Book Review: The Intimate Resistance

intimate resistance

Having studied philosophy for a couple of years at university, when I was offered The Intimate Resistance to review it sounded right up my street. It wasn’t, however, an easy read. Described as a masterpiece, the culmination of years of work, the author has done well to condense the many ideas discussed into a book of less than two hundred pages. The result is a densely packed essay that, while interesting and well argued, requires the reader to maintain concentration. Several times I had to backtrack as I realised I hadn’t taken in the concepts propounded after several pages of parsing words.

Among other things, the early chapters cover nihilism, nothingness and angst. Not the cheeriest of ideas to consider. The human condition is described as a constant disintegration. There are many mentions of death and suicide.

“For a long time (and for too many people, even now) to live meant striving to survive, employing all of one’s strength to do so. In richer societies, however, this push to survive has given way to something else: the struggle not to disintegrate. And while the apparent enemy is much less terrible, failures and defeats are all the more frequent.”

The importance of a shelter – home as a refuge – is introduced. There was no mention of those for whom home is an emotional prison or place of danger. What does come to the fore is that individuals should look to themselves more than others in how they speak and act. The author extolls the value of everyday life, the ordinary and non-elitist, over wealth, fame or power.

“Evasion is not evasion of the world, but rather of my own self, from the nothing that I am, from the mortal being I am.”

Alongside the need to look inwards is the importance of socialising. This was challenging to read given our current situation, when other people are regarded by many as a biohazard and blamed for non compliance with a new belief system. I agreed with the author, especially the arguments around the wisdom of local, person to person, discussion as opposed to relying on screen based soundbite propaganda and supportive echoers, virtue signalling on social media.

“The sugar-coated scepticism propounded by cut-price intellectuals is painful to watch as they belittle ancient gods and old beliefs while fanning the flames of new dogmas”

Finding the strength to stand up for common sense – to resist – can appear in short supply when there is conflict over issues. The author argues that such strength also enables one to endure, to not fall into excessiveness, to avoid judging all and sundry.

“Strength is not expressed through heroism or daring, but rather through stability, faithfulness and perseverance. It doesn’t stand out, but provides confidence to those close by, embraces and helps.”

The author’s arguments are stated repetitively, perhaps to ensure that key points are understood from a variety of angles. He states a need for quiet reflection and careful consideration – done silently rather than indulging in the all too common verbal diarrhea that attempts to stifle dissent. Thinking rather than merely talking endlessly is to be encouraged.

“To think is an experience because it doesn’t leave things as they were”

Moving on, the difference between scientistic ideology and scientific reasoning is discussed. It is proposed that haughty and dogmatic pundits appearing on radio or screens spout more rubbish than is witnessed in a village café among ‘simple folk’ who have common sense and, importantly, an ability to recognise their ignorance.

“We are being overwhelmed by know-it-alls”

“They are all answers and leave almost no room for the questions to which they have no answers”

Throughout the text there are many references to the work of philosophers from ancient times through to the more recent thinkers. Etymology is mined in arguments presented.

There is discussion of act and potency. What came to mind for this reader was a consideration of those who loudly state that others, who do not agree with their point of view, must be ignorant, thereby alienating them in an attempt to silence resistance.

“We ‘obtain’ information. We don’t obtain the meaning of things.”

The constant flow of words in modern media is noise with little space for reflection and has proved damaging, not least by stifling calm and considered debate.

“Egocentric by definition, those who mutter nurture a sentiment of dissatisfaction and avarice […] muttering is the perfect example of the empty word”

The importance of human connection and conjunction is discussed, as is the value of silence. Attempts to stifle resistance through brow-beating and berating can lead to dangerous frustration when the vocal forget to listen.

“Violence comes from dogmatism”

To reiterate, the human condition, shadowed by nihilism, requires shelter and resistance alongside proximity to others.

“One’s fellow being, the home, the day to day care”

Resistance against following dogmatic words spouted by media pundits matters.

I have tried to highlight key points I took from this essay but should make clear that a great deal more is covered and all in greater and more eloquent detail. Also, it was first published in the author’s native Catalan in 2015 so, although I found the arguments highly relevant, the book was not written in the time of Covid. And this is important as it is about the human condition and therefore not tied to a particular time period.

An intense and inspiring reminder to resist the baying of the most vocal and continually question both others and ourselves. A stimulating reminder of the relevance of philosophical thinking in what is happening every day.

“Philosophy is simply self-questioning: we ask ourselves”

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Fum d’Estampa Press.

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: Northern Irish Writing After The Troubles

northern irish writing

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“The body is our tool for understanding our social world, and the texts in this study not only foreground the complex ways in which our bodies come into contact with others and are ‘read’ but also help us interpret the situations in which we find ourselves.”

Northern Irish Writing After the Troubles is an academic textbook. Its author, Caroline Magennis, is Reader in Twentieth and Twenty-First Century Literature at the University of Salford. She wrote the book as part of Bloomsbury Academic’s ‘New Horizons in Contemporary Writing’ series. All this is to say that it is not a publication I would normally be drawn to read. It offers a detailed study and critique of contemporary fiction by writers from the North of Ireland focusing, as the strapline suggests, on intimacies, affects and pleasures. As an avid reader of Irish authors, and having reviewed books for close to a decade albeit as a hobbyist, I found her reading and interpretations of books I was familiar with fascinating and educative.

The introduction explains the author’s aims in writing the book, and her criteria in selecting the fiction featured.

“The texts in this project have been chosen because they speak to the central concerns of the monograph: how small moments of intimacy can be transformative. They begin to rewrite and reshape the representation of intimate life in Northern Ireland.”

The various stories, so carefully considered, were written around twenty years after the signing of the Good Friday agreement. Although ‘post-conflict’, they reflect a community that continues to live in the shadow of decades of violence and societal repression. Northern Ireland’s politicians have ensured that the province retains outdated laws that limit and condemn certain choices and intimacies.

The first section of the book considers intimacy further.

“This chapter will argue that recent novels and short stories demonstrate the richness of intimacy as a way to re-examine the experiences of Northern Irish people in the twenty-first century.”

Texts studied include Michael Hughes’s Country, Wendy Erskine’s Sweet Home, Jan Carson’s The Fire Starters, Phil Harrison’s The First Day and Lucy Caldwell’s Intimacies. I say studied. The author offers a close reading but this is not the dissection readers may recall from school English classes. Having read three of these books I was captivated by aspects of the stories that I had missed.

Wendy Erskine has stated,

“I want to write about people living their everyday lives, going to their jobs and doing their dishes or whatever but dealing with quite complex and profound sorts of issues.”

Magennis explores within each text concepts such as: home, family, desire and its relationship with violence. Northern Irish children are described as “unfortunate heirs of someone else’s spite”.

The second section of the book considers pleasure. Texts studied include Billy Cowan’s Still Ill, Glenn Patterson’s The Rest Just Follows, Lucy Caldwell’s Here We Are and Rosemary Jenkinson’s Wild Women.

“The focus will be on the depiction of pleasure, particularly sexual, to see whether these texts offer new ways of being an erotic subject in the changed political climate”

Appetites for pleasure face the restrictions and repression of ingrained moral conservatism. Opponents of change employ guilt and shame alongside the violence endemic in a patriarchal society.

It is noted that

“critics want literature to do things that politicians in Northern Ireland seem unable or unwilling to do”

In Northern Irish writing, “the expression of sexual freedom often comes at a cost”. Of course, there is hypocrisy, such as the Orange Order member who condemns prostitution yet visits brothels. Ian Paisley preached that the lusts of the flesh were sinful. One wonders at the quality of his personal life.

The third section, Skin, builds on aspects highlighted in previous chapters. Texts studied include David Park’s Gods and Angels, Rosemary Jenkinson’s Aphrodite’s Kiss, Bernie McGill’s Sleepwalkers, and Róisín O’Donnell’s Wild Quiet.

Jenkinson’s writing in particular appears explicitly erotic. She writes of female agency, of access to medical treatment, of loneliness. She gives voice to thoughts and actions traditionally shamed.

Anna Burns’ Milkman is given its own chapter, presenting as it does “the central themes that this study has been organised around: intimacy, touch and pleasure.”

“Burns examines the communal experience of shame, a public emotion which is particularly corrosive to self-esteem and which is monitored and policed by the community”

Living within a narrow neighbourhood where expressions of joy are regarded with suspicion, mental health issues intolerable (sufferers should catch themselves on), voicing of emotional states taboo.

Again, Ian Paisley preached that dancing was sinful, an opinion that has seeped through consciences resulting in what Jan Carson described as a tightness in her body, a constraint, that the Wee Sisters in Burns’ book had yet to inherit.

“To move your body out of pleasure is to assert that you think your body matters. That you matter. It is an assertion of pleasure, of pride and of autonomy.”

As someone born and raised in Northern Ireland this came across as radical – that women can matter in themselves.

The book is concluded with a short chapter titled Open Endings in which the author adds further context to the detailed yet always accessible study she has written. There is a reminder that more writers are producing work each year, and that younger writers will draw on different autobiographical elements when creating fiction, a progression from those who experienced life during the decades of sectarian violence. She voices an interest in the impact of The Troubles legacy across the next generation.

“As critics who have ‘skin in the game’, we must move away from centring the voices that we know and respond to because their experiences mirror our own and pay attention to the new writers who will reshape the cultural landscape”

A coda enables the authors whose work is featured to write of the intimacy, in its varied forms, that they included within their work.

I stated earlier that I found this study fascinating. Although detailed and academically rigorous it is not heavy. For those of us who indulge in careful consideration of the stories we choose to read it offers a lesson in how to do so better.

Any Cop?: With much fine writing currently emerging from Northern Ireland this is a companion work well worth looking out for when it becomes more economically available, as it will.

Jackie Law

Guest Review: Things Are Against Us

things are against us

Today I welcome Valerie O’Riordan to my blog. Valerie is a writer, critic and academic. She lectures in Creative Writing and English at the University of Bolton. Her fiction has appeared in numerous national and international publications, including Tin House, LitMag, The Lonely Crowd, and The Manchester Review. She edits both Bookmunch and the Forge Literary Magazine. It is through my contributions to Bookmunch that we are associated. After I had submitted my review of Things Are Against Us to Bookmunch, I noticed that Val was reading the book. Interested in what she thought of it, I was delighted when she agreed to review it for Never Imitate.

Lucy Ellmann, Things Are Against Us

Things are against us, if by *us* we’re talking women, and anyone who identifies similarly, queer folx more broadly, and that’s not even to mention the issues thrown up for Black and brown and indigenous peoples, and by *things* we mean, oh, the institutional structures of human societies worldwide. In fact, notes Ellmann, when you look at it with a keen eye, ‘the whole human experiment seems to be drawing to a close.’ So what’s to do? Well, while we work busily on a global socialist-feminist uprising, we might as well complain.

Things Are Against Us is complaint writ large. It represents a glorious bellowing back against the Trumps, the Weinsteins, the mansplainers and manspreaders; against penile architecture and commodity fetishism and tech utopians and widespread ignorance; against bras, against travel, against morning routines and stereotypes; against fake news and FGM and femicide; against violence of all sorts. Make no mistake: this is a tirade. Or, tirades, really, because this is a collection of essays, Ellmann’s first work of non-fiction, drawing several previously unpublished pieces together with polemics printed over the last twenty-one years, from ‘Bras: A Life Sentence’ (2000) to ‘Sing the Unelectric’ (2013), to ‘Consider Pistons and Pumps’ (2016) and ‘The Lost Art of Staying Put’ (2017). The recurrent theme is patriarchy and its manifold woes, and the latter essays are sharply focussed on Trump and his administration, still in power when most of these pieces were composed. With the election of what Ellmann calls, variously, ‘this delusional mass murderer’ (gun violence, kids in cages, Covid), ‘the phoniest guy they could find’, and, turning Trump’s own vocabulary against him, ‘the big fat loser of a president’, and the attempted MAGA coup following Biden’s election, America reached ’a whole new level of patriarchal absurdity’. And this book is dedicated, mostly, to a setting out of this
state of affairs: how it came about, how it’s manifesting itself, how screwed we all really are. And it is all of us: while Ellmann’s a steadfast ex-pat (she lives in Scotland), she doesn’t let the UK gets away with anything — Tony Blair is a war criminal and Brexit is, she argues, ‘the apotheosis of age-old British self-hatred’ — and even though America does play its hand especially blatantly, it’s patriarchal capitalism that’s the real enemy, not any particular nation-state. ‘Wildlife is pretty much finished now’, Ellmann says, plainly, and it’s true. So what do we do? Well, complain, for a start: make ourselves heard. Take a stance. Hold out for worldwide matriarchy, suggests Ellmann. Be strong, take the
money, and run. (And take the pill.)

Now, remember, this is Lucy Ellmann, who might well be the living embodiment of barbed wit: this is a funny collection. It’s bold and brash and unafraid to offend, defiantly belligerent, and for every swipe the book takes at unabashedly misogynistic and colonialist and ecocidal world leaders and conventions, it takes another at missing hot water bottle stoppers, blenders and pumpkin spice lattes. It’s a serious book, but a fun one; it’s an easy read, a rapid read, a fist-thumping and grinning read. It’s enjoyable. But that’s also how it gets you: Ellmann lays a trail of funny breadcrumbs, draws you in, and then, bang: we’re reading about the stupefaction of the public by YouTube and Fox News and we are furious. It’s smart and ingenious and demonstrates enormous rhetorical skill – skill that has, often, gone underappreciated in the reaction to her works online. Ellmann rails against so many Things that critics — and, naturally, social media users who, in many cases, haven’t actually read her works — have liked to latch onto isolated examples (her dig at crime fiction; her twitter essay about ‘crap’) as case-studies in why she ought to be ignored. But one of the Things Ellmann rails against is this proliferation of electronic noise: the unconsidered pile-on, the lack of critical thinking encouraged by the exact varieties of patriarchal capitalism that got Trump into the hotseat in the first place. Slow down, she’s saying, step back, shut up and think. We don’t like gobby, unapologetic women, do we? Why is that?

‘I made nice,’ Ellmann says, and ‘it didn’t work.’ So pay attention. Get angry. Be strong: complain.

Valerie O’Riordan

Book Review: Beethoven

beethoven

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“I do not write for the multitude – I write for the cultured!”

Ludwig van Beethoven has been described by some as the greatest ever composer of Western classical music. Numerous biographies of the man have been written, creating an image of an eccentric genius. Laura Tunbridge states that she wished to cut through the myths and place Beethoven’s life in its historical context. She employs a structure of nine of his compositions, exploring not just the Vienna in which he lived and worked but also the audiences available at the time, whose willingness to promote and attend musical performances was key to building renown. Beethoven harboured a lifelong desire for cultural acclaim alongside the practical support of wealthy patrons.

The book opens with three introductory sections. These set out: the financial struggles Beethoven faced, caused mostly by the Napoleonic Wars; musical terms employed in his compositions; the musical and family background in Bonn that shaped him, including his father’s wish that Ludwig be a prodigy in the manner of Mozart. On his first visit to Vienna, Beethoven captured the attention of the much lauded Mozart but then had to leave due to his mother’s final illness. He returned to the city for a second time to study under Haydn and did not return.

In Vienna, the ‘van’ in his name was wrongly assumed to be equal to the ‘von’ used in Austria – of noble birth. This suited Beethoven well. From early on he believed that the music he created was of a high order and deserving attention. He cultivated friendships that granted him access to those he needed to impress to raise money and build prestige. He wished to be heard by ‘educated listeners’ who would appreciate the difficulties inherent in playing his compositions. He had no interest in creating ‘crowd pleasers’.

“the practice of using the arts to assert cultural supremacy has been around for a long time”

There are marked differences between Beethoven’s early works and those from his later period. Some of this was down to changes in instrument design, allowing for greater range and a more robust sound. He worked through the ‘transition from creating music of ‘feeling’ to ‘art’’.

“Music was no longer to be merely an entertaining or interesting diversion but something more substantial”

Beethoven embraced this change fully, challenging what was possible. Given that performances at the time required musicians who would only have one or two rehearsals before playing to a captive audience, this approach could result in cacophony.

“His music could quickly reach the point when those who do not understand its rules and enjoy its difficulties would find no pleasure in it … complexity for its own sake”

The nine sections in the book offer as much musicology as exploration of the composer’s character and motivations. The history of the time is interesting but to fully appreciate the study of the music discussed one may need more of a background knowledge and interest than I possess. At times the discussion of musical terms and form became soporific.

The man himself does not sound appealing. Described as ‘sensitive, irritable and suspicious’ he comes across as arrogant and hypocritical. For example, he frequented brothels yet condemned his sister-in-law for sleeping with men she was not married to. He fought in the courts for custody of his nephew yet treated him terribly, resulting in the boy running away on several occasions.

As Beethoven’s music became ever more dense – and he, internationally famous – acquaintances would offer platitudes and practical help to gain access and curry favour by association. Others were more pragmatic, willing to offer criticism as audiences walked out of performances due to the chaotic and incomprehensible noise being made.

“its difficulty became a sign of its greatness. Effort had to be put in not only to play this music but to understand it too”

Unlike certain of his patrons, Beethoven was neither pleasant nor humble. He would sell exclusive, advance rights for his compositions to multiple sources. Money was a driver for this but also his belief in his own artistic worth – that it deserved greater recompense. Of course, an artist doesn’t have to be ‘nice’ to be lauded a genius – especially by the self-appointed arbiters of taste and artistic appreciation. I pondered if, as now in many creative spheres, certain fans and critics saw in his art what they thought they should.

Beethoven relied on unpaid helpers as well as his numerous if not always reliable patrons. He fell out with many of his contemporaries due to the way he treated them. One may question if his musical output was heavy, dense or brilliant. At the time, much of his later work was too difficult to play so was not well received by audiences and performers in a changing demographic.

The author is honest in her portrayal of an artist who remains something of an enigma, a construct built from myths propagated over centuries. The reader gains a picture of a man frustrated in his personal life and believing himself undervalued. He was not unappreciated in his own lifetime but the plaudits poured on him rarely appeared enough to please.

Any Cop?: In picking this book to read I did not expect there to be quite so much parsing of the chosen musical compositions. This detail aids understanding of classical structure but I suspect I am not the intended reader. Nevertheless, I gained a better understanding of Beethoven’s life, character and motivations in what is otherwise an engaging tale. That I didn’t find anything to like in the man is neither here nor there.

Jackie Law

Book Review: Goshawk Summer

goshawk summer

“Ultimately, just how compatible are concepts such as commoners’ rights, unfettered public access and commercial logging, with the encouragement and protection of biodiversity?”

Goshawk Summer: A New Forest Season Unlike Any Other, by James Aldred, was written from field notes the author kept while filming a family of goshawks in the spring and summer of 2020. An experienced wildlife cameraman internationally, Aldred was happy to return to what had been his childhood stomping ground during the first lockdown. As the rest of the world retreated he was able to fully appreciate the creatures of the New Forest and how they behaved when freed from the invasions of people. And then lockdown ended and the public, restless from many weeks of confinement and with few other options, returned to the forest in barely manageable droves.

Aldred’s observations are measured and candid. He films with the help of New Forest Keepers who grant him access to areas where they know the various creatures he seeks are breeding. The author may grow exhausted from the 3am starts and days spent ankle deep in water but footage captured provides him with a new perspective on the forest – its visitors and inhabitants.

“Humans are sensory beings, we all want to feel alive to prove we’re not wasting our short time on this planet, and I find the best way to connect with the here and now is to step into trees and give myself over to the wonder, curiosity and joy that they evoke. They help remind me of who I am, where I’ve come from and where – ultimately – we are all going.”

The New Forest is very much a managed environment, even if now mostly aiming to conserve its biodiversity. There is much in this book on species under threat from multiple sources. Ground nesting birds can have their nests trodden on by careless walkers or disturbed by curious off the lead dogs. When numbers of a bird species decline, their ability to fight off predators as a team effort becomes less viable. Aldred does not focus entirely on goshawks through their breeding season. He also observes amongst other creatures: lapwings, a Dartford warbler, curlews, dragonflies, a family of foxes. He notes not just their behaviours but also the conditions they require to survive. People are an obvious threat to survival but certainly not the only one. For all its endearing beauty, this is nature and it is brutal. In rearing their chicks, goshawks must hunt for the food they require to grow.

“It’s almost impossible to identify most of the corpses that arrive on a goshawk nest, especially since the male usually plucks and butchers them beforehand. It’s like trying to recognise an animal from the inside out.”

To capture his required footage, the author sets up a hide in a tree, fifty feet above ground. On filming days he then brings in his expensive camera equipment, all without scaring away the subjects who are well aware of the dangers man poses. Adult goshawks are particularly wild and wary, and could choose to go elsewhere if a threat is deemed too great. Each arrival and departure must be carefully planned by Aldred to be minimally disruptive.

The forest during lockdown was alive with creatures venturing out where they would normally avoid. The author muses on how amazing this was while recognising his own invasion and the privilege of being there to observe. In the outside world there is fear of dying. The forest is also a scene of regular quietus.

“We tend to celebrate springtime as a joyous period of awakening, fecundity and new beginnings: the season of life. And so it is. But its easy to forget that springtime is defined by death just as much. The pressure placed on parents to bring back a never-ending supply of food results in nothing short of a seasonal killing spree. We just don’t tend to see it”

When lockdown is eased and visitors return, the killing of creatures on the busy roads is added to the more nature driven death toll. Many of the people arriving have little idea how to behave in the forest, risking barbecues on tinder dry surfaces, organising raves and leaving behind litter or other environmental damage. Locals grow incandescent with rage as verges are parked on. Fear of disease being imported leads to othering.

Just as many of the people arriving are not New Forest natives, neither are many of the creatures the author observes. Species of raptors that were once common have been hunted to extinction – many regarded them as vermin. Their cousins exist in the forest now thanks to reintroductions. Goshawks were returned in 2000 and appear to have established a foothold – at a cost to those they feed off.

“you have to accept that when you bring these things back – just like goshawks themselves – it will have an impact. But how do you know what’s the norm? … chuck a new species back into the mix it’s obvious others are going to suffer”

The author welcomes the greater variety of creatures and despairs of the species in decline. He ponders how much man should be doing to bring nature into line with whatever is currently perceived as desirable.

“I believe that a little space goes a long way and sometimes all we really need to do is take a step back to let nature do its thing. A helping hand is sometimes welcome, but to think that nature needs constant micromanaging smacks of hubris and to my mind simply reflects our generally elevated sense of self-importance.”

He returns to this theme when filming dragonflies that thrive in and around a mire.

“Dragonflies have lived in perfect harmony with the planet for [280 million years], while the way we treat it makes me sometimes wonder whether we are as sentient as we like to believe.”

Aldred’s knowledge and appreciation of his surroundings are inspiring and instructive. I was, however, somehow pulled up short when he described a visit to a couple who raise birds of prey in captivity. This is done for the purpose of training them to fly alongside a camera. The author states that these birds make regular appearances in David Attenborough documentaries. While much of the footage is skilfully captured wild animal behaviour, it appears some is staged – and this disappointed me.

Not that such revelations are a reflection on the book. It is simply another nugget shared by a man whose work brings life in the wild to a wider audience. If changes are to be made to protect the wild creatures, people must be made aware of the dangers modern developments pose. Goshawk Summer offers a fascinating window into the lives and habitats of many forest visitors and dwellers, and their complex interrelationships. Man doesn’t need to be banned from the benefits of existing alongside but rather to be educated in how to minimise the damage currently wreaked by rapacious usage.

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

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