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.