My Top Books of 2022

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.

Winter – 4

Mid-winter is the nadir of the year, and although winter does not ease its grip on the land for several months yet, at least the long, slow, lengthening of the days begins.

I have no idea how arbitrary the date of 25th December is for our celebration of Christmas day (Orthodox Christians celebrate it on January 7th, due to the difference between the Julian (old) calendar and the Gregorian (new)), but it seems to equate well to the winter solstice on 21st December, in that by the 25th it would be apparent to observers that the days were just beginning to lengthen. Is that when our ancestors celebrated? Did they all collectively hold their breath until the priests could confirm the days were getting longer again? Or did they just work on the basis of ‘it’s the Solstice today. Let’s go for it!’? I’m inclined to think it would be more the latter, with the priests declaring ‘It’s today! Time for excessive eating, drinking and unbridled sex!’

Or perhaps a bit of chanting and a sacrifice or two. Who knows?

Would our Neolithic ancestors have kept a calendar in the sense of checking off every day the way we do? I suspect not. Tools such as aligned stones would have done the job for them, confirming it was now the shortest day or the longest one. I don’t suppose there would have been any need for more refined measurements – it would be obvious to them when fruit or nuts or grain were available to be gathered. Obvious when they would need to slaughter livestock. And for that reason, I think points in time such as the solstices would be marked purely by ritual and / or celebration.

We don’t really know how they marked it, of course. We know a lot about how the Victorian writers supposed it was marked – the sacrifices, the wild dances, the bacchanalia, (and it is curious how many of their illustrations seemed to include young maidens dancing wildly in flimsy shifts) – and there is more than enough written about variations on this theme by those who see themselves today as druids, as followers of the old religion. What this old religion is, though, is a somewhat hazy and fluid animal, dragging in everything and anything from ley lines and animist gods through to Morris dancing, via witchcraft, mind-enhancing drugs, depending on who you speak to. Again, we don’t know.

In many ways, it drops comfortably into the melange of New Age beliefs, essentially being whatever the believer wants it to be…although that is something most of us could also plead guilty to, no matter what religion, if any, we follow.

It may well have been marked differently in different parts of the country (I’m really just thinking of Britain, at the moment) – different rituals in the much milder climate of the south west than in the far harsher one of the north, for example. And over the millennia they probably will have changed, being influenced by both outside factors (contact with others who did things differently, perhaps the slow change of climate) and inner ones (changing ideas about gods, relationships to ancestors, size of population).

But when Christianity came along, it substituted its own story of hope and celebration for what was there before, which is why we have it then rather than around March, which is when the internal evidence of that particular Bible story would place it. As the followers of every new religion always do, they found it impossible to prevent an old festival taking place, so instead they usurped it for their own ends.

Winter – 3

Winter would have brought a period of enforced leisure for our ancestors. Their days would have become shorter with the increasing hours of darkness, until in midwinter the daylight hours would make up only one third of the time.

All outdoor activities would effectively cease in the darkness, and even during the day the worsening weather would limit what could be achieved outdoors. But other than those tasks that could be carried out, what did they do in these times? how did they pass those long hours?

At times, no doubt, there would have been feasting and merry-making because they would have required some cheer and a sense of well-being to help them get through the winter. But they must also have been mindful of husbanding scarce food resources through those long barren months.

it may be that they played games. Although archaeology hasn’t furnished us with evidence of board games or dice or variations on these, it is still possible they would scratch, perhaps, some form of grid into the beaten soil of the floor and play games of skill or chance. It is not beyond possibility that some flat rocks with strange scorings and lines on them were used for that purpose.

With no TVs or books or computers, it might seem to us that time would have weighed heavily on their hands. But you are used to what you are used to, and they would have seen things differently. They may have looked forward to a period of relative inactivity; long hours of no talk, sitting or lying down, the mind slowing down until hours were passed in no thought. Did they then also pass unusually long hours in sleep? A kind of semi-hibernation as a way of conserving energy?

But long hours also, of talking. They must have talked: of daily life and plans and past disasters and glories, of gossip, and told stories both new and handed down from previous generations. These stories would have been incredibly powerful tools for the preservation of the tribe. With no written word, the spoken word becomes the only way knowledge is transmitted. And thus it has to be memorised, both for use and also to transmit in the future. As aids to memorising, powerful tools are repetition, rhyme and rhythm. We cannot know exactly how this was utilised, but it cannot have been long before poetry and song evolved.

It can be no coincidence, but in all the early societies we know of who had no written records, those of which we know about through records left by others – such as the Romans writing of the Britons – it is clear that poetry and song were important, and the bard a highly valued member of that society. Indeed, the writings left by Romans, who tended to denigrate anyone not Roman as barbarian and primitive, violent, and uncultured, still make it clear these ‘barbarian’ tribes valued poetry and song highly. Partly, this must have been for educational purposes, but they seem also to have been valued for themselves, for their beauty. It is taking things too far to suggest this proves the same would have applied in Neolithic times, but it is certainly possible. At some point, there would have been music. I imagine this developed out of ritual, perhaps through repetitive chanting and the beat of drums…

And so, I can imagine this at first being perhaps the preserve of the shaman, until becoming a specialised ‘post’ – that of the bard – and acquiring the value of entertainment, as well as instruction.

Myth, Science and Religion

Religion begins as science, as an attempt to make sense of the world. The birth of religion marked the dawn of humans as rational, analytical beings. This was humans moving beyond the worries of simply surviving from day to day, and reaching that point in evolution where they looked with wonder upon the world around them and asked: How did this come into existence? What is it that controls the weather and other variables? By observing the natural world around them, the cycles of day and night, the seasons, the migrations of the animals, they would have concluded that these patterns suggested a grand design and order.


An assumption would probably be made that all this was controlled by benevolent beings, but beings who might need propitiating occasionally to keep them sweet; the odd ritual here, perhaps a sacrifice of some sort there.

And if that was so, perhaps they could be propitiated in a somewhat greater way, to grant other boons?

It would not be long before someone claimed a channel to the gods to relay their desires and instructions, and so the priestly class would be born. Self-interest? Quite likely. After all, we see that in most religions today, so why not?

Religions then, over the years, spawned new religions, the spark being reinterpretation rather than inspiration.

We think we see echoes of old religions in myths. Myths are the fragments of history we know, combined with assumptions about how our ancestors acted and thought, frequently combined with scarce written evidence, which may or may not be biased or wholly inaccurate. When our written sources include stories of monsters and miracles, we should probably be advised to treat them cautiously.

Myth-makers frequently come with an agenda, although depending upon your point of view that is not necessarily a bad thing. If you are looking for a scientific analysis of the lives of our ancestors, it’s probably best to give myth a wide berth. Or at least to be very, very, careful what you take from it. But in a way, it does provide an alternative world view that many find preferable to both the stark realities of day to day life, as well as the cold dead hand of religion. After all, if you’re using your imagination, it’s easy to plan your myth-world much the way you’d like it.

And perhaps myth does offer us a way of getting inside the heads of those people, at least superficially.

One assumption we can make is that there would be similarities in the thought processes of those people, with the thought processes of us today. It is perfectly reasonable to assume they would react in similar ways to us, to pain and fear, to pleasure, warmth and cold. Our reaction to the unknown tends to be to populate it with characters or situations based on our experiences, and they probably did the same.

Stonehenge is aligned with the solar calendar. This we know. It’s science. And we know a considerable amount about the geography of the area around Stonehenge at the time it was built, through archaeology and science.

What we don’t know is how it was used. Just because it was aligned with the rising sun at summer solstice and the setting sun at winter solstice, does not mean we know what took place at those times. We assume our ancestors worshipped or venerated the sun there, especially at the time of the solstices, but we do not know that. Were there sacrifices? Did they hold special ceremonies connected with fertility or birth or death? Was it perhaps just like a club where they turned up now and again and got drunk and held orgies? It could be, since there is no hard evidence for anything.

Believers in ley lines also claim it is at the centre of an intricate system of lines connecting natural (‘holy’) locations with important (‘holy’) sites such as churches, wells and crossroads. Pseudoscience? Coincidence?

Our assumptions, though, lead us to think that because of the immense effort required to build the structure, it must have been an incredibly important site, and we are surely justified in concluding important ceremonies were enacted there.

Whatever they were.