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: The Bone Clocks

boneclocks

The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell, is a story about mortality. Using a series of interwoven vignettes set over a sixty year time period it combines a character led drama with century spanning fantasy elements. The author is undoubtedly a talented writer. The prose is neat and perceptive with plenty of humour and insight. However, the plot centers around warring Anchorites and Horologists, beings who can live forever if certain conditions are met, and whose raison d’etre failed to either move or inspire me.

The book opens in 1984 when a love struck fifteen year old, Holly Sykes, gets into an argument with her mother over an older boyfriend and decides to leave home. As may be expected from such an inauspicious beginning, things do not go according to plan. The reader can see the potential importance of the various people and events Holly encounters in her few days away, but at this stage none are explained. Holly’s character development is nicely done, she is a believable young teenage rebel, but the fantastical action in this section comes across as extraneous.

The next vignette is set seven years later and introduces the reader to four students at Cambridge University. Their interactions are interesting and well developed, their aspirations recognisable to anyone who has experience of Oxbridge students. The confidence, self-entitlement and resentments combine to provide compelling storylines which I would have been happy to follow further. I found myself enjoying all but the recurring fantasy elements which, once again, did not draw me in.

Part three is set thirteen years later at a wedding in Brighton. Holly now has a daughter and a war correspondent partner. The subplots impressed while the slow burning main plot development did not. I enjoyed the quality of the writing but by this stage was beginning to wonder about the point of this book.

Having said that, the next section was my favourite. It opens in 2015 at the  Hay-on-Wye Literary Festival and proceeds to bite big, bitter chunks out of authors, critics, editors, publishers and readers. This was not what why I liked it, indeed I felt rather put out that the fictional author and protagonist, Crispin Hershey, should look on those who have supported his work and provided his income with such disdain. It is perhaps unfortunate that he came across as so believable; it was almost enough to put me off literary events. Unlike the previous sections this one covers a longer time frame, five years,, which allowed for a good progression of the story. A number of previous characters are reintroduced. In these chapters the main, fantasy plot seems to fit more naturally into the story being told.

The penultimate section starts in 2025 and is the only one which revolves around the Anchorites and Horologists rather than merely mentioning them in passing. The threads from preceding stories are drawn together and the reason for certain recurring characters explained. There is a battle and an outcome, neither of which excited me. I found myself counting the pages to the end.

The final section is set in a dystopian future and reminded me of Ben Elton’s early works when he attempted to show his readers what a mess man is making of the world. Set in a rural Ireland, now being run by wealthy Chinese, it covers a pivotal three days during which the fragile infrastructure cracks and violent lawlessness becomes a reality. It was interesting to ponder the possibilities, particularly the way the author saw the role of women regressing in a time of anarchy, but at times it came across as rather too preachy for my liking. The denouement was reasonable even if it felt a tad contrived.

My main problem with this book was that the fantasy elements bored me. I thoroughly enjoyed the characters and each of their stories, but I wanted to get back to these each time the overall plot became the focus. I found the the women more likable than the men who seemed overly influenced by sex. I am unable to comment on the fairness of such a representation.

Having read this book I will be removing Cloud Atlas from my wish list. However well he may write and be regarded by others, it would seem that David Mitchell’s work may not be for me.

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