Wednesday 29 June 2022

Review: The Natural History of Selborne by Gilbert White

 I was lucky to have purchased a beautiful edition of The Natural History of Selborne, the 1988 Century edition with good, heavy stock in the paper and plenty of illustrations and woodcuts. I read it in advance of the Dr Johnson Reading Circle’s read of Gilbert White’s biography, a man who I’d never heard of before his biography was on the reading list, so I read his book.

I hadn’t realised what a ‘thing’ this book was, how influential to nature writing in general, or how important to the development of the latter Victorian ideal of innocent rural life. That Virginia Woolf, Coleridge, Charles Darwin and Thomas Bewick (whose biography the book group read at the beginning of the year) were all hugely touched by the book. It’s even mentioned in a Roald Dahl story and cited by David Attenborough as something that lead him to attend the natural world. I hadn’t heard of it.

The book is structured as a series of letters between Gilbert White and two different correspondents, Thomas Pennant (author of the guidebook to Scotland that Samuel Johnson took with him) and Daines Barrington. Interestingly, the letters were heavily edited, with a number never sent, some split apart, merged and added to and many of the dates changed. To be honest, I’m not sure why White carried on the letter conceit, especially as he changes from one recipient to another. Why doesn’t he invent a fictional recipient to all the letters? However, as a result, the book starts off with a sweep around the parish of Selborne itself, charts the animal (especially bird) life that flows through it and then towards the end opens the parish out to how it is effected by global systems such as the weather - especially a non-summer after an Icelandic volcano erupts. 

I’m quite fond of nature and I enjoy watching birds (though am no birdwatcher) but I have always lived in large towns or cities of varying size, with much of my adult life being spent in London. I simply do not have much of a connection to a rural life, which meant that there were parts of the book (especially those about coppicing and rural common-land rights) that meant absolutely nothing to me. However, those bits that went over my head still managed to be soothing and pleasant to read, with the promise of some interesting anecdote to come.

White is very interested in birds, the hirundines especially. These are birds like the house martin, the swift and swallow. When I was a kid, our road had house martins and I also have a fondness for them. The big question of the day was, do they migrate or hibernate? Samuel Johnson followed Aristotle’s view that they buried themselves under mud and slept the winter away. Gilbert White was inclined to think the birds migrated but it was actually his observations, particularly of swifts that appeared for a sunny day, disappeared when the weather got nasty and then reappeared when the weather grew nice again that changed his mind. He ended up at the wrong conclusion but he reached it fairly.

If anything, its White’s sympathy with the natural world, together with his close observation that makes the book the classic it has become. He reminds other naturalists that animals are motivated by more than food, that they may act for love as well, for the protection of their children. He notes birds hovering to block the sun from their chicks and of swifts and swallows gambolling and playing in the sky for fun. He describes the movement of birds so well, that jumpy flight of sparrows, the sweep of swifts, the fluttery quality of magpies and pigeons and the hovering of kestrels. There’s a lovely bit where he goes out with a pitch pipe to record the note that owls hoot at.

His close observation also produces the first description of field mice as distinct from house mice and of a number of different warblers. He makes the various birds, bugs and rodents come alive in his writing, which is ironic because many animals were shot in the making of this book. It would seem that those who lived in the parish knew his interests and would shoot unusual species so he could dissect them, especially to examine their beaks to see what it was they ate. He may have been the first to mention field mice, but many field mouse nests were removed with their little babies shook inside it like a maraca to get the information.

There’s also a horrific story about a farmer catching a sparrow hawk that was attacking his hens, who he mutilated and then gave to the hens to peck apart, rather like the particicution scene in The Handmaid’s Tale. This is without mentioning the racist chapter about gypsies or the chapter about the ‘idiot boy’ with a fondness for bees, which ends with White wishing the boy had been a bit cleverer because he might have helped bee research. He also shames a tortoise for its lethargic lifestyle.

In some ways this book is a bit of a mystery, how could a book so parochial (literally) and idiosyncratic be so influential? It’s hard to pinpoint, but the book manages to be very charming and, in focusing on the eternal drama of animal life, be very timeless. I walk to school and watch the swifts perform the same acts of daring over the houses as he saw over his house and this book encourages new wonder and enjoyment at sights such as these.

(Did you know, a woodpecker lives in the garden of the garret I rent, and that sometimes it gets confused and pecks the tv arial above my room, making a most peculiar ‘boing’ sound?)

Wednesday 22 June 2022

Review: Moonfleet by J. Meade Falkner


Moonfleet is a family adventure story about John Trenchard, a boy whose curiosity accidentally leads him into smuggling escapades and on a treasure hunt. It’s a hard book to talk about, not because it’s bad or empty of event but because it is so great, and so self-contained in its greatness.

Each chapter could serve as a decent short story in itself, with a central exciting moment or situation, yet the chapters follow on from each other with an inevitability that drives you forward, escalating the stakes each time. The first chapter sets up the village itself, the ‘Why Not?’ Inn and its crusty landlord Elzevir Block who is grieving his only son, killed by a nouveau-riche, interloping lord of the manor. It becomes a Gothic story for a bit, with tales of restless ghosts, coffins banging about in floodwater under the church and a tense scene where our protagonist hides in a coffin next to a corpse. A corpse whose beard he accidentally rips off. Then the story becomes a smuggler’s tale with dark, windswept beaches and hidden caves. Then a treasure hunt, a tale of unscrupulous diamond dealers, a prison tale and a shipwreck story. Each one is presented in its purist form, nothing can be taken away.

The tensest moments in the book include the auction by candle (a real historical practise), each second the flame burns the wax tightens the atmosphere. Then there’s the chapter where two characters climb a vertiginous goat track, one with a broken leg, while an armed posse pursues them. That’s not forgetting the chapter where a character descends a deep well in the hope of finding a flawless diamond while another waits up top with a third, possibly untrustworthy figure. (Incidentally, Blackbeard’s treasure is the perfect use of a McGuffin, an item everyone wants which powers the plot through its desirability rather than its actual contents).

That’s not forgetting the simple but effective portrayal of the characters. John Trenchard is admirably curious and rather naive, he can be weak in both body and mind, which leads him into some real trouble. There’s Elzevir Block, who is a tough person, a feared one in some quarters but who also manages to be the warmest, finest and most admirable father figures I’ve read in fiction. Leon Garfield must have loved this book, he loved a morally complex mentor. Maskew, in many ways the instigator of trouble for John and Elzevir is both easy to hate and oddly sympathetic at the end. His daughter, Grace gets a few moments of strength as his long-suffering daughter and distant love interest. Like the rest of the book, the characterisation is simple, possibly even a little basic, but they hold up rock-solid because of that.

The writing wobbles a few times, Falkner is a little too fond of the word ‘lief’ and describing a man as having ‘the finest forehead that I ever saw’ sounds very silly, what consists a ‘fine forehead’? However, when the tension needs to ramp up, it does and the book finds itself at a very moving sacrifice. 

I read the book because I just finished Alex Preston’s Winchelsea and found it lacking. If Winchelsea wanted to be a grown up Moonfleet, what would the not-grown up Moonfleet be like? Far more grown up then Winchelsea it turns out. Where the modern book had a baggy, rambling plot that seemed to circle round to itself, Moonfleet pursued its story beats along a simple chain of cause and effect with a dogged determination. Where Winchelsea wanted a cluster of complex characters with different motives, Moonfleet sketched clear and compelling people who were consistent with their own wishes and desires. Winchelsea falls apart like crumbly pastry but Moonfleet is as self-contained as a stone. I wanted to write more about Moonfleet but I can’t, it’s not a grand book or one that tries to say lots of important things but in its own way it’s peculiarly flawless, which makes it hard to talk about, there isn’t a crack to find a way in. Short, fun, easy to get hold of, if you haven’t read it before, I recommend you do.

Wednesday 15 June 2022

Review: Winchelsea by Alex Preston

 I was excited to read Winchelsea, as the town has a fascinating history and I found the synopsis of a smuggling story very appealing and had read some very positive reviews. The first thing that struck me about the book is the cover. It’s very pretty but the pinks and purples, the gold-embossed title and the swirly font (especially the ‘W’) make it look like a Wonka Bar.

The book takes the form of a series of texts that have been compiled by Goody, the principal narrator of the book and presented as one piece. The first is a letter from her to the reader, the second a prologue narrated by no-one in particular, the main bulk comes from Goody telling her story to someone else who’s writing it down, the fourth a recount by another character, the fifth a recount by a different character and the last a final word to the reader by Goody. In some ways this reflects the found/curated textual frame used in books like Henry Mackenzie’s ‘The Man of Feeling’ but it all comes out as a bit of a mess.

The letter from Goody at the beginning says that her true narrative, through the different lenses of the text has turned into something of a novel. I found this destabilising to the text immediately as she talks about ‘the novel’ with the certainties of a modern writer, where the term was still a disputed and nebulous term in 1779 when she is writing. She also makes the point that most of the narrative was told by her to a man and so warns the reader that the book may sound like a man writing as a woman more than the real lived experience of a woman. This caveat seems to have no meaning or purpose within the world of the book but instead refers to the fact the (twenty-first century) novel is in fact written by a man and making excuses for the fact it sounds like a man writing a woman. This is still further complicated by the fact that Goody does in fact live as a man for a large section of the book which sort of makes her a pseudo-male narrator anyway.

This gets to the the heart of the book’s central problem, despite being set in, and (in the world of the book) written in, the eighteenth century, its assumptions, concerns and techniques are so rooted in the twenty-first that it scrunches itself up into a little ball. Eighteenth-Century novels, especially the sentimental and gothic, did use elaborate frame-stories to tell their narrative. They did this to enhance the verisimilitude in a text before the novel was comfortable enough to rely on the background narrator of a realist novel, or to create immediacy in a time before the development of stream-of-consciousness and other techniques. Here, the use of different narrators merely emphasise the distance and artificiality of the text, not bring us close to it. 

The attempts to create an eighteenth-century atmosphere in the novel feel false and a little ‘theme-parky’. Characters, when drinking beer, only drink porter, presumably because that’s a more ‘old-fashioned’ sounding beer; they wear, doff and remove tricorns with great regularity (not the hat’s name at the time when people actually wore them), they ‘go marketing’ rather than to the market. Strange word choices are frequently used as a way of making the book seem olde-timey, a number of characters ‘festivate’ in this book, a word that seems to have been used be nobody at no-time. Most egregious is the name of the main character, Goody. The word is short for ‘Goodwife’ and was used in Puritan areas particularly as interchangeable with the word ‘Mrs’. Even the most famous Goody, Goody Two-shoes, was really called Margery.

Another element of this eighteenth-century story which is twisted into weird shapes by its twenty-first century sensibilities is the trans narrative. There are a surprising amount of stories of gender crossing in eighteenth-century fiction and reality, from the female alter-egos of Molly House attendees to the stories of female husbands and people like Charlotte Charke living as a male but when Goody does this, it’s treated from a twenty-first century perspective. Goody lives for a while as a man called William and finds themself comfortable as a non-binary person at the end of the novel. All the other characters seem aware of the notions of sex and gender being separate and of gender performativity and the notion of a gender spectrum. When one character has met Goody as William, even when he finds out that William is not a born-man, keeps using male pronouns - a polite and social thing to do nowadays but not really within the scope of an eighteenth century understanding of sex and gender where they still believed a big jump could un-invert a women’s genitals and make them male. I’m not saying that eighteenth-century people would have been necessarily cruel or barbaric towards a male-presenting person but they simply would have not conceived it the way we do, and nor would the trans person themselves.

All these peculiarities and inconsistencies could have been more easily borne if the plot and characters themselves been stronger. The plot is really ropey. It starts off with a revenge narrative, that is solved about twenty pages after it has started. There’s an even stranger part where one of the characters Goody wants revenge upon turns up and is killed again within five pages.. and narrated as an aside. Then it becomes a smuggling story but the smugglers inevitably double-cross our protagonist, then it takes a jump to being a story about the ’45 Jacobite rebellion, then a Magnificent 7, save-the-village narrative. These chunks are pretty self contained and strung loosely along, not even maintaining the same protagonist all the time. The book also leaves no cliché unused, even the classic ‘bad guy is going to shot the narrator, a gun shot sounds and it is revealed to be someone behind the bad guy, shooting them’ cliché.

The novel started off with the suggestion of, ‘what if Moonfleet was written as an adult book?’ However, its relation to Moonfleet is like the first series of Torchwood to Doctor Who, it’s ‘adult’ in a rather adolescent and immature way. I think this is why some think it’s a YA book, it simply isn’t adult, certainly not as adult as Moonfleet, which succeeds far better in its ‘book for all the family’ intention. Winchelsea has done very well, there’s a sequel on the way and I hear there are talks with Netflix but I have to admit to being very disappointed with it.

Wednesday 8 June 2022

Visit to Feminine Power: the Divine to the Demonic (and The Story of Swedenborg in 27 objects)


During the half-term I decided to visit the British Museum for their exhibition ‘Feminine Power: the Divine to the Demonic’. It’s the first big exhibition I’ve been to since covid and I was attracted to it to see the ‘Burney Relief’, also known as ‘The Queen of the Night’ relief which may (or may not) depict Inanna, one of my favourite mythological beings, who I’ve named the main character in the novel I’m currently writing.

The relief itself is usually exhibited at the British Museum for free, so there had to be some other interesting stuff to make it worth the £15 exhibition charge. There were. Arranged into loose themes, the room was stuffed with depictions of Goddesses and powerful mythological women from all over the world, principally in statues, although there were a number of pictures also. One of my favourite was the picture of Guan Yin, a Buddhist avatar of love and compassion where all the lines in the picture were made from minuscule calligraphy. It was also lovely that revered women in Islam were not left out with some beautiful calligraphy of their names and one which held the whole Maryam Surah in one frame.

The experience was a bit like meeting all the powerful beings, with an image or statue of them and a little write-up about who they are and what they represent. There was a female form from Iraq which was over 6,000 years old. Interestingly, these pre-historic forms represented women as bodies with thick thighs, large breasts and marked pubic triangles but no faces. It was as the beliefs and mythology developed that the Goddesses gained faces and personality.

And what personalities there were. There was Pele, Hawaii’s Goddess of Volcanoes with a surprisingly calm face, Kali with her necklace of severed heads, Sekhmet, standing calmly with her lion’s head. One of my favourites was Tlazolteolt of the Huaxtec who inspires lust and eats dirt, she has a literal shit-eating smile, however she purifies the dirt into life-giving fertiliser. 

Not all the figures were old, there was a modern portrayal of Lilith, in Jewish mythology Adam’s first wife who refused to obey his wishes. Here she’s an evil looking bog-monster, lurking on the wall but the write-up said that she is an inspiration to many modern practisers of witchcraft along with Hekate and Circe. There was also an early depiction of her on a bowl which looked like a crazed child’s drawing. 

The Inanna section not only had ‘The Queen of the Night’, which is absolutely captivating to see close up, but a tablet of a hymn to her in cuneiform, a depiction of two people in bed together and a Sumerian King figure making an offering to her.

What’s amazing about the exhibition is that many of the beings portrayed in it are still worshiped today. I saw people bowing to Kali and Guan Yin and others crossing themselves in front of Mary. It brought a special frisson that the characters we were meeting still have force in people’s lives.

I suppose the big picture of ‘Feminine Power: the Divine to the Demonic’ was to show how multi-faceted and powerful depictions of women can be but I was left more with the thought of how interesting and inventive the human race is as a whole. A very welcome decision on the part of the curators was to talk to groups of Wiccans, Muslims, Christians, Hindus &c and ask their interpretation. For example, the Goddess Kali, known to many from the hideous portrayal in Indiana Jones, is not simply a manifestation of violence and death. The heads around her neck aren’t the result of wanton slaughter but representations of the ignorance that we need to slay in ourselves to become better people.

If anything let my experience down, it was the talking heads. It started with a word-cloud of qualities that could be attributed to women (i.e every human quality) which Time Out magazine said “feels like being stuck in a meeting with a bunch of male ad execs trying to figure out how to flog tampons.” The there were videos of five famous women teasing what the visitor would shortly be seeing. Each of the women had a section in it and the elements where they were quoted added very little to the experience.

A depiction of Mami Wata, an African water spirit had a quote by Bonnie Greer saying that she has ‘real city girl energy’ about her. I looked at this statue of a woman with a snake around her neck who represents the life-giving but also dangerous power of fresh water and couldn’t get ‘city girl’ out of it. Confused, I asked the British Museum employee sat next to the statue what Bonnie Greer might have meant by that. She ummed, aahed and essentially told me that it didn’t really mean anything in particular. I think the use of these slightly naff talking head elements did distract from the engaging and fascinating range of powerful women that we were introduced to.

Wandering back from the museum I noticed a little bookshop that had an exhibition in it and popped in. This was ‘The Story of Swedenborg in 27 objects’ and was being shown by the Swedenborg Society. I can’t say I knew much about Emanuel Swedenborg, an eighteenth-century Swedish courtier and scientist who began to see visions and changed tack, writing extensively on esoteric and religious topics.

I was lucky enough, when I wandered in, to catch the chair of the society and he gave me a very interesting impromptu talk about the man, his habit of talking very close to people and playing with their buttons as he did, and his visions. The items themselves included his walking cane, his blotting paper and, strangest of all, one of his ear bones. Apparently his head went on a few adventures after he died as well. There was also a hand-translated copy of one of his books into Japanese and an English copy of the same book owned and signed by T.E Lawrence.

Best of all, the bookshop had a trunk where previously loved books can be picked up for a pound. While I doubt I’ll turn Swedenborgian anytime soon, this rationalist-mystic is certainly an interesting figure and I look forward to finding out a little more.

Wednesday 1 June 2022

Under the Glass...Licking into shape

t’s non stop partying here in Grub Street. Last Weekend I, as Maid of Honour took my sister on a razzmatazz hen-do down in Milton Keynes and next week will be at the wedding itself. In the meantime, I am off work and have tickets to the ‘Feminine power: the divine to the demonic’ exhibition at the British Museum where I will be meeting my gal Inanna. I also made one of my crappy arts.

One of the things I love but don’t mention very often on this site are mediaeval bestiaries. I like them for their goofiness, the weird pictures and peculiar legends but I also like them on a window of a different way of seeing, of understanding what knowledge is and the natural world around us. 

Among the beavers biting their own knackers off to escape hunters and unicorns laying on the laps of virgins are the bears. According to long understanding, bear cubs are born as shapeless putty with eyes and claws and the mother physically licks the bear cubs into bear shape, lick by lick. It’s where we get the phrase.

Writing a book is a similar process. Each draft is another batch of licks, slow and time consuming, licking this formless little lump into the proper shape. For this reason I painted a bear in the style of a mediaeval bestiary, licking a book into shape.

I was inspired by this..

and I created this…

I know it’s not good exactly, but I enjoyed doing it, it sits nicely with my other crappy arts and it reminds me to keep patient with my book and keep licking because it’ll reach its final shape eventually.