is a memoir wrapped around musings on hiraeth – a Welsh word that approximates to homesickness. The author spends much of the book attempting to more clearly define the word for a wider variety of uses. The writing is also a paean to Wales where Petro, an American, studied for her MA in 1983. In the intervening years she has made more than 27 trips to the country – for work as well as pleasure – and she now directs the Dylan Thomas Summer School in Creative Writing at a small campus in Lampeter, linked to the University of Wales. The school attracts students from a variety of ethnicities and backgrounds – unusual in this remote and insular location. As well as teaching, Petro hopes to inculcate at least a few of her charges with the deep and abiding appreciation of the place, something she felt from the outset.

The author was born and raised in New Jersey, by loving parents who longed for their daughter to find the settled family life they had enjoyed. Petro, however, fell in love with a woman she met in Paris – Marguerite – although she never openly came out to her parents. She tried dating boys in Wales but did not find her happy ever after. What she did find was a feeling for the country that altered her profoundly.

“Wales was an ancient nation with one of the oldest languages in Europe, a proud, parochial, working-class, mostly rural place … I was a suburban, middle class, liberal, naïve American kid. And this place felt like home.”

Petro is eager to learn the Welsh language and muses on the importance and benefits of keeping local cultures alive. She delves into ancient history, particularly around the stone-age megaliths of the region, discussing how traders and invaders brought supposed progress that may have made life easier but also different. Successive changes over time shifted the balance of power, often at a cost to the indigenous population.

Fond as she is of the Welsh countryside and customs, she cautions against blind nostalgia.

“A good friend of mine might be able to travel to Italy, but her grandfather’s rural village of family stories – always conceived by her generation as a future destination – is now a suburb of Naples. The village only exists in memory and imagination. Hiraeth speaks to the salveless ache of immigrants and their descendants.”

To a degree, however, such longing can bring benefits if considered in wider context.

“To be able to put a name to what refugees are experiencing in exile as they seek safety far from home means that we who are already home can more easily put ourselves in their place.”

The author’s ponderings on language, stories, conquest and loss meander through the pages. There is much repetition as she tries to capture the subjects that intrigue her. Despite her obvious love for this small, damp country in western Britain, she comes across as, and admits to being, very American in expectation and outlook. Her positive perspective barely skims the surface of the lives of residents whose choices are stymied through being unable to afford to leave.

Petro is obviously a skilled writer. She provides a clear and concise analysis of Trump’s victory. The historic and literary elements of the book are fascinating. I learned much about the legend of Arthur, and other myths that were once believed. I would, however, have preferred a pithier version. In rambling so freely and repetitively through place and time, engagement occasionally waned.

Perhaps, for me, this memoir would have worked better as an addition to the publisher’s fabulous Monographs series. There is much beauty within its pages but I prefer the threads of a tale to be more tightly woven than this. Having said that, the meandering fits with Petro’s years of trying to pin down an idea that is hard to translate. A thought provoking if somewhat long read.

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

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.