It’s mostly by accident that we came to live in Newbury: five years ago, when a previous landlord served us notice, we viewed a couple of rental houses in the area to compare with what was available in Reading and discovered that our money got us more that little bit further out from London. We’ve come to love this part of West Berkshire and the community we’ve found. It may not be flashy or particularly famous, but it has natural wonders worth celebrating and a rich history of rebellion that Nicola Chester plumbs in On Gallows Down. A hymn-like memoir of place as much as of one person’s life, her book posits that the quiet moments of connection with nature and the rights of ordinary people are worth fighting for.
So many layers of history mingle here: from the English Civil War onward, Newbury has been a locus of resistance for centuries. Nicola* has personal memories of the long-running women’s peace camps at Greenham Common, once a U.S. military base and cruise missile storage site – to go with the Atomic Weapons Establishment down the road at Aldermaston. As a teenager and young woman, she took part in symbolic protests against the Twyford Down and Newbury Bypass road-building projects, which went ahead and destroyed much sensitive habitat and many thousands of trees. Today, through local and national newspaper and magazine columns on wildlife, and through her winsome nagging of the managers of the Estate she lives on, she bears witness to damaging countryside management and points to a better way.
While there is a loose chronological through line, the book is principally arranged by theme, with experiences linked back to historical or literary precedents. An account of John Clare and the history of enclosure undergirds her feeling of the precarity of rural working-class life: as an Estate tenant, she knows she doesn’t own anything, has no real say in how things are done, and couldn’t afford to move elsewhere. Nicola is a school librarian and has always turned to books and writing to understand the world. I particularly loved Chapter 6, about how she grounds herself via the literature of this area: Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, Adam Thorpe’s Ulverton, and especially Richard Adams’s Watership Down.
Whatever life throws at her – her husband being called up to fight in Iraq, struggling to make ends meet with small children, a miscarriage, her father’s unexpected death – nature is her solace. She describes places and creatures with a rare intimacy borne out of deep knowledge. To research a book on otters for the RSPB, she seeks out every bridge over every stream. She goes out “lamping” with the local gamekeeper after dark and garners priceless nighttime sightings. Passing on her passion to her children, she gets them excited about badger watching, fossil collecting, and curating shelves of natural history treasures like skulls and feathers. She also serves as a voluntary wildlife advocate on her Estate. For every victory, like the re-establishment of the red kite population in Berkshire and regained public access to Greenham Common, there are multiple setbacks, but she continues to be a hopeful activist, her lyrical writing a means of defiance.
We are writing for our very lives and for those wild lives we share this one, lonely planet with. Writing was also a way to channel the wildness; to investigate and interpret it, to give it a voice and defend it. But it was also a connection between home and action; a plank bridge between a domestic and wild sense. A way both to home and resist.
You know that moment when you’re reading a book and spot a place you’ve been or a landmark you know well, and give a little cheer? Well, every site in this book was familiar to me from our daily lives and countryside wanderings – what a treat! As I was reading, I kept thinking how lucky we are to have such an accomplished nature writer to commemorate the uniqueness of this area. Even though I was born thousands of miles away and have moved more than a dozen times since I settled in England in 2007, I feel the same sense of belonging that Nicola attests to. She explicitly addresses this question of where we ‘come from’ versus where we fit in, and concludes that nature is always the key. There is no exclusion here. “Anyone could make a place their home by engaging with its nature.”
*I normally refer to the author by surname in a book review, but I’m friendly with Nicola from Twitter and have met her several times (and she’s one of the loveliest people you’ll ever meet), so somehow can’t bring myself to be that detached!
On Gallows Down was released by Chelsea Green Publishing on October 7th. My thanks to the author and publisher for arranging a proof copy for review.
My husband and I attended the book launch event for On Gallows Down in Hungerford on Saturday evening. Nicola was introduced by Hungerford Bookshop owner Emma Milne-White and interviewed by Claire Fuller, whose Women’s Prize-shortlisted novel Unsettled Ground is set in a fictional version of the village where Nicola lives.
Nicola dated the book’s genesis to the moment when, 25 years ago, she queued up to talk to a TV news reporter about Newbury Bypass and froze. She went home and cried, and realized she’d have to write her feelings down instead. Words generally come to her at the time of a sighting, as she thinks about how she would tell someone how amazing it was.
Her memories are tied up with seasons and language, especially poetry, she said, and she has recently tried her hand at poetry herself. Asked about her favourite season, she chose two, the in-between seasons – spring for its abundance and autumn for its nostalgia and distinctive smells like tar spot fungus on sycamore leaves and ivy flowers.
A bonus related read:
Anarchipelago by Jay Griffiths (2007)
This limited edition 57-page pamphlet from Glastonbury-based Wooden Books caught my eye from the library’s backroom rolling stacks. Griffiths wrote her impish story of Newbury Bypass resistance in response to her time among the protesters’ encampments and treehouses. Young Roddy finds a purpose for his rebellious attitude wider than his “McTypical McSuburb” by joining other oddballs in solidarity against aggressive policemen and detectives.
There are echoes of Ali Smith in the wordplay and rendering of accents.
“When I think of the road, I think of more and more monoculture of more and more suburbia. What I do, I do in defiance of the Louis Queasy Chintzy, the sickly stale air of suburban car culture. I want the fresh air of nature, the lifefull wind of the French revolution.”
In a nice spot of Book Serendipity, both this and On Gallows Down recount the moment when nature ‘fought back’ as a tree fell on a police cherry-picker. Plus Roddy is kin to the tree-sitting protesters in The Overstory by Richard Powers as well as another big novel I’m reading now, Damnation Spring by Ash Davidson.
I think I have another seven April releases on the go that kind publishers have sent my way, but I’m so slow at finishing books that these two are the only ones I’ve managed so far. (I see lots of review catch-up posts in my future!) For now I have a travel memoir musing on the wonders of the New Forest and the injustice of land ownership policies, and a casebook of medical mysteries that can all be classed as culturally determined psychosomatic illnesses.
The Circling Sky: On Nature and Belonging in an Ancient Forest by Neil Ansell
After The Last Wilderness and especially Deep Country, his account of five solitary years in a Welsh cabin, Ansell is among my most-admired British nature writers. I was delighted to learn that his new book would be about the New Forest as it’s a place my Hampshire-raised husband and I have visited often and feel fond of. It has personal significance for Ansell, too: he grew up a few miles from Portsmouth. On Remembrance Sunday 1966, though, his family home burned down when a spark from a central heating wire sent the insulation up in flames. He can see how his life was shaped by this incident, making him a nomad who doesn’t accumulate possessions.
Hoping to reclaim a sense of ancestral connection, he returned to the New Forest some 30 times between January 2019 and January 2020, observing the unfolding seasons and the many uncommon and endemic species its miles house. The Forest has more than 1000 trees of over 400 years old, mostly oak and beech. Much of the rest is rare heath habitat, and livestock grazing maintains open areas. There are some plants only found in the New Forest, as well as a (probably extinct) cicada. He has close encounters with butterflies, a muntjac, and less-seen birds like the Dartford warbler, firecrest, goshawk, honey buzzard, and nightjar.
But this is no mere ‘white man goes for a walk’ travelogue, as much of modern nature writing has been belittled. Ansell weaves many different themes into the work: his personal story (mostly relevant, though his mother’s illness and a trip to Rwanda seemed less necessary), the shocking history of forced Gypsy relocation into forest compounds starting in the 1920s, biomass decline, and especially the unfairness of land ownership in Britain. More than 99% of the country is in the hands of a very few, and hardly any is left as common land. There is also enduring inequality of access to what little there is, often along race and class lines. The have-nots have been taught to envy the haves: “We are all brought up to aspire to home ownership,” Ansell notes. As a long-term renter, it’s a goal I’ve come to question, even as I crave the security and self-determination that owning a house and piece of land could offer.
Ansell speaks of “environmental dread” as a “rational response to the way the world is turning,” but he doesn’t rest in that mindset of despair. He’s in favour of rewilding, which is not, as some might assume, about leaving land alone to revert to its original state, but about the reintroduction of native species and intentional restoration of habitat types. In extending these rewilded swathes, we would combat the tendency to think of nature as something kept ‘over there’ in small reserves while subjecting the rest of the land to intensive, pesticide-based farming and the exploitation of resources. The New Forest thus strikes him as an excellent model of both wildlife-friendly land management and freedom of human access.
I appreciated how Ansell concludes that it’s not enough to simply love nature and write about the joy of spending time in it. Instead, he accepts a mantle of responsibility: “nothing is more political than the way we engage with the world around us. … Nature writing may often be read for comfort and reassurance, but perhaps we need to allow a little room for anger, too, for the ability to rage at everything that has been taken from us, and taken by us.” The bibliography couldn’t be more representative of my ecologist husband’s and my reading interests and nature library. The title is from John Clare and the book is a poetic meditation as well as a forthright argument. It also got me hankering for my next trip to the New Forest.
With thanks to Tinder Press for the proof copy for review.
The Sleeping Beauties: And Other Stories of Mystery Illness by Suzanne O’Sullivan
O’Sullivan is a consultant at the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery. She won the Wellcome Book Prize for It’s All in Your Head, and The Sleeping Beauties picks up on that earlier book’s theme of psychosomatic illness – with the key difference being that this one travels around the world to investigate outbreaks of mass hysteria or sickness that have arisen in particular cultural contexts. An important thing to bear in mind is that O’Sullivan and other doctors in her field are not dismissing these illnesses as “fake”; they acknowledge that they are real and meaningful, yet there is clear evidence that they are not physical in origin – brain tests come back normal – but psychological with bodily manifestations.
The case that gives the book its title appeared in Sweden in 2017. Child asylum seekers who had experienced trauma in their home country were falling into a catatonic state. O’Sullivan visited the home of sisters Nola and Helan, part of the Yazidi ethnic minority group from Iraq and Syria. The link between them and the other children affected was that they were all now threatened with deportation: Their hopelessness had taken on physical form, giving the illness the name resignation syndrome. “Predictive coding” meant their bodies did as they expected them to. She describes it as “a very effective culturally agreed means of expressing distress.”
In Texas, the author meets Miskito people from Nicaragua who combat the convulsions and hallucinations of “grisi siknis” in their community with herbs and prayers; shamans are of more use in this circumstance than antiepileptic drugs. A sleeping sickness tore through two neighbouring towns of Kazakhstan between 2010 and 2015, affecting nearly half of the population. As with the refugee children in Sweden, it was a stress response to being forced to move away – though people argued they were being poisoned by a local uranium mine. There is often a specific external factor that is blamed in these situations, as when mass hysteria and seizures among Colombian schoolgirls were attributed to the HPV vaccine.
This book was released on the 1st of April, and at times I felt I was the victim of an elaborate April Fool’s joke: the cases are just so bizarre, and we’re used to rooting out a physical cause. But she makes clear that, in a biopsychosocial understanding (as also discussed in Pain by Abdul-Ghaaliq Lalkhen), these illnesses are serving “a vital purpose” – just psychological and cultural. The first three chapters are the strongest; the book feels repetitive and somewhat aimless thereafter, especially in Chapter 4, which hops between different historical outbreaks of psychosomatic illness, like among the Hmong (cf. Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down), and other patients she treated for functional disorders. The later example of “Havana syndrome” doesn’t add enough to warrant its inclusion.
Still, O’Sullivan does well to combine her interviews and travels into compelling mini-narratives. Her writing has really come on in leaps and bounds since her first book, which I found clunky. However, much my favourite of her three works is Brainstorm, about epilepsy and other seizure disorders of various origins.
With thanks to Picador for the proof copy for review.
What recent releases can you recommend?
Novellas in November was a great success, helping me to finish more books in one month than I possibly ever have before. David Szalay’s Turbulence – a linked short story collection of tantalizing novella length – just arrived yesterday; I’ve started it but will be finishing it in December. The slim volume Fox 8 by George Saunders is also waiting for me at the library and I should be able to read it soon.
For this final installment I have 10 small books to feed back on: a mixture of fiction, graphic novels, nature books and memoirs.
West by Carys Davies (2018)
A gritty piece of historical fiction about a widowed mule breeder, Cyrus Bellman, who sets out from Pennsylvania to find traces of the giant creatures whose bones he hears have been discovered in Kentucky. He leaves his 10-year-old daughter, Bess, in the care of his sister, knowing he’ll be gone at least two years and may never return. Chapters cut between Cy’s harrowing journey in the company of a Native American guide, Old Woman From A Distance, and Bess’s home life, threatened by the unwanted attentions of their ranch hand neighbor and the town librarian. I don’t usually mind dark stories, but this was so bleak that I found it pretty unpleasant. The deus ex machina ending saved it somewhat.
Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun by Sarah Ladipo Manyika (2016)
Morayo Da Silva is an unlikely heroine: soon to turn 75, she’s a former English professor from Nigeria who hopped between countries with her ambassador husband but now lives alone in San Francisco. The first-person narration switches around to give the perspectives of peripheral figures like a shopkeeper, a homeless woman, and Sunshine, the young friend who helps Morayo get her affairs in order after she has a fall and goes into a care home temporarily. These shifts in point of view can be abrupt, even mid-chapter, and are a little confusing. However, Morayo is a wonderful character, inspiring in her determination to live flamboyantly. I also sympathized with her love of books. I would happily have read twice as many pages about her adventures.
Cassandra Darke by Posy Simmonds (2018)
Simmonds would be great for graphic novel newbies: she writes proper, full-length stories, often loosely based on a classic plot, with lots of narration and dialogue alongside the pictures. Cassandra Darke is a 71-year-old art dealer who’s laid low by fraud allegations and then blindsided by a case of mistaken identity that brings her into contact with a couple of criminal rings. To start with she’s a Scrooge-like curmudgeon who doesn’t understand the big fuss about Christmas, but she gradually grows compassionate, especially after her own brief brush with poverty. Luckily, Simmonds doesn’t overdo the Christmas Carol comparisons. Much of the book is in appropriately somber colors, with occasional brightness, including the yellow endpapers and built-in bookmark.
The Dave Walker Guide to the Church by Dave Walker (2006)
Most of these comics originally appeared in the Church Times, the official newspaper of the Church of England. No doubt you’ll get the most out of it if you’re familiar with Anglican churches or the like (Episcopalian or even Roman Catholic). My mother-in-law is a C of E vicar and we’ve attended a High Anglican church for the last two years, so I got many a good snort out of the book. Walker pokes fun at bureaucracy, silly traditions, closed-mindedness, and the oddities of church buildings and parishioners’ habits. My favorite spreads compare choirs and music groups on criteria like “ability to process in” and liken different church members to chess pieces to explain church politics.
Rain: Four Walks in English Weather by Melissa Harrison (2016)
In the course of a year Harrison took four rainy walks, in different seasons and different parts of England. She intersperses her observations with facts and legends about the rain, quotes from historical weather guides and poems. It has the occasional nice line, but is overall an understated nature/travel book. A noteworthy moment is when she remembers scattering her mother’s ashes on a Dartmoor tor. I most liked the argument that it’s important to not just go out in good weather, but to adapt to nature in all its moods: “I can choose now to overcome the impulse for comfort and convenience that insulates us not only from the bad in life but from much of the good. I think we need the weather, in all its forms, to feel fully human.”
The Beauties of a Cottage Garden by Gertrude Jekyll (2009)
This mini-volume from Penguin’s English Journeys series feels like a bit of a cheat because it’s extracted from Wood and Garden (1899). Oh well. In short chapters Jekyll praises the variety of colors, smells and designs you’ll find in the average country garden, no matter how modest its size. She speaks of gardening as a lifelong learning process, humbly acknowledging that she’s no expert. “I hold that the best purpose of a garden is to give delight and to give refreshment of mind, to soothe, to refine, and to lift up the heart in a spirit of praise and thankfulness. … a garden is a grand teacher. It teaches patience and careful watchfulness; it teaches industry and thrift; above all, it teaches entire trust.”
The Glorious Life of the Oak by John Lewis-Stempel (2018)
I didn’t enjoy this as much as the other Lewis-Stempel book I read this month, The Secret Life of the Owl. There’s a lot here about the role the oak has played in British history, such as in warships and cathedral roofs. Other topics are the oak’s appearance and function in different seasons, the use of acorns and oak leaves in cooking, and the myths and legends associated with the trees. I felt there was too much minimally relevant material added in to make up the page count, such as a list of Britain’s famous named oaks and long poems from the likes of John Clare and William Cowper. While Lewis-Stempel always has a piercing eye, I wonder if he shouldn’t be saving up his energies to write more substantial books.
General Nonfiction / Memoirs:
My Year by Roald Dahl (1993)
I spotted a copy in our Stamford Airbnb bedroom and read it over our two nights there. These short month-by-month essays were composed in the last year of Dahl’s life. Writing with children in mind, he remarks on what schoolkids will experience, whether a vacation or a holiday like Guy Fawkes night. But mostly he’s led by the seasons: the birds, trees and other natural phenomena he observed year after year from his home in Buckinghamshire. Dahl points out that he never lived in a city, so he chose to mark the passing of time chiefly by changes in the countryside. This is only really for diehard fans, but it’s a nice little book to have at the bedside. (Illustrated, as always, with whimsical Quentin Blake sketches.)
Heart Berries by Terese Marie Mailhot (2018)
Mailhot was raised on a First Nation reservation on an island off of British Columbia. She is wary of equating her family with Native stereotypes, but there’s no denying that her father was a drunk and ended up murdered. After a childhood of abuse and foster homes, Mailhot committed herself to a mental hospital for PTSD, bipolar II and an eating disorder. It was there that she started writing her story. Much of the book is addressed in the second person to her partner, who helped her move past a broken marriage and the loss of her older son to his father’s custody. Though I highlighted lots of aphoristic pronouncements, I had trouble connecting with the book as a whole: the way imprecise scenes blend into each other makes it hard to find a story line in the murk of miserable circumstances. A more accurate title would have been “Indian Condition” or “Indian Sick” (both used as chapter titles).
Americashire: A Field Guide to a Marriage by Jennifer Richardson (2013)
A memoir by an American woman married to a Brit and adjusting to English village life was always going to appeal to me. If you approach this as a set of comic essays on the annual rituals of rich toffs (summer fairs, auctions, horse racing, a hunt ball, a cattle market, etc.), it’s enjoyable enough. It’s when Richardson tries to be more serious, discussing her husband’s depression, their uncertainty over having children, and her possible MS, that the book falters. You can tell her editors kept badgering her to give the book a hook, and decided the maybe-baby theme was strongest. But I never sensed any real wrestling with the question. Not a bad book, but it lacks a clear enough idea of what it wants to be.
Total number of novellas read this month: 26
[not reviewed: In the Space between Moments: Finding Joy and Meaning in Medicine by Pranay Sinha – ]
A few that didn’t take: The Optician of Lampedusa by Emma Jane Kirby, The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke, Sea of Ink by Richard Weihe
My overall favorite: The Gifts of the Body by Rebecca Brown
Runners-up: Surfacing by Margaret Atwood, How to See Nature by Paul Evans, Bodies of Water by V. H. Leslie, and Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss
The ones that got away from me:
There’s always next year!
What’s the best novella you’ve read recently? Do you like the sound of any of the ones I read?
I like this reading with the seasons lark. It’s a shame that my library hold on Ali Smith’s Autumn didn’t come in until well after it turned to winter here in England, but I was intrigued by the sound of her post-Brexit seasonal quartet. Then, as if one winter anthology wasn’t enough, I tried another – this time a broader range of literature, history and travel writing.
Autumn by Ali Smith
Smith is attempting a sort of state-of-the-nation novel in four parts. Her two main characters are Daniel Gluck, a centenarian dying at a care home, and his former next-door neighbor, Elisabeth Demand, in her early thirties and still figuring out her path in life. The present world Elisabeth and her mother navigate is a true-to-life post-Brexit bureaucratic nightmare where people are building walls and hurling racist epithets – “news right now is like a flock of speeded-up sheep running off the side of a cliff.” Mostly the book is composed of flashbacks to wordplay-filled conversations between Elisabeth and Daniel when he used to babysit for her, as well as dreams/hallucinations Daniel is having on his deathbed. But there’s also a lot of seemingly irrelevant material about pop artist Pauline Boty and Christine Keeler.
This was most likely written very quickly in response to current events, and while some of Smith’s strengths benefit from immediacy – the nearly stream-of-consciousness style (no speech marks) and the jokey dialogue – I think I would have preferred a more circumspect, compressed narrative. In places this was too repetitive, and the seasonal theme felt neither here nor there. I’ll listen out for what the other books are like, but doubt I’ll bother reading them. Aspects of this are very similar to Number 11 by Jonathan Coe (the state-of-Britain remit, even the single mother hoping to appear on a reality show), but I much preferred his take. [Gorgeous cover, though – David Hockney’s Early November Tunnel (2006).]
Winter: A Book for the Season, edited by Felicity Trotman
This seasonal anthology contains a nice mixture of poetry, nature and travel pieces, and excerpts from longer works of fiction. Some favorite pieces were W.H. Hudson on the town birds of Bath in the late nineteenth century, Mark Twain on his determination to keep wearing his trademark white through the winter, a Hans Christian Andersen dialogue between a snowman who longs to be by the stove and the yard-dog that warns him away, and Richard Jefferies on those who go out to work on a winter morning. But I enjoyed the poetry the most. Trotman includes a wide range of celebrated poets, from Shakespeare and Keats to John Clare and Wordsworth. I particularly liked a more recent contribution from Carolyn King, “First Snow,” in which a cat imagines that a giant wallpaper stripper has produced the flakes.
All told, though, there are too many seventeenth-century and older pieces with archaic spellings, and a number of the history and travel extracts, in particular, feel overlong – with nearly 40 pages in total from Ernest Shackleton’s South. Especially given the thin pages and small type, this represents a tediously large chunk of the book. Shorter pieces increase the variety in an anthology and mean the book lends itself to being picked up and read a few stories at a time. This is one to keep on the coffee table each winter and dip into over several years rather than read straight through. (See my full review at The Bookbag.)
As it happens, I’ve now read five books titled Winter: besides the Wildlife Trusts anthology and the novel about Thomas Hardy, both of which I’ve already reviewed here, there’s also Rick Bass’s wonderful memoir of his first year in Montana and Adam Gopnik’s wide-ranging book about the season. But beyond those with the simple one-word title, there are a whole host of titles on my TBR containing the word “Winter”. Here’s the whole list!