Judging a book by its cover – the book as art and artefact

I have always been fascinated by old books and their tooled and gilded bindings.  Years ago, when I worked at an academic library in Cambridge, a favourite part of my job was to carefully rub a special kind of polish into the leather covers to keep them fed and supple.  I would fetch the key to the climate-controlled, fireproof strong room in which the ‘special’ books were stored, select a volume which looked in need of attention, and get to work with a soft cloth.  As I worked, I would marvel at the intricate designs, and above all at the antiquity of these objects – we held books dating back to less than a century after Gutenberg’s revolutionary invention of printing with moveable type, most of them in their original bindings.  Whose hands had touched these covers and turned these pages before me?

Recently I was able to visit a remarkable exhibition at the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth.  Entitled Beautiful Books, the exhibition consists of twenty-two books and an accompanying film which show the bookbinding process.  Perhaps counterintuitively for a library, the emphasis is not on the content of the books, but on their bindings.  Created between 1849 and 1993, the books showcase the talents of remarkable bookbinders whose work goes far beyond simply making covers to protect the words within.

Colour photograph of the binding of Houses of Leaves, poems by Dafydd ap Gwylim, binding by Julian Thomas.  Image: Julian Thomas/National Library of Wales.
Houses of Leaves, poems by Dafydd ap Gwylim. Binding by Julian Thomas. Image: Julian Thomas/National Library of Wales

For a few years, I subscribed to the Folio Society, and a number of attractively-bound limited edition volumes were added to my bookshelves.  Apart from that, I have had little exposure to modern binding, and this exhibition was therefore quite an eye-opener for me.  As I worked my way around the glass cabinets, a number of themes emerged.

These bindings are works of art, and not just in the way one says of something impressive, ‘wow, that’s a work of art!’  These fine bindings create pictures, images, in way that is reminiscent of textile art.  They use of blocks and lines of colour, gilding, texture, and motifs which respond to the subject of the book, combine to make artworks which stand in their own right.

Stylistically, they are very much of their time.  For example, the binding by Elizabeth Greenhill for Louis MacNeice’s The Burning Perch (1963) put me in mind of a tapestry by Graham Sutherland, and would not have looked out of place scaled up on the wall of a brutalist concrete building on the South Bank in London. 

In many cases, it really is possible to judge the book by its cover, as the binding gives a hint or preview of the contents.  For example, the cover created by Julian Thomas for Houses of Leaves, a translation of the work of fourteenth-century Welsh poet Dafydd ap Gwylim by Rachel Bromwich, published in 1993, takes its inspiration from the book’s title, and features lines based on the outlines of leaves and the tendrils of foliage which ornament medieval manuscripts.  And with the binding for Across the Straights by Kyffin Williams, Thomas’ collaboration with arguably Wales’ most famous artist results in Williams’ essential simplification of landscape being transferred to the book’s cover.

Colour photograph of the binding of Across the Straits by Kyffin Williams, binding by Julian Thomas.  Image: Julian Thomas/National Library of Wales
Across the Straits by Kyffin Williams, binding by Julian Thomas. Image: Julian Thomas/National Library of Wales

As a writer, it is a strange experience for me to be looking at books as artefacts as well as texts (or indeed as artefacts instead of texts – with the exhibits contained within glass cases, it is of course not possible to interact with the printed words within).  This has made me muse about the books I own.  Are some of these, too, artefacts rather than just texts?  Do I choose to have them because they symbolise my aspirations to be knowledgeable, cultured, or well-read (whether or not I’ve actually read them)?  Do some of them earn their place on the shelves because of the tactile quality of their bindings, or their attractive cover designs?  There are certainly some books I have bought because I was entranced by their covers, and others where I have been pleasantly surprised when their plain, worthy covers prove, on actually reading the book, to belie the fascinating content.  Book covers matter.

The exhibition Beautiful Books continues at the National Library of Wales until 9 December 2022- more details here: https://www.library.wales/visit/things-to-do/exhibitions/beautiful-books

Just upstairs from this exhibition is another, which also caused me to think about the significance of books.  Beibl i Bawb (A Bible for All) celebrates the four hundredth anniversary of the publication, in 1620, of the translation that became the standard text of the bible in Welsh until the 1980s.  The significance of the Welsh bible goes far beyond religion – as with many languages, the standard translation defined the language, providing a benchmark for written Welsh and a foundation for cultural and literary life to the present day.

Colour photograph of Mary Jones' bible.  Image reproduced by kind permission of the Bible Society
Mary Jones’ bible. Image reproduced by kind permission of the Bible Society

Here, too, I am brought face to face with the book as artefact.  In this case, it is the bible owned by Mary Jones.  Her barefoot journey across North Wales in 1800 to buy her own copy of the bible in her own language has become a story that is told across the world.  This object – dark with use and age – is more than a book.  It connects us to an individual, a real person who held it and turned its pages, and also to a whole history of a language and the people who speak it.  And it tells the story of reading – at that time, Wales had one of the highest rates of literacy in the world thanks to the ‘circulating schools’ pioneered by Griffith Jones and his successors, which would come to a district for a while and teach people of all ages and genders to read, the aim being that they would be able to read the bible for themselves.  Literacy was perceived as what we still know it to be today – the gateway to knowledge and independent learning that can change lives.  Mary Jones’ bible is symbolic of the world of words and ideas that was opened up to her when she learned to read.  There can be few greater gifts than the ability to read.

The exhibition Beibl i Bawb (A Bible for All) is on until 2 April 2022 – more details here: https://www.library.wales/visit/things-to-do/beibl-i-bawb

I am committed to making this blog freely available, and not putting material behind a paywall. As a writer, I am doing what I love – but I still have to make a living. If you have enjoyed this post, and if you are able to do so, perhaps you would consider supporting my work by making a small contribution via the Buy Me A Coffee button. Thank you!

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2021 – My Year In Books

2021 – My Year In Books

New Year’s Eve has come upon me suddenly – in the limbo between the public festivals of Christmas and New Year, the days seem to merge into each other, especially this year when the grey skies touch the ground (alternating occasionally with thick fog) and it never seems to get properly light.  There have been a lot of ‘best books of 2021’ posted on social media over the past few weeks, and it set me thinking about what I have read this year.  Some I have reviewed on this blog or in other publications, but others I have read simply for pleasure or out of curiosity.  Here, in roughly chronological order, are my top 10 books of 2021.

Mudlarking: Lost and Found on the River Thames by Lara Maiklem.  I originally bought this for my beachcombing mother-in-law, but it looked so interesting that I got a copy for myself too.  The author posts prolifically on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, so the book is very much a starting point for an ongoing engagement with the finds that emerge from the Thames, and the stories and history behind them.  Maiklem moves down the river, from the tidal head at Teddington to the estuary at Southend-on-Sea, telling the story of the riverbank, the characters who inhabit(ed) it, and her own experience of mudlarking along the shore and the artefacts she has discovered.  The book sits between travel writing, social history, and memoir, and is accompanied by photographs of some of the finds she refers to.  I am always entranced by the humble objects, sometimes lost for centuries, which give a glimpse into people’s everyday lives, so for me this book was a treasure trove.

Ghost Town: a Liverpool Shadowplay, by Jeff Young was another book which was originally a gift which I ended up reading myself.  This had a personal resonance for me, as the streets which Young describes so evocatively were trodden by my own father, half a century earlier.  Many of the places are familiar to me from tracing my family history.  In Young’s luminous memoir, he walks through his ‘ghost town’, and explores themes of metamorphosis – his own, and that of the city of Liverpool –and loss, remembering and mis-remembering.  A compelling narrative, highly recommended for anyone interested in place writing.

Next up was The Screaming Sky by Charles Foster, illustrated by Jonathan Pomroy.  I read this just a few days before the swifts arrived from Africa, perfect timing for this love song to the marvel of nature that is the swift.  Born of a passion bordering on the obsessional, Foster’s book describes the bird’s life-cycle, its mind-boggling feats of aerobatics and endurance, its biology, and the history of humans’ relationship with the species.  I wrote a full review on this blog here.

Where? Life and death in the Shropshire hills by Simon Moreton was a new departure for me – I have no experience of the graphic novel/zine genre which Moreton specializes in, and this innovative book combines text with illustration and collage in a way I’ve not seen done before.  Where? is a memoir, in which Moreton juxtaposes the narrative of his father’s illness and death with memories of a childhood in rural Shropshire, in a landscape dominated by the presence of Titterstone Clee which looms over the surrounding countryside, and near the summit of which is a radar station where Moreton’s father worked.  Again, this is place writing about somewhere I know slightly, and I enjoyed reading it, admiring the weaving together of the two strands.  I am aware, though, that there were aspects I didn’t ‘get’ because I don’t have the visual lexicon to understand the artwork which is such a large component of this book.

A Still Life: A Memoir by Josie George.  I have followed Josie George on Twitter for a long time, and pre-ordered this book when she announced its publication.  However, it took me a long time to summon up the courage to read it.  In a year where so many themes were dark and hopeless, it seemed perverse to read an account of disability and chronic illness.  I was wrong.  George’s account of her life with a condition which long defied diagnosis and which continues to deliver twists and turns of challenge and disability, is full of light, hope and love.  Not that there is any false cheeriness here – she pulls no punches about the pain and hardships of her situation – nor is there any of the ‘disabled person as an inspiration to us all’ nonsense.  This is an exceptional person, taking life one moment at a time, doing what she can, not doing what she can’t, refusing to get frustrated, determined to continue loving, convinced that the world is good, that life is good, that being alive is the most amazingly wonderful thing, to be savoured and celebrated in whatever way we can in that moment.  It is heartwarming, not in an It’s A Wonderful Life kind of way, but in a way that stays with you, challenging the way you look at the world, at each small moment of our small lives.

The Long Field by Pamela Petro is again memoir/place writing about somewhere I know – in this case, Petro’s love affair with rural Wales started in Lampeter, at the university we both attended.  I reviewed The Long Field here.

Fifty Sounds by Polly Barton was initially quite a challenging read (I don’t do philosophy, which dominates the opening chapters) but my persistence was rewarded by an insightful exploration of how language and culture influence and shape each other.  Barton tells of her experiences as an English teacher in Japan, and the fifty sounds of the title (which form the chapter headings) are onomatopoeic words in Japanese which she unpacks in her journey into Japanese language and culture, and into her own personality.  I wrote a full review for the Cardiff Review.

You will have noticed that all the titles in this list are non-fiction.  I have struggled with reading fiction since the beginning of the pandemic, but The Listeners by Edward Parnell may have rehabilitated me.  This clever, taut, beautifully written delight gave me more reading pleasure than anything else this year, and I reviewed it joyfully here on this blog.

Finally, two books which I am still reading.  Light Rains Sometimes Fall: a British Year Through Japan’s 72 Seasons by Lev Parikian is arranged in short chapters covering 5 or six days each, in which Parikian closely observes the natural world around him, partly through pandemic lockdowns, noticing details of the changing seasons.  I am a big fan of Parikian’s nature writing, and as I’m consciously attempting to live more in the present (rather than the past or the future) I liked the idea of reading this in ‘real time’, a chapter at a time for a whole year.  The current ‘season’ is called ‘Storms Sometimes Blow,’ which seems about right! 

As an utter map nerd, and a fan of his other writing, it was inevitable that I would eventually read Map Addict by Mike Parker.  At the time of writing, I am halfway through this blend of memoir, cartographical history, and celebration of the glorious Ordnance Survey map, and it’s so nice to connect with a fellow map addict! (I’ve written about the origins of my own map obsession here).

And, on this last day of 2021, I bring you good news – I have a whole lot more books lined up to read in 2022!  My ‘To Be Read’ pile includes poetry, a lot of exciting non-fiction, and even (tentatively) a bit of fiction.  I can’t wait!

Wishing you a Happy New Year.

Photograph of the books referred to in this blog post.

I am committed to making this blog freely available, and not putting material behind a paywall. As a writer, I am doing what I love – but I still have to make a living. If you have enjoyed this post, and if you are able to do so, perhaps you would consider supporting my work by making a small contribution via the Buy Me A Coffee button. Thank you!

Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com

Belated book review – The Listeners by Edward Parnell

It grieves me that it took so long for me to get round to reading this book.  I know Ed Parnell, and have read his non-fiction Ghostland, so I knew his debut novel would be good.  But the arrival of my signed copy of The Listeners was followed closely by the arrival of Covid and the first lockdown, and I suddenly found it impossible to read fiction.  It was as if the surreality of real life, with everything we took for granted suddenly swept away into an unknowable and dystopian future, seemed to make my brain incapable of coping with imagined realities.  I had a large ‘to be read’ pile which included a number of fiction books by authors I knew I liked, but each one was closed and put aside after only a few pages.  I just couldn’t hack fiction. 

For a year and a half I read only non-fiction.  Then, last summer, I started re-reading the Golden Age crime fiction collection on my Kindle (Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, Margery Allingham).  These were safe, generally not graphically violent, with structures that were familiar and worlds which trundled along on their predictable tracks.  All very comforting.  Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm, too.  But it has taken until last week for me to feel up to tacking new, more challenging fiction.  It was time to open The Listeners.

I love this book.  I’m sad I’ve finished it – I eked out the last few chapters over several days, to put off the moment when it would be over.  It is a treat, a gem, a perfectly-formed little treasure, like a beautifully crafted piece of work by a skilled artisan.  It is utterly beguiling.  And yes, I know that sounds hyperbolical, but I mean every word.

The Listeners is set in the wartime years of the 1940s in rural Norfolk – in an area near to where I used to live, so I recognize the descriptions of landscape and wildlife that provide the staging for the events of the book.  It is not so much the events that carry the reader forward, as the voices of the various narrators who take turns to give their perspectives.  It takes quite a while to work out which, if any, of the narrators are reliable.  Much of the action is in the shadow of events up to a generation earlier, events which are only hinted at.  The way those past events, and their implications for the present and the future, are gradually and subtly revealed to us is a masterclass in understated writing.  At several points in the narrative, I had a sudden, nauseating jolt as I realized what was actually being referred to, what it was that had happened and was not being talked about, or what was, with a sickening inevitability, going to happen next.

It is, in many ways, a dark book.  Anyone who has read Ghostland will know that Edward Parnell is an aficionado of the dark, the weird, of things hinted from the shadows.  The Listeners, which predates Ghostland, should really be depressing – I can’t tell you about all the motifs because it would spoil the plot for you, but let’s say that most kinds of violence, abuse, betrayal and grief feature in it – but the writing is so beautiful and the characters so deftly painted that it glows with chiaroscuro like the work of an Old Master.

The pace is measured – a pace appropriate to country folk who are, despite the upheavals of WWII, simply getting on with the necessary cycle of the agricultural year and domestic life – but the book never drags.  The change of voice with each chapter shifts our viewpoint, keeps the reader on their toes (and often doubting everything they’ve just read in the previous chapter).  And the ending – with the reader now knowing something which the protagonists do not – is genius.

The Listeners (the title is borrowed from the poem by Walter de la Mare, for reasons which will be come apparent) won the Rethink New Novels Competition in 2014 – this is another reason why I am calling this a ‘belated’ review.  The good news for those of us who are late to the party is that it is still available to buy (direct from the author at https://edwardparnell.com/buy-signed-copies/, or from Amazon as a print-on-demand book or on Kindle).  I have reviewed a lot of books this year which I have very much enjoyed but, for me, this is my book of 2021.  I just wish I could un-read it so that I could have the joy of reading it again for the first time.

I am committed to making this blog freely available, and not putting material behind a paywall. As a writer, I am doing what I love – but I still have to make a living. If you have enjoyed this post, and if you are able to do so, perhaps you would consider supporting my work by making a small contribution via the Buy Me A Coffee button. Thank you!

Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com

Book review – The Long Field by Pamela Petro

First, a confession.  Reading Pamela Petro’s The Long Field was an exercise in nostalgia for me.  I followed Petro to the university at Lampeter in West Wales (‘Probably the smallest university in the world,’ as the T-shirts in the Students’ Union shop proclaimed, Carlsberg advert-style) just four years later.  All her descriptions ring so very true for me, were part of the landscape of my own young life.  Even the cottage she lived in is well known to me, as a friend of mine rented it in my first year – I can picture myself back in that kitchen, drinking tea, watching my friend making jelly for dessert.  My challenge in writing this review has been to come to the book from the outside, as it were, rather than from that place of shared experience.

The Long Field is, fundamentally, about hiraeth, a complex Welsh word which encompasses elements of longing, nostalgia, distance, absence, homesickness.  It is famously untranslatable into English.  But the book is also a love story.  A love story on several levels, most obviously Petro’s sudden, unexpected, and deep passion for the landscape of rural Wales – again, something which resonates with me.  But it is also about her relationships with her partner and with her parents, and an exploration of the complexities of those relationships.  Perhaps it is an acknowledgement that love stories more nuanced than ‘boy meets girl and they live happily ever after’ are part of the lived experience of queer writers.

Although Petro is passionate about Wales – her Wales – she manages to stop short of being entirely rose-tinted about it.  She acknowledges some of the nuanced complexity of Welsh identity and history, some of the ways in which her adopted homeland’s sense of itself as a colonial victim of English occupation can hold it back.  As someone who has lived in Wales for a significant part of my adult life, it seems to me that Petro’s analysis of Wales is predominantly rural – the Wales of Ceredigion and the Cambrian Mountains – and intellectual and cultural.  She does nod at the life of the Valleys, especially as she was in Wales in 1984 during the miners’ strike, but the industrial and post-industrial conurbations of South and North-East Wales, the product of migration from within Wales and beyond, are not the Wales that she knows and loves.  Her Wales is that of the past etched into the landscape of the present.  Of people connected, umbilically, to the places that shaped the generations before them.  Of story made tangible in the land.  Landscape – not only the fields, the mountains, the hills, but also the cultural echoes, the resonance that they have – is what Petro loves.  Her inexplicable feeling of having ‘come home’ to that landscape when she, an American with no Welsh antecedents, arrived in Lampeter in 1983 is the starting point for the experiences that have shaped this book.

The Long Field is a remarkable book.  Although it self-identifies on the cover as ‘A Memoir,’ it draws together strands of history, travelogue, a whistle-stop tour of Welsh literary heritage, place writing, pronunciation notes for the Welsh place names, linguistic detours, a coming-out narrative, family saga, and an exploration of identity.  It is this last element, I think, which is the most important.  Can someone identify with a place which they are not ‘from’ but where they nevertheless felt a shock of recognition when they first encountered it?  Yes, says Petro – but is she is not claiming Welshness.  Rather like entering into a relationship with a lover from a different culture who speaks a different language, she seeks – respectfully, gently – to learn, to understand, to value what the beloved values.  What Petro found when she found her Wales filled a profound void in her psyche, provided a connectedness between the people of the present and the past which her upbringing in suburban America had not.  In an era when more people than ever are living where we are not from, The Long Field has much to say about place, identity, past, present – and future.

The Long Field by Pamela Petro is published by Little Toller Books.  ISBN 9781908213853

I am committed to making this blog freely available, and not putting material behind a paywall. As a writer, I am doing what I love – but I still have to make a living. If you have enjoyed this post, and if you are able to do so, perhaps you would consider supporting my work by making a small contribution via the Buy Me A Coffee button. Thank you!

Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com

Guest blog post by Liza Achilles: 3 Lessons I Learned From Writing a Historical Novel

I am delighted to welcome Liza Achilles, a blogger based in Washington DC, USA, who has written a guest post for The Three Hares Blog.

Writing a historical novel was one of the most interesting activities I have done in my life. Unlike many other types of novel writing, historical novel writing requires a large amount of research. That research comes in several forms, as I will explain in this article. Below are 3 lessons I learned about writing a historical novel during my novel-writing journey. Perhaps these tips will help you if you tackle a historical novel project of your own.

#1 The Value of Visiting University Libraries

When I began researching my historical novel, I considered any book on my topic to be relevant. I stocked up on books from local bookstores and libraries. But I quickly discovered that not every book is of the same quality. Some books contain errors, unfair stereotyping, or generalities that gloss over key points. The books available at local bookstores and libraries were good for a cursory introduction to my subject; but to go deeper, I needed a university library.

I was fortunate that my husband (at the time) was affiliated (at the time) with first one university library and then another. Spouses were given, as a perk, a library card. I imagine that for some spouses, that wasn’t much of a boon. For me, it was a golden ticket to the stacks! (Many university libraries allow you to get a library card for a nominal fee if you don’t have a connection to the library.)

The excitement of browsing the stacks – there’s nothing like it. I would look up a subject on a computer and find a few call numbers. I would venture into some dark and crowded corner of some tower, and locate my book. I would then browse all of the nearby books, looking for something new and interesting. Often the book I took home would not be the book whose call number I found, but a book nearby in the stacks.

It was only with the help of these university books that I was able to correct errors, debunk stereotypes, and dig into important nitpicky details. All of this information was essential to crafting a novel that was as faithful as possible to the reality of what happened during my target time period.

#2 The Value of Visiting Historical Sites

No book about a location can replace a visit to that location. Books can and should supplement a visit. But there’s something powerful and special about experiencing a location in person – even if your visit does, of necessity, occur tens or hundreds of years after your target historical time.

Many historical sites have museums, plaques, monuments, grounds, or reenactments whereby you can immerse yourself in the history of the place. You can view some of the actual objects used by people during the historical period and walk on the actual terrain that was walked on back then. You can also talk with historical experts and read the extensive information provided at such sites.

I found immense value in visiting not just the site where my novel takes place, but also nearby and related sites. It’s always instructive to compare and contrast sites, to take in what is the same and consider what is different, and thus to better home in on your target historical location.

I also recommend touring public lands that aren’t part of any museum. Every place has its own flora and fauna, its own terrain and aura. Soak in the feel of the place, while being careful to distinguish between how things were during the historical time and how things are now. For example, invasive species might now inhabit the area, while other species might have gone extinct. Water levels and the climate might be different. (You can find this information through books and the Internet.)

#3 The Value of Using Primary and Secondary Sources

When researching a historical period, it’s important to distinguish between primary and secondary sources. Primary sources are writings done by people during the target time period. Secondary sources are writings done by people who came later, who wrote about the primary sources (or about other secondary sources).

Primary sources are a must-read because these are the people who were present when the action was happening. They are closest to your targeted time period and thus can be considered, in a way, most reliable. However, in another way, their reliability must be evaluated carefully, since being close to the action can result in all-too-human biases, mistakes, and sometimes even lies. This is where secondary sources come in.

Secondary sources are a must-read because these are the people who have carefully evaluated the quality of the primary sources and drawn conclusions not obvious in the primary sources. When well written, secondary sources are extremely reliable, and they may correct any factual errors, biases, or lies in the primary sources. However, when not well written, they may perpetuate errors, biases, or lies, or introduce new ones.

The bottom line is, dig into both primary and secondary sources, but read them critically and evaluate their reliability.

Conclusion

Research for a historical novel comes in several different forms. You might spend time visiting university libraries, touring historical sites, and consulting primary and secondary source materials. These activities helped me immensely while crafting my historical novel.

Are you working on a historical novel? What lessons are you learning from the experience?

Liza Achilles is a writer, editor, poet, and coach based in the Washington, D.C., area of the USA. She blogs about seeking wisdom through books and elsewhere at lizaachilles.com.

Guest blog post for Liza Achilles (lizaachilles.com)

It’s always a great pleasure to be invited to be a guest blogger, and today’s post is for fellow-blogger Liza Achilles. She asked me to reflect on a book that has influenced my life, and my response is a piece called Words, Words, Words – The Book That Made Me a Writer (the picture might just give you a clue about which book that is!). Head on over to lizaachilles.com to have a read – and while you’re there, do have a look at her posts on seeking wisdom through books and elsewhere.

Book Review – The Screaming Sky by Charles Foster

This book arrived three days before the swifts returned to the skies above Somerset.  When I unwrapped the tissue-packed parcel, I was captivated by the cover – Jonathan Pomroy’s illustrations are so evocative of the drama and vertiginous speed of these remarkable, ancient birds.

The Screaming Sky is a book born of an obsession.  On his own admission, Charles Foster is obsessed with swifts – where others might be content to watch them in the skies over Oxford, and be blessed by their occupation of nest sites in the roof of his house, Foster travels on pilgrimage to see them in Spain, Greece and Israel, as well as in the tropical heat and humidity of their African winter homes.  He tracks the progress of their migrations via other obsessives on the internet, and the swifts’ presence or absence in the air above him is mirrored in the highs and lows of his mood.  It is as if he cannot live without them.

This gorgeously tactile little book is divided into monthly chapters, January to December.  In each chapter, Foster explores what the swifts are doing that month, and where, as well as delving into the history, biology and statistics of these enigmatic creatures.  We know quite a bit about Apus apus, the Common Swift.  For example, they spend most of their lives on the wing, landing only to breed and occasionally when encountering very bad weather during migration.  They sleep while flying – the two halves of the brain take it in turns to sleep.  Following the cornucopia of insect life (what Foster refers to as aerial plankton or krill), they migrate inconceivable distances – the swifts breeding in Foster’s summertime Oxford spend the winter months 6,000 miles south in Mozambique.   They lay up to four eggs, but the fourth hatchling (if there is one) never survives.  Young swifts set off for their winter homes within weeks, sometimes days, of fledging. 

We know that swifts are truly ancient, having evolved over 30 million years ago. Swifts are also long-lived – they can have a lifespan of 20+ years.  They return to the place where they were hatched, spending their first couple of summers screaming around the sky with their companions and generally, it seems, having a ball, maybe even tentatively pairing up, before scoping out a potential nest site for the serious business of claiming a nest and breeding.  We know that most of the birds which travel to western Europe for the summer breeding season spend a while over Liberia, gorging on the insect soup swirling in the air after the rains.  From there, the swifts I see in Somerset will have travelled some 3,100 miles, in as little as five days.

However, there is so much we don’t know about swifts.  There are myriad theories, for example, about how they navigate over these immense distances, how they decide that the time is right to start their migration, how they re-unite with their mate, and what accounts for the wide variations in how long it takes individual birds to make the journey.

Foster explores the place of the swift in literature, the emphasis on the bird’s speed (the clue is in the name) and its totemic role as the essence of the northern European summer.  He also rails against the appropriation of the swift as somehow the possession of the observer.  Swifts, he says, are not ‘yours’ or ‘mine’ or ‘his’.  They are their own selves, untameable, masters of the sky in a way that we can only dream of, and in no way reciprocating the sense of connectedness we feel with the swifts who condescend to make fleeting use of our roof-eaves and insect supplies.  It is this unconquerable wildness which, for Foster (and for me) makes swifts so compelling.

Perhaps more than anything, though, he is full of admiration for their mastery of their environment, the sky: ‘they inhabit the air as fish inhabit the sea’.  Their speed and seemingly effortless command of the tides of the air is not only functional (hunting insects) but also seems to have a powerful element of fun and joy: ‘not everything is about the algorithms of survival’ and the screaming parties of swifts hurtling through the sky are ‘colossal fun’.

I love this book.  The blend of facts and personal enthusiasm for the subject makes it an engaging read, and Jonathan Pomroy’s illustrations are perfect.  Of course, I loved it all the more – and was so excited when I heard that Little Toller Books were going to be publishing it – because of how I feel about swifts.  The sight of those exuberant little black sickles slicing through the late spring sky at the end of their epic migration is viscerally energising.  Shrieking squadrons, skimming just over my head between the red-brick cliffs of the town houses, sound so intensely full of life that they make me feel alive, too.  And the day in August when suddenly the sky is silent, empty of little black sickles as they follow the call of their African winter home, is the day the year turns towards winter for me, too.

The Screaming Sky by Charles Foster, illustrated by Jonathan Pomroy, is published by (and available from) Little Toller Books, 2021.  ISBN 9781908213846

Photograph of the front cover of The Screaming Sky by Charles Foster

In their own handwriting – connecting to the creators of the Lindisfarne Gospels

For the last few weeks I have been researching the Lindisfarne Gospels for a chapter in my book, and writing an article about them for an e-magazine.  For those of you not familiar with the Lindisfarne Gospels, they are a lavishly illuminated hand-written book of the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) of the New Testament, in Latin, produced by a scribe-artist called Eadfrith around 700CE, in the monastic community on the island of Lindisfarne (aka Holy Island) off the coast of Northumberland in North East England.  About 250 years later, a word by word translation (or ‘gloss’) in Old English was added above each line by a priest-scribe called Adred, at Chester-le-Street where the community was then living, having fled the island after raids by Vikings.

Incipit, Matthew’s gospel, Lindisfarne Gospels. British Library Cotton MS Nero D IV f.027r

The art of the Lindisfarne Gospels is quite widely known today – the manuscript has been digitised and is available on the British Library website, and its motifs are used on all manner of historically-inspired merchandise.  But, though beautiful, the art is not what excites me about the Lindisfarne Gospels.  What makes my heart beat faster is that sense of glimpsing into the distant past something which connects us physically with the individuals who created it more than a millennium ago.

Far from being dry and academic, my research has been a fascinating journey into the England of the early medieval period – what used to be called the Dark Ages, between the departure of the Romans in the 5th century CE and the Norman Conquest in 1066, during which time it was thought that culture, learning and civilisation were largely absent.  Historians think differently now, in no small part due to the artefacts produced in this period which have been found in various excavated hoards, and probably most famously at the ship-burial at Sutton Hoo which was excavated on the eve of World War II and which was found to contain jewellery of breath-taking beauty and craftsmanship.  The sophistication shown in the illuminated manuscripts of the time is now seen, not as an exception, but as representative of the high standards of creative skill on the part of the peoples of the time.

Carpet page, Matthew’s gospel, Lindisfarne Gospels. British Library Cotton MS Nero D IV f.026v

In an era before print, the production of a book – even the most plain and workaday one – was a major undertaking.  First, the vellum which formed the pages had to be prepared from the skins of young animals – calves or lambs – and trimmed and pricked in preparation for the binding process (making the Lindisfarne Gospels required the skins of almost 150 calves).  Lines had to be marked out on the page (Eadfrith invented the lead pencil, and the lightbox, to do this).  Ink had to be prepared, using oak galls and iron.  Feathers – ideally big sturdy ones like the flight feathers of swans – had to be trimmed into pens.  Then the scribe had to copy the book painstakingly from an exemplar, without the benefit of electric light.  It could take years to produce a book – years of dedication, focus, bad backs, cold, working in a scriptorium lit only by south-facing windows in the summer and candles in the winter.  A number of scribes left notes in the books they produced, complaining about their discomforts – issues around health and safety at work and RSI are not new!

The Beatitudes, Matthew’s gospel, Lindisfarne Gospels. British Library Cotton MS Nero D IV f.034r

What I love about these documents, though, is the immediacy of something which was produced by hand.  Just as our own handwriting is distinctive to each of us, it is possible to identify individual scribes by their handwriting.  Often, teams of up to half a dozen scribes and artists would work on a book – the Lindisfarne Gospels are unusual in having been written by just one man.  It is thought that it must have taken Eadfrith several years to produce the text and illustrations for this work.  It can be a stretch of the imagination, in 21st century Britain, to imagine the life of a 7th century monk on a windswept island in the North Sea, toiling on this work of great beauty, to the glory – as he would have seen it – of God.  Even as a visitor to Lindisfarne, it’s a challenge to look beyond the cafés and gift shops, the retreat centre and the museum, and the ruins of the later Norman priory, and picture this as a working monastery, its central work of prayer and worship buttressed by farming, fishery and the creation of high-quality books.  Seeing the personal handwriting of one of those monks, the strokes made by his pen, the drawings and embellishments he drew in the colours he chose (and created himself from mineral and plant pigments), brings him within reach.  Just as when, while researching your own family history you come across a 1911 census return in the handwriting of an ancestor you have never met and who died long before you were born, it makes them more real, so seeing Eadfrith’s handwriting brings him to life for us.

And in the Lindisfarne Gospels we are lucky enough to have the handwriting of two identified people.  I mentioned earlier that an Old English word-for-word translation (or gloss) was added in the middle of the 10th century.  We know that the man who did this was called Aldred, because he left us a note (a colophon) at the end of the Gospels to tell us so.  He also names Eadfrith as the original scribe/artist, as well as crediting the people who bound the book and made a jewelled cover for it.  By translating the text into English, Aldred was part of a movement championed by King Alfred (‘the Great’) in the late 9th century to make English a language not only of the people but also of learning and religion, alongside Latin.  Here we not only have Aldred’s handwriting, we can also see him wrestling with language as he frequently offers several alternative translations of Latin worlds into Old English.  Anyone who has ever attempted to translate from one language to another will relate to this!

Aldred’s colphon, Lindisfarne Gospels. British Library Cotton MS Nero D IV f.259r

In these times of emails, word-processing and SMS, handwriting is becoming a dying art.  In one way, that doesn’t matter – as long as we are communicating with words, it’s irrelevant how they are produced – but in other ways we are maybe losing something.  There is no digital equivalent of the personal, intimate legacy of someone’s handwriting – the notes and letters of past generations, which are often all we have left of our own families – and future generations will not experience the particular thrill of poring over a hand-written document produced by known, named people over a millennium ago.  I wonder what ways they will have instead to connect to the human individuality of the people whose words they are reading?

My article on the Lindisfarne Gospels is published in Issue 7 of The Pilgrim, which is available online here.

I am committed to making this blog freely available, and not putting material behind a paywall. As a writer, I am doing what I love – but I still have to make a living. If you have enjoyed this post, and if you are able to do so, perhaps you would consider supporting my work by making a small contribution via the Buy Me A Coffee button. Thank you!

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Variety is the spice of life, or why I can’t read one book at a time

 

For years, I thought it was just me.  Everyone else I knew seemed to read a book from start to finish, and then move on to the next one.  If asked them ‘what are you reading?’ the answer would be quite simple – one title.  Students, of course, would be reading a lot of books for essays, but their leisure reading seemed always to be done one book at a time.

I have never managed this!  I have always read a lot, although the nature of what I read depends on how I am feeling and what I am doing by way of work.  The more tired and stressed I am, the less likely I am to read anything very demanding, and you know things are bad when I can only manage magazines.  Usually, though, I read books.  Plural.  It’s not that I have a grasshopper brain – I can become engrossed in things for hours, missing meals, completely losing track of time.  But when it comes to reading, I find it very hard to have only one book on the go.

‘But don’t you lose track?’ I have been asked.  I can honestly say I don’t.  Within a paragraph I’m right back in the heart of whatever I was reading.  It’s only a problem if for some reason it’s weeks or months before I return to a book, but that rarely happens.  I usually have at least two, sometimes as many as four or five ‘leisure’ books on the go at once – plus ones that I am reading for research purposes in ‘work time’.  I like to have a range of different genres, or subject matter, so that when I sit down to read I can match the book to my mood or how much concentration I can muster.   It’s such a treat to be able to make a cuppa and retreat to my reading chair on the sunny landing, or curl up on the sofa, or settle into bed, ask myself ‘which book shall I read now?’ and know I have an inviting selection to choose from.

Recently, I have found I don’t want to read fiction at all.  Even my beloved whodunits are failing to entice me – I now have three new ones by favourite authors waiting to be read, and I can’t quite bring myself to open them.  I don’t know why – I can only suppose that our current circumstances are so surreal that my brain recoils from engaging with further imaginary universes just now.

At the moment, I am reading the following books for ‘leisure’:

On the Red Hill, by Mike Parker.  An intriguing blend of place writing, memoir and queer history, this is set in the hills of mid Wales, in a landscape that’s very familiar to me.  Lyrical nonfiction with a large element of social history, I’m finding it totally beguiling (and Mike Parker has written a history of the Ordnance Survey, which I must read next – regular readers may remember my map obsession!).

Walled Gardens, by Jules Hudson.  I have coveted this beautifully illustrated and pleasingly square book for ages, and when I was having a melancholy phase recently my partner thought she would cheer me up by contacting the author and requesting a signed copy.  I was very moved – both by her loving gesture, and also by Jules Hudson taking the time and trouble to pen such thoughtful words from one writer to another.  The book is not only a guide to walled gardens in the care of the National Trust, but also an overview of garden history and a considered exploration of the social history which provides a wider context.

Ghostland: in Search of a Haunted Country, by Edward Parnell.  Nonfiction again, this is a quirky but effective weaving together of ghost story, place writing, gothic and memoir which defies categorisation.  I met Edward last year at an event at the National Centre for Writing, and on the strength of that and Ghostland I am about to start a 12-week creative nonfiction course for which he is the tutor.

Writing this post has made me think that it might perhaps be worth, every couple of months, writing about what I am currently reading, with a short review of each book.  Occasionally the books I read are a chance discovery, but the majority have been recommended by someone else, and it’s good to be able to pass it on!

 

I am committed to making this blog freely available, and not putting material behind a paywall.  As a writer, I am doing what I love – but I still have to make a living.  If you have enjoyed this post, and if you are able to do so, perhaps you would consider supporting my work by making a small contribution via the Buy Me A Coffee button.  Thank you!

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Books – why I love them, why I buy them, why e-readers are OK, and why libraries are amazing

I’m sure it won’t come as a surprise to readers of this blog to find that I love books.  I’m a writer, after all, and I’ve never yet met a writer, in any genre, who didn’t love books.  Not only that, but I spent quite a few years working in academic and public libraries, which was rather like working in a sweetie shop (but less fattening).  I’ve got it bad.

As a child, I didn’t have many books.  We lived in various parts of Europe, and in those pre-internet days (1970s and early 1980s) getting English- or Dutch-language books abroad was pretty much impossible (see my post about being brought up bilingual).  My father would make an annual trip to London to shop at Foyles bookshop, and bring back as many books as he could carry (which wasn’t a lot to last a voracious young reader a whole year).  When we stayed with my Dutch grandparents, I would read their extensive collection of English-language whodunits (my grandmother was severely addicted – her favourites were Dorothy L Sayers, Erle Stanley Gardner and Agatha Christie, in that order) which sowed the seed of a life-long love of classic crime fiction.  I read Lewis Carrol’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass a dozen times.  When all else failed, I read the Pocket Oxford Dictionary like a novel – there are worse ways to train as a writer.

I may not have had many books, but I knew what I did and didn’t like.  I liked Enid Blyton’s mysteries and adventure stories, but not her more surreal, fantasy output.  I adored Cicely M Barker’s Flower Fairies books, not least because of what they taught me about plants – I can still recall snatches of them when I see wildflowers growing in the hedgerows.  I didn’t care for classic children’s stories like Mary Poppins or Peter Pan, but then, given that I was by that stage already a fan of Lord Peter Wimsey, that’s perhaps not surprising.  I was at best ambivalent about classic novels – to be truthful I still am.  Apart from Persuasion, I am unmoved by Jane Austen.  I appreciate her talent, I just don’t much care for the books.  I found Dickens interesting, but heavy going.  Amongst the Brontë sisters’ output, I liked Wuthering Heights, and once I’d discovered Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea I could see the point of Jane Eyre.  Sherlock Holmes came into my life at the age of 16, and I still re-read those stories when I need something comforting.

In fact, I discovered lots of books at the age of 16, because that’s when we settled in the UK and I started to use libraries.  My school library had virtually no fiction on its shelves, but the local public library was huge, and I systematically stripped the shelves.  I was doing A level English too, so there was Chaucer (yay!), Shakespeare (OK, especially Hamlet and Twelfth Night), D H Lawrence (hmmm), Austen (see above), R S Thomas (dark and melancholy but wonderful), and my beloved Dylan Thomas (with whose work I had fallen in love when I first heard Richard Burton intone the opening lines of Under Milk Wood).  John Donne (sorry, I’m sure it’s great writing but I haven’t got time for this), Wordsworth (lovely but a tad self-indulgent), Tennyson (the less said about that the better), and Keats (lyrical but lengthy), also figured in the syllabus.  I did three A levels, but the only one I can remember in detail is English – I can still quote the odd line here and there.  For light relief I read James Herriot, Gerald Durrell and Robert Louis Stevenson (Kidnapped was possibly my favourite book through my teenage years), and every Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers I could find.

It’s probably no coincidence that I went on to spend many years working in libraries (university and public).  The windows on the world offered to a teenager in a remote Snowdonian town by the presence of a good library were a gift, and I am passionate about the continued provision of public libraries.  Yes, the internet is an amazing repository of knowledge (and misinformation!) but it cannot replace the serendipity of going to the shelf for a book and becoming entranced by its neighbour, which you didn’t know existed and would consequently never have searched for.  As a student, some of my best essays were written using books which weren’t on the reading list (because those had all been borrowed by other students writing the same essay), which meant I had a slightly different slant on the topic.  Being able to access, for free, a huge range of fiction, poetry and non-fiction, is a precious thing and can be truly life-changing for a child whose home is not filled with books or whose family cannot afford to buy them.  Libraries set people free to out-grow their circumstances – just look at Jeannette Winterson.

As soon as I could afford it, I bought books.  I love being surrounded by books in my home, books I can savour at my leisure and don’t have to give back.  I have mixed feelings about bookshops – on the one hand, there is the rush of excitement at being surrounded by so many books, doorways into parallel universes, questioning minds, and illuminating knowledge.  On the other hand, there are so many books that it can feel hard to make a decision about what to buy.  Is it OK to treat myself to this book that I really fancy, even though I don’t actually need it for a course, or for research?  How can I hush the voice in my head that says “Not MORE books!?  You haven’t read the ones you bought last month!”

I have quite a lot of books.  A couple of years ago we downsized massively, and sold hundreds (literally) of books.  For a while, we had just two small bookcases full.  But inevitably, stealthily, the books are taking over again.  “Of course you need that book for your research…Have you read the review for this?  It looks so interesting…Oh look, she’s got a new book coming out next month, shall we pre-order it?…If we buy the paperback it’s easier to share it between us than if we get it on Kindle.”  You get the picture.  Because of where we live, most book purchases are online (using Hive or independent bookshops where possible) and the thump of a book landing on the doormat is so exciting.  All those new words, new ideas, new pictures in my head.  I love having a whole shelf of books I haven’t read yet – so much to look forward to.

Kindle came into my life a decade ago, and I don’t regret it for a moment.  It’s especially good when I go away on holiday, and want to take some light reading with me without lugging heavy books around.  Because it’s hard to flick back and forth inside an e-book, I find it less good for reference books, or indeed non-fiction in general, and my elderly device doesn’t show illustrations well.  I use the app on my smartphone when I’m out and about – on the train, or dining alone.  I often buy the Kindle version of a whodunit which I know I’ll only read once, or if it’s by an author I’m not familiar with and I’m not sure I’ll like it – and I admit that’s because it’s cheaper on Kindle.  But for reading pleasure, the aesthetic experience of words on the page, an attractive cover, and the tactile heft of a book, I’ll choose a ‘real’ book over an e-book every time.  Oh, and let me be clear about this – marking pages or turning down page corners is a sin!

Colour picture of a shelf of books.