Book review: Johnson’s Life of London by Boris Johnson

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Johnson writes with the chutzpah of a tabloid journalist and the allusions of a Classical scholar. The book, a history of London through portraits of notable Londoners through the centuries, is vivid and shot through with the sort of one liners that would not be out of place on ‘Have I Got News For You’. It may be an act, but what a finely honed act it is – and I can’t imagine Ken Livingstone writing a book nearly as readable.

 

Book review: London: the Concise Biography by Peter Ackroyd

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Ackroyd’s biography of London comes garlanded with accolades and they are well deserved: beautifully written, with a telling eye for detail and stuffed full with anecdote and incident, it is a meditation and discovery of an almost infinitely varied city. Calling it a ‘biography’ rather than a ‘history’ is not, in fact, an affectation but a description – Ackroyd treats London almost as a living creature, obeying the primal impulse to grow and spread (although London does not reproduce itself but, like the Borg, assimilates). My only real criticism is that while Ackroyd argues for the essential paganism of the city, he often brings up but then ignores the many expressions of radical religious dissent that have arisen in London – it’s the only major lacuna I noticed in the book.

Book review: Daily Life in Anglo-Saxon England

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The only reason this is not a five-star book is that for the price (£32!!!!) I’d have expected lots of illustrations and a colour section: there’s a few black and white photos, and 25 or so illustrations, but that’s it. Leaving that aside, the actual text provides a wealth of information about the culture and environment of Anglo-Saxon England, from birth to death to burial (a lot on this, of course, as dead bodies are among the most eloquent of remains). A must read for anyone interested in the period.

A Natural Cornucopia – part 2

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First written for Time Out in late 2011…

As sure as the nights lengthening, leaves turning and temperatures falling, every Autumn brings in its train a bumper crop of nature books. In a spirit of literary natural history, let us investigate this little-known publishing ecosystem.

Symbiosis is as important to writers as it is to lichens. So we witness the phenomenon of Stephen Moss introducing David Lindo’s book, and David Lindo appearing in Stephen Moss’s TV programmes. This piebald pair produce work that usefully illuminates each other, with Lindo writing passionately about a life spent watching birds in cities and Moss, having retreated from London to Somerset five years ago, concentrating on the animal, plant and, particularly, bird life of the village of Mark on the Somerset Levels. While neither books are classics of their genres – The Urban Birder is autobiography and natural history combined, Wild Hares and Hummingbirds aspires to be a modern Natural History of Selborne – they each convey their writers’ jizz (lest you wonder, this perennially dirty sounding word is the bird watchers’ term for the combination of qualities that make a bird what it is). Lindo, being the son of Jamaican immigrants, is the more unusual, and his message – to view buildings like birds do, as cliffs and mountains, and always to look up – resonates with the city dweller. Since Lindo brings nature back to where it seems most absent – the city – it is appropriate that the book is almost as much about growing up in the 1970s as it is about birds, and the tale of two young birdwatchers being pursued by airgun-shooting Essex toughs from Rainham marshes is almost worth the purchase price alone.

Moss’s work is full of nuggets of information, as concentrated as an owl pellet, such as a goldcrest – Britain’s smallest bird – weighing the same as a 20p coin, and the deadly consequences to field voles of marking their territories in wee. For urine reflects ultra-violet light and kestrels, the hovering predators of motorway verges, can see in ultra violet. While there’s much like this to enjoy in the book, the writing isn’t quite of the same standard as Gilbert White and Robert McFarlane, whatever the publisher’s blurb may say.

Bees In The City and The Natural Navigator belong to a different genus of natural-history books: the guide. Both are practical, well produced and do pretty much what they say on the cover, although potential apiarists and explorers should beware before buying hives or crossing the Orinoco without further research: neither topic can be constrained within the covers of a book. To be fair, none of the authors make such a claim, and bees in particular need all the help they can get. Honey bee colonies have been dying off over the last five years, probably due to a combination of environmental stress and infestations of the all too appropriately named Varroa destructor mite, but in response there has been a huge increase in beekeeping, particularly in urban areas. Benjamin and McCallum begin their book by profiling some of these new, young and, I should think, Time Outy apiarists, before moving on to a manual of practical beekeeping. Gooley sets navigation in its pre-GPS, even pre-compass, contexts and so seeks to open the senses of anyone outdoors to the cues our ancestors, and the birds and beasts of today, use to get around.

If the first four books belong to different genera, Fire Season comes from a different family altogether: American wilderness writing. Starting with Thoreau’s Walden, through Aldo Leopold and Edward Abbey, Americans were faced with an entirely different experience of land and nature than the miniaturists of England: the Big Country. While English writers studied the ordinary and showed it to be extraordinary, it doesn’t take much effort to convince the reader that spending five months of the year watching for fires from a lookout tower in a semi-desert wilderness of sage bush, ponderosa pines and mountains is worth reading about. Although not quite the classic it hopes to be – Connors is either too present or not present enough in his narrative for it to match its antecedents – Fire Season does succeed in making this alien landscape and even more alien way of life come alive.

Edward Stourton’s book belongs in a different phylum altogether: essays. To be honest, I didn’t want to like a book that reproduced the fortnightly Telegraph columns of a BBC magnate regaling us with tales of men and beasts met when walking his Springer spaniel, but Diary of a Dog-Walker is an unexpected delight, combining gossipy politics and shaggy dog stories adroitly. Who could resist the tale of the boy who tricked his mother into calling their puppy Achilles so that he might hear her calling, ‘Achilles, heel!’ across the park?

The 2011 harvest of nature books shows the genre of nature writing, if not the natural world that inspires it, to be in rude health, and the common method of these books – to look harder at the world around us however ordinary it may seem – is certainly worth following.

Bees In The City: The Urban Beekeepers’ Handbook by Alison Benjamin and Brian McCallum.

The Natural Navigator Pocket Guide by Tristan Gooley.

The Urban Birder by David Lindo.

Wild Hares and Hummingbirds: The Natural History Of An English Village by Stephen Moss.

Diary Of A Dog-Walker: Time Spent Following A Lead by Edward Stourton.

Fire Season: Field Notes From A Wilderness Lookout by Philip Connors.

A Natural Cornucopia

For a couple of glorious years – before Time Out went free and dropped its book reviews – I wrote the annual review of natural history books. Here’s the first I wrote; each of these books was a privilege to read.

Weeds by Richard Mabey,
Weeds by Richard Mabey,

Weeds. How vagabond plants gatecrashed civilisation and changed the way we think about nature. By Richard Mabey. Published by Profile Books.

The Butterfly Isles. A summer in search of our Emperors and Admirals. By Patrick Barkham. Published by Granta.

The Running Sky. A birdwatching life. By Tim Dee. Published by Vintage.

The Invention of Clouds. How an amateur meterologist forged the language of the skies. By Richard Hamblyn. Published by Picador.

Weeds ask us where the boundary between nature and culture lies. Richard Mabey’s book is an exploration, celebration and investigation of that mysterious hinterland, where the wild things enter into our carefully laid plans and then refuse to leave, despite billions of pounds spent on herbicides and thousands of years spent on hoeing.

Weeds evolved originally to colonise disturbed ground and they are now perfectly positioned to take advantage of the vigorous shaking we’re giving the world’s ecosystems. Take Danish scurvygrass for example. Up until the 1980s, it was limited to the drier coasts of Britain, but since then it has been on the march down the central reservations of motorways and trunk roads. The reason? Salt. Winter gritting on the country’s main roads has brought salty, coastal conditions inland. And where the gritters go, the plant follows.

Every weed has its own story, and many were once much loved plants that fell from favour as fashions, be it agricultural or horticultural, shifted. Even the humblest dandelion becomes, in Mabey’s book, a thing of wonder, living in plain sight, embedded on our lawns.

But if the very definition of a weed involves hardiness, a butterfly would seem to embody the opposite: a delicate, ephemeral beauty. Patrick Barkham was ensnared by their lure as an eight-year-old boy and, as an adult, set out to find all 59 resident species of British butterfly. Turns out, they’re not so weedy after all. They live across almost all habitats in Britain, either rushing from caterpillar to pupa to butterfly in a heady rush of life, or laying low over winter to emerge, exactly like a butterfly, in spring.

During the year, Barkham loses his girlfriend, a part of his sanity and any claims to a low-carbon lifestyle as he hurtles up and down motorways in search of the next butterfly. I won’t say if he succeeds in his quest, but he does succeed in entangling the reader in the net of the Aurelian’s consuming passion – and he taught me a new word. Don’t you think Aurelian is an altogether more appropriate name for a lepidopterist?

There’s no such fancy name for birdwatchers; twitcher sounds as much an insult as a description. But Tim Dee’s extraordinarily passionate book about a life spent watching birds is an immersion in song, and wind, and feather. Like the other books, it describes a world that intersects our own without ever becoming part of it (except, perhaps, for chickens). It flows south with the autumn migration, following our house martins as they disappear without trace into the steaming jungles of the Congo. It returns, to rest in the unheard subsong of summer, when birds dream, and dreaming, sing.

The backdrop for Dee’s book is, of course, the sky. Up until the nineteenth century, clouds were the essence of formlessness, and no more possible to name than the air was to grasp. Richard Hamblyn tells the story of the man who named the clouds. Luke Howard was a Quaker. In the early nineteenth century, Dissenters were among those excluded from university education, so they formed an early, direct contact version of the internet, circulating news, information and ideas (but no porn). These were self-confident times, and though Howard was naturally shy, he found a forum in the vigorous lectures and societies of the time. In 1802, he gave the lecture that named the cirrus and the stratus, the cumulus and the nimbus, and coined the vocabulary that named the unnameable.

Book review: The Eeerie Silence by Paul Davies

The full title of the book is The Eerie Silence: Are We Alone In The Universe? The fiftieth anniversary of SETI has recently passed and Davies provides a clear and well-written evaluation of where we stand now. Unfortunately, and despite the author’s optimism, the answer must be no further on than when we started. If anything, the evidence gathered over the last 50 years makes it less likely that there are many technological civilisations out there. In fact, we could well be the only one. The gap between non-living matter and living things has widened considerably since the optimism engendered by the Miller-Urey experiments (although Davies makes a good case for looking for second-start life forms right here on earth). Even should that gulf be somehow bridged, there’s still the Needham question (which Davies does not seem to have heard of): why of all the civilisations on earth did only the European one conceive and execute a scientific society? Scientists, being scientists, tend to think they are inevitable – I am less sure.

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Book review: Vanished Kingdoms by Norman Davies

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OK, I admit it, in the end I didn’t read all 848 pages. Some of the kingdoms were just too obscure, the characters too interchangeable, and the permutations too complicated (Burgundy, I’m thinking of you) to prevent my eyes glazing over. But where I did know something about the background history, Davies was downright brilliant. In particular, the chapter on Alt Clud, the Kingdom of the Rock, that endured upon the twin humped lump of granite overlooking Dumbarton for four centuries during the Early Medieval period was wonderful. It brought the old British kingdoms vividly to life, and was worth the price of the book (or at least the reservation charge at the library) on its own. So, particularly recommended for periods and places that you know a little about, and want to learn more about.

Book review: Space Captain Smith by Toby Frost

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Space Captain Smith is an almost successful science fantasy romp, set in a 25th-century universe where the British Empire has expanded to the stars and faces enemies both alien and human. The author has a gift for one liners and puns and, since I’m a sucker for both, as well as steam punk futurologies, it should have been a winner. Where it fails is quite interesting. Firstly, Frost proves utterly incapable of avoiding an approaching pun – something I’d normally applaud, but here there’s just too many one liners. Secondly, a lot of the jokes involve contemporary references, and even though the jokes are good, they jerk the reader right out of the world of the book. And thirdly, I don’t think Frost has thought through his future universe carefully enough. There’s no sense of space travel involving anything other than getting into a ship on one planet and then emerging on another, nor any depth to the history and cultures of the other peoples and civilisations – in contrast with Philip Reeves’s on-the-face-of-it similar triology, Larklight. Larklight also has a space-faring British Empire and excellent jokes, but the world is much more believable, the joking more disciplined, and the Victorian references deeper. In fact, if you’re looking for a purely enjoyable read involving stalwart Victorian heroes in space, try Larklight.

Book review: The Lost Fleet: Courageous by Jack Campbell

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Rule no.2 of military SF: don’t do romance. (Rule no.1 is guns, lots of guns, or failing that vast battle fleets burning beneath the unforgiving stars.) Unfortunately, Campbell breaks this rule, with much of the book being filled by an angsty and frankly unlikely affair between Commander of the Fleet Geary and on-board, hard-as-nails politician Rione. The whole thing is made more icky by my impression of both characters as being in their fifties or sixties (Geary in fact is probably 140 or so, but most of that time has been spent in stasis), so my imagination is faced with the distinctly unpleasant images of wrinkly sex. No one reading military SF should have such awful images flashing into his mind; we are here for guns, bowel-spilling violence, stiff-jawed valour and, well, more guns. The only fluids spilled should be red. Thankfully, Campbell fulfills rule no.1, in its thousands of spaceships subvariety, and does so well. As a former naval officer, Campbell has thought through the implications of space warfare better than almost any writer, which shows in the battle scenes. So, for the next volume, less romance, more war, please.

Book review: Skios by Michael Frayn

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As a genre, farce is the most rigidly deterministic of all literary forms, with consequences, farcical ones naturally, following ineluctably from actions. One of the key strengths of farce is that we, the audience or the reader, know what is going to happen but the characters don’t, so in the end the audience or reader is almost reduced to viewing the action through your fingers, so awful has the embarrassment become. Michael Frayn first became known for ‘Noises Off’, a farce that since its first performance in 1980 continues to be revived and performed.

But Frayn later went on to write ‘Copenhagen’, for me the best play about science ever written. In ‘Copenhagen’ he takes a mysterious incident in the lives of Niels Bohr and Werner von Heisenberg as the starting point for an investigation into the ramifications of the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics. For according to this view, quantum mechanics does not provide an objective description of the real world but rather deals with the various probabilities inherent in a situation – any possibility contained within a wave function may become real. This is the polar opposite of farcical determinism.

So what does Frayn do when he comes to write a new, post-‘Copenhagen’ farce? He writes a probabilistic collision with farcical determinism. And you know what: it almost works.