Justin Hill’s read my book!

This just gets better and better! After the wonderful message from Bernard Cornwell on Friday, my editor received an email from Justin Hill, author of Shieldwall (only the best novel about Anglo-Saxon England out there) this morning. He’s read Edwin: High King of Britain as well and he likes it too!

Justin Hill
Justin Hill

So, here’s what Justin (we’re on first name terms now, you see!) has to say about Edwin:

‘At the dawn of England seven kingdoms struggle for supremacy: but there is more than honour and power at stake; paganism, Christianity and the future shape of the English nation will be decided.  A fast-paced and gripping tale of the great Northumbrian King Edwin, reclaiming one of our great national figures from the shadows of history.’

I am, I must admit, feeling slightly overwhelmed at the moment, but in a good way! By the way, if you’ve never read Shieldwall, I can’t recommend it enough. Here’s my review of it.


Book review: Innocence by Dean Koontz


** spoiler alert ** The engine driving this story, and the key to one’s enjoyment of it, is the mystery of the protagonist. Addison Goodheart lives in isolation in the tunnels under New York, and has done so for 18 years, only venturing out in the quietest times of night, or when the city’s normal inhabitants are driven indoors by particularly bad weather. He sequesters himself – as one of the Hidden, and we learn there are, or were, at least two others – because, on seeing him, people try to kill him. The midwife tried to smother him at birth, his own mother came near to killing him and, in the end, banished him from their home because she could bear the sight of him no longer, strangers seeing him, assault and try to murder him, but Addison remains innocent of wrongdoing. So, the question driving the book, and the reader, is why? One’s initial thought is some physical disfigurement, but it quickly becomes apparent that is not the case. I did wonder, as I’d reached near five sixths of the way through the book (which retains Koontz’s normal narrative flair although in retrospect there may have been some authorial handwaving to drive us past some plot points), whether Koontz would simply leave it open; I was beginning to suspect that he’d dug himself a hole from which there was no escape, other than ignoring the fact he was in a hol in the first place. But doing this would have been a complete authorial cop out.

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Why Do Writers Do It?


The last two sentences of The Box of Delights by John Masefield.

‘Have you had a nice dream?’

‘Yes,’ he said, ‘I have.’

Why? John Masefield, why did you do it? I’d followed Kay Harker through 308 pages of adventures, from mysterious strangers, who apparently remembered this land from pagan times, warning him that ‘the Wolves are running’, through trips in time, changes in size, encounters with talking animals and medieval philosophers, flying cars, pompous policemen – and I’d even read the poems you’d stuck in the text, word for word, and how many readers do that and don’t just skip the poems and carry on with the story, and then, and then, you go and spoil everything.

It was all just a dream.

Is there any more pathetic, more deal breaking, more deceitful and fraudulent phrase in the whole of literature? I, as the reader, have accompanied the writer through the story, accepting it and embracing it, and then, at the end, the writer turns around and spits in your eye: Ha! Fooled you! It was all a dream.

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


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


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


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


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.


Book review: Vanished Kingdoms by Norman Davies


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.