A Re-vamp

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I’ve had a bit of a tidy up on here, the better to reflect where I am at the moment. Don’t worry, it’s quite safe to come in! I won’t ask you to grab a broom or a dishcloth or anything like that, although if you’re any good at writing advertising blurb, I’ve a couple of books here that could do with some professional input!

I’ve updated the My Writings and About pages, and added a page for My Published Books.

You may also notice I’ve tidied up the sidebar a little.

This has nothing to do with spring cleaning or new year’s resolutions, it’s more about attempting to present a reasonably professional impression to any new visitors to the site, as well as to my regular follower, of course.

And now I’m going to take a bit of a break from all social media for a little while. Hence I’m turning comments off for this post.

Review of Wilding by Isabella Tree

I wrote this just over a month ago, and never got around to posting it, for some reason.

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I have just finished reading Wilding, and I am almost overwhelmed with several feelings. The first is that I need to come back to this book after a month or two and re-read it, since there is just so much to take in. The second is that this book presents so much information that appears new to us in the twenty first century, yet was common knowledge some fifty to a hundred years ago and was hiding all the while in plain sight, as well as some new conclusions that were also, really, hiding in plain sight. And third, a feeling this might just be one of the most important books I have ever read.

This means I am attempting what appears to be ridiculous, and that is to review a book I don’t think I am yet ready to fully appreciate. But first impressions count for a lot, so here goes, although to keep this brief enough for one blog post, I can hardly even skim the surface.

Knepp is an estate in Sussex, England, which the author and her husband farmed for many years the way most farming is done nowadays – intensively. But as returns gradually diminished and the soil became more and more degraded despite the application of the usual chemical cocktails, they decided in desperation to take a leap of faith and re-wild part of the farm. The reasoning was they were going broke farming traditionally, so something new was needed – perhaps something revolutionary. What had they got to lose?

It was a huge learning curve for them, and many of the steps they took had unforeseen consequences. By allowing the land to revert to the condition it would have been in thousands of years ago, they discovered that many of our birds and insects, for example, actually favour environments and foods different to those we have assumed they do. Interestingly, on reading books written a hundred years or so ago about, for example, birds, they were simply rediscovering what was known then, but overlooked since. Just one example – pigeons do not actually prefer the seeds of cereal crops, but wild grass seed. The fact that they eat so much cereal seed today is due to the destruction of the areas of wild grass they would gave grazed before.

Probably the most important conclusion to take from this book is that a return to a more traditional, environmentally-friendly form of farming is not only better for the environment, but in the long term is even better for farmers who might be initially worried about losing out financially. It’s a win-win situation in that it would enable much wildlife to recover from its precarious, endangered, situation, it would reduce the risk of flooding during periods of heavy rainfall, restore soil fertility without pumping massive loads of chemicals onto the land and, consequently, into the water systems, and reward farmers with not only a better environment but healthier crops and stock which, in turn, would be healthier and more nutritious for the consumer.

Along with most others, I have always understood that back in the Neolithic period, when man was first making his mark upon the landscape in what would become Britain, most of the land was covered in thick, dense, woodland. I also understood that the large wildlife here – the megafauna – consisted of the likes of elk, cattle (aurochs), wild horse, mammoth and the such-like. Basically the kind of large animals that graze and browse the open, lightly wooded, grasslands of the African savanna today. Could we really not see the contradiction in this? This strongly suggests that the natural post-glacial vegetation of the British Isles was an open woodland, rich in undergrowth and grass, maintained by the regular grazing and browsing of this megafauna.

And from that, we understand that much of the habitat association we make today with our native wildlife is just plain wrong – we see birds and animals favouring a particular habitat and assume that is their preference, rather than understanding we have forced them into this by removing their real preferred ones.

There is so much to take in and think about in the this book, as I said at the beginning of this post, that a single review can only begin to hint at the mass of information to take in.

If you have any interest at all in our environment and what we have done to it, this book is an essential read.

David Nash and Impermanence

A few days ago we went to the Towner Gallery in Eastbourne, Sussex, specifically to see the Eric Ravilious paintings and prints on permanent exhibition there. There was also a large exhibition by the sculptor David Nash, who works with wood on a large scale. The fact that the whole exhibition, which also included a gallery of paintings, prints and a couple of small installations, and was intended to highlight the effects of the Climate Crisis, was the first one ever curated by Caroline Lucas M.P. of the Green Party was an added bonus for me.

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As much as I enjoyed the Ravilious, I was blown away by Nash’s sculptures. To see wooden sculptures on that scale is unusual in itself – usually that would be the preserve of stone or metal – but that very scale plays tricks with the mind and the eye. Boxes and bowls many times larger than one would expect meet the eye as you walk around the galleries, and many of the pieces also deceive where perhaps one looks to be made from several separate pieces of wood, but on closer inspection are carved from a single block like the boat shapes in the top picture, or the ‘stack’ in the one below that.

Much of the work is left rough-hewn, but even this can be deceptive. Some pieces have been carefully finished to give that appearance.

Sculpture is the art form that seems to exist to interact with the natural world. A number of the works here are based on natural forms, but there are also stories of projects Nash has undertaken where his sculpture is either living, in the form of carefully planted and managed groves of trees, or interact in other ways.

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‘Boulder’ is one such project. One of the first large-scale pieces Nash made was to cut a boulder-shaped chunk from a tree (illustrated at the top of Nash’s charcoal drawing above) in 1978. This was then transported to a stream near to where he lives and works, in the Welsh hills, and rolled into the water. Since then, it has slowly made its way downstream until it reached the estuaries and inlets of the sea, where it finally disappeared in 2015. Nash documented its travels in a series of photographs and films made regularly all the while, and presented in the exhibition as a film.

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Nash’s sketch of a Larch trunk

It feels as though there is something of this meeting of art and the natural world in old ruins overrun with scrub and grass. They frequently seem to have a sculptural quality that complements the landscape around them, in a way that more pristine buildings do not.

And I like the sense that an artwork, like a ruined building, is not permanent and that eventually the natural world will absorb it back into itself. That it will reclaim it. Perhaps the artist and the environmentalist in me merge here.

My own sculptures are in wood, and some of them are set out in our garden where they gradually degrade over the years through the action of sun and rain, until they appear strangely like some weird plants that have sprouted unexpectedly there.

Green Christmas

Yesterday was beautiful.

I went out for a walk in the morning as the overnight mist was lifting, and the air was cool but not cold, under a sunny, clear sky filled with birdsong. I felt a powerful sense of renewal in the world.

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There is little new growth yet, but the trees were covered in buds. Although we are not long past the shortest day of the year, the ridiculously mild temperature and the sun which felt warm on my face, reminded me that there is one more minute of daylight today than there was yesterday, and tomorrow there will be one more than that. And it will not be long before each day gains an extra two minutes, then three, then four…

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The air smelt clearer and cleaner than it had for months, and I felt like beginning a long journey. I yearned to be walking on the Downs, or heading through fields and woods with my destination nothing more elaborate than a bed in a basic bunkhouse or hostel, and somewhere to get a meal, preferably in a tiny village surrounded by hills and streams and woods. This is a feeling I get every Spring, that it is a time to explore more of the world.

Everything seems to be fresh. I need to do something new, something positive. To plant some trees, perhaps (always a good idea).

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I thought of Christmas. This year, we had a string of lights in one room, with handfuls of greenery as the only other decorations. This, for me, is a way to make sense of the season. It has nothing to do with religion, unless it be the ancient religions that worshipped the sun and the moon and celebrated the turn of the year at the Winter Solstice when the seasons begin their long, slow journey back towards the promise of Spring and the harvests of Autumn. A simple wisdom, in tune with the natural world.

I do not, I cannot – I will not – associate it with any other form of mythical gods. For me, it is all about the natural cycle of the seasons, simple and uncomplicated.

And I particularly like the period when Christmas is definitely over, and we’re only just getting into the new year. Everything seems to have this feeling of renewal, which was the whole point of the Yule festival. A time to look forward and plan for the coming year. This will be where the tradition of New Year Resolutions comes from, no doubt.

This year, I shall resolve to try and simplify my life further, and to live more in tune with the natural world.

New Year’s ‘Honours’

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Back in the day…

I need to re-post this.

It will soon be the new year, and here in the UK that means the queen’s New Year honours list, handing out awards to the ‘Great and the Good’.

In theory, there’s nothing wrong with this, except that lots of the recipients get these things because they are either rich, sycophantic, or some sort of useless preening celebrity. And there is already considerable controversy over at least one of the undeserving b*stards who is getting one.

But I digress.

The particular problem that I have is with the OBE and MBE. Just to remind everyone, OBE stands for the Order of the BRITISH EMPIRE and MBE stands for Member of the BRITISH EMPIRE.

The time to scrap these highly insulting and redundant ‘honours’ is long overdue!

Storm Light

It’s time for me to take another of my breaks from Social Media. For my sanity, as much as anything else. I’ll leave the comments open, and promise to answer anyone who leaves a comment, sooner or later.

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I will not be idle! I have some work to do on this site, as well as a lot of writing to catch up on, but I need to find a bit of time for life in general, too.

I’ll leave you with this poem.

Snapshot.

 

Thin, wind-threaded branches:

Spilled black ink against storm light

Rook-song echoes from cold rocks

Patches of rain-lain foot-snaring nettles

In wind-rolled grass

 

My luck,

Emerging from the holloway just then,

From beneath wind-whipped trees

Into involuntarily sucked breath of

Wind-ecstasy.

 

My luck.

 

If you liked this poem, you may like the poems in my new collection The Night Bus, available here.

The Christmas Post

For my Christmas Post this year I’m going to do the environmentally correct thing and recycle a post from a four years ago.

The First Christmas Present

The old fellow with the white beard and the red jacket leaned queasily over the side of the sleigh, watching the snow-covered fields passing below. For a while, the moon was peering out between the clouds and he travelled over a scene of sparkling silver, although the sight did nothing to cheer him up.

He hated heights.

He hated elves, now, too. He’d never met one before today, but he knew now that he hated them. The smug little tossers sat right at the back of the sleigh, eating the mince pies that had been left out for him, and tittering whenever he took a wrong turning.

And he hated children. He especially hated children.

Ever since they took away his benefits and told him he would now be better off, he had struggled for money. Now it was November, and he had decided he had to get a Christmas job. Not that he was looking forward to long nights at the sorting office, or lugging a bloody great bag of Christmas cards from door to door. But it seemed he’d left it rather late, and there was nothing left. At least, nothing for someone of his age. Eventually, he found himself in a tiny little room on the second floor of a run-down office building in a backstreet, the home of an agency that he’d never heard of and with a staff, it appeared, consisting of one gentleman who he initially took to be a caretaker and who introduced himself as Mr Nicol.

‘You’ll do nicely,’ he said. With time-shift, it meant that there was no need to cram all the deliveries into a single night; they could be spread out over the whole year. In fact, they tended to use two of them, these days.

‘Two of what?’ His mind reeled.

‘Why, Santas, of course. But even then,’ Mr Nicol went on, ‘it’s difficult when one goes sick for two weeks. And so this is where you come in. What is a problem,’ he explained, ‘is E.U. Working Time Directive number seven. This rules out night work for anyone over the age of fifty. So you’ll have to do the deliveries during the day. Still, time-shift takes care of that.’

He still didn’t entirely understand, but he took the job.

The SatNav was crap. It took twice as long. The first time he tried it, he was terrified to find the sleigh suddenly hurtling between buildings that seemed to be no more than a couple of feet apart, at what must have been close on three hundred miles an hour. It then banked and turned in a tiny back garden, subjecting him to a force of about a hundred g, and then shot back down the same terrible alleyway. It then parked itself on the rooftop next to the one that he had just left.

The elves tittered into their hands.

He quickly found it better to just leave it to the reindeer to sort out. They obviously knew what they were doing.

And then it was impossible to tell how much time had gone past. If he noticed the time in any of the houses they visited, it never made any sense. One clock said ten fifteen. Some while later, he noticed one that said nine forty two. The next said four thirty. For a while, be began to check the time at each house, but quickly gave up when the times appeared to be completely random. He shrugged. More of this time-shift stuff, he supposed. It made it very hard to decide when he should be on lunch break, and he made a mental note to speak to a union rep. at some point.

Another house. Impossible to know how many he had visited. After the thing with the clocks, he was even wondering whether he still had to visit some of the ones he’d already visited.

No, that was too confusing. He shrugged again, and stepped out of the sleigh. The elves followed him with their sacks, and then they all stepped forward, and next thing they were standing in a hallway, just inside the closed front door. Yes, that was weird, too. The elves obviously knew where they were going; he followed them into a darkened front room where a little glass of liquid stood on the table beside a plate with two mince pies. There was a little note that said ‘For Santa, love Benjy’.

He dropped the mince pies into the bag that he wore around his waist for the purpose, and poured the sherry into the flask. He hated sherry, anyway, so the little tossers were welcome to that. With luck, they’d fall out of the sleigh at some point.

The elves trooped noisily out of the room and up the stairs, reached the landing and opened the first door on the right. Inside, a child was asleep in the bed, a large pillow case draped across the duvet.

‘Greedy little bastard,’ he thought. He picked up the pillow case and held it open, while one of the elves seemingly poured in presents randomly from his sack. And then he froze. There was someone coming up the stairs; that wasn’t supposed to happen! All this time-shift stuff was meant to mean that everyone would be asleep from the moment he entered the house until he left again. It all happened in less than a fraction of a nanosecond, in any case.

The footsteps came nearer, and then stopped. A small child appeared at the doorway, but all that he noticed were her sad eyes. She did not seem surprised to see him, nor did she appear overjoyed.

‘You never come to me,’ she said in a quiet, flat voice.

‘I visit all the children!’ he replied, struggling to sound jovial.

‘No. You never come to me. You never have.’ He felt himself squirming under her steady gaze.

‘What’s your name?’ he said at last.

‘Mary. I live with my mother. In one of those flats over there.’ She pointed out of the window towards a few yellow lights that seemed to randomly puncture the darkness.

He glanced at the elves, who shrugged unconcernedly, then sighed and pulled a list from his back pocket and put his reading glasses on.

‘I’m sure we, I mean I, do. What’s the address?’ She stepped towards him and gently took the list from his hand, looked at it for a minute and then pointed.

‘There. But you don’t go to our flat; number three.’

He ran his eyes down the list, clicked his tongue irritably, and then looked a second time, certain he must have missed her name. But no, it definitely wasn’t there. He looked up, to meet her gaze again. Oh, hell. He could take one present from, say, three or four others. They would never miss them, and no one would know.

‘We’d know!’ The first elf glowered at him.

‘You can’t do that!’ the other one pouted. He looked from one to the other, and then back to the little girl, and came to a decision. He reached into Benjy’s pillowcase, picked out a couple of presents and held them out to her. She did not move for a moment, but then she gently smiled, reached out, and took the nearest one. Then she turned and left the room, and he heard her footsteps going down the stairs. He darted out to the landing, but already she had vanished.

‘You’ll be in big trouble,’ a spiteful little voice behind him said happily. He said nothing but did the thing with his fingers he had been taught, and they were back in the sleigh again.

It had been their last call. Now he was watching the elves smirking and whispering to each other, as the reindeer ran smoothly through the clouds. Casually, his hand strayed towards the SatNav, and he pressed the ‘over-ride’ button. The sleigh stopped immediately, and spun round a hundred and eighty degrees, catching the elves completely by surprise and throwing them out of the sleigh and into the night sky.

He hated elves.

I Am The Wind

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I clatter dry leaves along dusty footpaths

And bear burdens far greater

Than mere birds and clouds.

 

On high, cold, moors I blow

In the hollow eyes of sheep, inert and prone,

And ruffle the hissing grass over barrows

Of long-dead chieftains.

 

From the fading fires of the sick and the dying

I blow prayers in the smarting eyes

Of disinterested and uncaring gods.

 

I steal your thoughts.

The Sussex Downs Murder – Not Really A Review

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For anyone who loves the English South Downs – and whodunnits – this book makes an interesting read.

On the one hand, it is a fairly average 1930’s detective murder mystery, although I have certainly read much worse, but on the other it provides some marvellous insights into the South Downs in the area specifically around Chanctonbury Ring in that time, which is really what took my interest.

Personally, I prefer murder mysteries involving ‘normal’ people, rather than the typical country house full of assorted Colonels and ladies and royalty and such-like, so popular at the time – other than the thought of bumping off the Upper Classes, of course! But this book delivers in that it is set on a downland farm, where the farmer goes missing, believed murdered. It even has, as a cover, an adaptation of one of the fabulous Leslie Carr railway posters of the 1930’s – what’s not to like?

The introduction mentions its ‘sense of place’, and the writing seems to me especially good at conveying an accurate feel of the landscape. One thing that comes over very strongly is the emptiness of the countryside at that time. The Downs have been sparsely inhabited since Roman times; before then, much of the population chose to live on the higher, drier, lands of the chalklands of South and South East England, away from the forested and frequently marshy lower areas where travel was difficult and clearance very hard work. After the arrival of the Romans, however, all this changed, and since then the chalklands have been left largely to a small population living mainly by farming sheep.

We now have many people visiting for leisure purposes and on fine days popular routes such as the walk to Birling Gap from Eastbourne (or from convenient car parks much closer!) may easily see hundreds of visitors striding along the footpaths and hanging off the edge of the cliffs taking selfies (other stupid ways to kill oneself are available). On the same day, though, nearby footpaths may see no visitors at all. It is still a sparsely populated area.

John Bude evokes this sense of emptiness well. His descriptions of the roads and paths on and around the area really allow the reader to feel this. His characters walk the lanes and roads of the downs frequently without meeting anyone else on their journeys. Farms and houses are ‘isolated’, and even at a time when most people would travel by public transport to cover any distance, the population is so small that when questioned by the detective on the case, a bus conductor can remember who was on his bus several weeks before.

There are four lime kilns near Washington, on the edge of the area described in the story, which I suspect were the inspiration for the lime kiln featured on the farm in the book. No spoilers, but you might well guess their relevance to a murder mystery.

But it is the descriptions of the roads and paths that particularly take my interest, roads and paths virtually empty of footfall or traffic even during the day, emphasising how lightly populated the area was, and still is today, to a degree. Other than popular footpaths such as the long distance South Downs Way, and those footpaths running between popular tourist spots, it is still easy to find solitude in this quiet area of the otherwise heavily populated South East England.

The Night Bus Has Arrived!

We’ve been away for a couple of days, and in that time the proof copy of The Night Bus arrived.

I’ve read it through to check for any errors, and am relieved to report I found none, so the paperback copy is good to go!

Both it and the e-book version are available on Amazon, and can be found on my author page here.

Just time to order a few dozen (or more) for Christmas!

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