Underland – a deep time journey

Our relationship with time, and our planet are as much the theme for Robert Macfarlane’s latest book, “Underland” (Hamish Hamilton/Penguin Books, 2019), as is the more literal exploration of underground spaces in a variety of places around the globe.

Reading the book could not have come at a more opportune moment for me. I’m finding ‘time’ an extremely confusing concept, with things that happened over 40 years ago feeling more ingrained on my memory than events which happened five years ago, and routines in my life which took place over 25 years ago having greater clarity than things which took place daily just ten years ago!

As William Dalrymple notes, the journeys in Macfarlane’s book – including chemical mines in Yorkshire; catacombs below Paris; nuclear waste burial tombs in Finland; and worlds underground from Somerset and Epping Forest, to Italy, Slovenia, Greenland and Norway – are “a takeoff point for discussions of deeper concerns: the relationship between [hu]man and landscape, the instability of time and place, and perhaps above all, the fragility of all we are and all we create.” (Guardian, 11/05/2019).

As Macfarlane identifies, such fears are embedded deep in language, where “height is celebrated, but depth is despised. To be ‘uplifted’ is preferable to being depressed, or ‘pulled down’.”

I was lucky enough to visit the Beer Quarry Caves, deep below ground in Devon, June 2018. Not a patch on anywhere Macfarlane visits, but it gave me a glimpse of his ‘Underland’.

As Barbara King writes, the book “connects us to dazzling worlds beneath our feet” (npr, 3/06/2019), but in doing so, Macfarlane also introduces readers to many deeper ideas about our relationship to the planet, which I was ashamed to say I had yet to unearth for myself.

One of those is the Anthropocene – the idea, still under debate, that we have entered an entirely new geological epoch superseding the ‘Holocene’ (which was ushered around 11,700 years ago, immediately after the last ice age), and ‘welcomed’ in a new one, defined entirely by the human race’s capacity to have completely changed the planet, particularly through the scale of resource depletion, atmosphere pollution, and the rate of plant and animal species extinction. Proponents of the Anthropocene estimate it is most likely to have started in earnest in the mid 1900s, and is certainly felt and seen keenly underground.

Another idea is that of ‘Solastalgia‘ – a term Macfarlane notes was coined by Glenn Albrecht to mean a form of ‘psychic or mental distress caused by environmental change.’ It is a specific term, related to the unhappiness of people whose landscapes are being transformed about them by forces way beyond their control. And Albrecht proposed this specific term to describe a very particular kind of homesickness. Whereas the pain of nostalgia comes from moving away, the pain of solstalgia comes from staying put. And where the pain of nostalgia can be mitigated by returning, the pain of solstalgia tends to be irreversible. I regularly hear that howl.

Track: from album ‘Solstalgia’, Rafael Anton Irisarri: “Coastal Trapped Disturbance”

Like a lot of the book, this suggests much more about relationships with the planet, and between each other – and how any harmony is being disrupted. It looks at how language is used to express much about these relationships. I love how Macfarlane yearns for a language which better recognises and advances the animacy of our world – and he cites the example of  ‘Potawatomi’ – a Native American language of the Great Plains, where the ratio of verbs to nouns is 70% to 30%, Almost everything is animate – whether a boulder, or a bay, for example, suggesting more of a symbiotic relationship with humans. Very different from mainstream society today, particularly in the UK.

One of the points which stuck most keenly for me, for example is that about how trees are able to communicate with, and support each other, underground, using fungi – but much of what we are doing is even helping to put a stop to that too.

Macfarlane elaborates on how, deep underground, ‘the same three tasks recur across cultures and epoches: to shelter what is precious [memories, precious matter, messages, fragile lives], to yield what is valuable [information, wealth, metaphors, minerals, visions], and to dispose of what is harmful [waste, trauma, poison, secrets]…. Into the underland, we have long placed that which we fear and wish to lose, and that which we love and wish to save.’

But the thread which is most enduring throughout the book is about deep time. When quoting Sven – an old friend of Bjornar, his host in Norway, I was reminded of two of the fairy characters of Charles KingsleyMrs Doasyouwouldbedoneby and Mrs Bedonebyasyoudid – in The Water-Babies.

‘I always make sure to cut the throats of the lumpfish before I take the roe out,’ says Sven modestly, as if confessing a substantial charitable donation.

‘Some “environmentalists” say we shouldn’t kill the lumpfish for its roe,’ he continues. ‘But the rest of the fish is not for eating. Just two patches of meat on its cheeks – so we take the roe, cut out the cheeks, and return the rest of the fish to the system of the sea. It feeds that system. They don’t understand that the sea needs feeding, just like us.’

Bjornar grunts, ‘I expect to be returned – how do you say, in my next life – as a lumpfish. So I always cut their throats before I take their roe, just as I would like to have my own throat cut before I have my roe taken.’

‘Do as you would be done by,’ I say. ‘The golden rule of reincarnation.’

On so many levels, deep down, and across time, what Macfarlane reveals and documents so beautifully is that much in our relationship with the planet is out of sync, but he finds refuge, and illumination by going underground. I certainly did, in reading this book at a time when I was feeling like this too, and was most certainly taking cover from human-kind, and how it was expressing itself particularly on social media. The book has helped a great deal indeed.

 

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What exactly is PR?

There was a really valuable post recently on the PR Place website (“Public relations for absolute beginners”), where Richard Bailey responded to a challenge about the need for the industry to get better at explaining what it actually is all about – and appealing to a wider cross-section of people who have yet to consider a career in it, or studying the subject.  Click here to read it.

It flags up crucially how it believes PR involves helping influence people to think or behave in certain ways, as opposed to simply being about persuasion.

It also flags up PR’s central concerns with ‘content‘ (in lots of different forms); ‘conversations‘ (in lots of different environments); and ‘community‘ (whether building, reaching, or resolving issues, for example).

Case study – PR supporting community festival, working with local school on a regional media appearance.

With a recent community festival held in my neighbouring village, the organising charity needed to raise raise awareness of the cause behind the bicentenary of the birth of novelist and social reformer, Charles Kingsley it was marking.  It needed to create ways for the local community and other stakeholder groups to keep in touch, and get involved with the festival (for example, through Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook); and above all, it needed to keep a focus on selling tickets, which media coverage, like this piece on the regional news helped with.  Much of this is about being able helping to create or clarify ‘the story’, or simplifying messages, and making them consistent.

I still think it will be a long time before that part of the CIPR (Chartered Institute of Public Relations) definition which says PR is “the result of what you do, what you say, and what others say about you” will be bettered, because it roots public relations activity in our daily lives, and the reality of our actions, even in the digital age.  In doing so, it reiterates the ethical dimension, without it having to be a ‘bolt-on’ – and, of course, views it all through the prism of ‘reputation’ which underpins it all.

PR secures coverage – and community conversations about the bicentenary festival.

It is crucial that the public relations world does more to explain what it does, and makes itself more accessible as a career option to young people in schools, sixth forms and FE colleges.  It is crucial, if we are to do something about systemic issues with lack of diversity in PR, and how PR plays its own part in putting up barriers to social mobility, especially through blocks to access, but also through reinforcing power structures in how it is delivered.

While we have seen some advances through the PR Apprenticeship (led by the PRCA), PR does promote itself as being a career which is almost exclusively degree-level entry – although I was always impressed by the diversity of backgrounds, and ultimate destinations on graduation of students I had the privilege to teach on PR degrees, with a long list of them now in fantastic positions, whether in-house or in agencies; or working in the corporate, consumer, entertainment, sports, defence, automotive, or health sectors, to name but a few.

I always thought that the CIPR Foundation course could form the basis of some kind of offer, if it was made a little more accessible – and cheaper.

And it’s not just young people.  If we are to do something about the reputation of PR, and help professionalise the delivery of public relations, we would do well to offer such short courses in the subject via adult and community learning across the community, and across generations.

More and more people have direct routes to delivering (or even responsibility for) public relations, particularly because of the democratisation of communication through social media.  Those in the industry might question that – but if we are serious about spreading understanding and best practice, we need to do something about sharing skills across our communities – and this too might do something about opening up new, diverse routes into PR as an ultimate career destination.

DJ culture

Chris is a DJ.  God, Annie is a superstar DJ.  Both are on the radio.  James on the other hand is a podcast presenter (although he is on the radio too).  Krishnan is a podcast presenter (and on the telly).

Whatever the difference is between radio DJs and podcast presenters, podcasts provide an excellent long-form format to slow things down, and really get under the skin of a different set of issues, at a different pace.

Hence, I thought it well worth sharing these two excellent episodes of particular podcast series, which provide an environment, free of time pressures for two very different radio DJs to explore and reflect on their craft, their motivations, and on how they, their professional spaces, and the world around them have changed/developed in recent years.

The first is “Full Disclosure With James O’Brien” – in this particular episode, featuring Chris Moyles, who does the breakfast show on Radio X.

You can listen to the podcast via this link here: https://www.lbc.co.uk/radio/podcasts/full-disclosure-james-obrien/full-disclosure-with-james-obrien-chris-moyles/

The second is “Ways To Change The World With Krishnan Guru-Murthy” – in this particular episode featuring an interview with Annie Mac, who can be heard on BBC Radio 1.

You can listen/watch the podcast interview here:

I love radio – have been fascinated with it ever since I was a child.  Everything about it.  Jingles.  Voices.  Music policy.  The intimate bond the medium  can create with the listener.  The big moments radio can cover fast, whether news or popular culture.  The weird and wonderful things it can capture in a spirit of sheer delight and fascination, often in more detail than TV can hope to.   The ability for DJs to signpost new music with a verve that algorithms simply can’t compete with.  And the sheer scale and simplicity of the creative potential of the medium.

I managed to get work experience at my local radio station, Radio 210 in Reading, when I was still a student.  Like some of my mates at university, I spent hours presenting shows on the university radio station.  When I grew up, I never got to be a DJ (Ha! The very idea!), but I ended up working in PR, for much of that time, in the radio industry.

I was privileged to work closely with Chris Moyles for around four years as his PR when he first came to BBC Radio 1 back in 1997, before he got to the dizzy heights of breakfast, still very much in the pre- social media age.  In this podcast interview, he discusses at length that love of the radio craft which I got to see at close quarters.

He also discusses his attitude towards some of the more aggressive or intrusive sections of the tabloid press.  His frustration is clear.  We are all embarked on professional and personal journeys – and Chris is very open about his.  I was able to chart my own journey while listening, and reflect about a lot of the lessons, and directions taken.

Me in younger days, as Radio 1 PR, on the Roadshow stage.

It was a high pressure, high stakes environment when it came to PR and BBC Radio 1, which was going through a period of huge change.  It was always a little easier for me to stand back, and see this as a job, but listening to Chris in this podcast, it underlines how, in any situation which comes under media or public scrutiny, real people’s lives and relationships are at stake, not just academic scenarios.  While we worked together, Chris wasn’t on the breakfast show, so not under the main radar target of those tabloids, but those frustrations with what could be seen as ‘lazy’ or intrusive journalism were already there.  James O’Brien is able to demonstrate some empathy, having been on the showbiz desk at the Daily Express around the same time.  And what a professional journey he has had!

It’s easy to forget that we are all always growing – and for me, this was a joy to listen to the podcast in this respect.  Personally and professionally reflective.  I learnt a lot about Chris – but also about myself.

DJ culture:

The same was true for Annie Mac‘s interview.  I never got to work with Annie Mac – she joined BBC Radio 1 as a broadcast assistant after I had left, but soon rose up the ranks, and crossed over from the production floor, to become a DJ.  Both of the podcasts are great for demonstrating the power of reflection in opening up lessons from the tracks across our lifelines.  Annie touches on the power of ‘place‘ and ‘space’, and how it has diminished in fostering culture, for example, when it comes to clubbing.  There’s also much to think about around bigger questions to do with gender, and power too.

Whether you are a regular radio listener or not, I thoroughly recommend you give these two podcast episodes a listen.

I loved having that opportunity to work with Chris Moyles.  That obsession with the medium of radio has never left me, and I cherished being able to promote someone who I knew shared that obsession.

Today, my obsession expresses itself is so many different ways throughout the week, listening, for example to:- Janice Long on BBC Radio Wales (Mon-Thurs, 7.00-10.00pm); Late Junction‘ on BBC Radio 3 (Tues-Thurs, 11.00pm-12.30am); Phil Taggart on BBC Radio 1 (Sun, 7.00-9.00pm); Jo Whiley on BBC Radio 2 (Mon-Thurs, 7.00-9.00pm); Rachel Burden & Nicky Campbell; and Emma Barnett on BBC 5Live (Mon-Fri, 6.00-10.00am, & 10.00am-1.00pm respectively); James O’Brien, Shelagh Fogarty, Eddie Mair, Iain Dale and Nick Abbot on LBC; Lynn Parsons on Magic Radio (weeknights, 8.00pm-midnight); so much of what’s on BBC Radio 4 (but especially Ritula Shah!) and BBC 6Music; and some of what is left of local radio, although that is increasingly difficult (where I live, that means Eagle Radio, and BBC Sussex & Surrey – which covers my part of NE Hampshire).  I just wish I could shake off a lot of the jingles, voiceovers and awful adverts still trapped inside my head from my childhood! (“You could win a holiday for two!”).

Podcasts – sound?

It’s no surprise I struggle to find enough time to listen to podcasts because of the amount of radio I am already listening to – although it’s great there is so much content out there, and it’s never been easier to make yourself heard.  Back in 2017, I spent 18 months pulling together a community podcast network locally, Sound Vault.  There are so many formats – we had an 11 year old who managed to bag an interview with Jeremy Hunt MP; a children’s storyteller producing a podcast who had never used a computer before – and then there was sound design too.

One of the strongest ‘shows’ we delivered was a surreal comedy with ambient soundtrack, called “An Audio Listener’s Guide to Adequate Hearing” by Tom Garrett.  I will leave with a link below, so you can listen to an episode.  As well as reflecting more, it has to be about listening a little more.

Hampshire Day – and the importance of ‘place’

I’ve been enthusiastically marking the first ‘Hampshire Day‘ – established as the 15th July, which is also the feast day of St. Swithun, the patron saint of Winchester Cathedral.

The Hampshire Flag

The day is meant to celebrate the diverse culture, tradition and history of communities across what is often referred to as ‘the first shire‘.

It means a lot to me because, in years of amateur sleuthing, I’ve traced my own family history across many, many generations wandering the fields and commons of this one particular corner of North-East Hampshire – Yateley; Eversley; Minley; Hartford Bridge; Elvetham; Dogmersfield; Crondall; Winchfield; Odiham; Hartley Wintney and over to Sherborne St. JohnTadley and Mortimer – for at least 400 years.

Looking out over the nature reserve at Castle Bottom, which is between Eversley, and what is referred to as Hartford Bridge Flats, Hampshire.

As our lives become more ‘virtual’, and there are less opportunities for people to be brought together to physically interact, counties can be one of those things which help us reclaim a sense of ‘place‘, and even rebuild some ‘spaces’, to be human, to revel and grow in the time spent together, and the relationships generated, rather than society becoming further atomised.

My old terrier, Sparky (rip), preparing for ‘take-off’ on the disused runways at Blackbushe Airport, on Yateley Common, Hampshire.

By some coincidence, it is 41 years ago on this same day – 15th July, 1978 – that Bob Dylan performed at Blackbushe Airport, up on Yateley Common where I live.  I was there as an 8 year old, along with a huge crowd estimated to be in excess of over 200,000 people. More details here.

The airport is as much a part of my home town’s sense of place as anything else – I love nothing more than laying in my back garden and listening to light aircraft coming in to land.  But I would never have dreamt that 41 years after Bob Dylan’s concert (alongside Joan Armatrading and Eric Clapton), that the authorities would have allowed part of Yateley Common which hosted it to be de-registered as common land. Read more here.

Common land.

Common land is an important principle, and I am sure there could have been other ways for the airport’s future to be supported or secured without violating this principle.  I am worried about the precedent it has set – and other issues the decision raises.

But for today, I am flying the flag for ‘Hampshire Day‘ – and celebrating the idea of ‘place‘, and our common spaces.  Let’s cherish them, rather than expend too much time or effort in  allowing them to disappear, merely to pretend to recreate them with private, ‘pseudo’ ones instead.

Postscript:  Some important organisations I’d like to share links with –

Civic Voice / Common Ground / Open Spaces SocietyProject for Public Spaces /

Perfidious Albion

I’ve just emerged from another Sunday morning appointment with the politicians on the TV, accompanied by my only real constant each week, a plate of the kippers that do get my vote (and maintain consistently his satisfaction levels). This week, we really are in the thick of it with the Tory leadership contest, the revelations from Michael Gove about past cocaine use, and trying to come to terms with the very real possibility that Boris Johnson could be our next Prime Minister.

It’s about power – and today, an unsightly race to the top.

As if it couldn’t get any worse, this particular broadcaster served up interviews with Esther McVey and Barry Gardiner, and seriously expected viewers to swallow the proposition that Gove taking cocaine in his 30s could somehow be explained away by him as a ‘mistake’?  The words he was using were somehow expecting us to accept the ‘line’ that it happened when he was ‘very young’ – and that that it was a ‘mistake’ (surely, using it in error when he thought it was salt would have been a ‘mistake’?). Surely his cocaine use was a deliberate choice of a mature man, not a mistake?

I am in total agreement with the position Gove is asking to take – for second chances. I am a big supporter of drugs reform.  But he is expecting us to swallow this, when at the exact same time as he was partaking, he was advocating opposite positions. Politics is nothing if it is not personal not virtual, and watching the dreadful circus performance that is politics today, served up by the likes of McVey, Gardiner and Gove, it is no wonder we have the rise of the likes of the Brexit Party. I support ‘Remain’ to my core. To watch these pantomime moves makes my insides groan, and I see how populism is being fuelled.

We’ve arrived at an extremely opportune moment for me to post a few words about a book I read earlier this year.

I was pleasantly surprised when I discovered “Perfidious Albion” by Sam Byers (2018), [London: Faber & Faber] was on the shelves of my local Hampshire Library in Yateley, and took it as a sign that there is a fellow traveller somewhere on the ‘inside’.  This book, while a work of fiction, is one of the most effective bits of help I’ve discovered  in our common struggle to resist – to help make some kind of understanding of what the hell is going on in the world right now!

Where does “real power” lie?

As Anthony Cummins argues in his Guardian review, it is a book which turns on the question of where “real power” lies.  As we find ourselves forever mired in the pebble-dashing of politics by Brexit, Trump, and syrup-of-figs social media pours on the experience, the book leaves no stone unturned, whether media; politics; ‘place’; class; technology; generational divides – what it means to be ‘human’ – and around every corner provides shuddering parallels with those circus headlines in the news each day.

Indeed, while I was reading the book, one sorry Conservative MP mis-used the title of the book in an EU-bashing speech he was giving, piling grotesqueness upon absurdity.

The book was published well before the BBC’s ‘Years and Years‘ series, and after ‘Black Mirror‘, and essentially deals with similar themes, but offers more penetrating insights, together with a great storyline.  With what happens with every twist of the real news agenda – whether it’s the number of MPs running for the Conservative Party leadership, and admissions of cocaine-taking apparently counting in their favour; or former Loaded magazine journalists winning election to the European Parliament; or world statesmen lying on-the-record, and then lying about those lies – this book helps provide some solidarity in the struggle to understand.  In that respect, it is the best companion I have found, alongside Marina Hyde‘s weekly column’s in the Guardian, and Cold War Steve‘s photo collages.

As Justine Jordan puts in in her Guardian review, it is about the “power of global corporations and the rise of the right”, scrutinising current anxieties. It is “both a rollicking farce of political exhaustion and social collapse, and a subtle investigation into the slippery, ever-evolving relationship between words and deeds”.

In my own town, I’m seeing the closure of the the last high street bank, and there’s rumours of a threat to the Post Office too. As well as our political parties being hollowed out, and the denigration of local services, just look at every other kind of institution, and our ability, whether as consumers or citizens to have any real relationship with them. From our favourite football clubs, to our utility companies. And all the while, public discourse is reduced to something ridiculously binary or banal.

“This is the level at which Brexit infects the book: as a nebulous anxiety about the approaching future, “so rapid in its occurrence and uncertain in its shape”.  Byers dedicates a great deal of time to pricking the self-regarding pretensions of the commentariat, still babbling away when, as Jess puts it, “all the while, outside, in the world they claimed both to consider and depict, events were occurring that shrunk their fears to irrelevance”. They are an easy target, but perhaps that’s the point.”

Seeking a path through it all is not as simple as here – or identifying the source of the power – and they keep trying to force ‘lines to take’ on us!

Perfidious Albion‘ felt too real too me. I’ve pulled back from being embroiled on Twitter, and have certainly recoiled from what Facebook appears to be doing to public discourse.  I’m trying to spend more time out and about where I live with real people, and trying to understand what it means to be human, and about how power works.  Our political parties appear to have given up trying to do that some time ago, with democracy instead being seen as the equivalent to ‘Bandersnatch‘ for politics.

If you haven’t read it yet, you must read ‘Perfidious Albion‘. Much more fruitful than being sucked into the fringe festival on social media to that political circus main event.

The Hows and Whys of the Hampshire heaths

With the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Kingsley, I posted recently about his contribution to a sense of ‘place’ in this corner of North-East Hampshire where I live, which referred to one of his works (“Prose Idylls, New and Old“), and how it described the ‘rough commons’ terrain of the area.

Since that post, I’ve learnt more about another of his works, “Madam How and Lady Why: First lessons in earth lore for children“, where he writes at length about the local landscape, name-checking very specific points on the heaths and commons, and in the woods of the area.

In the chapter titled ‘The Glen‘, he begins;

*You find it dull walking up here upon Hartford Bridge Flat this sad November day? Well, I do not deny that the moor looks somewhat dreary, though dull it need never be. Though the fog is clinging to the fir-trees, and creeping among the heather, till you cannot see as far as Minley Corner, hardly as far as Bramshill woods–and all the Berkshire hills are as invisible as if it was a dark midnight–yet there is plenty to be seen here at our very feet. Though there is nothing left for you to pick, and all the flowers are dead and brown, except here and there a poor half-withered scrap of bottle-heath, and nothing left for you to catch either, for the butterflies and insects are all dead too, except one poor old Daddy-long-legs, who sits upon that piece of turf, boring a hole with her tail to lay her eggs in, before the frost catches her and ends her like the rest: though all things, I say, seem dead, yet there is plenty of life around you, at your feet, I may almost say in the very stones on which you tread. And though the place itself be dreary enough, a sheet of flat heather and a little glen in it, with banks of dead fern, and a brown bog between them, and a few fir-trees struggling up–yet, if you only have eyes to see it, that little bit of glen is beautiful and wonderful,–so beautiful and so wonderful and so cunningly devised, that it took thousands of years to make it; and it is not, I believe, half finished yet.”

For those not so well versed in the area, Hartford Bridge Flat(s) is the long, open , flat area of land, traversed by the A30, and now home to Blackbushe Airport. During WWII when it was first built, it was named RAF Hartford Bridge.  Much of the area is now a nature reserve, home to Yateley Common, and nearby Castle Bottom.

The book is an introduction to the ways of nature (using the ‘fairy’ characters ‘Madam How‘ and ‘Lady Why‘), but for me, it is as much a physical connection with this same area of Hampshire that previous generations of my family would have been roaming at the very same time as Kingsley – in particular, the Vickery family, who, at that time, had lines in Minley, Hawley, Hartford Bridge and Elvetham.  Who knows, some of them may even have stumbled upon each other, although probably not my great, great grandfather Alfred, who was exactly two years old when Kingsley died in 1875. His descendants settled in Eversley, and Yateley.

Looking out over the nature reserve at Castle Bottom, which is between Eversley, and what is referred to as Hartford Bridge Flat(s).

Other mentions for locations on this patch in this book include:-

“All round these hills, from here to Aldershot in one direction, and from here to Windsor in another, you see the same shaped glens; the wave-crest along their top, and at the foot of the crest a line of springs which run out over the slopes, or well up through them in deep sand-galls, as you call them–shaking quagmires which are sometimes deep enough to swallow up a horse, and which you love to dance upon in summer time.”

On Yateley Common at Darby Green, looking back over towards the other side of the Blackwater Valley.

“But what could change a beautiful Chine like that at Bournemouth into a wide sloping glen like this of Bracknell’s Bottom, with a wood like Coombs’, many acres large, in the middle of it?…… and so at last, instead of two sharp walls of cliff at the Chine’s mouth, you might have–just what you have here at the mouth of this glen,–our Mount and the Warren Hill,–long slopes with sheets of drifted gravel and sand at their feet, stretching down into what was once an icy sea, and is now the Vale of Blackwater. And this I really believe Madam How has done simply by lifting Hartford Bridge Flat a few more feet out of the sea, and leaving the rest to her trusty tool, the water in the sky.”

Looking at ‘The Mount’ referred to by Kingsley, from the road outside his rectory in Eversley.

“Water, and nothing else, has sawn out such a chasm as that through which the ships run up to Bristol, between Leigh Wood and St. Vincent’s Rocks. Water, and nothing else, has shaped those peaks of the Matterhorn, or the Weisshorn, or the Pic du Midi of the Pyrenees, of which you have seen sketches and photographs. Just so water might saw out Hartford Bridge Flat, if it had time enough, into a labyrinth of valleys, and hills, and peaks standing along; as it has already done by Ambarrow, and Edgbarrow, and the Folly Hill on the other side of the vale.”

The ‘Welsh Drive’ in Bramshill Forest, looking towards Wales.

Reading the text, and seeing the places name-checked finally inspired me enough to take a walk around Bramshill Woods for the first time this week.  I’d always wanted to see the ‘Welsh Drive‘ for myself – the historic, long-distance drove road along which cattle were herded from Wales to markets south of London, and along the route. I had to stop for a while to feel a connection with the track that is still there today, and which Kingsley must have walked himself.

The ‘Welsh Drive’ in Bramshill Forest, looking towards the A30.

Very little how, why, or wherefore, but I just felt inspired to go out, and to collect these words together too in one place, since they have helped make this place more particular for me as Kingsley’s 200th birthday approaches.

 

Necropolis Railway took me to a dramatic ultimate destination!

A curious railway company, running ‘funeral trains‘ between its own terminus just off London Waterloo, and Brookwood Cemetery in Surrey provides the backdrop to a fantastically atmospheric detective story [“The Necropolis Railway“, Andrew Martin (2005), London, Faber & Faber]. Brookwood was the largest cemetery in the world when it opened, and remains the largest in the UK today.

I’ve spent a lot of time in and around the area where the main character – Jim Stringer – moves to South London from the North-East, to make his way in the world, and within the railway industry. But the ‘Lower Marsh‘ where he lodges, and the ‘Westminster Bridge Road‘ where the ‘Necropolis Railway‘ has its HQ appear to find themselves mired in a darkness through a combination of fog, smog, coal dust, soot, steam and twisted, unfathomable motives which make it unrecognisable from the places I had the pleasure of knowing.

All that remains of the Necropolis Railway branch line, at Brookwood Station, Surrey.

The book inspired me to want to find out more about Brookwood Cemetery, where the railway also had its own dedicated branch line.  I lost myself on the massive site one afternoon, tracing the disused track lines, and seeking quiet corners now as good as ‘wildness’. Living less than 15 miles away from Brookwood, I discovered I was entitled to be ‘laid to rest’ there (it’s not overly far from where I live, over the border in Hampshire, and even closer to where my Dad worked in Surrey, but is in the opposite direction to our centre of gravity, which is why I’d never really visited before).

The visit actually helped change my plans for my own ultimate destination!  Not many books can lay claim to that!

What were the Westminster Bridge Road offices of the real London Necropolis Railway – and its terminus, near Waterloo. Credit: Davidmpye-commonswiki (CC BY-SA 3.0)

One of those books that I read a few months ago, but that somehow, I’ve managed to let a log-jam build up for posting a review – although a log-jam not quite as large as the ‘to-read’ pile growing by the side of my bed.

Brookwood Cemetery – distinctly less cluttered when compared to other cemeteries, with areas of relative ‘wildness’. Credit: Faeden1 (Public Domain)

A book which combines an Edwardian period mystery with rich railway insights for a very specific kind of line (possibly too insightful for some), and shines a light on the ‘business of burial’ makes for a particularly dark tale.  And it helped transport me to a dramatic venue, not only while I was reading it, but for when I really get to ‘The End‘ of my own personal life story!

The Grade II listed monument to Lord Edward Clinton at Brookwood. Credit: Jack1956 (CC1.0)

“Alongside some broad strokes of historical detail…” notes Alex Clark in her Guardian review, “… Martin also displays a real depth of interest in his subject matter. You might not think that 4-4-0 tender engines and K10s will absorb you, but by the end, you’ll be at least semi-fascinated. It’s in no small part down to our sullied interest in today’s rail industry; one of the novel’s most gripping scenes comes as Jim frantically botches his passage through a signal, utterly unaware of whether he “he has the road” or not. Broken rails and self seeking board members also feature.”

If you commute out of Waterloo on South Western Railways towards Woking and beyond, you’ll see the route in a whole new light!

 

Kingsley – making it quite a place

I don’t pretend to be a serious historian, but I do take an interest in the identity of my local area.  I was born in Farnham, on the Surrey/Hampshire border, and spent the entire 18 years of childhood growing up in Yateley, in Hampshire – the town to which I returned some four years ago at the age of 45.  Our neighbouring village is called Eversley.

The village sign indicates the meaning of the village name is ‘wild boar clearing’, in this case, on the edge of Windsor Forest.

Dabbling in my family history, I discovered generation after generation on my Mum’s side, deepening my roots in this area of North-East Hampshire, through Eversley, Elvetham, Hartford Bridge, Minley, Dogmersfield, Crookham, Fleet, Rotherwick, Winchfield, Crondall, Odiham, Dipley, Hazeley Heath, and north towards Tadley and Sherborne St. John too.  I go back around four centuries, before the blood lines start scattering further afield.

‘Place’ is very important to me, but even with the pride I have in this area of North-East Hampshire, I’ve never felt able to pretend to be able to tap into any great wells of social, political or cultural significance for this patch.  There’s always been William Cobbett, but that’s really over the border in Surrey – and of course there’s always been Jane Austen, but somehow, I’ve always felt she’s had too good a PR campaign, with huge swathes of Hampshire laying claim to be ‘Jane Austen country’, even though she probably didn’t have anything to do with huge parts of it.

Jane Austen’s PR machine has been beating Charles Kingsley’s in this corner of Hampshire for some time – take this sign as you cross the River Blackwater from Berkshire into Hampshire as an example.

That’s why I got so excited when I first heard about plans to mark the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Kingsley on the 12th June, with a festival in Eversley – the neighbouring village to Yateley – on the 14th and 15th June.  Kingsley was rector of St Mary’s Church, Eversley from 1844 until his death in 1875, and was ordained in Farnham in 1842.

Charles Kingsley – writer of a diverse range of work; from The Water-Babies, to social commentary and natural history; historian; social reformer (helping to secure child labour reforms); and of course, local Hampshire rector.

I had no real understanding of Kingsley’s true legacy before I heard about the festival (novelist, poet, historian, social reformer, Christian socialist and keen interest in so much more) – and unravelling the various layers to his personality and career have provided an insight into just how much of a significant place Kingsley must have helped Eversley be back in Victorian times.  It has really given me a sense of pride in the relationship between my home town Yateley, and its neighbouring village, Eversley.

WATCH some clips from a BBC series on Kingsley and The Water-Babies, ‘The Secret Life of Books’ – pictured here, a stretch of the River Blackwater. Click on image above.

Kingsley’s friends, correspondents, and possibly visitors:

With Eversley effectively providing the nerve-centre where he was rector, the roll-call of names of Kinglsey’s friends, likely visitors, and correspondence through letters is quite breath-taking, and has helped me see my own ‘backyard’ through a completely different prism.

‘Authors’ (John Stuart Mill; Charles Lamb; Charles Kingsley; Herbert Spencer; John Ruskin; Charles Darwin), pub. by Hughes & Edmunds 1876, ©️ National Portrait Gallery, London. (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

It is likely that this circle could have included John Ruskin (visionary, & critic of art, & architecture); John Stuart Mill (philosopher & political economist); Charles Darwin (geologist, geologist & biologist); Henry Fawcett (economist & statesman) and Millicent Fawcett (campaigner for women’s suffrage); Herbert Spencer (philosopher, biologist & sociologist); Octavia Hill (social reformer); Lewis Carroll (best known as a children’s author); Thomas Hughes (lawyer & politician, best known as author of Tom Brown’s School Days); Frederick Denison Maurice (theologian, and one of the early founders of the Christian Socialism movement); Elizabeth Gaskell (author of Cranford, & North & South); Thomas Cooper (Chartist & poet); Charles Blachford Mansfield (chemist & author); and Charles Dickens.

Queen Victoria and the Prince of Wales

Apparently, Kingsley’s sway in the pulpit could pull in audiences from far and wide, including officers from nearby Sandhurst and Aldershot (Blore, 1920).

St. Mary’s Church, Eversley, Hampshire. Kingsley’s pulpit.

Kingsley’s appointments signpost too just how much influence he must have been able to command.  He was appointed as chaplain to Queen Victoria (1859), and in 1861, a private tutor to the Prince of Wales.  Royal patronage will have helped in his advancement in academic positions.  On Gladstone’s recommendation, with Victoria’s approval, he traded a position as Canon at Chester (1869), for one at Westminster (1873).

Heckfield Place

The front of Heckfield Place, by night.

And just like today, there was Heckfield Place.  Today, it is a source of wonder and speculation, recently snaring the prize as Sunday Times ‘Hotel of the Year’ 2018. and playing home to a range of speakers through ‘The Assembly’ series, such as Dr. Julian Baggini; Viv Groskop and Sir Michael Marmot.  It is inconceivable to think that it did not feature on Kingsley’s radar in some way.

The stunning underground cinema at Heckfield Place plays host to a regular ‘Assembly’ range of talks – I can just imagine a season of Kingsley’s network, back in the day!

Back then it was home throughout Kingsley’s tenure to Charles Shaw-Lefevre.  He was the second-longest serving Speaker of the House of Commons (serving between 1839-1857), who then went on to become Viscount Eversley of Heckfield from 1857-1888.  I’d love to know more.

A bit about the physical place itself

Kingsley wrote of the local ‘commons terrain’  in his book “Prose Idylls: New and Old” (1873), London, Macmillan and Co, and particularly the chapter entitled, ‘Winter Garden‘.  You can find a digital copy of the book here.

from “Winter Garden” – pg 164:  “Grand old moor! stretching your brown flats right away toward Windsor for many a mile – Far to our right is the new Wellington College, looking stately enough here along in the wilderness, in spite of its two ugly towers and pinched waist.  Close over me is the long fir-fringed ride of Easthampstead, ending suddenly in Caesar’s camp; and hounds and huntsmen are already far ahead, and racing up the Roman road, which clods of these parts, unable to give a better account of it, call the Devil’s Highway.”

Castle Bottom, on the edge of Eversley parish – part of that ‘wilderness’ featuring commons, firs and sandy heath to which Kingsley refers.

from “Winter Garden” – Pg 165:  “I respect them, those Scotch firs.  I delight in their forms, from James the First’s gnarled giants up in Bramshill Park – the only place in England where a painter can learn what Scotch firs are – down to the little green pyramids which stand up out of the heather, triumphant over tyranny, and the strange woes of an untoward youth.  Seven years on an average have most of them spent in ineffectual efforts to become a foot high.  Nibbled off by hares, trodden down by cattle, cut down by turf-parers, seeing hundreds of their brethren cut up and carried off in the turf-fuel, they are as gnarled and stubbed near the ground as an old thorn-bush in a pasture.  But they have conquered at last, and are growing away, eighteen inches a year, with fair green brushes silver-tipt, reclothing the wilderness with a vegetation which it has not seen – for how many thousand years?”

More of that ‘Winter Garden’ – pictured here in Spring!

from “Winter Garden: – Pg.169:  “I pass through a gateway, out upon a village green, planted with rows of oaks, surrounded by trim sunny cottages, a pleasant oasis in the middle of the wilderness.  Across the village cricket-ground – we are great cricketers in these parts, and long may the good old game live among us; and then up another hollow lane, which leads between damp shaughs and copses toward the further moor.  Curious things to a minute philosopher are these hollow lanes.  They set him on archaeological questions, more than he can solve; and I meditate as I go, how many centuries it took to saw through the warm sandbanks this dyke ten feet deep, up which he trots, with the oak boughs meeting over his head.”

The view from the top of ‘The Mount’ looking back towards St Mary’s Church, where Kingsley was parish rector, and where the festival takes place.

from “Winter Garden” – Pg 171:  “So I go slowly up the hill, till the valley lies beneath me like a long green garden beneath its tow banks of brown moor; and on through a cheerful little green with red brick cottages scattered all round, each with its large neat garden, and beehives, and pigs and geese, and turf-stack, and clip yews and hollies before the door, and rosy dark-eyed children, and all the simple healthy comforts of a wild ‘heth-croppers’ home.  When he can, the good man of the house works farm labour, or cuts his own turf; and when work is scarce, he cuts copses and makes heath-brooms, and does a little poaching.  True, he seldom goes to church, save to be christened, married or buried: but he equally seldom gets drunk.”

The Revd. Peter Ditchfield made note of this when writing a piece for the nearby Arborfield Local History Society.

“… his “Winter Garden“, that great stretch of country through which you can ride fifteen miles on end, wherein flourish great Scotch firs, bright hollies with their scarlet beads, furze patches rich with its lacework of interwoven light and shade, and the deep soft heather carpet, which invites you to lie down and dream for hours; and behind all the wall of fir-stems, and the dark fir-roof with its jagged edges a mile long against the soft grey sky.

He loved to ride through the fir-forests “with their endless vistas of smooth red green-veined shafts holding up the warm dark roof, lessening away into endless gloom, paved with rich brown fir-needle — a carpet at which nature had been at work for forty years. Red shafts, green roof, and here and there a pane of blue sky, while for incense I have the fresh healthy turpentine fragrance, far sweeter to my nostrils than the stifling narcotic odour which fills a Roman Catholic Cathedral”.

More of the barrenness, this time towards Yateley.

Kingsley admired greatly the grand old moor, stretching its brown flats right away towards Windsor for many a mile, and the green wilderness of self-sown firs. “There they stand in thousands,” he wrote, “the sturdy Scots, colonizing the desert in spite of frost, and gales, and barrenness ; and clustering, too, as Scotsmen always do abroad, little and big, every one under his neighbour’s lee, according to the good old proverb of their native land, ‘Caw me, and I’ll caw thee’. “

Two hundred years on

Kingsley died on 23rd January, 1875, and the breadth of his influence was demonstrated by the attendees at his funeral in Eversley, embracing everybody from the servants of the Bramshill Hunt, and the Gypsies of the local common, to Dean Stanley (the Dean of Westminster) to a representative from the Prince of Wales.

It has certainly made me think a little differently, whenever I might be prone to say, “nothing ever happens here”.  Much of his legacy remains to inspire and challenge, or to be explored.  Unusually in such cases, there is little ‘hype’ to ‘fall for’, which is refreshing.

Eversley today has it’s ‘celebrity’ connections – people like Laura Marling coming from the village, or Sky Sports News presenter Nick Powell living there, and former England cricket captain, Andrew Strauss.  But in Kingsley’s day, it is as if he helped connect the place, and open it to a wider range of influences unrivalled today.

It feels like a real privilege to have the programme of events marking the bicentenary of his birth on 12th June taking place on the 14th and 15th June in the field called ‘The Mount’, opposite the church where Kingsley was rector.

The festival features an outdoor opera spectacular (a ‘cantata dramatica’) based on one of his poems (Andromeda); a puppet-show interpretation of his most famous work (The Water-Babies); a play bring Kingsley back to his old parish today (starring Blue Peter favourite, Peter Duncan); a series of ‘Tent Talks‘ exploring Kingsley’s social, political and cultural legacy; a pageant on the theme of ‘child labour’ – and much more besides.  More at ck200.live .

Those ‘Tent Talks‘ feature a range of academics, including one of the main festival curators, Dr. Jonathan Conlin (University of Southampton); Professor of Economic History, Jane Humphries (Oxford); English Studies lecturer Dr. Jane Ford (University of Teesside);  English Literature lecturer, Dr. Alexandra Gray (University of Portsmouth), and Deisenroth Presidential Professor of the History of Science, Piers J. Hale (University of Oklahoma) – plus professional pundit/priest, Giles Fraser.

Any proceeds from the festival go the local school which bears Kingsley’s name, and the charity, Child Hope UK.

I think the bicentenary is a good opportunity to reassess Kingsley’s contribution to the local area.  If we can put up signs welcoming people to ‘Jane Austen country’ as you enter the county, we must be able to acknowledge Charles Kingsley’s rich contribution to this particular corner of Hampshire in some way?

References:

George Henry Blore; ‘Victorian Worthies – Charles Kingsley’ (1920);

Charles Kingsley; Prose Idylls, New and Old (1873)

Norman Vance: Artist biography of Charles Kingsley;

North Craven Heritage Trust, Journal 2011; ‘Charles Kingsley, Christian Socialist’

 

Lanny

As with the main dynamic of this book, when reviews of Lanny” by Max Porter first started appearing, it was as if I could hear this book talking to me, and I knew I had to read it. I was not disappointed at all.

Bluebell Wood at Eversley, Hampshire.

A number of themes spoke to me.  The first and over-riding one was that of the voice of the land, and the spirit of the generations through time speaking to us through nature, through our landmarks and customs, particularly in rural communities – those kinds of things often referred to as ‘the Particular‘, or celebrated by the likes of Robert MacFarlane.

Having returned to the semi-rural area where I grew up, I have been embraced by the bosom of the common-lands which surround my village, and am never happier than when on a long walk with my dog, and each finding myself travelling through time, imagining myself talking to people who may have previously trodden those same paths, whether ancestors through the generations, or air-crew who served on the old RAF base which are now disused runways, being encroached upon by gorse.

Disused runways at Blackbushe Airport, Hampshire, eith encroaching gorse.

“The village belongs to the people who live in it and to those who lived in it hundreds of years ago.  It belongs to England’s mysterious past and its confounding present.”

The second was the character who lends his name to the book – ‘Lanny’ – a child who who is a bit of a loner, never happier than when playing amongst those rural surrounds, talking to nature – or more accurately, singing to himself.

Little Paul in 1974, most likely to be seen singing/swinging on the garden gate.

One of the first images which was conjured up for me when I returned to the area in 2015 was of me swinging on our front gate, a loner, happy and singing to my heart’s content.  One of our neighbours said it is was her abiding memory of me as a small child.  I had no real memory of this.  Much of the way ‘Lanny’ is described reminds me of how my neighbour described me.  I remember getting an ‘ear’ for stories, listening to my Nan’s conversations with neighbours, as I hid under her kitchen table.

The third is how it deals with more of the darker side of modern discourse – a harshness, a rush to judgement, a binary nature, and the sheer volume of gossip, thanks to social media, particularly thanks to Twitter, and Facebook community groups, but more usually, just simple word-of-mouth.

The book was a sheer joy to read – I just could not put it down.  Some of the devices it deployed gave it a particular excitement.  As a lover of the vernacular, and of picking up on and borrowing snatches of everyday conversations, I was enthralled by how it was able to serve up the nature of village life.  And as a relatively recent subscriber to the embrace of the land, and celebrant of the ways of what are called ‘the particular’, the development of the character ‘Dead Papa Toothwort’ to cast this shadow or articulate its voice was genius. (see also Sarah Ditum, “Max Porter’s Lanny is a story of our fraught relationship to the countryside”, New Statesman, 10/04/19).

I wasn’t expecting the central storyline – I could very easily have still have devoured the book without it – but I suppose we would not have been able to explore many of the aspects without it.

One of the reviews I read said that “It’s not as political commentary or state-of-the-nation study that Lanny speaks most forcefully.  It’s the formal inventiveness that will stay in the mind, the shapes and pairings, the sudden eruptions of imagery.  It’s the idea of Lanny’s DNA as a magic trail shimmering through back gardens and playrooms, or his mother’s dream of herself as a Renaissance painted Madonna.  Porter’s writing is poetically concentrated while also deploying a wonderfully common-or-garden kind of language, loved and used, rolling off the tongue.” (Alexandra Harris, “A joyously stirred cauldron of words” – The Guardian 08/03/19)

While I agree wholeheartedly, I don’t want to lose sight of that wider commentary of taking of the temperature.  I’ve been reading the book with the backdrop of the Local and European Election campaigns of 2019, and the stasis around the downward spiral of the Leave versus Remain circus show.

On a personal level, I’ve never identified more with my four year old self, singing and swinging on that gate than I do today.  I can feel myself retreating from the hot-air and bustle of Twitter (where contributions rarely seem to add anything to a debate, and merely serve to enable the contributor to be seen to be throwing their tuppence into the pool for the benefit of a crowd), and swerving away from, for the main-part, the binary nature of loud, ill-informed postings on community Facebooks.

Castle Bottom, Hampshire – a great place to sit, reflect, & possibly listen out for Dead Papa Toothwort.

Reading ‘Lanny’ has helped me reflect on many of these issues.  I’d ended up working in PR, not just because I wanted to help people amplify their messages, but also to help them understand the benefits of being quiet or silent sometimes when it helps benefit a reputation, or a message to be understood.  All those years ago, when I first started working in such a role, the PR would have more of a ‘gatekeeper’ role, in which ‘listening’ was as crucial a part as the communicating.

Now, with everyone having a myriad of social platforms (and being on them 24/7), that is less so.  Yes – that is great from a democratising perspective.  And yes – there still remains a role for good counsel/advice from the best practitioners in the business.  But for the most part, I can only reflect that it has also meant a huge pressure for those on these platforms (that’s beyond PR) to be saying SOMETHING and generating CONTENT, regardless of the quality – and unbelievably, listening less (even though the platforms could enable them to do this more).  There is more noise than ever out there, and the incentive for it be binary, to be aggressive, and not to adhere to many of those aspects of quality practice built over years of experience – whether journalism, or PR – and some of these themes chimed for me on the central storyline in ‘Lanny’ too.

In the just the last couple of days, two example illustrated this perfectly.  The first was one of the only major ‘televised’ debates of the European Election campaign, broadcast via The Daily Telegraph Twitter page.  While I know Nigel Farage has been showered with milkshake, the level of ‘filth’ in terms of ageist comments that I witnessed about Vince Cable truly shocked me.  Comment, after comment (a torrent) about his physical appearance, his sanitary habits, possible disabilities, the likely onset of dementia – if this is what social media has made possible, or encouraged for our politics, it hurts.  Secondly, we had a police helicopter hover over our street for an hour or so in the middle of the night, which, it transpires, enabled officers to successfully conclude an operation.  All that a local Facebook community group site encouraged local people do was to pile in with hundreds of ill-informed comments, and criticism for the noise the Police made, and how it kept them awake.  I really began to question whether I was living in the same world as some of these people. What was the point?

As Callum McAllister notes in the review of ‘Lanny‘ on ‘The Millions’, writing about the nature of childhood and humanity pointed to in the book, “At one point, Jolie [Lanny’s mother] sees this ‘and she realises their life at home, his time at school, what she thought of as his real existence, was only a place he visited.’  It’s a line that could only have been written by a parent: that realization that something you thought of as entirely yours is an independent being.  That your children exist when you are not there.  That they have a life beyond you.  That for them, as for everyone, they are the absolute centre of their own existence.”

“Porter extends this idea to the village at large but conveys it in the exact opposite way.  He presents it to us, in Dead Papa Toothwort’s all-hearing, typographically experimental prose, as ‘A tapestry of small abuses, fights and littering, lake-loads of unready chemicals piped into my water bed, green and decline, preaching teaching crying dying and walking the fucking dogs, breeding and needing and working.”

“By giving us this stream of unfiltered human self-involvement, Porter shows us the nature of a village as a microcosm of human society, and he shows how difficult it is for people to live with one another.  The existence of characters – such as Lanny and Dead Papa Toothwort – who seem more attuned to the world, suggests that there may be a way out.  Lanny’s character in particular implies that while self-centeredness is intrinsically human, it’s not an inescapable part of the human condition – maybe something learned rather than innate.  Early in the novel, Mad Pete gestures towards it: ‘Maybe it’s just Lanny taking things from whenever he’s been listening, soaking up the sounds of this world and spinning out threads of another.”

“Max Porter’s Lanny is an attempt to capture a village, entirely in language, and it does so by trying to represent the village’s breadth of narrative voices.  It’s an ultimately empathetic, even humanist project.  But its representation isn’t always positive.  People are human.  They’re unsympathetic, rude, racist, ungenerous, speculative.  They beat up pensioners and make false accusations and invite hysteria and sensationalism.  They can be judgemental neighbours or maybe self aggrandising, polluters or gardeners.  But in the act of reading, we’re made a mute witness to them.  Like Lanny and Dead Papa Toothwort, or Porter himself, we are made active, careful listeners.  In doing so, we give them space to speak.  We can’t live each other’s experience.  But we can start by listening to them.” (Callum McAllister , “The Choir of Man: Max Porter’s Lanny Wants You To Listen” – The Millions, 25/03/19)

Listen – the sequoia tree at St. Mary’s Church, Eversley, Hampshire.

We have forgotten what it means to be human.  It does not mean rejecting technology, but it does mean using it in a more savvy fashion – and using it in tandem with the physical and human infrastructure around us – people and places.  Not only will it improve the nature and effectiveness of our everyday discourse, it might also ensure we save ourselves from systems failure.  It certainly means we start listening to each other much more, rather than shouting at each other, or talking about each other in an ill-informed fashion for no particular reason other than to show-off or to entertain.

As Harris notes in her review, “Porter is telling stories that link the immediate crises of individual lives with ancient, ageless currents of feeling and experience.”  As I was focusing, reading the book, this was certainly something I was feeling.

And as Harris concludes, “The novel, though short, is optimistically intent on evoking forms of growth that capaciously accommodate all manner of personal trials and English emergencies, cumulatively making a kind of peace.”

Despite all the darkness and noise out there, and the twists and turns of the book, reading “Lanny” gave me a sense of hope.

 

 

Till the Cows Come Home

There hasn’t been a review of a book appear round these parts in quite a while.  It’s not been for the want of investing energy in attacking the pile of ‘must read‘ books by the side of my bed – hopefully I will get around to reviewing them soon.  But as soon as I had devoured Sara Cox’s memoir of childhood on and around a Lancashire farm – “Till the Cows Come Home” (2019, London: Coronet, Hodder Books), I felt compelled to put that right.

Her book is a warm, intimate journey through her formative years, and family foundations, and I just loved it.  Hankering down over a few evenings to read it with my terrier Poppy was a sheer joy, and provided us with some quality time too.  The book had particular resonance for me – not just because I had the privilege of working with Sara when I worked at in the PR team at BBC Radio 1 over twenty years ago now, but because her book took me back to many similar component parts of my formative years.

Settled down with my terrier Poppy to read Sara’s book over a few evenings.

Yes, it was the same era providing the backdrop, through the 70s, 80s and into the early 90s, but it was also many elements of the story itself.  Much of the book plays out on the farm of her Dad, Len.  My Grandad spent much of his life working with livestock and on the farm, and for much of my early childhood was driving cattle, horses and pigs.  And, like her Mum, Jackie, running things behind the bar, particularly at the club, my Dad was a steward too.  So many of the glimpses of life Sara provides in the book were particularly evocative – I was taken right back to the smell of stale beer behind the bar with my Dad, Tony (he was always obsessed with cleaning the pipes), or the smell of the cattle lorries with my Grandad, ‘Dutch’, so ‘Thank you’!

My Dad, Tony in his natty steward’s uniform, ready to go and serve behind the bar.  We lived upstairs in the steward’s quarters for a bit.

Sara’s style of writing is as lucid and as easy as her delivery on the radio – these days on drivetime on BBC Radio 2.  It came as no surprise to me that as soon as I said I had bought her book, my Mum, my Sister, and my Auntie Eileen were forming an orderly queue to read it after me!  That never happens with the books I usually buy!

And it demonstrates why, at a recent conference I attended, organised by the Rural Services Network, looking at the need for Government to develop a rural strategy, Sara’s name kept coming up as a popular name from the audience as someone who could help rural voices be better heard, rather than the stereotypes which routinely dominate.   Sara is one of those names held with real affection across generations in the UK, and garners real respect because of her wit, warmth and intelligence – and she says it ‘as it is’.

My Gramps (centre) worked on farms much of his life, and drove cattle, horses and pigs.

I don’t often buy celebrity biography type books – I’d made an exception in this case because it was about someone in radio, and by someone I’d had the privilege to work with, and feel a great affection for.  But in any case, it isn’t that kind of book.  There is much about the fragilities of facing growing up, about the nature of friendship, and above all, about ‘home’.

The trucks from ‘B.N. Gray’ which we most associated my Gramps with, transporting horses, cattle and pigs.

Sara demonstrates her talent for making people laugh.  It ends with the story of how she successfully auditioned for what was to be her big break into TV (and ultimately radio) with Channel 4’s The Girlie Show, turning her natural skills to her advantage after a period of modelling which took in time in New York, Japan, South Korea – and on the front of packets of tights in Boots wherever you might find them.

But the book ultimately isn’t about that.  It is about navigating childhood, particularly on a farm (and at times, on horseback).  It is warm, funny and hugely reflective – and the chapter headings are just so well deployed – whether that involves jubblys or perms.  Thoroughly recommend you read this book!