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.
Fiction about caregiving for AIDS patients and Victorian ghosts; nonfiction about American race relations and British wildlife: novellas have it all! Here are my latest four reads. All were .
The Gifts of the Body by Rebecca Brown (1994)
This is rather like a set of linked short stories, narrated by a home care aide who bathes and feeds those dying of AIDS. The same patients appear in multiple chapters titled “The Gift of…” (Sweat, Tears, Hunger, etc.) – Rick, Ed, Carlos, and Marty, with brief appearances from Mike and Keith. But for me the most poignant story was that of Connie Lindstrom, an old woman who got a dodgy blood transfusion after her mastectomy; the extra irony to her situation is that her son Joe is gay, and feels guilty because he thinks he should have been the one to get sick. Several characters move in and out of hospice care, and one building is so known for its AIDS victims that a savant resident greets the narrator with a roll call of its dead and dying. Brown herself had been a home-care worker, and she delivers these achingly sad vignettes in plain language that keeps the book from ever turning maudlin.
A favorite passage:
“I’d thought about the sores all week long, about how they looked and how it frightened me. But I’d worked myself up to acting like it didn’t bother me. … I also kept telling myself that even if I wasn’t feeling or thinking the right things, at least he was getting fed, at least he was getting his sheets changed, at least his kitchen was getting cleaned, at least his body was getting salve.”
(I found my copy over the summer in a Little Free Library in my mother’s new town in the States and read it in one day, on my travel to and from London for the Barbara Kingsolver event. Rebecca Brown is a repeat presence on my novellas list: Excerpts from a Family Medical Dictionary was in my 2016 roster.)
Bodies of Water by V. H. Leslie (2016)
Left over from my R.I.P. reading plans. This was nearly a one-sitting read for me: I read 94 pages in one go, though that may be because I was trapped under the cat. The first thing I noted was that the setup and dual timeframe are exactly the same as in Barbara Kingsolver’s Unsheltered: we switch between the same place in 2016 and 1871. In this case it’s Wakewater House, a residential development by the Thames that incorporates the site of a dilapidated Victorian hydrotherapy center. After her partner cheats on her, Kirsten moves into Wakewater, where she’s alone apart from one neighbor, Manon, a hoarder who’s researching Anatomical Venuses – often modeled on prostitutes who drowned themselves in the river. In the historical strand, we see Wakewater through the eyes of Evelyn Byrne, who rescues street prostitutes and, after a disastrously ended relationship of her own, has arrived to take the Water Cure.
The literal and metaphorical connections between the two story lines are strong. Annabel described this novella as “watery,” and I would agree: pretty much every paragraph has a water word in it, whether it’s “river,” “sea,” “aquatic” or “immersion.” Both women see ghostly figures emerging from the water, and Manon’s interest in legends about water spirits and the motif of the drowned girl adds texture. Short chapters keep things ticking over, and I loved the spooky atmosphere.
A favorite line: “Sometimes old places like this retain a bit of the past, in the fabric of the building, and occasionally, they seep.”
(Purchased from Salt Publishing during their #JustOneBook fundraising campaign in late May.)
The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin (1963)
This was written yesterday, right? Actually, it was 55 years ago, but apart from the use of the word “Negro” you might have fooled me. Baldwin’s writing is still completely relevant, and eminently quotable. I can’t believe I hadn’t read him until now. This hard-hitting little book is composed of two essays that first appeared elsewhere. The first, “My Dungeon Shook,” a very short piece from the Madison, Wisconsin Progressive, is a letter addressed to his nephew and namesake on the 100th anniversary of emancipation. No doubt it directly inspired Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me.
“Down at the Cross: Letter from a Region in My Mind” is a 66-page essay that first appeared in the New Yorker. It tells of a crisis of faith that hit Baldwin when he was a teenager. Whereas he used to be a fervent young preacher in his church, he started to question to what extent Christianity of all stripes was upholding white privilege and black subjugation. Unless religion was making things better, he decided he wanted no part of it. Curiosity about the Nation of Islam led to Baldwin meeting Elijah Muhammad for dinner at his home in Chicago. I marked out so many passages from this essay. Here are a few that stood out most:
“To be sensual, I think, is to respect and rejoice in the force of life, of life itself, and to be present in all that one does, from the effort of loving to the breaking of bread.”
“If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of Him.”
“When a white man faces a black man, especially if the black man is helpless, terrible things are revealed.”
How to See Nature by Paul Evans (2018)
How to See Nature (1940), a quaint and perhaps slightly patronizing book by Shropshire naturalist and photographer Frances Pitt, was intended to help city evacuees cope with life in the countryside. Recently Pitt’s publisher, Batsford, commissioned Shropshire naturalist Paul Evans to revisit the topic. The result is a simply lovely volume (with a cover illustration by Angela Harding and black-and-white interior drawings by Evans’s partner, Maria Nunzia) that reflects on the range of modern relationships with nature and revels in the wealth of wildlife and semi-wild places we still have in Britain.
He starts with his own garden, where he encounters hedgehogs and marmalade hoverflies. Other chapters consider night creatures like bats; weeds and what they have to offer; and the wildlife of rivers, common land, moors and woods. I particularly enjoyed a section on reintroduced species such as beavers and red kites. The book closes with an A–Z bestiary of British wildlife, from adders to zooplankton.
Throughout, Evans treats issues like tree blight, climate change and species persecution with a light touch. Although it’s clear he’s aware of the diminished state of nature and quietly irate at how we are all responsible for pollution and invasive species, he writes lovingly and with poetic grace. I would not hesitate to recommend this to fans of contemporary nature writing.
“the orb-weavers wait: sexual cannibals adorned in the extra-terrestrial glow of their pearl diadems, suspended in ethereal scaffolds woven from hundreds of glands controlled by their own sovereign will and unique metabolism”
“The last ‘woo-oooo’ of a tawny owl meets the first clockwork hiccup of a pheasant, then bird by bird in the scanty light, the songs begin”
(Paul Evans is a repeat presence on my novellas list: Herbaceous was in my 2017 roster.)
How to See Nature was published by Batsford on November 6th. My thanks to the publisher for a free copy for review.
Have you read any of these novellas? Which one takes your fancy?
Wigtown is tucked away in the southwest corner of Scotland in Galloway, a region that doesn’t draw too many tourists. It did remind us a lot of Hay-on-Wye, the Book Town in Wales, what with the dry-stone walls, rolling green hills with more imposing mountains behind, sheep in the fields, and goodly number of bookshops. Wigtown is a sleepier place – it’s really just one main street and square – and has fewer bookshops and eateries overall, but the shops it does have are mainly large and inviting, and several are lovely bookshops-cum-cafés where you can pause for tea/coffee and cake before continuing with your book browsing. It rained for much of our trip and even snowed on a couple of brief occasions, but we got one day of very good weather and made the best of all the rest.
Day 1, Monday the 2nd: Six-plus hours of driving, partially in the sleet and snow, saw us arriving to our spacious and comfortable B&B by 6 p.m., giving us an hour to freshen up before dinner in the dining room. Cullen skink (leek and potato soup with chunks of smoked haddock); pork chops in a mustard cream sauce with roast parsnips, boiled potatoes and carrots, and mashed swede (aka rutabaga); and chocolate cake with gingerbread sauce. All delicious!
Day 2, Tuesday the 3rd: Smoked salmon and scrambled eggs for breakfast, accompanied by plenteous tea and toast. Off in the drizzle to see some local sites: Torhouse stone circle and Crook of Baldoon RSPB bird reserve. Nice sightings of whooper swans, pink-footed geese and lapwings, and a panoramic view of Wigtown across the way. Back to the car in the steady rain to find that we had a flat tire. Thanks to our foot pump, we got back to the W. Barclay garage in town, where they ordered a new tire and fitted the spare wheel. In the afternoon we drove to the Isle of Whithorn to see the 13th-century St. Ninian’s Chapel ruins and St. Ninian’s Cave. In the evening we went to Craft for beer/cider and the weekly acoustic music night, which, alas, just ended up being two old guys playing Americana songs on guitars.
Today’s book shopping: Glaisnock Café, where we also stopped for coffee and a tasty slice of courgette and avocado cake; The Open Book (run by Airbnb customers – this week it was Maureen from Pennsylvania and her niece Rebecca from Switzerland; they’d booked the experience two years ago, and the wait is now up to three years); the Wigtown Community shop (a charity shop); and browsing at Old Bank Books and Byre Books.
Day 3, Wednesday the 4th: Vegetarian ‘full Scottish’ cooked breakfast to fuel us for a rainy day of bookshops and explorations further afield. 12 p.m.: return trip to the garage to have our tire fitted. All the staff were so friendly and pleasant. They seemed delighted to see tourists around, and were interested in where we came from and what we were finding to do in the area. Mr. Barclay himself had one of the thickest Scottish accents I’ve ever heard, but I managed to decipher that he thinks of Galloway as “the next best place to heaven,” despite the weather. We spotted a local ‘celebrity’, Ben of the Bookshop Band, in the Co-op, but didn’t say hello as he was trying to pay for his shopping and had the baby in tow.
In the afternoon we ventured to Newton Stewart, the nearest big town, to buy petrol, picnic supper food, and another secondhand book at the community shop there. We retreated from the sudden snow for a scrumptious dinner of smoked salmon, black pudding and haggis (all of them battered and fried, with chips!) at a diner-like smokehouse. Back in Wigtown, we got a mainly dry evening to do the Martyrs’ Walk. In 1685 two Covenanters (Scottish reformers who broke from Charles I’s Anglican Church), Margaret McLachlan, 63, and Margaret Wilson, 18, were tied to stakes on the mud flats and allowed to drown in the rising tide.
Today’s book shopping: THE BOOK SHOP. I’ve meant to visit ever since I read Jessica Fox’s memoir, Three Things You Need to Know about Rockets, in February 2013. Previously based in California, Fox decided on a whim to visit a bookshop in Scotland and ended up here at the country’s largest. She promptly fell in love with the bookshop owner and with Wigtown itself; though she and Shaun Bythell are no longer an item, she has been a major mover and shaker in the town, playing a role in the annual festival and establishing The Open Book.
The Book Shop is a wonderfully rambling place with lots of nooks and crannies housing all sorts of categories. Look out for the shot and mounted Kindle, the Festival bed, the stuffed badger, a scroll of bookseller’s rules, Captain the cat, and a display of Bythell’s The Diary of a Bookseller. Together we found £35 worth of books we wanted to buy – whew! – thanks to my husband’s niche nature books, and had a nice chat with the man himself at the till. He signed my book, commiserated with us about the weather and our trip to see “Willie” (Barclay), and gave us tips for what to see locally. You’d hardly believe he’s the same curmudgeon who wrote the book. Now that I’ve been to the town and the shop, it’s time for me to start rereading it.
We also perused the smallish but very nice selection at Beltie Books, where we made a welcome stop for a cappuccino and some cookies, and I bought a cut-price new book at the Festival Shop. (They stock books by festival speakers plus a curated selection of new releases.)
Day 4, Thursday the 5th: SUNSHINE, at last! After hearty omelettes, we headed to the hill that overlooks the town to get the best views of the week. On to Monreith for a charming coastal walk up to the Gavin Maxwell monument of a bronze otter. (He wrote Ring of Bright Water, which my husband brought along to read on our trip.) After a lunch stop back in town, it was out to the red kite feeding station about 40 minutes away – I came for the books; my husband came for the red kites. Though they’re common enough in our part of Berkshire, he was keen to see the site of another recent reintroduction. Wales also has a feeding station we visited some years ago, and on both occasions seeing dozens of birds swoop down for meat was quite the spectacle – though here you sit on an open porch, even closer to the action. We did a few other short walks in the area, finishing off with a sunset sit in Wigtown’s bird hide.
Today’s book shopping: ReadingLasses calls itself Britain’s only women’s bookshop. They stock Persephone Books direct from Bloomsbury, and they also have a large selection of secondhand books. This is the best place to go in town for a light meal and a snack. We had delicious homemade soup with soda bread for an early lunch, followed by coffee and tiffin. I bought a novel by Candia McWilliam, a Scottish author I’ve only read nonfiction by before.
At Curly Tale Books, the children’s bookshop next-door to The Book Shop, we bought a picture book about the local ‘belted’ Galloway cows for our niece. We didn’t realize the shop owner is also the author! She offered to sign the book for us, but we decided that a five-year-old wouldn’t appreciate it enough.
Day 5, Friday the 6th: Full Scottish breakfast to see us on our way, and a farewell to the two B&B cats, including the fluffiest cat on earth. To break up the rather arduous journey, we stopped early on at the Cairn Holy stone circle/tomb and the Cream o’ Galloway farm shop for cheese and ice cream. Home at 7:30 p.m. to find something from the freezer for dinner, unpack and shelve all these new books.
Total acquisitions: 13 books for me, 7 books for my husband, 3 books for gifts
Wigtown is more than twice as far away as Hay is for us, so we’re less likely to go back. (It’s also a tough place to find a decent evening meal.) However, I’d like to think that life will take me back to Wigtown someday, perhaps for the Festival, or for a stay at The Open Book – though I’d have to start planning ahead to 2021!
What I read:
Bits of lots of books I had on the go, but mostly a few vaguely appropriate titles:
Under the Skin by Michel Faber was the perfect book for reading on rainy Scottish highways. I’m so glad I decided at the last minute to bring it. Isserley drives along Highland roads picking up hitchhikers – but only the hunky males – to take back to her farm near the Moray Firth. It’s likely that you already know the setup of this even if you haven’t read it, perhaps from the buzz around the 2013 film version starring Scarlett Johansson. It must have been so difficult for the first reviewers and interviewers to discuss the book without spoilers back in 2000. David Mitchell, in his introduction to my Canons series reprint, does an admirable job of suggesting the eeriness of the contents without giving anything significant away.
Shelve this under science fiction, though it veers towards horror and then becomes a telling allegory. I knew the basic plot beforehand, but there were still some surprises awaiting me, and I was impressed with how Faber pulled it all off. Keep an eye open for how he uses the word “human.” This has a lot to say about compassion and dignity, and how despite our differences we are fundamentally the same “under the skin.”
An atmospheric line: “The fields all around her house were shrouded in snow, with patches of dark earth poking through here and there as if the world were a rich fruit cake under cream.”
Between Stone and Sky: Memoirs of a Waller by Whitney Brown: For a TLS review. Brown, from South Carolina, trained as a dry-stone waller in Wales (where she fell in love with a man who wouldn’t marry her), but we saw plenty such walls in Scotland too. As an expat I could relate to her feeling of being split between two countries. (Releases May 17th.)
In the Days of Rain: A daughter. A father. A cult. by Rebecca Stott: I read the first two-fifths or so, mostly in the car and over our leisurely B&B breakfasts. One branch of Stott’s Exclusive Brethren family came from Eyemouth, a Scottish fishing village. A family memoir, a bereavement memoir, a theological theme: this brings together a lot of my favorite things. And it won last year’s Costa Biography Award, so you know it’s got to be good.
I also started two books by Scottish novelists, The Orchard on Fire by Shena Mackay and The Accidental by Ali Smith – though I don’t know if I’ll make it through the latter.