EAnotes

Adventures in Bookland: The Talisman by Stephen King and Peter Straub

December 13th, 2018

It’s a big book, 981 pages in my edition, and, to be honest, the first 300 pages could have been cut by half and no one would have noticed – I was skim reading my way through it. But then, with a howl of innocent pleasure, Wolf arrives in the story. Wolf, as you might guess, isn’t exactly a wolf but he’s not entirely human either, but what he is, is one of the most memorable characters ever created by either King or Straub (who have a fair all cupboard of memorable characters). What’s more, he’s memorable as an unuterrably good person, when it is so much easier to write memorable evil characters, which has the effect of making him even more memorable. With Wolf as the companion and helper of our hero – 12-year-old Jack, on an odyssey across two parallel versions of America to save his mother – the story hits its stride. Where before I was skimming, now I began reading, marvelling on the seamless mesh between the two writers’ styles – I could not tell who wrote which bit – and zipping along until er, bit of a spoiler here, Wolf leaves the story. By this time, I was invested enough in the story and Jack to continue, and it remains good, but a spark leaves when Wolf makes his exit.

 

Adventures in Bookland: The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

December 13th, 2018

To anyone with an imagination, this is a deeply frightening book. For its purpose is to portray the process of damnation, the dazzling path that leads to hell. Yes, the book has other purposes, not least of which is to showcase Wilde’s wit (which does become a little tedious after the 52nd bon mot), and it may have a darker edge in what seems to be a veiled self-portrayal of Wilde himself, in the person of the sophisticated and louche Lord Henry Wotton, as the seducer and tempter, the man who leads Dorian Gray into the bright darkness of his philosophy and, it’s hinted at, darker pleasures. But not just Wotton, Wilde is also Dorian Gray and, as an artist struggling to perfect his craft, he is also Basil Hallward, the man who paints the portrait of Dorian Gray. Thus it’s a triple-sided self-portrait of a man sliding towards the abyss, an abyss that would claim Wilde a few laters when he was dispatched to the purgatory of Reading Gaol. For Wilde, this brought a certain redemption, but for Dorian Gray, there is none.

As I said, under the word glitter that Wilde’s skill scatters over the book, this is a deeply frightening story.

Adventures in Bookland: A History of Christianity by Paul Johnson

December 13th, 2018

Bracing. Vigorous. Scathing. All words that come to mind having finished Paul Johnson’s A History of Christianity. Although Johnson is a Catholic, there is certainly no special pleading in his sweeping overview of the world’s most transformative religion: this is Christianity, warts and all, and more warts than beauty spots. Johnson, being a believer, takes the claims of the religion’s founder seriously, and his teachings, and as a result his sweeping, beautifully written history generally finds that Christians have often signally failed to live up to their founder. Perhaps this is not so surprising – “Be you therefore perfect, as also your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48) is not exactly a low bar to set – but Johnson does set out, in painful detail, just how often we have fallen short. Still, this is a far better approach than covering these matters up – if Christianity is about anything, it is about the truth, and pursuing it,whithersoever it leads, whether that be to a Cross on Calvary or coming face to face with the evils and omissions of our co-religionists.

The book only runs up to 1975, however. Although Paul Johnson is now quite old, I would love to read his assessment of the last half century, where so much has changed. Overall, highly recommended.

End of the Line 3: Uxbridge to Rickmansworth

December 10th, 2018

It’s easy to forget the dominant role water has played in forming the geography of the Thames Valley; this walk brings that role to the fore, highlighting the rivers, canals and wetlands of the capital. From Uxbridge station the route follows the London Loop/Colne Valley Trail, initially along the towpath of the Grand Union Canal. The Grand Junction Canal, as it was first named, was dug between 1793 and 1805 to connect the Midlands to London and, until the rise of rail and road, it carried huge volumes of goods and from the capital.

Once you pass under the M40 the land opens out, wet and expansive on either side, with a series nature reserves (most with bird hides to sit and view the large numbers of ducks and wildfowl that use the lakes) flanking the canal, and stretches of carr, alder and willow dominated wetland . It’s best to get on to the paths that run along the lakes, rather than following the towpath all the way, to get the best views of birds and water – the fortunate will be rewarded with the electric blue flash of a kingfisher.

A turn up the Hillingdon Trail avoids the valley bottom section of the Colne Valley Trail that goes past a sewage works (stay with the CVT though if you want to see staggering numbers of gulls), and opens up to views over the valley; a landscape formed by water.

Dropping back down to the CVT takes you to Stocker’s Lake, a drowned gravel pit, now home to the largest heronry in Hertfordshire, and just beyond the welcome café looking over Bury Lake. A good place to stop and reflect, with something liquid, on how water has formed our geography and our history, before walking the final short distance to Rickmansworth tube station.

Walk here: Head straight from the station up Bakers Road, then follow the High Street L until it crosses the Grand Union Canal. Head north along the canal, following the London Loop/Colne Valley Trail signs, all the way to where the Hillingdon Trail heads uphill right at the Coy Carp pub. Take the Hillingdon Trail uphill; where it splits, follow the L path to rejoin London Loop/Colne Valley Trail past sewage plant. Continue to Rickmansworth.

Adventures in Elfland: Moth and Cobweb 1-3 by John C. Wright

December 6th, 2018

Although published as three separate novels, Swan Knight’s Son, Feast of the Elfs and Swan Knight’s Son are one story divided into three books, so I will review them all together.

Do you look around and think, is that all there is? What happened to all the wonder of the world, its romance, its mystery? Well, the answer lies in these books. The Elfs stole them. They pinched the world’s wonders and all the best bits of the geography and hid them behind a mist of unknowing. Now this is an idea I have a great deal of sympathy with. Somebody certainly pinched it, and the Elfs are as good a bet as anyone else (although I suspect we mislaid it ourselves). These Elfs, while magical, supernatural creatures, are fay, Fallen creatures, the glamourous face of those damned forever to the Earth – which is probably why the Elfs are so keen on keeping all the best bits for themselves. (I could never get used to Wright using ‘Elfs’ as the plural form rather than ‘Elves’ but it’s probably done deliberately to distinguish Wright’s Elfs from Tolkien’s Elves.)

Into this world is pitched young Gilberic Parzival Moth, a human (well, mostly) teenager, with all the inflexibility of a typical teenager, and a mother who turns out to be, well, something not so human (given her irritating habit of answering every question with a riddle, she’s probably related to the Sphinx somewhere down the line). Gilberic becomes a squire, then a knight, mashing modern-day pop culture references with deep forays into mythology and folklore. If you like the idea of a more knowledgeable version of Percy Jackson, with fewer jokes but a more wide-ranging mythology, then these books might be for you.

There is some evidence of the books having been written in a hurry and edited loosely – too many typos and, at one point, Gilberic’s mermaid love interest warns him to keep her secret from his canine companion (who can speak, naturally) only for the warning to be forgotten 50 pages later – but the sheer wealth of invention I find hugely enjoyable. The story itself has the same dream-logic of medieval romances such as Orlando Furioso, where the heor passes into the great forest of story where anything can happen and usually does,  with not much regard for likelihood or logic, but then, we’re dealing with Elfs here: everyday reality is optional for them.

All in all, a thoroughly enjoyable 21st-century take on the medieval romance.

 

End of the Line 2: Cockfosters to Theobald’s Grove

December 5th, 2018

Trent Park

This walk wins, hands down, the contest for shortest distance from station to footpath: right from the Charles Holden-designed station, immediate right into the station car park and – shazam! – you’re on the London Loop. No boring walking through suburban streets here; it’s straight into countryside. And what countryside. Trent Park was once part of Enfield Chase, the huge royal hunting forest north of London, and the landscape remains largely unchanged since the days when kings pursued deer through the oak, sweet chestnut and ash woodlands. On one occasion Elizabeth I rode to the Chase with ‘a retinue of twelve ladies in white satin, a hundred and twenty yeomen in green and fifty archers in scarlet boots and yellow caps, each armed with a gilded bow’.

Mysterious Camlet Moat

Predating most of the kings is mysterious Camlet Moat, once a fortified manor house and, although nothing remains above ground of the manor, the moat remains, filled with turbid water, the oaks and willows growing on the island invariably festooned with mysterious offerings. The manor was demolished in 1429 but the moat has endured. As to the name and its suggestions of Camelot? Nobody knows.

Whitewebbs Wood

Following the London Loop past the obelisk, taken from Wrest Park and erected here in 1934 to impress the Duke and Duchess of Kent honeymooning on the estate, the walk dips to Salmons Brook before going past the nurseries and garden centres of Crews Hill to enter Whitewebbs Wood, another relict of Enfield Chase and thus ancient woodland. At the bottom of Flash Lane is an aqueduct that was built in 1820 to shorten the route of the New River into London. The ‘New River’ itself, dug between 1609 and 1613, is a marvel of 17th-century engineering, following the 100-foot contour from the river head springs in Amwell and Chadwell in Hertfordshire to reservoirs in Clerkenwell. Its original, gravity-driven route was 38.75 miles, but pumping stations, initially steam and then electric, allowed the route to be considerably shortened over the centuries.

The New River north of the M25

Leaving Whitewebbs Park, transport enthusiasts might like to head west to Whitewebbs Museum of Transport (www.whitewebbsmuseum.co.uk), housed in one of those Victorian pumping stations, and home to many historic vehicles (open Tuesday and last Sunday of month).

The bridge crossing the M25 that carries the New River over the unsuspecting drivers below

The walk continues across fields and over the M25 via a footbridge which provides excellent views of London’s new skyscrapers before joining the New River – another bridge over the motorway. The river is sealed in concrete, but you can stand on it, looking down at the traffic streaming past, blissfully unaware of the river flowing over head. Take the New River path north, watching for dragonflies and hungry trout; just west Temple Bar, one of the old gates to the City of London, sat for more than a century, forgotten in the field to which it had been moved. However, in 2004, the Wren-designed structure was dismantled and returned to the City; it now sits in Paternoster Square.

The New River, which is neither new nor a river

Where to eat: The King & Tinker pub (Whitewebbs Lane, Enfield EN2 9HJ, 020 8363 6411). The food can be hit and miss, but the pub dates from the 16th century and the name comes from a ballad telling the story of how King James I became lost while hunting on Enfield Chace and fetched up at the pub, falling into conversation with a tinker who only realised the identity of his drinking partner when the king’s flustered courtiers arrived.

Mushrooms munching dead wood in Trent Park

 

End of the Line 1: Heathrow to Windsor

November 26th, 2018

This is the first in a series of four walks starting from the terminal of one of london’s tube lines. Today, we are starting from the end of the Piccadilly Line: Heathrow, Terminal 5.

There is something deliciously subversive about leaving Heathrow on foot. Everyone else is piling into cars or trains or buses, rushing, rushing, rushing, and you are on foot, using the first and most fundamental means of transport (in case you’re worried, it is legal to leave the airport pedestrian style). But it does not take long to get into the Colne Valley Park and the slow realisation, as planes move like noisy silver fish through the sky, that it was water that formed and still fundamentally affects this landscape.

The Colne Valley Way branches off from the King George VI Reservoir and muddily passes land that is slowly returning to carr, as young alder and willow form dense thickets in the permanently wet ground – watch for the mouldering Land Rover, turned glorious russet by rust.

The River Colne, running in the broad valley down to the Thames, is the chief landscape engineer here and it created its masterwork in Staines Moor, an astonishingly tranquil oasis bounded by the M25, the A30 and any number of air routes. Yet stand among its patchwork of meandering rivers and streams, studded with the metre-high mounds of the Yellow Meadow Ant (some of the nests are centuries old), and you are transported to a time when feet were indeed the only mode of transport, and our ancestors walked the land bridge to Britain.

Wraysbury River also runs through Staines Moor, flowing in blue silence alongside the traffic flowing on the motorway; if you have time, explore, watching for the many bird, plant and animal species that live and visit here.

Leaving the moor, a fairly short walk takes you through Staines itself to the Thames. Walking upstream along the Thames Path, TS Eliot’s description of the river – ‘a strong brown god – sullen, untamed and intractable’ – seems incongruous; this is the river of Kenneth Grahame’s imagining, a river of trailing willows and sentry alders beyond the reach of the treacherous tides of the Thames’s lower reaches, a river where ‘there is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats’ and where, when the water breathes mist in the early morning, it really would be little surprise to meet the Piper at the gates of dawn.

Grahame, author of  The Wind in the Willows, lived as a child and again in retirement upstream, and the river, ‘this sleek, sinuous, full-bodied animal’ was his passion. Mole, emerging from his hole and seeing the river for the first time, is entranced, sitting on the bank ‘while the river still chattered on to him, a babbling procession of the best stories in the world, sent from the heart of the earth to be told at last to the insatiable sea’; the walker pacing the miles to Windsor may have little time to sit, but do listen to the river music.

The Edwardian radical John Burns coined the description of the river as ‘liquid history’ (in rejoinder to an American who compared the Thames unfavourably to the Mississippi, Burns said, ‘The St Lawrence is water, the Mississippi is muddy water, but the Thames is liquid history’). Nowhere is this more obvious than at Runnymede, the riverside meadow where King John signed, under pressure, the Great Charter – or Magna Carta – that the king’s will be not arbitrary but bound by law. So ‘no free man shall be taken, imprisoned, outlawed, banished or in anyway destroyed, nor will we proceed against him and prosecute him, except by lawful judgement of his equals and by the law of the land’. Much of England’s later law flows from this charter.

On the hill overlooking Runnymede is the Air Forces Memorial, commemorating and listing the 20,456 air men and women lost during World War II who have no known grave. Also heading uphill, past the John F Kennedy Memorial, the walk passes some of the biggest mansions in the country on Bishopsgate Road before entering Windsor Great Park. The park itself was once a forest, of much greater extent than today, that William I took as hunting grounds for the stronghold he built at Windsor to guard the river. The first written mention of Herne the Hunter associates the horned rider with the forest; in The Merry Wives of Windsor, Shakespeare writes, ‘There is an old tale goes that Herne the hunter, Sometime a keeper here in Windsor forest, Doth all the winter-time, at still midnight, Walk round about an oak, with great ragg’d horns’. Today, the horns more often belong to the deer that inhabit the enclosed deer park. The Long Walk was laid out by Charles II and has been marked out by elm, oak, horse chestnut and London plane trees. As straight as any runway, the Long Walk makes a fitting end to your own long walk from the 21st-century hustle of Heathrow Airport to the medieval calm of Windsor.

See Like An Archaeologist

November 19th, 2018

Paul Gething, director of the Bamburgh Research Project

“Medieval tile. Medieval pottery. Another piece of pottery. More tile. Animal bone.” Paul Gething, archaeologist, picked through his finds.

I had, literally, been walking on history, oblivious to its presence beneath my boots.

We were standing on a path down from the great crag of rock upon which Bamburgh Castle in Northumberland squats. Paul had just told me that most people are oblivious to what lies beneath their feet and I had challenged him to prove it. Within ten yards he’d found these remains.

Paul Gething is co-director of the Bamburgh Research Project (BRP), a multi-disciplinary archaeological dig investigating the history in and around Bamburgh. We’ve known each other for many years, but this was the first time I’d asked him to explain how he sees the world through the eyes of his discipline. I looked at his finds. To my eyes, they still looked like battered old stones.

“People have been here since Neolithic times, so it’s not hard to find things,” said Paul. “People drop litter now, and they threw away their rubbish then; we’ve not fundamentally changed over the centuries.”

In Northumberland, this continuity is visceral, tangible. The ramparts of Bamburgh Castle loomed above us. The fortress, capital of the lost kingdom of Northumbria, sits on top of a great outcrop of basalt, a part of the Great Whin Sill rock formation that stretches from the North Pennines to Northumberland. Out to sea, the Farne Islands, where St Cuthbert withdrew from the world and befriended the local eider ducks, are made of the same hard rock. The islands glittered darkly against an unexpectedly blue sky, while a few miles to the north, Holy Island (Lindisfarne) had, until the tide turned, rejoined the mainland.

Paul looked out to sea. “Ten thousand years ago, that was land. I think hunters camped here, watching the herds trailing past on their way to their feeding grounds.”We’d started the day by inspecting the trenches the BRP has dug in the grounds of the castle. Teams of archaeologists on hands and knees were carefully scraping away the earth with trowels, noting and tagging every find. For the really delicate work, they employed toothbrushes. The archaeologists here come in all ages, from pensioner to schoolchild, for one of the key objectives of the Bamburgh Research Project is to make archaeology accessible: anyone, from members of the public to Indiana Jones, can dig after being taught the necessary skills. The site is open in the summer and people can sign up for anywhere between one day and two weeks.

Paul Gething and Graeme Young, directors of the Bamburgh Research Project, inspecting finds in one of the trenches in Bamburgh Castle

Leaving the archaeologists in the trenches, we set off along a section of the St Oswald’s Way long distance path. It seemed to me that Bamburgh Castle, once the capital of the kingdom of Northumbria, was an obvious place to do archaeology, but Paul bet me that archaeology could illuminate any walk.

“Before setting out, look at the map. The names are clues to the past. For instance, -burgh is the Anglo-Saxon word for ‘fort’, and -by is Old Norse for a village, so that tells you who settled there and named the features of the landscape. Then look at aerial photographs, or satellite images – Google makes this easy – since things often show up more clearly from above.”

Heading down into the marram grass covered dunes, Paul told me how an old Ordnance Survey map had given them a vital clue when the BRP first started digging here. There were written references to a burial ground in the vicinity of Bamburgh Castle, but they had no idea where to search for it. But then they looked at the very first Ordnance Survey map of the area and there, to the south, were the neatly printed words ‘Danish burial ground’. We made our way through a small wood (“Just regrowth, only a couple of hundred years old”), the air thick with the buzzing of heat-drugged insects, until we came to the burial ground. Paul said they’d found over 100 skeletons here, dating from the seventh and eighth centuries. The remains indicated the people buried here were from the nobility – “They were all well fed” – and some had come from as far away as Western Scotland and Norway, only to meet their end in the service of the kings of Northumbria.

Heading inland, Paul stopped at a pasture. The cows looked up placidly before returning to cropping the grass.

“Ridge and furrow,” Paul said, indicating the undulations that ran across the field. “Or rig and frig in archaeological slang. Medieval, judging by the distance between the ridges. Roman fields have narrower gaps.” Parallel lines, like the ripples that form on beaches as the tide goes out, marked the field in straight lines. In medieval times common land was ploughed or dug in long parallel strips. The soil from the furrow was piled on to the ridge, creating two different microclimates for crops. In a dry season, the seeds down in the water-collecting furrow would be assured enough moisture for growth, but if the year was wet, the crops in the freely-draining ridge would flourish. Thus medieval peasants hedged their bets and their labour to ensure a crop. Where the field has been turned over to pasture rather than cross ploughed, the centuries-old pattern of cultivation can still be clearly visible.

“The rule of thumb is the wider the gap, the nearer it is to our own time. Roman fields have a three-metre gap between the ridges, medieval ones from five to eight metres.”

Paul was winning the argument before we’d gone a mile. I asked him if there were any other archaeological landscape features that an amateur could spot and he pointed to a roughly circular patch of nettles sitting alone in the corner of a nearby field. Nettles love phosphorus, and the excrement of cattle and sheep is rich in the element. Those solitary patches I’d often seen in the past usually marked the site of a medieval sheep or cow pen. Although the enclosure had disappeared, the plants lived on on the bounty left by the long-dead animals.

“My family are always moaning that whenever we go anywhere, I’m always saying that’s rig and frig, or there must have been Roman villa in the vicinity, but I can’t help it. It’s just part of the way I automatically process a landscape. For instance, near where I live in York, a Second World War airfield is reverting to scrub. It’s an archaeological test bed. There’s rig and frig fields, crab apples that aren’t native to Britain – my guess is that pilots flew over from America, ate the apple they’d bought there and then threw away the core – and miles of underground tunnels that I’ll bet future archaeologists will take to be sewers, but are actually communication ducts.”

BRP archaeologists hard at work

A couple of miles inland, with the Cheviots looming in the distance, we arrived at another BRP dig. This one cut through the grass, topsoil and subsoil to reveal the limits of a prehistoric lake. One of the archaeologists there told me that in Mesolithic times, that is between 10,000 and 5,000 years ago, where we were standing was a large figure-eight-shaped lake, and we were standing at the pinch point of the lake. It was the obvious place for a settlement, but our distant ancestors were proving elusive. The archaeologists had only uncovered the remains of a millennia-old ditch so far.

Walking back to the castle, Paul showed me an arrowhead he’d found at the edge of a field. It was an exquisitely worked, barbed and tanged late Neolithic flint. But what could this solitary find tell us?

“I’m firmly convinced that the key skill archaeologists have to learn is how not to focus on what is in front of them. Five thousand years ago, skilled artisan could produce half a dozen arrowheads like this every hour. They were as disposable as Bic razors. The shafts, on the other hand, were a different matter. Finding and preparing a truly straight length of wood was difficult. Once that was done, the shaft had to be fletched too. For Neolithic man, the valuable part of an arrow was not the arrowhead but the shaft. What would happen, though, if an animal wasn’t killed outright but fled, taking your valuable arrow with it? So they made their arrows in such a way that the arrowhead would break off easily, leaving the shaft to be retrieved.”

Looking at the killing instrument, I was transported back in time to a world of woods and marshes, and a hunter drawing his bow on a deer and loosing his arrow, but the beast, startled, leapt away, the arrow protruding from its haunch. The shaft broke off as the deer careered through the trees and the pursuing hunter spotted the bright feathers of its fletch lying in the moss. The deer escaped, only to die a few days later when the wound became infected. Scavengers cleared the remains, but the indigestible flint of the arrowhead fell to the earth, and was covered over, only to be uncovered centuries later when a sweating medieval peasant piled the spoil from the furrow on to the adjacent ridge. There it remained, alternately exposed and hidden, until a passing archaeologist saw it glittering on the ground and grasped its significance.

Paul had won the bet.

 

Ibn Battuta: The Journeys of a Medieval Muslim

November 16th, 2018

I’ve got a new book out! Ibn Battuta: the journey of a medieval Muslim is the latest in my Concise Life series for Kube Publishing (after Imam Al-Ghazali and Ibn Sina) and it tells the story of the greatest traveller in history. As a young man, Ibn Battuta set off from his home in Tangier, Morocco, on the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, but then he kept on going, travelling the world for nearly 30 years. During that time he covered 75,000 miles, visited 40 modern-day countries and provides an insight into the scholarly milieu that allowed an itinerant traveller, albeit one with his mind stocked with the tenets of Islamic jurisprudence, to rock up at a sultan’s court pretty well anywhere in the Islamic world and expect to be provided for and, indeed, advanced. And Ibn Battuta was indeed advanced, reaching some dizzylingly high positions, particularly at the sultan’s court in India, before crashing back down again. This was a life of adventure, of shipwrecks and pirates and bandit attacks, but most of all it was a life of travel. Has there ever been a man more inclined to look over the next ridge, to take a new road, to see what was round the next bend, than Ibn Battuta? Travel with him in this book as he befriends sultans and saints, vacillates between riches and renunciation, and travels onwards, to see fresh wonders. The world was a marvel to Ibn Battuta and he makes it marvellous to us.

 

Adventures in Bookland: Unnatural Death by Dorothy L. Sayers

November 5th, 2018


Not often a reader of murder mysteries, I put this on my Kindle because it was free (out of copyright) and came up first in a list when I was in a hurry to catch a train and suffering from abibliophobia, not having a print book to hand and worried I might not have time to buy one. Dorothy Sayers wrote one of the most profound books on the connection between creativity and the Trinity in The Mind of the Maker, so I was curious to read her more work-a-day work. Lord Peter Wimsey, the aristocratic detective, was Sayer’s most lucrative creation and the one she remains best known for. This is his third appearance and, in it, Sayers seems minded to show some of his limitations, from a plan to smoke out the killer that goes tragically wrong, to being in the wrong place at the wrong time so that one of his assistants is all but murdered.

As a detective story, the killer is clear early on. What’s at play is the how and the why. It’s a mark of how good a writer Sayers is that this is enough to keep the reader interested to the end of the book: as is its portrayal of 1920s England, a place that now seems almost impossibly far away although when I was young, in the 1970s, it seemed still in the recent past. I suppose that is the difference that half a century makes, particularly a half century that has seen such change. Recommended for readers of detective fiction or anyone interested in a dispassionate portrayal of the mores and social hierarchies of a now long past England.