from BARDO

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?

– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.

Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.

Roselle Angwin

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

from the ragbag: 4 books

Well, since I came back from all that silence and solitude and writing time in the Forest I've stepped into an accelerator machine – it's been frantic, with courses to design, prep, advertise and lead, admin to do, the veg, bee and herb gardens at their peak and needing a lot of time, two elderly and slightly senile animals taking up many hours of care, and a full household with much bread to make to keep us all going.

Then there's political stuff, with Green, Progressive Alliance and Labour Party/Momentum meetings to try and make sense of the mess that is Britain right now (and as for the climate change fiasco: see here).

In between, I've been redrafting The Book, which is itself a ragbag needing much sorting, untangling and stitching back together.

So today's is a ragbag blog that is basically a brief summary of 4 books I've read recently (in addition to the ongoing pile of non-fiction that doesn't seem to diminish). I feel embarrassed about giving you Amazon links, but at least you can read the blurb and any reviews and then order the books elsewhere!

Oh and I'm going to be opportunistic and ask whether, if you've read any of my books, you might write a short review on Amazon – it makes a massive difference to sales, and given that most authors earn a pittance from their booksales that's very welcome indeed. Indeed.

The first is At Hawthorn Time, by Melissa Harrison (Bloomsbury). Set over the course of one month, a May, this subtle novel unfolds with the life-stories of the protagonists spooling out against lyrical and exquisitely-observed detail of the natural world and its cycles of change. Harrison knows her plants, and a brief litany-like list of plants and weather heads each chapter. (Pay attention to these, as they offer symbolic insights into the phase of the story.) Some reviews complain that 'nothing happens', which is not true; but the plot is slow and the inexorability of the collision of four lives very subtly handled. The ending shifts the narrative into something else; it made me want to go back and read it all again.

The next is a beautiful thing: Hidden Landscapes of the South West Coast Path (Halsgrove), in full colour (the photographs are atmospheric). The author, Ruth Luckhurst, was the recent official writer of the guides to 500+ circular walks on the 630 miles of the SWCP commissioned by the South West Coast Path association. In the writing of these, she of course walked many hundreds of extra miles. This hardback book scoops up all the detail that Luckhurst had to leave out, and her passion for her subject enlivens the book's detailing of the prehistory, history, social history, natural history, geology and legends that have shaped this long distance walk from Minehead to Poole around the edges of the land in Cornwall. If, like me, you are an aficionado of the coastal walks of the Westcountry, this one's a keeper. (I have, however, to declare an extra interest in that the author is my sister.)

My fascination for all things Camino, as well as for the therapeutic values of walking in general, and my acquaintance with Victoria Field and her writing meant that I was awaiting the publication of Field's latest book, Baggage – A Book Of Leavings (Francis Boutle) with enthusiasm. Field's straightforward and intimate style is such that you are drawn into the story immediately, and it is one of those books that led me to feel bereft at its closing. What she's achieved with this book, which details her walk over the last section of the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostella in northern Spain, is a perfect intermeshing of the sensory and inner-journey aspects of such a walk with the outer experience of people and places met and then left behind; but more, with the unravelling of her marriage to an older and well-known author. The book reads as a much bigger journey than what was, in fact, for her less than two weeks on the track. Her own sense of spirituality soaks the pages but is never offputting, and because she's a poet she describes even little things with such attention that you are there with her.

Jill Paton-Walsh was one of my favourite writers of pony books when I was a child. When she wrote Knowledge of Angels, she couldn't initially find a publisher for it, perhaps because she had made her name as a children's author. Then she self-published, and was shortlisted for the Booker (disheartened novelists out there take note), and picked up by Black Swan. I've had the book on my shelves unread for many years. I can't think why I hadn't ever read it before: perhaps the first page didn't engage me and I judged it on that day and a small dose of ADHD on my part I guess. I've recently finished it and – wow. What a coup. It's a beautifully-conceived novel of ideas. Set in the Middle Ages on a fictional Mediterranean island, it revolves around a good plotline, and a central philosophical debate which, in the end, because of dogma, faith and doubt, and good men with flawed beliefs simply being human, will involve the Inquisition and tragedy. I was completely absorbed in it. I shan't tell you the story, except that it is two storylines that come together: that of a wolfchild and a castaway. This one will stay with me.


Meantime, if you are a novelist, whether novice or experienced, and need a bit of a shove, I'm offering a non-residential Novelists' Bootcamp weekend of intensive work-in-progress critical feedback in Devon in October, based on a course I've been leading since 1998 (The Guardian gave the first course a whole-page feature, and Robert Hale commissioned the book of it). The course is limited to six places, of which two are taken.


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