Category Archives: Book Reviews

Monsters – A Fan’s Dilemma by Claire Dederer

Dear Readers, I bought this book while I was in Canada, because I’ve always been interested in how and why we decide what it’s acceptable to enjoy, and how far we are able to separate the artist from the work. This is particularly current when someone was recently arrested for attacking the Eric Gill sculpture outside the BBC with a chisel only last week – Gill, who was instrumental in the design of the typeface for the London Underground, and who was lauded for his artistic works, is also notorious for his sexual abuse of his daughters, and his dog. Dederer doesn’t actually discuss Gill, but she does talk about some of our more recent ‘monsters’ – Michael Jackson, Roman Polanski, Miles Davies etc.

In The Guardian, Rachel Cooke  gave the book a truly terrible review, while Kathryn Hughes kind of liked it. And so, as you might expect, the book turns out to be just as polarising as the question. ‘Should’ we still enjoy the paintings of Picasso, even though he was a serial abuser of women? ‘Should’ we still enjoy the music of Miles Davies, who openly discussed slapping women around? How far does the ‘stain’ of knowing about an artist’s life contaminate the things that they created?

Well it’s a vexed subject and there are no easy answers. One point that is well-made, though, is that this, like so many things, has been turned into an individual decision. If we refuse to listen to the music of Michael Jackson, who are we benefitting (apart from making ourselves feel good?) And how about the fact that Jackson was probably a victim of child abuse himself? We get ourselves tied up in knots, and I can’t help thinking that, compared to the problems that the world is facing, worrying about such things is a luxury. Just imagine if we took all that energy and argument and turned it towards actually changing things that are wrong.

The ‘monsters’ in Dederer’s book are overwhelmingly men, but she has some interesting things to say about what makes a woman artist a ‘monster’. Largely this involves abandoning their children – Doris Lessing took one of her children with her when she left what was then Rhodesia, but left the other two behind. For me, the difference between what Lessing does, and what the male ‘monsters’ do is that Lessing left in order to do her artistic work. I’m not sure that beating up your partner adds anything to your ability to make jazz, or that abusing children makes you a better sculptor. We seem to cut male artists more slack when it comes to terrible behaviour, which comes as no big surprise to me.

Ach, I don’t know. I don’t think that there are any easy answers about what we should and shouldn’t like, and how far we should stop enjoying the art of those who are execrable human beings. The paradox of seeing that something is beautiful, and moving, and true, and that the person who created it is a terrible human being, is one that I don’t think that anyone has ultimately cracked. But I would love to know what you think, Readers. Is there something that you no longer feel comfortable about enjoying, now that you know about the artist’s life? Or are you able to separate the two?

I should say that I found Dederer’s book thought-provoking, frustrating and a little confusing, but then that’s pretty much what the whole subject is like.

The Great Cat – Poems About Cats

Dear Readers, buying me a book can be very hit and miss, as my poor husband has discovered over the past twenty years. Either I’ve already read it, don’t want to read it, or it’s just a little bit off of the hub of whatever I’m interested in at the time. I sometimes feel like one of those children who is fascinated by horses for twenty minutes, just enough time for the grandparents to get the toy stable for her birthday, unaware that by bedtime she’s already changed her passion to dogs. Hey ho. But for once I really loved this book – it has a surprising selection of unusual poems about cats, along with the ones that I already knew. And it seems very appropriate as our little cat Willow has been a bit in the wars just lately, and that makes me appreciate her even more.

Willow in a patch of sunshine

Firstly her blood pressure has gone up, and we are now on the maximum dose of the drug that we use – hypertension can be dangerous in cats, causing blindness amongst other things. Fortunately her readings are ok at the moment. People often ask me how on earth you measure blood pressure in a cat, and the answer is by putting the cuff around the tail. Who knew? Not me for sure.

And now her weight is going down. I suspect that she wasn’t feeding properly while we were in Canada – she often goes off her food while we’re away. We had someone coming into feed her because she hates other cats and so a cattery is out of the question, but I think she gets lonely. Hopefully her weight will go up again now we’re back.

For a while there she was yowling her head off during the night (just what you need when you’re jetlagged) but fortunately she’s settled back into her routine. Cats love their routines (or at least mine does) and she gets very cross if we aren’t in bed/on the sofa/ available to groom her at the specified times. She has us extremely well-trained but every so often we do something radical like go out or stay up late, which she doesn’t approve of. Plus, for two years she’s had people with her all the time. Nobody being around must have been an awful shock.

And now for a couple of poems. This one is by Marge Piercy, better known for the novel ‘Woman on the Edge of Time’, which I devoured as a young woman, but she is also clearly a fine observer of cats.

The Cats of Greece by Marge Piercy

The cats of Greece have
eyes grey as the plague.
Their voices are limpid,
all hunger.
As they dodge in the gutters
their bones clack.
Dogs run from them.
In tavernas they sit
at tableside and
watch you eat.
Their moonpale cries
hurl themselves
against your full spoon.
If you touch one gently
it goes crazy.
Its eyes turn up.
It wraps itself around your ankle
and purrs a rusty millenium,
you liar,
you tourist.

This poem, by Thom Gunn, is so well-observed. I love the way that the cats fight and decide when enough is enough.

Apartment Cats
Thom Gunn

The Girls wake, stretch, and pad up to the door.
They rub my leg and purr;
One sniffs around my shoe,
Rich with an outside smell,
The other rolls back on the floor –
White bib exposed, and stomach of soft fur.

Now, more awake, they re-enact Ben Hur
Along the corridor,
Wheel, gallop; as they do,
Their noses twitching still,
Their eyes get wild, their bodies tense,
Their usual prudence seemingly withdraws.

And then they wrestle; parry, lock of paws,
Blind hug of close defense,
Tail-thump, and smothered mew.
If either, though, feels claws,
She abruptly rises, knowing well
How to stalk off in wise indifference.

And my mind turns to the inevitable. This is so poignant and fresh that it gets me every time I read it. I love the conversational tone of Billy Collins’s work. You might want to skip it if you are missing an animal who has died.

Putting Down The Cat

Billy Collins

The assistant holds her on the table,
the fur hanging limp from her tiny skeleton,
and the veterinarian raises the needle of fluid
which will put the line through her ninth life.

‘Painless,’ he reassures me, ‘like counting
backwards from a hundred,’ but I want to tell him
that our poor cat cannot count at all,
much less to a hundred, much less backwards.

And finally, although this one is also sad, there is something about the unexpectedness of it that makes me pause. I love the last stanza, so unexpected and yet so true. I love Jane Kenyon’s poems. She always makes me think.

The Blue Bowl

Like primitives we buried the cat
with his bowl. Bare-handed
we scraped sand and gravel
back into the hole. It fell with a hiss
and thud on his side,
on his long red fur, the white feathers
that grew between his toes, and his
long, not to say aquiline, nose.
We stood and brushed each other off.
There are sorrows much keener than these.
Silent the rest of the day, we worked,
ate, stared, and slept. It stormed
all night; now it clears, and a robin
burbles from a dripping bush
like the neighbor who means well
but always says the wrong thing.


The Secret Life of Flies by Erica McAlister

Dear Readers, this isn’t exactly a book review (yet) because I am only up to page 57 of this rather splendid book. However, it is so full of interesting factoids that I wanted to share a few with you, even though I am in the middle of year end and things are a bit on the frantic side (understatement). So, please forgive me for a few quick bullet points. There are more fly-related things to be said in the future, I’m sure.

First up, McAlister estimates that there are 17 million flies for every single human being currently walking about on the planet. They are a hugely diverse family, from craneflies and hoverflies to bluebottles and horseflies. But, as she puts it ‘The question you still want answering is: what have all those flies ever done for us?’

The obvious first answer is that we would be up to our ears and above in waste if it wasn’t for flies, but flies are extremely undervalued as pollinators. For example, there is only one group of tiny flies that can pollinate Theobroma cacao, otherwise known as the chocolate plant. These are known in the Caribbean as No See Ums, and I remember my Dad talking about how badly some members of this family of midges could bite. The chocolate midge (Forcipomyia sp.) manages to pollinate the flowers of the chocolate plant, but it is a very particular little creature, preferring damp, shady woodlands and moist soil or a pond to raise their youngsters. The cutting down  of forests to plant larger and larger chocolate plantations is, ironically, destroying the habitat preferred by the crop’s only pollinator. Could this be the end of the Curly Wurly? Only time will tell.

A chocolate midge (Forcipomyia sp.) (Photo by© Christophe Quintin Via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Like many pollinators. flies and flowering plants have evolved alongside one another, and this has led to some most intriguing designs, none more so than that of Moegistrorhyncus longirostris, a fly which has a proboscis eight times longer than its body. If a human had a tongue of equal ratio, it would be over six metres long. Why the long tongue? Well, eight species of plants on the Cape in South Africa can only be pollinated by this fly or one that’s closely related, because they have such long tubes that only the longest-tongued can reach their pollen.

Just the kind of flower that longirostris feeds on…

And so I am very much enjoying this book, as you would expect from someone with a name like Bugwoman (though flies are not bugs in the technical sense of course). I am sure there will be more highlights later!

Thoughts on Ash

Dear Readers, I am continuing to read through Archie Miles’ book on British trees and thought that today I’d look at the ash tree. It’s one of my favourites, with its elegant leaves and those buds like tiny hooves, and the fact that we are likely to lose most of the species because of ash dieback makes them even more precious.

You might remember that in an earlier post this week, I was hoping that the Australian Raywood ashes in the cemetery might have some resistance to the disease. Alas, it appears not to be so, so even these beauties might not be spared.

An avenue of Raywood ashes in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

In the cemetery, the ashes pop up all over the place, and Miles suggests that the ash was the tree that colonised most quickly after the hurricane in 1987, and the impact of Dutch elm disease. It is a fast-growing tree, and historically known as the husbandman’s tree, used for agricultural implements and as fuel wood – it is said to burn well even when green. I love its delicacy (which gave rise to the name of ‘Venus of the Woods’) but its very short season (it is one of the last trees to come into leaf and one of the first to lose them) has made it unpopular in gardens, though I suspect that some of the fancier varieties might tickle a gardeners’ fancy.

Although some people think of ash trees as mundance, workaday trees they have a very surprising capacity to change their sex from one year to another. This is particularly confusing because ash trees can produce male, female or hemaphroditic flowers, either on separate trees or all on a single tree. Botanists don’t know why the tree can do this, but speculate that it might give an advantage when the climatic conditions for setting seed are ideal, or when there is a lot of competition. It might also be handy if a space suddenly opens up for colonisation – in this case the more seeds the better! It might well explain why ash is capable of popping up anywhere (I have one in my garden that I have to coppice every year before it takes over completely).

Photo One by Rosser1954, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Male Ash flowers and buds (Photo One)

Ash trees flower once they’re thirty to forty years old. The flowers appear on last year’s growth before the leaves appear, but they can bloom anytime from late March to May, and Miles tells us that it’s believed that this allows the tree to compensate for damage to the earliest flowers from the late spring frosts. The male flowers appear first (as in the photo above), then the hermaphrodite flowers and then the female ones. Only the.female flowers will turn into the ash keys (known as samaras).

Photo Two by By Pleple2000 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Ash tree samaras (Photo Two)

When you consider the long associations between ash and humans, it’s not surprising that there is a lot of folklore about the tree. Miles quotes a rhyme that young women said when they were hoping to find a sweetheart:

Even ash, even ash,
I pluck thee off the tree;
The first young man that I do meet
My lover he shall be.

The young woman was supposed to put the ash leaf in her left shoe and wait to see what happened.

Ash was also supposed to be protective against snake bites, and, if you did get bitten, it was said by Dioscorides, first-century Greek physician, to be ‘singularly good against the bitings of viper, adder or other venomous beast’. More usefully in our present day, when we are unlikely to be molested by serpents, Culpeper thought that an extract from the leaves would ‘abate the greatness of those who are too gross or fat‘.

Perhaps most fascinating, however, is the belief that ash could be used to cure a rupture in a child. Miles remarks that the Reverend Gilbert White, writing in 1776, described how parents of a child so afflicted would pass the infant through the trunk of an ash tree that had been split with an axe. The tree would then be bound up again, and once it healed, so would the child. The ritual was still being performed as late as 1902 in Devon.

What a beautiful and useful tree the ash is! A glimmer of hope on the preservation of the species in light of ash dieback is the Ash Archive, which consists of a collection of 3,000 ash trees planted in Hampshire. They comprise cuttings taken from ash dieback tolerant trees observed in the wild and grafted onto ash rootstocks. Their development will be monitored, in the hope that some will have a long-lasting resistance to the fungus that causes the disease. At some point in the future it might then be possible to plant these trees, or the seeds that come from them, back into the wild. Let’s hope that there is a future for this beautiful tree here in the UK.

Photo Three by Willow, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Ash tree (Fraxinus excelsior) (Photo Three)

You can buy Archie Miles Book ‘The Trees that Made Britain – An Evergreen History’ here.

Photo Credits

Photo One by Rosser1954, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Two by By Pleple2000 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Three by Willow, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Thoughts on Oaks

Dear Readers, ‘The Trees that Made Britain – An Evergreen History’ by Archie Miles  was apparently made into a television series in 2006 and I can see why – it’s full to bursting with interesting facts about our native trees. I’m sorry I missed the programmes, but there’s something rather nice about reading at your own pace without being overwhelmed by images or (increasingly) overblown background music. There is a new TV series featuring David Attenborough called ‘The Mating Game’, where the music is so overwhelming that it’s difficult to concentrate. How I hate it when the music is designed to tell you what to feel – I blame Steven Spielberg meself.

But I digress, as usual.

I will be reading this book for a while, so today here are a few facts about that most English of trees, the Oak. Except that there are two species, the Pedunculate or English Oak (Quercus robur) and the Sessile Oak (Quercus petraea). Now, one of these species has short stems on the leaves and long stems on the acorns, and the other species has long stems on the leaves and short stems on the acorns. And do you think I can remember which is which? Well, now I will, because a peduncle is a long stem, and sessile comes from the Latin sessilis, meaning ‘low of sitting’, which is not too far from ‘no stem’ in my mind. All I need to remember now is that both terms relate to the acorns and I’ll be in business for once.

Then, Miles discusses Lammas growth, which I had never heard of. Apparently, oaks often throw a new flush of growth around 1st August (Lammas Day), to replace the leaves that were lost to insect infestations earlier in the year. As Miles puts it:

During this time the tree will bear two distinct sets of leaves, the older foliage having matured to a dark green, contrasting with the bright green (or in some cases slightly reddish) colour of the new.”

Has anyone else noticed this? Something to look out for in years to come, I think.

Photo One by Rosser1954, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Lammas growth on a Pedunculate Oak (Photo One)

Miles also talks about ‘stag-headed oaks’, where the canopy on older trees has receded, leaving dead branches sticking out through the live growth. I’ve always thought of this as a bad sign, but Miles points out that it’s a way for the tree to preserve its strength – a smaller canopy needs a much smaller root system, so it’s less ‘expensive’ for the tree to maintain. I suspect that it also reduces the tree’s exposure to the extremes of wind and weather that younger trees are maybe more able to resist.

Photo Two by Kate Jewell / Stag-headed oak, Croxton Park

Stag-headed Oak in Croxton Park (Photo Two)

In his section on ‘The Useful Oak’, Miles talks about the role of the oak in shipbuilding. Until the second half of the nineteenth century when iron hulls were introduced, wood and especially oak was the principal material used for the creation of ships. Nelson’s flagship, HMS Victory, took the timber of 6000 trees, 90% of which was oak, with elm for the keel and fir, pine and spruce for the masts and yards. The ship cost £63,176 to build, the equivalent of building an aircraft carrier today.

Interestingly, though, Miles points out that the most valuable commodity ever extracted from oakwoods was not the timber, but the bark. Huge quantities were used in the tanning industry from 1780 to the mid nineteenth century, with coppiced oakwoods being managed on rotation to satisfy the demand for the commodity. Miles describes the process:

“In the spring, when the sap was rising, great gangs of men and women would head into the woods, the men to cut and carry, the women to strip the bark with distinctive spoon-bladed knives called barking irons or peeling irons”.

There is a fascinating article here about the Dartmoor ‘rippers’, the people who stripped the bark in the oakwoods of the area. This was a massive industry: an average tannery could get through a ton of bark in a week. Who knew? Not me, for sure.

And finally, Miles considers the myths and legends that surround the oak tree. Oaks that bore mistletoe were sacred to the Druids, and the mistletoe retained its mystical healing powers provided it was never dropped – its magic came from its never having touched the ground. Felling a mistletoe oak was considered a terrible deed, one that would bring disaster to all those involved. It’s a great shame that we haven’t retained such a sense of the importance of trees.

Many churches contain carvings of oak leaves and acorns, and as with so many things, these symbols provide a link to the pagan past. Acorns were thought to provide protection against lightning strikes, which is why you’ll often find them carved on stair banisters or as toggles for pulling blinds. People used to carry acorns in their pockets, not just to prevent themselves from being electrified unexpectedly but also because the acorn was thought to confer good health and fertility. It’s probably no wonder that the Green Man, another pagan figure who sometimes crops up as a sculpture in old churches, is often crowned with oak leaves.

Photo Three from

Green man in Westminster Abbey (Photo Three)

And so I learned a lot about oaks from this wonderful book. The next chapter is on Ash, so let’s see what comes out of my study of that fine tree.

Photo Credits

Photo One by Rosser1954, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Two by Kate Jewell / Stag-headed oak, Croxton Park

Photo Three from

Book Review – ‘Where Poppies Blow’ by John Lewis-Stempel

Dear Readers, it’s been a long time since I’ve enjoyed a book as much as I have this one. Lewis-Stempel ranges across everything from the way that the British love of nature inspired so many of the soldiers involved in World War I to the origins of the word ‘chat’ (of which more later) to the uses and abuses of animals , both wild and domesticated, during this conflict. I learned so many things that I didn’t know, and I’m pretty sure there’s something to make even the most ardent military historian wrinkle their forehead.

I started to read the book thinking that it would surely have been the officers from the shires and the soldiers from the villages who would be most enamoured of the fields and woods of home, but interestingly it seems that even Tommies from the cities felt a deep nostalgia for the countryside – Lewis-Stempel quotes many of them, and points out that the city dwellers of this generation often spent their holidays picking fruit or hops. There seems to have been a more or less universal longing for the fields of home which was wrapped up in the terrible home-sickness and trauma that many of these young men experienced. And when they were on the Western Front, the croaking of frogs from the shell-holes, the larks who ascended as soon as the guns fell silent, the song of a nightingale all assumed a kind of spiritual importance, a reminder of what was being fought for. It also seemed to jolt men out of their anxiety and trepidation, if just for a moment. Private Stephen Graham recalled:

I had been sent to a neighbouring headquarters with a message, and at noon I sat for a while beside a high hawthorn on a daisy-covered bank. The war ceased to exist; only beauty was infinitely high and broad above and infinitely deep within. Birds again sang in the heavens and in the heart after a long sad silence, as it seemed”

However, it wasn’t just the wild animals that gave solace during World War I, but the domesticated ones too. Cages of canaries were placed in ambulances, to lift the spirits of the wounded, although as these little birds were more susceptible to gas-poisoning than humans they often didn’t last for very long.  Stempel-Lewis has a whole chapter on the horses that were requisitioned for the war, and the relationships that were formed between them and the men who looked after them. Some men would risk their lives to be with their animals, as in the excerpt below:

I was riding when one of the troop’s horses was badly hit by MG (machine gun) fire. Horse and rider crashed down in front of me. The horse lay on its side and the trooper, unhurt, had rolled clear. Kicking one foot off the stirrups I ordered the trooper to mount behind me. Instead, he crawled towards his horse which raised its head and was looking at him. He reached the horse, gently lifted its head on to his knee, and stayed put. I again ordered him to mount and drew my pistol, saying I would shoot the animal. He said nothing, just looked up at me, then down to the horse and continued to stroke its head. From the look in the horse’s eyes, I think it knew it was the end, and I also think it understood that its master was trying to give it what comfort he could. I didn’t shoot. Bullets were still smacking around me, and the squadron was almost out of sight. I said something to the effect of ‘Well, it’s your funeral’ and trotted to regain my place. The trooper caught up with the squadron later; he had stayed with the horse until it died. By all laws of averages, he should have stopped one too.

But not all animals were as well-loved. The trenches were running with vermin, in particular rats, flies and body lice. The latter were known as ‘chats’, derived either from chattel (something carried about) or from the Hindi word ‘chatt’, meaning a parasite. Men would spend hours between battles picking the lice off of one another’s bodies, and this came to be known as ‘chatting’, something to remember next time you meet a neighbour for a ‘chat’.

Lewis-Stempel also describes how gardens were made in the grounds of abandoned houses, in prisoner of war camps and even in the trenches themselves, with spent Howitzer shells being used as flower pots and celery being grown in the dark spots at the very bottom. At the Ruhleben Interment Camp in Germany, the British prisoners asked for (and got) affiliation with the Royal Horticultural Society in England, and were able to hold their own fruit and produce shows. When the blockade of Germany started to really hit food availability, the prisoners dug out a vegetable garden which eventually grew 33,000 lettuces and 18,000 bunches of radishes. Lewis-Stempel remarks that ‘the diet inside the perimeter fence was in all respects superior to that outside it’. Seeds had been provided following an RHS appeal to British nurseries, and the seeds were forwarded inside Red Cross parcels. It seems that, whatever the circumstances, gardening was both a solace and a way of keeping body and soul together.

Perhaps the part of the book that gave me most pause, though, was Lewis-Stempel’s point that although the trenches and the destruction of the First World War were eventually largely healed by nature’s propensity to grow back (though you might want to be careful digging up a field on the Western Front even now – farmers regularly uncover live munitions), the country that was so beloved by those who fought was already in the process of despoliation that has continued to this day. 450,000 acres of woodland were destroyed to provide timber for the war effort. Ancient pastureland and water meadows were ploughed up to provide land for growing crops – by 1917, the U Boat campaign had reduced the country’s food stores to less than 6 weeks. After the war, the lack of manpower for agricultural labour led to increased mechanisation. The National Trust and the Council for the Protection of Rural England were both formed after the war, on the basis that this ‘fair land’ was what the soldiers had been fighting for. And certainly, for many of those who had suffered during the First World War, there was a sense of gratitude towards nature. Here is a final quote, from Captain Carlos Paton Blacker, who wrote a memoir of his wartime experiences called ‘Have you Forgotten Yet?’

I became aware of a sense of awe and gratitude to the trees, to the forest, but above all to the rooks. The feeling of gratitude to the rooks has often come back since. Indeed it comes back every time I hear these birds contentedly calling to each other round their rookeries in spring. It comes back now as I type these lines“.

I highly recommend this book, as you might have guessed.


A Reading Challenge!

Dear Readers, you might remember that during the 2020 lockdown I set myself the task of reading the shortlisted books for the Wainwright Nature Writing Prize. I succeeded, and was introduced to some new writers and some that I was familiar with. All in all, it was a lot of fun, and it set me to wondering about what exactly ‘nature-writing’ was. This year I’m aiming to read the whole longlist, so if anyone wants to join in on any of the books that would be great!

First up is Vesper Flights, by Helen Macdonald. I loved ‘H is for Hawk’, and I’ve also been very impressed by Macdonald’s TV programmes – she did one which was about the impact of motorways on the countryside which was full of interesting things, and an earlier programme where she traced the route of the River Tay. What I love is that her nature-writing isn’t just about her: she gets that balance between introspection and the natural world’s independent existence just right. I am part way through the book and it is full of underlining, which is always a good sign! I shall hopefully be able to review it next week.

Next up is ‘Into the Tangled Bank’ by Lev Parikian. I’ve actually read this already, and remember laughing out loud at some parts. Nature-writing can be very serious sometimes, so this felt like an alternative way of looking at the world. I am looking forward to a revisit.

‘Birdsong in a Time of Silence’ by Stephen Lovatt is a reflection on what birdsong meant to the author, and to us,  during the lockdown. I remember waking early and trying to pick out the different songs, so I am looking forward to reading the author’s thoughts. The illustrations look lovely too.

‘English Pastoral’ by James Rebanks won the Sunday Times Nature Book of the Year. Rebanks is a farmer, and this is the story of his family farm in the Lake District over three generations. His previous book, ‘The Shepherd’s Life’, was also a prize-winner. I think that the author’s experience will bring depth and understanding to this book, and I’m looking forward to getting stuck in.

‘Featherhood’ by Charlie Gilmour sounds like a combination of memoir and nature-writing, and, as it involves a magpie it has that all-important corvid factor! I am reserving judgement on this one: I am a little allergic to stories in which everything is subjugated to the lessons that we can learn from nature (see my review of ‘My Octopus Teacher‘ for example), but I could be completely wrong, and am prepared to admit it!

I’m looking forward to ‘I Belong Here’ by Anita Sethi because it will provide a completely different view of what it’s like to travel around the UK. As a woman I already know that travel can bring problems that a man wouldn’t experience, so add to that the visibility of being a woman of colour and I am prepared to contemplate all kinds of perspectives that wouldn’t have occurred to me.

‘Seed to Dust’ by Marc Hamer is about a year in the garden, but what an interesting writer he is – he had a period of homelessness, has taught creative writing in prison, has worked in graphic design, studied fine art. The extract that I read is full of new-minted metaphors and a quirky sense of humour.

Stephen Moss is a very well-established nature-writer and broadcaster, and I am looking forward to this latest book, which shares a theme of ‘wildlife in lockdown’ with Stephen Lovatt’s book.

I really enjoyed Neil Ansell’s last book ‘The Last Wilderness’, in which he documents his failing hearing, and the way that the birdsong that has been so familiar all his life is gradually fading. I am looking forward to this account of the New Forest, one of the places that I explored when I was young and foolish and a student at Southampton University.

Charles Foster is a most interesting author – his previous book ‘Being a Beast’ was an account of his attempts to live as a badger, an urban fox and an otter. In this book, about swifts, he takes a view of the particularity of the life of the bird and compares it to his own generic experience. Reading the extract it’s clear that he can certainly write! I think this one might stand out from the crowd.

Can I just start by saying that I love Melissa Harrison’s work? I am looking forward to this book, which moves from the urban verges of London to Harrison’s new home in Suffolk. She always has something new to say.

You might remember Raynor Winn from her book ‘The Salt Road’, which told how, homeless and with an ill husband, she takes to the road to walk the south-west coastal path. In this new book, she once again has a ‘home’, but the book is a meditation on what that actually means. I look forward to catching up with her story.

And finally, Kerri ní Dochartaigh writes about growing up during the Troubles in Derry with one Catholic and one Protestant parent, and how nature kept her sane, and helped her heal. I am looking forward again to getting a different perspective on what nature, and the land, can mean.

Just looking at the dates, it’s clear that I won’t be able to read all of these before the shortlist is announced on 4th August, but I shall get started and see where we get to. After 4th August I shall prioritise the short-listed books, but I hope to get back to the rest of them too. Let me know if you’ve already read any of these, and let’s see how we get on!

Book Review – Much Ado About Mothing by James Lowen

Dear Readers, anyone who has ever had access to a moth trap knows the mixture of apprehension and excitement that comes with peering into it early in the morning. Sometimes there are all sorts of jewelled wonders sitting in the egg-trays that you’ve put inside for their comfort. On other occasions, you have a variety of worn, brown creatures that are almost impossible for a novice to identify. But that’s all part of the fun. Will you spot some unusual migrant, or a stunning hawk moth, or a buff-tip that looks for all the world like a broken twig?

Photo One nick goodrum from Catfield in Norfolk, United Kingdom, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Buff tip moth (Phalera bucephala) (Photo One)

My mothy adventures have been limited to my back garden (so far), but James Lowen is on a mission to convert those of us who still think of moths as being the drab relatives of those pretty day-flying butterflies. Personally, I love a quest – I’m thinking about Peter Marren’s wonderful book about finding the rare wildflowers of Britain. Lowen’s quest is a bit looser than Marrens’ but he still manages to travel the length and breadth of Britain in his search for rare and unusual moths -he encounters a man who breeds Death’s Head Hawkmoths at home, longhorn moths that ‘lek’ (perform a mating dance to attract females), moths that were thought to be extinct, moths that are just starting to appear in the UK from mainland Europe, and moths that look like other insects.

Currant Clearwing (Synanthedon tipuliformis) (Photo Two)

Not content with the bigger moths, Lowen takes a shine to micromoths as well. How I love an enthusiast! Even the moths that he admits aren’t particularly brightly coloured or ‘interesting’ are memorably described:

‘Granted, Marsh Moth is never destined to be a pin-up, its hues a greyer beige than a wainscot. Jagged lines across its wings track the share price of a particularly volatile stock. Subtle and understated, it is a moth-er’s moth.’

Photo Three Ilia Ustyantsev from Russia, CC BY-SA 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Marsh moth (Athetis pallustris) (Photo Three)

Lowen describes the highs and lows of being a moth fanatic with great accuracy. The nights sitting in the cold and rain, the stomping up and down hill with heavy equipment, the ones that got away, the ones that turned up without any warning. A friend points him in the direction of a Clifden Nonpareil, the UK’s largest moth, under a strip light at Brockenhurst railway station.

Photo Four By Harald Süpfle - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Clifden Nonpareil (Catocala fraxini) (Photo Four)

He describes the etiquette of moth-ing – can you count a moth that flew into someone else’s trap, for example, even if you saw it first? If a friend catches a rare moth and holds onto it until you can arrive to see it, does that count? Ethical dilemmas abound. All moths caught are released into a safe spot, and the scientific information collected by monitoring numbers is invaluable, but Lowen is clearly a man who wants to do no harm.

This book has really made me want to get the moth trap out to see what’s happening in my garden, and to do some recording – the picture is changing so rapidly with climate change, and moths are an interesting early indicator of what is happening already, and what might happen in the future. Lowen wears his extensive knowledge lightly, and I learnt so much about this fascinating group of insects. Highly recommended.

You can buy the book here.


Book Review – Around the World in 80 Plants by Jonathan Drori, Illustrated by Lucille Clerc

Dear Readers, this book is such a pleasure for the eye and for the brain that if I could I would buy you all a copy! Jonathan Drori was a Trustee on the board of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and was Executive Producer of more than fifty science documentaries. He’s currently a Trustee at the Eden Project. His wide-ranging interests have seen him be a fellow of the Linnean Society, the Zoological Society of London and the Royal Geographical Society. From all of this you might expect that this book would be heavy on information, but Drori knows how to keep the reader entertained at the same time as they are educated.

A good part of the pleasure of this book is the illustrations by Lucille Clerc, who has worked with fashion houses, museums and Historic Royal Palaces. The drawings are not straightforward botanical impressions, but also show the plant in its context, sometimes alongside the people and animals who have made use of it. There is much fun to be had from reading part of the text, and then studying the illustration to see if you can spot the bug.

Take this illustration of the indigo plant from Bangladesh. I had no idea that it was a member of the pea family, but this is clear from the pictures of the flower. Drori explains how the leaves are fermented, then dried and cut into briquettes, as you can see. The briquettes are then powdered and added to water, along with an alkali that turns the water colourless. As he says,

‘It is only once the cloth is withdrawn from the vat and the air reaches it that – ta-da! – stunning, intense colour reappears’.

Who knew? Not me for sure.


And how about the rhododendron, and why is it included in an entry for Scotland? Well, largely because Rhododendron pontica was planted in the estates of landowners on the West Coast, both as a decorative plant and as cover for game birds. Tolerant of shade and acidic soils, it spread inexorably. Over to Drori:

A vast area of western Scotland is now colonized, with a profound effect on native biodiversity: where rhododendrons are present, almost every other species of plant is at risk. In their native range and without the helping hand of humans, rhododendrons play nicely in the ecosystem, but in Britain and Ireland they out-compete local species for light and nutrients. There’s worse. Rhododendrons also harbour Phytophthora ramorum( phytophora is Greek for ‘plant-destroyer), a microscopic fungus-like water mould that attacks trees, especially larches, beeches and sweet chestnuts’. 

You might also recall that the honey of the rhododendron is sometimes called ‘Mad Honey’, and was reputedly left by the Persian king Mithridates for the Roman army who was pursuing him to find – the honey can lower the blood pressure dangerously and slow the heart. Drori again:

‘Mad Honey’ is still collected in the Black Sea area and used occasionally as a pick-me-up or recreational drug to induce a tingling wooziness. It also has a reputation for enhancing sexual performance, which doubtless explains why most of the inadvertent poisonings are among men of a certain age‘.

And for a final taster, how about this strange tree, known as the Cook Pine? In California they all tilt to the south quite dramatically (Drori explains that they average twice the tilt of the Tower of Pisa, which is quite some lean. In Hawaii they stand up relatively straight, but in Australia they lean precariously towards the north. Wherever they are in the world, Cook Pines lean towards the equator, and they are the only tree species in the world that’s been observed to do this. Most plants, as we know, grow towards the light, but this tree doesn’t, and no one knows why.

Cook Pine

If I have whetted your appetite, you might also like Drori and Clerc’s earlier book, ‘Around the World in 80 Trees’. It’s just as delightful, though the colours are generally a little more subdued.

If you wanted to find out about everything from the Kapok tree to the Chinese Lacquer tree, this is the book for you.

Chinese Lacquer Tree

So, as you can see I am very taken with these two books. If you are lucky enough to have a local library that’s still lending, it might be a way to have a look without shelling out nearly £18 for each one. Or maybe you have a birthday coming up?

If you fancy buying them (or sending the link to a beloved 🙂 ) I recommend the NHBS website for all things natural history related…

Book Review – ‘Minding the Garden – Lilactree Farm’ by Brian Bixley

Dear Readers, this book has a number of my very favourite features. It’s divided into 125 sections mapping a composite gardening year, and I do love a book that serves up bite-sized pieces of daily life. Secondly, it is intensely personal, dealing as it does with the development of a garden in Ontario, Canada over many years. Thirdly it has introduced me to many plants that I had never considered for my own tiny garden – I found myself considering small-flowered clematis to twine through my hedge, and was intrigued by the illustrations of a lesser celandine cultivar that I’d never come across in the UK. But finally what I loved most was the connections that Brian Bixley makes between the arts and the creation of a garden. It made me consider all kinds of things that I hadn’t thought about before.

But first, to the gardening itself. When I first visited my husband’s aunts in Ontario, I remember thinking that it must be hard to grow plants in such a climate, with freezing conditions for a big chunk of the year, blazing sun for another chunk and hail, wind, ice storms, drought and flood all possible for the rest of the time. Bixley likes to live on the edge and to coax all manner of plants into surviving in what might be considered borderline conditions. This is a source of both joy and despair. Like gardeners the world over, Bixley listens to the weather forecast, often with a sense of impending doom:

What kind of weirdo gets out of bed, goes to the window, pulls up the blind to see the first rays of sunlight slicing through the morning mists as they rise from the green valley below and says, “Darn it, it’s going to be relentlessly sunny today”? Or as he watched the serene Jane gazing into the teleprompter and reading, “No precipitation to worry about,” shrieks in despair?

I love that Bixley has a list of tasks that ‘absolutely must be done today’, even if they aren’t always accomplished. I enjoyed the story of him pruning the hedge, which involves all manner of tools, ladders and other accoutrements, standing back in satisfaction, putting everything away for another year and then remembering that he has some more plants to prune. That sense of the constant labour of a garden, especially an extensive one like Lilactree Farm, is I’m sure familiar to those of us with much smaller plots as we steel ourselves for another bout of hard physical work, especially as we get older. But the rewards! He grows some foxgloves from seed, as I am doing this year.

“I‘m not sure if we have grown anything quite as beautiful for a long time. They are what they essentially should be: tall, majestic, flowers opening creamily, gradually becoming a pure white. I have cut away branches from some of the surrounding shrubs so that it is possible to see the foxgloves from a distance, pale fire in the heart of darkness“.

I love that sense that a plant is ‘essentially what it should be’ – that seems to me to sum up the quintessence of gardening. When a plant is thriving happily in the perfect spot and has reached that moment when it is in full flower, before it starts to fade, I always feel my heart lift, all the more so if there is a drowsy drone of bees popping by for some nectar. The happiness is worth all the back ache and broken fingernails, and it makes up for the failed experiments, for the plants that we loved and yet lost.

Throughout the book, though, there is an underlying question. In what ways is gardening an ‘art’, like writing or painting or composing a symphony? There are many answers, of course. As Bixley points out, if you have the resources, designing (or getting someone else to design) a handsome garden is not hard. What is hard is the maintenance, the constantly changing conditions, the adjustments as some plants ‘work’ and others don’t. A book is published, a painting is hung in a gallery, but a garden is and always will be a work in progress. While we might reinterpret a novel or a play, the words don’t normally change, but the plants in a garden will flourish and die and be replaced.

On the other hand, whether we like it or not, ‘making’ a garden is just as much a creative act as any of the other arts (and you could argue that it’s much more complex). Bixley compares it to poetry – in a garden created by the gardener, we can get a clear sense of the unmediated ‘voice’ of the person who designed it, unlike with a novelist or playwright who is speaking through the voices of his characters. I think this is true, but I also know that, as in many other arts, the vision in our heads may not be what actually happens, especially in a garden, where nature has thoughts and desires of her own. I sometimes think that  all I can do it try to find what works best in my own conditions of soil and shade, and point the garden in that general direction. Every so often there is what i will forever think of now as one of Bixley’s ‘foxglove moments’ to make up for the failures.

And having made a garden, Bixley considers the role of the garden critic. In the UK there are ‘Open Garden’ schemes, whereby for a few pounds (often donated to charity) you can have a look at what other people are up to in their back gardens. Cake is often involved too, which is a great incentive. And of course the National Trust has open gardens, which are considerably more expensive. I have never visited a garden that didn’t give me some inspiration, though I have a preference for those that are filled with plants and heavy with scent rather than some of the more formal hedge and fountain designs that are sometimes favoured. It seems rather churlish to criticise someone’s garden when it’s essentially private for most of the year: the owner has been kind enough to let you in for a look, so it seems to me the height of rudeness to then castigate it. I can see a little more reason for a review if you’ve paid hard-earned dosh to look around a public garden and discover that it’s half-dead or filled with litter, but not just because it doesn’t meet with your taste. Alas, I think this attitude would put critics of all of the arts out of business within a few weeks. Bixley’s view is that there is nothing wrong with a reasoned commentary on a garden, but that (I am paraphrasing) so often the review is about the commentator and their need to attract attention to themselves rather than the garden itself. He quotes from one particular review (of Sir Roy Strong’s garden The Laskett) where the critic, Anne Wareham, complains that

“Wherever you turn, there is a new space delineated by hedges; there is no space to breathe and no escape. There is no clear sense of where to go next, creating a build-up of tension and disorientation until panic begins to seep in”.

Wareham then goes on to describe the group of people that she took to the garden as ‘angry’ and ‘savage’. Like Bixley, I find it hard to believe that a group of folk out for a nice look around a garden would be more than slightly irritated or mildly disappointed. It seems clear that the review is all about the critic and their desire to be dramatic, rather than the garden itself.

There is so much to savour in this book: thanks to Bixley I am thinking of planting some autumn-flowering crocuses under my geraniums this year. I have acquired an interest in garden history, something which had never previously crossed my mind. I am even more in awe of people who try to create magic in the gardens of Ontario than I was before. The photographs, by Des Townshend, are a delight. And I am aware that there is much in this book that I will need to read again in order to consider it properly. Fortunately, re-reading ‘Minding the Garden- Lilactree Farm’ will be an absolute pleasure.

You can buy the book, published by Friesen Press, here.