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.

Reading matters……

 I don’t think I have read any other Murakami, so this – ‘Killing Commendatore’  – would be interesting. It certainly was. As you get into the book the first thing that strikes you is that Murakami is a beautiful writer, a craftsman of the first order. No two ways about it the prose sparkles. And those critics who say that he is a master story teller ‘exhilarating’, ‘bewitching’, are right. He is. However, what I can’t agree is that the story Murakami tells 9781784707330.jpgin this novel is plausible or satisfactory. The Commendatore a two-feet tall gremlin? Paintings as portals to ‘the other world’? Really. Others might find this an esoteric mix between the domestic and the fantastic. I just found it plain silly. The novel is about a dissatisfied painter whose wife has just left him, who is holed up in a mountain retreat that is the old home of a famous painter with a murky past. His relationships with those around him, are described in infinite detail, which never grates, including that with a wealthy neighbour who built his house so that he could spy on a young girl he believes may be his daughter. It is all the background to a gripping story. But little folk? Come on. Surely you are better than that Murakami. A long read – very pleasurable, but ultimately very unsatisfactory. Suspend my disbelief? See the whole thing as a metaphor? I don’t think so.

‘The Librarian of Auschwitz’ is based on the true story of Dita Kraus, a 14 year old girl who is imprisoned in the hell that was Auschwitz. When the Jewish leader in the campUnknown.jpegasks Dita to take charge of the 8 precious books that are all that keep the rotting corpses in touch with civilisation she agrees at enormous risk to herself. If found with the books she will undoubtedly be shot, or worse. The story has many interesting aspects including the ‘extended library’ whereby some people knew other books so well they could teach others about them in the underground school. Obviously the horror of the camp is the background to all this, but the only thing I found slightly irritating was that through most of the book this seems to be a little sanitised. You couldn’t get the full horror of the unspeakable conditions. The infamous Mengele is there to add a further layer of evil. An important addition to the literature.

Reading matters……..

9780008390600-1.jpgI started Hilary Mantel’s ‘The Mirror and the Light’ with a great deal of pleasurable anticipation, having really enjoyed Wolf Hall but not found its follow-up ‘ Bring Up The Bodies’ quite so good. I found some infelicity in the language at the very beginning of this last part of the trilogy, and the odd error (someone threw down a pen for instance……a pen? I think not) but forgetting this, it was sheer enjoyment throughout. With such a large book and such a huge cast of characters, it was indeed right that there was a full Dramatis Personae at the start. The trouble with reading  at bedtime however, and then putting the book aside each night, was that I was continually having to refer to that list. Perhaps a small price to pay for an ageing brain. The thing is with Cromwell, we all know he is going to get his head chopped off, so we have the denouement constantly in mind, and in my own case finding him a sympathetic lead character I was always wanting him to get on with his life and get things done. I don’t think he can come in for any criticism on that score. His rags to riches tale is certainly impressive, and what he achieved in transforming the religious ethos and culture of the whole country is frankly amazing. Told in historic detail (as for instance in Dermot Mccullough’s incredibly well-researched biography)  one gets bogged down with his administrative dealings, but not in Hilary Mantel’s hands. The book flows. Another prize for Mantel? I hope so – she deserves it.