Reading matters……

‘Appeasing Hitler’ by young historian Tim Bouverie is, as all critics agree, a truly remarkable book. Not only is it a story of pre-War appeasement, of great characters (and a whole tapestry of them, not just Churchill, Chamberlain and Hitler), but it is a story of a period of time, a few short years, when in Britain politicians and public had to make their own minds up about whether the course mapped out was a good one. I use the word story advisedly as although of course it is minutely well-researched and factual nevertheless it gives a truly astonishing account of what it was like to live in those times. You have a visceral feeling of actually being there, absorbing the news as it comes in, and getting to understand what sorts of men we are dealing with and, more important, what their thinking is and how they came to hold the views they do. 

“On the evening of Friday 1st September 1939, the former First Lord of The Admiralty, Alfred Duff Cooper, changed as usual into his dinner jacket before going his wife, Diana, and three fellow Conservatives at the Savoy Grill. A day of brilliant sunshine had given way to a balmy evening and there was nothing within the splendid Art Deco dining room to denote a crisis…..”  How unexpected a start to a History book, who would not be drawn in to a narrative delight?

‘Appeasing Hitler’ not only made me revisit many of my own conclusions about this period and those involved, it made me realise how relevant History is and made me reflect yet again on how we should all study it. A superb book, much enjoyed by me………

John Le Carre’s ‘Agent Running In The Field’ is the latest offering by a now Screenshot 2020-09-09 at 19.03.3589 year-old author. Can someone of that great age write with relevance and immediacy to these troubled times. You bet he can! This is a wonderful read. Not only does the author know what he is talking about….he did after all work in the Intelligence sector, but he knows every trick in the book about plot, characterisation, setting, and everything else in the difficult task of writing a spy novel. He draws you in, he gets you to an understanding of each of the characters in turn, he writes with brilliant descriptive prose in some detail but also elicits a wider picture. And all of this set around a series of badminton matches? You have got to be kidding. I like badminton, and have played many hundreds of times, and I enjoyed that it had a role to play, but don’t let that put anyone off. This is a spy novel of the highest order, thoroughly enjoyable and not one to put down til the last page has been turned.

Reading matters……

‘In Search of the Perfect House’ by Marcus Binney was something I saw and delved into on the bookshelf of a superb pub we visited recently – ‘The Waddington Arms’ in the middle of the beautiful Lancashire Village of Waddington. When we got home I just had to have it. Problem….only available second-hand and I just hate second-hand books. I don’t like their smell, and I don’t like the thought of who may have handled them. And there were no ‘as new’ copies. Never mind, needs must. I need not have worried, an almost perfect copy arrived through the post. Phew. Since then I haven’t been able to stop reading the entries.

Marcus Binney has spent 40 years looking for beautiful and little known country houses to write about in Country Life and The Times. Most books on country houses are based on properties regularly open to the public but this book is different, it is full of dream houses which have remained quietly in family ownership for centuries and which only surface to public gaze when they come on the market. Simon Jenkins of course has his ‘England’s Thousand Best Houses’ (also amazing), but whereas the Jenkins book is confined to houses open to the public, in fact the great majority of Binney’s selection are indeed privately owned. of the houses are derelict when he first comes across them, furniture stripped, water pouring in, vandalised. But it is incredible how many have been nurtured back to life even though there might be just a shell remaining because of the dedicated effort of individuals who make it their life’s work in many cases. Not all good news. I check each entry for up-to-date news and some have proved irrecoverable. Nevertheless the message is on the whole a very optimistic one…..our history preserved. The full colour photographs add immeasurably to the feel of a special book.

Reading matters…….

HD_101867967_01.jpgAnn Cleves, the author of the very good Vera and Shetland crime series has started a new venture based in North Devon with Detective Matthew Venn as the chief protagonist. The first book ‘The Long Call’ is promising, based in very real locations, and with interesting characters and plot. There are many sub-plots, a chief one being Venn’s own upbringing and his falling out with his family. Indeed the powerful first scene sees him hovering outside his own father’s funeral. Ann Cleves says she feels nervous introducing a new character to us, and hopes we will like him despite his weaknesses. She need have no fear. She is on to another winner, a real result for her consistently good writing.s-l640.jpg

Now here’s a book I couldn’t resist and which was bought on our recent house-hunting expedition to Clitheroe in Lancashire. We were having a lovely lunch in the Holmes Mill complex when I saw this. If you haven’t been there you should. Longest bar in Britain, one of the best food and deli selections I have encountered, hotel, restaurant, cafe, cinema and much else. I have read from cover to cover and it makes me even more determined to get back to Lancashire as quickly as possible. Each insert features a foodie location and a recipe or recipes from the owners. Clitheroe has become renowned  over the last decade as a top eating destination lauded by the likes of Grace Dent of The Guardian – she can’t be wrong can she? There are so many pubs and restaurants in and around Clitheroe that feature that my mouth waters at the prospect of living there. Book was good too.


Reading matters….

37490326._uy400_ss400_-1‘Hometown Tales : Lancashire’ has the basis of a good idea……getting local authors to write short stories set in their own locality. With no expectations I read the first of two tales in this book ‘After the Funeral, the Crawl’ and thoroughly enjoyed it. Basically a young, getting into middle-age couple attend a funeral in Preston, where they both grew up, miss the last train back to London and, having nothing else to do, embark on a pub crawl of sorts. The settings are described ‘as is’ which is great, and the back story that the young woman had had a one-night stand with the dead man, resonates and lends substance to the story. I don’t usually enjoy short stories as they never get going and there is no time to develop character or setting, but this was the exception. The second tale ‘Judas’ I did not enjoy. Apart from the unreality of someone being swept back in his unconscious self to before his time to the famous Bob Dylan concert in Manchester, and being there with his father (who was there), the narrative was shallow and didn’t seem to be going anywhere (it didn’t). Nice little hardback book, nice idea, 50% successful for me.

Reading matters…..

Andrew Robert’s ‘Churchill’ is a masterpiece. Roberts has a reputation of being a right-wing historian. That wouldn’t bother me in itself, but in truth his own position and views never seem to intrude. Where Churchill could or should be criticised, Roberts criticises with a sure touch. More has been written about Churchill than anyone else that matters, but Roberts approaches his subject with such a fresh and knowing eye, and with such an appreciation of humour ( Churchill was as witty as Oscar Wilde if not more so) that you feel that you are learning something new at every page. Certainly several potential sceptics and critics have been won over as I have been. The book just bursts with the presence of this true colossus and it is so readable. It is, as one historian has said, written in the unfashionable tradition of Gibbon, Trevelyan and Macaulay, in a gripping narrative style. So good that I could start on this one thousand plus pages straight away again.

Reading matters……

My Son, My Son’ by Howard Spring (publishers Apollo) is my latest big read by this at one time Manchester-based author. Whilst the 578 pages flew by, I have to say I was a little disappointed having just read his magnificent ‘Fame Is The Spur’.

In ‘My Son, My Son‘, Howard Spring takes the Biblical tale of King David’s painful relationship with his beloved, despicable son Absalom and sets it in early 20th century England.

As with ‘Fame Is The Spur’ the protagonist narrates his own life story. Having grown up poor in the back streets of Manchester, and then achieved success as a novelist, William Essex determines that his son, Oliver, will have everything that he himself missed out on as a child. The son is spoiled much against his mother’s wishes. The outcomes are not good.

In parallel, William Essex’s Irish friend Dermot O’Riorden wants to see his son, Rory, fulfil his own youthful dream of being an Irish freedom fighter.

Both fathers of course come to regret having got their wishes.

As his career progresses, much like Spring himself, Essex buys a house in London and then a country retreat in Cornwall on the river near Falmouth. Having grown up in Manchester and now living not too far away from Falmouth, I certainly empathised with the locations which are drawn in great detail. The characters as always with Howard Spring are very strongly drawn too, and we want to inhabit their lives and see what happens next. References contemporary to the story such as the march to Irish Independence, the Manchester Martyrs, the Arts and Craft movement, levels of poverty, the pub scene in Manchester, whatever, all integrate seamlessly to the story.

What I found not quite up to standard was the development of the plot. A bit creaky and certainly at the end all too unbelievable and mawkish. Pity! As otherwise very enjoyable….

There is an interesting interview with Howard Spring a few months before he died at……..

Reading matters……

‘Fame Is The Spur’  by Howard Spring is a mammoth read, almost Trollopian. I was looking for books on Manchester, since luckily for us we are moving nearby, and this was recommended by Jonathan Schofield in his ‘Guide To Manchester’ a superb book in itself which I have mentioned before. Then I remembered that my Mother read a lot of Howard Spring and she had reasonably good taste, so……I note that one reviewer said that late nineteenth and early twentieth century novels are out of fashion and so they are. But they really shouldn’t be. This was my surprise read of the year. I would go so far as to say it is one of the very best books I have read for a long long time. It’s the lifetime’s journey of John Hamer Shawcross whose story takes him from the hunger, filth and fragility of the back streets of Manchester in Victorian times to the greasy pole of politics where he climbs to the top and joins the elite whom he was fighting against in his radical days. The Introduction is by Tristram Hunt a well-respected historian, and he equates it, as others have, to a rebuke of Ramsay MacDonald who betrayed the Labour Party (in many people’s eyes at the time) by joining the National Government in order to stay in power. Certainly there are parallels and who isn’t gripped by a study of someone selling their soul? Spring covers a lot of the key events from Peterloo to Women’s Suffrage, but they are not dragged into the story, they naturally evolve with our characters. And these characters are very strongly drawn indeed. They are all memorable and some of the most memorable are the fiesty females. The early stages are all about ‘Chapel’ which was very important at the time, and I was fearing we might get bogged down in the minutia of religious divisions, but not a bit of it. It was the sort of book I couldn’t wait to pick up in order to resume my reading, well-written, gripping and with lessons to show. Absolutely brilliant. I must read more Howard Spring.

Reading matters…..

‘Wilding’ by Isabellea Tree is, I feel, a super important book…… ‘Forced to accept that intensive farming on the heavy clay of their land at Knepp was economically unsustainable, Isabella Tree and her husband Charlie Burrell made a spectacular leap of faith: they decided to step back and let nature take over. Thanks to the introduction of free-roaming cattle, ponies, pigs and deer – proxies of the large animals that once roamed Britain – the 3,500 acre project has seen extraordinary increases in wildlife numbers and diversity in little over a decade. Extremely rare species, including turtle doves, nightingales, peregrine falcons, lesser spotted woodpeckers and purple emperor butterflies, are now breeding at Knepp, and populations of other species are rocketing. The Burrells’ degraded agricultural land has become a functioning ecosystem again, heaving with life – all by itself.’

As I progressed through the book I came to realise why the Tree’s neighbours wouldn’t and didn’t like what they were doing. Letting land revert to nature meant of course that all kinds of nasties were next door to their land and would soon find their way there. I sympathised. The pictures of neat Sussex hedged fields reverting to scrub didn’t help either. From looking conventionally neat and tidy the farm now started to look like a piece of unloved wasteland. I couldn’t help but wonder whether this ‘hippy’ farming was doing any good to anyone. I was wrong.

What the Trees have done is so radical and important that it deserves huge recognition – which thanks goodness it is starting to get. The crucial moment came when Ted Green the keeper of the Royal Oaks at Windsor came to look around their farm. Peering at some sick-looking oak trees standing alone in fields and ploughed close around, he pointed out that ploughing and the use of nitrogen fertilizers was destroying the mycorrhizae which are the microscopic fungal filaments which spread out enormous distances to supply their hosts with water and nutrients. They do all kinds of other amazing things for instance acting as a communication system with other plants, and are the key natural biological system. This visit lit a lamp with the Trees and after massive amounts of research and extensive travels they got to the stage where as farmers instead of being interested in Nature and trying to slow down the inexorable decline of wildlife they were actually involved in its restoration.

But we are not just talking about wildlife. Getting back to the mycorrhizae, they, when allowed to, contribute a final compelling argument to the value of rewilding the soil – carbon sequestration. Through a very complicated process that scientists have only discovered in recent decades the mycorrhizae produce something called Glomalin which acts as ‘the superglue of the soil’ and is able to store large quantities of carbon. 82% of the carbon in the terrestrial biosphere is in the soil, and the more carbon dioxide levels increase in our atmosphere the more the Glomalin reacts – so that according to the Royal Society carbon capture by the world’s farmlands, if they were managed more naturally (as with the Trees’ lands), could total 10 billion tonnes a year, more than the annual accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

One estimate is that if organic matter in the world’s farmland soil was increased by as little as 1.6% the problem of climate change would be solved. Some go further….one study suggests that restoring the world’s 19 million square miles of degraded grasslands to functioning ecosystems based around our friend the mycorrhizae could return 10 or more gigatonnes of excess atmospheric carbon to the terrestrial sink annually. This could (this being the operative word I suppose) lower greenhouse-gas concentrations to pre-industrial levels in a matter of decades. Basically we are talking about a more natural and rotational system which our medieval ancestors would recognise and which they regarded as common-sense.

The book deals with lots of issues one by one such as reintroducing beavers to control flooding ( and the bete noire of Frances and myself – stopping the canalisation of rivers and allowing them back to their natural courses complete with flood-plains ), going back to pasture-fed cattle thus increasing levels of healthy fatty acids, and so much more besides. It’s a real eye-opener. Read it then campaign for change!

Reading matters……..

51feXZ9c9UL._SX375_BO1,204,203,200_‘Castles From The Air’  must be one of the most comprehensive guides to Britain’s castles. Not the usual aerial photography with a few notes, but an in-depth of analysis of castles at all stages periods of of construction from pre-Roman to ‘modern’ – with absolutely marvellous full-colour high-quality photos. Castles are one of the distinguishing features of our landscape and they tell a tale not just of History but also of Romance. Which child hasn’t been thrilled by stories which have a castle at their heart? Which adult too? I really enjoyed going through this from start to finish over a few nights, but it is a coffee table sort of book that you could dip into at any time. I loved it.

I sent for the Film Script edition of ‘Hobson’s Choice’. Author Harold Brighouse. With a 1*oNhlhHl2oW4rLP6aqtVSTwname like that he couldn’t be anything other than one of the Manchester School of dramatists. This was first produced in this country in 1915, having opened in America. The subtitle says it all  – ‘A Lancashire Comedy In 4 Acts’. Having just watched ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ on TV (which surprisingly I had never seen before) and found it as slight and disappointing as could be, I was wondering whether I would enjoy this. I am glad to say it was a sheer delight from start to finish. I enjoyed ‘the plot’ if you can call it that….it is more of a situation comedy, I enjoyed the strongly drawn characters, I enjoyed the rather suffocating location – a family shoe shop in Chapel Street Salford in 1880. To me it is rather like Coronation Street – better kept as an everyday story than show authorial indulgence with extremes. I really must find out if there are other Brighouse Plays I can read…..I would certainly like to. Highly recommended (even if you don’t come from Lancashire).

Reading matters….

81FeGDlXumL.jpg‘Gentleman Jack’ a biography of Anne Lister is certainly an unusual book about a very unusual lady. Probably we all know her story from the excellent TV series starring the incomparable Suranne Jones……It’s 1832 in West Yorkshire, England — the cradle of the evolving Industrial Revolution — where landowner Anne Lister is determined to save her faded ancestral home, Shibden Hall, even if it means bucking society’s expectations. In addition to reopening the coal mines, a part of Lister’s plan to help her family is to marry well. But the charismatic, single-minded Lister — who dresses head-to-toe in black and charms her way into high society — has no intention of marrying a man. ‘Gentleman Jack’ examines Lister’s relationships with her family, servants, tenants and industrial rivals, and would-be wife. Anne kept an amazing secret diary which even the twentieth century apparently found to be too hot to publish, but we have large chunks of it here. At first the sex is overwhelming. It’s sex, sex, sex to an unbelievable degree. And it becomes, well, boring. But a bit further into the life Anne starts to do lots of interesting things and travels extensively, so we get to admire her resolve and strength of character. All in all a fascinating read, and I can’t wait to visit her home Shibden Hall when we move to the North.

Kate Atkinson is an excellent writer and in this novel ‘Transcription’ we see her0552776653 2.jpg character building and plot fulfilment to the full. The novel flicks from wartime to the late 50’s. Sometimes this is an annoying affectation, but in skilled hands, as here, it works. The main character Juliet Armstrong is reluctantly recruited into the security services during the war, and all of this part of the story seems to be well researched according to the sources given and the acknowledgments, which is good. Ten years later, when working at the BBC as a producer, her past catches up with her, as I suppose it may do for anyone who was a spy. At the denouement there is a clever twist which makes you think you have been reading something that is well thought through and put together. Fairly light and enjoyable.