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.
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
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!
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!
Over the Christmas and New Year break, I have been enjoying a bit of leisure to catch up with my reading. All writers read – it’s just a part of life, like breathing, and since I was very young I have not been able to imagine not having several books on the go at any given time. This time of year is especially exciting as kind people tend to give books as Christmas presents!
As I like seeing other people’s #shelfies, I thought that today I would share mine with you.
Starting from the bottom: Masquerade, by Kit Williams. Published in 1979 and long out of print, I was recently recommended this and managed to track down a secondhand copy. The first of the ‘armchair treasure hunt’ genre, the frankly trippy illustrations and accompanying story of Jack Hare – written like a fairy tale with riddles twining through it – created a clue book. The author buried a piece of jewellery, in the form of a bejewelled 18 carat gold hare necklace, and waited for it to be found by the first person to solve the riddle of the book. It was claimed a couple of years later, amid some scandal, and the whole affair was chronicled by Bamber Gascoigne (who witnessed the burial of the treasure) in his book The Quest for the Golden Hare. My interest in the book is, of course, primarily because of the hare who is the hero, and the hares secreted in every illustration – but also in the concept of a picture book for adults, where each image repays close observation, and where the image and text have a dialogue. Regular readers of this blog will recall my recent review of The Hare and the Moon by Catherine Hyde, which does something like this.
For more on the story of Masquerade, have a look at https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-beds-bucks-herts-47671776.
There are more hares in my next book – over 400 of them! A Christmas present from my partner, this is one of a series of beautiful coffee table books by Alan Marshall, which feature the work of British printmakers. This is The Artful Hare, and it’s gorgeous. 89 printmakers interpret the hare, in a variety of styles and techniques which both show the rich diversity of this art form, and also illustrate aspects of the life and mythology of the hare. This will keep me very happy for a long time – if I treat myself to just one print a day, it will take me well into 2021!
The Penguin Book of the Contemporary British Short Story, edited by Philip Hensher, is more by way of work – I like to keep up to date with short form writing, both fiction and non-fiction. So far I am still on Hensher’s excellent introduction, so I can’t comment yet on the stories themselves.
Another Christmas present is From Bears to Bishops: Norfolk’s Medieval Church Carvings by Paul Harley. In over 130 stunning black and white photographs, this catalogues wood and stone carvings from Norfolk’s 659 medieval churches. Several of these I’ve seen in person (for example, the Green Man at King’s Lynn Minster, the woodwoses on the font at Acle, and the cat on the font at Castle Rising), and I am keen to explore in search of more.
Regular readers will remember that I recently attended an event for writers at the National Centre for Writing in Norwich. The highlight for me was meeting Edward Parnell, who spoke about his move from fiction to non-fiction, and the recent publication of his book Ghostland: In Search of a Haunted Country. Edward kindly signed my copy! Beginning with the ghost stories of M.R. James (which I re-discovered last year), Edward’s book is an intriguing exploration of place, haunting, and writers, interlaced with his own memoir. I am less than a quarter through the book, and it’s fascinating – and it’s also inspiring me to go in search of authors I hadn’t previously encountered.
Social history is a major interest of mine, and I am also a textiles geek, so The Button Box by Lynn Knight was always going to find its way onto my bookshelf. Using heirloom items from the family button box as the hooks on which to hang her narrative, Knight explores the intimate, domestic side of women’s lives through the stories of their clothes. This is a book to be relished slowly – I am dipping into it a chapter at a time.
Completely different – and straddling the space between work-related reading and reading for leisure – is The Ritual of Writing: writing as spiritual practice by Andrew Anderson. Purchased on a recent visit to Glastonbury, it covers topics such as responding to the spirit of place, working with old tales, and using the wheel of the year. Again, a book to be read slowly – with time to reflect on each chapter before embarking on the next.
I can’t remember whether I’ve mentioned this before – I am half Dutch. The older I get, the more pronounced my Dutch traits seem to be becoming (or so I am told!). I was therefore attracted to Why the Dutch are Different: a Journey into the Hidden Heart of the Netherlands. The Author, Ben Coates, is a Brit who has lived in the Netherlands for many years. In this book, he explores the legacy of Dutch history on the culture, attitudes and behaviours of the Dutch – writing as an outsider observing from the inside, which is rather how I feel sometimes in Britain. I am enjoying the book immensely – learning a great deal that I didn’t know about Dutch history and geography, and also recognising so much of the national psyche in myself.
Finally – did I mention I’m a textiles geek?! Some time ago I spotted The Golden Thread: How fabric changed history by Kassia St Clair on the shelves of Waterstones, and promised myself I’d buy it when I had made a few more inroads into my ‘to read’ pile. I was delighted, then, to find it amongst my Christmas presents! A friend had also spotted it and thought it was my kind of thing. St Clair tells the story of fabric , starting from prehistory, through the wrappings of Egyptian mummies, silk and the Silk Road, the sails of Viking longships, medieval wool wealth, cotton and slavery, to the clothing of arctic explorers, artificial fibres, space suits and modern sports fabrics. This is yet another book to be dipped into and savoured – a rich tapestry of history, laced with literary quotations, which encourages us to look more closely at the fantastic textile creations we use every day, and so often take for granted.
Links to books cited are generally to Amazon UK, although where possible I give my custom to my local bookshop, or use Hive.co.uk and Abebooks.co.uk to buy new and used books online. If you are in the UK, many of these titles may also be available through your county library service.