Tunbridge Wells now boasts a literary festival. Over four days this year it hosts talks from well-known writers such as Michael Rosen, Michael Parkinson and Sheila Hancock. But not just the big names.
Yesterday was the day local writers could book a table and hawk their wares. It’s been some time since I’ve taken part in one of these, in fact, I’ve only done it once before, I think. When I used to regularly have paintings in exhibitions, I spent a lot of time essentially doing the same thing – chatting to other painters, talking to members of the public who might buy a painting and generally ‘networking’ (I still find that a slightly silly word). Although talking about Making Friends with the Crocodile did have another effect – it reminded me again that I’m beginning to feel I ought to take one final trip to India, sometime.
Anyway, I think I should probably do one of these more often. Did I sell armfuls of books? No, but I sold a few. I had some good conversations with members of the public and other writers, It also seems to have the effect of energising my commitment to writing, which is something that happened to my painting at exhibitions, too. Talking about my books and projects encourages me to focus afresh on them and, basically, get my finger out and get on with it, which can’t be a bad thing.
I had a conversation with a blogging friend a few days ago, in the course of which she asked me if I knew why it was that so many Westerners seemed drawn to Eastern beliefs, especially the more ‘esoteric’ ones.
I briefly mentioned the fascination the East has held for Westerners throughout history, and the fact that many in the West have drawn away from traditional religion – specifically Christianity – in the last fifty or sixty years especially, and that leaves a void: when you have been brought up within a belief system, that needs to be replaced by something. The Beatles nudged a whole generation in that direction by visiting the Maharishi in Rishikesh in the 1960’s / 1970’s, and there followed a whole slew of books on the subject, many seeming to want to outdo the others in sheer weirdness. But even before that there had been a lot of interest in both Buddhism and Hinduism from the late Victorian period onward, with a number of popular books available.
I can’t claim to be immune to this, either. I also rejected Christianity long ago, but felt I needed something to take its place despite deciding the concept of gods had no place in my life. The world is a wonderful and incredibly beautiful and fascinating place, all of which is explained perfectly well by science. But I do need something to satisfy the spiritual part of me – a part that, surely, all of us have?
I have read a lot about Buddhism, and for a long while thought of myself as a Buddhist. In a way, I still do, although I can’t entirely buy into the belief sets of any of the three major schools of Buddhism. But I did read Buddhism Without Beliefs by Stephen Batchelor. I can’t remember the details of the book, but that is unimportant, it’s the message of the title in this case. I like Buddhism. I like its core message, which pared down to basics is simply to be kind to everyone and everything. It is the only religion I know that has no need for gods. Oh, sure, they’re there if you want them, but no one is ordering you to have one.
This doesn’t have to be ‘esoteric’ or ‘eastern’, either. It can apply just as well here in the west. And it doesn’t require sacred writings or rituals, I find poetry or a walk in the woods does just as well for me.
I’m listening to the heavy rain as I write this – which is something that seems to happen a lot at the moment, but is something I find particularly soothing. I wonder at the origins of this; is it something primeval, hidden deep in my DNA from the times we lived in caves or rough shelters and we could take comfort from the fact we were snug, and perhaps large sharp-toothed beasts were taking a similar break somewhere and not out looking for early humans to eat? Or is it perhaps just a forgotten memory of a very calming experience I once had, which my subconscious has decided to hang onto for my benefit, but without telling me why? I am aware of a few of the times I’ve experienced it, such as lying in a tent at night hearing the pounding of the rain on the canvas, with a wonderful feeling of warmth and snugness. Then there was another time in the mountains of Spain, coming across an abandoned cottage just as a rainstorm hit and spending the next half an hour or so just sitting on a bench and leaning against the wall, listening to the rain and thinking. I’m sure there must be many more.
In these rainstorms, I feel as though I’m immersed in nature – something that always makes me feel calm and relaxed, and which is but a step from what the Japanese call Forest Bathing. Forest Bathing is essentially taking a walk in woodland, using all your senses to connect with that environment. This reminds me strongly of meditation, especially meditation as I learned it in a Buddhist environment, which is where I’m going with all this rambling. If I have an actual religion now, it has to be nature. A belief in nature as something important, beneficial and precious. I wouldn’t ‘worship’ nature – ‘worship’, for me, has connotations of supplicants on bended knees with hands clasped together intoning religious dogma and praying, but I do have strong feelings of respect and admiration for nature, which I suppose you could call the same thing.
It just seems a pity that more people don’t seem able to accord it the same respect.
Just a short post, today. I’ve posted about Ladakh in the Northern India Himalaya several times before, and was reading a couple of these posts back this morning when it struck me I’d written, but never posted, reviews of a couple of books that did much to inspire me to travel there. These are really brief reviews, put up mainly to encourage anyone who might have any interest in Ladakh to read them and then perhaps visit this most remarkable and beautiful place for themselves.
Ancient Futures by Helena Norberg-Hodge. This book is what amounts to a long essay on the culture, history, peoples and development of Ladakh. Helena Norberg-Hodge was one of the first people to travel to Ladakh when it opened up in the 1970’s, where she learned to speak the language and got to know the people as few outsiders have ever done before or since. Returning regularly each year for six months at a time, she watched as Ladakh began to ‘develop’ a Westernised society at the expense of its own centuries-old sophisticated rural culture. And watched in what amounts to horror. This book charts the so-called progress made by Western ideas there, and how much is being done to halt the worst excesses by careful encouragement of traditional means of farming and living by the Ladakhis themselves. Both depressing and inspiring, this is by any measure an outstanding book.
There is also an absolutely beautiful video, available on YouTube, which was based on this book and which I would strongly encourage anyone who has any interest in this area and its history, ecology, and development to watch.
A Journey in Ladakh by Andrew Harvey. In 1981 Andrew Harvey travelled to Ladakh in order to study the Tibetan Buddhist society there. He found a fascinating community of gentle people beginning to collide with Western values but retaining a deep, sincere belief in their Buddhist culture. Part spiritual journey, part guide to Ladakh, this book has been a favourite of mine for over thirty years and the dog-eared, tatty copy on my bookshelf was a major reason for my travelling there myself.
And if you’d like to read my previous posts on Ladakh, you can find the main ones here and here.
That’s something that’s never happened to me before. I was introduced to someone today who told me ‘Oh, I’m just reading your book! I really like the way it deals with the role of women, how they’re treated.’ They then told me they enjoyed the Indian setting too, and I was chuffed, I tell you, chuffed.
I suppose, then, this is as good a time as any to remind you copies are available on Amazon, but if you fancy a signed copy, then head over to my Etsy shop and I’ll be happy to squiggle all over the title page for you. Heck, if I’m feeling generous I might even slip one of my watercolour leaf paintings in too.
That’s the sort of thing that happens when I’m in a good mood.
I always have mixed feelings when I sell a piece of my artwork that I’m fond of. On the one hand, I’m delighted someone likes it enough to want to buy it, but part of me doesn’t want to let it go. After all, we make artworks primarily to please ourselves (or am I being naive?), and I was pleased with this when I finished it.
But, it was in the shop to sell, so I can’t really complain. And I’m resigned to it going, now. Indeed, it’s already been dispatched and I hope it will give pleasure in its new home. The purchaser appears to be an Italian priest, and so it should be in an appropriate setting.
My sharp-eyed viewer will have noticed I’ve posted a few book reviews but almost nothing about my own writing recently. It’s still rather hit and miss, but I’ve been working on a number of poems over the last few months which have gone quite well. Or so I think. But I’ve not put any of them up here on the blog this time and in case you’re wondering why that is, I’ve decided it’s high time I tried submitting some poems to magazines and journals and they’re not usually interested in work that has been previously published on blogs or social media.
This does mean buying a few books and magazines to find out whether my style would fit in with what the publisher likes, but that’s no bad thing. It means I’ve got even more poetry books to read!
In this book Matthew Green charts the decline and eventual abandonment of eight British settlements; a diverse selection ranging from the Stone Age settlement of Skara Brae in the Orkneys, through several Medieval villages and cities and up to the twentieth century, to an area emptied of its inhabitants during the Second World War and a village that was abandoned when the valley it inhabited was flooded to create a reservoir – although in that case ‘abandoned’ is the wrong word, since that particular story is a harrowing tale of folk driven from their homes at the diktat of decision makers far away, not even of their own country.
In each chapter he tells the story of the decline of the settlement drawing upon written records for all but the oldest, Skara Brae, for which he relies upon archaeological evidence, and some of the more recent, for which he uses a mixture of eye-witness accounts and the testimonies of those who had heard their stories at first hand. Of all the stories here, that of Dunwich is probably the most famous, with its myths of bells from long-drowned churches being heard far out under the waves, although the popular description of Dunwich as a ‘drowned city’ is inaccurate, as it fell away into the sea as the cliffs beneath it were eroded away. But much is known of Dunwich, with many extant records and maps of the city, enabling Matthew to chart its decline and eventual end in some detail.
Hirta is the biggest island of the St Kilda archipelago and was occupied for at least two thousand years until 1930, when the final thirty six islanders voted to leave. By then, most of the families and younger residents had left for the mainland, and their traditional way of life had become unsustainable. Until a couple of hundred years ago the islanders were virtually cut off from the rest of Scotland, due to the distance and the difficulty of making a landing at the island. Existing almost exclusively on a diet of seabirds (remarkably, they were apparently lousy fishermen!), the islanders lived a remarkably difficult life and it is no surprise that as they were exposed more and more to the outside world, more and more of the islanders opted to leave for a better life.
I found I was drawn deep into these stories not just because I found them so fascinating, but also because of Matthew’s skilful and easy style. A very well researched and beautifully presented book, I’d definitely give it five stars out of five.
Well, my favourite twelve, anyway. One a month, if you like, although that wasn’t how I read them. Or perhaps the twelve book reviews of Christmas – oops, no. Missed that one. Anyway…these are some of the books I read in 2022, not books that were first published this year. But I seem to have read so many good books in 2022, it’s difficult to make a choice and this has ended up being a little arbitrary.
Stranger in the Mask of a Deer by Richard Skelton. It has been a long time since I last read something new and immediately put it into my top ten reads, but this remarkable work is straight in there. A few weeks later I had to re-read it, captivated by its dream-like quality.
It is essentially a poetic narrative ranging between the present day and Palaeolithic Britain, told by humans both ancient and modern, and by non-human voices. Its essence is life and ritual, the connection between humans and animals, between humans and the land they occupy, and the elements surrounding them.
The remains of deer skulls complete with antlers, but with eye holes punched into the skull so they might be worn as masks, have been found at Star Carr in Yorkshire, dating to approximately eleven thousand years ago. It is presumed these masks would have been used in rituals…
Millstone Grit by Glyn Hughes. This very readable book was originally published in 1975, describing a fifty mile walk the author took through East Lancashire and the West Riding of Yorkshire; an exploration of the moorlands and villages alongside the industrial towns, all of them suffering in their own ways from the effects of the loss of traditional industries in that area. It is about Hughes’ attachment to this area he came to live in, the clash between human and non-human landscapes, and about working class history in these places, but above all else about some most remarkable people he meets along the way.
I re-read The Old Weird Albion by Justin Hopper. This is a book about tracing a mystery in his family’s past, beginning with a woman preparing to throw herself off Beachy Head, a notorious spot for suicides, but also about the effects the landscape of the South Downs has had upon people.
This is a book I reviewed on this blog when I first read it three years ago – the link is here – and I’ll just put an extract of that review here: ‘He has a gift for sifting and selecting the weird in these relationships, not just at sites that might be naturally expected to encourage the weird, such as Chanctonbury Ring, high on the Downs above Steyning or in old ruined buildings, but also in humdrum blocks of flats in modern developments. He references modern phenomena like crop circles and throughout there is the presence of ‘magic’, in the sense of a natural force. Many of the people he meets are an eccentric mix of the weird, too, although I choose this description carefully, largely in the old, original meaning of the word of ‘fate’ or ‘destiny’.’
Another re-read, this time of a book I first read some forty years ago. The Spire by William Golding is a novel set in medieval England, in an unspecified city somewhere in the south. It is a story essentially about pride and hubris, about the Dean of a church determined to have built a great spire on his church, despite warnings that the foundations will not be able to support such a colossal structure. The ending seems predictable and yet that is not really where the story is going, being more concerned with the characters inhabiting that space.
The setting is the church and environs, and it evokes the feel of the ecclesiastic medieval as successfully as The Name of the Rose does. One test of how good a novel set in historical times is, is whether it transports the reader easily to that setting. I certainly found it did.
I bought Hemisphere by Pete Green at an event where poets read excerpts from their work. It is effectively a poetic journey around the northern hemisphere, beginning in Scotland, the journey approximating to the latitude of the arctic circle. The writing conveys a tremendous sense of place and feels very right for the cold edgelands described.
Holloway by Robert MacFarlane and Dan Richards, with illustrations by Stanley Donwood is a short book, describing a journey MacFarlane, Donwood, and Richards made in Dorset, essentially a revisit of a trip MacFarlane made previously with Roger Deakin for an earlier book, exploring holloways. Holloways, often known as sunken tracks or paths, are old – frequently very old – paths made over the centuries by the passage of feet, both human and animal, and perhaps by the wheels of wagons and carts. It is a short journey – perhaps ‘experience’ would be a better word – describing wild camps and walking, cycling and visiting old buildings; in some ways, perhaps it is really no more than a short camping trip, undertaken by a group of men acting out a boyhood adventure. The writing, though, by both MacFarlane and Richards is exquisitely poetic and Donwood’s illustrations never less than beautiful.
Notes on the Sonnets by Luke Kennard.
‘Luke Kennard recasts Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets as a series of anarchic prose poems set in the same joyless house party.
A physicist explains dark matter in the kitchen. A crying man is consoled by a Sigmund Freud action figure. An out-of-hours doctor sells phials of dark red liquid from a briefcase. Someone takes out a guitar.
Wry, insolent and self-eviscerating, Notes on the Sonnets riddles the Bard with the anxieties of the modern age, bringing Kennard’s affectionate critique to subjects as various as love, marriage, God, metaphysics and a sad horse.’
The Rings of Saturn by W. G. Sebald had been on my ‘to-read’ list for a long time, but I finally got around to picking up a copy this year. On one level, this is a walking journey taken by the author along the Suffolk coast in the early 1990’s, describing both places and people he comes across, but really, it is much deeper than that and is a psychogeographical work par excellence. Throughout the journey, we are never quite certain whether events are happening to the author, or have happened in the past, or perhaps to someone else at some other time. He goes off in unexpected directions, literary, historical, and physical, exploring a wide and eclectic range of subjects yet throughout there is a cohesion to the narrative.
The Birthday Letters are a not-quite-series of poems Ted Hughes wrote to his wife the American poet Sylvia Plath after her death. Personally, I find them to be probably his most accessible poems and wonder whether that says something about me, although this isn’t the time to go into that. Theirs was a difficult relationship, and her suicide (as well as that of a later lover of his) frequently colours people’s opinions of Hughes. Inevitably, these are often extremely personal poems, so much so that at times I feel a slight discomfort reading them, as if I’d opened someone’s private correspondence by accident, but Hughes wrote them as an attempt to restore her to him, and published them almost for the public to read as his own account of her life and death.
Sadly, Roger Deakin only wrote three books, of which Notes From Walnut Tree Farm is compiled from diary entries he kept during the last six years of his life. In these notes, he recorded his day to day life on the farm, walks on nearby Mellis Common, the yearly cycle of the natural world all around him, and his thoughts on literature, the importance of nature, and musings on the past.
Our Place by Mark Cocker is an exploration of the history of environmental thought and politics in Great Britain and, especially, the way forward. It asks pertinent questions like who owns the land and why? And who benefits from green policies? Not afraid to be radical in its suggestions, it asks why there is such a disconnect between the British public’s sympathy for and championing of the countryside and the reality of its current condition.
Digging up Britain by Mike Pitts tells the story of Britain’s history and prehistory in ten astonishing excavations. As someone who has always had an interest in history and pre-history, I found this book a timely reminder of the huge strides taken forward in our understanding of the past over the last ten years or so, due to such important tools as DNA analysis as well as the painstaking work of those who excavate and interpret these sites. There are some remarkable tales in this book.
I’ve been feeling a bit flat recently, although that’s not uncommon at this time of the year.
I know I’m currently craving solitude and simplicity, wanting to spend some time somewhere a little remote. An area of moorland, such as Dartmoor or the Pennines, would do me very nicely. Even better if there were some woodlands nearby, too. Although there would be no people around (ideally), there would be wildlife to watch and hills and valleys and those woods to explore. Maybe some interesting ruins nearby…
Simplicity, that’s what I’d want. Somewhere with no wifi, no TV, no phone signal or even radio. A decent supply of food and a few beers because, as Jerome K Jerome said, thirst is a dangerous thing. A fire to sit beside in the evening. Somewhere small and basic with no luxuries.
I’d take some books. Several sorts, so I could pick one up or swap to another depending upon my mood. At least one book of poetry, perhaps Stranger in the Mask of a Deer which I read for the first time a few months ago, and then re-read recently because it was so damned good. Maybe a Seamus Heaney collection, including the ‘Station Island’ sequence of poems, or a collection by Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko for the marvellous long poem Zima Junction. Maybe I’d just take all of those.
I’d include some sort of detective novel for pure escapism, then one or two books by the likes of Robert Macfarlane – books that would inform me about the landscape I had decided to inhabit for a while.
I wouldn’t just be walking and exploring, or reading. I have a few poems I need to finish off, one about salmon and one about the Winter Solstice. In this environment I think I’d be inspired to finish them, hopefully write some more.
Having read Some Kind of Fifty‘s post on the subject of how we get through the coming seasons, I got to thinking about how I deal with the short, dark, days of winter myself. I am sure I am affected by SAD, but there are some facets of autumn and winter I enjoy and I have a number of interests that help to pull me through those times until spring is truly here.
Obviously, we have autumn colours and frequently unexpectedly fine, sunny, and warm days to cheer us, but even when it’s cold and the weather less than hospitable, the days short and the nights long, I still like to get outside. With decent cold / wet weather clothing there is still a huge amount of pleasure to be had from walking in the autumn and winter. I love the many contrasts – a tree that is luxuriant and full of life in the summer sunshine may be stark, spectral, and spooky in the winter, maybe looming darkly through a thick mist. Photography seems, to my mind, more interesting in these times.
And that weather – rain! I love rain! I’m happy to be out in it, but love it especially when I’m indoors and listening to it pound on the roof. Clouds – thick and grey and looming low and moody. So atmospheric! Hopefully, too, we get some snow…
But it’s not all just going out walking. We tend to gather together indoors far more once the short days come around. Sitting around log fires in pubs, chatting, drinking beer, or at home with the log burner lit and a book and music, a time of thick soups and hot bread, casseroles, and hot drinks.
And, of course, we get those unexpected warm, clear, sunny days now and then.
Yule – the winter solstice, the midwinter point, has a great attraction for me. I think of Christmas in terms of Yule, especially as we don’t know exactly when Yule was celebrated. I suspect it was around the 25th December, since by that time carefully observing when the sun rose and set would have told the ancients that the days were indeed beginning to lengthen again. I have no Christian belief, but to celebrate that point where the days begin to draw out again makes perfect sense to me. So cut some winter greenery for decoration, get the fire going, and celebrate in whatever way seems most appropriate for you. In my case, music, books, and a few beers, naturally!
And then there will be spring, and by the end of March the days will already be longer again than the nights. I might even write a blog post on the subject.
Often, it still feels like summer at this time of year, but I feel autumn has truly arrived now. This morning I walked a path I haven’t walked for a week or more to find the sun was that much lower than it had been and I was constantly having to shade my eyes. It’s all about colours, now. Colours and the cooling of the world. Russet. Browns. Fading drab greens. Yellows and orange. Autumn can be beautiful, although it can also be dull and dreary and occasionally fierce. But mornings often arrive with an added sparkle, with heavy dews on cobwebs and leaves glinting in the low sun, hedgerows of thistledown, rosehips, and hawthorn. There is usually a freshness in the air, especially in the mornings, which has been absent for most of the summer, that invariably lifts my spirits.
I like summer, of course I do, but the arrival of autumn reminds me in some ways of the arrival of spring. In spring we have the stirring of life after a long period of hibernation, whereas the beginning of autumn always feels to me like the start of a new, second, outburst of life. Many plants have a sudden growth spurt, fruits and nuts and berries swell and glow and are plundered by birds and beasts. It is still warm, warm enough to bask in the sun and to feel hot walking up even quite gentle hills.
The Equinox occurs on Friday (at 2.03am in the UK, to be precise) and after this the hours of darkness outnumber the hours of daylight until the end of next March (counting dusk and pre-dawn as night time). After this, the year always feels to me quite different, even if the weather from the one day to the next is much the same. I can already feel myself slipping into a different place; the logs for the burner have arrived and have been stacked ready for use. The apples have been picked, shortly to be wrapped and stored away. Much in the garden is in the process of being cut back for winter. When the days are short and the nights are long, there will be many books to read, lots of music to listen to, a few beers to drink, and many long conversations to be had.
But also many long walks as well, I hope. I love winter too.