July 21, 2014 § Leave a comment

LIKE A TRAMP, LIKE A PILGRIM: On Foot across Europe to Rome by Harry Bucknall (Bloomsbury, 245pp; £16.99)

“Have you got God?” a guest at a dinner party asked Harry Bucknall. “No,” said Harry, who was walking to St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome “for the hell of it.” He didn’t need God (though he was issued with a Pilgrim Passport by the Confraternity of Pilgrims to Rome and was given two keys for the Vatican by a friend). In his late forties, he was proposing to walk along the ancient Via Francigena as a momentous event in his life, almost medieval in its austerity and was giving up everything to do it. The guests round the table thought he was unhinged. The journey from London took him ninety-three days and 1,141 miles, during which he found friendship, history, travellers’ stories and finally “grief for the hole in life that the completed undertaking leaves.” And so there will be further journeys, with any luck written just as humanely and humorously as this boisterous, jubilant mid-life adventure.


ADVENTURES IN THE ANTHROPOCENE: A Journey to the Heart of the Planet We Made by Gaia Vince (Chatto, 436pp; £20)

The Anthropocene is the time of Man. We’re living in interesting times that require all our resources, invention and resilience to survive the ecological consequences of our activities as human beings. As a journalist at ‘Nature’ magazine, Gaia Vince registered constant alarms about threats to the environment. Were they true? What do these events mean for our daily lives? How do we adapt to meet planetary changes and challenges? We can start eating protein-rich insects, we will become increasingly urbanised (growing crops on city rooftops), geo-engineering may save islands from coastal erosion, artificial glaciers can irrigate mountain villages and wind turbines can be installed in deserts. Though ecologically ingenuous, we are environmentally ingenious. In an optimistic handbook for climate change survivalists Vince takes the pulse of Gaia and diagnoses her as sick. Her sustainable recovery as a planet will depend on a better sense of responsibility towards her own health.


THE GREAT RACE: The Race between the English and the French to Complete the Map of Australia by David Hill (Little, Brown, 386pp; £25)

Historians have to be politically cautious these days: Hill uses the word ‘discovered’ in relation only to the first European exploration of Australia, which existed as a settled continent before the Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish and English explored it over a period of two centuries. By chance, in 1802, the Englishman Matthew Flinders met the Frenchman Nicolas Baudin. Both had been sent by their governments to voyage round and survey the coast of the Great South Land to establish whether it was actually one vast island or landmass. It took them three years of extraordinary adventures, terrible hardships and, in the case of Flinders, shipwreck and imprisonment for six years in Mauritius. It is an epic tale told concisely and confidently by Hill who awards Baudin the prize for publishing the first complete map of the Great South Island but crediting Flinders as a great natural historian and the first to give the country its name: Australia.


July 14, 2014 § Leave a comment

THE LIVES AND LOVES OF LAURIE LEE by Valerie Grove (Robson Press, 500pp; £12.99)

A friend memorably described Laurie Lee’s face as “mastered by the weather with a change of colour and texture; … His weather was his moods.” Lodging in Chelsea during WW2, while working at the MOI with Cecil Day-Lewis, thirty one-year old Lee began to take an interest in the three nieces of his former lover, here identified as the beautiful Lorna Garman. Lorna picked out Kathy as the girl strong enough to handle him, even though she was half his age. They married in 1950. For innocent devotees of the early pastoral style of ‘Cider with Rosie’, Lee’s later metropolitan liaisons and literary activities will perhaps come as rather a shock. In this centenary year of Laurie Lee’s birth, Valerie Grove’s ambitiously detailed, warm-hearted but unflinching biography is very welcome not only as a timely reminder of Lee’s changeable character and later achievements as a man of letters, but of his complex relationships particularly with the fascinating high bohemian Garman family.


DANGEROUS RHYTHM: Why Movie Musicals Matter by Richard Barrios (Oxford, 276pp; £22.99)

The song and dance number that opened the 65th Tony Awards in 2012 was “It’s Not Just for Gays Anymore”. Theatre, that is. Mostly Broadway musical theatre. On that score, what’s not to love about movie musicals too? They’re not just for the boys in the band anymore. Barrios is a cultural critic, a cinema historian and a connoisseur of everything from early talkies like ‘The Jazz Singer’ and ’42nd Street’ through corpse-reviving blockbusters such as ‘Cabaret’ and ‘Chicago’, to the latest, ‘Les Miz’ and the sit-com-based production ‘Glee’. Movie musicals have to move with the times, and musical film stardom, he says, is now a marketing device, like a photo-op or a You Tube promo for a pop idol career. But Barrios is never disenchanted: he knows where the movie musicals come from and where they go. He dances them with Dorothy down the yellow brick road with glee, glitter and good sense.


HOW NOT TO BE WRONG: The Hidden Maths of Everyday Life by Jordan Ellenberg (Allen Lane, 468pp; £20)

In order not to be wrong, you need to know what you don’t know – or what they don’t tell you. Make no assumptions without justifications. Knowledge, as always, is power, and a little mathematical expertise sorts meaning from chaos. Seriously, you are so going to regret not having paid attention in maths classes. The mathematician can work out how to spend less time at the airport, how to figure out if there is a God, how to calculate the utility of a bet and how plane geometry can help you win the lottery. Are we having fun yet? It gets better: chances are that big cynical financial strategies can be good for you. Bankers knew that already. Now so do you, because Ellenberg tells you why (though without justifying it morally) He runs the numbers like a mathematical magician. He can’t save you from life, but he can save you from everyday error.


June 29, 2014 § Leave a comment

CLIMBS AND PUNISHMENT: Riding to Rome in the Footsteps of Hannibal by Felix Lowe (Bantam, 368pp; £14.99)

Lowe, the non-biking thirty-something cycling blogger, tweeter and writer also known as ‘Blazin’ Saddles’, agreed to join the ‘Hannibal Expedition’, a 26-day, 2800 kilometre ride over three mountain ranges following the famous general’s march across the Alps to Rome with elephants. That made sense the first time, right? First Lowe had to buy a bike. Then he had to borrow one when the first one was stolen. Things can only get better? No. There is a picture of the author against a backdrop of mountains wearing a purple and blue Lycra cycling jersey for which, frankly, there is no sporting or style excuse. There’s not much excuse, either, for this account of a jolly jaunt padded out with Euro-history, and Euro-geography and quite a lot of Euro-sport and Euro-food as Lowe and his bike mates grind past the scenery. But Lowe keeps up an effortless flow of good-humoured chat and at the end of his tour he is a changed man – an aching but ardent pelotonist.


I NEVER KNEW THAT ABOUT ENGLAND’S COUNTRY CHURCHES by Christopher Winn (Ebury, 356pp; £10.99)

For starters, did you know that there are some ten thousand churches in England? Winn has chosen to potter around three hundred of them, specifically village churches or those that stand alone in the countryside. He is thrilled to find Dick Whittington’s mother buried in St Giles’ church in Coberley, Gloucestershire. It is of Norman origin, 14th century Decorated south chapel, 15th century Perpendicular tower, Victorian nave and chancel. The heart of Sir Giles de Berkeley lies within the church and his horse, Lombard, is buried in the churchyard. This is pretty much all that the casual visitor needs to know about St Giles, Coberley, or any other little church, and Winn is very expert in selecting just the right architectural oddity, historical curiosity or clerical quiddities. It’s an irresistible pun to characterise his not-quite-random, serendipitous, humorously antiquarian style of fossicking for buried, Betjemanesque treasures in country churchyards as winsome.


DEEP: Freediving, Renegade Science and What the Ocean Tells Us about Ourselves by James Nestor (Profile, 266pp; £12.99)

Are you looking for a new sensation? Can you hold your breath for four minutes? Would you go nose to nose with a blue shark, be on first (and second) name terms with a dolphin and cosy up to a sperm whale? Freediving is an extreme sport for humans who can learn to live with the stresses of diving deeper and surviving for longer than anyone thought possible without breathing equipment or a wet suit. 300 feet underwater is a safe enough depth for experienced freedivers, but no-limits divers have pushed the record to 525 feet, though attempts to go deeper have mostly resulted in paralysis or death. The secret to going deep, Nestor says, is just to do it, just to dive: we are born with the ability, since seawater is pretty close to amniotic fluid. His enthusiasm for the physics and physiology of freediving is exceeded only by the exultation of his psychic rebirth as a salt water baby.



June 22, 2014 § 1 Comment

MY SALINGER YEAR by Joanna Rakoff (Bloomsbury Circus, 260pp; £16.99)

Joanna Rakoff was cheerful, preppy and twenty-something in New York in the late 1990s when she abandoned the template literary agency letters of acknowledgement and began replying as an unofficial agony aunt, a latter-day ‘Miss Lonelyhearts’, to fan mail sent to J. D. Salinger by readers who identified their own lives and kinfolk with the dysfunctional Glass family in his novels and stories. The equivalent today would be someone tweeting and blogging for, say, the famously shy Thomas Pynchon. Best of all, this memoir is also about surviving, starting out, finding an apartment, establishing a relationship and discovering how a famous old-fashioned literary agency worked day by day. The cameo of Judy Blume, a famous writer of young adult fiction walking out on the agency, is exquisitely excruciating. “Publishing. Books. Life”, says a colleague resignedly. It’s almost impossible to get all three right, but Joanna Rakoff manages better than most with amused and forgiving good humour.


THE PEOPLE’S REPUBLIC OF AMNESIA: Tiananmen Revisited by Louisa Lim (Oxford UP, 240pp; £16.99)

Those who remain witnesses to state-sanctioned violence keep the consciousness and conscience of the nation; in this case, China, twenty five years after the massacre of protestors in Tiananmen Square in 1989 – some two hundred and fifty died, it is said, though the Red Cross and others estimate ten times that number. Louisa Lim is a respected reporter with long experience of Chinese politics. Her book is haunted by the voices of those who remember and tell her their stories. By breaking the silence, they represent a collective memory that has been officially repressed. Ms. Lim opens yet another wound – the crackdown by the army in Chengdu, ‘the other Tiananmen’, also in June 1989, less publicised but no less brutal. This book, of remembrance one might say, depends for its effect on the dramatic tales told by surviving dissidents and converts. All their testimonies can do now is hold to account the new generations of young Chinese nationalists who may hear but do not listen.


IN THE INTERESTS OF SAFETY: The Absurd Rules that Blight Our Lives and How We Can Change Them by Tracey Brown & Michael Hanlon (Sphere, 280pp; £12.99)

Confronted by some inane rule, Brown and Hanlon cry, “Show me the evidence!” If there is no evidence that a rule is sensible or logical, then it can be challenged. Resistance is not futile, they say. Rules are frequently invented on the principle of “worst-first thinking” by which authority assumes the worst and then acts as though it is likely to happen. There is no good reason to believe that use of a mobile phone at a petrol station will cause a conflagration Or they are just made up on the spot. Like you can’t wear a woolly hat while working on the Underground. The presumption that we are all dummies or criminals can be challenged. This book fights back. It tells you how to stand up to a jobsworth with knowledge, courtesy and common sense: unless he’s a sixteen stone bouncer, in which case maybe you should just write a letter.


June 16, 2014 § Leave a comment

MEMORIES OF LONDON by Edmondo de Amicis (Alma Classics, 138pp; £9.99)

In a short, awestruck description of London in its prime and pomp, first published in Italy in 1873, De Amicis described “a veritable Babylon, a chaos … the largest city on earth.” Greenwich and Chelsea, he reckoned, were equivalent in population to those of Florence or Rome. He is a spirited journalist with an sharp ear for characters such as a waiter “spitting forth every word of French as though he were retching” and a lively eye for tourist sites such as the magnificent Crystal Palace, though being chilled suddenly by the “dark factory-like grimness” of many buildings near London Bridge. He is generally cheerful, in contrast to Louis Laurent Simonin, who made ‘An Excursion to the Poor Districts of London’, and discovered a den of dirt, debt, despair and drunkenness. Bundled together in this entertaining little book, their reports depict the city in the turmoil of bright day and the bedlam of dreadful night.


TWELVE YARDS: The Art and Psychology of the Perfect Penalty by Ben Lyttleton (Bantam, 370pp; £14.99)

Steven Hawking has recently calculated the mathematics of the perfect penalty, while on Radio Four a guru of the beautiful game has been advising penalty-takers to shoot for the middle of the goal while others say shoot for a corner. How hard can it be? With the aid of statistics, physics, psychology, body language and interviews with players, coaches and sports scientists, Lyttleton has words of advice and comfort, if not joy, for the England team whose record, faced with a penalty shoot-outs, is not, frankly, the best. In this year’s World Cup, he says: be positive, forget the history of missed goals, don’t rush, keep eye contact with the goalkeeper and ignore media pressure. From the goalkeeper, according to Christophe Lollichon, a Chelsea coach, “it’s all about peripheral vision … spotting danger coming from all sides.” For relief of high anxiety, this book is the perfect palliative for footie fans, aficionados and players.



In 1975, Viv Albertine was about to hear The Sex Pistols playing one of their first gigs to eleven people at Chelsea School of Art. “They’re loud and raucous, but not bad musicians”, she thinks. The next thing she knows, she’s living with a handsome bass player who gives the name ‘The Clash’ to a band who meet in her flat, and she buys an electric guitar. The rest is radical rock legend: Viv first forms The Flowers of Romance with Sid Vicious and then, in 1977, plays guitar with all-female punk rock band The Slits. Her memoir of high times in the low rent 1970s and ‘80s, and her self-help post-punk career in music and television, is candid to the point of self-harm. Her voice is important in the back story of women in British rock, but she is now as original and interesting an entertainer in words as in music.



June 8, 2014 § Leave a comment

I DON’T KNOW WHAT IT IS BUT I LOVE IT: Liverpool’s Unforgettable 1983-84 Season by Tony Evans (Viking, 256pp; £16.99)

On 30 May 1984, Liverpool FC won the European Cup after a heart-stopping penalty shoot-out with AS Roma at the Stadio Olimpica in Rome. How did they get there? How did they do it? Evans, back then a dedicated Liverpool supporter and now football editor of ‘The Times’, tells the story with gusto and glee, relishing the macho characters of the Liverpool first team in the early 1980s, known to coach Ronnie Moran as “big-headed bastards”, some of whom were lean, mean Scots – Souness, Dalglish, Hansen – “savage about getting the job done in the most direct way.” Though the campaign had been a “long and at times arduous slog through a season of sixty-seven games”, it is a tribute to Evans as a canny writer that the narrative never flags, that the anecdotes are apt, that the blood on the streets and the boots on the field are as dramatic and black-humoured as on a battleground.


THE ARIADNE OBJECTIVE: Patrick Leigh Fermor & the Underground Battle to Rescue Crete from the Nazis by Wes Davis (Bantam, 332pp; £20)

The greatest coup by Paddy Leigh Fermor, William Moss, Julian Amery, Xan Fielding and others, young British undercover agents dropped into Crete during World War II to coordinate the local resistance forces and spy on the occupying German forces, was to capture one of their Generals. Their exploits were later written up by Bill Moss as a novel and filmed as “Ill Met by Moonlight”. Allowing for real danger, an occasional stoic death and some physical hardships, they all seem to have had a lovely war of derring-do. Wes Davis is certainly seduced by this bunch of amateur agents, former public schoolboys who epitomise all the gentlemanly gallantry of John Buchan’s Richard Hannay and Sandy Arbuthnot, and he is fond of Homeric epithets: his heroes are dashing and debonair; the Cretans are sad-eyed and moustachioed.  Davis tells an adventurous story, though the Byronic theatricality of his characters, putting on a jolly good show, rather underplays the serious military reality.


BANNOCKBURN: Scotland’s Greatest Battle for Independence by Angus Konstam (Aurum, 248pp; £18.99)

Stand in any Scottish bookshop this year of the independence referendum and you’re spoilt for choice: so many books entitled ‘Bannockburn’ or ‘1314’ describing and debating the defining battle for Scottish national identity, culture and sovereignty won seven hundred years ago by Robert Bruce against Edward II during the Scottish wars of independence. It was a seminal moment that underpins the present patriotic agenda and, says Konstam, can be interpreted in terms of long term national benefit rather than loss to England and, ultimately, the stronger union of the two countries. His relaxed, conversational book recognises the current cultural importance of films like ‘Braveheart’ and the influence of popular historians such as Andrew Marr as well as the traditional makars and monarchs. His short summary of the medieval politics, military strategies, mythical history and modern interpretations of the campaign for Scottish sovereignty then and now is lively, readable and even-handed.



June 2, 2014 § Leave a comment

UNDERLANDS: A Journey through Britain’s Lost Landscape by Ted Nield (Granta, 252pp; £20)

Until the end of WWII, says Nield, Britain was largely built of native materials – houses of quarried stone, bricks fired on the spot, slates sourced locally. The land sustained the people, who cultivated and mined it. Nowadays it is cheaper to buy building materials from abroad and ship them to Britain. Nield’s journey beneath the scarred skin of the country is nostalgic for his own family roots in Wales and for an ecological stewardship that we have devalued. We live in a wasteland of our own making. Geologists live in deep time, and Nield is in thrall to the romance of the rocks; but he is alive also to the horror of the Aberfan Disaster in 1966 and to the regular loss of life and livelihood in the traditional mining industries which now hardly survive. His book is a poetic remembrance of forgotten time and lost perspectives.


EVERYTHING IS WONDERFUL: Memories of a Collective Farm in Estonia by Sigrid Rausing (Grove, 220pp; £14.99)

Sigrid Rausing’s year of fieldwork as a social anthropologist, teaching English in the bleak Estonian village of Pürski in the Noarootsi peninsula during1993-94, felt like doing time in a blasted landscape of northern forests and “bedraggled collections of grey wooden houses with thatched roofs”. These villagers, long oppressed first by Nazism, then by Communism and finally the “extreme sink or swim austerity of post-Soviet Estonia”, “hunkered down, drank and endured” in a time of difficult transition from the economic privations of Soviet occupation to the bewildering consequences of Western materialism. From this improbably glum material, Dr. Rausing revives their “immediate and experiential world” with a telling eye for domestic props (a blood-specked pig’s head in a tin bowl, rat-bitten books) a sensitive nose for the sour sweat of poverty and a conflicted repulsion and respect for a tragic history and culture in which bad food, dour silences and stone cold weather were regarded as normal.


LIVING WITH A WILD GOD: a Non-Believer’s Search for the Truth about Everything by Barbara Ehrenreich (Granta, 240pp; £16.99)

“How crazy was I?” A forgotten entry in an old journal caused a seismic shock to Barbara Ehrenreich’s entire system of belief and established sense of being as a rational, atheistic, scientifically-trained adult. Aged thirteen, she had had a mystic experience. She had looked at a tree and suddenly “the word ‘tree’ was gone, along with all the notions of tree-ness that had accumulated in the last dozen or so years.” But when you strip everything away, she discovered, “there is still something left.” This intriguing book is Ehrenreich’s grown-up responsibility to her earlier self to investigate the nature of ‘the Other’ – whatever it might be. Her intriguing conclusion satisfies both her secular self and her sense of wonder: the universe is not alive, but it seethes with playful life from which ‘the Other’ assembles itself and takes form before our very eyes. She was not crazy as a kid; neither is the grown-up Ehrenreich.


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