Book Review: Corpsing

corpsing

“What I was looking for at all times was an escape hatch, a way out of the present moment, to tunnel out of my totally unremarkable and pathetic self. To break the cycle of being a terminal disappointment: a disappointment as a daughter, a mother, a woman, failing at that implied contract of womanhood – of being nice and attractive and contained.”

Corpsing, by Sophie White, is taglined My Body and Other Horror Shows – appropriate given its focus on how one’s body cannot always be relied upon. It is a collection of essays that serve as memoir. The raw honesty of the subjects explored is both refreshing and horrifying, laying bare the sheer effort required to exist in a world where quietly keeping up appearances is the expected norm. Issues examined include the impact on self of: drug taking, grief, mental breakdown, motherhood, self harm, alcoholism. The author has both a caring mother and husband, along with three dependant children, but brings to the fore how living in the world must ultimately be coped with – or not – alone.

Divided into five sections, the first contains a series of essays that deal with the death of White’s father – a drawn out decline that finally ended shortly after the birth of her second child. The violence of birth is compared to the shrunken existence of a human body as it fades towards its inevitable end, when those left behind are cast adrift.

“Birth is explosive and volatile; the final moment of life takes this same explosion and detonates it deep inside us.”

The author struggled to cope with her sense of loss. She went through the motions of each day by keeping busy – looking after her children and starting a new job. And by turning to alcohol. Wine helped numb the sharp edges that threatened to cut her to pieces. What she needed was to be seen to be coping, not making a fuss.

From the outside, White’s childhood was not difficult. She was brought up by loving parents in material comfort. Peel back the veneer and there are all too common incidents that she knew needed to be swept under the carpet: older boys acting inappropriately with her four year old body, a friend’s mother’s who suggested a nine year old White eat fewer puddings to fit into a princess dress, being told she was ugly by laughing boys when a teenager. Absorbing, internalising these unremarkable events, as expected by those around her, leaves lasting scars.

Like many young people, the author in her teens experimented with alcohol and drugs.

“a place of refuge where I could take a break from being myself”

Aged twenty-two she took an ecstasy tablet while camping at a festival. The bad reaction suffered changed her forever. She describes it in detail, the start of her ‘madness’. There followed a breakdown, psychiatric help, the slow clawing back from thoughts of suicide. Years of travel, working as a chef or living meagerly off grid, provided ‘a strategy for restoring sanity’. The essays describing this period are terrifying to consider – the risks taken by young people that so many get away with – yet prove evocative and hopeful.

Returning to Ireland and getting married brought into sharp relief the relationship women have with their bodies and appetites.

“If you were born in the latter half of the twentieth century, then you will know that fat is the very worst thing. The worst thing to eat. The worst thing to be.”

This series of essays is wonderful in highlighting the many ridiculous habits so many absorb, and how women police not just their own bodies but those of others – family, friends, even strangers.

Later essays explore further the author’s descent into alcoholism, and how drunk girls are dehumanised.

“She teeters and topples, knees scuffed. She deserves nothing. No justice if she is victimised by an opportunistic predator. Opportunistic – it’s a word that practically commends this tenacious, moment-seizing, go-getting rapist.”

Another disturbing incident at a festival is detailed, but it is the drinking at home that many stressed out mothers may relate most to. The thoughts on motherhood are as honest as anything I have read on the subject – the pain and fatigue but, more than that, the judgement.

“When a man leaves work to attend to his child, it is commended; when a woman leaves work to attend to her child, it is noted.”

And, of course, the harshest judge of all is the mother herself – her inability to be perfect at all times leading to feelings of failure.

In amongst these excellent essays are topics that may be a little more esoteric: vampirism, adult thumb sucking, knitting. As the author approaches the end of the book: she gives birth to a third child, the COVID-19 lockdown is imposed, she suffers another breakdown and is taken into psychiatric care. It is a reminder that mental illness is managed rather than cured.

White has a writing style that is vehement in its desire for unadorned realism yet contains much humour. The macabre is balanced by recognition of how so many choose to live unaware, to turn away from the unpleasant. The conspiracy of silence that mostly surrounds the unpalatable truths of giving birth and mothering are discarded by the author witheringly.

As well as being eminently engaging, somehow this is an enjoyable read despite the blood, gore and madness. It is an eye-opening account of the strength required to hold a life together – a reminder to show compassion however ingrained judgement of others’ outward behaviour has become in an age of picture perfect social media.

Corpsing is published by Tramp Press. My copy was provided gratis by Turnaround UK.

Book Review: Unwell Women

unwell women

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

I read my way through Unwell Women in a prolonged and barely suppressed rage. Women and girls the world over know we are routinely demeaned – effectively silenced – and this account of historical treatment lays bare the toll it has taken on our health, mental and physical. The author presents the facts clearly, maintaining engagement and never shying away from topics rarely discussed openly – ‘women’s problems’ and how we are expected to go through life quietly, grinning and bearing. I pondered if male readers would have any interest or dismiss this well researched and presented account as a rant, females still being regarded as overly emotional – hysterical – and in need of calming down, by whatever means.

Divided into three main sections, the first of these explores how medical knowledge developed from the time of the Ancient Greeks to the nineteenth century. Throughout most of this period, women’s bodies remained a mystery. Each month they would bleed. They grew babies. They complained of pains men didn’t experience so were probably imagined. As their father’s and then their husband’s property, it mattered that females remained amenable, attractive, modest and faithful. They were vessels for men’s sexual satisfaction and, most importantly, procreation.

“They were seen as weaker, slower, smaller versions of the male ideal, deficient and defective precisely because of their difference to men … in writings that would become the foundations of scientific medical discourse and practise, unwell women emerged as a mass of pathological wombs.”

The required modesty cost lives. Women were made to feel ashamed of their bodies – sinful temptresses. In the powerful Christian world it was, after all, the first woman, Eve, who ‘ruined everything because of her desirous and disobedient ways.’ Girls and women were expected to remain covered even when seeking medical treatment, untouched by the always male physician. Ingrained shame and ignorance in medical matters led to them being regarded as unreliable narrators of their own bodily suffering. An early pamphlet written in the thirteenth or fourteenth century stated ‘the female body is inherently flawed and defective in many of its functions.’

Female healers and midwives existed. Educated women worked tirelessly throughout history to improve care but were routinely dismissed by men who retained the power to effect change.

“the male writers espousing this nonsense understood only too well that women had to be exempted from the hallowed halls of medicine if they themselves were to maintain their stranglehold.”

A great many aspects are covered in this comprehensive and gripping history, much of it disturbing and, at times, horrifying. When physicians were eventually permitted to examine women (their reproductive physiology was considered an inverted version of men’s) treatments offered for a plethora of misunderstood problems included operations to cut off clitorises and crush ovaries. Alongside the need to suppress female excitability – bad for the nerves in already nervy creatures – the ideologies of eugenics were emerging in medical aims and practice.

The second section of the book, covering the late nineteenth century to the 1940s, saw the slow emergence of hard fought for advances in women’s rights as well as medical knowledge. Doctors still regarded women as sexual objects and child bearing machines. Birth control was frowned upon, abortions illegal and therefore carried out in secret. Women reporting gynaecological pain were regarded as overly sensitive – neurotic and requiring rest away from any form of stimulation. Typical treatments offered for common ailments such as uterine fibroids, and cancers in reproductive areas, were often as dangerous as the problems they claimed to cure. Doctors were keen to further their reputations – for financial reasons as well as ego. Women – particularly those not valued, such as sex workers and the criminalised – were useful subjects for experimental procedures. Troublesome wives and daughters were readily presented for surgical interventions.

The final section covers 1945 to the present day. Although much more was now understood about how a woman’s body functioned, many female complaints still couldn’t be explained and were dismissed as psychosomatic.

“In an era when a mentally healthy woman was a serene wife and mother, almost any behaviour or emotion that disrupted domestic harmony could be interpreted as justification for a lobotomy … And the success of the lobotomy was measured according to how obligingly she resumed her household duties.”

Although much of the book focuses on the way privileged, often white, women were treated by the medical establishment over the centuries, chapters also cover attitudes towards Black and ethnically diverse women. There are accounts of how slaves were believed to have higher pain thresholds, and how entire communities in economically deprived regions were enrolled in clinical trials without being informed of potential side-effects. There may have been a need for family planning to improve maternal health, but birth control was regarded as a means of limiting procreation amongst those deemed eugenically undesirable.

I mentioned the rage I felt reading this book. Despite the impressive progress in medical treatment and knowledge, so many of the attitudes detailed here are still recognisable and widespread. They manifest as: banter, mansplaining, paternalistic teasing, bafflement when women do not appreciate a well meant gesture, anger when men feel underappreciated or disrespected. Women want to be treated as fully human, not simply a vessel available for sex and procreation.

I pondered the choices parents around the world make when offered the chance to gender select an unborn child. Boys are still widely chosen more often than girls. Biomedical research funding focuses on finding treatments for ailments suffered by men. Clinical trial subjects have, over decades, mostly been white and male. Unexplained chronic pain reported by women – even that with testable biological markers – is often dismissed with ‘withering glances, eye-rolls, smirks and heavy sighs.’ It can take years of suffering before tests are offered and treatment made available.

The medical histories detailed here are mainly USA and UK based. In these supposedly forward thinking countries, women still struggle to maintain autonomy over their bodies. Access to abortion requires a doctor’s permission and is not available in certain places, such as Northern Ireland. Many of women’s illnesses remain a mystery and are not taken seriously.

The first step in finding a solution is recognising there is a problem, making this an important work. What we need though are advocates who will be heard, not silenced as shrill and hysterical. If history tells us anything it is that the treatment of unwell women is of little interest to men while their needs continue to be met.

Any Cop?: Read this book and be aware of how ingrained and widespread the prejudices are – then learn to listen when unwell women speak.

Jackie Law

Book Review: White Spines

white spines

Nicholas Royle collects books. He does not choose titles he wishes to read, although often he will read them. What he seeks is an aesthetic. He trawls second-hand bookshops, including charity shops, searching for suitable spines to place on his bookshelves. He could buy on-line but this doesn’t appeal. The potential for discovery when browsing eclectically curated displays in shops is a part of the pleasure he derives from his pursuit.

White Spines focuses on his Picador collection, from when the imprint was mostly consistent in cover design (1970s to 1990s). He also finds what he describes as anomalies, adding these to the back of the double stacked white shelves on which he places his finds. Although pleased when a book is in good condition, he values inscriptions and inclusions – ephemera placed by a previous owner between pages and then forgotten when the book is donated.

This is very much a book for lovers of books. Royle takes the reader on a journey around the country describing where and how he found particular titles. There is an element of memoir as he has been collecting these books for decades. His various jobs over this time have granted him access to those in the writing business – authors, publishers, agents – whose names and works will be familiar. Knowing of his obsession, some have gifted him white spine Picadors. Royle cites one incident when he solicited such books as payment, something the author involved may have subsequently regretted agreeing to.

When travelling, for whatever reason, visits to second-hand bookshops feature. Finds are described lovingly, cover artwork appreciated. There are occasional transcripts of overheard conversations, or of interviews conducted as additional research. A digression into the issues faced when another author shares your name was of interest. Short sections describe some of Royle’s dreams.

There is a degree of melancholy looking back at the time when Picador published these uniform editions, when there was more trust and freedom amongst those tasked with choosing authors and titles. Of course, it is only with hindsight that readers can see how certain of the writers and artists found lasting success. There were also those whose work was pulped without telling them.

This history certainly adds to the appeal of the book, but it is Royle’s knowledge and ability to write with enthusiasm that draws the reader in. An enjoyable window into the life of an unapologetic collector. A call to appreciate books for more than their words.

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

my picadors

Book Review: Things Are Against Us

things are against us

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“But when do women get to dream? How about allowing us a few whims too once in a while? How about indulging women in the belief that we look okay, or that we’re okay mothers and daughters, or that we have okay things to say or do?”

Lucy Ellmann has strong opinions and is not afraid to say what she thinks. In this collection of fourteen essays she rails against the damage caused by patriarchal systems of governance, especially to the natural world and its less powerful or privileged inhabitants. Her solution to the competitive idiocy inflicted by men is to pass over control of all money to women. Her arguments are caustically persuasive – eruptions of rage and despair at what the males of our species have been allowed to get away with. If this sounds too philippic fear not; the essays are as full of wit as wisdom.

The book opens with the titular essay, an amusing riff on how THINGS make life so much more frustrating and difficult in a plethora of ways readers will recognise.

“Your alarm clock will often disturb a good dream. At other times, its battery will die and you’ll miss an appointment. The milk goes off. A water pipe will whine, or burst, and there’s not a THING you can do about it. No matter how old you are, grapefruit will always spit in your eye. The aim of those THINGS is uncanny.”

Next up are a couple of essays that focus on America, where the author was born and lived until she was a teenager. It will come as no surprise to anyone that she despises Trump and his gun-toting sycophants.

From here there is a natural segue into her arguments against the patriarchy. The sixth essay, ‘A Spell of Patriarchy’, will likely be enjoyed most by those who have watched the many classic films referenced. I have not but could still enjoy the read.

Unlike Ellmann I have never found pleasure in reading Dickens. I have, however, enjoyed some crime fiction. Ellmann really doesn’t rate crime fiction, a view she explains in ‘Ah, Men. Certain readers may take offence at this but, if they can get past what they may feel are attacks on their art or choice of entertainment, the essays herein are cleverly constructed and poke fun at many accepted behaviours.

Whilst I may not agree with all the author’s opinions, I did on the points she makes about descriptions of outward appearances in ‘Third Rate Zeroes’. She ponders how fixated so many are on what someone looks like given this is a ‘minor, accidental, and temporary achievement.’

“How much time in life and in literature has already been wasted on mean, irrelevant, and soon outdated notions of beauty? You know, so what if Cinderella was beautiful and her step-sisters weren’t? Is this really really the key to an understanding of human capacity? Is it fair? Is it even entertaining?”

‘Morning Routine Girls’ explores the disturbing growth of young girls promoting beauty products on their YouTube channels. This follows ‘Bras: A Life Sentence’. Both essays may make female readers question why they have accepted the supposed need for either cosmetic intervention.

Ellmann has a soft spot for the Little House series of books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, writing of this in ‘The Woman of the House. Although referring to the softening of certain hardships endured for Wilder’s intended young readership, Ellmann doesn’t mention the erasure of Laura’s dead siblings from the story, those who perished at birth or as infants. I shared her enjoyment of these books growing up but not her view that this simpler existence was, ‘Not a bad way to live, on the whole.’

Neither would I now wish to live without electricity as she considers in ‘Sing the Unelectric!‘ I do, however, concur with her views on wastefulness. The lack of longevity of many modern goods and devices is a growing concern now that mechanical operations have been replaced by computer controlled sealed units whose manufacture and disposal is so damaging to the environment. So many points made by Ellmann deserve consideration however much detail may be agreed with.

My favourite essay in the collection is ‘The Lost Art of Staying Put in which the author questions why humans choose to travel for so called pleasure. It is expensive, bad for the planet, and many tourists demand that locals not only speak their language but also provide food and accommodation to match the quality they are used to from home – why leave?

“Travel kills as much knowledge, taste and culture as it purportedly spreads. The compulsion for sameness has an insidious effect: languages, costume, dialects and accents start to die out as soon as the Coke and jeans and T-shirts arrive.”

I enjoyed that the home city focused on was Edinburgh (where Ellmann lives) rather than London or Paris – a refreshing change in literary musings.

For readers who enjoyed Ducks, Newburyport, many of these essays include lists (although also a variety of punctuation). The tenacity of the writing is familiar if more succinct.

Ellmann admits to being a tad glib at times but this approach enables her to get across the points she wishes to make pithily. She despairs of the world men have made and seeks change. Many of her observations and opinions may appear tongue-in-cheek but should not be dismissed as unintended to be taken seriously.

Any Cop?: A much enjoyed read however much may or may not be agreed with. Urgent, angry and often very funny.

Jackie Law

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: The Spirit of the River

spirit of the river

“I don’t have to understand nature to appreciate it – to do that, I only have to look around me.”

The Spirit of the River, by Declan Murphy, is taglined A Quest for the Kingfisher. While the author’s desire to observe this beautiful bird is an important aspect of the unfolding tale, there is much more to explore and enjoy than his study of the habits of a single species. While searching for the kingfishers’ nesting site, he also finds the nesting sites of dippers and woodpeckers. His days by the river are filled with wonder as he moves between locations, noting the various birds’ behaviour along with that of other flora and fauna in their vicinity. Combined, they have made the river and its banks suitable for these creatures to mate and raise their offspring. There are also predators to watch out for. Over the months detailed, the birds – and the author – must deal with attacks that threaten their existence.

“In nature, there is always something that wants to eat you.”

The story is set in County Wicklow, Ireland. Much of the action takes place over a spring and summer. The narrative often reflects on how the author’s interest in nature was nurtured by his patient and loving parents and siblings. The youngest of four children, he has always got on better with wildlife than with people. He approaches his subject with a warm and childlike wonder. He has learned strategies for observing without upsetting the subjects in which he is most interested.

“the time spent looking and searching for any animal or plant is only part of the experience; the immersion of oneself in nature and its surroundings and the indulgence of the senses, is the reward for effort. I feel sorry for people who search unsuccessfully for a particular aspect of nature and feel the time was wasted.”  

In opening his tale, the author writes of nature’s patterns – mathematics – and nature’s movement – physics. The evolution of the natural world is as complex as the human brain; the interlinks within its ecosystem as little understood by man, who wreaks damage with his ill thought through invasions. The author considers all his studies to be opportunities to learn, noting when assumptions he has made prove incorrect. He recognises that while behaviours follow a pattern, much remains unforeseeable.

“Rivers are like people. They have different life stages, unpredictable moods and erratic personalities.”

The stretch of river he explores is one he has long been familiar with having returned to it year after year to observe its residents. This is his way of coping with life and its inherent challenges. Although describing himself as sociable, he finds human behaviour is too often baffling. The creatures at the river live in ways that make more sense.

“What was left to see? At its simplest, I watched because I enjoyed being part of their world – theirs and every other creature that shared it with me. There was always something new to learn”

The writing employs a gentle cadence with observations intricately explained while maintaining the excitement of what is happening and what this foretells. The sinuous dance steps of the birds’ behaviour bring forth new life and aid survival. Their actions prove endlessly fascinating to anyone willing to pay attention.

This is a book filled with wonder, acknowledging the dark times but always moving forward – the only direction possible in life, whatever one’s species. In reading it feels like walking alongside the author as he pursues his quest for the kingfisher. Although he writes that he does not understand those who lack the curiosity to find out more about natural habitats, prior knowledge is not necessary to enjoy what he shares here. 

A glorious meditation on nature filled with detail and appreciation. A soul enriching and recommended read.

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

Book Review: Gone

“Never underestimate mankind’s capacity for mindless destruction.”

In recent months I have read several articles in the mainstream media that suggest human fertility could make reproduction difficult within a generation (e.g. here). Having read Gone, by Michael Blencowe, it is hard to mourn this potential issue. Throughout his existence man has been a scourge on our amazing planet, wiping out entire populations of his fellow creatures seemingly without caring about the carnage and suffering thereby caused.

The book is divided into eleven chapters, each focusing on a species that is now extinct, often because man discovered it existed. The creatures were slaughtered: for food, for wealth, for science. Where their natural habitat contained no predators, man’s arrival introduced them. Although often passing through – seeking food and trophies – if man stayed then his desire for settlement and agricultural land further destroyed ecosystems that had previously supported healthy populations of diverse wildlife. If money could be made this was regarded as reason enough for decimation.

The supposed great naturalists of past centuries, whose interest in science was lauded as a step forward in human understanding, were often culprits in destroying that which they studied.

“Like any great naturalist of his era, he carried with him the two qualities required for such an expedition: an enquiring mind and a big gun.”

Chapter One explains how thriving colonies of great auks were wiped out. The account is horrific and heartbreaking. Subsequent chapters continue in this vein proving that extinction was not a concern if riches and renown could be obtained. A good number of natural history museums around the world were founded on collections created by zoologists and other wealthy scientists, from specimens brought to them by bounty hunters. All that is left now of many magnificent species is skin and bones stored in drawers and display cases.

As well as travelling to the last known habitats of extinct species, the author visits the museums that hold what remains of them. He talks to the curators and is granted access to rare body parts, learning more about their history and the species’ demise.

“I look again to the animals whose lives I had followed and with whom I had felt an unexpected affinity. But all I see now are bones, feathers and fur, the sad remains of the worlds extinct creatures, taxidermy testaments to the havoc we have wreaked upon the world.”

The writing style makes this an easy book to read; the subject matter is harder to digest. Beautiful and evocative illustrations of the eleven creatures focused on – artwork by Jade They – help bring to life what has been lost. It is a cry to do better.

 “On 6 May 2019, scientists from the United Nations gathered in Paris to announce the findings of a global study on biodiversity, concluding that 1 million of the world’s estimated 8 million species now face extinction, many within decades.”

“The driving forces behind these extinctions are changes in land and sea use, hunting and poaching, climate change, pollution and invasive alien species.”

It seems that man has learned nothing from his past wanton destruction – and continues apace.

Although upsetting to consider, if a book such as this can touch readers and drive a change of attitude it will have served its purpose. Sadly, I question if mankind is intelligent enough to fathom fully how this planet – our life support system – is being damaged by our actions. Unlike many of the creatures we have driven to extinction – peaceful and curious, unable to comprehend the danger posed by man – we have some awareness, yet continue.

Will we be willing to change how we behave when to do so may make our day to day lives less congenial? An evocative, disturbing, recommended read.

sea cow

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

Book Review: Spring Journal

“there is no joie de vivre,
None at all. It is absolutely banned.”

Spring Journal, by Jonathan Gibbs, was inspired by Louis MacNeice’s long poem, Autumn Journal, which he wrote in late 1938 in response to the impending world war. I am not familiar with this earlier work. Gibbs’ offering is divided into twenty-four cantos, written between March and August 2020. It provides a response to Covid 19, England’s first lockdown, and the summer release that was not the hoped for return to freedom.

I was eager to get hold of a copy of this book as a sort of memento of a time I felt would be a significant life event, however the future pans out. On reading I realised it offered even more than expected, mainly because it highlighted to me how all appeared to enter that first lockdown as a country united to fight an unknown threat, but quickly divided into angry, polarised units of righteously indignant opinion on how others should behave.

“And its March coming in as the last daffs are fading
And the first nasturtiums coming, blithely ignorant of the farce”

The early cantos beautifully capture the early weeks of lockdown – the strange silence of streets devoid of people and traffic; the pause that felt as though the world held its breath, even as nature continued to bring forth new life, as it has always done.

When the impact of both the pandemic and the country’s response became better understood, sides were quickly taken. Focus shifted to anger, with many blaming politicians, as happens when it is not ‘their’ people in charge.

The author acknowledges his privilege. He remained healthy, not alone, able to exercise outdoors.

There is a reminder of the protests that happened about non-Covid related issues (how quickly we forget that which does not directly affect us).

“And if the pubs and restaurants go under, what about the theatres
And galleries and concert halls?
Will we stay at home and mutter nostrums
For the benefit of our four bare walls?”

As I read this I pondered the plight of those who would never use such facilities, through lack of means or desire. A journal will obviously be deeply personal – a strength in the window it offers. The author’s response, at first so familiar, was diverging from my own.

My reaction to this divergence slammed home when Gibbs wrote of a holiday in Greece, taken when released from the first lockdown. I was reminded of the angry tweets at the time from those who still never left their homes and expected others to do the same. Even when laws are not broken there can be a form of moral outrage honing in on what matters most to each individual. I remembered those who attended raves regardless, and those who have chosen to remain under personal lockdown throughout.

“don’t ask why our spending’s more vital than our earning
Or why the economy depends
On us giving out more than we can gather back”

The underlying concern, the gnawing anxiety over future impact, comes through strongly. As summer progressed the author wrote of the young people whose future prospects became ever more uncertain. There were musings on who will bear the brunt of what will be lost.

“everything we’ve grown up to take for granted
And are losing now to toffs and spivs
Who dress like lawyers and act like thieves
And know not to waste a good crisis.”

The final canto reeled me back in as the author reflects on the future, that man’s concerns are insular, that climate continues to change.

The journal is elegantly written and offers much to reminisce over and reflect upon. I shall now put it aside to read in future months and years when what has happened may be put into context of fallout, when we have moved on to whatever must be dealt with beyond.

“it seems we have forgotten how to shout,
Or have lost our voices;
Will we get to forgive ourselves our weakness,
Our failure to act on our justified doubts?”

We are living through ever increasing state intervention on day to day behaviour. This long poem offers a reminder of how it started, how as a country we acquiesced. Worth reading for the literary quality. Recommended as an encouragement towards greater critical thinking.

Spring Journal is published by CB editions.

Book Review: The Future of You

“The real problem is that when human societies lose their freedom, it’s not usually because tyrants have taken it away. It’s usually because people willingly surrender their freedom in return for protection against some external threat. And the threat is usually a real threat but usually exaggerated.”

The Future of You: Can Your Identity Survive 21st Century Technology? is a timely exploration of the impact of moving more and more aspects of our lives into the digital realm. Relying on technology in order to function as we have come to expect is not without risk. The author approaches issues raised from a variety of directions, offering facts alongside considered opinion. Although there are obvious benefits to many of the innovations detailed, the potential for harming the individual is chilling. Advances are rarely made available to every member of society. This exacerbates the differences between those who benefit and everyone else.

Follows is a futurist – someone who systematically explores predictions and possibilities about the future and how they can emerge from the present. She writes here about: social media, data mining, privacy, legal rights, digital ownership, artificial intelligence, required behaviour, healthcare, enhancing humans, bots, transhumanism. Many of the technologies discussed exist already, with Covid-19 enabling governments to bring forward change that many western civilisations would not previously have countenanced. Places such as China offer a window into how this could play out, their society being more familiar with blatant state coercion ‘for the common good’.

Early chapters look at how identities are created, controlled and authenticated in a digital society. There are, for example, many problems with attempting to create a globally useful ID for an individual, not least who owns and controls the data and how it is used. Interconnectivity can be difficult to achieve – agreeing protocols and standardisations. There is always a security risk when data is shared. Covid-19 has brought to the fore the concept of health passports, bringing with it the prospect of enforced health treatments – or suffering pariah status. Coercing citizens to behave in a certain way is regarded as an acceptable means to an end by many, with neighbours willing to police behaviours, however much others may disagree for valid reasons. Described as ‘social credit’, digital records could be used in a wide array of applications to encourage government mandated practices.

“Once governments know they have the power to ‘correct’ people’s behaviour in this way, it’s all too tempting for them to implement such draconian measures more and more widely.”

For those who believe this would never be accepted in a democracy, surveys have shown there is a mutual distrust between citizens – a desire to control ‘undesirables’, to keep them separate until they ‘behave’.

Taiwan is held up as an example of a different approach. Rather than trying to turn its citizens into ‘obedient zombies’, it uses technology to listen to a variety of opinions and implement change only for the true good of all.

“Taiwanese children are not taught to all give the same answer or even to seek the answers to the same questions; they are taught to follow their own interests, set their own projects and find their own solutions. And they are not set up in competition with each other; they are set up to pool their individual talents and to collaborate”

Raised to think for themselves and accept differences in opinion, people are more able to think critically and listen considerately. Technology is not used here to encourage conformity – and therefore predictability – in the population. Participation in debate is encouraged and dissent accepted. Individual liberty is valued, as it should be.

The author then turns her attention to the digital identity individuals create for themselves in such spaces a social media. Social media may indeed be social but it is also tribal.

“liking what our friends post, muting those who disagree with us, clicking to be seen to support the right causes, and excluding anyone who is not part of our tribe or does not conform to the established narrative of our group.”

On line sharing becomes a performance, self-presentation filtered to create an idealised version. This comes with many risks: feelings of inadequacy or jealousy when comparing to others in the group, the fallout from an ill-judged remark deemed unacceptable or inauthentic.

“one false move and we could be shamed forever”

The creation of ‘perfect’ avatars has led to bots becoming influencers.

Of course, digital connectivity has many benefits. This has become ever more apparent during the Covid-19 lockdown. Lockdown has also, however, sparked a pandemic of loneliness. Into this void has stepped the potential for robot ‘companions’. AI is becoming ever more sophisticated. Already widely accepted as assistants, social aspects are now being developed. For those who struggle to form relationships with people, a digital friend to talk to and seek advice from – one who doesn’t judge, mock or bully – can be beneficial.

AI robots are obviously digital but what of people who present themselves to the digital world in an altered state? The author writes of the Proteus Effect – how individuals are treated and behave based on how they look. If an avatar is created that is a favoured height, hair colour, race or gender, will some perceived ideal become more acceptable than individuality?

Another benefit of improved technology is in public health. Upgrading humans – fitting a pacemaker or quality prosthesis, replacing a vital organ, cosmetic surgery to right damage rather than for vanity – is usually only available to the wealthier nations, and sometimes only to wealthy citizens. This creates elites and ordinaries with very different potentials. There is a suggestion that this could be further developed to enable dictators to implement breeding programs – or introduce viruses that kill those not protected…

Moving on to mortality, there are thoughts on slowing the aging process and transhumanism. Technology has also been harnessed to memorialise the dead by recording: voice, mannerisms, facial expression. These may be used to create a bot of the deceased, in some cases projected as a hologram. Listening to histories recorded during interviews may be fascinating but the idea of the dead being enabled to interact with the living felt creepy. There is also the question of who owns ‘you’ when you are dead.

This book offers a wide-ranging study of many aspects of identity in the digital age, only a few aspects of which I have highlighted here. The writing is accessible, the subject interesting if somewhat disturbing. Choice appears to be a casualty of increasingly required connectivity. Form of government is key in how much individuals benefit. Only briefly mentioned are those living in countries lacking the infrastructure and economic ability to join in.

Well worth reading to raise understanding of what we lose and gain when our personal data is taken. A warning not to accept new technologies without question, whatever benefits they appear to offer. A reminder of the repercussive damage when choice to not participate is removed.

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