Book Review: Under the Stars

“When the sky is naturally dark, other lights are revealed, some of which – like the night sun – we didn’t even know we were missing out on. With too much artificial light there is a darkness of a different kind in our lives.”

Matt Gaw was inspired to explore the nocturnal world by his ten year old son who, arguing for a later bedtime, complained about having to spend so much of his life asleep. Gaw realised that he had not experienced the world at night except when it is artificially lit. He started to go on walks, especially in places where true darkness still exists. There has been recognition recently within the environmental community that, in man’s quest for personal safety, the prevalence of artificial light is another way he is damaging our increasingly fragile ecosystem.

“By chasing away darkness and hiding the cues given by natural light we have created another imbalance in the natural world that impacts on plants, pollinators, mammals, birds and, eventually, us.”

Before coming to this understanding, Gaw goes out into the night to gauge his reaction to the removal of light. He ponders why people are so often afraid of the dark. Children grow up with stories of monsters and other dangers. Throughout history, rulers would impose curfews on their populace under the guise of safety but, more likely, to prevent sedition. Groups would cluster together and post lookouts. City gates would be locked during the night hours. Darkness was associated with the morally corrupt and lawbreakers. Predators lurked in shadows where dire deeds could occur unseen.

Contemporary society retains many of these fears despite lights now shining bright – particularly in cities – throughout the night. As well as walking around his local vicinity, Gaw visits various locations: a remote beach in East Anglia, a difficult to access forest in Scotland, woodland on Dartmoor, a Scottish island designated a Dark Sky Community. He discovers true fear when he loses his bearings. He discovers the wonder of the Milky Way when visible to the naked eye. For comparison, he also visits London where the lights never dim. He reflects on the effects of night working on people, and the damaging confusion artificial lighting causes in other creatures’ behaviour.

The wonders to be discovered are interspersed with the realities of the natural world – red in tooth and claw – potentially perilous if disrespected. Gaw takes risks in his nighttime journeys that could have ended quite differently.

At the start of the book the author is unfamiliar with even basic astronomy. By the end he has become familiar with many constellations. This book is about so much more though than star gazing. It is a study of yet another disconnect man now has with nature and the damage this has wreaked. It is a reminder of the health benefits of darkness, the effects on circadian rhythm. It is an appeal for man to take notice of his actions – to pause and consider.

The writing is rich and poetic in places. The author is passionate about his subject in a way that draws the reader in. A beautiful elucidation on the importance of returning to a more natural darkness. An illuminating walk through the wonderment of night.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Elliott & Thompson.

Book Review: Not Working

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“So you abandon wage slavery for some long-term freelance project – a novel or invention or fast fortune or cult blog. You wake up now to vast expanses of time, craving the relief of the regular hours and definable tasks you stupidly gave up, feeling chronically deprived of the urgency, direction and clarity of purpose you’d taken for granted when you’d had somewhere to go and something to do each day.”

Not Working is strap-lined Why We Have to Stop – an interesting if somewhat impractical premise, I thought, when I chose the book to review. The author is a psychoanalyst and Professor of Modern Literary Theory at Goldsmiths, thereby appearing well qualified to create a compelling argument. What we have here, however, is more akin to a series of opinion pieces injected with memoir alongside personal critiques of artworks and their creators. As a whole it lacks coherence.

The book opens with a lengthy introduction. The author then tries to shoehorn his views into four sections: Burnout, Slob, Daydreamer, and Slacker. Each of these sections includes a study of an artist the author associates with the anti-work type he is writing about. All those included have created acclaimed output so I struggled with the connections being attempted. They each worked at their craft.

Many examples from the author’s life are included. Patient cases – merged for confidentiality – are also cited but added little to the main argument.

The author posits that modern man regards work as something to be avoided if possible. There is little discussion about: the pride that may be taken in a job well done, the self-respect gained from contributing to a project, the camaraderie amongst colleagues. There is acknowledgement of the potential downsides of not working including: depressive exhaustion, listless entitlement, loneliness, and marginalisation.

I disagreed that ‘serious’ art – however that may be defined – offers more pleasurable satisfaction than science.

Personally I cannot appreciate Tracy Emin’s bed ‘masterpiece’ but understand that the value of artistic works is whatever someone is willing to pay for, or pay attention to. The majority of artists may struggle financially but this is not a modern phenomena. The author does not discuss the quality of outputs beyond his famous examples. Perhaps it is the act of creation rather than the finished product that he finds worthwhile – although most creatives, at whatever level, do seek some form of affirmation.

“Not working has almost always been valued only to the extent that it serves the cause of work. It is time we spoke up for not working, in all its creative possibilities, as its own value.”

The author’s opinions are stated as facts. Assumptions are made – such as that a rabbit being looked after temporarily enjoys a ‘serene emptiness’. Cohen cannot know this as he has never been a rabbit and cites no scientific study of the creature. In many of his stated opinions he comes across as arrogant.

The problem of choice is discussed from several angles in what is described as our overworked and accelerated culture. Parents are blamed for both distancing themselves and being too involved in their offspring’s choices – supportive parenting leading to a fear of disappointing.

“there could be nothing worse than to choose one thing and so lose the possibility of others”

“I barely know how to do anything without wondering if I’m doing it well enough.”

I found no mention of the gig economy or part time working. The pressure to work seemed geared towards the professions who could, perhaps, afford a psychoanalyst such as Cohen. I pondered the author’s privilege and outlook.

When discussing Emily Dickinson he mentions her unwillingness to marry, declaring reasons for her behaviour without explaining how he reached his conclusions. Given the time during which Dickinson lived and the autonomy she would lose to a husband – more than just her own, lockable room – I saw strength of purpose and innate knowledge that her work mattered more than social acquiescence.

Towards the end of the book the author explores how minimal activity can lead to finding a perfect inner state – nirvanic bliss – albeit transient. It can also lead to an inertial void. Few of the arguments made or opinions stated refuted the problems inherent in doing nothing – or that freeing up time only rarely leads to creativity in the arts.

Any Cop?: Overall the writing lacked direction and was too wound around the author personally rather than the subject he purported to be exploring. I found this book hard work to read, and regularly during its perusal considered stopping.

 

Jackie Law

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.

Book Review: Time for Lights Out

This review was written for and originally published by Bookmunch.

Raymond Briggs is now in his eighties and apparently contemplating life’s end. He has stated that he expects Time for Lights Out to be his last book – it took him over a decade to create. Given the subject matter it may sound depressing but this is not the case. Although searingly honest about an aging body’s failings and inevitable future, the tone is more reflective than bleak.

Throughout the varied entries the author demonstrates an awareness of his increasing frailty. He writes of eating healthy food and taking regular exercise. He still indulges in the wine he enjoys, trying to temper concerns without becoming obsessive. He lives in rural Sussex where the countryside is teeming with life but also deaths, such as road kill. Briggs visits a local cemetery and notes the prevalence of young people buried in his parents’ time. He reads newspaper obituary pages and feels a sense of achievement when he is older than the recently deceased.

The contents of the book are a mixture of: pencil drawn illustrations, comic strips, poems, photographs, quotes, lists, and short opinion pieces. All are based around the author’s personal memories and experiences. Divided into three sections – Now, Then, Soon – they offer a picture of the life Briggs has lived and his concerns about its end. His wry musings cover day to day activities including: walking his dog, habits when at home, interactions with friends and neighbours. Certain memories are triggered by items kept for decades, often unused but hard to throw away due to their history.

“Old people are always absorbed in something. Usually themselves.”

The ‘Now’ section presents Briggs as a seventy-something year old who surveys himself as an old man and is somewhat annoyed that this is what he has turned into. On walks he finds the hills are harder to climb. His days are marked out by routines he and his partner doggedly adhere to. He observes that he has become less tolerant of other people’s appearance and behaviour. All of this is written with unflinching insight and wry humour. Briggs recognises his foibles and failings. Although poignant in places there is no expectation of sympathy.

‘Then’ looks back at: Briggs’ parents, his own childhood, the death of his wife, visiting grandchildren. Much has changed in the world during each of their lifetimes. The lasting effects of the two world wars are remembered along with more welcome advances – illustrated by conversations Briggs has with the young children. He remembers those who have died but acknowledges also that they are sometimes forgotten – that life goes on for those who remain.

“Death hovers around us every day.
Somehow, we close our minds to its closeness,
even when it is just outside the window
or is staring at us from the television.”

‘Soon’ is wound around a fear the author has about ending up in a care home for the elderly. He ruminates over personal possessions that are dear to him and how these would have to be disposed of. He recalls the deaths of acquaintances and that this must one day happen to him. Yet all of this is contemplated without rancour. I found Briggs’ willingness to confront what is inevitable refreshing. Contemporary society is so often eager to avoid acknowledging the prospect of death.

“He who is not anxious has no imagination”

Briggs’ inimitable illustrations are a mix of finely rendered drawings and more blurred images – appropriate when conveying the speed at which time passes (and perhaps the deterioration of eyesight) when on life’s downhill trajectory. The importance of memory in old age, especially of childhood, is given thoughtful consideration. The structure of the book allows the reader to peruse pages without the necessity of reading in order from cover to cover.

Any Cop?: A frank and originally presented memoir depicting what living day to day feels like having exceeded one’s allotted three score and ten years. If this is Briggs’ swansong it is a fitting tribute to his artistic talent and percipient story telling.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: The White Heron Beneath the Reactor

Gary Budden, co-founder of Influx Press and author of Hollow Shores (published by Dead Ink), is also an an avid bird watcher. He admits that his love of birds may at times appear incompatible with his other interests.

“heavy and brutal music, clanking beeps and drones, obscure ghost stories, crumbling Saxon ruins, SHARP culture, experimental folk.”

In The White Heron Beneath the Reactor he writes of a visit to RSPB Dungeness to observe a white heron. It is off-peak season, mid-week and the weather is dismal. This pleases Budden as it keeps away tourists, but not him. The few hardy folk he observes are distant. He is free to examine his surroundings uninterrupted.

“Far away, a yellow digger deposits or removes shingle, I can’t tell, surrounded by a whirring halo of screeching gulls. Landscape maintenance; nothing is natural.”

Dungeness is described as scoured by salt winds – a flat, bleak coastline in the shadow of a nuclear power station. Nevertheless, it is here that the great white egret has begun to migrate from across the channel where its population is expanding. Budden suppresses the urge to come up with some sort of contemporary allegory.

“My white heron is not an immigrant, nor an expat, nor a citizen of the world. I will not let it support a political agenda, not even the one I wish to push. […] its world doesn’t have borders.”

The author considers and details the place as he finds it in evocative but never bucolic prose. He has an eye for the surreal – the impact of man’s behaviour.

He takes photographs knowing that the writing he will produce is to be illustrated by the landscape artist, Maxim Griffin. These colourful interpretations, included liberally alongside the text, are wonderful.

In some ways this is a paean to the tenacity of the natural world. Elegiac descriptions are tempered by dry humour. There is much irony but also an undercurrent of hope. Budden’s quick wit and percipient scrutiny are expressed in pared back yet resonant form. The sighting of the heron, in this place, unlocks something for the author.

The writing is reflective and absorbing. The book is a work of art. I recommend you read it. It is a tale for our times.

The White Heron Beneath the Reactor was published using funding raised via Kickstarter.

Book Review: Fibonacci’s Rabbits

“If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”

Fibonacci’s Rabbits, by Adam Hart-Davis, explains in accessible language fifty significant mathematical discoveries, from ancient times through to the present day. It is divided into seven ages and demonstrates how each featured mathematician built their propositions and then proofs informed by all who had gone before. To enjoy the book fully it may be necessary to have some interest in, if not understanding of, mathematical concepts and principles.

“In mathematics, proof is everything, whereas science cannot prove anything. Scientists can disprove ideas, but they can never prove them.”

The first section outlines the long history and need for simple tallying and recording. Standardised numerals evolved from primitive marks made when counting. The reasons for and timing of the initial move from such practical applications to more complex and abstract ideas has been lost to time but ancient civilisations throughout the world are known to have used various number systems and calculations to: produce calendars, build pyramids, and study intriguing problems such as squaring the circle. Some of the questions these early mathematicians asked have still to be answered. Others led to proofs that proved useful in practical applications far in their future.

“it is easy to get trapped by habitual ways of thinking, and different approaches can lead to new insights”

Mathematics is required to be logical and rigorous. Although many of its problems appear theoretical, discoveries are often mirrored in the real world. Key patterns, sequences and shapes turn up in: plants, animals, and their natural habitats. The intrigue of the Fibonacci sequence and associated spiral enabled many new mathematical discoveries yet it is clear that Fibonacci numbers are a reflection of the way things grow – including the reproduction of rabbits.

I particularly enjoyed the chapter on zero and the mathematical problem of defining concepts. Having accepted the usefulness of ‘nothing’ whole new fields opened up.

Looking at the importance of imaginary numbers it is clear that sometimes all that is needed is a new way of simply notating a complex idea.

“In Euclid’s system, the workings of the world are not just the whims of the gods, but follow natural rules. It showed how we can find our way to the truth through logic and deductive reasoning, evidence and proof – not just intuition.”

Mathematical problems are only regarded as solved when a verified proof is discovered and written down.

“If even a single exception is found, the conjecture fails”

“for mathematicians, ‘highly likely’ is not proof”

Being unable to find an exception does not constitute a proof, however long the search has taken. There are problems that have finally been solved after hundreds of years, and others that remain outstanding.

Chaos theory and how it developed intrigued me – how one tiny event creates ripples that can radically change outcomes.

“A very small cause, which escapes our notice determines a considerable effect that we cannot fail to see, and then we say that the effect is due to chance.”

“Really, he argues, the weather is equally as rigidly determined as the eclipse. It is just that the operation of chance with the weather is so major that we just do not have enough knowledge to predict it. Such systems seem to be chaotic, but the normal laws of the universe are still operating entirely regularly.”

Today’s intellectually challenging, high level mathematics may have no apparent practical value. And yet, as has been shown time and again over the centuries, it may offer real world insights as future applications are developed.

Mathematics is logical but logic can be mind bending.

“This statement is false”

So many of the chapters were fascinating to read, even those whose concepts I couldn’t fully comprehend.

It was fun trying to work out why certain, apparently random objects are included in the many colourful illustrations that accompany the text. This was just one entertaining puzzle in a book that provides insights into works of genius that have laid the foundations of so many discoveries and inventions.

Mathematics is an ever evolving discipline and it is exciting to know there is still so much remaining to learn.

The congenial structure and explanations provided in this book allow the reader to appreciate how important mathematics is to a wider understanding of our world and the developments we now rely on. Readers will value the tenacity of mathematicians through the ages when they realise the impact their work has had.

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

Book Review: Car Park Life

“For me, the true discovery is rarely the place itself – a location on a map or a building – but in understanding empirically that there are worlds hidden in plain sight, which can become visible if we bother to lift our veils and see the Britain that is, not an idealised Britain that never was.”

Between 2015 and 2018, Gareth E. Rees travelled the length and breadth of Britain visiting retail car parks. His fascination with these spaces began in Hastings, outside his local Morrisons supermarket, where he noticed the variety of activities taking place unregarded by busy shoppers. He decided to explore, especially around the edges of design decisions and consumer behaviour. He recognised that his fascination was perhaps as deviant as many of the exploits beheld.

“The problem has always been that hills don’t interest me as much as streets. Trees not as much as pylons. Foliage not as much as litter. It’s an issue, I know. I’m not proud.”

Divided into chapters that are bookended by photographs the author took on his travels, many details shared are of the ordinary but depicted in ways few readers may have considered. There are musings on people’s actions – their attitudes – and the window this offers on modern societal thinking. The author is not averse to mocking himself.

From his vantage point in the car park, Rees considers the architecture of various outlets. He observes how heritage buildings have been recommissioned – sterilised yet presented as somehow authentic. This neatening for consumers and tourists – the refreshing of blackened walls that once contained widespread misery – reflects how history is often remembered.

“In this country we prefer to dwell among facsimiles and facades, reassured by the convenient lie of the past.”

Activities in car parks include: drug deals, road rage, petrolhead races, sexual pursuits. People scurrying between shops and their cars – rushing to park and then to leave – cannot help but display their animal instincts. They compete for ownership, control and supremacy. They are suspicious of Rees for not behaving as expected.

Given the subject matter, the writing is inexplicably funny (kudos to the author). I particularly enjoyed the chapter titled The Ancestor which is set around Amesbury. Whilst providing an amusing potted history of the place, it hones in on ways in which we attempt to acknowledge and celebrate past events. This is observation rather than overt criticism.

In a chapter titled The Joy of Parking, Rees considers why vast retail car parks came to be provided and now themselves prove a draw to their users.

“Experience the joy of 7,000 free parking spaces.”

“Although I’ll admit that there is some ambiguity in the statement. Does the joy come from parking free of charge, or from the knowledge that 7,000 parking spaces are freely available?”

“I will enjoy their parking spaces without parking and without rewarding them with a purchase for their efforts. I won’t even sneak inside to buy a sandwich. It’s everything they don’t want. I’m an aberration, a freeloader”

There have been many books in recent years that draw attention to issues which make their authors despair of the choices others make that they disagree with. Rees mentions current affairs that worry and depress him but there is no hectoring. Rather these are personal, humble reflections offering a wider, longer term view.

The self-deprecating musings wrap around witty yet piercing insights on behaviours that may be frowned upon if considered – mostly they go unnoticed by those caught up in their own concerns. The news site stories quoted are shocking if unsurprising. Dangers lurk while people pass by unaware.

A poignant yet entertaining story about an urban adventurer and the discoveries he makes, including the many ways in which people break the rules in these widely frequented public spaces. Retail car parks and their margins will now be viewed through a recalibrated lens. Compelling, original and highly recommended.

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