A Perfect Book!

The original cover of Richard Mabey’s The Unofficial Countryside, published by Harper Collins in l973.

I had never noticed before that the canal here was as clear as a chalk  stream. Yellow water lilies drooped like balls of molten wax on the surface. Near the edge of the water drifts of newly hatched fish hung in the shallows,” writes Richard Mabey in the opening chapter of The Unofficial Countryside. And that’s just for starters. He goes on to describe how the last swallows of the season are ‘hawking’ for flies over the water, there’s a brilliant spike of purple loosestrife in the distance, and the towpath is ‘festooned’ with wine-tinted hemp agrimony blooms.

The latest edition of The Unofficial Countryside, beautifully produced by Little Toller Books.

You could be forgiven for thinking he is in the country, but this spot is on the edge of London, right next to a large pumping station. And that, really, is the theme of Mabey’s book, for in it he explores nature in its many varied forms in ‘marginal’ landscapes – motorway verges, dockyards, bomb sites, rubbish dumps, a sewage farm, car parks and gravel pits, as well as gardens and parks. He finds plants, birds, insects and animals flourishing in the most unlikely places. And he also records brief sightings of wildlife and plants spotted from the windows of trains, buses and cars. Nature, as he tells us, is remarkably resiliant. But that doesn’t mean it’s OK to destroy te natural world, and he sounds a warning bell for the future, a plea for us to live with nature. “There is a limit to the recuperative powers of the natural world,” he stresses. “It will always fight back, but it cannot survive outright eradication.”

The book really resonates with me because I’ve always been fascinated by the way plants flourish in the oddest locations. The alley at the back of our house produces an ever-chaning display of ‘weeds’ which push their way though a hairline gap between the Tarmac surface and a crumbling wall. All kinds of grasses have taken root, along with dead nettles (red and white), groundsel, shepher’s purse, dandelions, goatsbeard (or possibly hawkbit, I always have problems identifying them), and even the odd forget-me-not and occasional marigold. The plants attract insects, and the insects attract birds, so a tiny (very tiny!) habitat is established, ignored, I suspect, by everyone except me! Even more strangely, a short walk away, there are plants growing out of the top of the stonework on the Victorian railway arches. Who would have thought anything could thrive in such an unnatural environment, with trains thundering alongside, and a busy urban road below!

Buddleia growing in the stonework of the railway arch near my home.

To be honest, I loved this book so much it’s difficult to know what to mention – I could open it at any page and something to enthuse about. I love Mabey’s writing. His lyrical descriptions of the natural world contrast with his accounts of surrounding urban dereliction, while his emotional responses have a simple honesty. He also includes snippets of prose and poetry, bits of folklore, history, botany and zoology, as well as odd facts about the flora and fauna he enounters.

For example, did you know that a single rosebay willowherb produces 80,000 seeds, each one a ‘superb example of survival engineering’ – little hairy parachutes which will be borne away on the wind. I think that’s pretty amazing, don’t you?

Mabey’s nature writing broke new ground when The Unofficial Countryside was first published in 1973, and it’s every bit as relevant now as it was then and is, I think, very accessible. He celebrates the commonplace weeds and pests that other people may overlook or, worse still, try to eradicate. But he also welcomes rarities and exotics. They all have their own kind of beauty, and they all have a role to play.

A wonky photo of one of Mary Newcomb’s illustrations in The Unofficial Countryside.

A more recent edition has been published by Wiltshire-based Little Toller Books, and it is really beautiful, printed on lovely, thick, smooth paper, with a fascinating introduction from author and psychogeographer Iain Sinclair, whose edgy style and views are a perfect match for Mabey. Equally well chosen are the illustrations by artist Mary Newcomb, who makes connections the rest of us never think of, like electricity pylons and cowebs. Stand inside the pylon and look up, and you can see similar patterns between the two.

I thought this was just perfect in every way. It’s a lovely book to have in a hard print format, and I would urge you all to please read it.

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What Shall I Read?

Calloo! Callay! Oh Frabjous Day! My first parcel of books has just arrived from Little Toller, and it will definitely not be the last – they are soooooo BEAUTIFUL!!! I was only going to buy this, for #ReadIndies month, because Karen made it sound so irresistable:

But when I looked at the website there were so many lovely goodies I treated myself to this…

And this…

I thought that was very restrained, and three seems a good number for a book order, don’t you think? Not too many, not too few! But now, of course, I am on the horns of a dilemma, because they all look so good I cannot decide which one to read first – I’ve read the first page of each, and still can’t make my mind up! Has anyone read all three, and if so, do you have a favourite?

Winter Reading

51h3We7+wILOver the winter months I’ve been reading Melissa Harrison’s Winter: An Anthology for the Changing Seasons, published in support of the Wildlife Trusts. I’m not normally a fan of ‘slow reading’ – I tend to rush through a book to find out what happens (I’ve even been known to sneak a peak at the end to see if all goes well), then re-read at leisure. But as I get older I find I’m slowing down, and this book is an ideal ‘slow read’, perfect for considering one, or possibly two, entries each day, usually last thing at night when I can savour the words and reflect on the thoughts expressed. Anyway, today is the Spring Equinox and, as planned, I’ve come to the end and am am now embarking on a similar journey with Harrison’s Spring, which I aim to finish on Midsummer Day.

It’s been quite interesting reading during the periods of snow. After all, as Harrison says in her introduction: “When we think of winter, we often think of snow: deep drifts of it, blanketing our rooftops and gardens, roofs, fields and lanes; white and silent and still.” But she is quick to point out that winter means much more than snow. And here she’s gathered extracts from a variety of authors who see winter in many different ways; man’s place in the natural world, and his reaction to it, comes under scrutiny, and there are pieces about the weather, the stars, birds, insects, animals, plants, landscapes and habitats. There are offerings from keen-eyed naturalists and conservationists, who not only record what they see and hear, but have the ability to relate it to their own lives, and to the world in general. Alongside their observations are poems and excerpts from novels, letters, essays, diaries, memoirs, newspaper articles and blogs. The collection spans some 400 years, and includes authors whose creations were printed in traditional books, as well as writers who use modern technology to display their work.

The book takes us from the tail end of autumn, through the depths of winter, to the point when we know spring is on the way. It opens with the late great Roger Deakin talking about a ‘sharp, sugaring frost’ and its effect on the leaves of the trees, and closes with a prose piece from poet Kathleen Jamie. “Every year in the third week of February, there is a day, or, more usually, a run of days, when one can say for sure that the light is back. Some juncture has been reached, and the light spills into the world from a sun suddenly higher in the sky,” she says, and adds: “The year has turned. Filaments and metallic ribbons of wind-blown light, just for an hour, but enough.”

Sandwiched between those two is a wealth of other goodies. In fact, the book is so jam-packed with wonderful things that it’s difficult (and unfair) to pick favourites, but I have to mention Charles Dickens’ matchless description of the mud, fog and rain of ‘implacable November weather’ and Virginia Woolf’s magical, mystical account of a frost fair (from Orlando, which I haven’t read, but I will now). I shan’t forget freed slave Olaudah Equiano’s first enounter with snow, or Henry Williamson’s description of a howling blizzard which made me feel chilled to the bone. But there were two entries which really stood out for me.

First there is a letter from poet and children’s author Anna Laetitia Barbauld, written in 1814, which could almost be describing some kind of seasonal affective disorder. She’s not exactly unhappy – indeed, she seems relish the warmth and comfort of her snug parlour, but she is certainly in the grip of a winter inertia which prevents her taking any kind of action or thought, and I’m sure many of us can empathise with her. She writes:

“There are animals that sleep all the winter; – I am, I believe, become one of them: they creep into holes during the same season; – I have confined myself to the fireside of a snug parlour. If, indeed, a warm sunshiney day occurs, they sometimes creep out of their holes; – so, now and then, have I. They exist in a state of torpor, – so have I done: the only difference being, that I have all the while continued the habit of eating and drinking, which, to their advantage, they can dispense with. But my mind has certainly been asleep all the while; and whenever I have attempted to employ it, I have felt an oppression in my head which has obliged me to desist.”

My second stand-out entry is Anita Sethi’s moving account of the garden she and her mother began creating at their Manchester home one winter. Looking back on her childhood Sethi, now a journalist, writer and critic, explains how it helped develop her sense of identity. She writes: “Cultivating our garden was also a process cultivating deeper and richer sense of self, a sense of calm in the self, of comfort to the skin, a greater understanding of a connection wit the earth, even here in the heart of the inner city.” I loved this, and they way Sethi sees winter as a time of renewal and growth, of connections, hope, light, new beginings and belonging. It was such a positive and uplifting story.

Harrison’s choices – and what the authors have to say – is sometimes unexpected, but they will all make you think. As with any anthology I found myself considering things I would have included, and there were a few I couldn’t engage with, but over all I found it an enchanting book, and enjoyed re-visiting old favourites and making the acquaintance of authors I hadn’t come across before, but definitely want to explore further (there are brief biographical details of contributors, but I’d advise keeping a pen and paper to hand, so you can note down titles and authors if you want to read more). Her aim, apparently, was to celebrate living landscapes, and to inspire people to get out and enjoy the countryside and wildlife. With all the terrible things happening in the world at the moment, this may seem small and unimportant, but I think she’s right. There is a need to conserve and preserve our wildlife, but apart from that, walking in the countryside can make you feel better, physically and mentally, and even in urban areas there are usually parks and green spaces, and however small they are, and whatever the season, you can always find something to look at – a bird, an insect, a flower in bloom.