Book Review: On Silbury Hill

On Silbury Hill, by Adam Thorpe, is another fascinating addition to the Little Toller Monograph series (I have previously reviewed Snow, Landfill, Eagle Country, and Limestone Countryall these books are also worth reading). Thorpe first became interested in Silbury – the largest prehistoric mound in Europe – while he was a pupil at nearby Marlborough College, an exclusive public school where he boarded during the 1970s while his parents lived abroad due to his father’s work. As well as providing the reader with information about the enigmatic hill and the varying theories about its original purpose, Thorpe writes of his time in Wiltshire as a schoolboy, and later in life when he would return to visit. Like many who are drawn to the area – I have lived nearby for over three decades – he finds something elemental in his reaction to the location and its ancient artefacts.

Silbury Hill was built, probably over several generations, more than 4000 years ago. She is around 130 feet high – the equivalent of a 13 storey building – and has a base covering around 5 acres. Nobody knows why she was created although there are many theories. Archaeologists have drilled down into her, dug tunnels through her and taken away samples to try to work out her purpose. She is neither a burial mound nor a treasure trove. There are few clues as to what she may have been used for.

What is known is that she was one of three man made mounds in an area that also includes the Avebury stone circles and its associated avenues. Nearby are several large barrows that exist to house the dead. There is evidence of massive gatherings in ancient times suggesting significant rituals were enacted. Today, gatherings are of tourists or those who claim a religious link.

“Sometimes I think that invasive archaeology is a metaphor for our whole current situation: the process of discovery necessitates destruction.”

What we know about Silbury Hill is due to the investigations that broke her open and allowed modern man in. These were halted earlier this century and repairs made to the damaging invasions. As a UNESCO World Heritage site the location must now be protected. Visitors are no longer granted access to the hill.

Thorpe writes of his time at boarding school and also of the visits he made at that time to his family in Cameroon. He found an appeal in what he perceived as the simpler, less materialistic lifestyle of certain Africans and compares this to what is known of Britons in Neolithic times. The latter, of course, had short life expectancy and high death rates. Their bones show signs of painful afflictions – it was hardly an ideal way of living.

At the time of Silbury Hill’s construction, much of the country was still wooded and large predators roamed free within their dark canopy. Man was transitioning from hunter gatherer to farmer but would still be reliant on the small community he lived within and contributed to.

“the examination of period burials reveals not only a ghastly catalogue of ways to suffer and die (plenty of fractures and wounds, severe arthritis, tooth abscesses, gum disease, rickets, polio, spina bifida, tetanus, tuberculosis, plague, malaria), but the likelihood that ‘four people in ten died before they were twenty’ – not including the 50 per cent who didn’t make it past their third year.”

As a schoolboy, Thorpe visited East Kennet Long Barrow – 5000 years old and the longest in Europe – and ‘had an extraordinary sense of my own mortality’.

“I was a mere blip, soon to be extinguished, in comparison with the multiple generations witnessed by this earthwork, and those stretching out onto the future.”

The ancients were closer to death and, perhaps therefore, revered the ancestors. Rituals would reflect this and their reliance on nature for survival.

“death was woven into the landscape here in the chalklands in a colossally evident way.”

“Alternatively, Silbury might have been a brilliant means to unite a people with a common project that gave their brief lives a meaning.”

Perhaps the hill draws so much interest because its purpose remains unknown. It has existed through several rounds of climate change – warming and cooling, with associated changes in water levels – and multiple ages as man’s habits and beliefs have endlessly shifted. She has been probed and speculated over. Her surroundings have been desecrated and rebuilt. It is her age and continuing existence – from such ancient times through to now – that demands pause for contemplation.

“So frail the summer,
I would like to plait it
like grass, and keep my place

in the book of my life
forever, now, here.
I’ve noticed this is not possible.

Something is always ushering us.”

The author writes in a personal and compelling style that pulls the reader in. He weaves the memoir elements with a wider history of the area and how these have contributed to shaping his own development. In a time when man has all but detached himself from his surroundings – the cars on the busy A4, that runs adjacent to the hill, whizzing by in too much of a hurry to pause at the millennia old wonder they may glimpse as they pass – it is good to consider how transient our existence, inventions and prideful acquisitions will be. Silbury Hill remains a mystery – just one facet of its allure – but stands as a monument to that which can endure, and the value of reflection.

On Silbury Hill is published by Little Toller Books.

The Corsham Bookshop #BookshopDay

I will be away from home on this year’s National Bookshop Day so sought out an independent bookshop to visit a week early – how organised am I? This high street gem was well worth the journey. And of course, I came away with a new book to read.

Opened in 2002, The Corsham Bookshop is situated in the heart of the eponymous Wiltshire market town. The current proprietor has worked there from the beginning, buying it from the original owner in 2008. As she had previously worked for Waterstones she brought experience to the business.

I visited on a sunny Saturday afternoon and the shop had a steady stream of customers. One child was sitting at the back quietly reading. Another came in with her father who then tried to explain that this wasn’t a library so selections needed to be made with care.

Although relatively small, the stock is carefully curated and attractively displayed. As well as books there are literary gifts available alongside notebooks, cards and wrapping paper. There is also a selection of classical music CDs. I suspect the proprietor knows her customers well.

    

Our chat was brief but welcoming and friendly. On discovering where I lived she pointed me towards a series of children’s books whose author has recently moved to my village. A quick but careful flick through convinced me that I would enjoy reading these so I purchased the first in the series. I will be reviewing it soon.

Corsham is on the A4, west of Chippenham and east of Bath. If passing through I recommend you pause to admire the pretty little town, and visit its bookshop.

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Review: Literary Afternoon Tea at Bowood with Dinah Jefferies

teabowood

Traditional afternoon teas have become quite the thing at luxury hotels of late, and Bowood Hotel in Wiltshire does them with aplomb. Taken in the library, which overlooks a part of the estate’s beautiful park and woodland, one can easily feel transported back to an age of elegance and refinement. The range of fine teas served with a surprisingly generous selection of delicate sandwiches, delicious scones and tempting cakes, is attractively presented and impressive. An experience to be savoured.

Sidetracked as I was by the good company, I did not do the array of goodies on offer justice. I was at the hotel to attend what has become a regular and popular event in their busy calendar, a Literary Afternoon Tea. These occasions combine the delights of this stylish treat with the chance to meet and listen to a visiting author as they talk about their latest book and how it came to be written. The ambience of the library was perfect for author Dinah Jefferies, who started her talk by sharing some of her experiences growing up in 1950’s colonial Malaya where her debut novel, The Separation, is set.

Writing is essentially a solitary pursuit. However, the rules of the game are changing all the time. Where once an author could have expected to live a quiet life, creating their imaginary worlds for all to enjoy in print, they are now required to promote their work on numerous social media sites and at the increasingly popular Literary Festivals, bookshop visits, and events such as this one at Bowood.  If Dinah finds these public appearances a challenge then it did not show.

Her talk offered attendees an insight into her writing process, inspirations and the issues faced by a successful author. The Separation is her debut novel; her second book, The Tea Planter’s Wife, is due to be published in the spring of next year; she is currently writing her third book and is already considering ideas for her fourth. With all of these imaginary worlds and their characters swirling around inside her head she is required to move seamlessly between them: to talk of one, edit another, create a third and develop a fourth. For someone who claims not to have a good memory this must be quite an ask!

Dinah likened writing a book to a sculptor creating a work of art. If many people have a book inside them then this would be the block of stone. The quality of this base product will vary, as will the ability of the artist to produce something worthwhile. Creativity requires skill and dedication. What emerges may not be exactly what was envisaged when the writer first started chipping away at their idea.

Each of Dinah’s books has started with a setting, a place and time, and a plot that has been developed through extensive research. She decides how the book is to feel initially, its structure and key events. The detail of the story emerges as she writes, with editing ensuring continuity and a flow that will engage the reader throughout. She explained that she tries to avoid long, descriptive sections, aiming to offer sensory stimulation, showing rather than telling.

Dinah attended this event with her husband, who I had the privilege of talking to as Dinah signed the books that were offered for sale after her engaging question and answer session with the receptive audience. Richard exuded justifiable pride in his wife’s achievements. I would imagine her job is made easier by having such a supportive partner.

The couple of hours that I spent at Bowood flew by, filled as it was with pleasant company, interesting conversation and the ambience of a delightful setting. I hope that, after I left, Dinah and Richard were able to relax and enjoy the tempting treats offered.

I would recommend an event such as this as an appealing indulgence for all with an interest in books. I am grateful to Dinah and to Charlotte at Bowood for adding me to their guest list.

 

Nepotism

I am not a blogger who plans and prepares ahead. I tend to just type in whatever I am thinking at the time and hit publish. Sometimes I get an idea and want to write about it but don’t have time. I might set up a few prompt lines in a draft and try to come back later to flesh it out. More often than not these unfinished posts end up in trash.

One thing I would like to do more often is write about light hearted things. I don’t think of myself as negative and do not wish to be considered so. Today, however, I am going to cover a topic that is making me feel annoyed, frustrated and despondent. I am going to write about student work experience.

My daughter would very much like to be a doctor, which does of course require that she gain a place at medical school. When she first started talking about this aspiration I thought that the big challenges would be producing a noteworthy personal statement, impressing the university at interview, and gaining outstanding exam results. Whilst all of this is still necessary, and a tough enough challenge for any aspiring medic, it seems that she also needs to have proof of regular work experience in a variety of medical settings prior to applying.

Having obtained good enough GCSE results to keep her dream alive, in September of this year she started writing to local hospitals and doctor’s surgeries about the possibility of them accepting a work experience student. It seems that our home county has very strict data protection rules that preclude such schemes. As most of the recipients of her letters and emails failed to respond it took her some time to find this out.

In October she started writing to hospitals outside of our home county. She was comfortable with the idea of travelling by public transport and staying over in a cheap hotel or B&B for the week or fortnight that she would be working. Between fifty and a hundred missives later she finally got an explanation as to why nobody would take her; she lived out of county. If she could find someone to personally accept her for shadowing then that would be acceptable, but the Trusts would not take on a student from out of county except on this basis.

November has been spent writing to everyone we have ever known who has some link, however tenuous, with the health service. With one exception, who we have still to hear back from, these people do not work directly enough with hospitals to feel able to help. We are running out of ideas. It seems that to become a doctor you need to personally know a doctor. Or not live in Wiltshire.

I have family and friends whose children have won places at medical school. Their kids worked hard to get the exam results, impressed at the tough interviews, and got work experience through family friends or school contacts. They also went to fee paying schools, the sort of schools that doctors send their children to. My daughter attends a state school.

This is why I am annoyed. Nepotism is alive and well and it appears that I do not know the right people; I feel as if I am letting my daughter down. If she failed to gain a place because she didn’t get good enough grades in her exams, or bombed her interview, that would be unfortunate but her call. It seems that getting work experience is down to the parents. Either they somehow find the money to pay for a school that will help with such pupil aspirations, or they make sure they befriend the right people. I have managed neither so it seems that my daughter will struggle to fulfil her dream.

Even our local care home for the elderly has ignored her. I would have thought that a care home would welcome a regular, volunteer helper. I have read so many times about how the elderly are supposedly lonely in these places, yet my daughter’s requests to meet with someone to discuss the possibility of volunteering go unanswered. There are other care home options to explore but I am now wondering if we need an inside contact for that as well.

I have a Facebook friend who is vocal in her belief that writers and other creative types should not work for free. With the proliferation of internet news sites and amateur bloggers who welcome exposure she is finding that, as an experienced journalist, there are outlets who are unwilling to pay her fees. If too many people are willing to work for free then this trend will increase. She believes that content quality will deteriorate and talented, creative people will be exploited.

Last week I noticed that she was raising this issue with a sixteen year old aspiring journalist. The young lad was writing for, what I understand to be, a respected publication. He was working for free and trying to recruit other young people to do the same. Whilst I can sympathise with her argument, I think that in this particular case the young lad was to be applauded. He had managed to get his foot in the door of a competitive industry and was gaining experience. That experience is worth more to him than any pittance that young people can earn. I mean, have you seen the level of the minimum wage for a 16-18 year old?

A lack of work experience may prevent my daughter from even being considered for medical school. No matter how good a doctor she may make, because her parents don’t have the contacts, she may not be able to get that all important proof of interest in her chosen field of study. Sometimes it is not about the money; experience and contacts now seem to be the vital ingredients if a competitive industry is to be entered.

There are way more people wanting to get into medical school than there are places available. No matter how good my daughter may be she will not be missed (although if she ended up in the field of medical research who knows what she may achieve).

At an individual level though, through no fault of her own, she will miss out on attempting to achieve her dream. As her parent, I think this system sucks.

School-of-Clinical-Medicine-University-of-Cambridge    ‘The world needs dreamers and the world needs doers. But above all, the world needs dreamers who do.’