Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Frosts, freezes and fairs

Spring has been late in coming this year. We have had the coldest March in 50 years, and as  I write this in mid-April, there are still some snow drifts up on the high roads. It seemed a good idea to reach for this book to console myself that we have been here before. And of course it gives me an excuse to post some snowy pictures.

The subtitle to this book is : chronicles of the frozen Thames and harsh winters in Britain since 1000AD. It is basically a chronology of  Britain's harshest winters followed by a more indepth look at some of them. Although it is a bit uninspiring in layout, it does deliver some fascinating facts and includes some amazing old pictures of winters past. Here are some snippets from the frozen past.


Source: Wiki Images http://www.fulltable.com/crowd/12.jpg
 1715 was particularly cold with bitter temperatures lasting for seven weeks. The Thames was described as frozen solid, tho' sadly not reliably solid, as one local character Doll the Pippin was to find to her cost.


1881 is known for the greatest snowstorm of the 19th Century with mountainous drifts across southern England and drifts 10 foot high in Oxford Street. So intense was the cold that oaks, yews and hollies were 'split assunder sounding like rifle cracks."

The diary of an Oxfordshire farmer relates that ''27 persons were said to have perished on Salisbury Plains - besides hundreds of sheep.''

When you think of the Thames freezing you probably imagine a glass-smooth surface, of course it was nothing of the sort. Often it took the form of  huge blocks of floating ice.  In Greenwich, spectators gazed in amazement at enormous icebergs the size of a 'six-roomed cottage'.


The frost which began on Nov 25th continued in East Anglia for 56 days with every night at or below freezing.  A measure of the cold was shown in Devon when mud froze and adhered to the bottom of fishing smacks, anchoring them to the bottom of the river at low tide. When the water rose they remained there, only their masts showing. And this in salt water.  This wasn't the last time the sea froze, in 1963 ice stretched out to sea  for two and a half miles off the North Kent coast.
Frozen waterfall after days of temperatures below -10 C


In times past, the big freezes brought with them immense hardship. The difficulty in transporting food and supplies led to hunger and of course the people also had to suffer the penetrating cold in houses lit only by fires. The cost of fuel in 1740, known as The Brutal frost rose eight-fold from 2s a bushel to £3.10s. There are many tales of folk freezing to death littering these pages. Freezing conditions caused widespread unemployment for many trades including watermen, boatmen, fishermen and carpenters. The merriments on the river provided employment for only a small proportion of those who relied on a flowing river for their livelihood. For instance, when in 1895, the Medway froze for a fortnight, makeshift depots and soup kitchens distributed bread and soup to the needy. "The hungry poor assembling in great crowds literally fighting their way to the doors in their struggles to get bread."   This winter was known as The Great Skating Winter but it brought hardships for builders, farmers and gardeners who were unable to work and with no welfare state to help them out, many became destitute.

Another phenomenon, seen in 1940 occurred after two days of continous rain. It was supercooled and immediately froze on touching surfaces of trees, grass, roads and buildings. Whole woods were devastated as trees split apart or shed branches weighed down by ice.  We have experienced this super-cooled rain ourselves over the last few winters and it's literally impossible to get about unless you go on your hands and knees.

This Spring, the hill farmers have faced huge difficulties with  a late snowfall. Many hundreds of sheep have frozen to death with their lambs under huge drifts of snow. Back in 1947 on the South Downs farmers faced the similar difficulties when live sheep were frozen by their wool to gorse bushes. Birds were frozen to their perches and ponies became encased in tombs of ice on Dartmoor.  This wasn't the first winter in which birds suffered. In the winter of 1963 a heron was found standing dead in a dyke with its legs held fast in the ice.

This year there have been reports of hundreds of puffins being washed ashore on the East coast due to stormy conditions out to sea. This fatal event is known as a wreck, and this was the largest for some 60 years. Puffin report



A particular hardship hit Yorkshire in 1945 when the second half of January brought a particularly cold spell of weather. Temperatures did not rise above -9 degrees Centigrade and beer froze inside public houses! Yes, it was that bad. In London Big Ben was silenced when its hammers froze. Fuel was in short supply and people queued for hours to bring home a bag of coke from the local gas works.

From the countryside there was reports of a farmer using rabbits which had frozen to death, to keep his stove alight, as the roads for miles around were blocked with snow. 

Source: Frosts, freezes and fairs.


If you're not a fan of cold weather, then Buxton in Derbyshire is probably not the place for you. As one of the highest towns in Britain at 1000 feet above sea level, it seems to suffer particularly badly. When snow was reported to have laid on the ground for 45 days in London in 1947, it was with Buxton for 71.  That particular winter finally ended in mid-march with disastrous flooding but not before another ice storm had festooned the trees with ice and icicles even hung from people's hats. The picture taken from the book shows the enormous drifts that had amassed by March here, north of Beaufort in Gwent, some 1300 feet above sea level.


More recent winters have also stopped transport. In 1963 two hundred London buses were grounded with frozen diesel.


An extraordinary aspect of this winter was the outbreak of many fires in West Scotland. The dryness caused by the mountains providing shelter to the easterly winds led to over 50 fires on the dry grass and heathers. The firemen had to set explosives to break up the ice to provide enough water to put them out!


Icy pleasures 

Add caption
Of course it wasn't all misery. People have always gathered to have fun in these icy conditions. In Elizabethan times, enterprising printers set up presses on the frozen water and sold certificates commemorating the occasion.  The Great Winter of 1683 saw these along with travelling theatres, throwing at a cock (?!!), horse, donkey and coach races and nine pins amongst its pleasures.   In 1881, a stove was made of bricks and erected on the frozen Thames. A huge fire was lit, and a whole sheep roasted. A crowd of at least 1000 revellers, mostly skaters availed themselves of this.  At Kingston, in 1895 immense ice floes congealed into one solid mass. A fair was held with marquees. The highlight being the roasting of an ox on the ice.  Ice skating was certainly a winner of these cold winters. The ice Skating Asssocation was set up in Cambridgshire in 1878. In 1929 when Lake Windermere froze 50,000 skaters came to enjoy this rare pleasure.

Why does the Thames no longer freeze?

There have of course been cold winters this century (1946/7 and 1962/3 being equally cold as those of the great frosts in the past) but the last frost fair was held on The Thames in 1814.  You're probably asking yourself why the Thames no longer freezes in this way? The answer is not only because of the warmer winters, but also due to the rebuilding of damaged London bridges allowing for a freer flow of water. The old London Bridge had 19 piers protected by frameworks of wood on timber piles known as starlings. These arches halted the flow of the river. The narrow arches all too readily became blocked with floating chunks of ice.  The new bridge was opened in 1831. With only five arches, it allowed a much freer flow of water. Draining of the marshes of Lambeth and Vauxall  have lessened the chance of ice forming on the water's edge.  The growing size of London has also generated an urban heat island effect, roads and buildings absorbing heat during the day and releasing it at night. The emptying of warm water from the riverside power stations was enough to raise the water temperature and prevent freezing during the winters of 1947 and 1963. And finally, the new London Bridge opened in the 1970s has only three huge arches. Sadly, we are unlikely to see the Thames frozen in such a way again. 

 The Royal Humane Society

The book ends with a description of a society set up in 1774 and first known as the Institution for affording immediate relief to persons apparently dead from drowning, shortened thankfully tho' less descriptively to 'The Royal Humane Society' in 1787.  As the popularity of ice skating rose the Society employed 'ice men' to test the strength of the ice on lakes in London's parks and to rescue folk who failed to head their advice.  The Royal Humane Society today

So, as the snow finally melts away and spring finally shows its face, we can at least be grateful that our cold winters can be borne stoically with the comfort of central heating and an electric blanket. 


This has taken a long time to be posted. Mainly because I managed to lose all the text after spending ages on it, and then had to type it out again and couldn't face the final edit! Anyway, the positive side of this now terribly outdated entry is that I heard Gillian Clarke on the radio at the weekend and thought her poetry would be a good addition. Here's a snippet of her poetry  and here's a link to the collection  Ice

Books which surely must be read/bought some day

Richard Mabey's take on how the weather shapes our national culture and psyche. Turned out nice again

And another book which uses fictional accounts of the 40 times the Thames has frozen solid  The frozen Thames 

Winter: Five windows on the season (2012) by Adam Gopnik
'Winter' takes us on an intimate tour of the artists, poets, composers, writers, explorers, scientists and thinkers who helped shape a new and modern idea of winter.  Winter (details)

Now enough of Winter, let's enjoy the sunshine!

Wednesday, 20 March 2013


Two recent encounters with owls made me reach for this particular book. One early morning, after heavy snowfall, I was making my way to the station when a tawny owl swooped silently over my shoulder leaving me staring in wonder in its wake.

The second encounter was more up close and personal thanks to a raptor rescue centre who were showing off some of their birds in town. I always feel slightly uneasy about such displays  of  what I understand to be shy birds, and resisted the offer to stroke them (tempting tho' that was). I did however take some photos with my phone. The faces are so captivating, as Desmond Morris says, there is something special about the flat-faced owl and those huge forward-facing eyes which make us believe we are looking into the face of almost humanoid intelligence. 

Owls are everywhere in art and literature from the 30,000 year-old cave engraving at Chauvet to Harry Potter's Hedwig - we know them so well and yet hardly ever encounter them. It's probably this paradox which has resulted in the ambivalent attitude we humans have shown these mysterious birds over the years. The owl's (mostly) nocturnal habit has given rise to contradictary feelings about it. They have been viewed as bringers of luck and on the other hand, evil omens of death. The kindly wise bird or witches' familar; vehicle for a goddess; symbol of obstinacy, symbol of calm.

Morris takes us on a whistlestop tour through owl mythology, symbolism, owls in art and literature, and then finishes with some natural history of the owl.  He tells us that owls mate for life, that despite folklore to the contrary they can see in bright light. They have the best stereoscopic vision of all birds and their hearing is about 10 x better than a human's and they are adapted to live in almost every climate. Although we like to think of the owl as a wise old bird, infact as a specialist it is not nearly as intelligent as the opportunist parrot or crow. But wise old parrot doesn't quite have the same ring does it? My favourite picture in the book is of an elf owl nesting inside a cactus. Elf owl

The nice thing about today's technology is that you can be sat reading a book and think, 'I want to see that', and in seconds you can be watching a video. The same applies for this blog, so here's a link to footage of some gorgeous Snowy Owls that have adapted to daytime hunting.  

The BBC currently have an ad for their HD services which is simply stunning. I was delighted to find it on YouTube to share with you. It shows high definition slow motion footage of a majestic Great Grey Owl flying towards the camera. This was taken from David Attenborough's Frozen Planet series and just underlines how adaptable the owl is. The following link explains how the owl uses its flat face and feathers as a kind of sonar dish to find its prey. A warning for the faint-hearted amongst you, it doesn't end well for the rodent but hey, an owl's gotta eat too!  Great grey owl footage

This is so my kind of book. It straddles art, folklore and natural history, is generously illustrated throughout and left me knowing just a little bit more than I did before about these beautiful birds.

Owl by Desmond Morris (2009) Owl
Owl, is just one in this series of books. Others in the series that are already sitting on my wishlist are:  Wolf and Fox but if you go to the link, you will see there are many others in the series to suit all tastes.. hare, chicken, sparrow... And they've now added trees to the list! Dangerous....


Other books on my bookshelf 

The tale of one woman's associations with the real smart birds. Corvus: A life with birds by Esther Woolfson  Corvus 

And for a tour round all things feathery from prehistoric fossils to Las Vegas show girls, you can't do better than Feathers: The evolution of a natural miracle (2011) by Thor Hanson Feathers


Books bought 0 : Books read 8

Thursday, 7 March 2013


It's World Book Day  so I felt I really ought to blog, today of all days. Over the last week I have been reading Making by Thomas Heatherwick. Not one I have read from cover to cover but then this is a huuuuge tome of a book! It's certainly not one to pop in your bag to read on the bus. No, I think it falls squarely into the category of coffee table books, one to dip in and out of.  I can promise you that almost at whatever page you open, you will be in for a treat.

I have long been a fan of Thomas Heatherwick's work, the B of the Bang; the Rolling Bridge of Paddington Basin, so when this book was published it was simply a matter of when I would be buying it rather than if.  Luckily a birthday book token took the guilt out of the expensive purchase and I wasn't disappointed. (Look here for a video of the Rolling Bridge in action)

Heatherwick came to worldwide attention at the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony with his Olympic cauldron (apparently known as Betty). It was a characteristically, clever and beautiful design.

 Sadly the edition of the book I bought doesn't include the Olympic projects as they were TOP SECRET and this book was published to coincide with an exhibition at the V&A which took place before the cauldron was unveiled.  There are so many other things to gaze at and admire here that I hardly feel the absence.

File:Olympics Closing Ceremony - Extinguishing of the Cauldron (2).jpg

The Heatherwick Studio produces work ranging from huge architectural designs through to furniture, electricity pylons and lately the new design for the much loved and missed old Routemaster buses in London.  You name it really, they pretty much turn their hands to anything that is asked of them.

The book is arranged chronologically with a few pages given over to each project, each in response to a question.
  • How can an electron microscope help to design a building?
  •  Can you flat-pack a ten-metre-high sculpture? 
  • Can a bridge borrow its structure from nearby buildings? 
  • Can a tower touch the sky gently? 
  • Can you squeeze a chair out of a machine, the way you squeeze toothpaste out of a tube?  

Each one describes the design brief and the sources of inspiration and gives a real insight into the imaginative workings of the Heatherwick studio.

My favourite of all - How can a building represent a nation? - resulted in the UK Pavilion at the World Expo in Shanghai, China in 2007. The studio were charged with making a building that would be in the top five. Of course it came top.

The theme of the Expo was "Better City, Better Life".  Heatherwick decided to consider the relationship of cities and nature. London being the home of the world's first major botanical institution, Kew Gardens it seemed appropriate to create a magnificent seed cathedral.  This quite spectacular building  graces the front of the book, (see top of the post!) and is simply sublime. How frustrating that it had such a limited existence!   

The Seed Cathedral illustrates perfectly how complete their thinking is. From inspiration - the opening sequence of  the 1985 film Witness in which the camera pans across fields of grass buffeted by the wind; to choice of materials - 60,000 acrylic rods, holding the seeds; how it sat in the landscape - on grey astroturf - arranged to look like a crumpled sheet of paper opened up like wrapping paper to sugggest that the Pavilion was a gift from the UK to the China; how it looked during the day and night;  how people would interact with it - not a single aspect was overlooked.  The building was an absolute triumph.  Follow the link to see Heatherwick talk about the making of the Seed Cathedral on TEDTV (and if you haven't come across the TED talks before, then you're in for a treat).

I could go on about this book all day, suffice to say the extraordinary range of ideas and materials and the impressive thoughtfulness and attention to detail shown here makes me a firm believer that Thomas Heatherwick qualifies as a bone fide National Treasure! You may not like all the designs, but I challenge you to spend just 5 minutes with this book and not come away seized by the urge to go create something yourself.

One of the Heatherwick Studios Christmas card designs. Source: Making.
 I for one, would give an awful lot to be on their Christmas card list! So go on, beg, borrow or st.. no, don't do that, save up and buy this beautiful source of  class A imaginative genius.

Making : Thomas Heatherwick. Thames & Hudson.  Making
A new edition is to be published in May 2013 which will include the Olympic projects.

Some more design books you might like 

 The Genius of Design   - a BBC tie-in which traces the history of design and this one which I borrowed from our local library
Twentieth Century Design which illustrates 200 of the most popular and groundbreaking "future classics" of design, from architecture, urban planning and interiors through lighting, furniture and homeware to products and visual communication.

Books Bought 0 : Books read 9 (if flicking through counts!) 

Thursday, 21 February 2013

Nathaniel's Nutmeg

Nutmeg - such an unassuming spice, a jar will set you back about £1.50. I'd never really given it much thought until I read this book. Nathaniel's Nutmeg, traces the spice trade back in the 17th Century and has made me look at my spice rack in a completely new light. Back then Nutmeg was advertised as a cure for many trifling ailments - flatulence and the like, but when the physicians of Elizabethan London claimed that it was the only certain cure for The Plague, it rocketed in price and became the most coveted spice of all. 

This is a fascinating account of  England's part in the spice race - the attempt to gain control over the few small islands on which the fussy nutmeg tree then grew and to bring riches to those involved in the trade. It wasn't easy, the route was long and difficult and the Portugese and Spanish were not keen to relinquish their control of the trade. The English were late to the party and were joined by a tenacious adversary in the shape of the Dutch.

 The first half of the book focuses on the trials and tribulations of the East India Spice Company. Their search for the islands was costly. After 10 years, these merchant adventurers had lost one third of their ships and 800 of the 1200 men who had set sail. Two captains had died and only one ship had even managed to reach the distant Banda island, home to the nutmeg tree.

It wasn't exactly a barrel of laughs for the sailors either. If storms; scurvy; typhoid; dysentary (or the bloody flux as it was then aptly named); pirates; or months in the doldrums didn't finish them off, then attacks by Dutch and Portugese ships might do the job. The pay was poor and they stood the chance of not seeing their homes and families for up to three years at a stretch, if they were indeed lucky enough to survive the trip.

One captain, kept his crew relatively healthy by feeding them lemon oil. Sadly this cure for scurvy wasn't used by other captains for another 50 years
The spice race was populated by some eccentric characters - William Keeling for instance, a huge fan of  the plays of Shakespeare, had his crew rehearse and perform Hamlet. While other crews were repairing their ships, his were occupied learning lines and sewing costumes.  By a cruel twist of  irony, the same captain discovered he was developing an allergy to nutmeg!

Nathaniel Courthope 

The eponymous Nathaniel is a tragic character who appears late in the book. He was a factor who refused to give in to the Dutch. He and his men lay under seige on the Indonesian island of Run, for almost 4 years, low on food and drinking filthy water, before he was finally murdered by the Dutch. His part in the whole story seems at first to be a relatively minor one in the complex history of  bluff and double bluff  with the leaders and chieftans of the spice islands. However, his murder and the subsequent torture and execution of his men nearly brought England and Holland to war.

File:Banda Islands en.png
Run, the Island on which Nathanial Courthope and his men were trapped.

In the end, this book seems to be less about nutmeg and more about the brutal workings of colonialism and the towering presumption on the part of the English and the Dutch that they had a right to control and plunder other people's lands. As you would expect, the story descends pretty quickly into ugly treatment of the indigenous people. It was little wonder that they surrendered power to protect themselves against the heinous deeds of  the Dutch or English occupiers.

 So what did I learn from this book? First, that the nutmeg tree actually provides 2 spices - nutmeg and mace. Secondly, it would seem that we are using torture methods today pretty similar to those used in the 1600s. And finally and rather surprisingly, in order to settle their differences over the death of Nathanial Courthope,  the English conceded control of a tiny island in the East Indies to the Dutch in exchange for what turned out to be a rather more influential island .... Manhattan. 

Now that really was a deal that would change the course of history.

Nathaniel's Nutmeg   How one man's courage changed the course of history. Sceptre (New Edition 2000)

Other books on my shelf....

In a similar vein.... Salt

Other plants that changed the world
  Seeds of Change: Plants that transformed mankind 

Books bought 0  Books read 7

Saturday, 16 February 2013


With the meteriorite dropping out of the skies onto the Urals this week, (Science of the meteorite ) it seemed like a good time to review my latest read (set in Moscow)- Snowdrops by A.D.Miller. Sounds lovely doesn't it? Well don't be fooled, because the snowdrops of the title actually refer to the corpses that lie buried and hidden in the winter snow, and emerge only as the thaw begins.

"Snowdrops: the badness that is already there, always there and very close, but which you somehow manage not to see. The sins the winter hides, sometimes forever."

This is a chilling, (in more than one sense of the word) tale of modern Russia. Narrated by Nick, a British lawyer working in Moscow who falls for a Russian woman Masha.This is a tale of corruption and deception on many levels, personal and political and the powerlessness of ordinary people to change this.

Nick as an outsider soon becomes caught up in this dirty world of lies and payoffs. The book is full of malevolent undercurrents. His mother comes to visit, and the awkwardness of  their relationship is beautifully portrayed. The lack of honest discussion he has with her seems to echo the self-deception of everyone who works for the newly wealthy men in Russia. They know that things aren't quite right but decide not to look below the surface. Infact it seems to be the novel's central theme. Nothing is as it seems.

Tatiana, the elderly lady his girlfriend has introduced him to, sums up the impasse surrounding the corruption. When Nick asks her if she minds that the people in charge seem to spend half their time stealing.
"Yes, she said, of course she minded, but there was no point putting new people in the Kremlin, because they'd just start the stealing all over again."

Snowdrops was shortlisted for the CWA Gold Dagger in 2011 yet it doesn't read like a classic crime novel. There's no detective, other than the reader, trying to piece together what's going on in this unsettling novel.

It is a gripping story, and paints a  vivid and ugly picture of  Moscow today. The writing is very immediate, (think William Boyd) it was a cleverly constructed novel with interlinking strands. A satisfying read. I have never been to Russia and on the strength of this book, I doubt I ever will! 

Incidentally, the reason why the meteorite was captured on film by a driver, is explained by the Russian practice of mounting cameras on the front of their cars to help settle insurance claims. Kind of says it all really....

Snowdrops - A.D. Miller. Atlantic Books (2011)  Snowdrops
(Other booksellers are available!!)

Similar territory:

Waiting for sunrise - William Boyd Waiting for sunrise

Friday, 1 February 2013

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

 Some children wrote letters to Santa. I wrote for the four horsemen of the apocalypse....  

What can I say, I loved this book!!! The title gives you a hint of the treat you're in for, (it was the response from Mrs Winterson when her daughter tells her she is gay). This account of Jeanette Winterson's quite frankly, abusive childhood in Accrington could quite easily have been a depressing read, but honestly I can't remember when I've laughed so much at a book. 

Much of  Winterson's childhood has been visited before in her first book Oranges are not the only fruit  a thinly disguised autobiographical novel. It was dramatised in a fabulous TV series starring the fantastic Geraldine McEwan as her domineering mother. (Follow the link for A snippet of Oranges Are not the only Fruit ). So I was intrigued to see what else she could add.
There is no doubt that Jeanette's childhood provided her with fantastic material for her writing. Her adopted mother was a domineering religious fanatic,  quite some character. The early combination of  her mother's strange religious non-sequiturs plus the beautiful prose from the King James' Bible obviously gave Winterson a good grounding in linguistic artistry.   I could've taken quotes from almost every page to show you, and going back to it to write this rather tardy blog entry, just made me want to read it again. Here are some examples taken at random that I particularly enjoyed. "God is forgiveness - or so that particular story goes, but in our house God was Old Testament and there was no forgiveness without a great deal of sacrifice. Mrs Winterson was unhappy and we had to be unhappy with her."

"Her favourite song was 'God has Blotted Them Out' which was meant to be about sins, but really was about anyone who had ever annoyed her, which was everyone."

"The only time Mrs Winterson like to answer the door was when she knew that the Mormons were coming round. Then she waited in the lobby, - before they had dropped the knocker she had flung open the door waving her Bible and warning them of eternal damnation. This was confusing for the Mormons because they thought they were in charge of eternal damnation. But Mrs Winterson was a better candidate for the job."

Mrs Winterson was unhappy and seemed pretty determined to inflict that misery on the rest of the household. Jeanette was never given a key to her house and was constantly locked out on the doorstep or worse, locked in the coalhole where she made up stories to help her forget about the cold and the dark.  "The one good thing about being shut in a coal-hole is that it prompts reflection."

Books were frowned on in the Winterson household. There were only six books in the house, one was The Bible and two others were commentaries on The Bible. Her mother didn't trust books -   "The trouble with a book is that you never know what's in it until it's too late." so Jeanette read read them in secret. The local library became a safe haven for her. This part of the book reads like a fairytale- the bed that rose from the floor because of the books hidden under the mattress. Of course they are discovered and in hellfire and damnation mode, are burned by her mother but in typical Winterson fashion, this not the end but the start of something. The books had gone but what they held was already inside her. She realised there was something else she could do. "Fuck it, I thought, ' I can write my own." 

Although Mrs Winterson didn't allow books, the family lived in a world of print. Exhortations from The Bible were stuck all over the house. The ones in the outside loo are among my favourites. Those who stood up read  "LINGER NOT AT THE LORD'S BUSINESS" and for those who sat down there was - "HE SHALL MELT THEIR BOWELS LIKE WAX". It seems to me that Mrs Winterson could if she had wished, been a fine comedian.

With all its tales of lock-outs and lock-ins, exorcisms and mental cruelty this book could easily qualify as a 'misery memoir' however it is far from that. Its strength, alongside the fact that it is very funny, is Jeanette's zest for life. As she puts it, "I was and am in love with life"

This is a book about place and finding your place in the world. A tale of a journey - a search to find her place - outside of the working class hardships of Lancashire. Her search to find her biological mother and to forge a new way of relating to people which involved warmth and love rather than disappointment and coldness.  She does find these things, just don't expect a fairytale ending. 

Why be happy when you could be normal? by Jeanette Winterson (2011)
Why be happy when you could be normal?

You might also like: 

Tanglewreck  Winterson's first book for children.

And I've just seen that Winterson has a  new book out  The Daylight Gate (which kind of shows how long its taken me to post this blog!) it's described as a gripping gothic novella, set in the 16th Century witch trials. This is definitely being added to my wishlist.

Sunday, 20 January 2013

An Abundance of Katherines

So, as you will see from the picture, this is a brief foray into the world of e-books. Not one of my 'great-unreads' as it happens, but 'set' as our family bookclub read. It soon came close to arousing the same guilt in me, as one by one, the rest of the family announced that they had completed it.

It's a teenagers' book, and I have to say very enjoyable. It made me laugh out loud a lot. A brief plot summary. Colin, a failed protegy, clever in everything but relationships, has just been dumped by his girlfriend - the nineteenth to be called Katherine - hence the title. He and his friend Hassan, set off on a roadtrip to help him get over it and to enable Hassan to escape the demands of his parents to get off his backside, stop watching daytime TV and actually do something with his life.

They stop in Tenessee, to see the final resting place of (improbably)  Archduke Franz Ferdinand. They become friends with the tour guide, a young woman and find themselves a job and somewhere to stay, and so the real journey begins.

Colin - an asperger's kind of guy, decides that he needs to develop a mathematical theorem to help him solve the Katherine conundrum.   It all rolls along at a happy pace, the characters are quirky and funny. Even if you have no interest in maths and bell curves,  I think you might enjoy the ride.

An Abundance of Katherine's - John Green

You might also enjoy:
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time 

 Books bought 0: Books read 3

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Into The Wild

This is the true story of Chris McCandless, a young American who, on graduating from college, gave away all his money to Oxfam, disposed of most of his belongings and set off into the wild parts of America to make a new life for himself. His actions raised many strong and differing opinions. Some thought he was an idiot, ill-prepared and fool-hardy as he set off for his final, ill-fated adventure into Alaska. Others saw him as some kind of hero, looking for a simpler, more noble way of life.

Jon Krakauer, the journalist who has written this account, takes a more considered view. He certainly doesn't gloss over the negative sides to Chris' personality, nor does he ignore the pain and worry he caused to his poor family, who had no idea where he was, or how to get hold of him. He paints a more complex picture, of a young man with deeply held moral views. I found he reminded me of what it's like to be young, headstrong, opinionated and judgemental.

Since moving to Yorkshire 10 years ago, I learnt the joy of walking alone. After more than a decade of living cheek by jowl to folk in London, I can really empathise with Chris' desire for solitude. There's nothing quite like being stood atop a landscape with not a soul around, just you and the sounds of nature. Undoubtedly he was also incredibly courageous and it would seem, simply terribly unlucky in his timing of his journey into Alaska. If anything, I think he managed remarkably well to survive as long as he did with so little equipment. So yes, I will keep walking and sometimes alone, but I will aways take a map, a gps and a mobile with me.

If you want to see the landscapes he travelled through, his story was made into a film, which from what I can remember, stayed pretty close the book. I would recommend both. Into the Wild Film trailer 

Into the Wild - Jon Krakauer   Into the Wild
 Related reads: 
The Call of The Wild 

Books bought 0 : Books read 2

Monday, 14 January 2013

Walking Home

Simon Armitage relates a tale of finding a signed copy of one of his books in a bargain-bin in a charity shop. On opening it, he finds the words, To Mum and Dad...

This is exactly the sort of self-deprecating writing you will find in Walking Home. Yes, he's walking 14 miles a day and more in mud, wind and lashing rain (it's summer in Yorkshire after all!) but he's not gonna make out he's some kind of hero.

Infact, I'm quite in awe of his ability to walk all day and then give a poetry reading in an assortment of venues, some more suited to the occasion than others, with a willing/not-so-willing audience in tow.

From the warmth of my bedroom, I really enjoyed this tale of walking the Pennine Way - in the reverse direction to normal. It made me laugh out loud in places and of course, the man's a poet, so the writing is often beautiful.

Armitage is responsible for a longer than expected walk of my own. One Sunday we set out to find one of his newly revealed Stanza Stones. These are a series of six poems carved in stones along a 67-mile route from his home in Marsden. We were searching for Dew, couldn't find it, so decided to find Puddle near Ilkley instead. Which we did, eventually...


 (Follow the link here to see more) Stanza Stones

It rains a lot you see in the Pennines. And Armitage encounters plenty of it on his walk. His book hasn't inspired me to walk the Pennine Way, but it has made me go and hunt out some more of his poems.
Walking home. Simon Armitage 
Walking Home

Books bought 0 : Books read 1

Saturday, 5 January 2013

The Challenge!

Brought to book:
Definition: To punish or be made to account for something you have done wrong.

I have been brought to book. My crime isn't a serious one - infact, I'm sure it's one many of you have committed too. The crime, dear reader, is that of buying books and then not reading them!

I have been guilty of buying books; many books, with all good intentions of reading them. They sit on my shelves, glowering at me, despising me for abandoning them there and moving onto the next "must read".

It really has to stop. So, I have set myself a challenge. No more book buying until I have read the un-reads.

Here are the rules: 
  1. No book buying. Absolutely no one-click sneak buys on Amazon. No, not even if it's 0.01p! 
  2. Borrowing from the library doesn't count.
  3. Nor do e-loans from said library.
  4. Incidental gifts of books don't count (they just get added to the un-reads)
  5. The Rights of the Reader apply.  [The Rights of the Reader]
 In the process I hope to share some great reads with you. (After all, I chose these books in the first place.) Alert you to some strange, fascinating books, books worthy of being read.  By doing so, I hope to keep a record of a year's reading and keep a tag on those dearly wanted new books for when the challenge is over.

So, here goes. Wish me luck and if you have a moment do let me know of your own un-reads. You never know, they may make it onto my wish list...

Books bought 0 : Books read 0